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Skin Deep II foreward chapter 0 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 epilogue

Skin Deep II: The Dance
Chapter 13: House Lights
by Mark McDonald
©2002 Mark McDonald -- all rights reserved

Randy flew the family home. He insisted, saying that he was probably the most rested of the bunch although he had only gotten as much sleep as anyone else of the group, if that except for Shelly, who was by default not qualified to fly. He had been by Beth's side constantly for almost a week non-stop. He had been there to make sure that meals from the hospital lounge were in place when Erin or Beth or Michelle had been awake to eat them even though Michelle had not eaten anything he brought. He had made sure that he slept only after the girls had what they had needed so they could be at Gary's side. Now it was over. Let the healing begin! But Randy didn't believe there would be healing for a long time. When Gary died, they all seemed to have lost their resolve. They had been through much to save Mr. Shipley and it had all driven right to one specific point in time, to one event. Michelle had been right about her sister. She hadn't been done yet.

So he flew in silence. Occasionally someone would cough or sigh or moan in grief. Mostly though, they were silent. Over the years he had truly adopted this family as his own, even more so now. He was inescapably and forever a member of this family unit. Randy wouldn't have had it any other way. Even if he could escape at this point he would not. It was not that he had any disdain or feelings of separation from his natural family; he loved his mother and father. These people were the people he chose to be with. He had always been drawn to them since his earliest days by their warm and welcoming ways. As he piloted the family that he now considered himself a part of, his thoughts turned to his natural parents. It occurred to him that he had not spoken to his parents at all in several days and he resolved to call and let them know were he was and how he was. He asked for permission to use the HOVVid system. "I haven't spoken to them in." he stopped to think about the last time he had spoken to them, then looked to Beth for the answer.

"Five days. It was five days ago when you took me to the lake house," she answered.

"Five days?" Michelle was aghast. "Randy, yes... of course you can use the system. I insist. They're probably worried sick about you."

"Thank you Ma'am," he said.

"I thought we talked about that Ma'am stuff?" Michelle said.

"Did we?" Randy replied. "I don't remember any conversation about anything like that," he said and grinned a toothy grin. Michelle shook her head with as much of a smile as she could muster and punched up the address for Randy and activated the drivers-side camera for privacy.

Sam Benton answered. "Hello?" he asked. Then seeing it was his son he exploded. "Randy! Where the hell have you been young man?"

Randy blushed but kept a steady tone. "Mom didn't tell you?"

"Your Mother said you disappeared with some young lady several nights ago. She's worried sick about what you've been doing. We've called the police son! You haven't gotten that girl pregnant have you?" Sam demanded.

Randy bristled at that statement and fired back over his Father's bow. "The young lady you mentioned is the niece of the Shipleys, Dad!"

Michelle heard an embarrassed "Oh," come from the VID. Unabashed by his Father's shame, he continued not willing to let his Father off the hook.

"I've been with the Shipleys for the last five days, trying to help. In case you haven't heard already..." He measured his next statement for Shelly's sake. "William is gone Dad! Mr. Shipley too."

"Yes, Jesus, I've heard. I... I didn't know you were with them."

"Where else would I have been Dad? The family and I are on the way back; we've just left the hospital. The whole family."

"Oh Jesus! I'm sorry Randy. I... Why didn't you say something?" He was deeply embarrassed now. Everyone could hear the shame in the man's voice. "Please let them all know how sorry I am." There was a moment of dead air between them. Randy was struggling with himself to remain under control. Michelle could see the internal struggle of a teen that had been attacked at a time of stress wanting to attack back and a man of great maturity exercising the understanding that this was not the time or place to fight this battle. This was not about him but his family. The ones he chose to call his own.

Michelle, who was in the front passenger seat touched Randy's arm and the struggle ceased. He closed his eyes for just a second, took a breath and then said to his Father, "I'm sorry Dad. I'm upset."

"Yes, yes that's understandable. I am very sorry I laid into you like that. Had I known... well, I guess I should have known shouldn't I?"

"It's all right Dad. It's been a very hectic five days," he said, and then added, "And very sad."

"May I?" Michelle asked quietly, gently touching the back of his hand. Randy nodded and Michelle activated the passenger-side camera. "Sam? Hi." She tried on a forced smile, found it didn't feel good there and allowed it to falter. "Please accept my apologies."

"Oh no! No, no, no! Please! I should have known he would have been with you and your family at such a time. His Mother and I were simply worried. I know you understand how that is. Please, I'm the one who should apologize. I let my mouth get out of control. Sometime all sorts of things run through a parent's mind when their child is missing. Please, if your niece -- Beth is her Name?" Michelle nodded. "If Beth is there please also I hope that you accept my apologies. That was a crass and rude thing of me to say."

"I can safely say that we all completely understand your worry Sam. Apology accepted but only if you accept mine as well. I was thinking only of myself. I never even thought to have Randy call and explain where he was."

Sam nodded. There was only one more thing to say and both dreaded the moment. "Michelle, it's all over the news..." Sam stopped there. She understood what he was getting at.

Michelle nodded starting to cry again. She didn't want to. She fought to control it, but the pain was so fresh, so overwhelming she was powerless to stop it.

"I'm sorry for your losses. Please, if there's something that we can do for you, don't hesitate to ask. I mean anything."

Michelle sniffled trying to compose herself and said, "You've already done more than you know lending Randy to us for such a long time. He has really been a dear and a lifesaver. I don't think there is much else anyone could have done. Randy was there when we needed him, if you saw the news the other night, when the MediHOV arrived..." She stopped short. She could not continue that sentence.

"I saw that. But I'm not sure what you're driving at."

Michelle dried her eyes again and then started with her explanation. "The reporters... That was Randy that made way for Gary and I to get into the hospital."

"Randy? My Randy?" Sam said with astonishment.

"Yes, he's been our own personal superhero for the last several weeks in fact. So you have helped. I just wanted an opportunity to thank you for letting us have him. I... We wouldn't have made it through this without him. I mean that Sam. He has literally helped keep me alive through this."

Sam seemed to stop and think for a moment. Then he looked back his VID, which was displaying a split-screen of Michelle and Randy simultaneously and said, "I'm very proud of you Son, and I'm sorry about jumping all over you. I should have know that you would be doing something good for someone and I'm very ashamed of the way I behaved."

"It's OK Dad. Listen; tell Mom I'll be home in a little while. I'm going to get them settled in and then I'll come home."

"No hurry," Sam said softly.

"I need to change, Dad. I think Beth is thinking I'm starting to stink." From the back of the HOV, out of Sam's line of sight came a bray of laughter and a loud admonished "Randy?"

"She sounds like a wonderful girl. I hope I get the chance to apologize in person."

"Thanks Dad," Randy said. And then he paused before switching off the VID. "Dad?"

"Yeah Randy?"

"I love you." Randy said.

"I love you too son." Before Sam was able to hide it by turning off his VID, everyone saw a tear leak from the corner of his eye.

"I'm sorry about that everyone." Randy apologized after his Father signed off.

Everyone, Erin, Michelle and especially Beth were all very sympathetic with him and assured him there was nothing to apologize about. Randy had been upset by the remark about Beth. It didn't help that he was now part of the lie that going to have to be lived out that William was dead and gone. He was just now finding out that his life was a lot more complicated than it had been before Beth revealed herself to him. Perhaps naively, he felt that Beth, as his friend, now needed his protection much the way she had once felt he, Randy had needed the protection when Beth had been William. Things were going to get complicated now. He had been William's best friend. Not once had he considered how it might have been if William were not to have come home. He had wanted Beth to stay of course. He was, after all, in love with her, hopelessly so. He was quiet as he drove and the girls would occasionally continue to try to reassure him that he had nothing to be sorry for. He acted as if he was listening to them and it would be the only time he was not attentive to them. His thoughts were occupied. He was thinking of Gary at that moment. He felt he could understand exactly how Gary must have felt that weekend so very long ago before either he or William had even been born.

Randy began to circle about to pick up the ILS, and had the HOV in an attitude as he came about that prevented anyone from seeing Roth Park, which was directly below them at that moment. When Randy leveled the vehicle out, without warning, Erin exclaimed, "Oh my God!"

"Erin? What is it hon?" Michelle asked turning to face her daughter, when Beth said, "Jesus! Look at that!" Michelle followed their gaze out the window and gasped. "Oh my."

Below them were small points of lights that appeared to flow upstream from every street leading to Roth Park. They flickered below like yellow stars in an asphalt sky. The sentiment of the moment caught in Michelle's throat and caused her eyes to water. They were everywhere she noted. From further away they were coming, walking up the street, melding into a larger body of light at the core of the square.

Randy said under his breath, "Wow!"

On the streets below were thousands of people. As the HOV came about again Michelle could see they're faces, made nondescript by elevation and distance, in the shine of the candles they held. The roadways, sidewalks and alleys were choked with them. Michelle looked on and the mass of people stretched as far as the landscape would allow her to see. They crowd scared her. The people filled the large square of Roth Park that was the center of Old Town. Many of them had candles and signs. The crowds snaked down the neighboring streets and eventually diminished there. The people that could not get within sight of the Shipley building did not want to stay. That at least was a blessing but the park area was large and open and was capable of hosting thousands of people.

Police Services was there in force. They were keeping a low profile, however, opting not to get involved in this gathering unless needed. Michelle guessed that decision had probably been made

because their involvement had inspired this little love in. They were after all, the founders of the feast, so to speak.

"I've never seen anything like this," Erin whispered. There was not reverence or awe in her voice but fear.

The VID chimed once making all the girls except Shelly jump and squeak with surprise. "God! I hate it when it does that!" Michelle groused. Randy couldn't help but chuckle and Beth slapped him on the shoulder from the back seat.

"That was not funny Randy!" she scolded.

"You didn't have the benefit of the perspective I had," Randy said chuckling.

Michelle smirked at Randy's statement and manually activated the VID and answered it. It was Kit. Michelle's demeanor softened and she greeted him. "Hi."

"Hi sweetheart. How ya doin'?" There was pity in his face. She really didn't want anyone's pity right now, but it was going to be there no matter how she felt about it. She felt she was going to have to learn to accept it for the time being.

"Minute by minute you know? Has anyone told Frank and Amanda yet, Flip, the staff?" she asked.

"I've tried to reach Frank, but I can't seem to find them. You know how they are on their days off. I'm surprised they didn't hang around considering how bad Gary was." Michelle nodded.

"I told them not to change their plans Kit. They're going to be so mad at me. I sent them off and then this happened." She looked into the VID with eyes begging for forgiveness. "I honestly felt Gary would recover. That's what I was told anyway. I felt given that, there would be enough for them to help with when Gary really needed them. I guess I was thinking that there wouldn't be much time for short vacations after he began to recover, so I told them to go and relax a bit. I really thought they were going to need it." Michelle's deep green eyes glazed over. She struggled to keep her on an even keel with her emotions. Somehow it seemed a bit easier when she was with people that loved her. "I didn't do a very good job of dealing with this did I?"

Kit was surprised and was about to respond when Michelle continued to talk. "Well, they'll hear soon enough I suppose. Frank's going to be devastated by this Kit." Kit shook his head at the statement.

"What are you shaking your head at?" Michelle asked.

"You're always thinking of others, never about yourself," he said. Michelle dropped her gaze. "You have to make sure your family is OK. Let everyone else worry about themselves Michelle. Frank would tell you the same. You know that don't you?"

Michelle nodded. "I stopped by your place and closed all the shades and drapes. That way you don't have to be seen at the window by having to do it yourself. So far they're quiet," Kit said, referring to the crowd. "I hope that will at least offer you a bit of privacy. I also left some prepared food for you, a meatloaf, and a couple of casseroles. You know, stuff you can warm up or save for later. I also told everyone that we were closing the restaurants for the next couple of days until you figure out what you want to do."

"Yes, thank you Kit."

"Get something in the kids' stomachs and then get some rest. I'll be by tomorrow morning to help out with -- with anything you need."

Michelle smiled, "Yes Sir. I'll do just that."

Kit chuckled. "OK, I'll lighten up. I'm going to go and make sure the four local stores are buttoned up. Then I'll check the other national stores and let them all know what's happened and that we're closing for a while. The Miami Key store will probably already be serving so when they close tonight I'll just tell everyone to stay at home starting tomorrow."

"Kit, make sure everyone knows they're still going to get paid," Michelle said. Kit nodded. "Thanks again Kit."

"I'll see you tomorrow. Get some rest." He shook his finger at her, then smiled and signed off.

"All right then. Let's get you girls into the house, fed and in bed," Randy said. He acquired the ILS from the garage and using the signal, the HOV guided its self down the tube in the roof of the building and gently into the parking basement.

The HOV landed in its spot and Randy deactivated the neutron flow engines. No one, however, made a move to get out or say anything. Until that is, Shelly got restless and began jabbing Erin the side. "Unh Unh" she grunted with each jab. "Mommy, tell Erin to get out, I have to pee!"

That sent everyone into gales of laughter as Shelly cried, "Get ooooout Erin!"

Erin opened her door and took Shelly by the hand and helped her out. The two ran to the elevator hand in hand giggling the whole way. Beth and Randy watched as they got in the elevator and Erin started to tickle Shelly. "Noooooooo, don't -- I'll peeeeeeeee!" Shelly cried.

Beth giggled at that and then turned to Randy. "You coming in?" she asked.

Randy shook his head. "No, you guys need your rest and I need to check in at home."

Beth grabbed onto his windbreaker with both hands and pulled him closer to her. "Then come in and at least have something to eat. I've been watching you. You've hardly eaten anything since this started."

"Honestly, I haven't really been hungry. You need to get some real sleep." He allowed his arms to wind around her. "I worry about you."

Even in the depths of her sadness, she allowed herself to smile. She looked away for a moment then looked back at him. "When are you coming back? When will I have you here again?"

"First thing in the morning, bright and early. I promise."

She seemed about to say something and then paused, uncertain. "What is it?"

She looked deep into his eyes and gave in to the need. "I need you Randy." She whispered. "I hope you can need me too."

Randy bent his head and for the first time since she admitted to him that she was in truth William, he kissed her deeply. It was to Beth more than an affirmation of her question to him, it was a statement of commitment to her. At that moment, that one act meant more to her than almost anything else he might have chosen to do.

She opened her mouth to him and he plunged himself into it and she to his. There is often passion in times of sadness and grief. It is the great distraction from that grief we seek. In times of great fear men and women will quite often engage selfishly in intercourse or give way to lust to shed the veil of a world that has turned seemingly against them. Michelle understood this. When she came around from the passenger side of the HOV her fear was not that the two would fall in love but that they wouldn't and make a mistake.

Michelle cleared her throat to let them know she was there. The two broke their embrace. "Oh -- uh. Hi Mom." Beth said as she blushed. Beth licked her lips to get the last of the taste of him and asked, "In the morning right?"

Randy bent and kissed her again. This time an innocent tender kiss. "Yes,." he said. "In the morning. I love you." He told her and she smiled. She mouthed the words I love you too. Kissed him again and turned to leave. When she was in the elevator, she turned and blew him a kiss as the doors closed.

Michelle and Randy stood alone in the parking garage of the Shipley building before he took Michelle's HOV and headed home to check in.

"Are you OK?" she asked him.

"You're asking me?" he asked in astonishment. "I'm fine. It's you and Beth and Erin and Shelly I'm worried about. The question is, are you OK?"

Michelle noticed how solidly and confidently he spoke and it rattled her. He had no idea of what had happened, none. If he did, she felt he might not be so certain in his manner that his assistance, although appreciated by Michelle, would offer anything positive to this rather intriguing dynamic of lies. Kit didn't know that for a brief time, Mike Vello had once again walked the earth, that William Shipley was still very much alive and living his mother's fate, or that Gary had not died but had probably been killed by one of these awful SKINs and that Michelle had been its willing accomplice. She was rattled by idea that Beth's identity had been not only quickly established, much as her own hand been, but also accepted. The reverse of this condition would be so much harder to achieve now. In fact, it might be impossible. She would first have to convince Beth to return then draw more attention to the family by either returning Beth to the FSZ which was illegal or allowing her to die. She needed now to put on a great show to hide even more from. The depths of this deception were becoming unfathomable and more than a little difficult to balance.

Michelle force a false smile and said. "All things are made right by the passage of time." The statement just came out and she shuddered as if a goose has crossed her grave. She didn't want to think about time. She understood that the time would come when she would say goodbye to Randy and all those she knew just like she had said goodbye to Gary.

Everyone but Beth, remember; you do have some company now. The vision wasn't completely accurate. No, she guessed that was right. Poor Beth didn't even know yet. Her fate was the same as her Mother's. Michelle guessed that Erin's vision in the hospital shower had been an explanation of why the course of fate had been set in this direction. It was a vision of inevitability. Those events that would have taken place had no action been taken; no course set. Beth's accident put in motion the events that would have given Michelle the chance to save her beautiful husband. A sort of distorted version of It's a Wonderful Life, only in reverse. Erin's plan had failed however, Gary was dead and Beth was doomed.I wonder if she'll change her mind about wanting to be with Randy when she finds she's going to lose him and anyone else she loves to good old Father Time?

Yes, Michelle thought, it might just be the tool to convince her to go back to being William if they could talk Michaels into releasing her.

"I suppose you're right Michelle." Randy admitted, responding to her remark about time.

Michelle almost missed that Randy had called her by her first name. "Michelle eh? I thought you didn't remember?" she said smiling a genuine smile for the first time in days. She marveled at how good it felt.

"That was just for you and I. I know you want me to be informal. Truth be known? I would rather call you Mom."

Michelle was taken so off guard by the statement she didn't have time to keep the tears back.

"Oh, don't cry. I meant it as a compliment."

"Oh!" Michelle squeaked. "I'm sorry," she said waving her hand in front of her face. "I just -- I -- you really mean that?"

"Of course I do." Randy said surprised. "I've always considered you like a Mother to me. Always!"

"You don't know how much that means to me Randy." She was crying openly now, completely overcome with emotion.

Randy moved to her and held her. She took the embrace gratefully. There would be few caring embraces like this for a very long time. She would have to start hoarding them greedily. "I wish my children felt the way you do," she said. It was a pitiful moment but just then Michelle was feeling rather pitiful.

"Oh Michelle, they do. They just haven't had anything to compare it to until very recently. That's not their fault," Randy said. "Or yours for that matter."

Michelle lingered in Randy's arms for a bit. She wanted the feeling of comfort to go on and on. It was such a powerful need, such an overwhelming and terrible emptiness in side that she could not seem to fill. When she was held seemed to fly far away from her troubles. She didn't want to keep him from going home but she needed to be held at just that moment and he seemed to know it.

As Randy held her, she allowed her mind to drift. This, more than anything else, was what she had grown to love about being a woman. The time of weakness and the support of a loving man.

She reasoned that even men must have their moments of great stress from fear or sadness. She could remember those turbulent moments she had endured both before and after her own 'accident'. They had been stormy times for her. They had hardened her as Mike and helped to make him cold and unfeeling. So unlike Gary and now Randy, when she thought of them she understood that they were what it was to be a man. That Gary and Randy understood strength and kindness together and how to manage those two states. She had not deserved to be a man. Through Mike's childish and selfish behavior, she had forfeited her birthright to be man. She understood that now. Nature had made that correction. She was happy that nature had made her something she was more suited for. She would never have been a good man. After a time she dried her eyes as best she could. "You should go see your folks."

"They'll be fine. If you need me to stay, this is where my commitment is," Randy assured her.

"You go. We can use your help later, tomorrow. The girls need some sleep. So do I." She tried that smile once more, but it was now an alien thing on her face again. She let it fade from her face. Michelle held him at arm's length and considered the boy for just a moment. "You really are so much like Gary. You're quite different too, but your strength is very much the same as his is, was."

Randy pulled Michelle to him and kissed her on the cheek. "You're going to be fine Michelle," Randy told her.

"Yes, I know. That's what I'm afraid of," she replied, her voice steeped with dread.

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The dream, if that's what it was, had a much different quality to it than the last time. The tables were the same. The lighting, the stage the bar, the stool there for the performer, even Marcus was behind the bar serving water-ale to the regulars. As Gary surveyed the bar area, Marcus raised one hand, grinned a toothy grin. Gary waved back with an uncertain smile pasted on his face. Gary turned back to face the stage, the smile fading from his face with wide eyes and a fearful expression.

This felt too real to him. He explored his body with his hands and found he was dressed in the same hospital jonnie as before. Suddenly self-conscious, he felt around back and discovered he was embarrassingly exposed. Blushing, Gary grabbed the two halves of the gown and drew then together with one hand down low muttering "Crap, crap, crap!"

"No one here cares, Gary." He knew the voice. Now however it was clearer than it had been in years. It was like she was really in the same room with him.

Gary shifted; his hand still clutched behind his back and looked up at the stage. "Erin!"

Erin smiled. "I'm sorry Gary. I didn't know all this would happen."

"It's all right. At least this dream is a little better than the last dream. This time I don't have a huge lance poking out of my chest." He said but his confidence was very low and he could hear that fact in his voice. Erin said nothing. She only looked at him with big sad eyes. "Erin? I don't like the way you're looking at me. Stop it!"

"What's the last thing you remember Gary?" she asked. Gone was her guitar. She had been sitting on the stool on stage and then suddenly that was gone too. Gary blinked and there before him she was seated at the same table as he was. The tables were small and round. One small Neutron Lamp sat mounted to the tabletop cast a dim and gloomy light on her hands as they rested one on top of the other.

"I remember Michelle. Oh shit... she came back! She was Mike. That sonofabitch changed my beautiful Michelle back into Mike." He began to cry painful tears of loss and grief. Then hope flood back in and he looked wildly at her. "But she came back. God! Thank God I don't know how she did that. Her SKIN, do you know what happened?" he babbled.

"Her SKIN is permanent Gary. It wasn't burned off. It's hard to explain but Mike was kind of set up for all this. He was never meant to get out, Gary," she said sympathetically. She waved her hand and the surface of the table clouded over like a Hollywood rendition of a crystal ball. Gary watched the magic trick unfold, impressed. There was Mike, older but not much from when he had been in college. He was singing before a very large crowd of people in an amphitheater someplace. The band behind him was not Tidewater. He didn't recognize any of the members but it was clear they were famous and Mike seemed to be happy. It made Gary sad to think that his selfishness had cost Mike this chance. Then Gary's face became confused.

"I thought everyone would have died when the roof came in on this place?" Gary said, referring to the College Knights club.

"Not everyone. Seven would have lived. Mike would have been one of the seven. But it would have left him bitter. Lets talk as if this really happened OK?" she said.

"Sure. Why not?"

"OK then. You died in that accident Gary. You, Kit, Frank and Norman," she said, "and better that 200 others. It was one of the greatest distasters Rouston had ever seen. Worse than the Widow's Walk."

The Widow's Walk was a tourist cruise ship that took people past the old Victorian part of the waterfront and showed of the famous homes of people no one had ever heard of or cared about. Named for the long narrow porches on the houses it was supposed to be touring, it was usually empty. But one afternoon a group of thirty school kids and six chaperones perished on a field trip when an outgoing freighter struck the boat. All souls were lost and six children were never found.

"I... I died?" he said swallowing a large lump that had collected in a lump there in his throat. "Well it didn't happen though."

"We're talking as if it did, remember?" Erin reminded him.

"Oh yeah... I'm dead," Gary said glumly.

"Good," Erin said and prepared to go on. Gary looked at her with surprise. "Work with me Gary," she said and he nodded.

The table clouded over again. When it cleared it showed Mike and a woman. They were in what looked to be a very expensive hotel room. The woman seemed to be asleep in Mike's arms. Then Gary realized that she was not asleep but unconscious. There was anger in Mike's eyes as he slapped her face seemingly to try to bring her around.

"What the fuck did I tell you about that shit?" Mike was shouting. His face was nose to nose with the lifeless face of this pretty young girl. The anger in his face was clear as he screamed the cords on his neck stood out and his face became an angry deep purple. "Only do a little. You stupid cunt!" On the bed next to him was a blast syringe and a package of something that looked like the drug Heat. This chemical had come out of Asia and was packaged in bamboo leaves to keep it fresh. It was a deadly drug, a synthetic CNS drug that caused hallucinations when used in very light doses but carelessness could easily spell death. It took days to shut down the body and the user was completely aware of what was going on around them until they died or recovered. There was no counteragent for the drug. It either killed you or let you go.

"This one died," Erin said. Gary was repulsed by the sight of his friend dancing this dance of death with a corpse. His anger was selfish. He was mad at her for doing this to him. "She was only twenty four. Mike's entourage took care of the body. She met Mike back stage and no one ever reported that he had killed her or at least given her the drug that killed her."

Gary was horrified. "That's not Mike."

"Yes it is," she insisted.

"No. Mike was a good man."

"Bullshit, Gary! He was a man that was just beginning to discover that if you wanted anything in life then you had to beat the shit out of the person that already had it and take it from them. Remember the Klingon?"

Gary nodded.

"Mike twisted that story a bit. Mike hinted at marrying her to get in her pants several times. She was devastated when Mike vanished. She never married."

"No! That's not how Mike was." Gary seemed upset.

Erin waved her hand again and there was another hotel room. This one was dark. Gary now stood in the brief hallway at the door. He could feel the door closed at his back. Out in the room he could see the sliding glass door of the balcony. It stood open and a cool breeze wafted in blowing the sheer curtains about in gauzy grace. The city night outside was punctuated by thousands of tiny points of light from the surrounding building. In the foreground however there was a dark spot. It blocked out the points of light and sheers from sight. Whatever it was it hung from the ceiling by a cord. Whatever it was the shape was frighteningly familiar.

Gary whispered "Erin!" but there was no answer. "Erin!" he said a bit louder but trying hard to keep the sharp edge of panic out of his voice. If he heard that sound then he would go insane, he knew he would, just as sure as he knew what that dark spot truly was. He couldn't say it out loud however. He couldn't go look and that was exactly what Erin had wanted when she sent him to this place.

"Help me!" he whined. Behind him, Gary tried to turn the handle of the door his back was pressed against. He didn't dare turn his back on the black thing hanging from the ceiling. If he did he was sure its eyes would pop open and it would call out to him.

Gary? Gaaaaaaaarrrrrrrrrrryyyyyyyyyy? Come on over and let me sing you a lullaby.

"No!" Gary whispered; the door's knob would not turn. "Please!" he begged. Then there was a voice and Gary wet himself when it spoke it scared him so. It was only after his bladder had released that he realized who it was.

"Gary! I want you to look out there and see what would have happened to Mike." Gary turned now and attacked the door with a full frontal attack. The image of the body that was swinging lightly in the breeze burned into his brain like sunspots when you look up at the sun and then away very quickly. When you closed your eyes you could still see it in the field of your eyelids.

"God damn it Erin! And I want you to leave my fucking family alone!" He had turned now and was fighting with the door handle. "Why the fuck are you messing with us? If your goal keep Mike from harming himself and others then you succeeded, it was stopped. It was prevented a long damn time ago. He's alive and the girl is probably alive too. Leave us alone and open this God damn door and let me the hell out of here!" he screamed, now nearly frantic with fear.

The door swung open unexpectedly and Gary pinwheeled back into the familiar environment of the College Knights club. As he regained control over his forward momentum, he looked about trying to ascertain how much dignity he had lost and realized that no one seemed to have noticed his state of mind, his panic or the hospital gown he was wearing.

At the table where he had been sitting before the nightmarish vision he had been thrown into. She waved cheerfully, but Gary did not smile. He made his way over to the table and hovered over Erin in an imposing manner. Erin laughed at him however and that seemed to shrink his domineering posture to a large extent. His anger at her was still very evident however.

"Why did you do that to me?" he demanded.

"Because I wanted you to see what we saved him from -- you, me everyone that helped him transition to who he is today Gary. If we hadn't have taken our opportunities when we did, Mike would be dead already and so would a lot of other good people," Erin said smiling.

"Fine, I'm convinced. I never had a problem with it. So why am I having this dream?"

"That's the next thing I need to tell you Gary. The last thing that happened to you was this..." Erin said. Gary recoiled from the table expecting to be sent back in the room with the rotting Mike sausage hanging from the hotel room ceiling like a rancid bologna in an abandon butcher shop. This time, however, all that happened was the tabletop once again clouded over and he could see himself twenty feet from the barrel of a gun. They were standing in the lobby of the Rouston police station where Michelle had returned to save him this time. The hand that held the weapon was unsteady and the man that owned the arm was weeping. Suddenly the gun discharged and both Gary's flinched. He could see himself look first at Michelle; he smiled, then looked at his shoulder. The amount of blood that poured out of his sleeve and the hem of his jacket was staggering. Then his skin when pale and he fell face first on the floor. Again Gary flinched with the impact.

"God!" he shouted. When his counter parts face hit the floor and the blood spray radiated out from it. "Oh God!"

"Gary." Erin said softly. She took his hand as he grimaced.

"God damn," he said again.

"Gary," she repeated.

Gary looked at down at Erin who now seemed quiet small and meek. "God damn!"

"You didn't survive the injury," she said in a small voice.

He blinked at her. "What?" he said again.

"You were killed," she said in a sorrowful tone.

"What are you talking about Erin, I was killed..." Even as he said the words he understood. "Oh no..." and Erin was nodding to him. "No!"

"I'm sorry Gary."

"Michelle! She'll need me," Gary said anguished.

"She does."

Gary lunged at Erin surprising her. She squealed and tried to get away but her chair slipped and she tumbled backward, heels overhead and landed on the floor on her back. "Wait!" she cried.

"Wait for what? What are ya going to do to me, kill me?"

"Wait!" Erin cried again. "There was a good reason."

"I don't give a crap Erin. She needs me and I'm not going to leave her." Gary took Erin by the hands and hoisted her up to her feet. He paused and then asked. "What reason?"

"The SKIN she's bound to will never let her go." Erin dropped her eyes then continued speaking. "She can't die Gary, not as you and I understand dying. The SKIN that was given her was made for someone else but meant for her. Rather, meant for Mike. The SKIN had to be lost and refound. And it was, it was found by you and your friends in the warehouse that night." She looked back up at Gary with eyes that begged of sympathy. "The things that were done moved things around. Kind of like when you move things in your kitchen. If you move your plates to where your pans are then you have to move other things to make room. That's kind of what happened here. It shifted things in her life and in all the world. For her, the correction for that was to make you immortal too, but there were lots of things that had to be in place to make that happen."

"You're not making much sense Erin. Sounds like to me you set up my son to do your work for you?" Gary shot back angrily

"It's not like that. William was on a worse road than Mike. You have to believe me that none of this was supposed to turn out the way it did," Erin said miserably. Erin paused a moment and Gary felt there was more so he prompted her.

"What? What else Erin?"

"You'll never see them again." Erin hung her head, shamed by the outcome of this debacle.

"What?" Gary shouted. "If you're here and I'm here then it stands to reason that she'll be here sooner or later..." Gary trailed off thinking about Michelle's obvious lack of aging. It was the first time he'd thought of it in sometime, but now all of it made sense to him. "It's the SKIN."

"Both Michelle and Beth, Gary I'm sorry."

"You're telling me they can't die?" he said in shock.

"No, I'm telling you they won't die naturally. It would take an incredible trauma to do it. Their bodies would have to be completely destroyed and it wouldn't happen quickly. They would suffer greatly. Their last hope of being free of the SKINs they're in died with your friend Michaels. He died with his SKIN 'off' if you will. That sealed their fate." Gary started toward the door without a word.

"Where are you going?" she called after him.

"To be with my wife and daughter. To save them from the fucking curse you've consigned them to."

"You can't see her Gary. You're dead."

"Yeah? Watch me!" he called out to her as he stormed across the room.

"No, you don't understand, you're really dead for God's sake, you're body's about to be autopsied. Just how do you think you can escape this fate? I'm very sorry Gary, if that helps any then I'm sorry."

"Well Erin I'm sure comforted by that thought and I know Michelle should be as well. I'll tell her for you the next time I see her."

"I'm leaving, Erin." He looked toward the door. "If I walk out that door and wind up back in that hotel room with rotting corpse of your brother, I'll come back here and find you. You know that."

Erin nodded. "I wish you would not go out there Gary. There's nothing out there for you."

"I'm going to find her. You can't keep me from doing that." Gary marched to the door of the club. "I never liked this fucking place anyway." Gary said gesturing to the bar around him. He opened the door to the club and stepped out into a vast white nothingness. He turned and looked back into the club. Marcus waved good-bye to Gary and Gary gave Marcus a look of disgust and flipped him the bird as he walked out slamming the door.

Marcus looked at Erin who only looked back with a sad expression on her face of pity for her brother-in-law. Marcus shrugged and continued to swab down the bar.

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Once inside and back to an environment somewhat familiar the girls expelled a collective breath and settled in. Michelle was vaguely aware through the cloud of her grief that Shelly was strangely unaffected by the events that had transpired at the hospital, either by her Father's death or her Mother's irrational behavior. She had hummed on the way home, cheerful songs Michelle remembered singing from another life and time. Everyone was silently grateful that Shelly seemed blissfully unaware of the devastating events the family endured in the last twenty-four hours. Unfortunately, this was not the case for the rest of the outside world.

When propped up next to and compared to any of the hard times she had faced in her life this was clearly the hardest time she had seen. Her husband had literally brought her kicking and screaming into this life and had shown her how to enjoy it as she had enjoyed or loved nothing else before. He had given her so much; wealth, family and an abundance of love in which she had found the resolve and the will to come back for him for him twice, once to beg him to let her back in and the next to try to save his life. But she had failed, he had, without warning, simply checked out. It had been very quick, shockingly quick and she could not shake the feeling that she had shortened what time he may have had left. Or worse, what if he had recovered by some miracle? Michelle squinted her eyes against the painful idea. If that was the case she had a long time to think about it. I'm sorry Gary. I tried! I love you so much I had to try something. If I killed you then I could never be more sorry. If I ever find out that's what I did, how will I live with myself? The thought was more than she could bear; so painful was the idea that she felt she would strangle on it.

The task of facing the truth for the adults was now at hand however, and after a few minutes rest she said. "I have to call the restaurant and some of our friends and make sure everyone knows what's happened. I'll be in the bedroom but I would like some privacy for a few minutes if that's OK." She asked her older daughters, "Can you please watch Shelly for me sweetheart?"

Both of the older girls nodded while Shelly was transfixed in front of the VID. Michelle touched each of them on their heads as she passed them on her way to the bedroom.

Michelle felt the length of the room extending on her, as it might in one of those old -- movies, Yeah, they used to be called movies. Her mind was a whirl of thoughts, a defensive mechanism to avoid the truth. Think about anything except that one thing. You'll be safe. Just a minute more and then you can deal with the next. She rounded the corner of the hall to go the bedroom and the hall lengthened. She was moving in slow motion. Michelle didn't want to enter that room anymore. This was the room where she had loved Gary so hard. Where Jessie, that beloved first Christmas gift from Gary had bounded on the their Christmas bed. This was the bed where she had conceived two of their three children.

Grief began to overwhelm her, but still she plodded on. She turned the corner of the bedroom there was the bed they had shared, the indentation of her body still visible in the fitted sheet from her Doctor imposed exile from the hospital just thirty-six hours ago. There's only going to be one impression there from now on. Oh Gary, what am I going to do without you?

She allowed herself the luxury of crying just a little, of indulging just the smallest bit of private grief for her best friend before facing their friends and the co-workers. Soon now she would be expected to share that grief with others. Her dance with Gary was over. The music had suddenly stopped and he had been asked to leave the room. Now a new dance had begun, The Dance of the Funeral Dirge. It was a sullen and morbid dance, sung to the music of bitter tears and pain-filled hearts.

She walked into the room as flashes of her life, the one true life she had enjoyed ripped through her mind, the joy of that Christmas night when she had been proposed to and the time with Gary as they lay in bed Christmas night together. Gary had been on his knee in the middle of the restaurant full of people, the spot light on the two of them alone. The way he had held her that night when they got home from the club, as if she was where she had always meant to be, right there tightly in his arms. She had been staring at the huge diamond on her finger. She had never really seen a real diamond before and for a stone that compared to other rocks of the world, this one seems so small and so large all at the same time. If flashed with fiery brilliance and spectrum of impossible colors. It hypnotized her when she flashed it back and forth on her hand. The band had been tight and she had been unable to remove it to wash her hands later that night.

Just as well, she had thought. It's not like I really want to take it off.

"You're not upset that I'm pregnant?" She turned on her side, and held her left hand out before her. Even in the darkness of their room the stone picked up transient light and sparkled like a star in the distance. All her emotions were an amazement to her. She was a woman only one year and here she was pregnant, engaged and more deeply loved that she would have ever hoped to be. How was it that she had fought so hard to be free of this? She finally laid that hand on Gary's chest and put her head on his shoulder.

Gary had laughed. "You have honored me like no one else could, you would want to carry my child."

"Our child," she said with a smile running the flat of her hand down the side of his face as she lay next to him.

"Yes, our child. Yours and mine."

"I love you Mr. Shipley."

"I love you too Mrs. Shipley."

She had smiled at the sound of it. She had only been engaged a couple of hours at that point but it seemed that her life could get no better than it was at that moment and that it had far exceeded anything it could have ever been. "Oh God that sounds nice." She paused, concern crossing her face. "Gary?"


"Is this -- I don't know."

"I know what you want to say, and the answer is yes. It's completely and totally natural. What have I been telling you?"

"I am what and who my body tells me I am."

"That's not what I asked." Gary said sounding disappointed.

"I -- you -- " She was confused. She wasn't sure what he was asking.

"I've been telling you that I love you. You are the most beautiful woman in the world and I love you."

With those words she attached her face to his with the force of suction that threatened to pull Gary's eyeballs down into his throat. When at last she broke her suction grip, she said. "I'm not all the way there yet Gary, and I didn't think I'd ever get used to this, but since I am stuck like this, I'm glad it's with my best friend."

She had slipped off her panties and wrapped her leg around her husbands. But Gary seemed hesitant. "What's wrong?"

"Um -- Will this hurt the baby?" he had asked shyly.

She smiled a loving smile. "No Gary, He's not exactly awake yet. I think we have a few months yet before we have to stop."

"Oh, good then -- Come here to me."

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She flashed to Erin's birth.

"Gary!" she shouted. "Make it stop!"

Gary could only shake his head. "Can't you give her anything?" he had asked the nurse.

"It's too late. If you had gotten her here earlier."

"Bullshit!" Michelle bellowed as sweat trickled down her forehead..

Gary leaned in and whispered in her ear. "The NEOMed said it's too -- "

"I heard her! I heard her! Did you hear me? I said bull... OOOOOOWWWWWWWW!" she had wailed as another powerful contraction hit her.

The Doctor was stationed between her legs. "Just one or two more Mrs. Shipley. We're almost home. OK, when I tell you -- push!"

"Why don't you try shoving a tennis ball through your urethra, if it's so damned easy." snapped back.

Gary tried to comfort her, "Please baby, one or two more pushes.

"And you!" she said pointing her finger at Gary and sitting up just slightly to emphasize her point, "You and I are never having sex again, ooooooooooooo!" she declared angrily at him, causing Gary to blush deeply.

She gave one final push; there was a brief moment of intense pain and then relief. The pain was still there but it was rapidly dulling to an ache.

"A daughter! You both have a beautiful little girl."

There was a cry from someplace down around her feet and the idea occurred to her. I did it. I had a baby. Wow! Who would have thunk? "Can I see her? Please? Gary, I want to see her."

Gary said, "The baby is on her way baby." and snickered at his own joke.

"Hurry. I want to see." She said fluttering with the urgency of her need.

Then Gary was at her side with a bundle in his arms. It seemed impossibly small to be a living person. "See what you did?" he said and knelt down and removed the blanket so she could see the baby's face. The baby scanned her mothers face with her eyes but remained still.

"What I did?" Michelle whispered.

"Yes baby, what you did. And she's as beautiful as you are."

"What we did." Michelle corrected.

"Not this time Michelle. You did this. I was only here in a supporting role." Gary handed the baby to Michelle. "She'll be hungry, you'll have to feed her."

Michelle looked up with bright eyes wet and full of wonder and said. "I'm really a mother." Gary nodded. Michelle looked back down at her daughter and whispered, "It's all real." She looked back up at Gary. "Thank you."

"For what?"

"For choosing me." She said with surprise in her voice.

"That's funny." Gary admitted chuckling.

"What is?"

"I thing the same thing every single day when I wake up next to you. I thank you for choosing me."

Erin had started crying softly and Michelle exposed a breast and guided Erin's mouth to it. She had fears of something, a child chewing there but her Erin's touch was gentle and soon there was milk flowing. She was nourishing her own baby. God, and to think I wanted to miss this! I wanted to go back to being Mike. I must have been crazy.

Gary continued, "You don't realize that I'm the lucky one here. You don't get it do you?"

Michelle shyly shook her head, "No, I don't."

"I don't see any other women, there is just you. If you hadn't come along then I would never have known love, never!"

The attending nurse was wiping at her eyes. "That is the most beautiful thing I've ever heard a husband tell his wife."

Gary then stopped and asked Michelle, "Did you hear something?"

The entire room broke out in laughter.

Then she flashed to a night about five years ago in Paris.

"Gary, I think it's closed!" She had been so disappointed.

"Nonsense, they don't close the Eiffel Tower," Gary insisted.

She stood at the elevator with her hands on her hips, in her heels and a sleek tight black knee length dress. "The lights are off and the trams are silent and the park is empty, well almost empty. That speaks volumes to me Gary."

They were standing at the base of one of the huge footings of the tower after spending the day touring the Seine River basin area by boat. At the base were stations where people could board and ride to the various levels of the tower. Large trams lifted you up the steep grade of the footings to the restaurant level; from there smaller elevators took you to the observation platform of the tower at the top. There were no operators to control the lower tram at any of the stations. "You're not holding your mouth right," he said, moving up to push the button.

"I've never understood what that was supposed to mean." Michelle groused now sounding pouty and childlike.

"Really?" Gary asked. "OK watch this." He punched the buttons on a digital closed circuit VID once or twice and nothing happened. He looked at Michelle, raised his eyebrows, twisted his mouth in a screwed up fashion. Michelle burst out laughing as Gary pushed the button again.

Without warning the machinery of the elevator had cranked into life causing her to jump and squeal in surprise. She had been able to see that satisfied look of 'See? I told you so' on his face by the smile there. "How did you do that?" she asked slowly, skeptically.

With out a word he screwed up his mouth again and Michelle burst out laughing again. He put his arm around her waist but kept his mouth twisted. "Gary, stop that," she said through the laughing.

"Nop whan?" he said, his voice and speech sounded different from the way his was holding his lips. The doors to the elevator opened and he said, "Afer nue my near."

"We can't, it's closed I'm telling you. Not to mention, it's --" She checked the time, "God Gary, its 2:00 am." So Gary did the only thing left for him to do, he stepped on the elevator.

"Get out of there." Michelle insisted, stomping one foot on the paved surface that was the base of the tower.

"I'm going up."

"No you're not."

"Hush. Yeah I am." He reached over pressed the close door button.

"Gary!" Michelle shouted as she dashed though the closing doors as fast as her heels would allow. The doors closed behind her and she stood there starting at Gary, whose mouth was twisted disfigured again. "We are going to go to a Turkish prison for this."

"Dear, this is France, not Turkey." Michelle punched him weakly in the arm and Gary erupted in laughter.

"OK. OK. I'll stop," he said holding up his hands in a gesture of surrender.

"I'm serious Gary. Make this thing stop and go back down. We're going to get in trouble."

"I don't think we will. But, after it gets to the top if you want to go back down we will."

"I do, thank you," she said gratefully.

"You're going to miss a good time," he added in a sly and knowing voice.

The two transferred to the elevator to the top, Michelle, although concerned, wanted to see what Gary had up his sleeve. For this it was going to have to be good.

"You just can't do things like normal people would can you?"

"Oh, now where would the fun be in that?" Gary said and smiled.

"You're going to drive me crazy."

Gary moved closer to his wife. "If you insist."

She resisted for just a second. "That's not what I said," she mumbled around a mouthful of lips. She relaxed though after that. Maybe this had been a good idea after all. He pressed her gently into the corner of the lift and applied pressure to her lips. She wrapped her arms around him and kissed him hard. It was hard for her not to get lost in the moment. She felt a hand slide slowly down her back over the curve of her generous and voluptuous, sculptured derriere and down the side of her stocking clad leg. "What are you starting?" she whispered in Gary's ear, and then gently bit the lobe of his ear leaving lipstick all over his ear.

"If you don't know by now then I think that little conversation about the birds and bees you will be giving to Erin one day will have to wait until I have one with you first."

His one hand that had no job found her blouse. He did not undo it nor slip his hand inside. Instead his left hand found her right breast and cupped it gently. Michelle took a deep breath as small bolts of electricity found their way to her groin and brain. Her areola's hardened as he slipped the tips of his fingers under her breasts. He opened his eyes just in time to watch hers flutter closed. He smiled and closed his eyes and pressed into her mouth deeper and more passionately.

The bell on the elevator went of and Gary stopped playing instantly. He smoothed out his suite and took his wife's hand. Michelle was left rumpled, breathing hard and confused. She looked at Gary with the frustrated, twisted look of a woman taken to a boil and left standing only to stew in her own juices. She loved/hated it when he brought her up and stopped only to take her a little higher later on and then a little higher even later, but never really finishing her off until much later at night. But it was 2:00 am now! What was she going to be like by breakfast? Besides there would be no one up here at this hour, why stop now --

"Gary?" she said weakly an out of breath. "I thought -- "

He smiled and kissed her. "Just warming up." Her legs went weak and she moaned softly with the idea. She had become warm and damp along her tender bits. "First however, I think I want something to drink.

"Drink?" she said confused.

The door opened and there was music playing from out there somewhere. She smoothed her outfit out and flounced her hair about trying desperately to see her reflection in the shiny steel of the lift to see if she looked OK. The music sounded as if it were being played live. "Still want to go back down?"

"I'll stay a bit longer." She looked away from the door and to her husband. "If that's OK?"

"Glad you said that." He let go of her hand and offered her his arm. "Shall we?"

She looped her arm through his and he led her out on the upper deck of the tower. Below, The City of Light was laid out beneath her feet. She felt he had bought her the entire city and laid it there just for her. It was a bit chilly up here and to her surprise there was a man in a formal tux. Over his arm was a mink cape.

"For the lady." He said.

Michelle looked at Gary and he nodded. She turned and allowed the man to slip it on over her shoulders. "Engineered?" she asked.

"Not on my wife."

"Gary, this is too expensive."

"What have I made all this money for if I can't enjoy it? Besides, you look so pretty in it."

The music was clearer and much louder and there on one corner of the was a small orchestra, a table with candles and covered plates. Next to this were three bottles of Dom Perignon chilling in a rather large champagne bucket.

She turned back to him and to her surprise he was holding a bracelet box out to her. "Happy anniversary."

Michelle looked at him startled. "Not today, No --" the distress in her voice was clear. "I didn't miss it." She checked her timepiece again. And it dawned on her. She didn't reset it when the entered the country. It was a day behind. "Gary, I'm sorry."

"I'm not. You owe me nothing." He opened the box and there lay the most beautiful diamond bracelet she had ever seen. "I, however, owe you every ounce of who I am and what I own."

Not far away, the man that had presented the mink was working on the cork in the bottle of champagne.


The cork deflected off of Gary's forehead. Gary didn't make a move. He held the moment of indignity with the grace of a royal prince. Michelle bit her lower lip hard to suppress an attack of the giggles that were bubbling up in her. Soon however, both were laughing and hysterically and in each other's arms.

When the laughter died Michelle had whispered in his ear, "You said you would tease me all night." Gary leveled his eyes at her and she said, "These people will understand, they're French. They invented romance."

"I thought that was invented in Italy?" smirked Gary

"That was pasta," Michelle said.

"I thought that was invented in China," he countered.

"That was catsup."

"College girls!" Gary exclaimed with mock disdain. He had taken his wife and danced to the soft sounds of the hired orchestra. He slipped his hands inside the mink coat and pulled her close, he had gently rubbed his hands over her hips sending tingles of excitement through not only her but him as well, feeling the way her clothes slid over her satiny undergarments caused an immediate erection. Gary pulled close to him she could feel in engorge in his pants making her wish they had a place to retreat to right now. They didn't speak; instead they held each other Gary's face buried in Michelle's neck.

The bracelet had nearly gone forgotten, He placed it on Michelle's wrist and took her in his arms and pulled her tight to him again. And, oh how he had teased her as he danced with his wife. The meal he ordered was never eaten. The two had danced in each other's arms and they watched as the sun rose over Paris. Below them, the thongs of tourists that assail Paris everyday began to gather for the tram rides to the top.

After dawn, Gary and Michelle both found their way down to the restaurant and ordered cheese and fruit and bread and a bottle of champagne and went to the observation deck and allowed their feet to dangle in space as they nibbled and watched Paris come to life in the morning sun. They did not speak. Their touch had been enough to fill the volumes of a million of love letters. They had something that no one else would have. They had each other. No matter what the future would bring them at that point Michelle could remember thinking that it would OK, she had had her moment in the sun and she had greedily drank up all it's warmth.

"Do you have any idea what you do to me? How you make me feel?" Michelle had asked Gary as the sun came up over Paris.

"Yes, in fact I do. And that I can do that to you is the greatest gift you could ever bring me."

She smiled; His thoughts and love for her warmed her in spite of the chilly French morning. Was there another man that would tell is wife that, tell her that the way he fulfilled her desires was the greatest gift she could give to him? Was there another so selfless? She stared deep into his eye and then around at the Paris dawn. "How did you manage all this?"

"Well, I'm not going to tell you all my secrets, but you wouldn't believe what it costs to rent the Eiffel Tower for a night."

Michelle gasped, "You didn't!" her had flew to her mouth.

"Oh yes I did, I have the receipt to prove it... Be thankful. You should have seen what they wanted for the Louvre!"

Later at the hotel she had made love to him, attacked him really, for hours at a time. She was relentless and would not allow Gary to rest until he was completely spent. She would let him rest for a while, to rebuild his strength. Michelle could not sleep however and she would patiently watch him waiting for signs of his stirring. When he did, she would pounce on him. Michelle finally collapsed after about seventeen hours and slept hard in Gary's arms while he watched her this time. They were not seen back on the streets of Paris for another forty-eight hours. Nine months later Shelly had been born.

These were the thoughts that flashed through her mind as she crossed the distance from the door to the foot of the bed in which she had shared so many loving and wonderful nights with Gary. Her knees went weak as she approached the bed and she dropped to them. She remained there on all fours, her head hung low.

She crawled off and finally lay down on the floor next to the bed on Gary's side. She would occasionally reach up to see if by some miracle she might find him there, but each time she was disappointed.

She was empty and numb. She felt as if she were dying an inch at a time. All she wanted was Gary. Just that one thing and all things could be made right again.

At last she got up. She was beyond tears. Her world had been ripped in half. Even still, she had things to do. The world marched on. It had marched on with her beloved Gary and that made her angrier than words could come close to describing. Michelle activated the VID and scrolled through the list of contacts there. She would see if Frank and Amanda had found out yet. They were the next in line in the information chain. She came to Franks address and punched it up. Surprisingly, Amanda, Frank's wife answered the VID. "Michelle? You're at home? Frank was just about to go back down to the hospital. He was going to call first but..."

"Amanda, has Frank left yet?"

Amanda blinked a bit confused at the flat and unfeeling statement but then said. "No, he's here, I'll get him, please hold on. Frank? It's Michelle." Amanda turned attention back to the VID. "How is he?" She meant Gary of course.

She was on the verge of yet another flashback. She couldn't let that happen. But some other force was controlling her emotions.

She could recall just a day into her transformation, when being Mike had been so fresh, Gary pushing her in front of her State supplied student VID in her dorm room to make a call to Karen his mother. It was truly the first time she had to act and think as girl might. Even though she had been mad at Gary, the flattery and horseplay at Gary's expense had been fun and a bit thrilling. She often teased Gary about that day, about farting in bed.

Not any more girl, no more farting in bed to worry about.

That one almost did it. That one almost sent her over the edge; and the irony wasn't lost on her that she was about to meltdown emotionally because her lover wasn't around to fart in the bed any longer.

"Michelle? God it's good to see you. How are you?" It was Frank.

"I've been better. Look I called to -- "

"Michelle, good, I was just about to call the hospital find out how Gary was doing. Listen, I want to thank you for insisting that Amanda and I go and do our thing. Still though, I feel guilty leaving you all alone. Well, it's your turn now. Amanda and I will take over the vigil..."

Michelle was beginning to believe she wasn't going to be able to say it. The longer she listened to Frank's ramblings the more she lost her courage. "Frank, please... just listen. I'm sorry to have to tell you this, but Frank; Gary passed away."

There, you said it. It didn't hurt that bad. But it had. The thought burned her brain. She had proclaimed the sacrilege she had never wanted to declare. Her mouth was sour with the taste of it and her veins were filled with killing ice water. Her head swam with the idea that she had just betrayed the man she loved. Why can't my love for him die with him? She thought. It was a horrible and selfish thought and she hated herself for it but she understood it too. It would be so much easier to deal with death if a living love were connected to a person only as long as that person lived. She finally understood what her parents had gone through when Erin died. She understood the betrayal. She knew she would always feel this way because she didn't want to betray his memory or her love for him.

Franks face fell completely apart. He was awash in pain and confusion and guilt. Frank shook his head violently from one side to the other and whispered, "What?"

"He's gone," she said simply. Amazingly, she held it together.

"That can't be. They said he survived the surgery just fine." He was on the verge of tears.

"He developed a fatal infection. I was there. He's gone Frank. I'm sorry."

"Oh God!" Frank muttered. "Oh my God!"

Amanda was now at his side and he was clutching at her hands. He tried to speak but couldn't. The two had their forehead together and although Amanda didn't seem concerned about holding back her tears Frank was still somewhat in control. Frank finally found his voice. "I'm -- I'm the one who should be sorry. Sorry for you. Oh Michelle, my deepest condolences to you my dear friend, I know how much he meant to you."

Michelle said nothing; she was seeing something that had not occurred to her in the depth of her pain, that she was not the only one affected by this. If Frank was taking Gary's death this hard then what were her children doing right now? She felt ashamed. She was going to have to behave the way Gary would have wanted her to behave. Not thinking about herself but of others, as he would have. She now understood that even with all the love that was lost by his death, it was through this one gift that he left her that she could keep him alive forever.

"I had most of him for a very long time Frank. I feel lucky to have been his chosen girl. He loved me. I was special in that respect. I'll have to survive knowing that." She was sad now. Not numb but heartbreakingly sad. She thought about her feelings and prayed for numbness, to be numb would be so much better than sad.

"He sure did love you, more than anything. I remember after -- the accident. I used to think he was doing what he did because he felt guilty. But when he didn't stop going to work, when he kept driving for success when you got that place of yours, I knew then. He loved cooking, he always loved that even before you became -- came along he found something else that dominated his every thought. He loved his work but loved getting off of work even more to go home to you."

"Thank you Frank."

Amanda finally spoke up. "Is there anything we can do? We would like to help somehow."

"Yes," Frank jumped in. "I'll bring some stuff around from the Red Fish, you guys have to eat and I know you won't feel like it, but you have to keep your strength up."

"Thanks, but Kit's already been here. He left some stuff for us."

"I can stay with Shelly," said Amanda. "You know, distract her while so you are free to -- well, you know."

"I'm sure there'll be plenty to for all of us to do tomorrow. Right now I think we all need some rest. It's been a long hard road. What you can do Frank is help Kit close the stores. Tell the staff that may not have heard, although there's a good chance most everyone has heard by now. Unless their VIDs are off."

"I have to go out to my store anyway. Flip is out there filling in for me." Michelle nodded again.

She blew them both a kiss and thanked them again and the VID went blank.

She could hear Gary's voice in her head. You didn't really think you'd have to all this by yourself did you my love?

"I miss you Gary." She whispered and this time she did meltdown, it was OK though, it was private. Kit and Frank would take care of telling everyone else that may not be in the loop. She had taken care of the members of her small circle of the trusted few. It was all she had strength to manage tonight. Her thoughts turned to her children.

With red, puffy eyes, she got up and went to see her children to bed.

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Michelle rounded up her glum group and ferried each one off to their bedrooms with a kiss, a hug and a moment of silence and assurance that they would all be OK. Even if it didn't feel like it right now, they would, just wait and see.

Erin and Beth waited up for their mother to put Shelly to be. All, Michelle, Erin and Beth felt it would take hours to get Shelly to lie down but to their surprise, Shelly was asleep in ten minutes. Michelle still sat by and watched her the daughter, one of two now that looked so much like her. Shelly seemed so vulnerable but yet so much at peace. Michelle found herself wishing for that same peace for all of them.

She stopped first by Erin's room and kissed her once again on the forehead then to Beth's room. There she lingered for just a moment and talked of how they would give themselves something to do and redecorate her room soon. It would be a good distraction and it would also give them all time together.

"Mother," Beth said as Michelle was leaving.

"Yes Hon?"

"When can I start calling you mother again in public?"

"Anytime you want to. I don't care what others think anymore." But that wasn't completely true. It was a small white lie to comfort her daughter, her child. Neither of them would ever be completely out of the woods on this issue now, but there was no need in scaring the child. Whatever was going to happen would happen no matter the precautions they took; she believed that now with all her heart.

"Thanks mother. It's nice to be back in the family," Beth said stifling a sob.

Michelle smiled, blew the child a kiss and walked out into the hallway.

Shelly startled her mother as she left Beth's room. The small girl was standing in the center of the hall when Michelle turned after closing the door to Beth's room.

"Oh! God honey, you scared me." Michelle bent and picked up her young daughter. "How are you pumpkin?"

"I'm fine Mommy," she said with a huge smile. "But the lady said I should come and see you."

Michelle looked at Shelly with confused eyes. "The lady?"

"Yes Mommy. The lady in the pretty white dress." Shelly said, then added, "I think she's a princess."

Michelle's blood ran cold. She had to gather herself for a moment. She was afraid to speak to Shelly for fear of finding out that Erin was going to exact a heavier toll on her family. That this time Erin would come for her other two children. Shelly didn't give her the time to respond. "She said you're sad Mommy. How come?"

Oh God! Not now. I'm not ready. Michelle hands started to tremble just a bit so she tightened her grip on her youngest daughter to control them.

Michelle smiled a painfully strained smile to Shelly who reached up and touched her Mother's cheek with one small tender little girl's hand. "Don't cry Mommy."

With that one request, Michelle quickly whisked Shelly down the hall, down stairs and back into the Master Bedroom before anyone else could see or hear the fact that she was about to loose it again. Michelle set the child on the foot of the bed fighting her emotions to remain under control. Shelly waited patiently as Michelle turned quickly and closed the door rapidly only slowing when the door was almost completely closed so that no one would hear it, preserving the silence in the house that, at the time seemed to be there out of reverence for it's missing member.

Michelle bowed her head and allowed the tears to splash off her shoes. There was nothing she could do about it. So this is the healing process huh? It sucks! That's all I have to say, it sucks and I hate it!

Erin's voice filled her head. You cheated it once baby sister. You need to understand how it feels to be truly human.

Michelle understood that it was only her own guilt talking. Her sister would never have imposed such a burden on her. It had been Michelle that brought this judgment on her family now she had killed her beloved Gary; this time she had really killed him.

She allowed the grief to feed her, almost nurture her. It felt good to cry. It was the act of acknowledging the pain that hurt so much. To have hidden the pain, to have suppressed it would have only served to crush her heart beneath the weight of it. She let it flow out of her and in the process, almost forgot she had brought Shelly in with her. She wiped her hand across her eyes and quickly tugged on her top to straighten it out and hide flesh, a nervous habit she developed in her early days that she never really quite got rid of.

Michelle knelt before her daughter, "I'm sorry honey." She said. She paused as she came closer and kneeled next to her daughter who looked concerned about her Mother but not the least bit upset. "Yes, Mommy is upset. That's right. But I'm not upset at you."

"Oh yes Mommy. I know that. The princess told me. You're sad because Daddy is sick." It was a knowing statement. It surprised Michelle and it didn't. There may be less to this than met the eye. It could be that the girl was internalizing bits and pieces of fact with half heard conversations between Beth or Erin or anyone for that matter. It was perhaps more worrisome in that it would be hard to determine just how much she truly knew about her brother until well after funerals and this mess was behind them.

Michelle, still upset did allow herself to relax a bit. The girl was apparently putting up a defensive wall to protect her feelings from being shattered. She was now enlisting her Mother to aid in the self-deceit so she, Shelly wouldn't have to face the truth of her Father's demise. It broke Michelle's heart for her daughter as much as her own grief did. To think this little girl was going to lose a large part of her innocence in such a way. How could she possibly protect Shelly from that? Should she? Was that the right thing to do? A lie is a lie, no matter how you slice it. It came out the other end of the slicer as a sliced lie. No better and no worse than before.

She decided that no matter how much time passed she would never be ready for this. She would put it off and put it off until she either damaged her daughter with the self-indulgence of deceit or she could start the process of allowing her daughter to face what she would eventually have to face no matter what happened.

"Honey," Michelle stated and moved close to the girl laying her hand on the child's knee. Shelly placed her small hands over the back of her Mother's hand and smiled lovingly back at her Michelle.

I can't do it. I can't change her world. Please God; Take the cup from me, just this once.

She waited for an answer. None came.

She swallowed hard. A large dark tree knot had grown where her vocal cords had once been. It would not leave her. She would have to go on and try to get through this anyway.

"Honey. Daddy was very very sick. Did you know that?" Michelle started.

Shelly nodded with what Michelle touted as dread.

"Today, Daddy got much worse." Michelle waited. Nothing, so she continued. "Shelly, there are times when, well, we can get so sick that we just aren't going to get better."

Shelly nodded with a serious and grave look on her face and then said. "The princess lady said you were going to make sure that Daddy never got sick again, ever!"

Oh boy, yeah that's just what I did. The perfect cure for the common cold. Nothing like a dirt nap to cure what ails ya! The idea was almost more than she could take. She managed somehow to keep the wild and terrible hysterics that were so close to the surface from spilling out of her and overtaking her.

"Shelly, everyone did everything they could to do just that. Daddy still got worse." She stopped to think about the best way to put it. She thought she had just what she wanted to say. She opened her mouth to speak when Shelly again pre-empted her.

"You're going to say; even though everyone worked very hard to make Daddy well, he got a bug, like a cold that made him worse."

Michelle snapped her mouth shut with an audible click. It had been in fact just what she had been about to say. Almost word for word in fact.

The grief was slowly being replaced by confusion. "Yes. That's right. How did you know that?"

"The princess told me Mommy."

"What else did she tell you baby?" Michelle asked.

"Not to be sad. That she loves her baby sister very much." Shelly said. There was a lengthy pause while Michelle thought about what her daughter had told her. Shelly asked. "Mommy?"

Michelle was distracted and had to force herself out of thought, "Um -- yes hon?"

"You never told me you had a princess for a sister."

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Randy woke with a start, alone in his bed on the first full day in a very different world from the one he had become accustom growing up in. The feel of the bed after five days of sleeping on couches, floors and hospital chairs was alien to him. The room's modern amenities stood in stark contrast to the memory of sleep's fading dream.

The dream was of the young lady he now knew was Erin Vello. She was dressed in a flowing white satin gown studded with pearls and lightly colored stones. She stood in a place of tranquility. It was a pastoral scene of serene beauty. Blossoming fruit tress stood just shedding their pedals. The air was warm but the breezes were cool and brought gooseflesh to surface of his arms. It was an exciting feeling. The quality of the air was bright and clean. There was no haze of pollutants or ozone. There were no soot-covered sidewalks or dirty acid rain etched brick facades. There was only a dense growth of trees as far he could see, the branches of which were just tall enough to walk under. They cast cool shadows on the grass of the meadow. As he walked over them the feel of the coolness and the softness of the grass as it whisked on his bare feet left him feeling exhilarated, almost high with its sensation. It was all at once so pleasant a sensation that his mind found false recognition in it and he felt he had known grass this thick and soft in his entire life. He was gazing out deep into the meadow when the girl he was walking with spoke.

"Are you prepared for the road you still travel?" She said to him. Randy jerked his head around to listen.

"I'm sorry, I was looking at all the beautiful trees." He said.

She looked around the scene and nodded. "This is the place I tried to bring all of you. This is the place I wanted you to live and love."

"It's... It's..." He could not finish. The delicate beauty of the place took his breath away. Randy recognized she had used the past tense in her statement, tried to... What did she mean by that. It was as if she could hear his thoughts.

"I can no longer see what is to be on the path that is walked. I do not know where it will end. The road ahead is dark." She pointed down a solemn dirt road that was defined by wagon wheel ruts cut deep into the hard dirt of the roadway. Down the center of the road was a swath of deep green grass. The road lead down toward a line of tall, thick trees and vanished into a dark spot in the trees.

"It is there you must all go."

Randy turned back to Erin. "Why?"

"Because that is the future," Erin said. "You can not stay in this place."

"But you said this is where we were all supposed to be!" Randy complained.

"No, I said this is the place I tried to bring you. You must take them down that road Randy. You will know what must be done when the time comes and you will lead the way for all of them." Erin faded from sight.

"Hey!" Randy shouted. "What the hell was that supposed to mean? Hey! Come back here." Randy looked around in confusion. She was no longer there. He breathed a heavy sigh and then turned and began to walk in the direction he sensed he had come from to see if there was a way out of this place. When he did, he ran face first into the trunk of large tree that hadn't been there just a moment ago. He sat down so hard he felt the shock of it through his spine and into his head.

"Ouch!" he cried. "God!" he said angrily. He rubbed his nose with one hand and his neck with the other. "I didn't thinth you felth pain in a dream." He said and an idea popped in his head in a young girls voice.

What makes you think you're dreaming?

The pain faded as he considered this idea. He couldn't say why he felt he was dreaming. He supposed that it was because places like this don't exist in his world. They may have once, but he ravages of man had long since extinguished them from the face of the earth.

When's the last time you recognized you were dreaming while you were dreaming? The voice asked.

Randy's brow furrowed. The answer as much as he hated to admit it was never. God! Sometimes I hate logic. Randy looked up at the mysterious tree. There, on its trunk, was a post, a bill of some sort. Randy winced as he stood from the pain in his rear. On it, in hand written calligraphy, were words that surprised and frightened him.

We Bid Fare Thee Well

By Sir Thomas Henry Walker -- Scribe

'Tis with a sense great of loss that I'm here today to announce the passing of not one but two members of the Royal Family, heroes and beloved family members of our own Kingdom.

Yesterday the our the Royal family was involved in an accident that was believed to have claimed them from us as well as their adopted daughter Beth and her husband and wizard Randall Benton. As of this hour, the bodies have not yet been recovered.

"Oh no!" Randy whispered. At that moment he was also aware that someone was standing beside him. He angrily wheeled on the person, fully expecting to see the girl with the cryptic visions. Instead, it was William standing in front of him.

"Will?" he asked in surprise.

"Hey buddy. Long time no see... For you anyway." William said. He turned back to the tree and acted as if he were reading the bill posted on the tree. There was a long silence. Randy wasn't sure how to respond. Somehow it was not only not right that William was here but it was also almost heart breaking. When William spoke again his voice had changed. Randy knew the voice.

"I have to go down that road now." Will said in a voice that was completely out of place for his well-proportioned athlete's body. It was a softer much more feminine voice of a girl Randy felt he could almost see. Then the content of Will's words hit him like a sledgehammer in the gut.

"No!" he shouted. "Can't you read?" he shouted and pointed to the tree in front of them.

"Read what?" Will asked in his slight and tender girl's voice. Randy's head snapped around. Where was the tree? It had vanished.

"It was here..." he exclaimed. "Right here! Trees just don't up and move on their own." But still, he searched frantically for the tree that was nowhere in sight. Randy turned back to Will who was also not there anymore; in his place was a beautiful woman. She stood about five feet four inches, long blonde hair that had a slight wave to it and the deepest blue eyes he had ever seen. He knew the girl and when she spoke he understood what had happened. Out of her mouth came the voice that William had been speaking with only moments before.

"I have to down that road now Randy," she repeated the words William had just said. "Will you take me there please?"

"There was a note here," he said pointing to the space where the tree had been. "You can't go there."

"I have no choice Randy." She took his hand and held it to her face. "Please come and lead the way for me."

"You'll die," he said. "I'll die." She seemed hurt and confused. "I'm only trying to protect you Beth."

"Are you trying to protect me, or yourself?" she scolded him.

"You, you of course its you." he said desperately.

"Do you know who I am?"

"Yes... You're Beth Shipley... I mean Wright, Beth Wright. No, wait that's not right. You're Will! Will Shipley." He cried miserably. She looked at his with great sorrow and moved away toward the wheel cut road.

She turned at the verge of the road and said in a whispered tone. "I need you Randy. Can you need me too?" she said with a said tone to her voice.

"Wait!" he cried.

"If you will not lead Randy then I must go alone. Time is short for some and a curse for others. You must lead or I will lose you."

"What the hell is that supposed to mean? Don't go down there!" he shouted, but she was moving away from him toward the opening to the woods down the road.

"Beth!" he shouted. "Will! Wait! For God's sake don't!" He started to run after her and realized that the road behind him was gone. It was blackness. He turned and looked and everything where the ground had been was black as pitch. The trees grew out of the black. The pedals fell through it and vanished from sight. There was no road back in the opposite direction at all.

He turned and watched after her. The black was catching up with her. She would not be able to find her way back to him. He had to go to her. He began to move his feet but the pitch was just that, thick black tar. He could only free his feet with great effort and expense of time. By the time he freed one foot she was almost at the mouth of the woods. He had to put that foot down a step to free the other.

"Beth! No! I'm coming. Please!" he cried. "Please don't let it be too late please." He looked down to concentrate on freeing his foot and was startled by what he saw. The legs stuck in the goo were those of an old man. He stretched his hands out in front of his face and they were wrinkled and covered with liver spots. He felt weak and feeble. It was hard to stand or even breath.

"No!" he said. "Too late. I'm too late."

Beth was at the mouth of the place where the road disappeared. She turned and smiled. Randy saw this with crystal clarity despite the distance that he judged to be almost two miles. A solitary tear fell from her eye and she whispered. "I loved you so much Randy. I will miss you forever."

"No!" Randy cried, but he knew it was too late. He was old and weak. The suction from the goo was dragging him down with black hands of death around his ankles. He grabbed at the surface as long as he could keep his arms above it and then finally they too sunk below the surface for the last time. He fought and struggled to get his arms free once more of the pitch but he did not posses the strength to raise them again. He fought to be with her and watched as she vanished into the woods of time. At last Randy's mouth was covered leaving only his nose above the tar. He took several quick breaths and then one deep, deep breath just before his nostrils were forever blocked. With sad eyes he watched the place where his love had disappeared as the tar claimed him.

He woke clutching the sheets of his bed a scream stuck in his throat. At first he felt he must have screamed. He lay there and waited for someone to shout and ask if he was all right. When no one did after a few minutes he began to move. The dream was gone and lost but the unease it had brought veiled his thoughts with a grim dread he could not shake. It was going to be a bad series of days. Randy wished it to be different and waited for his prayers to be answered. Without much surprise, Randy seemed to get a busy signal and his prayers went unanswered.

He rolled over and looked at the night stand clock and muttered, "Six fifteen?" He groaned but began to move in spite of his desire to continue to shut the world out.

The Bentons lived two blocks south and east of the eastern edge of Roth Park. Two blocks east again was the eastern boundary of what was known as Old Town. Unlike the Shipleys, the Bentons did not live in a building that covered a city block in square footage, but they did own their building and, like the Shipleys and most of the families in the Old Town district, the Bentons had money. Lots of it in fact.

Samuel Benton was the founder and soul owner of a chain of grocery stores that had been opened and nurtured into existence 2082. Geared toward and fostered on the idea of providing healthy food, not processed government rations, at a realistic cost to the general public. These were, after all, the people that were most affected by shortages caused by the last Canadian invasions. Samuel was a genius at negotiation and was able to acquire contracts with the Feds to seek agricultural products from foreign markets. Something that hadn't been done since the UFS closed its boarders in 2040.

His dealings in South American agricultural markets spawned an economic growth there that had been previously unknown. He reinvented not only the food process and food delivery system for his exploding grocery chain but inspired other importers to compete in a market considered long dead and permanently buried.

His dealings had led him to be the largest landowner in three countries in South America including Brazil. Sam Benton and his family had acquired so much wealth that they could buy the Shipleys' chains of restaurants nationwide five times over without ever feeling the pinch.

Still, Sam and his wife were happy with a simple home that needed only their care. This made them happy. They did not feel they had to lead an extravagant life to enjoy the fruits of their labors. They could, at any time, up and leave for months long vacations, and quite often did. Their day-to-day life was familiar from their pasts and made them comfortable and secure at home.

When Randy appeared down stairs, he was surprised to find his Mother was up already and had been preparing a few covered dishes for Randy to take with him when he returned.

"Morning Mom," he said dryly.

She turned and greeted with a weak smile. "Good morning." Randy came up and slung his arm over his Mother's shoulders. She looked over to him and he pecked lightly at her cheek. "Randy, I'm sorry about Will."

Randy nodded. What could he say? If he kept his response to this it wasn't technically a lie. He wasn't trying to convince her that Will was dead, and he could pretend that she was expressing her sorrow over... over what? That he's really Beth now? I'm lying to them and I'm praying they don't push it much farther, because if you do, then Beth might be the loser here. I'm not sure I can play this game.

"How is Michelle?" his Mother asked.

"The whole family is a wreck Mom, but I suspect you know that."

Sarah nodded. "I don't know what I'd do if something like that happened to me." Randy had the sudden urge to giggle. It was almost uncontrollable. It was bubbling just below the surface of his grief, an irrational reaction to his mother's innocence. Holy shit Mom! If you only knew! That idea drove him further into the realm of hysterics. He turned his back and bent his head. His mother came to him but he kept his back to her as he convulsed. Randy was aware that his mother was soothing him. From the back it must look as if I'm crying. Good thing. He was laughing so hard that he began to cough.

"Oh honey," his mother cried. She too was now upset and this brought home the true intent of the day. There was a man dead. A man deeply loved by him. Randy was so overwhelmed by grief that his hysterics turned instantly to tears as snow might turn to rain in the blink of an eye. The events of the last six days filled him and he was weak with it.

Mother and son were both aware how fragile the existence of individual men are. To have dominated the planet as they did in bodies that are so susceptible to the dangers and extremes of a brutal world is nothing short of amazing. Randy turned and faced his mother. For the first time in longer than he could remember he hugged her. She was a bit surprised by the act at first but quickly took her son again in her arms and smiled.


"Yes," she whispered sniffling back the tears of the moment. She held him in her hands before him breaking their embrace and smiled a sad smile.

"No matter what happens..." he began.

"Don't talk like that Randy," she scolded him.

"No Mom, let me finish. We really don't know do we? I mean, anything could happen at any time. I could leave today and the Shipley's HOV could just drop out of the sky." Sarah smiled a pained smile but said nothing. She brushed her son's hair away from his face and allowed him to continue. He smiled and said, "I just want you to know that I love you. No matter what happens, I love you."

She smiled and cried a bit but never took her shining eyes off his. Her gaze was in tense and fiery with emotion and she nodded quickly and said. "I love you too. You're right, it's important to say."

"That's right. It's important. We have to make sure we make time to get that in," he agreed.

"Mom," Randy paused, reluctant to break the moment. He and his family had not taken time to reinforce the bond of their relationship, of their love for each other in many years. No one had spoken of it to such degree in quite some time. It was always there. Their love for one another would always be there. It was lying just below the surface of their lives at it always had been. So he didn't want to break this cherished moment, but he knew he had to. "I have to go. I have to get Mrs. Shipley's HOV back to her. Beth and the family are going to need me."

His mother regarded him for a moment. "You grew up on me," she said drying a tear and smoothing out the wrinkles in the windbreaker he was wearing. "I wasn't ready to let you go so soon."

He kissed her cheek. "You're not letting me go Mom."

"Yes I am. You'll go off to college in the fall. You'll move out, and I wasn't ready for that. I guess I was in denial." She smiled a weak smile. "It's OK. I guess I could fool myself before because I always thought in my heart you were not quite ready to make that move. Now I see you are. You're all grown up and I can't fool myself any more."

She turned back to her work area in the kitchen and placed the covered dishes she had prepared in a canvas tote and gave the bag to Randy. "They'll need something, people will be coming today and tomorrow. She'll have to feed them."

Randy nodded.

"It just doesn't seem right that all these people will just show up and need to eat." Sarah shook her head. "I'll spend the day making more and bring it over when your Father and I come to pay our respects. Although, I'm not sure how we'll get through that crowd out front."

"I'll see if they can't save a space for you in the garage under the building."

"She'll need that for others, your Father and I can walk. Now you'd better get going. I can't wait to meet this young lady. She must be something very special."

"She is Mom. I feel like I've known her my entire life."

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Sleep had eluded most in the Shipley home for the vast majority of the night. Erin slept fitfully off and on waking to the recognition of loss and the nausea of grief that comes with death of a parent. Many times she rolled over and prayed for sleep to take her again. Maybe once she woke again she would find that all of this had been a horrible dream. Each time was the same however. Each moment of recollection was elicited the same gut wrenching reaction. Eventually sleep would take her exhausted mind and body to a place where the pain was less real but still ever present.

Beth's night had been filled with nightmares in which she had been told that Randy must guide her to the future, her future. He had been there in her dreams but seemed oddly reluctant to take her down what she understood as a road that represented time. In the end, she had gone alone as Randy watched. As she approached the woods the road vanished into, she had turned to see if he would perhaps follow, the distance was vast but she could make out that instead of Randy there stood an old man in the midst of a creeping blackness that now threatened to drive her into the woods. She had turned and fled before the creep of the black could catch her. In the woods beyond the road was a terrifying loneliness that she could not escape. She could see for only a brief time beyond the entrance to the place where she had felt so at peace. The place where she had left Randy was gone and so was he, swallowed by the black creep.

She had woken feeling terrified and more alone than she could ever remember feeling in her life. More so than when she had sat here only three weeks before on her first night as a girl. Everyone gone from the house except a stranger whose eyes she had been forced to see through and whose face she was forced to wear.

Beth sat in her bed with overwhelming fear and panic in her heart. The mission of the previous days was still urgent in her mind. She had become conscious to the world with the idea that she had to save her parents somehow from this thing she had brought on them. When her head cleared she was aware that things were different from yesterday. The truth hit her hard and broke her heart.

He's dead, oh yeah that's right, my Father is dead. Coupled with the feeling she carried up with her from the dream it was almost more than she could bear.

She had broken down and cried bitter tears of disappointment and pain. Beth tired to keep as quiet as she could thinking that others in the house might still be sleeping. The sun was not yet up and she knew that everyone had been exhausted but she could not stop the tears and the grief. Outside her window she could hear the crowd of people that had gathered. In the gathering were a few souls singing softly her Mother's last big hit, You Are. A hit that was now years old. She could almost imagine they felt as bad as she did. Many held candles. It seemed they had stayed through the night keeping a quiet vigil over the family.

Michelle was stirred awake by the sounds of the song that had first been inspired by Gary's love for her and then ironically had acted as inspiration itself to seek a passageway back to her husband's arms when she had been given the one thing she had searched for so desperately in the beginning and felt she could never have. Her life back as Mike Vello. She had been worthless without Gary and now she had lost him for all time. Even becoming spiritual and seeking a center in religion had not and could not save her now. Her soul was trapped in an immortal body. She would never see her Gary again. The dawning knowledge that she had woken to the same painful place in her life where she had left off last night when sleep had finally taken her threatened to drive her crazy with grief. Michelle struggled with it to keep it under control. She could not go backward. Time was dragging her into a deep and lonely future.

Michelle moved her head and felt a warm wet stain on the side of her face in the pillow where she had been laying. She patted the place with hand and realized that she had cried in her sleep. Even there she could not be free of the guilt and the grief that guilt had sired. Guilt would be her husband now and the grief her only child through time. When she had outlived her own children, this one would stay with her and keep her company in the endless halls of time.

On the bed next to her right where they had been when she finally cried herself to sleep, were hundreds of DIGIStills with their silicone image pallets and their lightweight micronomic system frames. They were images of her and Gary, her and the kids and just her. Each one had two distinct common attributes.

First, there was a clear demarcation between each image. That demarcation marker was age and style the age of the subjects specifically. One could see the chronological order to each still by the way Gary's hair gradually turned from blonde to white or as the children grew. One could even tell from the style of clothes or from the progression in the change of models of HOV's in the background. This effect has been the same since Louis-Jacques-Mandè Daguerre invented the photography in 1829. You can hide some things from the lens, but the passage of time is always present when you compare a picture to the present.

Now, if you were looking at these images, you were forced to notice that there was an unusual common thread between all of the images. It was a commonality that you would not have expected to see. The passage of time was visible when you compared these images with one another or with present day until you focused on Michelle. Michelle had fallen asleep comparing images of herself over the years to later images. She could not find so much as a blemish on her skin that may indicate the accumulation of cellulite or some of the other curses of time such as wrinkles, gray hair, liver spots, something, anything that would mean freedom from life and a way to where she knew Gary rested and waited for her.

The torture of the thoughts of her grief-riddled mind had caused her to play the vision her sister Erin had brought to her the day Gary had been shot. It replayed endlessly in her mind like a VID on a loop, the image of an older, heavier William in his middle age with a daughter. It was the image of William as a father that was the most compelling image in her mind. It convinced her there was a dual meaning to her vision.

As she examined the details of the visions she realized that her confinement to a body that could never die was the answer to freeing William. If Michelle could make her son see that she, Beth would lose Randy and anyone else she dared give her heart to, for all time, then perhaps she might agree to return to the lab and have Doctor Michaels remove or deactivate the SKIN he was trapped in. In that at least he might escape her mother's fate.

The decision to tell Beth today had been a hard one. There was more sadness in the house than she could ever remember. This was going to devastate the girl William had become. Beth was after all in love with Randy. Watching them on their arrival from the hospital last night had convinced her to tell her and help her return to her rightful place in spite of the consequences was the only fair thing to do. It would be more horrible to lie when the question finally came...

Why didn't you tell me I was going to live forever? Why didn't you say something when there was a chance?

Yes, she felt Beth might not ever be able to forgive her hiding such knowledge. It was best that Beth be given the option to escape the fate forced on her mother.

The girl that had replaced the physical form of Mike Vello so very long ago had always been dainty in stature, a smallish woman of great beauty and exquisite form, she had grown into the feeling of her body. It had not been an easy transition for her. This morning she felt fragile in the body she had become so accustomed to. She moved slowly as if to accentuate that point. So slow were her motions you might think to look at her that she feared a limb might fall off or her body would shatter with the delicate impact of her footfalls. The fact was that despair had taken root in the soil of her heart and it had grown like some rampant weed, a kudzu vine with its thickly woven tendrils entwining and choking out all happiness.

If it could be said that she felt bad yesterday, then she felt she was dying this morning. Usually, in our youth, we experience death in escalating degrees. We have minor pets, gold fish and guppies perhaps a synthetic bird that live and die within a very brief window. We may become attached to them, but once out of sight for a time we forget the pain. In the scope of death it is a brief thing and meant to be such. It is what one might think of as grief training. When we are small, life has planned it so that our grief is small and as detached as possible. In many cases there is a dog or a cat and that animal lives longer than a fish or a bird and becomes more part of the family unit over time that animal becomes more a part of the family than anyone expects at the time of purchase. When the dog dies, a stronger sense of grief is keenly felt within the hearts of the children. Grandparents are, in the eyes of children, seen as true members of the family but somewhat detached inasmuch as, in most cases, they do not live with the unit the child is familiar with as "the family". Because of their age and their relative distance from the family, they are next in the great plan of grief training. By the time it comes to parents, children have usually been exposed to death in one form or in ever increasing degrees of severity to help desensitize them to nature's painful reality. When one loses a mate, in many cases that person has been through the parental stage of grief at least once and is a seasoned veteran of the battlefield called loss.

Not so with Michelle and her family. Yes, Michelle had experienced the death of her sister, and if death and loss on that scale is a battlefield then that was her introduction to combat as it were. Michelle was a deserter on that particular field of battle however. The death of her father was so far removed from who she had become that at the time, though deeply saddened by it, she had Karen and Gary to shield her from it. The death of Gary's parents had been hard on them but they comforted each other in that time. Since there were no bodies to recover given the nature of the act that claimed them, there was no symbol of their passing. They simply weren't there any more.

Now however, Gary, her rock was gone. She knew she was going to have to be the rock for the children, but feeling as she was, she wasn't sure she could do it. This time, unlike when her sister died, there was no place to run.

She showered slowly with her mind circling around the grief like an animal looking for a way to kill a threat to its territory. She looked for a vulnerable spot in its formidable defenses and found none. This great black beast called sorrow was going to consume her and she could not find a way to defeat it.

Michelle! came Gary's voice. I'm right here with you. Just listen for me.

She broke down against the wall of the shower and cried. She could not quiet her sobs and did not attempt to do so. She was so much in love with him. How was she going to turn that off now? How was she going to go on in love with someone who couldn't be there for her or for her? If she could answer that question she thought she might survive this.

Oh you'll survive little girl! You have no choice.

"Oh Gary!" she wailed. "Oh Gary, I love you so..." Her tears mingled with the water of the shower. Michelle crouched in the shower stall afraid to move and afraid to live. A minute passed, then two and she started to calm down. She stood slowly and let the soap wash off her body. It was a body that she felt she would never take any pleasure from again. She was now a shell of the person she had learned to be.

After emptying herself again of the grief, she turned off the water and stepped out of the shower to towel off and get dressed. She was an empty vessel now, waiting to be filled up with grief again. People were coming to share that grief and to try to comfort her and to make her well again. They wanted her to know they offered support and kindness and she loved them all but none of them knew what he was to her. She had not even known until this had happened what she would do to make sure she had him in her life.

The best laid plans of mice and women, eh girl?

She selected black pants and a black sleeveless shell and black jacket to wear. The moment called for a black dress but she wanted to be covered completely today. She wanted to be wrapped in black as her heart was.

She stood at the edge of the bed and looked at the DIGIStills and sighed. It was time to tell Beth. Her mind turned to the scene in the parking garage last night. It might already be too late for Beth to deny her heart. But she had to know. Today, she would seek his comfort and he would be wonderful to her and she would fall more and more in love with him even in the midst of her ever-deepening sorrow.

What right do you have to do this to her? she asked herself.

I'm her mother God damn it. That gives me all the right I need, she justified sharply.

Michelle knew it was a hollow justification. She knew that in the time it had taken her, Michelle, to admit and reconcile her love with Gary early on, if someone had come to her with a 'cure' for her trapped condition, she knew she would not have gone back. In fact, if forced to she would have killed to stay with Gary, even back then.

Now she was thinking of undermining that very feeling in someone she loved very much. To what end?

I didn't know then what I know now! she argued with her self, this is for her own good. If I had known I would lose Gary...

She knew she could not finish that statement however. She understood perfectly well that what doctor Michaels had said was true. She had been trapped in this body from the minute she had activated it, but not for the reasons stated by good old Doctor Presto! She knew she had been changed completely the minute she had seen herself. She had understood it and denied it at the same time, frightened of the truth and terrified of her feelings for Gary.

Just the same, even knowing she would have changed nothing of what and who she had finally become she was still not ready to admit that maybe this was what nature had intended for her son as well. Her logic was set. She gathered selected images from among those on the bed. One from 2083, another marked 2087 this one taken on Miami Key in 2094, yet another marked "New Years 2100", it showed a smiling, tall and lanky graying Gary Shipley, his arm behind an exuberant Michelle laughing wildly and leaning forward toward camera. In this one she wore a short black dress with a low cut front, her hair flounced about her head. In one hand was glass of champagne in the other a cheap paper horn. She wore a silly shiny purple hat that had a large double zero on it and streamers hanging from the top. She looked like a girl that had had just a bit too much to drink.

Michelle began to recall that evening in another one of her flashback moments. She remembered how they had danced in the streets of Time Square all night. Even walking back to the hotel, she had insisted they walk and enjoy the crisp New York air; she had taken his hands and coaxed him to dancing on the wide sidewalks with her. The people that had passed them looked at them in an odd fashion but smiled, amused once they had passed. Michelle had always loved the people of New York and found them much friendlier then their reputation professed. All around them were the stars from the high-rises that encircled them. Once, under the windows of a Manhattan apartment building a block from the hotel someone had seen them and played music for them to dance to. Gary had held her so close that night. Back at the hotel she had done her best get pregnant once again. The desire to give him another child was had been welling up in her again. Painfully she shoved the recollection of it away. She did not want to remember any more. These were ghosts, poltergeists sent to hurt her and destroy her mind. She shoved the image in the stack of others she had selected and marched deliberately up the stairs to see if Beth was awake.

Without much of a surprise Michelle found Beth was awake. She was curled miserably on her bed. Beth didn't look up when Michelle knocked on the open door and poked her head in and said, "Anyone home?"

Beth had only quickly wiped her eyes and said, "Come in."

"You're upset," Michelle said sitting down on the side of the bed, observing that she'd been crying.

"Yes, aren't you?" Beth asked. Michelle only nodded in her signature three or four quick jerking head movements. Michelle didn't say anything. She moved to the bed and sat there on the edge of the bed unable to completely conceal that something was going on and yet unable to break the ice and get the conversation going. Beth looked on curiously thinking her mother had come because she was tired of being alone down stairs. That perhaps she had wanted or simply needed some company. Eventually Beth sat up, calmer now that her Mother was here and placed one delicate hand on her mothers back, the other on her arm. Beth began to rub her Mother's back soothingly while Michelle enfolded the one her daughter placed on her arm in her hand.

"It's going to be all right Mom.," Beth whispered. With that Michelle broke down. Beth felt miserable for starting the waterworks she knew her mother felt she needed to control. "Mom..." Beth knee walked closer and laid her body over the back of her Mother and rested her head on her mother's shoulder. "Please don't cry." Beth begged. The emotion elicited by her mother's heartbreak was bringing Beth dangerously close to losing control her self once again. Michelle was nearly doubled over with the grief she felt she had brought her family. She was terrified of the penalty she knew she was about to pay for causing that grief.

Michelle withdrew her one free hand from the girls arm and reached behind her and touched the top the young girls head. "I need to talk to you about something... William."

The girl stiffened. "Mom?"

"I know what we said, what we thought but you were wrong. We were wrong. I was wrong." Beth slid off the bed and stood before Michelle. Michelle did not look up at Beth, she could not; if she did she would not be able to hold her resolve. Beth stood wordlessly before her mother. Beth could see that Michelle was holding DIGIStills but could not make out who or what the images were of. "Something's come to light that changes everything."

"I love him Mom." It was a caveat that was supposed to correct any error, justify any wrong and cause the sun to shine in the face of the fiercest storm.

"Honey, I know you..."

"No! I love him!" she bellowed.

"William?" Michelle pleaded.

"Stop! Stop! Don't call me that. William was an asshole Mom. He was a jerk!" Beth shouted, her hands slammed flat against the sides of her head covering her ears.

"You are William. I know you've heard people say a lot of things about you. That's only because they don't know who you really are. The reality is that the only thing different about you is the shell that you currently reside in. That's all. Believe me when I tell you that you don't want it!"

"No," Beth whispered backing away from her mother as if Michelle could simply wave her hand and change Beth back without her consent. She put as much distance between her and her mother as the room would allow in an attempt to dilute the strength of the spell her mother seemed about cast. "I'm not going to lose him. I love him," she repeated. "And he loves me. Besides, it all those things I'm hearing. I know they're true. The fact that they wouldn't tell William to his face about the truth only proves that none of them were my friends to start with. Only Randy ever told me what he really thought of me, I just never listened to him."

"Honey! Will you listen to yourself?"

"Nooo!" Beth screamed. "I said No! That's it you can't make me go back, it's done; William is dead! We have the box and the ashes to prove it. You were in love with Daddy, why can't I be in love? Why?"

"You will be in love. You'll find someone as William. You'll settle down and get married..." Michelle coaxed trying to calm the child.

"I'm done talking. I won't lose him. I'm in love with Randy. I'll get pregnant if I have to Mom. I get pregnant with his child. Then he won't let you take me away. I will not lose him!"

Michelle crossed the room with six deliberate steps and took Beth by her arms and gripped her and said harshly, "Yes! Yes you will. You'll lose him and everyone else you have any feelings for. Randy is going to die Beth. He'll die and leave you all alone."

Beth's face was a mask of confusion and pain at the hateful words her mother spewed out like venom. Beth said the only thing she could. "We all die, mother."

"No William, we don't all die. I'm not going to die... and neither are you!" she said, shaking her daughter by the shoulders to emphasize her point. Beth's confused look deepened.

Beth said, "I don't understand." Michelle bent her head and looked at the images in her hand. She reached out and took her daughter's hand and pulled it forward. Beth resisted at first, not wanting the evidence that might reverse what she so desperately wanted and needed. At last she relented and allowed her mother to turn her hand upright and place the images in her palm.

"Look at those and tell me if you see something that shouldn't be," Michelle said as she turned to walk back and sit on the bed. Beth looked after her mother for a moment and then looked at the images in her hand. Here was one taken in the living room of their home long ago. Her father looked to be in his early twenties. He was really quite good looking and it made her heart ache with the memory of all they had all lost. He was on the couch with her mother. The flat looked a little different. The furniture, the kitchen and dining areas were not the same as today. Gary was sitting at the end of the couch watching something on the VID her mother was laying on the couch, her head on his lap. Nope, nothing wrong here.

The next image was older, her father looked more mature. The two of them were outside the new store in Miami on what looked to be opening day. It was strange seeing her father in a suit at the restaurant. He was usually in cook's whites and a chef's hat. Her mother was being handed a bouquet of roses from the then-Governor of the Florida Keys, Alice DeGrusha. Her mother looked as beautiful as ever. It was not until she held the images of the two moments side by side however, that she noticed something was out of place. Beth quickly fanned out the third image. Michelle looked on her left hand supporting right elbow, her right hand covering her mouth. The girl stood in cool air of the room in her panties and bra and forced her eyes from one picture to the next. Faster and faster they darted until at last she threw them at her mother.

"What is this supposed to mean? This proves nothing. You're genetically altered." Her justification met silence. Beth remembered, so was she. "You're just aging slower." Another brick wall, if her mother was then why not herself. They were cut from the same bolt of cloth after all. "No! I won't believe it!" she raged, shouting at her mother, her fist brought up to hurt Michelle as Michelle had hurt Beth. Michelle caught her wrists in her hands and Beth struggled to free herself, weeping as she did. She could not free herself from her mother's grasp and soon she quieted and fell sobbing into her mother's arms.

"Why would he do this to me?" Beth cried.

"It wasn't to you but for his family he did this. Perhaps they didn't want it either," Michelle said in soothing words. She felt she had William's attention now. She could turn the corner for him and he wouldn't object. "Think about the hologram we saw. That woman was older than I am, maybe as much as fifteen years older. If she was 35 when she died twenty years ago then he must be fifty-five or sixty years old if not older. Michaels is a user, honey. He wanted his family with him." She lifted the girl's face to hers. "I won't let you share my fate," she said sweetly. "Think about it. You will watch everyone you will ever love die and leave you alone." Beth shook her head no but Michelle took her chin gently and stared deliberately into her eyes and whispered, "You've already lost Randy, honey. Can you honestly do that to him? Can you ask him to leave you here alone? You know how he feels about you. When he finds out you will have to go on without him, how do you think he's going to feel? How will you deal with it in twenty years, forty years? How will you feel after a lifetime with him?"

Beth broke her mother's embrace began to pace back and forth across her room. "That's not fair Mother. Why are you torturing me like this? Did you ever stop to think that maybe it's just you? Maybe he wouldn't have done this to his daughter! Maybe he just wanted his wife with him for eternity!" The theory was a hopeful stretch that after just a few seconds of thought on Beth's part faded to a hopeless pipe dream.

"I want you to think about this. If he was going to let her age and live her life, if his intention was not to keep her with him, all of them as a family, then why make a SKIN for her at all?" Beth's resolve fell to the floor with an almost audible sound. "I'm not trying to torture you. I'm trying to get you to see that you can't stay here as Beth. We have to go back to Michaels and ask him to release you," Michelle explained as she watched her daughter pace from one end of the room to the other and back again.

"Think about what's fair to Randy? Do you think he wants to spend his days worrying about how you'll get along without him when he's gone?"

Beth stopped and was silent, her tears were still flowing but then who could have expected less. It felt as though they would all cry for the rest of their lives. Then Beth said. "You will come too?"

"I'll take you to see him hon, yes."

Beth lifted her head and sniffled. "No Mom. You go back too."

Michelle blinked for a moment then she felt she understood. "I can't honey. Mike's been gone too long. I've been me too long. What would happen to you and Shelly?"

"You could take care of us as our father," Beth said.

"You're not making any sense. You are the children of Gary and Michelle Shipley, not Mike Vello. You and Erin and Shelly are my children. I can't and won't trade that for anything."

"So you would ask us to leave you here, how do you think that's going to make us feel knowing what's in store for you?" She was turning her words around on her. Why not? Michelle would have used reverse logic. Who's to say that she couldn't? "You saw for yourself that Mike has been seen, his appearance would not come as a complete surprise."

"The fact remains that if I went back to being Mike, which can't happen, then I would have to explain what happened or at least where I had been all these years. I don't have a credible story or any witnesses. How would I explain that to anyone let alone to your baby sister or Erin? Hasn't everyone been through enough?"

Beth's face contorted into a miserable mask of pain. "You'll be alone."

"Perhaps one day, but not for a very long time. I have my loving children with me. And they will have children one day..." She smiled at Beth and Michelle saw she was troubled. "What is it?"

"I had just gotten to the point where I was actually looking forward to one day, maybe having Randy's baby." Beth paused breathing hard and upset when a look of even greater pain came over her face and she whined. "I'm going to lose him as a friend too aren't I?"

"Maybe not. The future isn't written William." But Michelle felt it was. William would recover and have children. Well, one child at least, a daughter and Michelle would meet this child some time in the future but the child would not know that she was her grandmother. No of course not, how could the future all ready be written?

Michelle did not mention it, but she understood that Beth was speaking from the perspective of a person desperately trying to preserve a relationship from in its current life. The distress in Beth's voice and body language was clear. "Of course I will. How in the hell will he ever want to be around me knowing who I had been to him?" She wrung her hands like a person trying to find a way out of a desperate situation in which every avenue was blocked. "This is worse than if you had not tried to get me out."

Michelle advanced to hold the distraught child but Beth threw up her hand and backed away shouting, "Don't touch me! No! I don't want... Just leave me alone." Michelle jumped in surprise at the outburst and quickly withdrew her arms flinching away from Beth. Beth held up the flat of her hands and worked them back and forth in a gesture that suggested she was trying to calm down. "I know you didn't do this to me. I know I'm only feeling this way because my body is making me feel this way." She sighed, and then closed her eyes. Michelle could see the great conflict in her face. Michelle felt like a criminal. Knowing what she knew now, had she gone back that Sunday to her life as singer Mike Vello, she felt fairly sure that the direction she was taking would have been a hollow existence. She had seen enough burned out artists come through the doors of Caribbean Records to know. If she had not been forced to stay as she was, she knew without a doubt she would have found no happiness in her life. She would have searched for all time as that angry heart broken young man that blamed the entire world for his pain and never found peace. Now what was she doing but asking her daughter do something that even now in the face of the anguish of a life alone she would not have done differently. The verse of that classic country classic she had covered I Would Have Loved You Anyway, leapt into her head, Even if I'd seen it coming, you would still have seen me running, straight into your arms. Was she tampering with what was meant to be? William had been so much like her when she had been Mike. Gary had mentioned it several times when trying to address some of William's attitude problems in the past.

Perhaps she was tampering with what was meant to be. But was it fair to not give her the information when it was there to have.

Erin spoke up suddenly in her mind. You saw fit to hide who you are from your children. Are you exercising selective information sharing?

That's different and you know it. She has to live this fate if I don't tell her and we wait too long then she has no choice. I at least had one to make. I'm willing to live with that. She deserves one now.

Erin didn't answer. For the time being Michelle's mind was free of her meddlesome sister and her life altering pranks.

"I don't seem to have much of a choice here. If I stay I have to tell him that I will never grow old with him. I don't want to hurt him Mom," Beth said with gloom. "I'll go back to that lab with you one more time. But you will let us have what time we have together without interference," Beth said sternly.

"That's not a good idea," Michelle advised.

"It's only a few days. You can talk to Dr. Michaels and make the arrangements but I need someone to lean on today, we all do. I want Randy to be that one for now. Do what you have to do, but leave us to what we have left."

Michelle enfolded the girl in her arms and wept gently for all of them and thought that at least this would be set right. At least this one thing would be fixed. For this she was very grateful.

In the adjoining bathroom, neither of them knew Erin had heard every word of their conversation. She had innocently been in the bathroom to pee when Beth began to profess her love for Randy. She was now a part of the biggest mystery that had ever hit Rouston PA. She knew her mother was in fact Michael Vello.

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

As the sun rose over Rouston, PA Captain Martin and Lieutenant Kevin Delaune approached the small domed home of Rose Vello. Martin turned to Delaune and said in a quite voice as they walked, "The woman is old, and she's been through a lot. Hell she lost her entire family in a span of about three or four years. It's taken its toll on her."

Delaune looked at the dead yard and the weed choked walkway and the broken down prefab hovel and asked, "Why does she still live here? It's not safe for an old woman in this neighborhood."

"We thought so too early on, but this place is a landmark. The neighborhood kids all protect her. This is a place of honor for them, and the fact that Mike Vello's mother still lives here is respected. She is one of the protected ones here. Even though Mike and his family hadn't spoken in a couple of years before he came up missing.

"Someone once told me that the Shipleys pump money into her account and his wife brings food by from the restaurant. Not often mind you, Mrs. Vello is proud. Police surveillance was increased in this neighborhood in the days after Mike vanished and it just kind of remained that way. This may be the safest street in the entire damn town. Everyone just kind of helped out. Quietly though."

"I never heard of any of this," Delaune said in amazement.

"Yeah, hence the 'helped out quietly' part of it," Martin said with great sarcasm marking his finger in quotation mark style as he said it.

"Very funny," Delaune said.

"Yeah, well when you're Captain, you can bitch about it. Right now you just chuckle as if it really is funny," said Martin and laughed. He reigned it in fast however.

The humor was gone by the time they reached the door. The news service had somehow gotten a hold of the idea that Vello was still alive. There was no way that anyone could have known about the finger prints found at the scene, so when reporters began showing up and asking questions about reopening the Vello case file, it took him by surprise.

As it turned out the reports were of several eyewitnesses that claimed to have seen Vello two nights before at a small pub two blocks from the site of the fire. It was no small coincidence that when questioned, the owner of the bar said that the man everyone was claiming was Vello had come in and angrily accused a regular customer of his of ruining his life. The customer's name was Terrence Michaels. Coincidentally or not, it was this same Terrence Michaels that was registered as resident and co-owner of the building. It hadn't taken reporters long to question the residents of the area who had been in the street drawn to the fire just as the reporters had been.

Now Martin was concerned about the effect the shock of such a report might have on the old woman. However unlikely it might prove to be that the prints were genuine, the idea that Vello was still alive and quite possibly dangerous was also a concern. It was common knowledge that Vello hadn't gotten along with his parents for a very long time before his disappearance and it was quite possible that whatever pressures that had been bearing down on him during that time had driven him insane. There was a more sinister alternative however. It was this latter possibility that worried Martin the most.

The registration for ownership of the building was in two names. Because of the total destruction of the building and the fact that the building's only resident had perished in the blaze, it was imperative that Police Services find out what cause of the fire had been. It was also just as important for them to involve the co-owner of the building as quickly as they could for several reasons. The amount of technical equipment found in the rubble was curious. Although it wasn't out of the question that such equipment could be privately owned, it was unlikely. More probably it was owned by a corporation and had been on loan to Michaels when the building burned. The question of insurance fraud is never far from the mind of an investigator, especially when this amount of seemingly valuable equipment is involved. Then there was the question of the true identity of the second man found in the rubble? One was most likely Michaels. Was the other Vello? Martin didn't think so, from the initial investigation, he believed the second man to be too old to Vello. If the tests had been right, then he was too old to be anyone that should have been alive at the time of the fire. A cadaver perhaps, it could be that the facility was a research facility. Even still, nothing came up under a special permits search and you needed a special permit to handle a corpse these days because of the Necrovirus. It was it was going to be a whole lot harder to answer the question of what the hell had happened because of the condition of the remains of the building. The blaze could have been set, but it had burned much too hot to have been propelled by just what fuel the build offered. There must have been something in the building that and promoted the fire to burn like that. It had burned so hot that most of the metal components of the machinery had fused together. The wood of the structure had been turned to a fine white ash, all of the carbon in its wood fiber consumed. Martin didn't have illusions to getting questions from Vello even if he had escaped the fire. Vello had eluded the police for twenty-one years. Martin had no reason to believe that he couldn't do the same again. That brought Martin's thoughts back to the registration of the building. The second address had been for a company in Langley, VA. There was no VID address associated with the street address in the registration. No contact name either. When Martin tried to access the registration of the address shown his VID shut down. Each time he rebooted the machine and tried to gain access to the information it shut him down. The information was blocked. Not just off line but blocked. Someone didn't want anyone else knowing who Michaels' partners were. Had Vello been one of those partners or a victim of Michaels' partnership with someone else?

Martin and Delaune reached the door and looked at each other... "You're in charge Captain," Delaune said.

"Yeah, which means I outrank you..."

"You wouldn't make me tell her?" Delaune whined.

"No, I wouldn't." He took a deep breath and was about to press the bell when the door opened and surprised them both. Each man reached instinctively for his sidearm but relax a bit when they saw the elderly Rose Vello standing in the doorway smiling.

"Are you going to TAZE me officers?" she said with some sense of good humor.

"Ma'am, I'm sorry," Martin said. "Ah... I'm here... I have something to tell you Mrs. Vello I'm not sure if it's good news or not."

"Mike's back. Yes I know. He was here."

Delaune coughed in surprise and Martin looked at Delaune to see if he had heard Mrs. Vello correctly. Still coughing, Delaune nodded that, yes... he had heard correctly.

"You look shocked that my boy would come here," Rose said.

"I... Ma'am, we think he might not be well." Martin confessed.

"Oh he's not," she confirmed with a grave look set to her face. "In fact he... well come in and I'll tell you all about it. Everything I know anyway." She took Martin by the elbow and led him into the living room.

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

Randy flew over the crowd. He wondered briefly where throngs of people got so many candles from during these expressions of mass grief. He shook his head as he passed low over the crowd. Many of them looked up in wonder at who might be important enough to have access to the Shipley Building as he did. The HOV vanished over the top of the building and the members of the mourning party went back to their chanting.

Randy made himself at home as he always had in the past, using his thumbprint, which had been programmed into the Shipley security system years ago, to enter from the ground level. He set bag of casseroles his mother had prepared on the semi-circular kitchen bar where he had watched Gary and Michelle both cook some of the most masterfully prepared meals and had seemed to have so much fun doing it. Their life had been so much about living! It had been about making a life and not just living the luck of the draw. He felt he still had so much to learn from this family. Now one of them was dead. The cornerstone of the family had been removed. Would the house of Shipley fall? He hoped not. It made him sad to think that this chapter had closed on not only the lives of the people of this house but on his life as well. They were all speeding through the book of life now. The pages turning so much faster than before. He wanted a way to slow this down for everyone. There was no need to go through so much at one time was there?

Michelle rounded the corner of the bedroom quarters hallway dabbing her eyes. Her conversation with Beth had been a stalemate. The only thing she had successfully done was weight down Beth's heart more with a responsibility she did not want. Beth had made her promise that she would say nothing to Randy. Beth herself would approach the issue, but only after the circus of grief had left town. Then and only then would she sit down and talk to Randy about this. Michelle had had no choice but to agree.

Now, seeing Randy there, she stiffened a bit with her promise in her throat. Then she relaxed and smiled. "Morning Randy. You're here awfully early."

"If it's too early I can come back later. I just thought..."

Michelle shook her head with a disapproving look. "That's not what I meant. Give me your Jacket, sit down and relax." Michelle hung his coat on the closet rack and turned and saw the bag. "What's in the bag?"

Before he could answer there came a sweet and almost happy voice from the direction where Michelle had just entered the room. "Hi!" Beth was dressed in a plain black dress. It fit snug about her waist and upper body molding itself to her form. The neck was cut high and was a modest garment. The dress' hem came just to her knee. She wore hose and plain black heels that were only about an inch or two in height.

Michelle could not help watching out of the corner of her eye as the two greeted each other. They began to move toward each other, savoring the moment of the first touch of the day. It was something she could remember sharing with Gary often. It broke her heart to think that she was becoming the wedge that would separate them, but she felt she owed it to each of them. "Hi back." He said. He made no attempt to contain the glee in his voice or his happiness in his sprit. She knew he would not advise Beth to return to being male. How could he? He was as much in love with her as she had been with Gary.

Michelle walked to the counter where the bag was, ignoring Randy and Beth. Beth glided to what Michelle knew she felt as her place beside him. It was a place where women who are in love with a man retreat to in times of emotional need or in times of tremendous joy, times of distress or in those times when they were there to complete the illusion of the perfect couple. They feel it is reserved for them in the eyes of the man and the fit into it as smoothly as any well-cut puzzle piece. Beth felt secure there. Michelle understood this. Her own refuge was some in a freezer someplace in the bowels of Surgeons General Hospital. Bitterly she fought back the tears. You have to stop thinking like that. And for Christ's sake you aren't jealous of Beth are you? She found however that she was. When Gary had left, he had taken with him the place she wanted most to be. She wanted her place beside her man back. She wanted to feel secure again.

Be careful; make sure you're not driving them apart because you're jealous. Make sure you're doing this for the right reasons. The voice of conscience was her own, filled with doubt and pain. She understood for a moment that maybe any reason she had for pushing William to make a decision she wanted was a selfish one. If she told him to stay as she was, it would mean a reduced risk of discovery and a possibly a companion in the wasteland of time. If she encouraged her to go back, was it out of jealousy? Was it out of bitterness for her own loss and imprisonment? She could not be sure. Grief was clouding her judgment and she could not break through it to see the truth.

Beth held her hand ever so subtly away from her body inviting a touch from the man she stood next too. Randy spoke as he sensed what she wanted and slid his hand into hers where it was enfolded and trapped among her fingers. "You look beautiful," he said simply.

"Thanks," she said in return. There was little joy in the statement. Randy could sense the appreciation but understood that for a while; complements would only be a cordial ceremonial offering.

"Were you able to get any sleep last night?" Randy asked and he could feel her tense a bit.

"It was broken by awful dreams. What about you?" she asked in return.

"Yeah, the same. Strange dreams." Both appeared as if they had more to say but no place to start so the subject was dropped.

"Beth?" Michelle said. "The VIDRecorder was on silent last night. Could you be a dear and try to wade through the messages and let's get a handle on who's coming over and what we can expect?"

"Yes Mom." She began to go, but Randy drew her back.

"Randy, I hate to ask," Michelle said, "but if you can help me here in the kitchen getting things organized. I think we're going to have a few hungry people to feed."

"Yes, Ma'am. Mom made some things for you. Had me bring them over. Here, let me get those..." He said but before getting up and making his way to the kitchen, he turned and looked Beth deep in the eyes and whispered, "Any road you travel. I want to lead the way." He bent and kissed her gently and she did not resist. She accepted his touch unwaveringly. Michelle could not stifle the weak moan of resignation. Randy had captured her heart and she would do whatever he asked of her. She understood the condition too well. A woman in the arms of a strong man does not want to resist or be contrary to what he wants of her as long as she is loved.

He withdrew from her and Michelle could tell Beth was lost. Beth's upturned face with eyes closed did not move from its position until it was clear he was done. She had fallen deeply into that magical place that men did not understand or appreciate. It is a place only a woman can go. Best described, when a woman is feeling all the love a man can transmit to her, she finds her self in a place of living electricity and velvet softness. Much like fire and ice. The comforts of both together and the torture of either separately can drive a woman insane with its intensity.

Beth opened her eyes, a wide smile on her face. Randy whispered, "I love you," and Beth wrapped her arms around him and pulled herself to him. When they broke their embrace, Beth looked in the direction of her mother and directly into her eyes. Michelle could not sustain eye contact and dropped her eyes. When Michelle looked back up, Beth was at the VID retrieving messages. The moment of defiance was over. Beth understood that she had won the moment and had no desire to rub salt in Michelle's wounds of defeat.

Randy took direction after putting the covered dishes he had brought into the oven. Michelle thanked him for his family's contribution and set about the task of getting ready for the parade of mourners. He placed glasses and small plates on the large formal dining table along with silver wear, napkins and an ice bucket. Perversely it felt as if they were preparing for a party. He could see there was a labored effort to everything Michelle and Beth set about doing. Worse, there was nothing he could do to protect them from what was coming.

Upstairs Randy could hear movement. The remaining members of the household were awake and would be down soon. He found himself dreading that first eye contact of the day. The point where you have to say something pleasant even when you do not feel it's appropriate.

Beth had been taking notes when from behind them Erin was heard to say. Beth, what wrong?" Randy and Michelle stopped and turned. Beth was crying. Randy rushed to her and wrapped her up in her arms and held her trying to soothe her. "It's all right. It's going to be OK. What's happened?" Beth pointed to the screen where Marcie Dibiase's face was frozen in freeze frame. Randy touched the "Resume" button on the screen and the image of Marcie once again began to speak softly...

"So anyway, we all got together and have organized a kind of memorial service for tomorrow. We understand if no one can make it, with Mr. Shipley in the hospital and all but we wanted you to know what we were doing and that we missed William. The service is scheduled to begin at ten a.m. on the 23rd." They listened in silence to the remainder of the message as she spooled of the details of where the service was going to be held and that the Shipley's didn't have to do anything. William's graduating class had come together to take care of the flowers and all the other necessities. All they were going to have to do is show up, if they decided to do so.

When the message was done Beth turned to face Randy. She looked up at him and whispered, "I'm really dead."

"No." Randy insisted.

"I can't go to that," she pleaded.

"Then we won't go," Randy said.

"But you have to," Beth insisted. The argument took her back to a time when Gary had tried to shield her from much the same thing.

"I don't have to do anything. I want to stay with you." He insisted.

"Randy, you were his best friend. You have to go."

"You're still here! I'm still your best friend. Stop talking like that." Randy demanded.

"You know what I mean my love. You have to go because how would it look?"

"Randy." Michelle spoke up. "I will go." Erin nodded to her mother and Michelle nodded. "And so will Erin. That will keep up appearances. Besides we should go to this. You can say you were asked to stay with Shelly." Randy nodded and was pleased. But Beth looked unsatisfied.

Randy countered, "It will be fine." Beth was about to relent when Michelle spoke up.

"It's best... you stay here."

A frown crossed Beth's brow. She tightened up her features and suddenly said. "No." Michelle sighed knowing exactly where this was about to go. Beth turned to Randy and took his hand. "You were... are William's best friend. You have to go. These are your friends love. They mean something to you. And that means something to me. I am going too. If you don't go, then I'll have to go alone."

Yep, she's so much like me it's not even funny. Michelle thought. At least I have a hope of figuring out what's she going to do next.

"But..." Randy said. Beth put her fingers to his lips.

"I'm going.", she said. "Come and protect me if you must. But I'm going."

Randy breathed a heavy sigh and smiled. "All right. I'll go." Randy looked at Michelle and Erin. "We're all going to go it seems. If this is more than you can take, stay with Shelly.

Michelle knew they would all go, even Shelly. History seemed to be repeating itself but to have the family divided and in different places seemed to be a bad idea suddenly. She would not speak of it now, but she would not have her family divided again. Every time the family was separated it seemed something awful happened. Perhaps it was an irrational fear. One spawned by recent events but it was also an unspeakable fear and could not be given into.

Beth finally had a list of people who had called. She had resorted to the print function for the list of callers and had selectively eliminated those that did not need to be contacted. The list was still over eighty people deep and included staff and friends they worked with at the restaurant, members of her band, neighbors and acquaintances. Michelle was quietly disappointed that her mother had not called. It had seemed so promising that maybe she had mended a fence here or there with her estranged mother when she left to return to her assumed life. It appeared now her mother could not handle the reality of it all and had withdrawn from the truth of who her son really was.

Erin and Michelle both made calls. Many times they two broke down early on but soon hardened to the task they had undertaken. At the end of two hours, they had contacted everyone on the list left messages or had asked others to help. Jimmy Satterwhite for instance, contacted the remaining members of the band and extended invitations to come and mourn on behalf of the Shipley family.

All day the white faced grieving ghosts of friends and coworkers drifted in and out. Almost everyone brought something for others to eat. Each person ritualistically placed their dish on the table as they said their hellos to others they passed on their way to the kitchen. Smiles and touches on shoulders, elbows and hands were made. Nods of acknowledgment were given from one side of the room to the next on the way to where Michelle and family were huddled in defense of the growing crowd. This was usually followed by a beleaguered cry of, "Oh Michelle!" and a hug for grieving widow. Then the customary, "How are you holding up dear?" And "Is there anything I can do? No? Well, if you think of something you just let me know..." Erin usually received a kiss of sympathy on the cheek Shelly was picked up and cuddled told everything was going to be all right. Beth, after being ignored the majority of the time, finally picked up Shelly and strode into the living room removing herself from the "Royal Receiving line" She plunked down on the couch with Randy who had saved a place for her and nibbled at a plate of beef noodle casserole Randy had been pushing round on a plate with his fork.

"Why aren't you up there with the family?" he had whispered.

"A few reasons, mostly Shelly doesn't need the exposure to that." She shook her head. "It's almost like they're standing outside rehearsing the same line. It's boring her and it's not good that people keep driving home her father isn't coming home. She gets it you know?"

"And William too. I know that's going to be hard on her as well as soon as she figures out what's going on."

Beth was silent about that. She did not want to get drawn into that conversation here. She nodded and put the issue to rest for the time being.

For the rest of the day people floated in and out. There had been hundreds of them by the end of the day. Outside the police had moved enough people back to allow the steady stream of people ready access to the front door. Kit acted as guardian of the gate allowing or disallowing visitors based on credibility or relationship. Many of the visitors jeered and harassed the officers that were trying there best to guard the Shipley building. This would send the crowd into a near frenzy of anger at the injustice of had happened at their hand and threaten to erupt into a full-scale riot at times. Peace would eventually prevail and by nightfall most of the unknown stand-in mourners were gone. Custody of Roth Park had been restored to the residents of Old Town and there was quiet on their streets for the most part.

Nathan Crock came in from the parking cellar entrance and seemed surprised that no one, not one soul in the house of mourners crowded him for an autograph. He stood to receive his fans when the elevator opened. He made no attempt to greet any one in the room; instead he waited for them to greet him. Most of the people in the room regarded him silently for a moment when the doors open and he moved out into the Shipley home where he stood with his arms open as if there would he a rush of fans. When no one moved and everyone eventually went back to their conversation in their small circles, Nathan gave up with a snort and mumbled something about the peasantry of Rouston and the "ungrateful little people of this stinking little burg". Only then did he force his way into the receiving line to do what he would be later quoted as believing had been "kowtowing to a once somewhat talented but now washed up singer".

Even with that spin working in his brain, he greeted Michelle with an almost air of civility but couldn't help or didn't try to help telling Michelle that she was throwing away the best life she would ever know by not coming back to the band right now and begin recording a new album. Nathan leaned in and half whispered to Michelle, "We all know that snobbish SOB had you chained to life as a waitress in his over-priced fast food joint. That's no secret. Now that he's gone you can come back while the fire is hot. If you're really nice to me Michelle, now that your single and free again. I'll even consider letting you warm my sheets on occasion."

Michelle simple closed her eyes sadly and turned her head away from Nathan. "Are you listening to me Michelle?" Nathan said. Nathan was an asshole, true but he had never been this much of an asshole. With Gary gone, it must have appeared to him that she was apparently available and on the market again. With Gary gone, Nathan seemed to feel he was somehow in charge of Michelle and was now trying to exercise his perceived power over her.

It was Nathan's great fortune that neither Kit or Frank had been in the proximity of the conversation to hear Nathan lob his petty bombs at Michelle.

It was Nathan's extreme misfortune that Randy had heard every word as he was placing out one of his mother's casseroles for the guests. Randy grabbed Nathan from behind and yanked him out of line was a surprised "Whoop!" escaped Nathan's lips. Randy smiled at Michelle as Nathan screamed to be released or he'd make whoever had him 'very fucking sorry'. Randy said to Michelle. "Takin' out the trash. This bag seems to be overflowing! I'll be right back."

Randy marched Nathan over to the elevator doors. "You're leaving." He said.

"Fuck you. Do you have any idea who I am little man?" Nathan Bellowed self-importantly.

Randy spun Nathan around and with one hand grabbed his jacket and with is right slapped him several times across the face. Nathan screamed like a child being struck and tried in vein to shield himself from Randy's volley of open handed blows. When Randy was done he said. "Yes I do. You're a spoiled brat. An over flowing puss bag, and you're still leaving."

"No one tells Nathan Crock when or where he's going. Do you understand that little man?" The confidence in Nathan's voice was gone. It was a comical lack of authority that Nathan displayed.

Randy pushed the button that called for the elevator. Randy spun Nathan around with an ease of effort that made the forty-four year old man look like a puppet with his strings cut. Just as the doors opened, Randy slammed Nathan's head into one of the semi open doors. The watching crowd Oooo'ed much as the watching students had when Randy made short work of Daren Hastings. Randy mocked Nathan by saying casually, "I'm sorry. Did that hurt?" Crock only groaned in response. The doors of the elevator waffled back and forth for a moment, and finally opened wide. When the were fully doors opened, Randy threw Nathan hard against the back of the elevator. The force of the blow rattled the box in its frame so much that Nathan grabbed the side rails of the elevator afraid that the thing might crash to the bottom of the shaft. "You're leaving now. Don't make me come in there after you." Randy said. He reached in and pushed the down button. Then he accessed the Shipley house security system and removed Nathan's profile from the entry protocols. Those members of the band that were already there began quiet discussions on defecting from the band and forming their own band at the earliest convenience.

Randy turned and approached Michelle and whispered. "Sorry about that. But no one speaks to my mother way. Not when I'm around."

The day droned on with little more excitement. By eight o'clock most everyone was gone. Only those people that were close or trusted friends remained behind. Only Mark Allan, Michelle's alleged replacement in the band was the new comer invited to stay because of his uncommonly kind nature. Mark and Jimmy Satterwhite had stayed along with Kit, Frank and Amanda and were helping to clean up the mess left behind by the visiting mob.

If nothing else, the crowd had served as a positive distraction. Never mind about the seemingly rehearsed platitudes. It had served a purpose. It had gotten Michelle and family through day one without Gary. Now however, without that distraction, their spirits sunk again and depression began to set in once more. The adults moved about in near silence as they cleaned. Each one trying to convince Michelle they had every part of the chores at hand covered and that she should sit and rest. When the place was back in order Jimmy and Mark both hugged Michelle. They all wept and finally said their farewells. Jimmy couldn't help but think that this was going to be the last time he would see his good friend and the woman responsible for saving all of them after Mike died. The idea hurt him more than anything he could ever have imagined. That night when Jimmy got home, he called the bands agent and officially quit Tidewater.

Michelle went back to the chair she had been relegated to by her friends as they had cleaned, but Michelle no longer felt like sitting and resting however. Each time she did, she starting thinking again. She was tortured by how little time she felt she had had with Gary. She wished she could turn back the clock. She wished she could have been born a girl and could have enjoyed a completely normal life with Gary, a natural life with him, one without the taint of SKIN technology. She struggled in her head with anything that might give her peace from her loss. At one point, seated, eyes closed and listing to the soft sounds around her, she thought of Gary. It had been a time when he had come down from the pool deck on the top of the building. He was covered in sheen of sweat and he smelled glorious. She had watched him moved from the elevator to the refrigerator; he withdrew a small wine-tote and made for the elevator again. Her mind was all about him. The intoxicating way he smelled the ripple of the muscles under his skin, his richly defined and sculptured. Each time he had passed her she had wanted to reach out and grab him and at the same time had not wanted to disturb the image that was driving her wild. He turned and had touched her arm at her unaware of what he was doing to her.

"You coming?" He had asked and she had almost laughed and screamed, not yet but if you walk by me like that one more time I will!

At that moment someone touched her arm and a voice floated out... "Michelle, you coming?" Michelle moaned at the sound of it. Her eyes fluttered up and hopes that the entire nightmare of Gary's death had been just that sprang into her head. The face that greeted her was Kit's. A smile had been working to the surface but when she saw Kit's smiling face it faltered.

"You were dreaming of him, weren't you?" he said sweetly. Michelle nodded but did not cry.

"I'm sorry to disappoint you." Kit said and paused. "Come... have some supper. You haven't eaten. I've asked around and no one has seen you eat a bite all day, so don't try to lie to me."

"I'm not hungry Kit, really. Thank you though," she said waiving him off the idea.

"Nope, I won't take no for an answer. Just a little something." Kit said shaking his head and reaching for her hand. "Come on, set an example for your daughters and your niece. They are not eating without you."

Michelle looked at the table; all were seated there talking quietly among themselves. She exhaled heavily and stood with Kit's help. She smiled at the girls. As she approached the table she saw that Beth had her hand tightly locked in Randy's. She smiled softly to the two and thought, let them be. Let them have what time they have. And in a moment of raw clarity, she understood what bothered her about leaving them be. She felt guilty for having brought this curse upon her family and now, most specifically on her son. She had only wanted for him happiness and she worried that should Beth decide to stay she may perhaps lament her continued existence without Randy.

She would speak no more of returning to her previous state of being. Michelle knew that if her daughter decided to keep the issue to herself that the decision would have been settled. Michelle believed that Beth would share the information with Randy however. That's what couples did when they were truly in love. They would share everything until such a time, as they could no longer do so.

In the background the VID hummed incessantly with the droning voices of News Services reporters and anchor personnel. The group at the table could just make out the constant news coverage of the ensuing investigation into the murder of Michelle's husband playing on the screen as it jumped from reporter to reporter on the street, in front of the restaurants and at police headquarters. It had been a constant since Gary had been shot and had intensified since his death. However tonight there was a break in the action. I brake caused by a news service broadcast about a fire some place on the edge of the Old Town district. Michelle sat in the chair that Kit had withdrawn for her. As she made to shove some food in her mouth when the kids were looking to try to put up a good show when she heard her name. Or rather a name she had gone by once, long ago.

"In a story that oddly enough might seem unrelated on the surface, police and fire rescue were called to a fire that had begun in a small three story colonial structure around five in the afternoon day before yesterday. Not uncommon for some of the older structures in the area unfortunately. However, this story doesn't end there. In an unusual if not coincidental twist, witnesses in a Midtown tavern not far from the destroyed structure, all claim to have seen the long missing Rouston icon, Mike Vello. Regulars of this 20th century tavern all claim they're regular afternoon libation was disturbed when a man matching the description of Vello who would now be middle aged stormed into the tavern and began arguing with an often seen but lone customer of the tavern named Terrence Michaels." All conversation around the table stopped. Only Amanda rose from the table screeching "Oh my God!" and raced over to the VID to turn of up the volume so everyone could hear a story that, ordinarily, only the tabloid chips would have taken an interest in. The remaining members of the party sat and started silently at the others gape mouthed and stunned at Michelle seemingly waiting for answers to their silent questions.

"Now, the building that burned here this evening was owned, at least in part, by the man that the man to was seen arguing with the man alleged to be Vello in the Spirits of Old Town Tavern three days ago. When asked if police were looking at a connection between the fire and the possible reappearance of Vello, Captain Martin would say only that all options in the investigation are open at this point but there is no reason to believe that Mike Vello is alive let alone arguing with the citizens of Rouston or setting buildings on fire."

"In other news, Eyewitness VIDcams recorded..." Amanda turned the sound down uninterested in 'the other news'. "Can you believe that? Jeeze. He could still be alive." She was silent for a moment and then said. "Oh, what if he heard about Gary? What if he came back to pay his respects?"

"Amanda." Frank said tenderly...

"No really. The poor guy could have been out there all alone the whole time and now... Oh my, how sad is that? I mean I know you knew him. I still remember however, even though I was only fifteen." Amanda said. Erin was beginning to become upset. "Erin?" Amanda asked. Michelle looked at Erin quizzically and understood they had not hid the secret well enough. Michelle quickly got up and raced to her eldest daughter. "I'm sorry. We always thought you would never have to know. I'm sorry for all of us." She bent and kissed the top of her daughter's head."

Erin touched her mother's arms that were wrapped around her from behind. "It's all right Mom, I understand why. I do, really. I love you."

Beth stood and said. "Randy and I are going to take Shelly for some ice-cream. At the corner." Randy stood and collected the child from the table. The gratitude was evident in her mother's eyes. She was offering Michelle a chance to clear the air and do it without Shelly listening in on something she was not old enough to comprehend, never mind need to hear just yet. Michelle wondered briefly if any of them would ever be old enough to understand what had happened here.

"Yea! Iccccceeeeee-Creeeeeeeeeeeeeeammmmmmm!" Shelly hissed causing Michelle to laugh in spite of her fear and sadness.

"What's going on?" Amanda asked. Her normally joy filled, innocent face was clouded with worry and apprehension.

Frank said, "Come here Amanda. When the kids are gone we have something to talk about."

Beth kissed her mother on the cheek, "We'll be back in an hour Mom. Be sure you free you soul while you have the chance." Kit eyed the threesome as they made their way out the door and turned, then turned and watched Michelle for a reaction. Michelle said nothing. She closed her eyes and waited for the door down stairs close.

Kit then confronted her. "William's not dead is he?" Michelle drew a deep breath and then exhaled. She slowly shook her head and listened to the heavy sighs from the two men at the table. "What happened?" Kit asked.

"It's a long story." Michelle said in a measured tone.

"What's a long story? What do you mean William isn't dead?" Amanda asked.

Frank took her hand and coaxed his wife to her chair where she refused to sit. "If William is alive then why the hoax to make people believe he is? Who's in that box you brought home Michelle?"

Michelle looked down at Erin's up turned face. Erin smiled and nodded and Michelle closed her eyes, smiled and nodded in return.

Michelle walked to her chair, which was at the head of the table. She looked so young compared to her friends that were all just entering middle age. She sat and looked thoughtfully around the table for a moment. She then asked, "Amanda, please have a seat. I'll do my best to explain this to you."

Amanda sat slowly, her eyes not wavering from Michelle's deep green irises. Michelle reached out and took one of Amanda's hands that had come to rest on the great glass table that served as the Shipley's dinning room table. Michelle bowed her head and began to speak.

"I've known Gary all my life." She started.

Amanda nodded and the paused. "Wait. I thought..." Michelle lifted her head and locked eyes with Amanda

"That I spent the better part of my young life living on the fringe. Yes I know. It's not true. My family wasn't rich, but I knew who they were and even lived with them until I was eighteen. My sister died just before that and I was bitter so I left them."

Amanda squeezed Michelle's hand. "I'm sorry." She said sympathetically. Michelle patted her hand, smiled and continued.

"I went to school, found a band to perform in and was on my way to a promising career when I had an accident."

"An accident?" Amanda asked.

"Yes." Michelle said. Amanda was shaking her head that she didn't understand what this had to do with William or anything for that matter. "Amanda. I started life as someone else."

"What are you talking about Michelle?" she asked. She turned to her husband concerned. "Frank? Is she having a break down?"

"Honey, be clam. OK?" he soothed her.

"I am cal-" Amanda started but Kit interrupted.

"Well, I suppose Erin knows..." He asked. Michelle looked to her daughter and Erin nodded. Kit looked at Amanda sternly. "You have to promise this won't leave this room."

"I think we're beyond that point Kit." Michelle said wearily. "This is out of control. Just tell her."

Kit nodded. "I still say that you have to keep it to yourself. It could mean Frank's freedom. Hell it could cost us all everything."

Amanda looked at Frank. "Stop it right now. All of you. You're scaring me."

"Good." Frank said turning on her quickly, "Because this is very serious business." Frank took her hands in his strong hands and said. "Michelle's accident happened in the presence of five other people. I was there... So were Kit and Gary. Mike Vello was also there."

Amanda gasped. "No."

"Yes my love. The accident that Michelle is talking about happened the night Mike disappeared. Two others that were there died some time ago." Frank tried to smile to ease his wife's terror but it came out looking more like a grimace than a smile.

Amanda looked at them. "You were all there? You know what happened."

Kit and Frank nodded. Michelle nodded. "So was I." She said flatly. Amanda stared gape-mouthed at her pretty young friend. "Amanda, we couldn't tell anyone. We were just kids. We were scared. Hell even if we hadn't been kids we couldn't have told anyone. No one would have understood. Least of all our most affable government."

"If I understand you correctly, then you're telling me you cost a boy his life..." she said and Michelle erupted in laughter. Amanda was incensed by Michelle's reaction. "It's not funny!" But with that Kit exploded into laughter, Frank followed suit. "You people are sick." She said furiously. The laughter even spread to Erin and it was all they could do now to control their bodily functions let alone speak.

Amanda was standing angrily at the end of the table near Michelle, appalled at all of them and was prepared to call the police when Amanda did the math so to speak. Her face pinched in confusion she asked. "You said five other people so there were six in all. If Michelle was there that makes seven not six. Two dead; you," she said pointing to her husband and then to the others, "Michelle, Kit, Gary and Mike. Seven!"

Frank had calmed enough to take Amanda's wrist and extend it toward Michelle in a hand shaking gesture. "Amanda, meet Mike Vello." Amanda looked at Frank as if he'd lost his mind for a moment and then to Michelle for confirmation of her husband's insanity. When she did however, Michelle was only sitting there smiling sweetly, her hand extended waiting for Amanda to grip it.

Frank's wife shook her head. "No."

Michelle smiled and said, "Afraid so."

"No!" she insisted again.

Michelle reached out and took her hand. "Nice to meet you Amanda." Amanda sat down hard in he chair. "How?" Was all she could manage? Then in a fountain of questions Amanda rambled. "What did you do, take off for the Euro SZ to have a sex change? Is that what you let your son do?"

"AMANDA!" Frank declared surprised at the angry outbreak from is usually timid and understanding wife. "What's gotten in to you?"

"Well, will you listen to this?" Amanda snapped back at Frank. "You're telling me you covered up one of the most famous events in recent history. That you were part of it and for what, so he could go turn himself into a girl?"

"It's not like that." Frank protested. "For God sake Amanda, they are our friends."

"Is that right?" Amanda demanded.

"It was our fault what happened!" Frank said with increasing rage. "We did it. Kit, Gary, Norman, Rodney and me! We talked Mike into going to a place here we had found some SKIN's. We tricked him. He got that one. We were never able to get it back off. He's been that way ever since. Gary rewarded us for our help, and our silence by employing us and making sure he gave us some more would become dependent on him for, wealth and comfort in a hard world."

"No -- " Michelle protest. "Not silence." She was close to tears.

"Yes it was. He was not being kind to us. He was protecting you. Keep your friends close, your enemies closer. Remember that one?" Kit said.

"He loved you. Both of you." Michelle protest still.

"Yes, I know that. And we loved him. Do love him. But what he did he did for you." With those words she broke down again. Amanda appeared ready to spout off again and Frank looked at her harshly. Michelle sobbed into her hands. Kit had gotten up and was rubbing her shoulders trying to soothe her. Frank started, "We never meant for this to happen. Nothing we tried worked. In time Michelle fell in love with Gary and they got married. It wasn't the storybook ending you might expect. There's more to the story, a lot of sadness. However, for the most part Gary and Michelle lived happily with their fate."

"Then how do you explain that some people saw Mike?" Amanda asked.

Michelle sniffled and raised her head. "That's where William comes in. The neighbor had one of those fucking things in his house." Michelle was angry at the recollection of it. "William was so good looking. The girls couldn't keep his hand off them." Michelle half spit half laughed ropy phlegm laugh at her own pun. "William was -- was -- Oh God, I can't say it."

"He was screwing this girl?" Amanda concluded, Michelle looked horrified and winced at the admission but nodded.

"She felt she was being used. So she decided to punish William. Put the shoe on the other foot I guess. When her found out he panicked I guess. According to William, he tried to kill her. She escaped and fled here, in the mean time this girls father took his daughter, and a truck load of cash and bolted, leaving William stranded."

"Gary met a man that said he could help. He got Gary to tell him what had happened and told him he could help get William free of his SKIN. What happened next took us all by surprise." Michelle paused and then started again, "He freed me instead. It seems that I had gotten a SKIN meant for his dead wife. When he saw me... I don't know, he hated me, loved me, felt jealous of Gary. Either way, he thought we had stolen something from his life. He wanted to punish us."

Kit asked, "Then why not deactivate both?"

Michelle smiled. "He couldn't. All the SKINs were on some sort info net. Only one at a time could be nullified, and only then after all had been activated. Once I was out, William was stuck. It's made worse by the fact that the SKIN William is in was one he designed for his daughter."

The explosion from the group was thunderous, "What?" "You have to be kidding!" "What are you saying?"

Michelle nodded her confirmation. It was true she explained and she went on to tell them the rest of the story, how it had been this man's wife and child that had also been involved in the accident that had killed her sister. She also explained how it had been Beth and Randy that had figured out there might be a chance for her to return to her life. By then Gary had been arrested and guilt was destroying the scientist that had started all this. He had reversed what he had done to Michelle, she explained telling them that the myths of her confinement had been just that. The SKIN she had gotten had never been meant to come off. That even while free, she had still been tightly in its grip and it was that one fact that allowed her to return to being Michelle. She explained that the man had also cleverly convinced them to leave Beth as she was, citing the elaborate measures and he had gone to making it look as if William were dead, the fact that Beth was in the CitReg System and there were very little time to bargain where Gary's exoneration was concerned.

Michelle filled in the rough details of how Beth had become not only resistant to the idea of returning to being William, but down right insistent on remaining as Beth. She had, as her mother had before, fallen hopelessly in love with her best friend. In terms of history repeating it's self however, all similarities one might draw between Beth's experience and her mother's ended there.

Not it seemed with the lab destroyed and Michaels apparently dead, William would be trapped as Beth permanently, ruining Michelle's plans to return her son to his natural life.

By the time Beth and Randy returned with Shelly, the circle of the few had grown by two and now everyone had at least ninety percent of the complete story. Only Michelle knew what had really happened to Gary. In time she would be the only one with that information. She would bide her time until then. After all, it was the one resource she had plenty of.

Amanda was heart broken for the family and was deeply embarrassed about her behavior. She apologized profusely to Michelle and to Frank for the rest of the evening. Michelle pulled Frank aside when she had insisted on cleaning up the kitchen and told him that she got the feeling that Amanda wasn't feeling very forgiven. Frank had nodded and said, "She gets like that when she feels she's reacted too harshly. She has a hard time forgiving herself. She'll come around Michelle. She loves you like a sister. We just rattled her world. It brought down some of her defenses."

"I can understand that. We all live in some sort of a delusion don't we?" Michelle admitted.

"I guess we do. It's hard when we lose our rationalizations." Frank responded. Michelle stood on her toes and Frank bent slightly and allowed her to kiss him on the cheek.

"Thank you for being my friend Frank. You and Amanda, thank you."

Amanda had crept up from behind Frank humbly her eyes down. She slipped an arm around her husband but said nothing. Michelle bent so she could see her face and smiled. "Why the long looks?" Michelle asked

"I'm so ashamed. I know you've told me to forget it. I just feel bad that's all."

"I didn't expect you to take the news well Amanda. I sure didn't when I first found out." Michelle chuckled to herself a little at her understatement.

Frank added. "No, she didn't. In fact you're a true diplomat compared to the way she took it." And Frank laughed a bit at the comparison.

Michelle lifted Amanda's chin with one finger and said. "It was bad, I thought I'd lost everything. Everything I had had, everything I wanted and everything I was. I wasn't only in a different body but I was different gender. I had to learn to like boys." Michelle laughed again and this time Amanda joined her. Then Michelle got serious again. "I lost my Mom and Dad, my career and then the most amazing thing happened."

Amanda's eyes were filling with tears at the story. "What happened?"

"Gary gave it all back to me. With in a year I was pregnant, singing with the my old band and loved more than I could have ever have hoped to be loved." Michelle's hands had started to tremble and her voice cracked. This young and vibrant woman was falling apart before the eyes of her friends. "He gave me a family, security and a home, he called it my nest. I used to get so frustrated with him about that. I always bucked those clichÈs about female behavior but it is -- it is my nest. I loved him so much for all he did."

Michelle wanted badly to break down again. Her body was shaking so badly she felt she might fly apart at the joints where she stood. She forced a smile and got back to the point in as much to finish the conversation as to distract her mind from the wave of grief that was coming. "The way you reacted is part of the reason we kept it hidden. We didn't really expect anyone to take it well. Most of us were pretty damned scared huh Frank?"

Frank nodded. Amanda tightened her grip around Frank's waist. "I'm very lucky." She said simply.

Michelle smiled and said, "As long as we all remember that. Then everything is going to be all right eventually."

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

For Gary nothing had ever seemed as bleak. He had wandered in the vast white void for what seemed like years. The landscape was so seamless he could not tell if he was actually moving against it or running in place. He did not tire physically but his mental sprit was diminishing rapidly. Still he plodded on. Gary had once seen a white out. It had been during one harsh Pennsylvania winter, as a child he had gone to the library to watch the old black and white movies from the archive. From a childs perspective, he had seen these films as evidence that the whole world had once been in black and white. It was funny to see the actors clowning about in such a world. It wasn't until much later that he understood that film had not evolved enough to capture color at that point. But to him it was impossible for his mind to conceive that the building and clothing and other props of the backdrop had actually been in color when they had been filmed.

It was on a bleak winter afternoons that he had been at the library watching one of these films when the storm, one known as a Noreaster had blown in. Its fury had been unmatched in Gary's short memory and had lasted better than twenty-four hours. For the sake of safety he and seven others stayed with the library staff until the storm had blown over. Even though his parents were contacted and he had been safe and well taken care of, he was still scared. It was a frightening thing to look out the windows of the building and not see the rest of the world. To him it had seemed as if they had all been swept up into the clouds and were being blown to some place where he might never see his family or his best friend Mike again. It had frightened him like nothing else until right now.

Now he ran and ran and ran until his mind told him he had long ago exceeded the limits of his physical endurance. Erin had been right; he was trapped here. What was he thinking? That he could just jump back into his own body unassisted? If that had been the case people could have beaten death ages ago. The history of the world would have been written much differently if that had been the case.

Gary crashed down to his knees on whatever it was he had been standing on. There was no pain but his brain, mind, consciousness told him that with the force of such a stop from such a height, there would most surly be pain. So he felt searing pain in both knees that, in reality, probably didn't even exist.

I'm dead.

The thought spiralled into his head like a drill bit, tearing way pieces of sanity.

I'm never going to see her again. I'm trapped here and she's trapped there.

"NNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!" Wailed out in pain and anguish. "Plllllleeeeeeeaaaaaaaassssssssseeeeeeeeeeeee God, don't take her from me. Plllllleeeeeeaaaaasssssssseeeeeee.

Had anyone been there to hear it they would have commented that his was the most mournful wail ever heard.

After that there was only madding silence. Gary was alone with no direction back, not even to the celestial College Knights bar. He was lost in a supernatural white out for all eternity. The enormity of it all swallowed him. He had been consigned to a white formless void. So total was this whiteness that he could not get a sense that he actually knelt on anything substantive or solid. At times his eyes seemed to see right past his knees and vertigo would wash over him making him dizzy. He touched with his hands and they passed through there was no sensation, no sound, no touch, no resistance and no odor. He stood and ran and to his eye and his mind he did not move. There were no physical structures to mark progress. After some time he did not know if he was facing up, down or sideways. His orientation was hopelessly lost. After several seconds, minutes, hours, days, years, centuries of trying to recapture his sanity, he collapsed to what ever medium supported him and curled up in a ball and remained very still.

Gary didn't see a small black point about the size of a pencil point; appear on a distant and formless white horizon-less background behind him.

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 13 14 15 epilogue
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