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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 15: A Final Waltz
by Mark McDonald
©2002 Mark McDonald -- all rights reserved

One year later, July 18th 2103 AD

Michelle stood on the balcony of the Sheraton Rio in the newborn Brazilian morning, now not two hours old another four hours from sun rise yet. She looked up at the vast hillsides that were covered with specks of light for as far as the eye could see. When Gary suggested they take a small vacation, it seemed to her to be an ill timed idea. She would have leapt at any chance to stay at home, to hide from the feelings that were growing in her like a cancer. William was still adjusting to her new existence as Beth and Michelle felt certain she was going to have as hard a time struggling with the loss of her male life as Michelle had all those years ago, perhaps an even worse time of it. Michelle had argued they needed to stay, but when Beth overheard the dispute she would not have any of it.

"Mom, I'm not going to be the center of your denial. I'm fine. Randy is coming back for the summer, he'll be here tomorrow. Besides, I've got plenty to keep me busy. Do I have to remind you I start school in the fall? I have to go shopping and get clothing for the Florida weather. I've got to get my advanced study chips for my dorm VID. I've got to have that all shipped down to Gainesville. Randy and I are going to go down and take a look at the campus and then maybe head over to Jacksonville for a little quality time. I'm busy Mom, I don't have time for you to hide behind me. Go -- have a good time. You and Dad deserve it.

To Michelle's selfish disappointment William had indeed moved on. The girl that had replaced him was much like him, and why not? Beth was very much in touch with the person she had once been. She played organized coed baseball with a league in town and although she seemed to have lost the talent that William had for pitching, she was a very quick shortstop/second basewoman, perhaps the best in the league. If her fielding abilities were hot, her batting abilities were even better. William had been a horrible batter, protected for the sake of his pitching arm. He had loved pitching but scoring runs and batting them in was what he longed to do. Beth on the other hand was a switch hitter. Now William could have the satisfaction of finally getting to hit. And hit she did. She was nearly a .500 batter, .532 with runners in position. At the end of the year she even had seventeen home runs.

Beth also didn't seem to have had any identity crisis. She was a woman due to an accident and advanced genetic technology. She still had the memories from when she had been William. However, her feelings had changed as a result of the change in her body. She would not argue this and refused to go insane over it. William was not dead. He had been forced to evolve into a person that was as influenced over her body as any person was. She was Bethany Wright Shipley now, the adopted daughter of Michelle and Gary Shipley.

Michelle was crushed at her daughter's attitude. It was not that Beth was being mean but she had unwittingly exposed the real reason Michelle didn't want to go. She wanted to hide behind Beth. She wanted to hide period. Most of all she wanted to hide from Gary.

It was only when she had no place else to hide and had run completely out of excuses that she had relented to allow Gary to take her to Rio De Janeiro. Michelle should have been excited. Her stomach was filled with butterflies, but it was fear she felt, not excitement.

They left out of Washington on an afternoon Orbit JumpShuttle the evening of June 17th.

JumpShuttles were the answer to a diminishing fuel problem that was predicted not to occur for another 300 years. However, explosive population growth, mass migrations of people escaping either war or famine or both, and three major armed world conflicts; one of which nearly destroyed the Middle Eastern oil fields in the first quarter of the last century left fossil fuels an expensive and impractical fuel source. Commercial travel was crushed under the weight of the cost, as were all aspects of the transportation industry. The supply lines for institutions such as grocery stores, agricultural producers, medical providers, equipment everything were brought to a stand still. It created a world wide crisis that brought on the worst economic depression and food shortage ever known. It was this world into which Erin and Mike Vello had been born. It also allowed states under the control of powerful war lords to be taken as territories. Without transportation to move troops, troops needed at the front of the Canadian Conflict, there was no reliable way to defend the boarders of states like Montana, Colorado, North and South Dakota and Idaho from survivalist war lords that had been established and had flourished there since the latter half of the 1900's

Necessity breeds innovation and economy. The need to travel and to transport forced to major inventions toward the end of the of the twenty-first century. The HOV reestablished reliable transportation without the use of fossil fuels to the American roads at first, then as flaws in the drive system were discovered, particularly when forced over water, they were modified to take the America Roadways.

This American invention had started to put Americans back to work, back in the grocery stores (thanks to Sam Benton), back in the money and back in control of their country. However it would be another sixty years before the American West would be completely reclaimed.

The JumpShuttle was another invention that put American's up front. Now in control of all the worlds international travel, the world's economies were inexorably linked with trade to the fractured Federal United States. The US was guarding their new found technology viciously. No one else possessed this technology and access to these craft was restricted to strongly worded agreements of non interference by other government, large amounts of cash and other commodities and most importantly a solidarity pact that would bind nations permitted access to aircraft to membership back to a rejuvenated United Nations Council.

JumpShuttles worked on the principle that a particle beam of the highest concentration of light could be gathered and focused to drive an object free of Earth's gravity. If driven at an angle, contrary to the rotation of the Earth, with a north or south drift, one could very quickly rise and descend to any position on the planet and do just as fast as a commercial airliner would. Photo collectors were built to gather the most readily available source of light, photons from the sun, and put in to use as launching mechanisms for huge capsule shaped aircraft. By 2100, JumpShuttle service was widely used for passenger travel and service was provided by five major companies all of which were raised from the ashes of the largest US Airlines prior to the Middle Eastern wars.

The Shuttle rose in the sky and stood suspended in space with a southerly drift until the west coast of South America lay poised beneath the craft. The Shuttle began its drift down across the South American continent and touched down lightly in Rio in the morning of the next day.

Gary was deeply concerned about his wife. Over the past few months Michelle had become more and more withdrawn. She had finally given up coming to the store. More often than not, she was asleep when he got home. In the past she had been eager to wait for him, anxious to be awake since the kids had usually gotten to bed long before and they would have a little time to themselves.

A new trend had begun. Michelle was starting to sleep not in their bed but in Shelly's, claiming that Shelly was suddenly afraid of the dark and insisted on wanting her mother to stay with her. Gary however felt something more ominous had entered their home. Something he could not fight because he could not see it, he could not get to it and he could not kill it. This something was depression. The kids had not seen it at first. During the day Michelle was usually her normal happy self. As time wore on however, the girls had seen the first signs of Michelle's already developed withdraw.

Twice, Gary had come home early, unannounced to surprise Michelle and take her out for a night on the town. The first time she took ill very quickly and retreated to her bed encouraging Gary to sleep in one of the guest rooms to avoid catching what she had seemed to come down with. His attempts to care for her and nurse her were met with stern warnings and rebukes.

The second time she flew into hysterics claiming that the stores could not run them selves. That if Gary was going to be forever on vacation then perhaps it was time for her to run the stores, or if he was going to be at home to care for the children, then perhaps she could finally tour with Tidewater. Gary had gone back to work confused and hurt. His marriage was disintegrating before his very eyes. His wife, it seemed was going insane.

Michelle on the other hand, spent a year of nights weeping to herself for a love she had killed, or might as well have. She had done something to Gary she could now, not reverse. She had trapped him with her in an immortal and yes, damned existence. She told herself that she had been desperate. She had not wanted to loose him, not yet. But no matter what she did to rationalize her actions, she could only see accusing eyes. As a result she had done the one thing her deceit had been designed to avert. She lived in mortal fear of the day he would discover what she had done.

She wanted to tell him but she knew that the minute she did, the minute Gary found that he could never be free of the SKIN that held him captive, her marriage was over. She would spend the rest of her long life not only without him but knowing that she had sentenced him to the same loneliness.

The knowledge of her guilt was crushing her. She could not live with it and yet she could not die. She was spinning out of control in her mind and soon she knew that she would become totally insane with it all. So she started avoiding Gary. That move was worse than the knowledge of what she had done to him. Once started, however, she could not retreat from this path either. She had burned all her bridges. Fear impacted fear and she felt safe away from him, safe from the truth. When he was there, she always felt as if he was there for one thing, to expose her betrayal. Now separated from him, she could only watch from the opposite bank of that river as her husband looked on in pained confusion. Michelle could only hope she could make the admission she wanted so desperately to make. She knew however, she would never be able to face those eyes of his when they were filled with hate for what she had done to him. She loved those tender eyes too much to ever allow herself to see them filled with hate.

She had not wanted to go to Brazil. She would have to suffer through her guilt while he looked on in the same room they would share. When they arrived however, the landscape of the city distracted her from her worries for just a while.

In Brazil, Michelle understood at once that things were not as she had perceived. On arrival at the Rio Shuttle Port, the night had been cool and the lights had speckled the hillsides. A car not a HOV had been arranged for them. Rio's hilly terrain was not suited to HOV traffic so consequently HOV's had never been introduced on a wide scale. In spite of the new found wealth of world wide agriculture brought to this continent, a wide swath of Brazilian citizenry were impoverished beyond the imagination of anyone who had not seen the horror with their own eyes. The unwillingness of the residents to let go of cultural traditions and modernize had left the entire country of Brazil in more of a Third World state than it had been in during the first 100 years of the 20th century. Even Lima and Bogotá were now considered centers of world trade with large sprawling metropolitan and international cities and populations that were benefiting from modern industrialization. Rio had however, only been globally known by most of the worlds people for it's beaches and clear South Atlantic waters.

Here the thing known as the Barrio had never been taken down. The population of the area grew and modernization passed by to other countries that had agreed to cooperate with world leaders, leave behind their history of militant government takeovers and conformed to a more recognized form of doing business world wide. But Rio and Brazil still had it's charm and that's what Michelle had hoped would distract her enough to let her regain some of her old self.

As they threaded their way through the sea of cab drivers all of which seemed so hungry for the money they must have known the couple had with them, they drove the 22 miles from the Shuttle Port to the hotel past a limitless vista of hand built hovels and shanties that stretched for as far as the eye could see. These small shacks, one stacked on top of the other, as many as four high were horrible dwellings. Each one was poorly constructed of stolen cinder brick and scrap wood. Openings for windows without any protection from the outside day heat, evening cold or the rain. The upper floors rarely had roofs. Most of them were falling apart. Narrow alleyways wound between them and disappeared out of sight. The smell from the cities system of canals told Michelle all she needed to know about the Barrio's plumbing system. Dogs, chickens, cattle and even the occasional mule meandered about, loose and seemingly without pen or owner to either claim or care for them.

Everywhere there seemed to be confused young girls with hungry screaming children they would tend to. Rough and dangerous men, young and old hung from every eve, window and rooftop looking for a victim or a girl or perhaps some drugs. Wires that carried stolen power to homes drooped and hung from every available roof corner.

Even now that she could not see them clearly she wondered about the people that lived in each small square living space. The idea affected the way she looked without her even realizing it. As she looked out over the hills from the 12th floor balcony, her face became slowly drawn in a look of sad desperation. Behind her Gary was watching her slip deeper in to her depression.

Now, she stood on the narrow balcony of the hotel. The Atlantic to her left the Barrio in front of her. It was time now. He would have to make her see things for what they were. He was going to have to reveal a few secrets of his own.

He slipped up behind her and slid one arm around her waist. She encircled her own waist with one arm herself embracing his arm, tightening his grip on her. She inhaled deeply and closed her eyes. "Don't be afraid of me." He whispered. "You know me. I'm not going to hurt you. I love you. I want to know about it."

Michelle hung her head. She was caught, but she had known all along that Gary would see. She had not ever been able to hide anything from him since she had been changed into Michelle. She had never wanted to. She had tried, but only in the depths of her desperation to become Mike again.

"About what?" She hated herself for the defensive posturing she showed him.

"Let it go, Michelle."

"I can't Gary. It was all those hovels out there," she lied.

Gary rested his head next to his wife's and looked out at the hilltops in front of them. "That's not it. This has been going on for a long time now."

"Not right now Gary." she seemed lost for words

"I know, you're tired, you should be, but I'm not going to let you go to bed just yet. This is not a bed where you can hide from your problems."

Gary stepped forward and tilted his head down and locked eyes with his wife. Even in sadness and grief she was the most beautiful creature he could ever remember seeing in his entire life. He took her hands and gripped them gently. "We've gotten off the path Michelle. I'm lost without you." Michelle nodded, believing him.

"I don't know what I expect to find here. I thought it would be something, a distraction maybe, I -- I don't know." She turned back to the view of the hillside.

Gary brought his face closer to her. The smell of his skin was sweet to her nostrils. Why do I have to feel like this? I love him so damned much. Please God -- She could feel his breath on the tops of her breasts and she almost allowed her self to fall in to his arms.

"Please come back to me my wife. Please, I can't do this alone."

I remember those words -- Except last time it was you that said them. After what you've done to him, are you now going to leave him hanging too?

Gary now put his plan in motion. "I found something I want you to see." Was all he said. He stepped off the narrow balcony and back into the room. She turned to see what he wanted her to see but instead of getting something he grabbed his jacket and started slipping it on. Noticing that she made no move to follow him he stopped. "It's not here. We have to go out there to see it."

"I can't go out there Gary. I don't want to."

Gary went to her and took her hands, he looked into her eyes and asked her. "Please. I think this will make you feel better. Just come with me for a couple of hours, then we can come back here if you want or we can go home."

Without further discussion she followed him. A half an hour later they were at the Rio International Airport. The place was old and outdated with abandon antique aircraft littered about airfield. Only one hanger appeared to still be clean and sound enough to still be in use. Out in front of it was a restored 2030 Piper Sentinel. There was no one else in sight. The hanger doors were shut; in the distance were some ground base vehicles moving around the taxiways.

Gary was walking toward the airplane as if he belonged here. "What is all this Gary?"

"Just follow me. I'll show you when we get airborne." He said without looking back at her.

"Airborne?" she asked surprised.

"Yes." Gary confirmed. She ran to catch up with him. Clearly, this was another one of his gags to cheer her up but with Gary, one never really knew for sure. Their anniversary in Paris came to mind once again.

When she caught up with him she first looked in his eyes. It was hard because he showed no sign of slowing down. He was of single-minded determination, his face set and stern as he plodded toward the Piper. "Gary -- "

"Yes?" he finally looked at her.



"Because I want to see something -- Stop!"

Gary stopped, turned and looked at her. She stared deep into his eyes but saw no clue as to his intent. Maybe the transparency had affected his brain some how. SKINs were a strange technology. She was thinking once again of telling him what she had done. Now she might have to do it before he did something foolish. Something he may not even be aware he can't do. She tried reasoning with him first. "You can't fly that Gary, you don't know how."

Gary shook his head and made for the airplane again and Michelle ran after him. He reached the aircraft and climbed in and shut the door. Michelle ran up on the door and tried to open it. He had locked it from the inside. She pounded on the glass to get his attention.

"GARY! Get out of that plane. You don't know who it belongs to?" she demanded, then asked. "You don't, do you?"

Gary had already donned his headset and turned to Michelle who was jerking on the handle trying to open the door. Gary tapped on the glass to get her attention. Michelle looked up and shouted, "OPEN THE DOOR."

Gary pointed at the headset and shrugged apologetically indicating that he could not hear her and mouthed the word Sorry. He then pointed at the other door but Michelle animatedly shook her head no tossing her silky reddish-brown hair back and forth around her head. Gary shrugged again and started the Piper's engines. The engines roared into life blowing Michelle's hair and clothes all around.

Michelle squealed and jumped in surprise as the prop flew into life. She pounded on the window and shouted something at Gary that even she couldn't hear over the noise of the engines. The words were blown behind her and out on to the tarmac where they were lost in the wind.

Now terrified that Gary was going to actually try to fly this plane she raced around behind the planes stabilizer to the passengers side. There she found only one door about halfway down the fuselage. She tried it and it opened easily. She shouted into the plane. "GARY, PLEASE TURN IT OFF, I NEED TO TELL YOU SOMETHING." She could see the back of his head as he appeared to check the instruments of the aircraft. He made no indication that he had heard her. He continued with his work undisturbed.

She was convinced that the SKIN she had put on him had done something to his brain. She had to do something. She had to stop him. Michael's had said that it would be hard to kill some one in a SKIN like hers or Gary's but not impossible. She had a suspicion that falling out of the sky in a big heavy machine might just do the trick. She climbed into the aircraft and the wash from the props slammed the door closed behind her. There was an audible click from the door and Michelle knew that very second she had been tricked. She spun around and jiggled the handle but it was locked just as she had suspected it would be.

She moved between the seats behind the pilots left seat and moved into the right seat. "Gary, you're not well. Please turn off the engine." She pleaded.

"I'm fine. What I want to show you is up there. Don't worry and buckle up." Gary popped the break and revved the engine. The plane lurched from its stationary position in front of the hanger. Gary pointed the nose toward a taxiway, pressed a button on the yoke and spoke into the mic in the headset. "Piper Eight-Niner-Zero, ready for taxi."

A voice with a heavy Portuguese accent came back over the radio "Good morning Piper Eight-Niner-Zero. Piper Eight-Niner-Zero, cleared for taxi Lima Zero Five to Runway One Zero, Standard departure north on departure 145, cleared for departure to Sau Paulo. Enroute, contact Sau Paulo center on 137.4, "

"Roger tower, cleared for takeoff One Zero, standard departure 145 and enroute with Sau Paulo Center 374. Have a good morning and we'll see you in a couple of hours."

The Piper made its way down the taxiway and to the mouth of the runway. "OK Gary, I'm impressed. Please, let's turn around before you get caught stealing an airplane. This thing has to be eighty years old! It can't be safe." She had to shout to even hear herself speak.

"One hundred and forty years to be exact and fully restored. Beautiful isn't it?" Gary yelled over the roar of the engine.

She stared straight out the windshield and said glumly, "I feel much better, thanks." She turned to her husband as he pointed the planes nose down the runway. "Please Gary, give me just a minute to explain something."

"When we're up there." Gary said and pointed up toward. In the distance Michelle could see the top of Sugarloaf Mountain as Gary pointed out and above it.

"NO!" Michelle shouted and grabbed onto any projecting handle she could find as Gary throttled the craft up and the plane advanced down the runway. Michelle gripped with her hands, white knuckled to the dash and squeaked, "Gary?" in a meek and subdued voice that he could not hear.

The plane rose evenly and smoothly with the touch of a pilot with thousands of hours of flying experience. Michelle had her eyes pinched shut. She was lamenting herself for allowing herself to be tricked into coming on board. Her kids would be orphans soon and it was going to be her fault. After a while, however Gary had said nothing and she noticed that the ride was smooth so she dared to chance a glance around her.

What she saw was stunning beyond her imagination. You just didn't see this kind of detail on a JumpShuttle. To her right, before Gary swung the craft west, Michelle could see the ocean dimly lit from a thin band of orange that was just breaking on the horizon. She could see it slowly spread in length over the horizon of the Atlantic before her very eyes north and south. Gary saw that she had opened her eyes and commented, "Beautiful isn't it?"

"Very!" she whispered. All of her fear was gone.

"You haven't seen anything yet." Gary was vectored around to the west then to the south. Michelle squealed as the plane pitched to the left as Gary swung it around to the south. The Plane hummed onward. Gary hoped that he would be able to turn northbound again before this days sun itself made its debut over the distant eastern horizon.

In a short time the large mass of lights on the coastline of South America shone the way to the city of Sau Paulo. Gary skirted the enormous city and began the northern approach just as the sun, pregnant and red began to dance on the horizon. It bulged up and out of the ocean in a great hump, the lines of deep red to the north and south had reached out as far as she could see. The were a deep angry red at their outer most points and lightened to almost yellow where they met a now orange sun. As the sun broke free of the water, its complexion lightened and it pushed back the black veil of night across the western sky.

Now the line of light cast long shadows on the land, created by tall mountains that obscured greater valleys to the west. To the east of those long fingers of tall terrain were smaller ripples of mountain range after mountain range running north east to south west from the coast to the larger range west. Invisible in the dark on the southbound leg Michelle could now see plainly the rainforest laid out below her.

She was about to say something when a piece of paper she had not noticed fell from the visor above her head. She picked it up out of her lap and unfolded it. She read: "My Dearest Leese,"

Her heart froze, she was caught, really caught. This was the thing he had wanted to show her up here. Gary knew. She felt him looking at her. Her face suffused with blood as she blushed in embarrassment. She wanted to speak; she wanted to explain how desperate she had felt. How absolutely alone she was. That he was the only thing she could think of and he hadn't been there for her. That her head had been spinning and the time they had together had been too short. That none of what had happened had been fair or right.

She had just about found the strength to say those things when Gary started speaking.

"When I got shot, I thought everything was going to be OK for you and the kids. I really did. You remember I told you in the MediHOV that Erin, your sister had come to me. I didn't want to believe that everything you had told me when we finally got together was true. I wanted to believe that it had been the stress of learning to deal with your new body, your new life or even your hormones. But it was true, she's out there somewhere watching over you."

She was afraid to speak. He's going to get to the point an the point is going to pull out an emotional knife and it's going to cut my heart open when he says he's leaving me for what I've done.

"I discovered a few things -- " He continued but Michelle finally found her voice and interrupted him.

"Gary, before you say anything else -- If you'll just let me explain a couple of -- " Gary held up his hand and silenced her without saying a word. She slumped in her seat. That's it. I'm alone. I'm exactly where I didn't want to be. He's going to leave me.

"As our time together passed, the one thing in this life I was afraid of was living without you. If you had never come around in the early days, then I would have gone on. I would never have been happy but I would have gone on."

He suddenly looked about, "God isn't it beautiful up here?" He looked at her waiting for a response but she said nothing. To Gary she looked like someone waiting for an ax blow across her neck.

He blundered on wonder if he was going to be able to pull the pieces of this picture together for her. He continued. "Erin tried to keep me where I had gone after I died. I did die Michelle. I died and I went to heaven and Erin told me I would never see you or Beth again." He paused. "I was in heaven and I didn't want to stay there. I would have done anything, ANYTHING to get back to where you were."

Michelle was silent and brooding, miserable at what she felt certain was coming.

Gary paused and then ran one hand over the dash of the aircraft. "I wanted this," He gestured at the Piper, "to be a surprise for our anniversary. But I was a little inconvenienced being dead and all." He chucked but she only sighed a miserable sigh and started to curl into a little ball and lean against the window on her side of the plane.

Then a sight caught her eye. It was so stunning that she could not ignore it in spite of her fear and desperation. "Oh." She said surprised.

"Yes," Gary said. "that's it! That's what I wanted you to see." She looked at him and blinked, and Gary nodded. "That's right, you heard me." She looked back out the window. What she saw as a series of narrow crisp valleys. Some were filled to the top with what appeared to be flowing rivers of clouds. She could tell that these 'clouds' were very close to the ground because at the tops of the ridges that formed the top most limits of the valleys she could see the tops of the rain forest poking out. She could see the rivers flowing south toward more valleys in the geography below to the south.

Then Gary was speaking again. "My greatest fear was outliving you. It always has been. Then I aged and you didn't and at first I was grateful. I wouldn't live without you. I would go and then you would join me. But as I got even older you didn't age a day and my fear changed. I was afraid that I had led you to a fate where everyone you knew would die before you eyes leaving you totally alone. I didn't want you to be alone. Then something worse happened. I was still very much alive wherever it was that I went, be it called Heaven or whatever. It felt more like Hell without you."

"Erin told me that a sacrifice was going to have to be made. I thought she meant someone's life. Funny how people think in such narrow terms isn't it? She never made it clear what the sacrifice would be. Did you make it? Did I in getting shot? I don't know. I think maybe it might be Heaven though. I've never pretended to be a spiritual man Michelle, you know that. I've been there however, I know it's real so God must be real. He's probably pretty mad at me for some of the things I said before I was kicked out." Gary chuckled. "I think that the sacrifice was one you made a long time ago. I believe Erin was compensating again for your sacrifice by making sure we could be together."

"Gary, really, what does that have to do with what you wanted to show me and what I did? If you're trying to teach me a lesson or leave me or punish me for using a SKIN on you then you're only confusing me."

Gary sighed. "What did you see when we got to Rio?"

"Terrible suffering." She said.

"What do you see now?" he asked. She seemed confused. "Look back down there."

She did as he requested. Beautiful isn't it? His words echoed in her head. But it was Gary that answered for himself. "I see what you did as the most wonderful gift you've ever given me."

"What?" She was stunned. She had been certain that he was going to be furious. She understood too well how Gary felt about SKINs.

"I know how you see things Michelle. You tend to dwell on the details. You rarely look at things from any other perspectives. All you could see was your part in putting me in a SKIN. You couldn't see what was down the road. Same as the poverty in Rio, once you had seen it, it's all you felt that could be seen. Unless it was gone it was going to dominate your thoughts.

"This is what I see. I see a bigger, prettier picture. The details are still there. We'll deal with them when they come up for us to deal with. But for now, I wanted you to understand what I see when I think about what you've done for us -- for me.

"It's the same thing with me. All you've been able to think about is the small act of what you've done. Let me tell you that from where I was... all I saw was how did you put it, terrible suffering? I was totally alone without you. Even with others there, I was totally alone. I've never felt worse in my life. Not even being shot hurt more than the knowledge that I might never see you again. From here... I don't see all that suffering. From this perspective, I find hope and I have something to live for. And if I'm to live forever, then I can do that from this perspective."

Gary pointed down at the ground where to valleys divided the valley mist into what looked like a wishbone. It was the confluence of two valleys out of which flowed two streams of clouds into a single stem at the base. The vision was clear, it could be mistaken for nothing else. It was a wishbone. Gary said. "I had a wish once, a long time ago in fact. To find someone that could make me care about something, anything. My wish came true March 4th, 2081, the day you were born. Now I don't have to say goodbye to that dream, ever! I want you to make a wish now."

Michelle ran the back of her hand gently over Gary's rough unshaven cheek. "All my wishes have come true. I'm all out wishes." She worked hard to control the tears of joy. She didn't want to cry. But then noticed that this time Gary was crying. She wiped away several streams of water flowing down his cheek and asked. "What's wrong, Gary? Please don't -- don't cry my love, tell me what's wrong."

"Nothing is wrong. In fact everything is right. I just realized that there will be problems in living forever. I guess those are the details you're so famous for seeing, but for now all I can see is this -- " He looked down at the mountains that were clearly lit now that the day's sun had risen.

"For now, my life is perfect. Now I get to spend the rest of it with you."

Michelle hooked her arm into her husband's. She sat there in silence happy beyond her ability to comprehend it.

When she spoke much time had passed. "Gary?"

"Yes my love?"

"I have a wish." She said, peace filling her head.

"Please tell it to me." Gary asked.

"I wish we could stay up here forever?"

Gary checked the gages. "We have about two hours fuel left."

"That will do." Michelle whispered.

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On the first 21st day November, Randy sat in the JumpShuttle's first class tube and thought deeply on the change in attitude he had recently noticed in her. Her mood and behavior was of concern to him. Especially considering it had been some time since she had gone through what Randy had considered her confidence crisis. Randy's deepest sorrow was that he hadn't been able to share her anguish then. Now there was else something going on related to the SKIN and he couldn't tell if it was physical, metaphysical, emotional, spiritual or all of the above. Randy reasoned that with anything that could rearrange your molecules at such a basic stage as to physically turn you into another person, there must also exist the potential for error. Randy doubted there would be much medical information available to the general public. The government obviously felt it was doing a good job hiding the existence of SKINs from the general public. This delusion was supported by the idea that no matter how many public cases of what had in the last ten years been known as "SKIN contamination" were exposed, the government continued to deny their existence. If Beth were suffering the ill effects of some sort of genetic programming error then the best they could do, would be to treat the symptoms. There was reason for Randy to be positive. Of the two SKINs from the batch created for Michaels family, at least one seemed to be working perfectly and had been for over twenty years.

No, Randy reasoned that it was more likely that there was some sort of mental fall-out from the stress of everything that had happened the past year and a half. He allowed his mind to wander back to that time and he felt it was an amazing thing that they were all back almost to where they had been the day after Carrie had changed her.

His mind drifted forward to the beginning of the school year. Beth had graduated with honors at the end of her senior year. As September moved into Oct, she applied to and registered her credits to the University of Florida in time for Winter classes. If she plowed through a summer semester, she reasoned she and Randy could be on track to graduate together. Now the seasons were about to change again and Beth wanted this Thanksgiving spent alone, their first real holiday alone was almost on them.

She had started suggesting that they spend Thanksgiving together at the lake over a month ago. He was not put off by the idea of spending it without the families, in fact he looked forward to it, but had not committed to the idea. Their parents would be hurt. Although the idea was a pleasant one, the situation of telling everyone was one he was not looking forward to dealing with, so he procrastinated. Her suggestions had become urgent however as the Thanksgiving grew closer. Two weeks ago he had agreed telling her about his belief that their parents would be disappointed. She had surprised him by saying she had cleared the use of the house with her father months ago and had planned on inviting the families up the following Saturday. "I just want some time alone with you Randy. Some special time." Randy felt there was more to it however but didn't press.

The shuttle arrived seven minutes late. Beth was there at the gate waiting for him. There had been a fast kiss on the cheek and she hurriedly rushed his bags out to the waiting HOV, tossed them in with what looked like bags of groceries and a frozen turkey and then raced around to her side of the vehicle seemingly not wanting to get involved in casual conversation. She lifted the HOV into the outbound HOVWay and sped away north.

Beth seemed nervous and on edge most of the fight up. Her attitude stood in stark contrast to her excitement only days before. "Is something wrong?" he had asked finally after several minutes of uncomfortable dead air between them.

"When we get there. I explain everything when we get home."

"Home, that has a nice ring to it." He said smiling to himself. "A place where we can call home, if only for the weekend."

Beth exhaled a little, "I'm glad to hear you say that. It will make what I have to do somewhat easier to say."

Randy, now concerned, turned to Beth. "Should I be worried?" He noticed that she still wore the engagement ring he had given her.

"Not you... me maybe but not you." She tried to smile but what came out was more of a grimace.

"Well, talk to me..."

She turned to look at him. "Don't make me do this now, please. I want to wait when we are in a better place. I want... I want you to kiss me before I say it."

"Are we breaking up?" he asked her flatly. The emotion in his heart caused his voice to break before he could get the whole thing out.

"Oh God I hope not. I really do. Because if we are, then... well, There'll be no hope for me." Beth moaned.

"If the choice is mine, and it sounds like you think that it is, then I'll never leave you." he insisted.

"We'll see after I say what I have to tell you. I hope you're right. But I just don't know Randy." Randy fed the fingers of his left hand into those of her right. He tightened his grip slightly said nothing. Beth navigated the HOV for another half an hour and set the machine down in the old driveway of the lake house. There she sat for a moment, it seemed as if she were almost in shock, her hands folded in her lap. She stared out a the quiet serene peace of the lake through the hemlocks and did not speak.

"Well?" Randy asked and Beth turned and looked out the driver's side window, opened the door and stepped out without saying a word. Randy followed with his eyes as she went to the back of the HOV and began to unpack. Randy joined her there.

"So you're legal to fly now?"

"Yeah, Dad took me down for the test a week ago. How was everyone at school?"

"As far as I know everyone's gone home." Randy said with a smile.

"I'm sorry I didn't wait to come home with you. I had some things to take care of." Beth turned and collected her bag and his and asked. "Can you get the groceries? I'm going to put our clothes away."

"Sure," he confirmed leaving the issue she had tossed out there alone for some later time.

Beth took the small light weight bags upstairs while Randy made the three trips to the HOV to unload the bags of food, a turkey and other various grocery items including a small box, sealed with poloytape that sounded as if it had glass bottles in it.

Once the groceries were unloaded, Randy tried his best to put the items away and succeeded only in stowing what needed to be refrigerated. The locations for the other items were a mystery to him. Then a thought occurred him. Beth had not returned from unpacking. It was common place for people to come to their hideaways in the woods to find that there were squatters or criminals in their homes. Randy climbed the stairs in the dining room to the upper loft of the old house to find her and make sure she was all right. He walked down the hall and came to the Master bedroom where a wondrous sight stood before him.

It was Beth, she stood in a satin teddy. When he stepped into the room he saw her visibly blush. Then she said. "I wasn't sure I was ready for you to see me like this." She gestured to her self with her hands, hands that seemed to be having a problem finding a place to be. "After more than a year, can you believe it, I'm shy."

At first Randy didn't say anything. He took his time and allowed his eyes to wander over the girl that had dressed this way for him. When his eyes met hers again hers were pleading for a response. "God, you don't like it." she said terrified. She turned and began to search for something to cover herself with.

Randy crossed the room in three steps and took her by the shoulders and spun her around. "Don't you dare." He said and then kissed her passionately. She stiffened in his arms for only a moment, her uncertainty getting the best of her and then she relaxed. When he had finished she was more relaxed. "You're beautiful." He said to her. "I only wanted to look longer that was all."

"You wouldn't just say that?" she asked.

"Only if it were true," he assured her.

"I was just about to change back into my clothes when you came up. Then I heard you coming and I froze. I feel so exposed in this thing. The girl at the store said that you would like it. I wasn't sure." She smiled a weak and innocent smile to Randy.

"I do. More than that, I like the girl in it." He confirmed.

"Good. That's good because I feel like I have to do anything I can to keep you Randy. And I'm afraid it won't be enough once I'm done saying what I wanted to tell you." Randy raised his eyebrows and Beth said. "Yes, I'll tell you now."

"Most people, everyone in fact is born, lives and dies. In between we all find things to do. Most of us get married and have families. Other's have careers, some have both." Randy nodded. "This sounds terribly simplistic doesn't it?" she asked and Randy nodded again.

Beth exhaled a deep long breath and then drew in another again. Randy reached and pushed a lock of her long blond hair off her shoulder and away from her neck, brushing her neck with his hand as he did. Beth gasped with surprise and pleasure and closed her eyes to savor the moment. Randy smiled and allowed his hand to glide down the satin gown on her left side, his hand softly brushing the left most portion of her left breast. As his hand came to rest on her hip the reached up and held it there.

She opened her eyes and kissed him. Then said. "If you keep that up then I won't be able to finish what I need to say and you're going to be a father." She smiled and blushed again.

Randy smiled at the idea. Seeing the smile Beth added. "Oh, that makes you happy? The thought me stretched into an oversized basketball?"

"It makes me happy to think of you with our baby growing inside you." He admitted. She smiled and blushed again. "Now what was it you wanted to tell me?"

"Remember when I asked you to let me have that night, prom night? Not to ask why I was afraid?" Randy smiled softly and nodded that he did remember. Beth drew a deep breath and somewhere found the courage to continue. "Randy... If my Mom is right, then I'm going to lose you in the not too distant future..." Beth started and soon she had unraveled the entire tale to Randy. He had moved her to the bed where they sat side by side, hip to hip. There were times when Beth cried and became terribly upset, and then there were times when she became placidly calm and relaxed as if resolved to her fate and knowing how the future was going to play out.

She told Randy about her father's amazing recovery, most of which Randy felt he knew, and that it had been due entirely to a set of SKIN's Michaels had deposited in their home to make a mends for the mess he had created.

"And so about three months ago Dad gave me this." She pulled the polybag from beneath the pillow where she had hidden it. She held it in her lap, her eyes cast down at the bag her hands folded on it. "He felt it would be fair that you should be given the change to choose." Beth began to ramble. "I'm not even sure if mom knows about this. He just kind'a took me into his study and said, honey, you don't deserve to be all your life. He said that if I wanted," she looked at Randy. "then I could give this to you." She smiled a sheepish smile.

"What is it?" Randy asked curious.

"It's a... It's a..." she stammered. "God, why is this so hard?"

"Let me see it." He said but she wouldn't release it when he tried to ease it off her lap.

"Randy... it's a SKIN." Randy's eyes got wide at the mention of the word.

"Oh." Was all he said. Beth's heart sunk. It was not the enthusiastic response she had, perhaps naïvely hoped for.

"Randy, daddy gave me this so that we could be together." She waited. When nothing came she plodded on, hoping that enlightenment would sway him. "Mom says that as along as I'm like this, I won't get much older than about 22 or so." Again she waited. "Don't you see?" she finally asked not wanting to say out loud that she was in all likelihood immortal.

"I'm supposed to put that on?" he asked flatly.

"Only if you want to." She said still not looking at him. She fiddled with the bag, straightening out the wrinkles and occupying her hands.

"And what happens if I do?" He asked in a rather solemn tone that worried Beth.

"You'll be stuck. I won't be able to get you out of it and you will live... for a very long time." She said. Then added hopefully. "But we'll be together."

Randy smiled at her. It was a smile that broke her heart. She felt she understood his apprehension. "There's time... You don't have to do this right away. You can think it over." She was stalling for time now and she knew it. She was sowing the seeds of doubt just as her mother had. Giving him an out without walking out. She knew that she couldn't do this. If he had doubt then she should let him go and be happy that she had not made him suffer.

"Randy, you don't have to do this. If this is going to make you unhappy, then don't. I couldn't stand that. I couldn't stand knowing I had done something that had made you miserable.

Randy wordlessly stood. He went to the bureau and began searching for something. Beth was becoming more and more discouraged. "What you are you looking for baby?"

"My bag." Was all he said. He did not turn around to face her he just keep looking... "My things."

She almost could not speak. Her throat was so tight it kept her from breathing freely. She managed, "I put it in the other..." she choked, "...other room." He turned and looked at her, then wheeled on one heel and exited for the other room.

"Oh God." She whined. "Oh God! Oh my God!" her voice was small and pathetic. She rocked herself on the bed. The SKIN proposed for Randy to wear on her lap, hands clutching it. She was going to cry but not before she dropped Randy off in town. She would then spend the weekend up here alone. She would beg Randy not to say anything when she dropped off. She wouldn't be able to stand that. She would drop him off in Wilkes-Barre so he could take a public car. She would ask that he give her the time she needed to come to grips with this end. She would ask for her dignity and she knew he would give her that much.

Randy returned and stood in the doorway of the room. Beth wiped her face and said. "If you'll give me a moment, I'll get dressed and drive you to town."

Randy walked in the room and placed his bag on the dresser wordlessly. He unzipped it and began putting his clothes in the bureau draws. Still he said nothing. Beth stood and came over to him watching him curiously, sniffling and feeling sorry for her self. The polybag containing the SKIN hung clutched in on hand by her side. "What are you doing now?"

"I'm putting my clothes away."

"Yes Randy I can see that." She asked confused. "I thought..."

"I know what you thought." He turned to her and took her face gently in his hands. "But if we are going to be married tonight, then I should at least be given the privilege of sleeping with my wife on our wedding night."

"Married?" she squeaked.

"What would you call it?" he asked. He reached down and took the bag from her hand. "You look so incredibly beautiful dressed the way you are. I can't think of a nicer setting or a better outfit for you to get married in. If what you say is true, then we'll be stuck with each other. If I'm going to do this then I need to know that in three hundred years or so you aren't going to get tired of me and go after some younger man."

Beth's eyes were flooding, threatening to spill over the brims, but they were also bright and alive and full of fire for Randy. She threw her arms around him knocking breath out of him in her ferocity and zeal. "I'll take that as you'll keep me."

"Yes, I will. I do... Oh God I do, I will, I do, yes Sir. I do." She babbled.

"Then here. Hold this." he handed her the polypack and he began to unbutton his shirt. She watched in dazed amazement as he recited the standard marriage vows as he undressed.

"I Randall Benton, Take you Beth as my lawfully wedded wife." He dropped the shirt on the floor.

"To have and to hold, for richer for poorer. In sickness and in health..."

He shed his shoes, socks and pants.

"So long as I may live."

He shed his briefs and stood before her nude and humbled. "Your turn."

Beth took a deep breath. She withdrew the SKIN from the polypack and then began to dress Randy. "I Beth Shipley," She said and smiled to Randy. "Take you, Randy as my lawfully wedded husband." Randy smiled at the way she continually blushed as she spoke the vows. With each verse she would sleeve one leg or an arm until she was ready to place the head sleeve over his head.

"I promise these things for as long as I live." She said. Trembling she began to touch the then touched the two points of the contacts together remembering what Carrie had told her over a year ago in her bedroom. Her hands were shaking so badly she couldn't get the points to touch. Her fear of what she was asking Randy to do for her was getting the best of, causing her hands to shake more as the considered the irreversibility of it. Then Randy placed on SKIN gloved hand over hers and steadied her trembling. She was able to touch the contact point and the SKIN melded into his body as if it had never been there. They stood for a second in shock and surprise at how quick it had been. Then Beth smiled and said a little out of breath, "You may kiss the bride."

He swept her up in his arms and walked her to the bed. He was able to rip the covers from the bed with one hand and he gently tossed her on the mattress. She squealed with surprise and delight with the brief fall and he landed next to her and he whispered in her ear. "I now pronounce us Man and Wife."

"You did it!" she said amazed.

"Yes, because I couldn't let you go. Not alone, not down that road."

"What did you say?" she had a quizzical look on her face.

"I couldn't let you go in to the future alone." He smiled.

"No you said something about a road." She said and pinched his bottom.

"Did I? I hadn't noticed." He said and grinned.

"You really love me don't you?" The words came out in utter amazement as if she were just now aware of his feeling for her. "I mean you really love me. They're not just words. It's not just the body, you love me." She sounded to Randy like she still was trying to convince herself of this fact.

"Yes, I really love you, and now I will always there to do just that. I'll be there for all time because now nothing can take you away from me." Beth did weep at those words. She held him close to her and when she was done she pulled back and kissed him." After a minute of silence she said, "I'm not really sure what to do now."

"Oh I do." Randy said with a smile as his left hand began to slowly creep up the front of her teddy toward her breast. "Don't you worry, I know exactly what to do next."

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Thursday morning, Thanksgiving Day, Randy sat in the living room of the big old house. He felt no different than he had the night before when they had arrived. He felt like Randy. He caught himself stopping and trying to feel the SKIN he knew had changed him and was unable to. In the short time since his commitment to her, what he called their marriage, he worried that he had not been affected and therefore would not live as long with Beth as they both had hoped. Several times this thought had attacked him in the course of the morning. Only time would tell them if he had indeed, been changed genetically. He knew Gary had been. Hell, he had even been brought back from the dead. It was thoughts such as these that reassured and caused Randy to have more confidence in what had been done. No, he couldn't feel how it had changed him, not directly. In years to come however he would know that it was working. He had nothing but time now, time to be with Beth.

As he sat and thought, Beth made breakfast. He had offered to make the meal and let her get some sleep but she would have none of it. She would make breakfast for her husband on their first full day of marriage. How could he disappoint her? She seemed so happy and brilliantly lit as she woke and then as she went about her work in the kitchen. She wore the sweetest smile on her face. Randy could tell that she more than simply contented. He had tried to sneak in and offer to help and once she had even gone so far as to swat him on the rear end with a broom and tell him to scat.

In addition to breakfast she started the turkey for their Thanksgiving meal that night. The first of many to come, she took extra care in making sure that all the traditional elements of the meal were there. She prepared the stuffing, ignoring the ageless warnings and stuffed a well cleaned bird with her fathers, Apple, sage, sausage and cornbread stuffing. She set the old traditional oven for 350° and closed the bird up inside. She then served breakfast.

Breakfast was substantial. There would be no other food until the Thanksgiving meal and she wanted to make sure that Randy would not be hungry until right before that was served. Breakfast it consisted of a local cereal with peaches, some lightly brazed strips of seasoned beef, Roasted Rosemary potatoes, eggs, juice and toast.

After breakfast they both went for a brief and icy swim in the lake and then as the sun rose higher in the shy and did it's best to warm the day, they sat together and watched as a family of beavers laid in a store of succulent limbs and twigs for the upcoming winter. Beth was helplessly attached to Randy's arm. She followed him from the lake side to the hammock. Beth rocked him gently as he dozed in the early afternoon sunshine. When he woke, she babbled happily about everything and nothing, following him, touching him, pressing against him. She even planted herself on the arm of the couch outside the bathroom when Randy went there to relieve himself. She would talk and talk and talk and was only quiet when they both decided to take a long walk around the narrow foot path that circled the lake. The walked arm in arm peacefully, much of the time Beth would lean her head against his arm and she would just listen to the rhythm of his body as he walked.

At one point, when they were almost back at the house, the came upon a female Black Bear and her cubs. She was foraging and trying to feed her cubs before winter forced them into hibernation. Randy put his arm out to stop Beth and Beth let a small eep of surprise and then settled in to watch as the bears foraged. As the bears got closer it was clear the bears had not seen them and if they got too close the mother would most likely assume a defensive posture rather than trying to retreat. Finally, Randy coughed and the mother bear groaned in fear as she stepped between her cubs and Randy. Randy did the same with Beth, stepping between her and the bear. After a moment the mama bear saw her route of escape up the boulder strewn glacial field that had formed the lake. She turned, her cubs in tow and lopped up the boulder field and out into the deep Pennsylvania woods of the Pocono Mountains. Beth stepped out from behind Randy and looked after the bears running away then looked up to him and smiled. "That was beautiful."

"That was something all right. I've never been that close to bears before." He was out of breath and sweating.

"You need to spend more time up here then. They're all over the place. They come for the blue berries up here you know? You'll see next spring. The berries are everywhere."

"How nice."

"You weren't scared were you?" she asked timidly.

"Only for you."

"Mr. Benton. I love you so very much. You are just too precious to me." She leaned up to him and kissed him pressing her breast firmly into his chest. He wrapped his arms around him. Randy's hands explored the firm young body that was pressed to his and she began to squirm in his hands.

"What are you doing Randy?" She breathed.

"I would have thought that was fairly obvious."

"Not now, not here. Ohhhhhhhhhhhhhh Randy please..."

"Yeah right here, right now." Randy's hands worked her body over her clothes until he could feel the moisture of her desire. She buried her face in his neck partially from embarrassment of what he was able to do to her mostly out of passion. She bit at the skin on his neck. She whispered to him.


Randy looked about. Through the trees near the lake there was a small dock that jutted out into a small inlet hidden from the view of most of the lake houses. He lifted her and carried her through the woods and to the dock. "Randy, here?" Randy nodded and slipped out of his shirt and let his trunks slide to the deck. He knelt next to his wife. She understood that she was his. She could be no one else's. Her heart was so deeply entwined with his now she would never free it. She slipped out of her one piece bathing suite and loved him there in the golden November sunlight. Sun dappled explosions of light danced on the water all about as he entered her body and they joined and became one. The dock rocked with the fluid motion of their bodies. The water slapped at the pilings of the dock with this gentle motion. Her breathing was heavy and she clutched the boards of the small dock her own father had built one summer day when she and her sister had been children. The idea that she would be laying here, loving a husband as his wife was not even a remote possibility in those days. Those days had been filled with baseball and hockey and fishing. This dock, hidden from view of most of the houses on the lake was a special place. Now it held an even more special meaning for both of them. It would always be the place they would go to without fear of who might be watching to publicly undress each other with a modicum of privacy.

Randy clutched her and worked her body with one hand as he steadied himself with the other. She had received him last. The moment had been expected. Never in his life would he have dreamed of making love in public view like this, but there seemed no question of what they had to do after it had begun. He rocked her back and forth gliding in her with great ease and wonderful beauty. The friction of their love this moment impulsive and impetuous. The love of youth long denied and brought fully to bear once released. He exploded within her and on that day, on that pier their son was conceived. Beth would become a complete woman in nine months and one week to the day of this day.

When they finished. Both lay out of breath on the dock hold each other's hand staring up at a bright blue Fall sky.

Randy swallowed. "Wow."

"Yeah!" Beth said. She rolled over on him and smiled at him, her hair cascading down over him creating a blonde tent concealing his face. "I love you Mr. Randall Benton Esquire."

Randy let his hands run over her smooth body. His hands traced the contours of her thighs and legs and snuck in between her legs. She quickly closed hard on his hands and wriggled as he slide his fingers deeper between her legs. The warmth and moisture there was incredible although much of it he had deposited there himself.

"Don't start something you can't finish. If you're not careful, I'll eat you alive." She grinned at him.

"Hope you're hungry..." Randy said with a grin.

Then a look washed over her face. "Oh my God! Hungry. Randy... Dinner... we have to go... Hurry!" She leapt up and pulled on her suite, gabbed her towel and wrapped it around her waist and ran back out to the path. "Oh hurry Randy, please." Beth vanished down the narrow path between the blueberry bushes that lead to the walking path around the lake.

Randy was busy trying to pull on his shorts hopping about on one leg. "It'll wait... Hey, let me get my shorts on!" he was laughing. She wanted everything so perfect and what she couldn't see is that it was. "A little burned food isn't... Oooop!" Randy lost his balance and feel into the lake with a tremendous slash.

"Randy?" Beth burst back in between the bushes that lined the path to the dock. "Randy!" He was floundering in the water his shorts down around his knees making it hard for him to swim. "GLUG!" he exclaimed as his head disappeared beneath the surface.

"RANDY!" Beth screamed and dove in for him. The water was clear and Randy was not in that much trouble but he let her help him to the dock. Once there he pulled up his shorts and caught his breath while small brim and pickerel nibbled at their legs.

"I'm sorry." She said.

"What are you sorry about. I should thank you. You saved me."

"You were in five feet of water. You could have just stood up." She said laughing. "I just wanted dinner to be perfect. It's a holiday."

"The meal doesn't make the holiday my love. The company does. It would still be a holiday if we were stranded on a desert island someplace in the South Pacific with nothing to eat but bananas and coconuts to eat."

She smiled to him. "God you're wonderful. Why didn't I see what wonderful people there were all around me before?"

"Might as well be why you weren't born like this. We wouldn't have met. I feel sure of it and this way all the pieces have fallen into place." He said with chattering teeth. The water was chilling them both down. "What do you say we go see about your turkey?"

With teeth clacking Beth nodded her agreement and waited for Randy to help her out of the water. Once on the dock they held each other, rubbing one another to generate warmth. She huddled in close to him and let his body warm hers. His hands had begun to slow and were traveling to places on her that really didn't any help getting warm.

"Dinner is going to burn." She warned "And so am I if you're not careful. I'm just going to incinerate right here. Poof!" she said and giggled. His massaging became more deliberate. "Randy?"

"I wasn't done the first time." He whispered to her. "Where you?"

She bit her lower lip and shook her head. She reached up and removed first one strap and then the next of her bathing suit. "Slower this time. I want you to light me up."

Randy licked his lips and gently moved in to kiss her.

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The table was laid out in a traditional holiday feast, roast turkey, dressing, vegetables, mashed potatoes, cranberries, gravy. It was more food than twenty people could have eaten. Still, the room had a festive air to it. Combined with the crisp Pennsylvania air and the fact that it was just he and Beth in the house, Randy supposed that going over board this first Thanksgiving on their own was OK.

The food smelled wonderful and Randy was famished. It took all his self-control not to start picking at things. Instead he decided to make a call and see if something that occurred to him today would work while Beth dressed for dinner. It might be the only time he would be alone to find out.

Randy was hanging up the old analog phone when she came down the old kitchen stairs from the upstairs sleeping quarters. Black heels giving way to stockinged legs slowly appeared up the stairwell. Then the hem of a white cotton pleated skirt and high cut black shell. Randy had put on a pressed khaki short sleeve shirt and tan slacks, brown shoes brown belt. Beth couldn't help herself she gasped when she saw him. The outfit was tight fitting and crisp.

He smiled up at her as she came down the stairs. "You are beautiful." He sounded as if he were out of breath.

"Thank you. You stole my thunder though." She smiled. "You don't intend to dress like that at school do you?"

"Sure, why?" He said.

"I'm not sure I want you looking that good at those times when I'm not there to beat off the other girls." She crossed the room, grabbing the broom from the corner and taking a defensive stance in front of him.

"Got no interest in other girls." She turned to him and cast the broom to the floor.

"Good, Kiss me Mr. Benton." She demanded.

"I will then Mrs. Benton." And he kissed her passionately.

As their lips parted, a dreamy look came over her face. "I wish it were true right now. I wish I was your wife right now."

"You are." Randy insisted.

"No I mean legally. On paper." She corrected. Randy looked out the window to the lake, Beth watched him with causal interest. "Forget something out there?" she asked amused.

"Huh? Oh no... Just looking at how beautiful it is." She nodded. Yes, for many reasons this had been a good idea. Not just because he had agreed to be her partner through time but because they could share intimately their love, at least until their families arrived.

Hunger, the great equalizer had set in and Beth was beginning to get impatient. "Want to carve the turkey." She asked. "All that exercise made me hungry."

Randy bent and peered out the window again. She bent to follow his gaze. When he stood again he saw she was looking still looking. She turned her head up and said. "Pretty view." She smiled "If not somewhat difficult to enjoy because of the awkward angle."

Randy coughed and blushed. "Yes."

"What are you looking for Mr. Benton."

"Nothing!" he said a bit too fast and a bit too loud.

"Uh huh." She said under her breath. "Hey, I have a treat!" she said dismissing his odd behavior. "Wait here."

She scampered off to the pantry. There was the clink of glass, a muffled pop and she returned with two glasses of white wine in her hand. She smiled and offered on to him. He eyed here cautiously. "Oh stop. I know I'm not old enough." She said. "I've just gotten married. A few glasses on my honeymoon won't kill me."

Randy grinned and touched the edge of her glass with his. "To long life." He whispered and he kissed her.

"Nicely done oh husband of mine. Taking credit for that already." She asked and Randy broke out laughing. As he was recovering, Beth noticed something on the lake down by the long dock. She bent to take a better look. In the diminishing day light, she realized that it was a row boat with two people on it, a man and a woman.

"There's someone on the lake Randy, down at our dock."

Randy bent to see and exclaimed. "Oh good! Lets go they're waiting for us."

"Oh good, they're waiting for us? Who is waiting for us Randy?" Randy set his glass of wine down and then took Beth's and set it next to his.

"Come on girl!" he said taking her hand and running out of the house with her in tow.

Beth squealed. "Randy! Slow down, I'm wearing heels!"

But Randy did not slow much. They both ran, Beth following Randy, hand in hand down the great slope of the back yard to the lakes edge the spikes of her heals stabbing the soft dry ground of the yard. Only the straps around her ankles kept her shoes on. The dock, unlike the one on the far side of the lake where their commitment had again been consummated and their first child was conceived, this dock stood in an open clearing of shore line against the back yard of the old house. It was longer and narrower, T shaped to accommodate sailing craft that may wish to dock there.

Beth pulled up short of the dock. "Randy! I can't go out there with these!" she said angrily. She bent to pull off her shoes. "My stockings are going to get ruined in this rough grass." She lamented. "My feet are going to get dirty. What is up with you?" She straightened and looked sternly at him. Randy was facing her smiling, apparently unconcerned with her anger. Beyond him the lake and a strange array of lights on the boat that pulled port side to the dock. Beth leaned to the left and peered around Randy. The boat was lit by electric lanterns. Standing on the deck of what had looked like a row boat but was in fact a flat boat or barge was the Winter grounds keep, Harold Rawlings his wife and daughter. The boat was done up in white and yellow wild daisies around it's edges, there was an arch in the forward section of the boat. No one stood there.

Beth stood and faced Randy. "What's this?" she asked in a hushed voice. The grounds keeper and his family watched carefully but silently. Beth could see that the daughter, whom she had not seen from the house carried a bouquet of Autumn wild flowers.

Randy smiled a slow sweet smile. He moved in close to her and took her small hands. She was still trying to see around him at the boat and the people there and he had to maneuver around in front of her to get her attention. "Beth." He said to her trying to block her view and hold her attention. "Beth?" She stopped and looked up at him innocently. He said softly, "I'm not going back to school without having you as my wife.

"You're kidding me." she said flabbergasted.

"Does this look like I'm kidding?" He gestured back to the boat.

Beth shook her head unable to speak. Randy led her to down the dock and explained. "When I was here a couple of years ago, y... William introduced me to Mr. Rawlings here. He told me, as just part of conversation that he just felt better close to the water. That he missed being out at sea and this was about the closest he was going to get to doing what he really enjoyed doing since his injury."

Beth smiled at Rawlings careful not to say anything. She had to introduce herself to the Rawlings' and explain she was the Shipley's adopted daughter and that she would be using the house this holiday. Part of the Caretakers responsibilities are to make the rounds of the houses and make sure it doesn't look like vagrants have broken in to get warm or steal things. "Yes, my dad told me he had been hurt in a conflict off the coast of Cuba."

"Right, he's a Navy officer. A Captain in fact."

Rawlings spoke up, "Was!" Then smiled and was quite allowing Randy to continue.

"That's right, Was a Naval officer." Randy smiled back, "Anyway, I was thinking about this while you made breakfast this morning. When we passed the Caretakers house, I slipped a note in the door and asked a few questions and told him basically that if the answer was yes to all of them, would be marry us."

"The answers were yes?" Beth asked.

"He's here isn't he?" Randy grinned. "That's who I was talking to on that antique you call a phone when you came down."

"You did all this in just a few hours?" she said in amazement.

"No. They did." He said as he helped her in the boat.

Mrs. Rawlings took Beth's hand and helped her in the boat. "Good evening, and congratulations."

"Thank you." Beth said unbelievingly.

"Young lady. Welcome. Congratulations."

"Thank you Sir." Beth smiled.

"I should have made sure that this was all right with your parents first. I'll probably loose my job for this..." He said, then his mood lightened. "But you two look like you know what you're doing. Besides, if this is my last official act on the water as a Captain, then I couldn't have asked for a more important event." He said and smiled.

Beth smiled. The young girl, Kimberly stepped forward cautiously and said. "These are for you." She smiled and handed Beth bouquet of flowers. Beth accepted them with a smile. She was beginning to breath heavily. Randy stepped in and stood next to her.

"Are you OK?" he asked softly. She nodded that, yes she was fine but did not look up from the flowers. She could not believe this was happening. She was so nervous she felt she might get sick or pass completely out right there. "Take a deep breath." She did. Then he asked. "Would you rather not do this right now?" Again she said nothing, she only reached down and gripped his hand and shook her head. No she did not want to wait. Her shoes fell from beneath her arm and on to the deck of the boat.

"Is she all right?" Beth could hear Mr. Rawlings asking Randy. She could not lift her head. She was afraid that if she did the dream she had fallen into would disintegrate around her.

Finally she found something of a voice. "I'm all right. Please, please..."

"We go on?" Rawlings asked.

"Yes." Beth croaked. She finally lifted her head as the flat boat was propelled gently to out into the lake by a quiet electric motor controlled at the touch of Rawlings feet. Randy put right arm around Beth and took her one free hand with is left. Beth tried to speak several times to thank the Rawlings for all they had done. Each time she opened her mouth she would start to tear up. As the craft began to slow she became worried she would not be able to speak her vows. She wondered if she could wing it by just nodding her head. The thought almost sent her into gales of insane laughter and that helped to relax her a bit.

I'm going to be Mrs. Benton! Holy shit!

The boat coasted to nearly a complete halt. There was a moment of strained silence where it seemed no one knew what to do next. The crickets on shore were chirping and for a moment, theirs was the only song to be heard. They would not be out long. The nights were down right cold now. The night was frosty clear and when Beth looked up at the canopy of lights that were shining down on them from heaven she felt a calm slip over her. She would be able to speak and she knew she would speak with great pride and love. These were wedding lights. They had seen the marriage of millions of those in love and they, silent witnesses to many such proceedings, had come to preside over her own union. She felt unworthy in their sight but honored to have such reverent witnesses overseeing her marriage.

This was more than she could have ever hoped for. She had been so frightened that Randy would hear her fate, realize that she meant that for him and leave her flat. She felt ashamed at that idea. She should have known him better than that. She could have hidden it from him and he would have sought a way to stay with her. Her love for him grew exponentially at every turn. It was a miracle that her little body could contain it all. She stepped closer to him, trying to occupy the same body space as he.

Mr. Rawlings asked, "Are we ready?"

"I'm ready." Beth said in a strong voice. "Yes... I'm ready now."

Harold Rawlings smiled and said, "Welcome back."

"I'm sorry, I was just a bit overwhelmed." She smiled at the family facing them at the other end of the barge. "Thank you all so much."

"Ok... don't cry. There's too much to do right now for that." Mrs. Rawlings said.

"I try."

"Harold. I think you're up," Nancy his wife said.

Harold smiled and began.

"Dearly beloved, we are gathered here in the sight of God Almighty to bear witness to the union of this man and this woman in the holy sacrament of marriage."

There was a moment of silence, as if Harold were waiting for God himself to send his approval. At that moment Beth saw streaks of light darting across the sky. Beth turned her upturned face back to Harold with a smile.

"The union of to lives is not an institution entered into lightly. Nor will the road be forever an easy one. The future is uncertain. Only traveled together with love and understanding shall the road ahead be made smooth."

Randy and Beth looked at each other, each one wondering if the other had the same odd feeling they were receiving some half remembered message from some place.

"Having said that..." Harold turned to Randy and said with a smile. "Do you Randy take Beth to be your lawful wedded wife? Will you love, respect and honor her throughout your years together?"

"Yes, Yes I Will." Randy said. Above them the meteor shower was becoming a brilliant display of light and cosmic wonder. Nancy and Sharon, the witnesses were agape at the spectacle. Randy and Beth were ablaze themselves. Their love had them transfixed on one another. They were oblivious to the light show.

"Do you Beth take Randy to be your lawful wedded Husband?"

"I do." Beth interrupted then blushed realizing there was more.

Harold smiled and continued. "Will you love, respect and honor her throughout your years together?"

"I will" she whispered.

"I ask of the both of you. Do you promise to love and cherish her, in sickness and in health, for richer for poorer, for better for worse, and forsaking all others, keep yourself only unto yourselves, for so long as you both shall live?"

In harmony the both answered. "I do."

Harold touched Randy on the shoulder to get his attention and whispered, "The rings?" Beth heard that and a most distressed look came over her face. She did not have a ring for Randy. Her terror that this might some how bring the entire blessed event crashing down around them was clear to see in the lantern light. Harold turned to her after Randy had placed a small package in his hand. He set his script aside and opened the box for Beth to see. Inside, cradled one next to the other was a matched pair of wedding bands. Each one lightly engraved with delicate scrip. When inspected later, she would discover hers read. The Love Of Your Husband. His read, The Love Of Your Wife.

The tears were close again but she fought them back.

"Here!" Randy said suddenly, "We can't finish our vows without this first." He fumbled in his pocket for something. "I didn't get to give you this earlier." Randy said. He pulled a small black box out of his pocket. "I was trying to keep the parents calm... boy, I guess in retrospect that it might have been better just to have given you the ring. Can you imagine what they're going to do when everyone gets up here Saturday?" He said and chuckled.

Randy opened the box and there was a huge diamond engagement ring tucked down in the velvet fold of the box. Beth began to shake at the sight of it and Randy took her hand to steady her. "You want to wait until we're on shore before you put this on?" he asked her but she shook her head no. He removed the ring from it's box and allowed it to slip from his hand and he then placed the ring on her finger. He had not sized it and it was a tight fight. At last they managed to seat the ring. She held out her hand to admire it but in the failing light she could not focus on it well. She attempted to remove it to get a better look but found that it was held fast to her finger.

"It's stuck." She announced with an embarrassed smile. Randy tried to help her but it was not budging. She placed a hand over his in a defensive gesture and smiled. "Leave it, I don't want it off. As far as I'm concerned, it's just one more piece of proof that we are where we are supposed to be."

Randy smiled at her and then passed the marriage bands to Harold. Harold held up the rings and announced. "These rings are the symbol of the endless circle of love that enfold Randy and Beth. These rings are forged of metal so that circle becomes a bond. They are made of gold so that this love may enrich their lives and never tarnish and they are fit to fingers of their hand so that all might see they proudly wear this symbol of their unbreakable love for each other."

He extracted and hand Randy Beth's ring. "Place this on the ring finger of her left hand and repeat after me."

Randy slid the ring onto Beth's finger. There was a bit of resistance at the base of her finger. Both he and Beth pushed in opposing directions and with some effort and a bit of pain the ring popped into place snugly.

"With this ring, I thee wed." Harold whispered. Randy Repeated "With this ring, I thee wed."

Randy skillfully and accurately repeated the all the vows that were fed to him by Captain Rawlings.

The same ceremony was now Beth's to repeat. It was almost brought to a sudden stop when Beth, her hands shaking so badly bobbled the ring and almost lost it over board the boat and to the bottom of the deep cold-water lake. She recovered with a sheepish smile. "Sorry."

She slid the ring on his finger amazed at how fluidly she moved. She wondered at how amazingly good this whole experience felt. Was she that deeply controlled by this body she was living in? Beth found she didn't care. She had never been this happy in all her short life. It was the depth of that joy that so surprised her. To her it felt as fresh as cold spring water on an insufferably hot day. The contrast of what she had experienced before and what she was experiencing now was so different that she was having difficulty defining it. Though this whirlwind of thoughts and emotions she managed to flawlessly recite the last of her vows.

"In so much as these to people have pledged their love for one another and have consented their dedication to the other for as long as they both shall live and by the laws of the great Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and the powers bestowed to me by those laws and by virtue of the fact that we are on a boat... OUCH!"

Nancy jabbed him in the side. "You talk to much, get on with it old man. Can't you see they have places to go and important people to meet."

"Oh..." he stammered jokingly. "Sure. Ah..." then he smiled gently. "I know pronounce you Man and Wife." He paused. "Go on son, kiss her."

He did. He kissed her long and tenderly. When the kiss was done, both Randy and Beth locked in a stare that said more than words could ever have described. They were silent in the wonder of their love, in the reality of the moment, in the absolute magic of their touch.

Harold coughed in a vain attempt to get their attention when Nancy jabbed him again in the ribs. "Leave them alone, they don't want anything else but themselves right now. Can't you see that?"

"But they have to sign the certificate of marriage!" he whispered desperately.

Randy turned to Harold, taking a pause in the ceremonial kiss. "How about at the dock. I'll sign it there."

Harold nodded and was quiet. Father, mother, daughter watched as husband and wife opened a new chapter on a life that would see more in the span of history than anyone could imagine. Beth and Randy would live to see their children populate the world and drive death of humans into reluctant retirement. Their contributions to the human race would not only make exploration of other worlds possible but necessary. Randy and Beth would be among of the first eight thousand to leave the planet as extra-solar system pioneers.

When the small skiff came to rest port side at the edge of the dock, Nancy downloaded images from small pole mounted camera that had been mounted at the bow of the small boat. Nancy handed Randy a bottle of champagne and Beth a chip of images. Then Nancy hugged the bride and the groom, Beth hugged Harold and Randy shook his hand. Kimberly also hugged Beth and told her how pretty she looked. The Rawlings congratulated the couple again as Randy and Beth made everything legal by signing the marriage certificate. "I'll file this with the state tomorrow, first thing. Either way, it's legal. I sure hope your folks don't get mad at me for doing this."

Randy smiled. "Don't worry. I have a feeling that they would approve."

"Well, I hope you have a long life together." Harold said as he pulled the boat away from the dock and across the darkness of the lake. Beth and Randy exploded in laughter and they could just hear Harold say, "I wonder what's so funny?"

Inside Beth did her best to preserve the meal that would not be eaten until well into Friday morning. This time when they crawled into bed, it was to consummate the vows they had shared. Neither slept that night. Randy carried her to the bed from the doorway of the bedroom. For most of the night, they only touched. Their hands explored the contours of the others body, lips met in light sensual exchanges as they pressed their bodies close together. Neither wanting to rush a moment, knowing all the while that time was no longer their enemy. They could do this for months, years if they chose to do so and still have time beyond reach to do whatever else they wanted.

The made love slowly and gently, just as Michelle had advised, Take it slowly. The phrase entered her mind several times and she would smile and grind to a slower rhythm enjoying the sensations her body released to her. There were several times when she felt she would honestly go insane from the intensity of it. At the end, when both were out of breath, she wondered at how gentle she felt. Beth caught herself snuggled between his arm and body purring and cooing. At that moment she understood that her focus, her center was not on herself but it existed within him. She would do anything for him. Beth felt so overwhelmed by this realization that she almost fainted. It felt so wonderful to feel as she truly belonged to him, as if she were an integrated component of his life, a piece he could not survive without, an organ to his body that she wanted to simply crawl inside of him and just exist there. At that moment as she watched him sleep she understood why her mother seemed so submissive to her father. He was the strength she needed that would protect her from harm as Randy was now hers. She rested her head on his chest and slept peacefully. Beth woke several time, sighed with relief that Randy was still there with her and then she would return her head to its rightful place over his heart and she would drift off. In the years to come, she would wake constantly to make sure he was not in need of something in the night. If she woke to find he was out of water, Randy took a quart sized glass of ice water to bed each night, or if his ice had melted, she would get more water or ice for him before going back to sleep. Most of the things she did for him were kept in the background, made to make is life run smoother. Most of these things he would never see. Beth had the great satisfaction, however, that his life was made a bit easier by the things she did for him.

They both woke at 4:22 in the morning the day after Thanksgiving; starved. She started to dress in the teddy she had purchased to lure him into the SKIN he had so willingly entered into for her. It made her feel just a little ashamed of herself to think that she had felt she had to resort to such tactics with Randy. He stopped her and said. "You know, I like the way you're dressed right now." She grinned at him dropping the negligée and traipsed off down stairs to warm up something to eat. Beth had prepared a tray to take to him when he surprised her by showing up in the kitchen as she was turning to go up stairs. He was dressed only in a deep navy blue tie, a pair of black socks and his dress shoes. In his hand he had a pair of her four inch black pumps.

"What are you doing?" she asked giggling.

"I've dressed for dinner. Don't you think you should do the same?"

"Randy? Are you serious?" she couldn't control the laughter. Randy set the shoes down before her. He then took the tray from her and set it on the counter.

"I never been more serious in my life, well... I may have been more serious when I married you, but I'm pretty serious right now." She could tell he was working very hard to keep from laughing himself. She slipped the shoes on doubtfully but lost all apprehension when she saw the smile on his face.

In the course of the last year, she had learned what the touch of her hand or the feel of her breasts brushing against him could do to him. Beth had on many occasions seen or felt Randy's body react to her touch. She had always enjoyed the way her breath on his skin had raised goose pimples of excitement. She stepped close now, allowing one hand to glide down his arm and over his hip. Beth leaned in and gently touched his lower chest with the tips of her nipples and whispered. "Is this better? Am I more suitably dressed for dinner?"

Randy coughed in surprise as he became helplessly engorged. Beth could feel him dancing around the union of her legs and smiled a wicked smile, "I'll take that as a yes." She said in a sultry voice that very nearly drove him writhing to the floor. She then reached down and grabbed him and gave him a tender squeeze and kissed his mouth as he stiffened to the squeeze. "You sit. I'll bring dinner to the table, then we can go up stairs and have desert, again."

He turned like a soundless zombie and found the table and sat in his birthday suite and tie, a huge smile plastered to his face that was so stiff it might have seemed fake to anyone else. She departed to the kitchen to begin to serve her husband Thanksgiving dinner properly. He called from the small dining room, "Make sure you wash your hands! I know where they've been." She was taken so far off guard that she nearly dropped the turkey platter she was laughing so hard.

When she was some what recovered she brought the turkey in. "I carved part of it, I'm sorry. I originally thought we'd just eat in bed." Randy shook his head gravely but allowed a slight smile to break through. Beth happily served the rest of the meal and then waited for Randy to carve the unblemished half of the holiday bird. She then prepared his plate and handed it to him and then her plate. They sat and ate and giggled and drank champagne and wine until they were full and giddy. Randy chased her up the stairs careful not to rush her to much as she was still in her heels. They greeted the sun that morning but not long after, the day found them sleeping soundly in each others arms once more.

That is how most of Friday went and deep into Saturday morning. They stopped only once to put away the food before it spoiled, grabbing a snack and taking it upstairs where their love making marathon continued until they had once again exhausted each other. Neither Randy nor Beth heard Michelle, Gary, Erin or Shelly enter the house.

"You whoooo?" Michelle called.

"It's early Michelle, they may still be asleep." Gary chastised.

"Nonsense!" She playfully fired back. "They've gone for an early morning walk or something, around the lake probably."

"Yeah, that's what I'd be doing right now with my fiancée and an empty house at my disposal." Gary groused.

"They wouldn't do that. Beth promised me." Michelle assured. "They have separate apartments in Florida don't they? Besides, it didn't kill you to get up early did it?" she said.

"Mumph!" Gary grunted.

"See, just like I thought." She smiled and said and kissed him.

"Hummmm, more." Gary demanded.

"Yes Sir." Michelle smiled and kissed him tenderly and numerously on his lips and neck. Gary's hands began to wander about his wife's body

Erin coughed behind them but it didn't seem to have any effect on her parent's amorous behavior, but when Shelly giggled at them and said, "Yucky!" they turned a little surprised they still had an audience.

"Ah, Erin." Gary said. "Why don't you go find your sister and Randy, Tell them we're -- cooking up something for breakfast."

"Riiiiiggggghhhhhht, Breakfast. You two are worse than a couple of rabbits!" Erin said. "Come on Shelly, lets see if there are any blueberries or huckleberries left on the trail around the lake."

"Chuckle berries! Mmmmmm I love chuckle berries!" Shelly said pulling her older sister out the door by the hand. "Come On!

"I'll be hungry when I get back. All I can say is that I hope you cook something for everyone while you're at it." She said in a diminishing voice as Shelly pulled her toward the road around the lake.

Gary turned to Michelle and smiled. He found Michelle was already smiling and her fingers were beginning to slip down inside the waistband of his shorts. Gary chuckled, "Seems I'm going back to bed one way or the other."

"Yep! But if you think you're going to get any sleep then you're in for a rude surprise Mister."

"OK! OK! I'd better go scratch that itch for you before you become unmanageable." He said laughing and squirming around while she tried to get her hands down his pants. The two snuck upstairs and rounded the corner to the right into the master bedroom. They were snickering between them and cuddling when Michelle reached behind her and ripped the covers off the bed.

"Hey! What the he -- " A male voice shouted that scared not only Michelle who squeaked in surprise and ran and hid behind Gary, but it alarmed Gary as well who flinched backward in a defensive posture almost knocking Michelle down behind him. Randy rolled over to see who had disturbed his slumber, disoriented and groggy he tried to focus. "Hum? Oh, hi Gary, Michelle -- what time -- "

"Randy?" came a voice that sounded groggy from someplace behind him. Beth propped her self up behind him, "Who are you talking to?" She looked over his shoulder in time to see her mother's face drop in disappointment. Beth blushed heavily and tried her best to hide the fact that she was trying to hide.

Gary began to chuckle in spite of himself at finding Randy and Beth in bed together. He tried to hide his widening grin behind his hand and force the helpless smile into sneer. Michelle didn't think it was so funny and turned and dashed silently out of the room. The three stood in silence and listened as she ran down the stairs and out the screen door to the porch, then down the porch stairs. Gary could see her run the length of the yard and stop by the edge of the lake from the window at the end of the room. She did not turn again to look at the house, she only stared out at the calm lake reflecting the remaining gold and orange and red and yellow of the leaves of the November trees that surrounded the lake..

"You said you would tell her daddy!"

Gary looked down at his daughter, "I didn't exactly expect you two to be sleeping together, although I don't suppose I really knew what to expect." He said in a thoughtful tone. "I guess I expected you two to at least wait until there was a formal ceremony." Both smiled and held up their left hands in unison, "Oh boy!" Gary breathed as he ran his fingers through his hair in frustration. "You guy's aren't making my life any easier."

"I would have thought a congratulations have been in order. I made her an honest woman." Beth slapped at Randy's shoulder but grinned.

Gary looked out the window at his distressed wife and sighed. "All right then, I know you two did this the way you felt you had to, but Michelle is probably feeling a bit betrayed. She's going to feel even more so when she finds out what we did behind her back. Then... oh man, is going to feel hurt that she was left out when she finds out your married. That's a lot for your mother to have to deal with. She very sensitive you know. Maybe you've forgotten how guilty she feels about all this? I'll tell you something though, when she finds out that Randy's a user now too, she's going to feel responsible for that as well." Both kids looked miserable and that made Gary feel horrible. "Look, get dressed. I'll talk to your mother and then we'll have Randy's folks up and we'll all celebrate. Congratulations kids. I mean that, I do. It's just a bit surprising. I'm very happy for the both of you." he said and kind of shuffled his feet as if at a loss for something else to say and then said to Beth. "I'd give you a hug but I'd have to lean over Randy to do it and that's just... well, you know." Beth looked at Randy and snickered. "I'll ah... I'll be right back." Gary went down stairs and out the porch door.

Upstairs the Beth and Randy dressed and watched as Gary talked to Michelle who was clearly upset. Neither could hear what was said but both watched as Michelle became very animated several times during the conversation. At one point both could tell that Gary had told her that he had given one of the transparencies to Beth to give to Randy. They could see that what Gary had said was true. She had wailed "Oh NOOOO!" at the news of it and Gary had tried to comfort her but she would not be touched after that. Michelle had retreated to the end of the T shaped dock where last night the Rawlings' skiff had docked to pick up the wedding party. There she stayed arguing with Gary, fretting and pacing back and forth.

"I have to go out there." Beth said.

"I think you should let you father deal with this Beth." Randy answered without looking at her.

"I know you do, but sometimes it takes a woman's touch. Remember the garage?" She asked and kissed him on the cheek.

"You're never going to let me live that down are you?" Randy scoffed.

"You come down in five minutes and put your arms around me." She said and smiled.

"All part of your plan?"

"What plan? I just want your support then, it couldn't hurt." She said. She had finished dressing and left Randy with a passionate kiss. "Remember, five minutes."

"Five minutes." Randy repeated.

She left and Randy watched as Beth took the same path that Michelle and then Gary had take to the lakes edge. He could see Michelle just staring at Beth, her back to the window and then realized that Beth was talking to her mother about something. Michelle shook her head no and Gary, whom he could see looked flattered. Gary approached Michelle and said something, then Michelle looked to Beth who was pointing out to the lake. Michelle turned and looked out across the water. Randy knew what they were talking about. When Michelle turned back to the crowd, she looked up at the bedroom window and smiled. Randy could not see them but she had been crying but had now stopped. That was his que. He turned and slowly walked outside not knowing what to expect.

When he opened the screen door Beth was there to greet him with a big smile. What she said answered all his questions. She threw her arms around him and said. "Welcome to the family."

Excerpt From The Rouston Times Journal

We Bid Farewell

By Thomas Henry Walker

Dear readers, I am about to write a column of which I have no preconceived notion as to its length, direction or end. I'm frankly surprised I have the strength to set pen to paper and write the words; so to speak.

I'll start here. I cut my journalistic teeth thirty-seven years ago, on a story for my college newschip, The Rouston City College Citizen. I wrote it with a passion that must have gotten me noticed because it was not only the first piece of work I had done that the paper ever picked up, but it was also picked up by the AP wire service nation wide.

It was about the funeral service for a local hero, Michael Vello. At the time I was so overwhelmed with grief I supposed I poured my heart out onto the VID from my small dorm room that was, oddly enough, two floors directly over Vello's vacant room.

No, I didn't know him. I met him twice at a small club. Yes, it was the same club that collapsed the afternoon of his funeral. What's the point of this? I was hurt for Michael. His funeral was a crowning landmark event in a tragically short career that we found out later didn't have to end. I know I speak for all of us that in the days that followed the announcement of what many believe to be his violent return to Rouston we were shocked to find there was the possibility that he survived they years. I know we all still feel dismayed that no one has ever heard from him or of him again.

There came one to soothe and comfort us in those times of sorry. Michelle came and at every turn, as with Tidewater's imminent demise with the death of its founder she caused it to rise from the ashes as a Phoenix would and brought this band to heights I believe Vello could not have done.

When, again Vello was alleged to have returned home, it was the news that Michelle Shipley was his half sister that calmed us and caused us to let go of the shock we felt at this disturbed outburst from a fallen and disgraced hero, idol and icon. It was the idea that the Royal line had been continued and our home town had chosen the correct heir to his crown. She validated us. She belonged to us and still she was strong enough to say she belonged to herself and to her family first.

So it is with that same sense great of loss that that I experienced that late spring afternoon almost thirty-eight years ago that I'm here today to report the passing of not one but two local celebrities, heroes and beloved family members of our own community.

Yesterday afternoon, one hour after purchasing an antique ground-based HOV; while returning with the vehicle, the Shipley family was involved in an accident that is believed to have claimed the lives of Gary, Michelle their adopted daughter Beth and her husband and inventor Randall Benton. As of this hour, the bodies have not yet been recovered from Black Water Harbor where the vehicle left the road.

My inclination is to stop writing. Right now, just stop. My career was born of a connected tragedy. Like Mark Twain taking his exit cue from Haley's Comet, that bright shooting ball of ice he had also been born under, I feel that after I have said collective good-byes for all of us, I think that yes, retirement would be a good thing. After all, has not the bright and shinning star set on this legacy?

I know I'm making more of this than I should. The Shipley's had it well. But I believe that after what Gary had been put through, the peace they were given as a family was small compensation for the price we exacted for their reluctant fame.

He was after all, accused twice of murders that in reality had never happened. It was the murder of his best friend that we, as the people of the state, accused him of. If that were not enough of a cross to bear, we then turned around and at what must have been arguably the hardest moment of his life, and we did it again! We accused him of murdering his own son. This time the death was a real one, albeit an accident. We shot him and left him for dead in a cooler in a morgue. Only his overpowering love for his wife kept him from crossing over the river Styx.

Did we treat Michelle any better? No, I fear we didn't. We offered a barrage of insults and demands when she decided, rightfully so I might add, to seek a life with her family instead of turning to the lights of a stage as an act on tour. We have such disdain for those that choose a career or a life apart from family for those professionals that have chosen to have children. However, when we desire the company and talent that person has, and they have the audacity to dash our desires against the rocks that are their families, we shun them and attack that decision as if it were meant to impugn us.

I had the privilege of knowing both Gary and Michelle as friends. I know first hand that Michelle was the most loving woman it has ever been my pleasure of knowing. If she was in love with something more than her husband then I don't know what it might have been; unless it was life. She had an infectious smile and a wonderful wit. Her heart was always aglow and the only time I ever saw her sad or upset was during that turbulent period shortly after the death of her son William and the shooting of her husband. But so in love with life was she that after her husband's recovery, she was more like her old self than ever.

Gary had told me recently that his passion for motorized vehicles had grown by leaps and bounds. He had acquired a pilot's license for, of all things, fixed wing light aircraft flight. He also started picking up old vintage gasoline powered vehicles and driving them around town. These were not the motorized cars from the 1960's and 1970's. No, these works of art were the classic chromed, leather and wood beauties from the 1920's and 1930's.

Gary decided to add at 2074 American Barra to his collection. It is with a sense of irony that I report that this is the same ground cover model HOV that Mike Vello's sister and Michelle Shipley's half sister was driving when she was killed in much the same manner not more than a mile from the very spot of the Shipley's accident. This time however, there was only one vehicle reportedly involved in the incident.

The antiquated displacement jets made over water travel impossible and eventually, were outlawed and replaced with the newer thrust jets we use today. For this very reason, you can only get a Barra with a special operators license. Most Barra's have been destroyed making them that more attractive to collectors and I suppose Gary was not immune to the lure of owning a rare piece of history.

In the end there's not much more to say. The hope of a Tidewater reunion is gone for good now. I'm beginning to understand how fans of such bands as The Beatles and Star Caster must have felt to see the music they loved so much break apart from within; with that ever-present hope of a reunion looming somewhere in the future. Then, to have it destroyed by mortality before their very eyes seems an insult more hurtful than any other. That other incarnation of Tidewater, the one with Mark Allen at the helm was not Tidewater, I'm sorry, I simply didn't like them very much.

What made us love them so? They were, because of the distaste for fame, accessible. Anyone that has ever eaten at The Red Fish has met Michelle and has watched Gary perform his own kind of floor show from behind his open kitchen serving bar window. It was this accessibility that made them real and lovable to us.

I suppose they could still be found alive, swept down stream or out into the harbor. They could! But my heart tells me that it's been almost twenty-four hours, the harbor is not that big and if someone were left to swim to shore it would have happened already. No, I know they are gone. I can feel it in my heart. There is a hole there where I once kept my friends the Shipley's.

I did speak with their oldest daughter, Erin Jackson, this morning and offered my condolences. She was understandably distraught but wanted to convey the idea that her parent had lived a charmed life. They had found endless love in a world where love for five minutes is often hard to find. The lived, loved and enjoyed all the benefits of life and freedom. They had dear friends that they loved and that loved them back. Not a bad deal over all.

Erin also told me that she was going to keep the Restaurants open and expand the business, choosing her mothers route of family over a career in music, she announced that she will resign from her own band Porcelain Heart. Her husband will operate and manage the business in the stores in the Federal United States with her family (Erin and her sister Shelly Shipley) maintaining ownership for future generations of her Mother and Father's family. Erin said that Shelly was flying in from France to be here with her sister. She manages the European stores and I have not yet had a chance to offer her my condolences. She concluded by adding that no one should be sad. They all had a wonderful life and lived it with the great enthusiasm for the time they were allowed to. That is all anyone can ask.

I have spoken little of Beth and Randall Benton, but it is only because I new very little of them. I had met Beth on several occasions but as a young woman, she was rarely around the Shipley home when I was there. She was more often than not in the company of her won family. On those occasions when she was on hand, usually at parties or special events that I had been invited, she was as pleasant and care free as her adopted mother. Bethany Wright Benton was a graduate of The University of Florida, with a Masters in Marine Biology. Randall, was the son of wealth Grocery Store magnate Samuel F. Benton. Randall was a graduate of The University of Florida and then earned a Doctorate in Micro-Electronics from MIT and opened a small company fostering inventors and their creations. Randall's own version of contained Artificial Intelligence robots is still in the experimental stages but show great promise as domestic labor. They are survived by five children, two boys Gary Alan Jr. Age 17, Terrance (Teri) Michael Benton, age 14; and three girls; Michelle Donovan Benton, age 15; Kimberly Robin Benton, age 12; and Sharon Katharine Benton, age 9.

So with that, I'm retired. This is going to be my last article. I can't believe I've just this minute made the decision to go. I will submit this article today and go home. I will not come back to work tomorrow. I'm done. My own Haley's Comet has just appeared in the skies above me and I must find the time now to do what Michelle taught me to do without ever knowing she had. I will now take my last opportunity while I have your ear, to try to teach you as hurriedly as I can because time is suddenly very short. Take the time to be with your family while you can. One day may bring a change to your life that you didn't expect and it all might be over before you can say goodbye. I feel melancholy but satisfied, like I too have lived life with great enthusiasm, and now, I can hear my family calling me softly to come home to them. To go and spend some time with them before that change can sweep all I love and have worked so hard for away. I think Michelle knew what she was doing when turned her back on the spot light and turned instead to her family.

I promise, I will say goodbye to them for us all.

The woman with short blonde hair put the news transparency down on the wrought iron table next to the chair she sat in. It was now eight months old but she had to get up and read it each day, just as she had her first morning here.

She stood and listened to the sounds coming from Jackson Square below her and from the outside seating area of Café Du Monde to the southeast. Some where off in the distance there was jazz playing and the sound of the brass horns made her smile. New Orleans was an amazing city. All around were people in the street doing a variety of things to start the day. In a town that never really slept, it was the start of a new cycle of sleeplessness. Here and there were people carting crates of produce, boxes of wine and other consumable items that required restocking in the restaurants and bars of the French Quarter. One or two men were washing down the sidewalk to the entrance to their restaurants or bars. The venders out before the iron gates of Jackson Square were hanging paintings and drawings and preparing for the throngs of tourists that would crowd the streets later in the day. Tourists with hand held VID cameras were posing in front of a shop some where below her. The camera operator looked up and saw her looking down from her balcony on the corner of Chartres and St. Peter streets. She smiled and waived and the man with the VID took her picture.

The day was already hot at 9:00 am. She didn't know if she was ever going to get used to this kind of heat. She stepped to the side of the black ornate wrought iron rail. She bent for her watering pale and began watering the ferns that hung from the floor of the balcony above her. They lived on both the second and third floors of the building, she would have to go upstairs and water those ferns as well later this morning.

Her boyfriend, Marshall, had earned a reputation in New Orleans as an up and coming chef. Talented beyond his years and creative to the point of intimidation he was fast becoming the talk of the New Orleans dining set. Dishes such as his masa battered yellow fin snapper with yellow tomato and tomatillo sauce and roasted corn and pepper chutney were lining people around the building at the New Orleans branch of The Red Fish that had hired him cold after seeing a sample menu and testing and tasting his abilities.

His skills were currently being courted by no less than six popular and well established restaurants and it was becoming worrisome to the staff of the New Orleans store that they might loose their red-haired star if they didn't make him head chef. To this point there had been no twenty-three year old head chefs since the founder's son had taken the position two years after joining the staff in 2081.

Behind her, her boyfriend stepped out with a cold drink in each hand. She heard the ice dancing against the side of the glass and turned and saw him and smiled. "Oh good. Thank you." She spoke with a sweet but pronounced southern accent as she reached and took one of the drinks he offered and took a sip.

"Mmmmmm, cold." She bent her head back and touched the cold glass with its refreshing condensation to her neck and ran it slowly around her neck and face. Her man slipped in behind her and put his arms around her waist. She wore his favorite outfit, a red, nearly sleeveless T-shirt with a white pair of short-shorts. The weather was perfect for it. His hand ran over her hips that were clad in tight white shorts and over her round firm derriere, tracing the zipper that ran up the back of the shorts and disappeared under the girl's T-shirt. The girl smiled and again she bent her head back and gave him access to the soft and supple skin of her neck. Marshall bent and gently kissed her neck and she reached up and took the back of his head with one hand and plunged her fingers deep into his shock of rich red hair and press him into her neck.

When at last he sufficiently aroused her he lifted is head and looked on the New Orleans morning. He took a deep breath and exhaled.

"You'ah not done!" insisted the sweet southern flower.

"I'm hungry." He stated.

"Me too but not for beignets." She said with a smile and reached behind him and pinched his buns.

He looked across the square, "Café Du Monde doesn't look that crowed this morning."

She shook her head. "Too much sugah for me. How about Johnny's? Some bacon and aggs sounds good."

"And grits?"

"Ah still don't know what that stuff is and until Ah figure it out Ah'm not eatn' it." She said with her arms crossed in a suborn stance under her breasts. She turned stared out at the living Quarter, pouting.

"A southern girl that doesn't like grits. Shameful!" he mocked her cute accent.

"Don't tease me. This is your doin'" she said with a smile.

"Yes Miss Scarlet!"

"Ah told you Mahshall, don't you tease me. Ah didn't want to sound like this way and you know it."

Marshall winced, "I can't believe I let you talk me into that name."

"It was ah fa-ah trade." She insisted. She was struggling to diminish her accent as much as she could, resisting it, trying to form her words as she had before.

"How do you figure that?" he asked.

"Well, Ah'll tell you. Ah had no idea what Ah was gettin' into when Ah let you talk me into a memory implant."

"How was I to know it was irreversible?" Marshall chuckled.

"It's not funny. Ah sound like a hillbilly."

"No you don't. You sound sweet, charming even. You have the sound of sweet Southern Bell. It's all part of the new identity. My little Miss Daisy Mae."

She turned to look out at Jackson Square. Already, the foot traffic in the square was heavy with tourists. To her right, the Natchez, a paddle-keel that ferried tourists up and down the Mississippi river was just getting underway with a loud blast of her forward steam horn. On her left, tourists were streaming in and out of the Cathedral of Saint Louis and the museum of New Orleans.

"Ah'm home sick." She said sullenly.

"Me too." Said Marshall. She took a deep sip of lemonade, and he asked. "Are you really still mad about the accent?"

She turned back to him and smiled, "No, Ah think it's cute. What girl doesn't want to be like Scarlet O'Hare? I was scahed at first. When he said he couldn't reverse it. It's just so different. Ah'm learnin' to get used to it." she stood back and wiped her hand across her forehead and cried. "And Ah swear, I'll nevah be hungry again!"

Marshall applauded and chuckled, "Very good, worthy of an Academy Award."

The day before they arrived here, three days after the "accident" in the Barra, Michelle and Gary Shipley had stopped in Baton Rouge and purchase the services of an alterations specialist. Using legal body changing technology, these "alterations specialists" can temporarily or permanently change mannerisms, hair; eye and even skin color and speech patterns along with a host of other external personal attributes. Changes are supposed to be reflected in a person's current CITREG record but for a considerable price, one could use this service to vanish. It was a perfect arrangement for both. The specialist is bound to his secret of identity by penalty of death for illegally modifying or manipulating the CITREG or the registered individuals contained within. The altered party bound by hiding their true identity, an offense that carries a similar penalty.

These changes were made one of two ways through gene splicing and memory implants. Memory implants can be made to be temporary or permanent and are used to modify learned behavior. Since these implants kill and replace previous learned behavior, the previous behavior must be captured and kept digitally in order to restore it. The next method used by these specialists is genetic splicing and was permanent, at least for now. Who knew what the future would bring.

The man had a thick middle-eastern accent and dark olive skin. "Please, sit!" he asked the woman with the lovely face and stunningly shiny auburn hair.

The arrangements had been made covertly; the Shipley's needed to disappear. A hand full of people knew what was about to happen. In time all those people would be dead taking this secret with them. No insurance claims would ever be field. No fraud would be committed. The Shipley's would take what they had and cash out. The children would be left and the business was assured to remain in the hands of relatives of Erin and Shelly's choosing.

Now they were there to change their appearance, necessary only because of their celebrity. Michelle bemoaned the idea; blaming herself for their fame, which Gary thought was understandable, if not a little vain. "Hon, if you hadn't noticed, I haven't done too badly either. Eight five restaurants in forty countries ain't bad."

She understood and apologized but Gary wasn't looking for an apology, he had wanted only to put her mind at ease. This was not her fault not alone; there was enough responsibility to go around. At the end of the day what did it matter anyway, they were together and able to stay that way. Michelle agreed.

Michelle had sat in the man's monstrous chair she understood that her accent was about to be changed, replaced with that of a woman from Georgia. "Ok, but only a mild accent." She sat and tried to get comfortable. He swung a huge steel needle on a boom toward her head and she was afraid at first that he was going to pierce her head with the harpoon like device but before she could protest he pressed a button. A series of small lights flashed down the side, there was a small chirp from the machine and the man said. "Okie dokie! One wild accent." There was a small click from the Behavioral Replacement laser and before Michelle could say, Wait just a cotton-pickin minute, the deed was done.

"Wild accent! Ah said miiiiild accent." She clutched her throat. "God! Listen to me." It came out sounding more like "Gawd, lasten to may!" She had developed, instantly a soft but thick southern accent that she could not defeat. It seemed the harder she tried the worse it got until she indeed began to sound backwoods and country. If she didn't fight it however, she sounded quite refined and sweet.

"Undo it! I demahnd you fix this Sur, Raght now!"

"I am very sorry, your husband made choices. This one and his are permanent."

"Whoa, I never said anything about permanent. Reverse that, tone it down if the lady doesn't like it."

"I'm very sorry, it is done. Protected by a psych block. If I try to overlay it, who knows what will happen? You may become mute."

"Oh Gawd, Gary." He held her but in shortly she was comforted. "Ah wonda if Ah can still sang." She groaned at the sound of her voice. "You have to do somethang, please," she begged the man.

In the end he could do nothing. He changed her hair color to a rich golden blonde and her eyes to a deep royal blue. It would take two weeks for her hair to fully change. When it did, combined with the voice it made her think of all the girls she had seen on VID of characterized as stupid bimbos and brainless southern blondes. Her beauty was still there, but she looked so different to herself that it was once again like being trapped in someone else body.

For Gary he gave him red hair very fare skin, a few freckles and slate gray eyes that when Michelle first saw them she was absolute memorized by their beauty. Gary was given a captured memory implant from a Scottish national and along with a mild Scottish accent; he was given a working understanding of the Gallic language.

The man made entries for them in the CITREG. Beth and Randy had a similar procedure done for them but the decided to go and live Paris to be close to Shelly. They had been entered as visiting French nationals with family in the Federal States. They had arrived in Paris hours after the staged accident. They, at least were safe and near family.

Gary and Michelle didn't want to leave the States. Now here in their flat in the heart of the French Quarter, they were beginning a new life together. She was now Jennifer Holmes. He had promised to adopt the name Marshall McCellan. As the man who had wanted to be known as Omar finished his alterations and altered the records of two deceased residences of Colorado bring them back to life in the form of Jennifer and Marshall. When the process of entering their vital data Michelle stopped Omar.

She turned to Gary who's eye's had already gone gray, and asked him. "Ah want to do somethang heah. Do you trust may?"

"Of course I do."

She smiled and kissed him. "OK than." She turned back to Omar and asked him to enter their material status as single.

He started to say something but before he knew it, Omar was done and her record was gone. She turned smiling to him but he was confused and hurt. "Oh honey." She said placing her palm on the side of his face. "It's OK, Ah promise you."

He said nothing; he nodded and offered her a weak smile. The look was heart breaking to her and she wanted to ask Omar to change it, to make them married again but Gary was hovering over the screen and she heard him say the word, "Single." Her heart froze. Ok, it was a bad idea! But like her accent, it was done, she new Omar would not risk an edit of the saved record. She was a single woman again.

Marshall turned to her and with the sting of hurt and sadness in his voice, "Well, we're single again. I guess it's better than a divorce." It crushed her to hear it. It was not like Gary to employee sarcasm and she wanted to scream in agony. She supposed she deserved to feel this way it had been her stupid idea. She had hoped he would understand that she wanted him to propose to her again, to woo and win her all over again. She had not anticipated hurting him.

Outside as they climbed into their new economy class HOV, she was silent. She wanted so say so much, to apologize, to explain but she was at a loss where to begin. After twenty minutes, with the lights of New Orleans in the distance she spoke up.

"Gary, Ah want -- "

"It's Marshall now, and I think it would be better if we not talk about it."

"Oh mah Gawd." She moaned. "Please don't be -- "

"It's alright Jen. I know why. If we talk about it, if say it out loud then it won't be as much fun. I was a little hurt; I admit that. But I'm excited now. So let's not talk about it."

She smiled, happy he was not upset any longer. She however was not so sure. She knew that no one really just gets over things like that. He had been hurt by what she had done. That was something that she hadn't done in a long time.

Recognition of her new name put a smile on her face. That's me; I'm Jennifer Holmes, I like that name. I really like it. It's not good as Jennifer McCellan, not yet. But soon!

After a bit time had past and they were preparing to set the HOV down in a parking lot near St Louis and Decatur Streets he for the last time used her first, true name and asked. "Michelle, I need to know something."

"Ah'll do mah best to give you an honest answer. What do you want to know?" To her the request sounded grave and serious, perhaps he was more upset that he had led her to believe.

"I know this is going to sound so strange after so long, but I have to know. Do you have any regrets, coming back? I mean, you had the chance to free of that SKIN, to be Mike again." He did not look at her. It was his old cross. The same heavy, burdenous thing he had carried since that weekend thirty-seven years ago.

"How should Ah ansur that? Ya know that mah life was over when ya got shot and died on may Gary. It was truly ovah. Ah realized that Ah had lost so much moar than just a husband. I keep thinkin' about all the thangs you and Ah had been through, not so much the places we've been to, not in that ligaht anyway but the way you had used those places to make me feel so wonderfully loved. Even when Ah was Mike agahn, mah heart would turn to all those special moments and I knew that Ah was still in love with you. That Ah would nevah be happy agahn if I didn't find a way to get back to yoah arms."

"No, theah are no regrets this time mah love, Ah did what Ah did because this is wherah Ah belong. Beside you."

"You didn't feel the desire to stay as Mike."

"Gary, you and Ah have been friends nearly all our lives. Let me ask you a question now. Why do you love me so? You rarely dated before Ah was changed. The girls you did see thought you were eithah a most special person or a weirdo. Then along comes me and you fell head over heals in love with me. SO much so in fact that even when Ah claimed Ah wanted nothing to do with you, you held fast and made me see that Ah loved you too. So why Gary, what did I ever do to deserve such love?"

"I've thought about that for a long time. I didn't ever expect that you would actually come out and really ask me." For a while they just sat there in the dark of the parking lot on the edge of the French Quarter and watched people walk past the HOV. Then without warning he began speaking. "The games that most girls played were more than I could keep up with. I'm not a very smart person, not like you were. You seemed to know what that unspoken meaning was. You know what I mean? There is a game of words that goes on when two people are trying to figure out what the other one is looking for. I was never any good at that. It made me feel stupid when I tried it and failed. Worse, it made me look rude when I didn't even try to play that game. It was something I was never able to figure out. I guess I just couldn't speak the language."

Michelle nodded. The games of the courtship dance were confusing, but they were confusing to most everyone. She had understood, all too well when they had been just friends that Gary didn't like looking foolish or feeling foolish. He had always carried a great deal of pride around with him.

"Anyway, you were the only one I knew that didn't make me feel stupid. In fact quiet the opposite. You were always very patient with me, encouraging me to try things I never believed I could ever really do. You were and still are my very best friend. I wanted a girl like that. I wanted a girl that wouldn't look at me and think she had to manipulate me to do things or get things. I want someone who could -- Oh what's the word I'm looking for?"

"Respect you." Michelle said reflectively.

"Yeah, that's it exactly." He turned to her excitedly and saw a tear running down her cheek. "Hey, don't cry. It's OK. Look let's talk about something else."

"No. Ah want to hear about this. I need to Gary."

Gary straightened up and looked curiously at Michelle. She nodded that she did want him to continue in spite of the tears and he then continued. "I asked myself one day after a date with Jill Claymore, remember her?"

Michelle nodded. She had been one of the most beautiful girls in high school. Everyone wanted to take her out. She corrected herself, No not take her out, get into her pants, that's what we all wanted, even me. Hell especially me. The idea made her shiver with revulsion that she had ever wanted to sleep with a woman.

"I took her out but it was clear she wanted me to get her some booze from my folks place, she wanted me to take her to the most expensive restaurant around, she wanted everything I had except who I really was. She had no interest in me, and I found I didn't respect her. That was when I knew. I have to find a girl with the same values as mine. Someone I could talk to, you know? I know that sounds so girlish -- But Damn it! I wanted more than sex. At least I wanted someone to make me want to have sex with them. Christ, none of this makes any sense." He finally said in frustration.

"Yes it does. It makes perfect sense. Gary, when I was Mike, when I was male all I ever did was screw these girls I was with and then never call them. They all wanted the same thing for the most part. They wanted to be loved. And I was more than happy to tell them that if I thought it mean they would take off the panties for me. God I hate talking like this. I just hate it -- After this Gary, never again. Mike is dead and he can never come back. You have me now for all eternity, but I never want who I was born as to come up in conversation, OK?" Gary nodded so Michelle continued. "So what you say makes perfect sense to me Gary, because after I became me, that's all I wanted -- but from you. When I was changed to a girl, to a woman." She breathed with the recollection of it. "There was a part of me that was killed or removed or something. It was a harshness that wouldn't let me enjoy life." Michelle paused.

In that pause Gary thought of the images that Erin had shown him the hotel room of some unknown city that presumably Tidewater and alternate Tidewater had been booked to play and the Mikey sausage hanging from the ceiling of that room.

"This is me Gary and God how I wish it had always been me. I wish that we had grown up together as Gary and Michelle. It didn't happen that way though and I'm grateful that nature, or science or Erin or what ever it was finally fixed it." Michelle finished.

Then Gary made a startling confession. "When you got changed. God help me for this, I'm actually going to say it -- I wanted it to be permanent. I didn't want you to change back. I left that morning to get that pregnancy test because I was eager to find out. I was miserable at that moment. Here I had fallen in love with you after being with you and I was going to have to face losing you all in the same motion. I wanted you to be pregnant and I wanted to find out that you were going to be with me for longer than the weekend and I felt awful about wanting you the way I did. I thought that maybe if you were pregnant, then I had a chance, some time to convince you that it would be all right with me. You see, I didn't feel awkward around you. I felt like I was a man for the very first time in my life. You know something? I liked it." She reached out and held his face in her hand. He in turn, wiped a lone tear from her face.

"I knew that since you wanted to go back to being Mike so bad that I had to help you get back. But I still prayed that it would fail that you would be stuck. I was so much in love with you I couldn't help being selfish. I'm sorry. I really am sorry for that Michelle."

"But you still did everythang you could think of to try to change me back, why?"

"Because you meant everything to me at that point. I would have killed myself if I thought it would have made you happy. You trusted me to do right by you and no matter what I wanted... I had to try. If I had done anything to destroy that trust you had given me I would have died. If you wanted to go back so bad -- I don't know. I guess I couldn't refuse you any request. I wanted you so desperately to be happy. I knew who you were underneath that body. It just didn't matter that you had been my male friend just a day before. I was in love with you."

"It must have hurt you to try to let me go." She said sadly.

He didn't speak, instead, he nodded and a tear of his own slipped from the corner of his left eye. "But you wanted to go back so I tried. When it failed, I hated myself. I knew that God had listened to my prayers and I was the reason you were trapped. In more ways that just one, I knew I had led you there, I had been the one that altered your body and that you were stuck with it. I knew it was all my fault."

"Shush -- that's enough now. Ah'm just fine. Ah'm righat wherah Ah belong. Now hush -- please -- " Gary was upset now, the pain he had carried for so long was out, like a poisoned abscess that had been lanced and was now draining the poison was at the surface. "I'm going to tell you somethang that slipped mah mind in all the commotion durin' that time when Ah got changed back to Mike." Gary nodded but was unable to speak. "Michaels told me something. He had asked what had happened to make me want to be a girl. Ah explained that Ah hadn't known that the SKIN Ah had gotten was going to make me female. Ah explained that Ah thought they were just like all the othahs. Ah explained that by an act we had committed Ah had become trapped in mine as a result. Do you know what he did then?"

Gary shook his head.

"He laughed at me." She snickered at that. "He did, it's the God's honest truth Gary. He told me that Ah had become stuck in that SKIN the minute Ah had activated. Mah life had changed that very moment. Ah had worked myself up so much over all those old urban legends that when it actually did happen to me All Ah could think about was tryin to turn back the clock so I could change mah mind and not do what I had so stupidly done."

"He really told you that?" Gary asked.

"He reallah told me that. So now, Ah'm here by mah own choice, because Ah'm in love with you Gary, that's why Ah'm here. Ah love being yoah wife."

"We're not married anymore, remember?"

"Ball's in your court sugah. All you have to do is serve it back to me."

Now, eight months later, they were living in a large house built in the 1820's that had been purchased under the name of The Red Fish.

"I want to take you out to dinner tonight," he said.

"Mahshall, you have to go to work tonight, you don't want to make enemies of the people at the very restaurant you'ah going to wind up ownin' one day."

"They'll wait. Besides, I know the owners," he said and chuckled.

"So you want a date with me tonight." She rested her head on his chest. "Ah don't know. Ah may be busy tonight.

Marshall raised his eyebrows. "Really? Doing what?

"Well, Ah have to wash mah hair. I don't have a thang wear. Besides, we hardly know each othah."

"That's true." He put a finger under her chin and tilted her head up so he could look in her deep blue eyes. "I promise, if you go out with me tonight, you won't be sorry."

She narrowed her eyes in mock suspicion and then smiled every so slightly. "All rigaht, Ah'll risk it, besides you seem like a nice man."

She pulled closer to him and wrapped her thin arms around his waist. She thought briefly about when he might propose to her again. It was a worrisome subject. He had not brought it back up since that night arriving in New Orleans. She was careful not to force his hand either, but she was getting impatient. She loved the security of his ring and his commitment on her. It was frightening at times not to have it and she lamented herself constantly for her decision to go forth, legally unmarried.

"Marshall?" she asked. He loved the way she sounded. Her accent thrilled him to his very being with its breathy, genteel delicacy. When she said his new name it came out sounding like Mahshall, her voice full of southern sweetness.

"Yes my love?" He answered her. His hands were exploring her body over her clothes.

"Mah shorts are ah bit too tigaht, do you thank you could be ah dear and loosen that button for may?"

He reached around behind her and undid the button the back of the waistband. "How's that?"

She shook her head as if she were considering something. "Nope, that's nevah going to do. I'm afraid you are simply going to have to unzip them for me." She said with a sly knowing, but innocent smile. Oh God, how he loved her. He swept her up in his arms and carried her into the house through one of the tall open glass and wood doors that lined the exterior of the house. "Wherah are you takin' me Sur?" she asked. "You had said you were hungry."

"Oh, I'll satisfy my hunger in just a very short while my sweet southern child." He said with a growl, "And yours as well." He added.

She gasped with surprise with great pleasure as he swooped into her chest and gently pinched her nipple through her blouse between his teeth. She grabbed the back of his head and pulled him as close as she could get him, burying him in her breast, she closed her eyes and bit her lower lip. She shuddered as she exhaled. An explosion of dampness filled her between her legs making her slick and slippery.

"Mahshall." She breathed and let her head loll back on her shoulders. "Oh Gawd" She breathed to him. "If you stop now, ah'll have no choice but to kill you in yoah sleep."

"I have no intention of stopping." He said as he carried her to the bedroom and slammed the door behind them.

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Jennifer woke alone. She felt first for him on the bed next to her but he was not there. Perhaps he had gone to the bathroom she thought. Then she understood that the shadows in the room were all wrong. Night was not far away now, only an hour maybe less judging from the quality of the light shining through the sheers on the window. He had loved her into unconsciousness. She laid there for just a moment allowing the memory of it to wash over again. She moaned lightly aching for his touch again as she pressed her legs together tightly flexing the muscles in her sex and dreamed of having him inside her again. Her eyes closed at the idea and she arched her back just a bit almost feeling him on her... in her. She writhed on the sheets thinking of him, allowing her fingernails to dance over her nipples until she was aroused with the need for him.

"Mahshall?" she called. There was no answer.

She tried again. "Mahshall?" Again, nothing.

Would he have gone up stairs leaving her alone? She removed the covers from her, stepping out on to the hard wood floor. She thought briefly about slipping on her panties but dismissed the idea. Jennifer strode to the door and was about to go searching for Marshall when she noticed that someone had laid out a very short, bright red satin dress on the back of her dressing table chair. On it was a hand written note. It read, "Put this on!"

The grin that came to her face was born there slowly. She reached for the dress and unzipped it.

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She sat in a small chair twenty minutes later in the living room. Her blonde, shoulder length hair brushed neatly, it shown like spun gold in the light of the single lit lamp on the table next to her. On the table was a glass of white wine. She waited with her legs crossed. Every once in a while she would sip her wine or smooth out a wrinkle in her dress. Otherwise, she was motionless, waiting for whatever it was Marshall wanted her to do presented it self.

The knock on the door was subtle and somewhat subdued. She rose to receive the caller. At the door was an older gentleman. He was dressed in a coachman's uniform. A white pressed shirt, red pants with a black strip down each side, a red jacket with tails and a back top hat. Jennifer smiled and said "Good evening."

"Good evening Ma'am. I've been hired to give you a ride Ma'am."

Jennifer smiled and offered a slight nod. She locked and closed the door to her home and was led down the short flight of stairs to the street level. There just outside the street level door was a red and black four-person open-air horse drawn carriage. Attached to it was a white stallion. The stallion wore blinders to keep his attention focused and prevent him from becoming startled by things going on around him. One reign was tied to a lamppost to keep him from walking off with the carriage and possibly getting hurt.

Jennifer walked not to the carriage steps but to the horse instead. Her red heels clicked lightly on the sidewalk as she crossed the distance. The coach driver watched the woman walk slowly to the horse. He watched her as she smiled and extended her hand to touch the horse's nose, her red painted nails standing out prominently against the white horse hair. Her slim body and sculptured lines clearly visible through her tight dress. She turned and he blushed slightly, knowing she must have seen him ogling her. The woman acted as if she either didn't see or knowing that men were going to stare at her anyway ignored his blushing and embarrassment and asked. "What's his name?" her voice was to speech what a Stradivarius is to the concert violinist. Her sweet southern accent and light airy. It made his head swim to hear it.

"His name is Gentle Hope, Ma'am." He smiled back to her.

Jennifer smiled and turned back softly caressing the horse's muzzle. "Hello Hope. My aren't you a magnificent animal." Gentle Hope clocked his hoof down on the cobblestones of the street twice in response and shoved his nose against Jennifer's hand.

"Ma'am? I know you're the customer, but I promised to pick up another party." The man extended his hand and Jennifer rubbed the horse's nose once more and then walked around the side of the carriage. She took the drivers hand and allowed him to help her into the carriage. There were blankets in the back and in spite of the fact that the day had been very warm indeed the evening was cool. Jennifer accepted the blanket and placed it over her legs. The coachman took the reigns and with a soft series of clicks signaled to Gentle Hope it was time to move down the street. The carriage took Chartres St. West to St. Louis south to Decatur St. where it stopped at the fork of Peters Street. There on the corner of Decatur and St. Louis was a man with a shocking stock of red hair. His light slate colored eyes had an almost mystical quality to them. He was dressed in a formal black tuxedo and held a bouquet of four-dozen red long stemmed roses. At his feet was a wooden box. From the box rose a light white mist.

Marshall waited with a large smile on his face for the coach to stop. When it did, the driver who's name was Richard, Jennifer over heard, stepped down and assisted Marshall first into the carriage and then with loading the box that had been on the street next to him.

"You look beautiful." Marshall said to Jennifer.

She could not speak. He was so handsome in his tux that she was rendered speechless. She could only smile and blush. The effect on Marshall was not lost on her. Often she found that a strategically placed lack of words was just as effective something clever to say, more so at times. He took her hand and lightly kissed it. "These are for you," he said handing her the flowers.

"I... I..." she started.

"Shush. Just enjoy it." he said and kissed her cheek. She felt she might very well be on the verge of tears again. How is it, she wondered, that he can move me so easily? Marshall climbed into the carriage and gave Jennifer the flowers.

She tenderly fanned them out in their ploy-ply wrapper and smelled them. "Thank you." She offered him and he smiled to her as she moved in to be next to him. She felt suddenly the need to touch him, to merge with him. She wanted to unite their bodies. Her thumb worked the place on her left hand were only a few months ago there had been a ring. Gary/Marshall had said that it needed to be cut off from the place here it had been stuck for so long. His reasoning was that being single again, it would just look funny having an engagement and wedding ring on her hand. Gary/Marshall had made arrangements for her to have the ring removed while he was at the restaurant for the afternoon crowd. She was going to have to do it all alone.

When the laser cut the band it was almost more than her heart could stand. Then, without warning, her hand was free of the ring Gary had put there during his restaurant proposal. She had cried on the way home. She lamented her decision to want to have Gary/Marshall re-propose to her. She wanted her ring back uncut, back on her hand. Jennifer felt very sure that he was punishing her for her rash behavior when their records had been set up. She was so mad at herself and at Gary/Marshall that she almost wrecked the HOV on the way home. She set the ring on the entryway table on her way in. Later many hours after Gary/Marshall had come home, she checked for it to put it safely away and found that it was no longer where she had left it. She wanted to ask about it but was ashamed for her anger and for bringing this fate on them. She was single now, what difference did it make if she didn't have that old ring. She could afford to buy thousands of stones bigger than the ones in that ring. Still, her heart broke that Gary/Marshall had seen fit to take it and do God knew what with it. She would not ask him for it back. That would be her punishment for breaking his heart the way she had.

Now, with it gone, she wished she had asked. That was months ago. She could still feel it's comforting weight on her finger and she often considered what she had read about people that had limbs that were amputated. The fact that they could still feel the missing appendage, could even feel themselves manipulating the missing limb. Jennifer could now empathize with amputees. Part of her was gone. Her heart moaned for that one missing thing, for it was the only thing truly gone from her. Even with all he was to her, to have her ring back would her whole again somehow.

She tried to push the thought away. She still had him. He was here and he loved her. She slid an arm around her man's waist and on tightly. Marshall worked the box open and there were two bottles of Dom Perignon in cooler packs. Gary withdrew one bottle and the two glasses secured to the back of the lid of the box. Gary popped the cork and drew out the light amber liquid into each glass. The cold wine was refreshing on the sultry evening and in no time; Jennifer was as bubbly as the bubbly.

The hooves of the horse clacked up Louis Street and around to Bourbon Street and turned right toward Esplanáde. They sat together soundlessly and watched as the buildings and old 19th and 18th century homes drift slowly by in their field of vision. The sipped the sparkling wine and enjoyed the touch of the other on each other's bodies. Jennifer could not hold back the smile that became wider and wider as the carriage clacked on.

The carriage proceeded back down Governor Nicholls Street and around to Royal. The carriage stopped about three blocks from the Napoleon House in front of a small empty storefront with large 19th century apothecary windows that stretched from ceiling nearly to the floor. She cold not see inside. The windows had been soaped white to prevent just that. There was deep alcoved doorway Marshall stepped off the carriage and took the two bottles of champagne, walked to the door and walked inside.

He returned and offered Jennifer his hand. She took it and stood unsteadily and allowed him to help her off the carriage. "You'll wait here." Marshall said in his light Scottish accent.

"Yes Sir!" the man said and stood by the horse to indicate to passers by that the carriage was employeed.

"Mahshall, you'ah up to something, Ah can juss feel it in my bones."

"Me? You should know me better than that by now Jen."

"Ah do. That's exactly why Ah feel that you'ah about to spring some trap." Jennifer said with good-humored skepticism. He opened the door for her with a knowing smile and allowed her to step inside.

The interior was much larger than it had appeared on the outside. The large empty space was had a high ceiling what was patterned by what looked to be one foot square hammered copper squares beaten into amazingly intricate designs. Each one was polished to a bright and shiny luster. Ceiling fans on long poles hung down to offer relief from the oppressive Louisiana heat and humidity. Green Tiffany lamp shades hung from each fan and emitted a tender pale light to the room

The floor was done in black and white ceramic tiles. Each tile was nearly two feet square and set in alternating patterns. The tiles, although free of the wear and tear of everyday traffic that a store like this must have seen in it's two hundreds plus years of life still looked new. Jennifer supposed that these tiles were antique but had been found in storage some place and only now were being used.

"Everything is original from the period." Marshall was saying. "It used to be an old apothecary museum until about a year ago. I've been having it cleaned up for tonight. This is only as far as they got."

"It's beautiful." Michelle marveled. The walls on both sides were lined with box like shelving that ran from end to end and floor to ceiling. On her left was a long counter that had at one time been a service counter that would have had a cash register on it. It was a wide friendly work-space with glass fronted display cases beneath it. On the other side of the room was a soda fountain bar. Some one had converted part of that into a full-service adult bar. In the back in the corner was a smallish kitchen. It was open to the public view and had enough room to four to comfortably cook, each at a station.

"What is this place Mahshall?" she asked but he did not answer.

Against one wall was a strange device. It appeared to be a square wooden shaft that ran the height of the room near the kitchen. Jennifer could not understand what it might be unless it was some sort of wiring or plumbing void or perhaps heating or air-conditioning ducts.

There were tables, small and round with the ability to seat no more than four people each. There were about fifteen each covered with green felt. Each table had four settings. The plates were a pale green. They were very beautiful. She looked at each setting and then realized that she could see a word on the plates nearest to her.

She reached for a plate as the smell of something savory floated to her through the air. Marshall had moved to the counter to the left and was pouring a new round of champagne in the fluted glasses. She watched him as she absently picked up one of the plates from a nearby table. She returned her attention to the plate and was about to ask what was cooking when she read the word on printed there on the porcelain. It read:


She was so surprised that she dropped the plate on the floor where it shattered into a thousand splinters. Marshall walked up behind her and asked. "Are you all right?"

"What's this about?" She whirled around on him confused.

"No no... I asked first."

Frustrated she indicated that, yes, she was fine. "Now tell me. What is this place and why is my name on these plates?"

"Well, I guess you didn't see the marquee over the door then when we came in." He said chuckling.

"Ovah the doah?" she said surprised. She turned and raced outside; her heals crushing the broken plate into smaller pieces of porcelain shards. Outside the carriage drive watched as the door few open and the attractive blonde with the big blue eyes dashed outside, turned and read the sign above the door.

A Traditional Louisiana Kitchen

She turned to the driver. "That's may! That's mah name!" she cried happily pointing at the sign above.

"Yes Ma'am, lovely name." She took a double take of confusion at the driver who only smiled. She then turned and raced back in the building. She rushed him and threw herself up at him and clung to his neck. She kissed him hard on the face without giving him much of a chance to kiss back and then said in a furious burst of words, "Are you serious? Is this for real? What about The Red Fish?"

"I've been thinking about that. I wondered, if it wouldn't look more legitimate if we started a separate restaurant, a new place and then acquired The Red Fish? What do you think?"

"Ah think Sur, you are a most incredible man. And this girl is quiet lucky to have such a wonderfully inventive man as her owen."

"Good," Marshall smiled. "Because I've arranged for us to buy the entire building here, under our own names. Right now it's leased. I had to move quickly when the space became available. This is such a beautiful little place. We'll use some of the money we transferred from out joint account to purchase the building. That way we own it outright and won't have that overhead hanging overhead." He chuckled at his own joke and Jennifer groaned.

"What about mah Tidewater Money? Mahshall, It is just goin' to waste. If Ah don't get a chance to help out heah then what did we keep it foah? It is, aftah all, mah money. Ah could buy the equipment, building and fund the place for five yeahs and still not put a dent in what Ah've managed to save."

"You should have been the one that got the red hair with that stubborn streak you have. Well, I guess since your name is on the place, it should be on the title as well, and I'm certainly not going to let that happen unless you pay for it, soooooo -- . OK, partners then."

"Youah really goin to let me spend mah money finally? Ah'm really going to be a partner?"

"I think that it would be fun to see if we can do it on our own now. The last time we took over someone else venture; if this one is going to be ours then it has to come from us. If you're going to feel vested in this thing then, yes, you have to make a contribution."

She released his neck and wrapped her long slender arms around his torso. "Ah love you McCellan." She was quite for a while, resting her head on his chest, listening to the rhythm of his heartbeat. "Ah'm glad that Ah neva joined you on any other of yoah adventures. Ah'm glad that I didn't go to Philadelphia with you and Frank and Kit, or to San Diego on that two week road trip in that broken down old Barra you bought."

Marshall looked down at her upturned face in confusion. "Why, I thought we would have had a wonderful time."

"No! See, Ah would neva have gone on anotha adventure with you. Not evah. Ah would have missed this because Ah was such a jerk to be around. You wouldn't have asked may to go with you again I think. Everythang would have gone back to the way they had been before, sour and rotten.

She snuggled down to his chest and purred the way she had a habit of doing. It should have made him smile but again the disturbing image came to his mind. It was a shadow dangling at the end of a cord strung from a ceiling. The backdrop was a canvas of city lights and tall buildings in the night. A gentle breeze came in the room from the open glass door at the far end and gently rocked the shadowy figure of a body back and forth. In the poor light of the room Gary stood not a foot away as the body slowly turned to face in ushered on by the breeze. The sight of Mike's bloated corps filled his head and blotted out the sounds and smells of New Orleans that were all about him. Ole' bloated Mike was finally facing him and Gary could feel that he wanted to run shrieking from the room but his feet were frozen or glued or something to the floor. He knew this because he could not move them. All he could do was stand there and watch the body of his best friend dance on the breeze in the space of the hotel room.

Suddenly, Mikee's eyes popped open and the arms reached out and took Gary by the shoulders. "GARY!" The bloated piece of Mike meat said.

Gary jolted in Michelle's arms. "Gary?" She slipped. But the force of the jolt had scared her. "What's wrong? My Gawd, you'ah as cold as ice." She said touching his arms.

He exhaled a long shuddering breath. "I'm fine." He said and looked down on her face. She looked unconvinced. "Really, I'm fine. Just the thought of not having you with me, it kind of scared me that all." That seemed to satisfy her. He would never tell her of the things Erin had shown him. Why should he? They had not happened, nor could they. Nor would they ever see Erin, Mike's sister again. He felt certain of that. Their fates were sealed. He could not guarantee the either one of them would be there for the other for all time. She might tire of him in a thousand years, who knew that for sure, right? It did feel however that this would go on forever now. That she would always want to be with him and for that he was grateful. Yes, he was glad too that she had joined him only on that last adventure.

He held her tight in his arms. He knew he would have been alone or even dead if all the pieces had not been in place. She had saved him twice now. How could ever repay that?

Be there for her. She will need your strength. It was Erin's voice, wise and ageless now. That will be all she ever wants.

He kissed the top of her head and whispered. "I have a surprise for you."

"Is it dinner?" she asked.

"You can smell it can't you?" He asked sounding disappointed

"The minute we walked in," She admitted, "but I don't see where it could becoming from."

Gary smiled. "Wait here." He said softly. He kissed her again and slipped out of her arms. He walked to the door and signaled to someone. There was the rattle of instruments and a street band began to play outside the door on the sidewalk. She gave him a cute quizzical look as if to say 'What are you up to now?' He grinned back and stepped behind a permanent partition. After a few seconds, he rolled out a table that must have had hidden casters on the ends of the legs. He rolled the table to the center of the room. The table was set with dishes covered with sterling plate covers empty glasses, a wine bucket with a chilled bottle of white wine set deep in the ice. A waiter appeared from behind the partition and waited for instructions. Gary sat and indicated that the waiter should bring the champagne Gary had poured earlier.

The young, smartly dressed man retrieved the bottle and two filled glasses and delivered them to the table handing one glass to Michelle and then one to Gary. He smiled and touched the rim of her glass gently to his own. "To the rest of the adventure."

Michelle smiled and sipped her champagne. The young man removed the plate cover from Gary's and Michelle was surprised to see filet mignon and a potato-encrusted salmon covered with a tomato dill sauce and grilled vegetables. "I remember this dish!" she said. Then the young man uncovered her plate and to her surprise it was empty.

"Hey!" she said pouting. "I want to eat too." She looked at Gary's plate again and then back to her own. She noticed that her plate was not completely empty after all. There was a small object there resting on it's side. "Oh no."

"Oh yes."

"Ga... Mahshall!" she said but he was already on his knees next to her.

"Ms. Holmes, marry me, please," he pleaded.

Once more she began to leak around the eyes. "Ah should be gettin used to this by now." She lamented. "Going out to eat will always be suspect now ya know."

"Yes, I know," he said and grinned. "Well?"

Jennifer was able to pull herself together enough to touch his face and say, "Yes, Ah'll marry you mah dear sweet man. Ah will always marry you."

Gary placed the ring on her finger. She was pleased to see it was her old ring, repaired. She fiddled with it as she suspected from the feel of it, it was stuck. She could not budge it. A warmth spread through her and she was once again Mrs. Gary Shipley even if the marriage certificate wouldn't say so, she knew she was back where she belonged. He had rescued her again.

Outside the band played and the singer sung a sweet but solemn tune by a man now long dead named Garth Brooks, she remembered wanting to record once in a life that seemed so long far away.

She began to sing the tune to her fiancée as she took his arms and placed them around her body. They danced together.

Looking back on the memory of
The dance we shared 'neath the stars alone
For a moment all the world was right
How could I have known that you'd ever say goodbye

And now I'm glad I didn't know
The way it all would end the way it all would go
Our lives are better left to chance I could have missed the pain
But I'd've had to miss the dance

Holding you I held everything
For a moment wasn't I a king
But if I'd only known how the king would fall
Hey who's to say you know I might have chanced it all

And now I'm glad I didn't know
The way it all would end the way it all would go
Our lives are better left to chance I could have missed the pain
But I'd've had to miss the dance

Yes my life is better left to chance
I could have missed the pain but I'd've had to miss the dance

She had come so close so many times to missing the dance she shared with Gary. So often she had been saved. Even when she had fought to end the music and storm out of the dance hall, she was spared her rash decisions. She held her husband to be in her arms and swore to never let him go again. They had more than a lifetime to be whatever they were. She would make sure she would live every minute in his eyes.

That night Gary and Michelle, as Jennifer and Marshall, danced long into the New Orleans night. Outside, Jazz played until two in the morning out in the street when their own band had gone home for the night. Ahead of them lie an endless life of promise. She would be his always. She was happy and happy and happy. In the corner, unseen sat her father, her mother and her sister. They smiled at the girl they had made pleased in the person she had become. They were not needed here any longer. They smiled to each other as their visage faded from this place. They left Gary and Michelle alone to live their eternal lives together.

Fate had ensured that they would never want for the embrace of another. Their well-orchestrated prison was paradise not punishment and the music of their dance would be sung from their hearts. Time no longer held the boundaries that it does for all the rest of us that dance the dance. The walls of mortality had fallen away and they would never again worry about being apart.

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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