Skin Deep II: The Dance
Chapter 3: The Chaperones
by Mark McDonald
©2002 Mark McDonald -- all rights reserved
He was face down on the carpet, the ghosts of a thousand smells wafted up to his nose and all of them reminded him of coffee spilled on indoor-outdoor carpet. His head hurt, he must have hit it on the desk when he passed out... No, wait, that's not quite right. There's no desk in this room. But what room was this? Gary... I have to find Gary. Something gone horribly wrong! But what was it?
"Mom?" it was a sweet sounding voice. Who was it speaking to? Were did all the lovely brown hair come from he wondered? He suddenly sat bolt upright and reached over to grab a hank of the hair that was swinging back and forth on his shoulders when his hand brushed the smooth bare leg of a person that was standing next to him. He waited for the sounds out in the warehouse, How the hell could I know there would be sounds?
His eyes followed the sculptured leg up to where it joined a pelvis and a small patch of light brown pubic hair, then a waist, then a pair of breasts a neck and a beautiful and delicate face framed in fine blonde hair.
"Mom?" the girl said again.
"Me? No you must be mistaken. I'm Mik..." His hand went to her throat. What the fuck is wrong with my voice... Mom? What the hell does she mean Mom? She looked down at her own stocking clad legs and the wave of recognition was so complete it threatened to steal consciousness away from her again. She placed a hand on her forehead fighting off the fainting spell. Eventually she was able to steady herself against the wave of nausea and fear that washed over her. The sick feeling that coursed through her began to subside. It was a feeling she thought she had exercised a very long time ago, as a priest would a demon back to Hell. I'm OK! I'm all right, remember me, Michelle? I've been here for a while now. Don't panic!
But there was this girl beside her and Michelle's mind told her that this was something to panic over. Maybe it was just that her signals were getting crossed. There was something about this girl. She had called her Mom. Yes that was... "WILLIAM!"
She leaped to her feet and took the girl by the shoulders... "What did you do?" She shrieked. She spun the girl around searching the back of her neck. What met her eyes was smooth flawless skin. There were no breaks or seams of any kind anywhere. Even with the knowledge of her own experience, even though she knew this was not helping, she could not resist the attempt. She spun the girl around like a top to face her again. "Where is it?" Her mother demanded.
"The transmitter William! The transmitter needed to get this thing off, Damn it! WHERE IS IT?" She screamed. Black panic was overtaking her and the small teenaged girl recoiled at her rage and fury.
"I don't know about anything like that." squeaked the nude girl.
"Do you know what you've done?" she yelled.
"I didn't do anything!" The girl suddenly shouted back.
Reason abandoned Michelle. She found herself back in a warehouse with her friends, a group of guys that had just returned from an adventure. Everyone was supposed to be back, but she had not come home. The violence of the moment sprang full to life for her. The sheer panic of that time flooded her heart. The feeling that all was lost, but in the back of her mind the refusal to give in that this was what she would be for the rest of her life. She had not wanted to become an urban legend and yet, here she was.
Now this, and what was her son telling her? No box? No fucking transmitter. NO! She had not given birth to these children to lose them the way she had been lost.
Michelle's mind was a whirlwind of fear and anti-thought. She could not make coherent ideas stick in her head, she wanted to run, she wanted to scream, to comfort this child, to beat the child for his stupidity, to rage at the world for ever inventing such a thing!
She grabbed the child by the shoulders and shoved her face in the child's face.
"William! I have to have that damned transmitter. You have to tell me where and when this happened." She didn't realize it but she had been shaking the child violently.
"MOM! You're hurting me." Michelle stopped horrified by what she had been doing.
Michelle fell to her knees before the nude girl. "God forgive me!" Michelle cradled her head in her hands and shuddered. From William's point of view it looked like a painful process. His fear at what he had become was replaced by this, this thing he had done to his mother. She was clearly hurt, but there was more to this. She was fearful, she was angry and she seemed to know more than she should.
His mother clutched the girl around the waist, "Oh my baby..." William was more badly frightened than ever before. His mother was weeping hard, shaking from the force of the tears, almost convulsing. He wrapped his now slender arms around her head.
"I'm so sorry my baby." Michelle was able to get out.
"Mom..." He said, "It's going to be OK. Everything will be OK won't it?"
She squeezed his waist but did not reply. William's heart went cold. The women embraced him in silence and William finally wound his arms around his mother's neck and squeezed back.
William began to shiver again. "I'm freezing Mom." He finally said. Michelle seemed reluctant to let go her grip on her child but at last, sniffling, she did. She looked up at the sweet face of the girl as was struck by a shadow of recognition.
'I've seen this face before.'
"We have to get you dressed." Michelle said. "I also need you to tell me what happened."
William helped his mother up. She was heavier than he remembered her being. He could not remember a recent memory when his mother had been taller than he, but now here she was, standing nearly a full two inches over him. He felt smaller than that in her presence and ashamed.
"I think we still have some of Erin's old clothes that might fit. That's the best I can do hon. But I'll try to make sure we get you into some jeans or something like it, OK?"
The girl smiled and sighed in relief. "That would be better than what I wore back home."
William tried to explain what had happened. He decided to leave out the fact that Carrie had seduced him months ago. That he had been sleeping with Carrie ever since while going out with as many as three other girls. These were facts he felt certain that his mother would not empathize with.
Michelle listened patiently as she picked through the clothes trying to find something for her to wear that would not embarrass the child.
Michelle was convinced that she was hearing a very lopsided story from her converted son. It was so badly thin in places she could almost hear him trying to back track and fill in the gaps. "So how long have you been sleeping with her William?"
"What?" asked the girl.
"You must have really pissed her off for her to do this to you. I want you to tell me about it." Michelle did not look around. Instead she continued to pick through the closet for something that her son might be able to wear.
William's shoulder slumped. He had never been able to lie to his mother. She nailed him every time.
Bitch! he thought.
Michelle looked over her shoulder and said. "By the way, I am not!"
"What?" William asked
"A bitch." She said and returned to her search.
William turned bright red in the face. 'How the hell did she know that?'
Michelle turned again... "I'm your mother, that's how," she said angrily.
Crap. William kept his thoughts silent after that. He made sure that when he told her the whole story, that he told her the truth.
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"Crap!" Eric cried. "Hey... the oil chief." Eric was running full tilt. The boss seemed to have fallen asleep with his eyes wide open and a vat of oil was about to boil over on to him.
"Gary!" screamed Eric, but Gary didn't acknowledge him.
In his head, Gary was some place cold. It was dark. There was the strange sensation of something cutting into his chest just above his sternum.
Then there was Erin... not Erin is daughter, Erin, the sister of his best friend, the sister of his wife.
She had her guitar with her, slung over her back. Gary was laying on a cold sheet of metal.
"Hi sweetie!" she would say.
"Since when am I 'sweetie' to you?" He answered back in his youthful smart ass way.
"Since you've done so well with Michelle. I knew you had it in you."
"Glad to know you had confidence in me." He looked around. "Where am I?"
"That's not really important. I need your help Gary."
"Sure, since this is a dream, I can pretty much do anything I like, eh?" Gary grinned at Erin but Erin didn't grin back.
He looked around to see where he was and it seemed to him to be a morgue. A wall of 2.5' by 2' foot refrigerator boxes on his left provided little wiggle room from that theory. The place was definitely a laboratory of some kind. From the look of it who ever worked here practiced in the hospital arts.
The scene changed in a ripple. The wooden shaft in his chest was gone. Without warning he was at the bar of his youth, College Knights. There was Erin on stage. He sat at a stage side table, a huge stick protruding from his chest. He touched the thing but it caused intense pain when he did. Is there even pain in dreams? Gary wondered. It looked almost like a lance from the history books he had only glanced through in high school. It was seated firmly in the center of his chest, it's long wooden shaft protruded from the fabric of the hospital jonnie he wore. How had this thing gotten in his chest? Worse, how did they plan to remove it? Another question occurred to him: why was he not dead?
Erin played the guitar sweetly but no one was there for vocals.
"This place is gone Erin. Now I know this is a dream."
"Gary, there is a puzzle to solve here." She said. "You are its missing piece."
Gary looked about as if he were being asked to solve the puzzle now. "I did the best I could." he said. Erin knew that he meant that he had done the best he knew to do for Michelle, for Mike. "I couldn't help falling in love with her."
Erin held up her hand. "All things were as they were meant to be."
"You said were. They aren't any more?"
"You have come to battle for your Queen." On stage behind her in the dimly lit shadows were the members of Tidewater. He could see Michelle's silhouette, waiting to be introduced. He could see Nathan, lead guitarist standing just behind and to the left of his wife. This was years ago. He knew the concert. He had been sitting right there at the bar.
Gary turned and there he was. Watching, he was oblivious to the fact that his wife, no not wife, not at this point -- she had only been your fiancée for a few hours. This is Christmas night, 2081.
"You remember this?" Erin asked.
"Oh yeah. She was in love with me again."
"Happy times at the College Knights?" Erin asked.
"Things were better then they had been if we had gone back to normal." He agreed wistfully.
"For both of you?" Erin checked.
"Yeah, er... I think so." As he replied a sudden doubt filled him. "What do you know that I don't Erin?"
"That making the choice is sometimes the most important action of any effort."
Choice? She made the choice to come back to me, Gary thought.
"Did she?" Erin asked, "Or did she just take the best option in a list of limited choices?" She seemed to read his thoughts. Gary remembered that this was the Amazing Erin that Michelle had spoken about, manipulating the future and dispelling the past with a wave of her hands. Gary had a wanted more than anything to leap up and shout to Erin "What do you think you are, some sort of Jedi waving your guitar around like that?"
The house lights went down and the stage lights came up. The stage announcer introduced Tidewater, but there were boos of disapproval. Mike was dead to these people, they wanted the band to stay dead too, in honor of him.
When Michelle stepped forward no one could boo her. She was so beautiful. No one dared make a sound before her. She seemed shy, so unlike Mike on stage.
Michelle spoke softly, reverently into the microphone. "This is for my sister. Thank you Erin."
The image changed and there was a lurching, aged Mike Vello standing there. He started to sing, On A Mountain Top in a broken unused and untrained voice. Gone was his wife. The clothes she had worn, her skirt and top lay on the floor at Mike's feet.
"WHAT? Where did she go?" Gary demanded.
"You will lose her forever Gary." The words that came out of her mouth scared her like no others he had ever heard. This may be a dream but Gary knew that Michelle believed what his supernatural sister was capable of. At the sound of these words he felt that Erin's intentions were clear. The ride was over. Even if it had been a hallucination, Gary would have been distressed at the choice of words. Michelle was first and foremost, the one reason he was alive and living. It didn't matter that he had not been at the College Knights club the night the roof caved in. More lives than his had been saved that night. No, that mattered little. What did matter was that he wouldn't have survived long without her love. She was at the very core of him. She was the force that kept him going. Michelle was his life force. Without her, he was an empty body, a shell on autopilot. He would have taken any threat of removal from his life serious.
"NO!" he screamed. He grabbed his hair in torment of the idea. "NO... Why did you bring us together to do this to us?"
"There is a hard road ahead and it's not clear if you will both come out on the other side. I have put your feet on the road. Follow your heart Gary. Make the sacrifice."
"Anything! Please don't take her from me." He pleaded.
"Gary," Erin said in a sympathetic voice. "She was gone the day she was made. You never had her. This one moment in time will determine if you will ever hold her or not."
The room melted away. It was replaced with the smell of flowers, fresh air, cooking food and the smell of animals; leather and rusting iron and horses, manure and so many other things he could not place because he had never smelled them before. The air was a rich tapestry of exotic textures and colors to his nose that he was at first overwhelmed. It was a bit like walking into a bakery for the very first time where the pungent odors of yeast, sugar and baking bread combine to flood your senses with more smells than your brain can process without information as to their origins.
He looked around, or tried to, but his vision was obstructed by something over his face. Sudden movement beneath him caused him to lurch forward and fight to maintain his balance. He was on a horse for some reason. He was about to try to remove the thing from his face when his horse suddenly charged forward. It was all he could do to steady himself.
His right hand burned from the weight of the lance. It was not just heavy but it was his enemy. He could see the word Mortality etched in the shaft. That can't be good.
He looked down the course in the direction the horse carried him. There was another rider and he too had something in his hand. CRAP! That's where the lance in my chest came from! He tried to fall off the horse, dropping his lance as he did. It fell to the ground with a hollow wooden sound just before he was hit.
Fire exploded in his chest. He was being ripped in half. There was a huge thing in his body. A lance tip, he could see it from behind his faceplate. It was enormous. It hurt. No not just hurt, his mind burst into flames with the heat and pain of it. His hand, his arm cramped and burned with it. He's hit my heart. I'm going to die here with this pain, maybe from it! In the distance behind him he could hear Michelle screaming wildly. 'She still loves me... That's good!' These were his last thoughts. He dropped dead off his horse in the middle of the jousting arena. He heard three words as he drifted off. "Make the sacrifice."
"BOSS!" Gary's eyes fluttered as the fryer exploded into flames.
"Jesus!" Gary yelled and back peddled away from the burning oil.
Two of the prep-cooks quickly raced over and smothered the fire with the lid to the fryer. They then turned their attention to Gary. His right hand was burned, but there was no oil on it. He had not been burned from the flash fire.
You brought that with you. The lance, it burned your hand when you carried it.
In the distance, Gary could hear the old style VID going off on the wall at the other end of the kitchen.
"Damn Gary, You OK?"
Gary was breathing hard. There was a memory he should remember... God Damn it! Remember... remember... but it was gone, the lance was all he could remember. He could not place, or recall the rest.
"Yeah... I'm fine." Gary insisted.
"Right, and that's not a burn on your hand."
"I'm OK, I'm telling you." Gary said, annoyed not with the attention but with the fact that he had injured himself in his own kitchen.
"Just let me take a look at it chief." Larry took his hand and examined it.
Gary reluctantly allowed his hand to be inspected, in the corner of the kitchen Flip was on the small wall mounted VID with some one. Flip was looking anxiously over at Gary.
"What is it Flip?" The man's name was really Philip, but his expertise in making crepes had earned him the permanent moniker Flip.
"Esss for jou boss!" the lively prep-cook shouted in thick a Hispanic accent from the other side of the kitchen.
"Get a name and an address... "
"Esss da missus, that's JOUR boss, boss!" Everyone in the kitchen laughed as did Gary, Flip told Michelle that Gary was coming and held the call until he got there to take it.
"Hi Babe..." he started.
"Come home Gary." She sounded grave.
"What's wrong?" he asked, He saw that the call log recorder was on, required these days for business and customer liability, but this was a personal call. He thought about turning it off but forgot about it with the next words that came to his ears.
"We have to talk Gary, something's happened and well... I can't tell you like this. You just have to come home now and we have to deal with it." His blood ran so cold he felt he could have frozen meat just by standing next to it. "Come home now Gary. Don't wait." She disconnected leaving Gary with a dead receiver.
Gary untied his apron and grabbed his coat. "Where ya goin' Gary?" Frank called out.
"Take over here Frank, I'll be back when I can." he shouted back over the din in the kitchen.
"Sumpin' wrong..." he started but Gary was gone.
As he walked out the door all he could think was, 'It's started, Oh God... How can I stop this?' without really knowing why he was thinking such a thing.
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"Your Dad is on the way home."
The girl trembled as if waiting for the judgment of death to come down from on high.
Michelle went to the child and sat beside her. She was afraid to hold the girl. A small part of her didn't want to acknowledge that this girl was really sitting here. Touching her would make it too real.
You are really slimy, you know that girl? You pushed this child out of your own body. This is your son! her mind spoke to her. But a less rational part said. Funny, she doesn't look like anyone I know.
This girl was wider in the hips and narrower in the waist than her sister. She was shaped more like Michelle, even if she was a couple of inches shorter. Michelle knew that meant that pants were out. It was going to be a skirt or shorts.
The girl didn't take the news well. "MOM NO!"
"I'm sorry hon, my pants are going to be too long."
"I don't care about that. I don't want to wear your clothes!" William was on the edge of tears. This was too humiliating. Forced, in his own home, to dress in his mother's clothing.
"Billy, please! It's just clothing." But that rationalization didn't hold water even for Michelle. She was used to wearing women's clothes. She was used to being and happy being a woman. She had years to get used to it. She could still remember a time when she had wanted to protest just like Billy. Michelle had had no choice. She had been turned to a girl for 48 hours, like it or not she was not going back before then. A girl in boys clothes would have attracted too much attention.
The situation was different here. Michelle had no intension of letting her son face the world as she had been forced to. Things have a way of happening when you go out there.
Michelle went to her closet. A skirt. They were easy to wear, they didn't show off too much, that and a loose top, William might feel a little better. She grabbed panties and a bra, tossed a nice, simple knee floor length skirt and a flouncey blouse and tossed them on the bed.
"I'll help you dress. This will be painless." Michelle said and smiled at the girl.
"You're enjoying this aren't you?" the girl shot at her mother.
Michelle's smile faltered. "No Billy. In fact, I couldn't be more upset right now if I tried."
William shut his mouth; he put on the underwear, put on the blouse and then, when his mother showed him what to do, pulled the skirt over his head and down to his waist. Michelle straightened the skirt and zipped it up. She buttoned the neck of the blouse and turned the girl around.
"Pretty..." she said before she could stop herself and watched helplessly as a tear rolled from the corner of the girl's eye and down her cheek. "I'm sorry honey. It's just... you are pretty. It just slipped out."
"That's what's so god damn scary Mom, I don't even see myself anymore. I can see you don't either."
The girl stomped off to the other side of the big master bedroom. "Look at me! Why am I doing this, dressing up in your clothing?"
"Because nothing I could find your sister's things..." Michelle started innocently.
The girl stomped her foot on the floor, she was oblivious to the significance of the motion, to the gender of the gesture; but Michelle caught it. Girls didn't typically hit walls and punch things... they did occasionally stomped their feet when in distress or angry, or to emphasize a point.
"I want to get this thing off me Mom. God! I look in the mirror and I see myself wearing crap I remember you wearing just last week. I'm wearing your freaking underwear for God sake!" The blonde girl tore at her hair... "I'm going crazy... I can't deal with this Mom!"
Michelle could see she was melting down. William's experience was completely different from the one Michelle had gone through. She had someone to share it with, someone that had shown he cared what happened to her from the very start. What Michelle had done had been completely voluntary. The result had not been what she had expected, but she had brought this judgment down on herself. William was not so lucky.
Michelle walked to the child and embraced her and the girl took the comfort gratefully. William held his arms tight to his body. Shielding his breasts from view as his mother took him in her arms and rocked her.
William rested her head on his mother's shoulder. "You can't get me out of this can you? That's why I'm wearing your things isn't it? I'm stuck like this."
"Shush." Michelle tried. She just wanted to comfort her child. She didn't want to make admissions or speak truths right now.
The girl lifted her head. "No Mother, let me know. That's why you dressed me like you. I'm not getting out of this tonight am I?"
"No baby. I don't know how to turn you back." Now both women were gently weeping, oblivious that the other was crying as well.
After a few minutes, Michelle held the girl away from her embrace so she could speak to William. "I need you to finish telling me everything. That's the only way we're going to figure out a way to change you back baby."
"You aren't going to like it Mom."
"Compared to this, how bad could it be?"
The blonde girl pursed her lips. "Seeing it from a girl's perspective, I'd have to say that you're going to think it's pretty bad." Michelle knew that William had been sleeping with Carrie, taking advantage of her. That he had selfishly made the mistake to have Carrie spy out the lay of the land so William could discern if the prospect of asking another girl to the prom would be productive, all heinous acts in the eyes of the girl he had just had sex with. William had explained all of this as part of his explanation of how he had gotten into this mess.
She didn't know the extent of his betrayal of Carrie. Nor did she know about his harrowing escape from the Fenton home. Upset that Jason would attempt such a thing; she was not so upset that she couldn't see the implications of such an act. If he had tried to kill William, then was it possible that he also didn't know how to remove the device from her son's body? Why else such an act of desperation? Michelle tried to think of another reason and latched on to an obvious one for the sake of hope. The very fact that this was contraband and Jason obviously had gotten it from someplace made him guilty even if he had freed William. All that had to happen would have been for William to slip up and let it out what had gone on in the Fenton home and Police Services would have descended on him like flies on garbage.
If he killed William in the SKIN he wore, then the authorities would never trace a body to an obvious suspect. The victim would not be in a database anywhere, and therefore would generate no known relatives or friends to question. It was a win/win situation for Jason either way. That had to be the reason. The alternative was unacceptable to consider. William was not going to spend the rest of his life like this. He just wasn't.
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Gary dropped the HOV out of the HOVWay, it fell to street level like a stone and then just held, inches from the curb, hovering. He shut down the systems and the craft settled onto the four small wheels designed to hold it upright. He opened the driver's side hatch and leaped out and bounded over the curb, slammed his thumb into the security port, and crashed through the door.
His worst fears rocked him as he drove home. Erin had been hurt. History had repeated its self and she had been hurt on her way to practice with her band. Shelly had choked on a piece of fruit; William had been hit by a baseball off the end of a bat. But he had been directed home. Surly they would be at the hospital if something so terrible had truly happened. What was it then? Michelle's unwillingness to speak of it over the phone meant that she didn't trust the lines of communication. Why do people do things like that?
When it needs to be kept a secret.
What did they have to hide?
You know as well as your wife does.
The phrase 'Make the sacrifice' popped into his head for some almost remembered reason. It was not Michelle that was in trouble. Her papers, her identity was flawless. It had even withstood police interrogation when, months later in the investigation of Mike Vello's disappearance, as his (assumed) girlfriend, she had been deposed as a possible witness. Her background had checked out thanks to his mother, Karen Shipley, who had manipulated the Citizen Registry with the help of governmental contacts and had gotten her a legitimate identification chip.
He climbed the stairs three at a time and exhaled a breath of relief when he topped the stairs. There she was, clearly upset but well, and still here, and still his. He crossed the room to her. She stood in a tight little package, arms crossed tightly, lips pursed and her brow creased. Even in this defensive pose her beauty was indescribable.
He took her in his arms and she stiffened at first and then relaxed. He felt her uncurl her arms and wind them around him.
He took a deep breath and asked the question. "OK..." he started. "Tell me what's wrong."
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William sat alone in what used to be his room. It's still my room, his mind tried to justify. What kept throwing him off was the image of the girl wearing his mother's clothes that followed his every movement in the mirror over his dresser. There was no place he could hide from her. Hell, even if he couldn't see her in the mirror he could feel the way the dress fell upon his legs when he walked. He could feel the bra on his chest and the long hair that kept falling into his face.
He was trapped in here, waiting for judgment. His father was home now. He had pleaded with his mother not to allow his father upstairs. William didn't want his father to see him like this. His mother would not commit to such a stipulation. She had argued that he had to be involved. He was their best chance at solving this problem. William had agreed but only reluctantly and with a great deal of protest. When he had been unable to offer a reasonable excuse that Gary be kept away, he had been forced to relent to the idea. He was going to have to face the idea that he was not going to get out of this mess before the entire family found out what had happened to him.
There had to be someway of removing himself from the sight of his family until his parents found a way out for him, but just how does one do that? Everything he thought of was a dead end. His grandparents were dead. His mother had no living relatives, and every other place, hotel or official business that specialized in lodging required ID. He had to hide here. The girl looking back at him in the mirror didn't exist in the Citizen Registry and had no rights. Hell, she was an outlaw for that matter.
Footfalls down the hall, two sets, one lighter than the other, sharper and crisper sounding, which would be his mother. The second set was muffled, heavier but with a softer soul on the shoe. Dad!
"Christ!" she muttered. William lost all resolve; he frantically spun around searching for a place to hide. The door opened before he could dash someplace that offered refuge. He stood frozen, dressed in a skirt and blouse. He felt he might as well have just been standing there in his mother's panties and bra. God, how disgusting I feel. My mother has been inside of these freaking things. A shudder coursed down his spine.
"Hi honey." His mother said as she entered the room. Behind her he could see his fathers hair, blonde but starting to turn white in places with age. Not much now, but when you got close or in good light you could see he was starting to age.
Gary stepped into the room. William had been taller than his father by better than an inch and promised to be almost six-five by the time all was said and done. He had not looked up at his father in quite a while. Now he looked up at both his mother and father. William could see his father struggling with emotions he could not identify, anger, hate, loathing, and embarrassment -- he could only guess how much his father despised him and what he had become. William averted his eyes and hung his head. Blonde hair spilled down over his head like a golden fountain. He made no attempt to remove it from where it hung, it was good cover, flaxen camouflage for a face that was not his but he could not escape.
Gary stepped into the room. There was a girl there, near the bathroom that adjoined William's room with Erin's. Is that you William? He wanted to ask the question desperately. When Michelle had told him what had happened he was mad at first she would play such a sick joke. Surly she understood that he still carried an incredible amount of guilt from his first and only disastrous contact with SKIN's.
He felt the girl scanning his face for some sign of his thoughts and feelings He fought to control the fear and pain he felt for his son. He fought to control the anger at Jason Fenton for not only doing this to his son but from what Michelle had told him, for trying to cover up his mistake by trying to kill his son. He didn't want this child misunderstanding what he was going through. Then the child looked away, at the floor. There was shame in the girl's eyes. Gary wanted to race to the girl, hold her and assure her that everything was going to be OK. Gary fought tears but they came anyway. I guess you're not that strong after all wimp! he thought.
Michelle had been gauging the reaction of the two of them and quickly took Gary by the hand when the water works started and led him out into the hall. "If you break, William will too." She reached up and held his cheek in the palm of her hand. "Baby... please, I know it's hard." Michelle was on the verge of tears herself. The pain had started all over again. But now it was their child.
Gary sniffled and brought himself under control. "I'm OK." He smiled down at his wife. "Really. I just wasn't ready for all this to start again. For some reason I thought you were still joking, but you're not. That's really William in there."
Michelle nodded that yes, it was William.
"Ok... Let's go back in." Gary said.
"You have to hold yourself together better Gary."
He nodded his agreement.
The two went back in. At first they both thought that while they weren't looking William had exited and run off. Then they both saw the lump under the comforter on the four-poster bed.
Gary looked to Michelle, she nodded and gestured with a nod to the bed, Go on oh master of the household, be a man. Gary looked towards heaven as if for strength, and then cleared his throat. The figure under the bedclothes jumped at the sound of his coughing. "William?" He was not sure what to say beyond that. It was hard enough thinking of that girl as his son. Now he had to think of something positive to say. The truth was, Gary didn't feel very positive. His track record with these things was not very good.
There was no response so Gary tried again. "William? Son, please come out and talk to me?"
"Can you get me out of this thing?" came a sweet tender feminine voice, muffled by the thickness of the comforter.
"I... I don't know son." It was honest, maybe not the best thing to say but not a lie.
"I'm sorry Dad. Please don't hate me." The voice under the covers so moved him he felt he was going to have to leave the room again. He knew that move would be misinterpreted as disgust or hate or some other negative emotion directed toward William. He had to stand his ground. He went to the bed and sat on the edge of it. The lump under the covers shifted left, away from where the girl sensed her father was sitting.
"William, please?" Gary said tenderly. "I don't hate you."
"You do. I saw the way you looked at me. You hate me."
It was an astounding thing. Gary couldn't help but play out scenarios he had played out with Michelle when her own body was going through the changes that had brought them both to this point. Gradually it seemed Mike had internally changed from the rough masculine person he had been to someone more tender and concerned about the way people perceived her. Could a change, one on such an emotional level have happened so quickly? Or was William just concerned about what he, his father, was thinking of his son? It was hard to gauge. He could not see the child's eyes.
He tried to remove the covers but the person underneath resisted.
"You have to come out, at some point William, you will need to eat or pee." He looked over at Michelle to see if that made sense and Michelle was giving him the cut signal. Gary understood that pointing out anything that would be different to William now might be counter productive. He cradled his forehead in his hand and lamented his choice of words. "If you don't come out William, I'm going to have to pull the covers off the bed."
Slowly, fingers appeared from beneath the blanket. They curled around the edge and began to pull the comforter off. There was hair, could have even been his color were he younger, then a forehead, a pair of deep blue eyes, a nose, high cheek bones. The eyes blinked, evaluating the emotional temperature of the room before exposing the rest of the face.
Then the eyes shifted to Gary. His heart melted with the pain in those eyes. Those eyes illustrated not only shame, doubt and self-loathing but guilt, William felt he was getting what he deserved even if he didn't like it, Gary could tell that's what he felt. He's changing inside.
"Come on. Come on out." Gary coaxed.
The covers came down all the way. "I'm sorry Dad."
"Your mother told me what happened."
"I said I was sorry."
Gary closed his eyes and nodded. When he opened them again the girl was sitting upright and in full view, seemingly a little more relaxed. It was then Gary noticed the resemblance. As if queued, Michelle stepped up to the other side of the bed. Gary got a clear view of the two together.
"What?" Michelle asked.
Gary didn't answer. He studied the two. Then whispered, "God Damn..." He said nothing more.
The two women looked first at each other and then back at Gary. In stereo, in perfect harmony, they asked, "What?"
Gary pointed at the mirror over William bureau. The two looked at the mirror but saw no reason for concern beyond the obvious. They both looked back at Gary again. For him the moment was masked in a swirling unreality. Maybe it was because this new face was dressed in an outfit he knew belonged to his wife. Maybe, Gary reasoned, it was due to Michelle's youthful looks. Either way, the resemblance was clear. The two women could have been sisters.
Gary had gotten William to emerge. Now his mind pondered the question: what would these women do if he told them what he saw? What would happen if they recognized it? He had certainly been upset by it. It could very well have a more adverse reaction on these two.
How could it be these two would have gotten SKIN's that so closely resembled each other. The resemblances were not profound, facial structure, the shape of the eyes, similar jaw line. They couldn't pass as twins. Gary could only reason that perhaps SKIN's were patterned after some sort of template. OK Guy! Why then were all the skins in the box that you and your friends tried that weekend all so different?
He couldn't answer that. The alternative to his template idea was that there was some design to what was happening to his family. His mind went back to the journal that Michelle had dictated shortly after accepting the fact that she was going to remain Michelle for the rest of her life. She had written some crazy theory that Erin; her dead sister, was driving them all toward some divine plan. Hell she had admitted as much to Kit and himself when things were still on the rocks before they were married.
He remembered that he had tried to humor her the whole time thinking that it was the stress of the transformation. It had been her mind's way of circumventing the shock of the event, which had to have been considerable. Now Gary was rethinking that possibility. There seemed to be some underlying reason for this as well but couldn't remember what it might be.
He decided to decide on his family's behalf. There were more important issues on the table before them. If he could manage to extricate his son from that body then it would be a moot issue anyway. Why tell them. If they noticed on their own, then deny he noticed. Keep the peace and stay focused on the real issue. Getting William out!
Michelle was walking to him. "What do you see?"
He had to change the subject quickly. "Never mind... phantoms. Not sure what it was now." He offered a fake but real enough sounding laugh so that Michelle shrugged and dismissed it.
"How long do you think it will take you and Mom to get me out of this thing?" The girl sounded guarded. That was good, Gary thought. Although William already has his expectations set very high, he had to be careful and not fuel those expectations with false hope. They didn't have a patch code transmitter. No... not right, Gary thought, we don't have THE patch code transmitter. There was only one that would work. One in the entire world, and who in the hell knew where that was now.
Gary exhaled, "I don't know hon."
"So it could be tomorrow?" the girl said hopefully. William saw his mother glance at Gary with caution in her eyes. His mother then crossed her arms and set her face in a hard stony mask, her trademark expression of grim times ahead. That look sent an icy dagger into William's heart. "Longer than that?" she said in shocked surprise. "Sunday?" William's sweet face was drawn out in obvious fear, his eyes were large blue and white orbs that nearly consumed the top part of his head. Still his parents wouldn't answer.
"Oh no..." cried the girl. Neither Gary nor Michelle could tell if she was lamenting the idea that she might have to stay a girl until Sunday or if she had gotten the hint that this may be a much longer stay than that.
The girl spun on her heal; plopped her self down on the opposite edge of her bed and buried her face in both hands and shuddered. It was a stereotypical female gesture. Gary turned his gaze to see if Michelle had seen it. The look on her face, raised eyebrows and all, told him that she had. This change seemed to be happening much faster than he remembered Michelle's change. But then, maybe, Michelle had just hid it better.
Before either parent could speak to comfort William, he spoke. "Tell me one thing then. I'm not stuck like this am I? You can get me out of this thing, right?"
There was nothing to say. YES Gary wanted to scream. I'll get you out of there! I wont let this happen a second time; but he couldn't. It was in all probability a lie. He could only hope that William's story was not entirely true and Jason was still in town, or at worst the transmitter was somewhere in his house and he might be able to break in and find it.
"No! That can't be it. Not that fast, not so final." She looked at Michelle. "Mom? Please!" The girl held out her arms to Michelle. She looked fragile, not at all the boy her son had been, the man he had become. "Please Mom. There has to be something you can do. Call someone. Do SOMETHING!" The girl slipped off the bed and on to her knees. Both parents rushed to the girl's side but like Michelle so many years before the girl did not want comforts and sympathy. She simply wanted out.
"William, we're not out of this yet. I just can't tell you when that's all. Mostly because I just don't know when." Gary said. It sounded almost like a promise to Michelle and she shot him a cautious glance. Gary nodded, he understood how it sounded but he had to tell his son something. He had to have information. There had to be some glimmer of hope or they might as well commit him to Belleview right now and save them all the trouble.
"You can get me out then?" the girl looked up at her father.
"I can't make promises. We are all in a big pile of pooh here. I can't tell you that I can. But I can tell you I have ideas."
"What are they?"
"Well, um... " Gary started, put on the spot was not his best position. Michelle's face dropped.
"We can go over to the Fentons and see what we find. Maybe they didn't leave like you think they did." Michelle said.
"Yeah, We can do that!" Gary said excitedly and both girls looked at him with feminine contempt and then ignored him.
"We'll talk to him. See what he says. I can be pretty convincing when I have to be." Michelle said.
Gary said nothing.
"You'll go now then? I really don't want to be this any longer. Please?"
Michelle nodded. The big issue for her was that her son was in a SKIN. Would she have reacted differently to this situation if it had been a male SKIN? She couldn't say. You have to live a situation to claim to understand it, to say for sure how you will react. You've seen people that claim to know exactly what they would do in a given moment, 'If it were me, why I'd' or 'You know, what he should have done was... but unless you're really there, living it; how in the hell do you know for sure how you'd react? She wanted to say that, yes; she would have been just as outraged and concerned. He was in legal trouble here. She wanted to believe that her experience had taught her this was not an issue of male versus female. However, watching this girl, Michelle could clearly remember the fear and self-loathing she had felt each time she caught herself looking in the mirror out of her girl's face. How she felt on those first few days when she had to wipe after peeing or wear girls clothes just to keep from attracting attention and to look normal.
She wished she could talk to William, dispel those feelings she knew he was having. It might make his time as a woman easier to deal with. There was no way Michelle could ever tell anyone who she had once been, especially her children. That life was over, Mike was dead and there was no telling how they would react to the news. No, she would have to find another way to comfort her son for now. His hate for what he had become belonged to William. She could not just take that away.
"Yes, we'll go now. You stay here. Don't answer the door for anyone. Stay away from the VID, don't answer that either."
"Don't worry. I'm not going anywhere, ever again!" the girl said shaking her head. Her hair flopped and flipped before her face... "Arrrgggghhhhh! Can I cut this crap off?" he said grabbing a hand full of it.
Gary shook his head no subtly. Michelle felt she understood why but didn't want to say anything here in front of William. Michelle reached over and ran her index finger along the girl's hair, trapping it and guiding it behind first her right ear, then her left. "There. When it gets in the way, just tuck it behind your ears like that. It will keep it out of your face."
The girl bent forward to test it. It seemed to work OK. "I can't cut it off though?" she asked again.
"Not right now hon. Let's wait and see what happens."
"Why, I don't need it." Michelle pursed her lips at the comment. William wasn't going to let it go. "Why would I need it?"
Gary took the roll of the bad guy. "You might have to keep your new look as pristine as possible for a while. You screw up your natural appearance and you may draw more attention to yourself than you need to."
William let out a deflated. "Great."
_ _ _ _ (_) _7 (_) _7 (_) _7 (_) + (_) + (_) + (_) +
Gary and Michelle crossed the park as they did almost each day. On those days, when there was little or nothing to worry about, the two would walk together, arms locked about the others waist. They would draw stares from those that didn't know them, new neighbors mostly that saw a man getting a bit too cozy with a girl half his age. But most knew them either from the restaurant or as neighbors, and even more knew Michelle from her two successful singles and one gold album and one platinum album of tunes she did with Tidewater before finally telling the band that she would do album projects but touring while she had kids to take care of was out of the question.
The issue of Michelle's appearance of perpetual youth was a subject that had thus far gone unspoken out loud by both. Both had their own concerns and the other would be surprised to find out that each was worried about his or her partner. Gary was concerned about what Michelle's inability to age would do to her longevity. How long would she live?
There were selfish reasons embedded in his concern for Michelle. As he approached the middle of his life, concerns of mortality began to crowd in. He was not as concerned about death as he had been when he was younger, of dying young and missing so much life. Now he was more concerned with outliving his wife. As time wore on however it seemed less and less a real concern. He was confident that her youth would keep her alive until he was gone. He hated himself for the idea. He understood just how much she loved him. He understood what it would do to her if he were suddenly not there. Michelle had told him countless times in one way or another that it didn't matter if they had nothing, not a penny to their name, as long as she had him. It was the reason she was. "It was why I was born Gary." she would end by saying. Gary knew it wasn't true. She had been born because he had been careless with the life of a friend. Things turned out well for nearly everyone, but he could not shake the guilt of his responsibility. All the same it helped the guilt when she said things like that to him. He could almost free himself of the burden of it.
Now that so much time had passed and Michelle had not aged at all, he was very concerned about how long she might live without him. If her engineered body had extended longevity programmed into it, she may be in for a long, lonely ride.
A bit presumptuous of you, don't you think Gary old man? Is it not more likely that she'll find some other man to love? It's not like she had a weight problem or that she's 'got a great personality'.
Maybe he was worrying needlessly. Still, it gnawed at him from time to time.
The two approached the darkened Brownstone the Fentons owned.
They both saw the trash bin on the curb as they approached the apartment. Gary went up the stairs and knocked on the door. "How much do you wan..." He started talking to his wife thinking she was beside him but when he looked she was indeed not there. He looked back and saw his beautiful wife picking through the trash bin, out in the middle of the curb. "What in the hell are you doing?" He raced off the steps back down and to the street. "Dear girl, can you please tell me what you're looking for?"
"We know who done it," he said sarcastically.
"Confirmation then. Evidence." She picked around a bit more and then smiled. "Ah ha!" as she pulled out an empty poly-wrap bag. "Look familiar?"
"I'll be damned. I wouldn't have thought he was stupid enough to throw it in the trash."
"Honey, that's because you're a man. You'll be surprised what you don't think of." She smiled again and kissed her husband. "It's best I don't tell you either. It would just ruin your day."
"Ummmm. You know I still remember a day when..." Gary grumbled.
Michelle quickly changed the subject, cutting him off, "OK! Seems like we've had enough fun for one day. It's time to get down to business." Without waiting for a response from her husband she turned with poly-wrap in hand and marched toward the Fenton home.
Without saying it, both felt they could relax now just a bit. If Jason was home, they had a tool with which to bargain now for the patch code transmitter that would release William. They had a tool with which to threaten. But that's all it came down to really. If they made good on their threats, the game was over.
Gary pressed the bell expecting the door VID to spring into life but no one answered it. After a few minutes he rang again.
"Don't panic yet, OK?"
"OK." She agreed and clutched at his arm with her free hand.
After the third ring the VID sprang into life and both let out a sigh of relief. But it was short lived. The image was that of Becky Fenton. Becky had been dead for seven years now and Jason had steadfastly refused to replace the VID's answering message.
"Hi, I'm sorry, Jason, Carrie and I aren't in right now."
"Gary? God Damn it. He's gone."
"Don't go getting yourself upset." He said trying to calm her.
Becky continued unabashed by the conversation going on outside her door. "I'm happy you stopped by and if you'd like to leave a message I'd be happy to return your call as soon as I get home."
That line echoed in Gary's ears with a hollow kind of irony. I wonder how many messages are in there; if he really expected his dead wife to come back and answer them for him? He could imagine the magnetic storage running out of space or already full of messages, the ghosts of visitors that would never get a response. The thought made him shiver and he suddenly wanted to be away from this image of Jason's dead wife. It was too much like a vision, a portent of things to come.
"OK," he said nearly in a panic. "They've stepped out for dinner or something. We'll call them back in a little while." Gary knew that wasn't true either. They had run. Everything William had told Michelle was true. Jason had tried to kill William. Why? Because he had no idea how to get William out of that SKIN, Gary knew they would find no transmitter if they broke in and searched. It was not in there. There would be no other reason to try to kill him.
"Gary?" she asked confused, "What's wrong?" She ran her hand over his face sensing something had fallen very badly out of kilter in Gary's universe. His face was cold; slick beads of sweat had popped out on his forehead and his color was bad, pale.
"Nothing," he said but was trying to pull away out of her grasp and walk down the stairs to the sidewalk.
"Wait Gary, please..." pleading she chased after him. When she caught him she turned him around and made him face her. He was ghostly pale and his breath was coming in short gasps. The sweat was now trickling down the sides of his face.
"GARY! Oh my God... What's wrong?"
"Nothing... Re... really." He assured her, then wretched on the grass of Jason's small front yard.
"You're having a heart attack!" she announced to him with the conviction of a physician. To Gary, Michelle sounded as if she were a million miles away.
"No I'm not. See?" he said. To prove he was fine he turned and fell flat on his face in the Fenton front yard without so much as a grunt or a how do you do.
He came to minutes before the ambulance came. A small crowd of spectators had gathered around him and he felt self-conscious sitting there in the concrete with everyone watching him. His wife was there, holding his head.
"Hi!" he said with a weak smile. He felt better at least. Better than what?
"Hi yourself, lie still." Michelle said with a grave tone.
"I'm fine Michelle. What happened?"
"You had a heart attack." She confirmed again.
Gary raised his eyebrows in surprise, "Oh I'm sorry Doctor. Is that your professional diagnosis?"
"Yes." Michelle said.
"I want a second opinion if you don't mind." He said and smiled at her.
"You do? Well then, how's this? You work too hard."
"Really Michelle, I'm fine! Let me up." He started to sit up and she got nearly hysterical.
"You had better just lay down right where you are Mr. Gary Alan Shipley or so help me I'll shove my heels though your wrists and pin you to the ground. You're not well and the ambulance is on the way."
"AMBULANCE? Oh for Christ's sake..." whined Gary; but Michelle continued unfazed by his interruptions.
"As your wife, so help me if you don't do what I say I will make you very sorry. That's a promise oh dear man o' mine."
That got a rise out of the crowd and one woman shouted out, "You tell him, mine doesn't know what good for him either." The crowd laughed again and the tension of the medical emergency began to lighten some.
"I tell you, all I did was faint. I had a little fainting spell." He appealed to the crowd. "Someone help me out here."
One guy spoke up right away. "No thanks pal, it's my guess that anyone that helps you is going to get the heel treatment instead of you. I'll pass."
"Fine!" he said and crossed his arms in a huff.
Michelle mocked him with a smile and kiss, "Fine!"
"Be that way."
"I will." she assured him and kissed him again. She was trying to be pleasant but she could not mask the fear in her face. That look hurt him beyond words. He certainly didn't want her worrying about him. There was enough to worry about right now.
Twenty minutes later the ambulance was pulling away leaving a more cheery Gary and an annoyed Michelle Shipley standing on the street corner alone. The crowd had dispersed as soon as the realized that Gary had indeed fainted. Michelle protested, insisting that they had the money to pay a real doctor to make a more qualified decision but the NEOMed said that the PCG didn't lie, his heart was just fine and all he needed was some bed rest... at home.
"Don't be mad at them Michelle, I know you're worried about more than just my health. I'm fine. Let's get home, we have to talk to William. If we don't come up with something by the end of tomorrow then we're going to have to start making excuses and formulate a long term plan to keep him and us out of the hands of the authorities"
"I know." She hung her head in sadness at the idea. She turned to the Brownstone behind them and cursed Jason's family but Gary stopped her.
He walked up behind her and put his hands on her shoulders facing her back and whispered to her. "Help me focus our thoughts on solving the problem not getting mad at the problem. Please."
The memory of what had caused the feeling that the world was coming to an end was a distant memory. But as he looked back at the house he could remember it well. The image of a long gone Becky Fenton welcoming guests she could no longer touch or see crept back over him. He felt pity for Jason. He guessed he understood what it might be like to loose someone that meant that much to you. He hoped every day that he would never have to experience it. It was part of the reason he was so silently pleased that Michelle seemed not to be aging much at all. If he could hold on to her until he died, he could die happy. He admonished himself again for such selfish thoughts but when you loved someone as hard as he loved Michelle it was difficult not to be selfish.
I hope I never find out what it's like to walk a mile in your shoes Jason.
He had to change the subject in his head or go crazy.
"Let's go home. If William saw that from his bedroom window then it won't take him long to think that it had something to do with us. We have a scared child back there that is probably wondering if his father's had a heart attack or something."
"OK already... you were right and I was wrong!" Michelle conceded
"God I love to hear you say that." He said and pinched his wife on the butt gently, just for fun.
"Ouch! Gary, stop it!"
Gary held up two fingers and gave her a pinching gesture eyebrows raised, a devilish grin on his face. The distraction from everything that was happening was welcome. They would both have to resume the serious business of their son soon enough, but it was more than he could resist pinching her just one more time. Maybe twice.
"Gary. Ouch! Oh... Stoooooooop..." she cried and squealed and ran off across the park with Gary in hot pursuit.