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

Skin Deep II: The Dance
Chapter 8: The Radio's Playin'
Some Forgotten Song
by Mark McDonald
©2002 Mark McDonald -- all rights reserved

Michelle didn't seat the man in the tailored gray suit, starched white shirt and blood red tie. Her back was to him as she gathered menus and organized the hostess station when he arrived at The Red Fish and waited to be seated. The elegant man caught glimpses of the lady from but never clearly saw her. Even so memories pulled and tugged at his heartstrings. So much about this woman reminded of his own wife Eliecia. But then that was a common occurrence. So many dark-haired women over the years had caught his attention, causing him to falter. Quite often there seemed such a resemblance that he would stumble in mid-step or his breath would catch in his chest. But now after so long it happened less and less that this time it took him a bit by surprise. He had wanted to wait until she turned to face him fully, curious about her face but Nancy, Michelle's assistant ushered the man off to a table out of sight of the station before Michelle was finished.

He sat at his table, smiled and thanked the young woman who handed him his menu and then reviewed the menu alone, as he had done many, many times in the past. He didn't cook for himself. He had never found time to become a domestic individual. His wife had done these things for him and he had always been grateful to her for all she had done. He had never once taken for granted what a marvelous gift she had brought to his life. She seemed glad to do it for him, happy only to spend what time they could together in return, but he tried to give her so much more.

His ambitions had been fueled by his need to see her smile. The way her eyes lit up when she saw him sent bolts of electric joy through him that were so strong they could have set a dead star ablaze. Those deep green eyes were on his mind at all times of the day and night, her radiant smile and flawless skin. It was a constant amazement that she was so deeply in love with him, so patient and needful. It drove him to be with her every minute he could spare. When he left the lab each night, he would literally run to his HOV in the company lot. Sometimes even blundering into people on the way, knocking them over and rarely excusing himself. If only they had known why he ran so, they would understand his eagerness to get home to her arms.

Since his family's death in 2079 in what he had always considered a freak HOV accident that had taken the life of one other, a young lady on her way to a function of some sort if he remembered correctly, he rarely left the office. When he did, it was to drop off or pick up cleaning or go out to eat as he was doing now. Occasionally he spent time at his friend's house, Jason Fenton. Those days were gone now too. He felt bad for poor Carrie. She was too young to have to go through what she was going to when the authorities caught her father. Perhaps there was something he could do for her when that happened. Some favor he could call in to have her placed in normal home and spare her the future she would have to face in the hands of the Federal Government.

As he sat scanning the menu there was a sudden rush of wind past him and a scent of perfume, a ghost almost forgotten. The very nature of the disturbance, the change in air pressure as the woman walked by startled him to the core. It was a fingerprint in his mind. He could see Eliecia walk past, turn to smile that flirtatious smile and say by in her sexy way, tempting, daring him to follow her. The memory was so strong he almost choked on the lump that formed in his throat. His eyes watered with sadness and he felt he should run from this place where ghosts live.

But instead of running he looked for the source of this vivid memory. There she was; the people she was escorting to a table blocked his view of her. She vanished around a corner, exposing only a fraction of a profile but with that glimpse his heart froze for just a second. He shook the vision from his head. She's dead fool. It usually worked these days but the idea that he had seen her would not leave him. He looked around the restaurant and took in the environment. The places she might move to after seating her guests. After a while, a few minutes maybe, when she did not return he began to feel compelled to get up and find her.

As he made up his mind to get up and search the building for her discreetly, to put the idea to rest there was a hand on his shoulder. It was a feared but expected moment in the life of a SKIN engineer. Only a few were allowed to know so much and he. His power was in the fact that they could not do what he had done. They could not live without him. What was worse was that those above him knew it. He had tried to withhold information, stall projects, and encrypt documentation in his own code but eventually those tactics only got you so far. Eventually everyone one was expendable, and in a way it would be a welcome relief. He could see his Eliecia once more, this time forever. It would be hard to kill him though. They had made sure of that, so in the end it was academic anyway. They wanted him to stick around to make these abominations for them.

He looked up to see which agent had been assigned the task. It was most likely someone he knew well. Someone that would make light conversation and keep the tone of the evening light. A supper, a last supper if you will, drinks, a drive back to where he lived, just to get him out of the public view.

He looked up to see who had gotten the job, Darrell or Stephen perhaps. Sweet, kind Stephen, he had always been so good to him, and he was still so young. It seemed a horrible thought that someone so young would have to cut his 'Agency' teeth by killing a friend.

But the face looking back was not Darrell or even Stephen. It was that man with the niece. He wrestled with the name. Larry... no... that's not it. Gary yes that's it. He remembered the documentation he had pulled from the CITREG computers. He owned this restaurant, he and his wife. He was slipping in his old age.

"Mr. Shipley, what a pleasant surprise."

"Mr. Michales. I'm surprised to see you. Pleased, but surprised. I want to thank you for doing what you could and for the heads up. I know you must have gone to some great risks to help."

"No, it was nothing really. I understand the love a man carries for his family." Michales played down his role. "I wish I could have given you more satisfaction than you got."

"You did what you could, I want to buy your dinner tonight. Anything on the menu or off it, if I know what it is and have it in the back, I'll make it for you."


Gary bowed, "Head Fry Cook, Gary Shipley, at your service Sir."

"I really couldn't, but thank you just the same. Let me ask, how is your niece?"

Gary faltered for a moment. The uncomfortable silence sent up a thousand warning signals to the to the inventor turned government golden child. It was this man's connection with Michales' old friend Fenton that was more a curiosity. When this man, Shipley, told Michales about the alleged abuse Michales had looked into it for him and found something much worse. He found that Fenton had been making regular trips to the disposal facility. Why would a programmer do such a thing?

Michales had not wanted to think the worst, but in this business he had been forced to face the possibility that Jason had been smuggling out SKINs that were to have been destroyed. Considering the time span, some sixteen years, he could have taken hundreds, hell thousands of SKINs out of the facility. A breech like that would only be second to the single greatest loss known to date back in 2081 when a shipment of SKINs slated for destruction were stolen while being transported. It was the main reason a disposal facility had been built on the factory site. Not a single one of the SKIN's in '81 had ever been found.

No it was clear that he had been taking SKINs and selling them for profit. Michales had not been able to find the money, no electronic trail anyway. That meant only one thing; he had converted it all to cash. Michales was pretty sure he could show that Fenton had been lifting the SKIN's from the disposal unit. So he had turned him in. What else could he do? Once you started looking, others saw what you were looking for and got suspicious.

Now, with his hair on the back of his neck up in hackles, he knew that this man's niece had not been abused. It was something more sinister. It was the thing that had set the wheels in motion for Jason's demise, the reason Jason had run.

Terrence knew he had to help this man. Children should not have to become victims of his invention just because the government was nervous and extreme. "Is there a place where we can talk my friend?" Michales asked.

"Ah... Look, I have customers..." Gary suddenly didn't want to talk to this many any more. He knew something. He could see it in this man's eyes. To talk would be to reveal. To reveal to this man, Gary felt, would be to condemn his family.

Michales took his hand gently, "It will all be OK. I can help you. Don't worry, I'll say nothing." Terrence looked about and then brought his lips close to Gary's ear. "You and I both know there is more to your story, let me help you. Don't let a child suffer this in justice."

Gary felt his knees would not support his weight. It was out, the secret was known. He had never felt more like running away in his entire life. He fear he felt was paralyzing. Terrence placed a hand on his shoulder. "As I said, don't worry. Come, a place to talk."

"Y... yes. I have just the place." Gary's look was vacant and blank as he led Terrence to the wine cellar. Down the sides of the room were racks after racks of wine, thousands of bottles, champagnes, and whites on one side, reds on the other. Each was further subdivided in to groups by grape or region syrah, cabernet franc, cabernet sauvignon, burgundy, Beaujolais and Bordeaux. The white wines were divided in similar fashion. Inside there was a tasting room with a separate door for privacy during tasting events that the Shipley's hosted from time to time.

This entire room was done in arched, low ceilings of brick. The ceiling was embedded with black timbers of wood that were bent and cured from the center of the ceiling to the floors. There was a long black wooden table, a time traveler from some distant region of Spain hundreds of years ago. Eight wooden and wrought iron chairs with crushed red velvet appointments, soldiers standing guard, surrounded it, protecting it. In the center were several bottles of wines from a couple of Long Island wineries.

"A glass?" Gary offered but Terrance held up his hand in thanks but refusal. "Well, I need one." Gary took a glass from the overhead rack and opened a bottle of Local Flavor White from Peconic Bay Winery and poured a glass. He took a deep but gentle sip of the yellow liquid. Terrence could see the color come back to his face, even in the dim light of the tasting room.

"I want you to feel at ease with me." Michales said in his easiest tone.

Gary exhaled hard and then poured another glass of wine. "I would like that, I really would. But my... my..."

"Your niece... your family? You could get them in a lot of trouble couldn't you?"

Gary nodded and with a shaky hand, drank and then poured another glass of wine.

"I do not want that to happen to you. I really don't. This man, Jason Fenton, he was a friend of mine too, or so I thought. Would it surprise you to find out he was dealing in a contraband technology?"

Gary said nothing, only leveled a stare at the man now on the opposite side of the table from him.

"So cautious... that is good, no? But then if you were so cautious, you would not be here with me now." Gary visibly stiffened. "It is OK my friend. I know what led you to the factory that morning."

Gary raised his eyebrows.


"Yes... that's it all right." Gary agreed.

"Tell me what has happened." Terrence encouraged.

Gary began, "His daughter, Jason's that is, her name is Carrie."

"Yes, I have met her several times, please continue."

Gary pulled his fingers through his damp hair, "I can't believe I'm actually going to tell you this." He said. "It seems my son, he was... they were... There's no polite way to say this." He grinned an embarrassed grin, and continued. "They were sleeping together; but he was using her. I don't believe he cared for her."

"And she got upset?"

Gary nodded, "And she put him in a SKIN while he slept. At least that's his story. Now they've run off and we can't get him out of the SKIN."

"You said niece? Why would you say that unless..." Michales' eyes widened with enlightenment, "Oh my."

"Yes indeed, Oh my!"

"She is your son? Carrie put him in a SKIN designed for a female? How awful for your son. I have heard of cases like this. One actually happened at the Bureau. Poor guy went hopelessly insane when he found they couldn't get him out. That's all I can say about that however, classified you know."

Gary nodded; it was more than he really wanted to hear anyway.

"I can help you."

"How?" he said skeptically. Until now he hadn't really understood how hopeless their situation was. Now it was made even more desperate by the fact that the day before they ran from Police Services, he had revealed his family's secrets to this man who was more than likely with the Federal Government.

"If I tell you that, you could get in even greater trouble."

"If you don't, I'm going to die right here of a fucking stroke. I'm peeking out here. I'm talking about things I shouldn't be with a man I don't really know. Who, by the way, already knows more than I would feel comfortable with. Work with me here."

Terrance looked without emotion at the man and after a pause, began speaking. "I am the General Director for the SKIN's program for the Federal States. They are produced in that factory where you so unceremoniously knocked me to the ground. Be careful with that information. It could get you imprisoned... or worse."

Gary felt faint. He wanted to pass out right then and there. Gary poured and drank another glass of wine. "Next time, just TAZE me when I get pushy." Terrence chuckled a bit.

The door to the wine cellar opened upstairs and Brenda shouted down. "Gary? Michelle is looking for you."

Gary opened the door to the tasting room. "Tell her I'll be up in a sec, but right now, I can't be disturbed. Tell her to... No wait," he turned to Terrance, "Can you excuse me? I to make sure we are not disturbed."

"I'll be right here. In fact, I think I'll have a glass of that wonderful wine you seem to like so much."

"Yes, help yourself, please. I'll be right back."

Upstairs Gary located Michelle at the hostess podium. "Hi hon."

"Where have you been? The kitchen is in confusion. They need you back there."

Gary pleaded. "Just a few more minutes. I'm working on something that may help William. If I can pull this off, we can stay here, we won't have run."

The enthusiasm in his voice made her dizzy. Could this really be true? Could Gary have found a way to help? If so what could that help possibly be?"

Without knowing the details, Michelle was already clearly torn. Her fear for exposing her family to this level of risk versus the prospect of freeing her son and putting the pieces of their collective lives back together. That was clearly a most attractive proposal. It also bore the greater risk.

"How dangerous is this for all of us, this plan of yours? Brenda said you were in the cellar with someone else? Is it that man that was on the VID the other night?"

Gary shook is head. "The answers are... Very and Yes."

A cloud of fear drifted over Michelle's face. "Do you know what you're doing? Do you feel this will work out?"

"I think this may be our best shot."

"What are you standing around for then? Get moving. I'll handle the kitchen, Brenda can handle the dining room." Michelle encouraged.

"Great! I'll be right back." Gary said

"Hey," Michelle called after him, "Can you give me a hint?"

"No babe, not right now. Trust me. It wouldn't be a good thing." He ducked back into the wine cellar but Terrance was standing, it looked as if he were getting ready to leave."

"You're not going?"

"I must, I have a limited amount of time in the evening."

"I'm sorry, I didn't know." Gary apologized.

"It was my doing, not yours. It will be fine."


"Tomorrow morning. The sooner the better, the longer your son remains female the less likely I will be able to reverse the process, mentally. Physically should not be a problem. But it will become just as hard for your son to cope with returning to being a male as it is for him to accept being female."

Gary nodded. "Do I have your address?" he knew he didn't but didn't want to seem crass.

"I have left it on the table here, on a card. It should be easy for you to find. I must leave now."

"Your meal. You didn't get to eat. You offered to help us, please let me have something made for you to take home. I have some sea bass on a very nice eggplant ratatooie and fried sweet potato medallions with a spicy mango chutney salsa. It won't take a minute. I'll box it up and you can take it with you."

"That sounds nice, thanks."

Gary called up the order and they shared one more glass of wine. Brenda called down when the order was nearly ready and the two men walked up to the hostess station just as Michelle was turning to walk back to the kitchen. She walked into the dining room as Gary and then Terrence breeched the bar area just behind the hostess stand.

For Terrence, time seemed to slow almost to a crawl. He just saw the side of the face of a woman with long, reddish brown hair. It was a brown silky fountain that cascaded off the head and over the shoulders. Her profile was a symphony in motion. Her walk was fluid her shape was trim and slim but full and ripe at the same time. He knew there would be no sign of unsightly bones of a woman obsessed with losing weight showing through the skin on this body. Everywhere would be the smooth and unbroken perfection of feminine body. There would also be no excess fat to hide them. Hers was a perfect body. He also knew that her face would be that of an angel's. Her narrow soft nose over full, richly red lips, plump and sensual they would be. He knew she was would have green eyes.

The world swam in his head, she was walking away from him and he was going to faint. There, he could see one stocking clad leg vanish behind the wall that separated the hostess area from the dining room. Then it was gone.

Gary caught Michales before he hit the floor. "Hey, hey. You OK?"

"Yes!" Michales nodded. "I... I must be hungrier than I thought. Feeling a bit faint that's all."

"Brenda, Call a cab for Mr. Michales here. Our account." Gary ordered.

"Yes Sir." Brenda said and activated a small VID hidden by the podium.

"No, Please, you've been very kind. I just thought I saw someone I knew that's all."

"Really? Maybe you did. We can go see if you like." Gary offered.

"I couldn't have." Michales said steadying himself. "She's dead."

"Oh. I'm sorry." Gary knew he spoke of his wife.

Brenda came over with the box and a bottle of wine. "Mr. Shipley said you liked this wine. He wanted you to have a bottle with your meal."

"Thank you, thank you both. This is the most conversation I've had at diner in quite a while. I'll have to come back soon."

"Please do. You're always welcome here. Your money won't be, but you will always be welcome."

The men shook hands as the bell captain announced that a HOV had arrived for Terrence Michales.

"I believe that is my ride. Thank you again." He started to walk away. Then he turned "Ten in the morning?" He asked. Gary nodded. "I'll tell you how much I enjoyed the fish then."

"Good night my friend." Gary said.

"Nice man." Brenda said.

"You just wouldn't believe how nice." Gary responded.

"Is he single?" Brenda asked.

Gary only nodded.

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

As her mind worked she was impressed by the idea that there was a lot of time she could no longer account for. What had she just been doing?

Never mind and enjoy this. Warm... Oh so warm... her brain told her. She was only dimly aware that she was in her room, that she was somewhere on her bed. She was melting in to it. There were parts of her that were loosening up and others that were tightening with tingles of excitement.

"Mmmmmmm!" she moaned softly. Nothing she had ever felt compared to this sensation. I was like that thrill you get when you're a child, when the tree is lit early Christmas morning exposing all the presents Santa had left. Like that first true love date. It was the excitement of knowing that they feel the same way too, but still no knowing really what to say to one another. It was the anticipation of wanting the evening to move on so they could get to that kiss.

She felt strong fingers curl gently behind her neck and draw her closer and her heart leapt. The touching was the best part; she wanted to be held so bad. Ever since this had started she had felt positively sterile and unapproachable. Even her parents hadn't had much to do with her. They had been distant and reserved, consumed with keep up appearances and forestalling discovery.

She squirmed in closer; she tried desperately to press against him. Her chest wanted to be touched. Her breasts ached for pressure. If she could only press against his chest and relieve a little of this frustration she would be fine.

Her lips pressed harder into his and gently a warm probing thing parted her lips and snaked it's way into her mouth. She gently clamped on it with her teeth and tugged on it playfully, then releasing it and driving her mouth over his wide open and sucking on his.

She was moaning freely now with the pleasure it was bring her and her body. She pulled herself closer but couldn't get close enough. He was leading her to the floor.

He? He who?

She followed. It was what she had to do. Her body was on fire and she knew that it could get much hotter. It had to get hotter; she was entirely frustrated with the lack of response she had provided for her screaming senses, she wanted more, no... she needed more.

Yeah! But he who?

The two plunged to their knees on the Persian rug that was spread upon the floor. The floor shook with the force of the impact of their bodies. It was only a miracle that they missed the broken glass all around them. Both were now blowing hot air out of their nostrils in large panting snorts rather than unlocking at the lips. They pulled each other close, knee walking and locking legs together when they could get no closer. She settled down with one of his legs between hers and the delicious pressure caused her to gasp and arch backward with surprise at the sensation. She felt an oily wetness spread through her groin that was startling but oh so exciting and pleasant. She grabbed the back of his neck and tried for force her head into his mouth. When that didn't work she settled for gently biting at his lower lip.

She pulled away long enough to get a breath and a cry escaped her when she did. She drove her pelvis further up Randy's leg.

Oh... That's right, Randy's here.

Then on the heels of that thought came one more... You're a fraud. He thinks you're someone else! He thinks you're a real girl.

She understood the thought but could not control the desire. She slammed her face back to his and started trying to suck it off. He was working equally as hard at trying to suck the skin off her face, obviously before she could succeed in getting the skin off his. The two teens were tightly wrapped up in each other's arms.

Her eyes opened briefly... I love this man. God, how wonderful is this man?


She closed them again and a second later she moaned, sweetly and pleasant.

Then another moan came from her.


"Mumm?" her eyes fluttered open for a second and then closed again. Then they snapped open and bulged with surprise and horror at what was happening. The voice was right. No matter what she felt it was not real, not natural. Randy had to know. She felt dirty and slimy. He had been so wonderful and she had let him believe... she didn't want to think about it. This was why she had invited him home, to deceive him. Nothing had changed, man or woman; she was still the same manipulating, self-important bitch.

She tried to gently extract herself from the situation but her brain, her body and her beau all protested. She Gave off a small moan of surprise "Muummm!" and tried again.

Sensing tension, Randy reluctantly let go but did so by slowing the pace leaving her with small peck on the lips but not letting loose from his grasp. She in turn answered his glancing kisses but was at a complete blank as to why she was doing so.

Her body was a singing wire. She swore she could feel tendrils of electricity flying off her in every direction. And still her consciousness struggled to separate herself from the fray.

"Oh... "

He came back in, Kiss

"Mummm; Oh no! Wait!"

In he came again, Kiss

"Mummm NO!"

She was now finally but reluctantly pushing off his chest muttering as she did... "Oh no... Oh no!"

"What!" Randy was asking. "What did I do?" he sounded genuinely concerned. "Are you OK? Did I do something wrong?"

"No..." she was shaking her head. The realization of what had just happened was sinking in now. She had just made out with her best friend. On the surface of it that statement in her mind exploded with all the ramifications and innuendo that comes with two heterosexual males experimenting with a homosexual relationship and having all their friends find out.

"Oh my God! What have I done?" she ignored Randy and his question. She glanced up... saw the door to the join bathroom and charged for it. To her gratitude it was unlocked, at least something was working out in her favor.

"What are you talking about, what have you done? Beth, did we do something against your religion? Talk to me, please." Randy heard water come on in William's, bathroom and what sounded like..."

"What are you doing in there?"

"Brufing my teeff!" She shouted back around a mouthful of Erin's toothbrush.

Randy brought his cupped hand up to his mouth, exhaled and quickly inhaled again through his nose, shrugged and asked, "Does my breath smell that bad? You didn't seem to mind a moment ago."

"Spat!" he heard as water left her mouth and landed in the basin.

"What? No... it's not you... it's me..." she said but there was a fretful tone to her voice.

Randy got up and went to the bathroom who's door stood open and peeked in. "Hello?" she was there toweling off her mouth and face. "That gross huh?"

"Well, if you only knew?" Randy flinched at the words and she knew she had just kicked him again without meaning to. "No... Wait..." she pleaded but he had already turned and walked back into the bed room. She followed quickly after him, her body was still on high alert status and every movement seemed to send her closer and closer to some vertical limit. Her nipples rubbed the inside of her shirt and she wished she hadn't have taken off that bra when she had gotten home.

"Randy, that's didn't come out right."

"Look, I'm not offended."

"Yes you are, I can hear it in your voice." She paced in front of the door blocking his exit as he packed up his stuff.

"No really, but I would like to get out of here before you say something like, 'I'm flattered that you feel about me like that.' I really don't want to hear that right now. I'm a big boy. I understand how the world works. It's cool. But please don't insult my intelligence. That's all I ask."

"I wish I could explain it. Please don't leave." She was desperate now. The day had been so nice. It had been wonderful to have a friend to talk to, and do work with and laugh with to share things with. Her body reacted to the thought of all the pleasant company by sending warmth all over her and giving her peace. She didn't want any of that to end. She needed Randy and his companionship.

"Well, that's one I guess I didn't count on. 'I wish I could explain.' That's almost as bad as 'It's not you, it's me.'"

"But it's the truth. You wouldn't believe me first of all and second I have to keep it a secret. Please, just don't leave." Was there more to her desire to wanting to keep him here. Deep down she was afraid of the answer to that. She kept focus on her more immediate needs and hid the others from view.

"I guess I can't hide that I'm hurt. I thought something else was going on here. I'm a little sore that I made myself look foolish; that's all, just let me get out of here with what pride I scrape up off the floor, Ok? You don't have to justify anything to me."

"Shit!" She stamped her foot on the floor causing her breasts to rub against her shirt again. Randy saw the expression on her face and grinned just a small invisible grin to him self.

"But can you at least tell me something?"

"If I can and if you'll stay."

"OK, are those to Colossus Warheads you have there under your blouse or are you just glad to see me?"

Blushing at the crude remark, she glanced down at her shirt and saw that her nipples were standing sharp, erect points. She quickly brushed a hand over them but they still to sensitive to touch comfortably so she decided to leave them alone. "It's... cold in here."

"Right!" he grinned a broader grin. "Come here." She shook her head in quick short bursts but her feet took to baby steps in Randy's direction. "Come on... I won't bite you."

"It's not the biting I'm afraid of."

"I know you like me."

"Yeah, and maybe a little too much. No Randy, please... don't ask me to."


"Because if I do I'm afraid I'm going to start kissing you again."

This time his smile beamed, "You see."

"Oh yes... I see, maybe you were right. Maybe you should go." She couldn't believe she was doing the safe thing. Her body wailed in anguish and her brain in anger at her words from the pent up desire to be loved and held. That she had been forced to endure this nightmare without any tenderness or compassion; and now here was this man she felt something for and she was sending him away?

Randy took two steps toward Beth closing the gap and as if prompted to do so Beth followed his steps unconsciously. They were a foot apart now. "You don't want me to go do you?"

Beth shook her head no.

"I didn't think so."

"Whew, Is it hot in here to you?" she asked absently and Randy smiled.

"I thought it was cold?" Randy said with a smile. "Now, you were saying something about a kiss."

"Please, I'm confused. There's something happening to me that I don't think I should let happen," she said. With a matter of fact tone she added, "But I can't seem to stop it. Please be strong with me. At least until I figure out what's happening to me."

Randy closed the last few inches and looked down on Beth's lovely face. He took the back of her neck in his hand and she leaned her head back, surrendering the last of her will. She could not control this or herself. Her body was now at the helm. She was simply a prisoner in the cargo hold along for the ride but she thought to her self. But oh God, what a fucking ride.

He placed his lips gently on hers and she pressed up to meet his. She gently parted her lips and took his upper lip in her and sucked on it lightly. Then he drew his head up and she opened her eyes.

Randy lost his heart at that moment. It sank into the depths of the deep blue pools of limpid splendor that were her eyes, and although they were glassy and glazed over with emotion all there own, she stared into his soul and stole his heart from him.

If she couldn't resist him and he could not be strong with her, she would have to tell him. He had the right to know who she really was. "Randy, I have something to tell you." She breathed and stood on tiptoe to kiss him again.

She looked into that cute and only slightly chubby face framed in perhaps a bit too long blonde hair and realized she had fallen helplessly in love with her best friend. The friend she had had when just a week ago she had been he. She now had to tell him; tell him everything. She could risk not doing it. If she were truly stuck, he might not ever find out. If she were not stuck, he might not ever find out. But if he did, and it didn't come from her here and now, he would never forgive her in any state or gender she possessed.

Randy looked into her eyes as she licked her lips. "So, did you figure out what's happening to you yet?"  

Beth said in a dreamy voice with half closed eyes. "I..." she exhaled with a smile. "I think so."

"Good, then you must have figured out a way to tell me what you couldn't."

"No, but I'm going to do it anyway. God help me, because you deserve it." She took a deep breath, "Eight months ago, when you took out Kathleen Wilson..."

Randy raised his eyebrows shock. "Yeah."

"And she said that she had to get home early because of a test she had to make up?"


"I was the test. I'm sorry. I've felt guilty about that since it happened and I never took her out again, I swear. It's just... well she came on to me in the lunchroom... I know I was the one that set you two up but she was really interested in me; and I just thought, well, I thought that... Oh hell, I don't know what I was thinking." She said miserably.


"I picked her up and took her out Randy, at eight-thirty. I was there, across the street when you dropped her off."

"I'm confused, Beth. You were where?" He looked hard into her eyes a confused look spreading across his face.

"You're gay?" Randy asked.

"What?" then it dawned on her that he meant a lesbian. "No!"

She looked back with a grave look in her eyes and said, "Randy, It's me, Billy!" She could feel his heart start slamming in his chest. She could not tell if it was out of fear, pain, regret or terror; but it was something like that. He peered down into her eyes with his and suddenly they widened and he stepped away.

"You see! I knew you wouldn't understand."

"What are you trying to tell me? That you're a man?" Randy asked.

"No, I'm not a man. Not any more at least. But I was."

Randy stopped, smiled and then chuckled. "That's a good one Beth. I'm not sure what the punch line is, but you had me going."

"It's true." Beth insisted.

"Stop kidding around. William put you up to this, that's why he hasn't called me. He's been plotting with you, telling you things about me. Do you have his number? I want to call him."

"Randy! It's me. William."

"Come on. Fess up now." Randy told her. "This isn't funny anymore."

"Ooooooooo." Beth growled. Then she looked at him. "Pick a point in your life where William was there. Any point in time, I'll finish the story. If what you say is true then your buddy would have had to told me an awful lot for me to remember on the fly."

"Alright then..." Randy thought. "On my sixteenth birthday William and I..."

Beth interrupted. "Took a case of beer from the cellar her and spent the night in the old haunted Henson Manson down on the river."

Randy pursed his lips, "How did you know that?"

"Try again." She said to him not answering his question.

"When we were thirteen, William and I used to set out early in the morning and walk to the Market Square shopping center on weekends..."

"And spend all day sneaking in and out of the Holotheathers there. There was even that time when they showed the one about the first colonists on Mars and how they had been marooned. Do you remember how badly that scared me Randy? I used lay away all night long thinking about those poor peopled trapped so far away from home and in the morning you knew that I hadn't slept.

Randy paused, then said. "Yeah it took William three weeks to get over that."

"Five weeks Randy. Nice try though." Beth smirked.

"In summer camp..."

Beth got a sympathetic look on her face, "Do you really want to rehash when you peed in our tent?"

"Oh shit!"

Beth nodded. "See, I told you."

"Yeah, you told me alright." He assured her as he backed away toward the corner. He didn't go so far as to make an accusation, but it sounded as if he had started to. That combined with the way he looked at her made her feel dirty and freakish.

"Oh you do? Well why don't you just explain it to me then? I mean, after just one simple confession, I'm impressed. You seem to have already figured out something that I'm not even close to understanding and I'M THE ONE STUCK WITH THE REALITY OF THIS! So what could you POSSIBLY KNOW?" She blasted him and dashed off back to the bathroom where she had been minutes before. This time Randy heard the lock of the door click over.

"Go home Randy."

He sat there stunned and feeling guilty. He had reacted and not thought this through. But in reality how the hell was he supposed to act. If what Beth had said was true he had been making out with his best friend. Why would Billy want to do this? More importantly, how had he managed SRS in only what much have amounted to a few short days? Why hadn't he, Randy, seen any signs of this happening?

Careful there pal... I think you want to focus on that key phrase, 'Best friend'. He shook off the thought. "I don't think I'll go home just yet."

"Please..." Beth wailed. "I'm sorry I let that get out of hand. I should have told you when I knew you had desires. I was scared. All I wanted was the friendship I used to have." She paused. "I thought I could have that without being completely honest. Please go home, I'm embarrassed enough."

He could hear her starting to break down on the other side of the door. If that was really Billy then it was completely out of context for him to break down like that. He could think of thousands of times when Bill had been there to offer moral support when times got rough for him. The guilt of his actions began to press down on him.

Wait just a God damn minute... what the fuck is all this guilt shit. She lied to me, he justified.

And you're validating every fear you so called 'best friend' seems to have had. Nice fucking guy...


Then from the behind the bathroom door, "No thanks, but I'm flattered."

Randy cringed, "I want to talk to you. Please come out."

"I think we've actually said and done all there is for us to say and do, I would still prefer that you go home now. But if you feel you have to you can talk from right there and I can listen from right here."


"You can't call me that!" She snapped back through the door.

"Beth... Beth, give me a chance to at least apologize." There was silence from the door. "Tell me what happened. Talk to me, please."

More silence.

"Do you blame me for being surprised? For not recognizing you?"

"No." she said.

"I'm over it. I reacted poorly. Cut me some slack here... I don't know what you were looking for... and inside the bathroom a single thought slipped uncontrollably into the girls head, a knight on a shinning steed... "But if you would give me a chance to get used to this idea I'd like to try to give you what you were looking for from your best friend."

More silence. He got up and collected his things in to a pile and waited a few minutes saying nothing. When he had at last he had decided that she was not going to come out, that perhaps the best thing would be to leave would come back later and try to talk to her, there was a click as the passage set turned and the door opened.

He couldn't help himself when he saw her face peek around the corner of the doorjamb; he smiled.

"What's so funny?" she demanded. She was clearly still upset at his behavior.

He wiped the smile off his face quickly, "I'm sorry, I'm just glad you decided to come back out." As he spoke to her he realized he could not put his buddy William into the context of the situation or the conversation. This was Beth, and Bill was still in someplace in Germany skiing or going to school or boinking some frauline in some an Alpine chateau. He wanted to be tender with this person. He could never have done that or even thought of that with his bud.

She sensed that everything between them had changed. Although they still may have been friends, there was a new interest in his eyes. It scared her to a large extent. She had allowed things to get out of hand. In fact it had been almost impossible to stop that kiss from progressing once it had started. How did that get started anyway?

Now everything had changed. Wasn't it funny, she thought when men and women interact how much can change? She wanted a friend and really that was all. Someone she could talk to. Things had just gotten out of hand. But Randy had been looking for and thought he'd found something more than just friendship.

A complicated swirl of emotions and perceptions deepened as explanations ensued; Randy tried to grapple with the idea that this was Bill. No, she assured him, it was no costume. It was very real. Take it off? No she could not do that either.

The question of how long would she have to stay like this came up, she didn't know and really didn't want to talk about it; it had been too long already.

"OK then. How did this happen? You can at least tell me that much."

She started to explain what had happened. How Carry had had ambushed while she helped her with some homework. But that would be a lie too. Beth was certain that Randy knew anyway. Knew that William had been taking advantage of Carry's infatuation for him, so she told the truth.

"They left town after I escaped. The time between gave Carry's Dad a chance to get out of town unnoticed. Without him I'm not sure I can get out of this mess." Those words were the first time she had faced the idea that she may spend the rest of her life as a Beth. She started to tremble uncontrollably at the idea and as Randy watched on he realized that she had not been able to talk to anyone about these possibilities, not on her won terms anyway. These were new wounds that had been inflicted until just now. They would be raw and painful thoughts now that they were exposed to the air.

"I'm sure that won't happen." He wanted to hold her, to keep her from shaking, He was uncertain again about how she might react after the display in the bathroom; he withheld the temptation to try to comfort her. It destroyed him to see her this way. Even with the knowledge that this is William, you still love her?

He stiffened a bit. LOVE? Did you actually entertain that idea? She's beautiful, you're infatuated, yes; I can see that but in love?

Deep in his heart he knew it was true. He had heard things like this happen. Hell he had even mistaken infatuation with love a couple of time, who hadn't? But this was a hard feeling. He could not break through it. Each time he felt he wanted a selfish thought his mind turned to the girl at his side and asked, what would she think of that? Are you thinking of her?

"How can you be so sure that I'm not already trapped like this? That I won't have to spend the rest of my life as a female? How can you possibly know?"

Female, not woman... he can't even admit that's what he is. He must be terrified; I know I would be. Randy thought.

"You're right. I don't know." He admitted. He saw one tear splash on one knuckle at the words. "Oh... please don't..."

"I'm entitled!" She snapped.

"Yeah, I guess you are." She moved to sit next to him a bit closer. He had thought she needed the support; now he knew she wanted it. He slid until their hips were touching and slipped his arms around her. She turned into him so she could benefit from his embrace and she broke down in his arms.

"You haven't had the chance to do this have you?" he could feel her shake her head no and it broke his heart. "You cry then, get it out and you'll feel a little better." He engulfed her in his embrace. All thoughts of romance with the beautiful girl were washed away by her incredible need. She had had a terrible secret that she was forced to remain strong and hide from the world because of the way the world viewed her secret. Now she had a friend and he was going to have to be strong for her, just has she had been there for him in another life. It was his turn now, and he refused to fail. He refused for her sake as much as for his.

She held on to him for the better part of two hours. He simply sat and held her. He pushed all other things aside. School work, his legs falling asleep, a nagging itch on the tip of his nose even the urge to go to the bathroom were all ignored to comfort her. He felt that if he broke the moment she might withdraw again, she might refuse the comfort if she were to be allowed to examine the situation too closely or become uncomfortable with his presence. So he sat there and made sure she had what she needed. He allowed her to break the embrace. When she did she was all cried out. Her eyes were red and puffy and the small amount of eye makeup wore was streaked down her cheeks, even with this small mess, she as stunningly beautiful.

"Look at the bright side." He said.

She laughed a thick laugh of surprise and tension. The saliva in her mouth felt ropy from the long sob session but it felt good to let out a laugh even if she didn't know what it was for yet. "What's bright side?" she asked.

"At least you got a very pretty SKIN."

Beth snorted, "I don't think they make ugly ones."

"Maybe but I suppose that it could always have been worse. What if it had been one that looked like Mrs. Abercrombe?" Mrs. Abercrombe aka 'The Eleventh Grade Zombie' was a hideous that more resembled Medusa's ugly half sister than anything human. She was the terror of the entire school and simply making it past eleventh grade without being assigned to her class didn't mean you escaped her clutches. She also ran the study hall.

"I guess you're right." She said nodding her head. "Thanks for that."

"Hey, what are friends for?" he shrugged it off with a smile.

"Well, for this mostly." She leaned in and kissed him and the act surprised both of them. Another one of those impulse acts that just happened. It was almost as if she were aware of it only after she was in the middle of the act and it was too late to stop it.

When she pulled back she was about to apologize when she saw that he was smiling. He had lifted a hand to the spot on his cheek where she had kissed him and had touched it ever so gently. She decided to keep her apology to herself. If he enjoyed that, what was the harm in letting him keep it?

"Are you going to be OK?" he asked her.

"I think I will now, thanks." She assured him. Then she realized that he intended to go home. It was his way of letting her know that he had done as much as he could right now. "Don't leave." She said quickly. Why not? She didn't know. She just knew she didn't want him to go.

"It's late. Mom and Dad will start looking for me soon."

She opened her mouth to say something and then snapped her mouth shut again. She knew it was true. "We didn't get much work done did we?"

"Yes we did. You're not disappointed with the results are you?" he asked her. She shook her head. Time and environment has taken on a strange quality, it had become thick! Yes, that was the perfect word Beth thought. It was hard to think or move comfortably. There were unspoken taboo's here but they were well hidden by the fact that they were in reality one very real boy and one very real girl with very real emotions for one another. How the hell do you argue with that? It was a very confusing moment for Beth.

Then it happened again. She was holding his hand. How the hell did that get there? Randy made no effort to let go of her hand so she didn't embarrass him by trying to withdraw it. Although she wouldn't admit it to herself she really enjoyed the felling of connectivity to another person. That feeling that she was no longer facing this alone. To separate hands might have meant to break that bond. She didn't want to risk that.

We keep coming back into each other's arms. Even now.

He stood at her door, course cartridges under one arm holding her other hand. He didn't make any attempt to leave and then they both knew the formality the other was waiting on.

"Um..." she said shyly. "Maybe that's not a good idea, do you think so?"

"I do." he agreed and then in defiance of that agreement leaned in and placed his lips hard against hers. She didn't resist. No, instead she allowed him to penetrate her mouth with his tongue again. They didn't embrace but continued to hold hands and kiss. She breathed hard as her heartbeat pounded in her chest.

Please stop. Her mind pleaded weakly but the genetically modified teenage hormones quickly subdued the male consciousness of William and left it tied up and struggling for recognition in the corner of her female mind.

When the separated he asked, "You're going to ride with me to school in the morning right? Don't take the school HOV."

She nodded; she didn't want to try to speak right now. Feeling overwhelmed she was afraid she would sound like an idiot.

"I was asking if 7:30 was OK for you?"

"Well, yeah unless you want to be late." She said, and then cursed herself, "Wait, come early, say 7:00 or so. I'll have some coffee or something ready, OK?"

"You mean the real stuff?" he asked excitedly.

"Nothing but the best." She assured him.

"I'm all over that. See you at seven." This time she gave him a quick peck and he departed out the door.

When he was gone she realized she wanted him to come back. She hurried over to her window and watched as he stepped out in the fading sunlight and made his way over to the HOV his parents had purchased for him earlier this year. He took a second before climbing in to glance up at the windows where her room was. She waived but he didn't see. He stood for moment apparently drinking in the view and then turned and climbed in the HOV and pulled away.

Why was he being so wonderful? Maybe it was just in his nature. He had always been good, almost to a fault. She had always teased him about this before all this had happened to her. It had always seemed so geekish of him to be so generous and... friendly, giving. Now however, it no longer seemed geekish. It seemed very grown up; mature.

Beth recognized something; suddenly life didn't seem so bad. She let the drapes fall back in to place over the window and she flopped back on to her bed, her hand on her stomach. There, they slowly, gently moved up the length of her body to here breasts. She allowed on finger to glide up and over the nipple of her right breast. The excitement forced her eyes closed and she dreamed of what it might be like to share a bed with Randy. The excitement was almost too much to bear and she pressed her legs together tightly and started to grind them together there on her bed. There was a low heat of desire for Randy, she couldn't deny it any longer, and it was beginning to rise to a boil.

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

Gary and Michelle traveled home together leaving one HOV, Michelle's, in the parking deck of The Red Fish. It was a witting mistake in a well-planned cosmic conspiracy. Neither Michelle nor Gary could begin to understand how the cards had been stacked against them and that they were playing the game just right, one more piece of the puzzle was in place.

Gary flew the HOV home in silence at first. Michelle couldn't figure out why he wouldn't speak but she wanted to respect the way he wanted to start with it. At last, when she could bare it no longer, she asked. "I'm going to die a horrible death here if you don't say something."

Gary had been wondering just how to start without scaring frightening her into cardiac arrest. He knew more about the man he'd bumped into that day but didn't know if he really wanted Michelle to know what he knew.

Still he said nothing. Instead, he decided to begin to perspire.

Michelle saw this and commented on it. "You're sweating Gary."

"It's hot in here."

"Is it? Well then let me just turn off the air-conditioning." She said in a rather sarcastic manner that made Gary feel just a bit uncomfortable.

"OK, I'm nervous." He said.

"That's at least the truth, and a nice start. Tell me more Sir Knight." Why the hell did I say that?

Gary looked at her from the side with a curious glance and then dismissed the comment while Michelle blushed with uncertain humility.

"As you know, he's the guy that told us to back off." Gary blurted out.

It took Michelle a moment to catch the meaning of it, but when she did, it was as if the fear of some ancient tribal curse had been realized and was now loose upon the land. It ripped Gary apart to see her in the grip of it and she said nothing much to her credit. Gary had made a choice. She understood he believed it to be a good one, or at least the best one to be made, whatever the particulars of that decision were, albeit unknown to her. That; however didn't detract one ounce from the risk she saw in it.

"How much does he know?" she said in a very business like tone that was usually reserved for when she was very scared or very mad.

"Pretty much everything." He said wondering to him self which state she was in.

She turned on him but said nothing. Her eyes were large and frightened in the dim light of the HOV's flight deck. He understood right away where her fear had led her. "No... No..." He said quickly, "He just knows about William. Please, give me just a little credit."

"How can I? He's part of this Gary. He's one of them. Me? That's one thing. I've made a choice. I'm here for the long haul, because I love you. I still have to hide it from people like them. We are all exposed now. I sure hope he told you something that lead you to believe that he can be trusted Gary. That's all I can say." She turned and sat, arm folded and stared out at the HOV traffic clearly visible on the HOVWays over the city as they flew home; each roadway in the sky, at each altitude creating rivers of lights, white, green and red; flowing out over the harbor where all this had begun for her all those years ago.

"He did." Was his answer.

Some time passed before Michelle could no long control her curiosity. It was the one thing she ever consistently got frustrated with Gary over. Until the time she had become Michelle she had been able to play Gary's game very well. The one time she lost, she became his future wife. "You can drop the other shoe now Gary, you know I want to hear it."

He couldn't help himself; he smiled a quick and subdued grin and said. "I believe he's selling me the truth because he feels sorry for us. He feels sorry for William, for the child. I believe he maybe feeling sorry for himself as well."

Michelle opened her mouth to speak but Gary didn't let her utter a word.

"He's told me his family is dead. I don't' know how or when, but I know he had a wife and daughter and they are both dead now. He's concerned about our family the way he wants to believe someone was concerned about his in their final moments."

He let that hang out there for a second to see how it tasted to his wife. When she said nothing, he added. "I believe his intentions are honorable."

"When does he want to see William?" it was a dry but emotion-filled statement.

"In the morning. I want you to take Erin and Shelly to the mountains in the morning, I'll tell William the good news and take him over there myself."

She wheeled around in her seat. "No! I'm going too."

"Aw now Michelle, that's not a good idea." Gary said cautiously.

"Why? Gary, he's my son. Please don't make me argue why I should be there too. What if something goes wrong?"

"That is the very reason I don't think you should be there." Gary insisted. "If something goes wrong, you need to be there for the other girls."

The worst part of that comment was that it's exactly what she would have said too. There was no way however; that she was going to let Gary command her to go to the mountains when so much was at risk.

"I want you to take the girls up to the lake tomorrow morning."

"No Gary."

"Michelle, please."

"I said no! I'm going. We think much better together. I should have been a part of your little meeting tonight."

Gary sighed... "I know that Michelle." He said wearily. "But just the risk of anything happening to lose you..." He voice cracked a bit and he fought to maintain his composure. "I just don't think I could bare it. I thought the fewer people of our family he meets the better."

Michelle reached out and touched him on his cheek. She said nothing. She understood that all Gary was trying to do was rescue her again. He was trying to protect her from the big bad world.

"Now that I think about it though, it's not like he wouldn't be able to find out who I'm married to or who our children are. Isn't that right?"

He looked at Michelle and she had that frightened look again. "Don't think about it too much. If it's already gone too far then we can't stop the freight train now. That's why I think it's best you go with the girls. If they come after us, you'll have a running start." Gary encouraged.

"I'll loose you and William if that happens." She moaned.

"And if you don't you'll loose the girls as well. Not just us." Michelle moaned again in shared torment. "I'll tell you something else. They'll loose us, both of us. Not just you; not just me but everyone. This way they may still have you. The girls will need their mother."

She sat for a while, her hands folded in her lap, eyes watering and finally said. "Gary, please don't make me. I need to be there for William. Maybe I'm too close to this; but I need to be there for him."

"I felt pretty good about this until now." He said. "You have to promise me something before I agree to this."

"I agree..."

"Just wait. You haven't even heard yet."

Michelle turned in her seat to face him. "I don't' care what you want. If you'll support my being there then I agree."

He ignored her comment. This was serious business. "If anything happens... anything unusual at all, no matter what it is... you take Beth or William or whoever he happens to be at the time and get the hell out of there."

"You'll be right behind us." Michelle confirmed.

"I'll be acting as a distraction. If you give me your promise, I know you won't break it. If you have to leave me then do it. Do you understand?" He asked her.

"You're killing me here, you know that don't you?" She said emotionlessly.

"Promise me!" he demanded.

"There's always a way out of everything Gary."

He looked at her ruefully. "Is that right Mike? Is there?"

"Don't call me that." She said shyly.

"You know as well as I do that sometimes there's no way out. The kids can't afford that. You've had your no way out scenario. William may be having his own. The next one belongs to me. There will be no argument. If it happens, you go take the child and go. Do you understand?"

"I don't like this Gary." She sulked.

"Do you understand?"

"Yes." She said.

"Then you promise." He kept on.

"Yes. I promise."

"Good." They said nothing else to each other for the rest of the trip. It was a most rare night. The two had never gone this long without speaking to each other.

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

In the course of a bad day, it's easy to lose track of a few of the details. At the end of Friday the wheels had come completely off Shipley family machine. By 10:20 am Michelle could no longer be counted among the living. By 11:40 am, Gary Shipley had been arrested for the suspected murder of his son and his niece was on the run to a lake house owned by a family destroyed by the events that had transpired earlier in the day and facing eternity as the girl now known as Beth Wright.

Oh, it started smooth enough, with Erin waking to the unusual presence of her father in the kitchen. "Dad? What are you doing up" Erin asked rubbing sleep from her eyes.

"Thought I'd send you off this morning with a breakfast of my own this morning." He paused for a second as he whipped eggs in a glass bowl. His attention never left his daughter as she sat at the counter. Erin smiled at her father and Gary thought, How can things be so screwed up? This is a perfectly wonderful time with my first-born and all around us the world is going to hell in a hand-basket.

Gary felt the guilt of being a MIA parent. He could have shared many moments like this with his family and instead he had allowed himself to become success driven. In the pre-dawn hour, much as Beth and Michelle had done shortly after life had started to break down. Now it was left to these two. Gary began to explain that which he and Michelle had agreed they would tell her. "Erin..."

"Yes Dad?" she responded and then asked, "Is that coffee you have?"

"Hum? Oh yeah. Want some?"

"Please." She said in the sweetest voice he could manage.

Gary was upset now. If this didn't work then there may be no more mornings like this one. Things could be worse; they're only going to the lake. Calm down.

Gary handed Erin a cup of coffee, "What were you going to say Dad?"

"Say? Oh yeah! That's right. What I wanted to say was that..." he wrung his hands but Erin didn't catch this, "Given the stress of the last few days, your Mother and I have decided that we need a break. Ah, you and your sister and... well, Beth need a break."

Erin narrowed her eyes at her father. "William is changed into a girl and you want to go on holiday?"

"It's not like we're celebrating this Erin. We all just need some 'arctic time' that's all. A chance to regroup if you will." Gary assured her.

"I don't mind celebrating the fact William's a girl. It suits him. It should have happened years ago." Erin sipped her coffee thoughtfully.

"You're not saying things like that to him... er... her, Beth to Beth are you?"

"Still not used to this Dad?" Erin asked through her snickering.

"This is not funny young lady!" Gary was not upset but stern. This was after all serious business.

"Blizzard back a few Pop! I was just having a little fun. Besides, it sounded like Beth was having a little fun of her own last night too."

"What's that supposed to mean?" He asked in a low tone.

"I think Randy was over here after school and it sounded like they were studying anatomy." She took a sip of her coffee and waited to gage her father's reaction.

Gary said "Huh? Anatomy?" with a confused look pasted on his face. It looked so ridiculous that Erin almost laughed out loud.

To keep from laughing she said, "So no school today for the Shipley women, former baby brother included in our ilk. How long can we expect this hiatus to con..."

"Oh God! Anatomy!" Gary exclaimed.

Erin whispered. "Hum, he got it." She then raised her eyebrows in surprise and polished off the rest of her coffee.

"What did you see Erin?" Gary demanded.

"Please Dad, what you think, I bought a ticket? I didn't see anything."

"But you just said."

"I did, however, hear a lot of moaning." She said with an inflection, her voice arching upwards in suggestive implication. Gary watched in stunned silence as Erin came round the corner, poured herself another cup of coffee; turned and kissed her father on the cheek and said, "I'll get Shelly ready to go and I'll pack for... a long weekend, four or five days?"

"Why are you doing this?" Gary asked Erin.

"You really want to know?"

"I asked didn't I?"

"Because he's always been Mr. Perfect. Now, just when I think some justice is at hand she becomes Little Miss Perfection too. She gets all the focus, all the attention... she even has a boy Dad! She's only been at this female thing a week and she's got a boyfriend already."

"Don't say that." Gary pleaded

"You guy's have always favored the middle child, why? I don't know; and you guys deny it every single time."

"That's not true."


"Shusssssh!" Gary held his finger up to his lips to try to quite her. His quality time this his first-born was now spinning down a deep pit in ever tightening concentric circles.

"Why? Why should I be quiet? I know it's hard on him. But for God's sake, he's only become a girl. It's not like it a curse Dad. There are three of us in this house that have been women all our lives. Just ask any of us. There she is pissing and moaning about being a girl. What if I did that? Huh?"

"Well, it's like you said Erin, you've been a girl all your life. William hasn't. You have to give him that latitude."

"Like hell I do. He never cut me any slack. As far as I'm concerned, the sooner he finds out what it's like to walk a mile in my shoes the better. It sounded like he was starting to enjoy the feel of my shoes last night. Nothing would make me happier."

"I don't know when or where you became so hateful but I'm not going stand for it. As soon as we figure this think out. We, you and I are going to work on this... this... what ever you call it."

Erin crossed her arms in a huff.

"We are all going to the lake, you are going to behave."

"Not likely." Erin disagreed

"You're going to behave or you'll go to school in Wilkes-Barre, for the next six years."

"You're going to punish me for being mistreated, for being ignored and overlooked for my baby snot brother." Erin fumed.

"No." Gary assured her.

"Good! For a minute I thought all of you..."

"You'll be punished for being a spoiled little rich kid who thinks the world needs to stop each and every time the you want to get off. I love you Erin, maybe more than the two that followed. You were a sort of Christmas gift and a wedding present to me from your Mother." He approached his daughter and she stilled some. "You are most special to me. Maybe I haven't said that to your satisfaction. But you have never needed the special attention. You have always excelled and achieved without coaching or help. I have never worried about your success.

Gary paused and shook his head.

"But your bother on the other hand; he has always been selfish and difficult to deal with. The only person that has ever had any luck with him is your Mother. He has always struggled with his grades. William has never thought of anyone but himself and that's exactly why he is in the trouble he is in today. The attention that has been heaped on him is not because we favor him but because we fear for him."

Erin sighed. "Why don't you guy's ever tell me these things?"

"I guess we figured you were smart enough to see it for yourself. " Gary admitted.

"I'll be good Dad. I'm sorry. Forget what I said earlier."

"Are you telling me Randy wasn't here?" Gary asked hopefully.

"Oh no, he was here."

"Then the moaning... that didn't happen. Please tell me that didn't happen."

"Yeah, that happened too." She assured him.

"What was I supposed to forget you said then?" Gary said miserably.

"Mmmmm, I forgot! Thanks for the coffee Dad, I'll go pack now." Erin said and tripped off to her room to get ready. Gary was now a tremendous wreck. What if they had... "Oh God... No!"

His mind wouldn't release the idea. If they have, then all this is for nothing. She's going to remain Beth and we have to run now. I should have carried out my plan anyway, gotten the papers for the restaurant in order, if we run now it's with no money, no support.

"Gotta talk to Beth." He muttered.

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When Gary came to William's bedroom, the two girls seemed ecstatic. Michelle had been sent here to tell her about the possibility of help. No plan had been detailed by Terrance Michales last night; so any clear answers as to what kind of help he was truly offering were still vague.

"Daddy! What did he say to you?" Beth leapt off the bed, dressed in a long loose pastel skirt and blue knit top. She clutched at his waist and hugged him. "A girl couldn't have a better hero."

She hugged him one more time and then let go, backed up and put on a serious face. "I want you to know that I've changed. I really have. Who couldn't after something like this?" She shook her head. "I know I've just kind of been skating along on other peoples efforts; but that's all going to change."

"If you go back, you'll be the same person you were."

The girl and her mother seemed shocked at the brazen statement. "Gary? You don't have to be hateful.

"I'm not. I'm being truthful. William is who is he is. She says things will change, because they have. She sees the world from a different perspective now. This girl wouldn't do the things William does because she is different. She is a product of what her body tells her to be."

"Don't Gary! I mean it. Don't start that psycho-babble right now." Michelle seemed to be getting angry. Good, wait till I spring this happy Jack-In-Box from hell on her. It may put things into a new perspective for her as well.

"It had is place, but William is going back. I want to leave now. I want to take Beth to this man and get my son back."

Gary looked at Michelle as she spoke. When she was done he didn't say a word. He turned to the girl with blonde hair and asked. "How long was Randy up here in your room last night?" He said it in a soft tone, gentle but firm.

"I..." she started and then blushed. They know! Oh God, this is humiliating.

"Gary?" Michelle asked.

He turned to her. "Erin told me." He turned back to Beth. "How long?"

She lowered her head and looked at the floor. Her hands played with her skirt. "Two hours."

Michelle had gone pale. She understood where Gary was going. "I want you to be very clear about what happened here. You have to tell us what you did. You won't get in any trouble..." He looked at Michelle; she looked as if she were about to faint. "Michelle, focus! Stay with me hon. OK?"

Her eyes fluttered but when they opened again they clear. She took a deep breath and nodded to him. He turned back to Beth. "Tell me. We have to know. What we do next depends on it."

"What do you mean Dad... we did homework." She knew he knew; she could not look at him. God, if I was the boy I had been I could lie my way out of this. Dad is right. I am someone else. I can't lie to him. Beth started to cry.

"Oh God no..." Michelle whispered just audibly.

"Beth, did you have sex?"

Beth's head flew up with wide horrified eyes. "No! No!" she cried. "I didn't, I... I couldn't."

"Tell us baby," Michelle was saying. "you have to trust us when we say we understand and we won't punish you."

"No Mom... I didn't have sex. I thought about it." She admitted, she would have told them anything now to get them to back off this subject. She had made out with a guy, her friend and her parents knew about it. How long before everyone knew who he was and what had happened.

"Are you sure?" Gary asked.

"Dad... I know what sex is! I'd know if I had it. I didn't." she was now insistent. "God... I just made out with him. I'm sorry."

Michelle was crying; her hands cupped her face. Behind her hands she was thanking God for some reason. Gary was searching for something to lean on.

"I'm sorry." She offered again. "I couldn't... I needed a friend. I... I love him..." she cried. Now Beth was started to break down. "How did this happen? He was just so wonderful to me. You don't know, but he wore his gym shorts all day for me." It was an odd confession to hear.

"Never mind. It's almost like I couldn't stop what was going on." She shook her head. I guess you have to be stuck in here to understand.

"It's OK. Lets go talk to a man about a male body, eh?" Gary said. He placed his hand on her shoulder. It was a gesture she was used to as William. What she really wanted was a hug. She didn't tell him that. It was time to start thinking like a guy again.

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On the edge of Roth Memorial Park, from a spacious ten story brick building that had once been a factory and a warehouse in the late nineteenth century amid the foliage of the trees and flowers of the vast park and synthetic wildlife; three somber figures emerged. One carried a small compression pack containing a pair of men's underwear, a pair of jeans too long and large for the person carrying the case, a baseball tee shirt and a pair "Shrink Sneaks"; sneakers that remember the size of the owners foot and conformed when a foot was placed inside.

These people consisted of a man, in or approaching his forties, and two young girls not far in age; most of the people of the area knew two of them well. They were the owners of a chain of restaurants around the United Federal States. Here, they were both local celebrities. Keeping a low profile was hard in their hometown.

The man had a haggard and worn out look to him. His age was becoming a minor handicap. While his wife enjoyed the energy and vigor of youth, he was clearly slowing down just a bit. The strain of the past week had worn him threadbare. He wasn't sleeping well and he had the impression he was having nightmares. Thankfully he couldn't seem to remember them once he was awake. Further, he was fighting against his rage at the man that had turned his life and the lives of his family up side down. If he ever let that get the best of him he would fall in to an emotional pit he would not be able to crawl out of. He knew one thing. His family needed him and if he were no good to them they would be lost.

As he walked however, his heart was heavy. He felt things racing to a conclusion. As Michelle attempting to hide her fear that she was not aging at all from her husband; he was hiding his raw belief they were on a road from which he would not return. It was not definitive knowledge; he had no proof, he was unaware of any visions it was a feeling of foreboding and dread that saturated his heart and soul. At times he simply wanted to stop, to stand and refuse to go further, knowing that to do so would mean certain death. In time he could call himself foolish, paranoid and a coward and press on. Not because he had shamed himself to doing so, but because his family needed him to do so.

Michelle sighed a deep and heavy sigh, but said nothing. She was thinking about something and appeared to resolve herself to some unwanted answer. Gary could sympathize with her there. He had the feeling that if they ran now they could still live a good life. There family was still relatively intact. They would be living on the fringe as it was called. Not a nice place to be but he had come close to it before. He had hung largely with people on the fringe when he was younger.

Michelle had lived there. His thought turned to that time. Could he ask her to go back to that kind of retched life? It killed her that she couldn't bring her mother up from that filth. There were times when you could see her working it out in her mind; just how to get Rose out of that neighborhood and into a decent warm home with real food and decent clothing. That's really all she needed. These schemes always failed in the face of protecting her identity. For weeks afterward she would mope about until Gary found some special something to remind her that none of this was her fault.

No, he wasn't sure he could ask her to return to that life; and it was certainly no place to raise children! His wife and his children had been the main motivation for gaining the wealth they had. It was now the trap that kept them all here and trying to hold on to the security and wealth they had gained. None of them would survive long in that environment. He wasn't even sure he would any longer.

Without them, Gary could probably do OK on the fringe. He would most likely be there now had it not been for Michelle. His parents had died only two years after they had been married. A terrorist bomb in Dublin had blown up the car they were in. The bomb was actually in the car parked on the curb next to them when they were stopped by bumper-to-bumper traffic. Gary and Michelle had both inherited equal shares in the family business.

Michelle felt funny about it. She wanted to sign her half of the money and property over to Gary.

"They're your parents Gary. This was their legacy to you." She complained.

"Michelle, they looked upon you just as much as one of their own. The daughter they never had. You gave them more joy in two years than I did in all my life. You don't want to insult them by not accepting their gift of love to you do you?"

"No... I would never disrespect that Gary, you know that, I just feel funny about it."

"Well don't. They loved you. This is how they wanted to show it if they weren't here anymore to do it themselves."

"I'm going to miss them." She said with a tear in her eye.

"Me too baby. Me too." They had fallen into each other's arms at that and hugged the hug of grief, this was not a time for passion but for comfort and these two were so very good at that for each other.

After a very long time, Michelle said in Gary's ear, "The daughter they never had huh?"

Gary confirmed, "Yep, that's what Mom told me. You know what that means don't you? That means you married your brother." Gary said chuckling.

"Ewwwww!" Michelle said and slapped playfully at Gary's shoulder

Had she not been there, Gary would probably have squandered the money away in a matter of months. He owed her everything and it would still not be enough.

So they couldn't run now. They had to see it through. Gary let out a deep and heavy sigh. Yes, he could understand exactly how she must feel.

They climbed into Gary's HOV and waited.

Beth, a bit confused asked. "Aren't we going?"

"We're taking your sisters to The Red Fish, they're going to take Erin's HOV to the lake, we'll join them after all this over. Right now we have to stock up the HOV with food from the restaurant."

"When I don't get out, what are you going to tell Shelly?" Michelle asked.

"That the girls have to go shopping. What else?"

"That's not funny Gary. What are you going to tell her?" Michelle insisted taking offence at a joke she often liked to exploit if given the chance. The atmosphere was just too heavy right now for frivolity.

"I'll going to tell her that Beth needs a some summer clothes, a bathing suit, some casual shoes; shrinks things like that for the lake. You're going shopping."

"Oh... Sorry." His wife said and smiled at her husband.

The other two girls bounded from the flat laughing and chasing each other, a race to the HOV. Their attitudes were in stark contrast to the moods of the occupants of the HOV. They tried to lighten up but didn't do a very good job of it. Erin made it a point not to say anything. There was something up. She guessed it had to do with Beth; Erin knew better than to bring it up in front of the squirt.

Four of them lifted off, received clearance for entering the HOVWay and took the shortest waypoint to the restaurant, Erin followed in her vehicle. There they transferred the compression packs, all but Beth's. Gary unlocked the building and stocked HOV's CoolComp with food, as much as he could pack. It may be the last real food they see for a very long time if this didn't work. When he was done, Gary closed up the CoolComp and turned to Erin. He was choked up. He wanted to say goodbye. He felt it to be the right thing to say just at that moment. He knew however, that to do that would be to send up unwanted alarms in the minds of all those standing around.

Erin saw it in his face. She reached out and pulled her father to her. "I don't know what you're planning, but I know it will be just fine. I feel that Dad. I really do." She whispered.

Her father drew away from her and smiled. "Thanks baby. I sure hope you're right."

Michelle was next, "We'll be up tonight." That and I love you was all she said. When her mother became nervous she also didn't like to talk. What ever they were up to had them both scared. Erin knew her parents didn't scare easily. Beth didn't say goodbye. She didn't want to alarm Shelly. If she said it and then showed up at the lake house it might cause questions Shelly. If she said it now it could also cause a scene with Shelly right here. No. The best thing to do was let them go and explain to the little girl later if Beth didn't come back.

They climbed in. Erin fired up the engines and flew off over the harbor headed north and then west. Michelle watched them go and continued to watch them until she cold not see her HOV any longer. She sullenly turned to Gary's HOV and climbed in. "Let go, before I changed my mind."

She feels it too. Run, go after them! Stock this HOV with supplies and convince Beth on the way, JUST RUN!

He wasn't going to do that. He climbed in left seat and powered up the HOV. He swung it back into West bound routes and zipped toward the address that had been written on the card Michales had left on the table in the tasting room last night. He flew manually, careful to follow the instructions left by Michales to leave the transponder off, and not to ask for clearance for his glide slope or use the FMS to navigate to his address.

The atmosphere went from heavy to laden as they approached the coordinates given by Michales. Gary started to bring the HOV in a few blocks away. They would have to walk the rest of the distance.

"Don't forget to take your bag hon; You'll need clothes."

"Got it Daddy." She paused and then asked. "Daddy?"

"Yes honey."

Beth sighed a deep and heavy sigh and said, "Never mind." In a low and husky tone.

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Dr. Michael's building was a nondescript, perfectly square five story brick sided building. An oversized child's building block that ate one quarter of a city block. The windows had been blacked out so you could not see in and Gary suspected that they were penetration proof as well as being opaque. There was one entrance. It was down an alleyway that created a one way out situation making it very easy to become trapped when leaving or entering the building when you weren't supposed to be.

The building had no guard or protected entryway, but there was sophisticated surveillance equipment embedded in the walls and ceilings. As the three of them entered the hall, they all caught glimpses of it here and there, a VID lens, noise filters, infrared detection sensors. There was no telling how much more lay unseen behind the walls. It made Gary and Michelle both nervous. Trust is a hard thing for many. They had put their lives in the hands of a virtual stranger; if they had miscalculated this man's intentions then they were cooked. Any humor that may have existed at all was now gone from the day.

The hall was a plane, stark, tenement-building hallway. On the left was a staircase that was broken and unsafe for use. It led to a second story landing that was boarded off to prevent entry and Gary thought, but the boards are just a rouse. There's steel behind those boards. That's just a smoke screen we're seeing.. On the right, past the staircase, the hall continued. One steel door was set in the wall at the end of the hall. The three of them were now very nervous. They could already be trapped in here. They would have to go out the narrow alleyway if the decided to leave, and that could be blocked already. It would take only seconds to make it inaccessible.

"Wait here." Gary said to the two girls that accompanied him.

"Gary!" Michelle whispered. "I don't like this."

Gary kissed his wife's forehead, "Me neither. But we've come this far. If they want us, they can take us at anytime now. We might as well go forward with this."

Michelle's face was a mask of fear at her husband's words. Still, she nodded her agreement. With that Gary moved to the end of the hall where the door was. He was about to knock on it when a loud buzzing sound came from the door as the lock disengaged. Gary pushed the door open and stepped into the room. As he did the door swung shut and locked behind him.

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Michelle watched as Gary walked toward the large gray door at the end of the hall. It popped open at the sound of the electronic lock being released. Then Gary did something that surprised Michelle; he went through the open door.


The noise in the hall was incredible and made both women jump in surprise.


"I know... I know..." Michelle responded cutting of Beth's thought, not wanting her to articulate her fears out loud. It would have made things too real and too frightening. "I guess we wait here, huh?" she said to her daughter.

"I guess." The fear in Beth's voice was evident.

"Don't worry..." Michelle tired to assure her. "I'm doing enough of that for both of us."

Together they waited in silence. Michelle eyes kept flicking from the steel door at the end of the hall to the exit. She wouldn't leave without Gary, unless Beth was in danger. Gary would understand that. He would want that.

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"Hello my friend!" The accent was a bit thicker now. It sounded Russian to Gary. He's apparently more relaxed around me now Gary thought. Gary was working with the door trying to get it open again.

"The door is locked." He said to Michales. "My wife and child are out in the hall."

"Yes that silly door... always closing and lockink." The word was locking but Michales' accent was so thick now it came out sounding like lockink!


Gary opened the door and peered out into the hall. He saw Michelle flinch just a bit and then relax.

"Gary! Thank God. I thought... never mind what I thought. Is everything OK?"

"Come on and meet the good Doctor." Gary said and grinned.

Michelle could hear from behind Gary another voice, "Are they comink? Please, ve should hurry. I must turn the VID units in the hall back on before someone sees they are not active."

"Come on! It's OK." Gary assured with a bit of urgency in his voice.

Michelle and Beth both rushed down the hall and through the door. Michales had his back to them as they came in.

The room they entered stood in stark contrast to the antechamber they entered from. This room was sterile, finished in white ceramic tile and brushed stainless steel surfaces. Computers and electronic machinery lined the walls in racks that kept them stable and stationary. Miles of fiber-optic cable was bundled, stretched and pulled every which way. It connected the machines to other machines, which were no doubt having pleasant conversations in binary with one another.

In the center of the room was a glassed in booth. It was roughly the size of a small bedroom inside was a strange configuration of circuit boards on the walls. Michelle had wanted to get a better look at his room. It seemed to be the most important place building as it was set apart and protected by glass. The interior seemed so alien to her with its many of areas of black and yellow hash marks that warned not to walk here or to stand there. But Gary started the introductions anyway by saying. "Doctor, This is my beautiful wife Michelle, the absolute love of my life." Gary looked at her and saw she was blushing.

"You really don't have to pour it on quite so thick, Gary." Michelle said. She looked at the Doctor whose back had been still to them when she walked in; but as she had begun speaking he had stood completely upright and not moving.

When he heard Michelle's voice his blood froze. Michales knew that voice too well to be mistaken. It had haunted is dreams since 2079. So soft and sweet it had been, and now here it was again after all this time. It tore at his heart and brain and burned him as firebrand would sear his skin.

"Thick? Can't a man complement the woman of his dreams?" Said Gary.

"Yes!" Declared Michales. "A man must do that for the woman he loves." To Gary his voice sounded strange, as though he were repressing something. It sounded to him like the voice of an angry father trying to control himself.

"If the good Doctor says so," Michelle relented and she kissed her husband, then said, "It's a pleasure to meet you. Thank you for offering to help us." She extended her hand expecting the Doctor to turn and take it, but he made no effort to do so. Confusion seeped into Michelle's mind. She looked at Gary and shrugged. Gary made a confused look as well and shrugged back.

"Yes, a pleasure." Michales said but still made no effort to turn. His voice had taken on a shaky quality that denoted he was just holding on to control here.

Gary picked up the ball and tried to run with it. "Doctor, this is our child. We've been calling her Beth, trying to make a habit of it so no one would slip up on public and raise eyebrows." He could see the man's arms clinch at the sound of the child's temporary name. Gary was beginning to worry about the man's sanity and their safety. "But the child's birth name is William."

Michales did turn and face the child and what happened next was scary to all of them. Michales refused to turn to Michelle. Instead he turned to the child and all at once his knees seemed to buckle. There was a whimper from deep down in the man's throat and he gripped the table he was standing next to for support. His lips trembled and his pallor went gray.

"Dis..." he started and stopped to swallow. "Dis is your child? A boy inside dis beautiful child?"

"Are you all right Doctor?" Michelle asked and made a gesture to help support him. But the man gently avoided her touch.

"I'm fine, thank you. I'll be fine." He pulled the back of his hand across his brow and steadied himself. "Da, ve should get this child out of mess shouldn't ve?

Gary and Michelle were more than just a little concerned at the Doctor's behavior. They were relieved to hear Michales talk about getting on with the business at hand so they could get the hell out of here.

"Dis buildink, it may look like a ghetto but it is really quite a fortress. No one could get in or out without my knowledge." He was rambling now. Why tell them about the building?

Michelle interrupted. "Excuse me. I don't want to seem ungrateful or pushy, but this is my son were talking about so I hope you'll understand. I would like to know if the procedure is safe. Is there a risk of injury?"

The doctor exhaled a deep breath and finally turned to the woman he had avoided and spoke. "Mrs. Shipley, please forgive my impertinence. I do not wish to be rude to one as pretty as you. Your husband understated your beauty." Michales smiled. Michales allowed his eyes to linger on her face. The then turned quickly away and busied himself with setting some switches and programming a very sophisticated VID. "When I'm working I'm very focused, please don't think me rude. As for Risk, there is little risk enveloped. I'm the lead developer on this project. You will find no one as knowledgeable as I in this field. So if my behavior seems... eccentric then I hope you will bear with me. I do my best thinking I babble on forever about the inconsequential and unimportant." He stopped and turned and reached over and took Michelle's hand. He lifted it tenderly, almost lovingly to his lips and gently kissed the back of her hand. He closed his eyes and seemed lost in the moment as he did so.

The kiss lasted only a second, but it brought a distinct sense of peace to the Doctors face. When he had finished the kiss he said, "Your husband is a lucky man."

Embarrassed and uncertain of what just transpired, Michelle said, "Thank you. But I can be a real witch at times too. I think it's me that is the lucky one."

"Yes. Indeed." The Doctor then turned to the blonde girl and asked. "So you don't like being a girl?" But the girl didn't speak she only shook her head. "But you're such a pretty..."

"I'm confused Doctor," it was Gary. "The mood here seems to have changed significantly."

"Has it? I didn't notice."

"Well, first you wouldn't speak to my wife then you kiss the back of her hand passionately. Now you're teasing my son about this accident he's had."

"Accident? Dat's a rather peculiar way of phrasing it."

"If we've done something to upset you in some way, please tell us what it is and we'll apologize for it and make sure it doesn't happen again." Michelle moved beside Gary and was nodding in agreement. Neither one of them wanted to blow this change to get William out of the SKIN he was trapped in, but it was apparent that the good Doctor's demeanor was now boarding on Mad Doctor.

"Upset? Me? Nonsense. As I said, it helps me to think when a talk about nothing and everything." He turned to Beth, "Please forgive this old fool for not being more sympathetic to your problem."

"It's OK. I just want to be myself again if I could please."

His heart danced at the sound of the girl's voice. So many years! Now to be so close again. He wanted to hear her speak once more, just one more time. He thought very hard but no relevant question came to mind. If he said what he wanted to say to this child, they would know. His unspoken goodbyes, the ones he'd carried for years would have to remain his still.

"Please tell me, He started hoping something would come to him. "How did this happen? Your father said it was an accident?"

"Yes Sir. I was with a girl. She did this to me."

"You let her?"

"No, I was sleeping. I didn't know."

"Doctor!" it was Michelle.

"Yes, in deed. It's not my business. My apologies. I was merely curious."

Anger gripped him. They had deceived him. He had given his trust and they had strung him along. Did they really think he would not know? Who were these people that had done this to him? These people that were laughing at him in front of his face? But he knew things, oh yes. They had not fooled him. He knew things about them even they didn't know.

"This way." The doctor gestured to a door attached to the large glass booth in the center of the room. Michelle could see a device that looked to her like the old dental ex-ray machines she had seen in magazines and history books except newer and larger. The thing had what appeared to be and extendible arm that was jointed in three places. At what she assumed was the business end of the machine was large steel cone that came to a severe point, the cone appeared to be dip or coated with a thick transparent substance of some sort. A huge array of wires led down the arm of the machine held in place by a series of tubes and ties. The arm was attached to a large gray block of machinery that presumably was the motor and guts of the device. This "block" was attached to a wall at the opposite side of the room from the viewing window.

The walls of the room were covered in "black board"; Michelle had seen images of "black board" on VID broadcasts but never in real life. It was, in essence, the fledgling incarnation of AI, a circuit board with self-taught learning capacities. The technology was carefully guarded and was never connected to open computer systems. One board had the capability of storing the information just as a human brain could store and process. Once powered up it could allegedly learn to process speech in less than an hour and start to make complicated decisions and learn in much less time than that. The great fear among those in the general public was that if it was connected to computer systems that could talk to other systems or worse robotics systems, it could replicate itself and soon discover that it no longer had a need or use of its creator. Keeping it isolated and apart from connective systems was the cornerstone of using this technology. The room was a cage. It's soul purpose might not be to restrict the reach of the black board but that was at least part of it's function.

A typical board, as Michelle had seen on many specials, was about a half-meter square. The room she was looking into was covered in the stuff. Did it take that much processing power to remove a SKIN? Surly not. The Patch Code transmitters were not constructed of such a material. This technology was only a few years old. If this had been required, Gary and the others would never have got theirs off. She wanted to ask but the Doctors cold reception had her gun shy.

Watching her the Doctor could see concern on her face. If he was going to expose these frauds he was going to have to console her, get her to believe that all was well with the world. "That is, as I suspect you have already guessed, 'Black Board'. Very secret. Even I don't know how it works. I'm not allowed to even touch it. It was provided and installed by government scientists. They own all the really good technology don't they?"

"Yes, I suppose they do." Michelle said in response.

"It's nothing to worry about. The processing power of 'Board' is so much faster than that of an ordinary computer that it is preferable to the antiquated bubble processing memory of today's computers. It's nearly required for genetic acquisition and will make short work of restoring your son."

"There's no danger of a miscalculation?" she asked warily.

"I don't care Mom. I don't care if there's a risk!" Cried the young girl. She was moving toward the room when Michelle took her by arm and held her back. "Mom!"

"Just a sec hon." She could still remember the words of an old man so many years ago during her own ill fated attempt to escape her own fate. "Of course you could end up with a penis where your nose should be!" She shuddered at the idea. "I guess what I'm asking is, if William's genetic information was stored in the transmitter, then how are you going to retrieve it?"

"I can see you have been listening to too many, er... how do you say it, 'urban legends'." Michelle blushed realizing her ignorance was showing.

"I'm sorry, I'm sure you're the expert in these matters but this is my child, so yes, I'm going to do my best to find out if he's going to be worse off than he is now."

"What could possibly be worse Mom?"

"Trust me, there are worse things than being a girl." Michelle said. "I know about these things, you'll just have to trust me on this."

"Yes you should listen to your Mother, all mother's are very wise."

Michelle looked up at Michales with suspicious eyes. She sensed Michales was up to something, but couldn't quite tell what it might be. He was acting strangely, but then he was definitely some high-ranking governmental big wig. That was the only explanation for all the contraband technology. This whole situation put her on a heightened sense of awareness. Every nerve ending screamed for her to run, run as fast as she could and carry her family on her shoulders if she had to, to get them to safety. But Michales knew now about her son, so what would be the point. If he had wanted to arrest them he could have had that accomplished a long time ago. No she would stick it out for William. If there were a chance of him getting free, it would be worth it.

"I don't know if wise is the word, perhaps concerned is more to the point Doctor, but thank you." Said Michelle trying to maintain the cordial rapport that Gary had established, but no matter what how she approached the issue, she began to feel more and more uncomfortable.

"Michelle," Gary said standing behind her, "I'm feel reasonably confident that if there was something to fear physically that the Doctor Michales would have disclosed it by now.

"In deed. I no more want your child harmed than you do. But we must hurry please. As I'm sure you've deduced, this equipment and it's usage is monitored closely by... let's say, people that you would not want knowing what has happened to your son."

That put the fear of God in not only Beth but Michelle as well. No, in fact, she had not thought of the equipment being monitored and what was keeping them from monitoring it now? Best not to ask, she wasn't sure she really wanted the answer anyway.

"Hon... We have to hurry." Gary urged.

"OK... OK..." she turned to her child and cupped Beth's face in her hands. Michelle looked hard into the girl's eyes and asked, "Are you ready?"

The child's eyes were clearly uncertain. The effect was made even more evident by the very fact they were framed in a lovely feminine face. That face gave her eyes a terribly vulnerable appearance.

"I know you're scared... wait, I have an idea." Michelle turned to Michales and asked. "I believe we are ready, but would it hurt if I went in with her?"

"Michelle, No!" Gary insisted, but Michelle held up her hand still looking at the Doctor, waiting for his answer.

Michales couldn't believe his ears. This was coming together better than he had ever dreamed. Careful old man, don't seem too eager. He acted as if he was thinking about it, weighing his concerns against his desire to ease the girls' fears and said. "The particle beam is direct. There should be no ill effects. Yes that will be OK, you must stand away from her however." He said sternly.

"I said NO Michelle!" Gary was now getting upset.

"Please, please Mr. Shipley calm down, everything will fine." Michales was up and Gary was advancing on his family.

"Michelle, please." Gary begged as Doctor Michales placed his hands on Gary's shoulders as he stepped in front of him to block his path.

"Get out of my way!" Gary cocked his head sideways and warned. Gary reached up and plucked first one hand of his shoulder and then the other and cast them aside. The Doctor now felt how upset Gary had become and discovered that he was also quite strong as well. If necessary, he would have the whole lot of them arrested if things got ugly, but he was still try to administer his own form of justice first.

"Gary, please don't do this!" Michelle wanted to ask, He's your CHILD! You would send your child into a place you felt it unsafe for your wife?

"This isn't safe or right, we're leaving!" Gary couldn't say the obvious out loud. Not in front of Michales.

"No Dad. This is my chance to get out of this. If we leave now I'm stuck like this."

"The girl is right! I'm the only one that can help. There is no one else." Michales insisted.

"It will be OK, you can adjust William. Your Mo..." Gary started and fortunately, Beth cut him off, but not before Doctor Michales heard what he felt to be as admission. Michales took it as confirmation of what he already suspected, Gary knew that his wife was not the woman he passed her off as but some other woman, one using a SKIN to enhance her looks.

Michelle's eyes also popped open at the sound of what Gary had started to say.

Beth shouted, "NO DAD! I'm doing this. Even if it kills me, I'd rather be dead than stuck like this and live! If you think it's so easy to adjust to this then why don't you try it?" The girl turned to her mother, "Mom, you don't have to in there with me. I'm fine, scared yes... but fine."

"I'm going." Michelle insisted glaring at Gary.

"Please!" Gary tried one more time.

Michelle said nothing, only turned and walked into the chamber with her child.

Inside, the walls were surrounded, covered on all fronts with sheet after connected sheet of 'Black Board'. Behind her the door closed and the sound of a bolt could be heard closing.

Michelle turned around. There in the window that looked in from the control center she could see Gary and Doctor Michales looking in. Michales appeared to be working a board of controls that she had seen attached to the wall just below the window and to the right. Gary turned and was clearly talking to Michales in an agitated manner, but she could not tell what he was saying. Then there was a loud POP that made both girls jump with surprise, and Michelle and Beth both could hear Gary, saying, "You get them out of there. And I mean right now."

"Mr. Shipley, if you think I mean them harm then, OK, I'll open the chamber and we will end this. But I warn you. We cannot do this again. I have a finite amount of time that..."

Michelle could see her body posture like a ghost reflected in the glass of the window the two men were framed in. Her color of her pink suit stood out strong in the reflection and she remember she hadn't wanted to wear it because it was just a bit too small but Gary liked it so she had worn it. Now however she could see her body was in a tense stance and the tightness of her clothes showed off that she was upset and nervous. She wished she had worn sweat pants and a baggy shirt. It was easier to hide the way she felt when she wore loose clothes. "Gary..." Michelle interrupted, "It's OK, this won't take long."

"Michelle, think about this."

"There's nothing to think about, William needs to get out of this body. He can't go through this; you know it and I do too. This man is kind enough to help us at great personal risk. Frankly, I don't think we'll get another chance like this."

Gary was speechless. She could see the fear on his face. It was something she had seen only once or twice in all the time she had known him. One moment stood out clearly, it was during a conversation she had with Gary over dinner about working with his father in the family business. He was terrified of failing his father's expectations. His look was much like it had been that night.

Michales lowered his head, he suddenly wasn't sure he wanted to strip this woman of her illusion. The girl under the SKIN may be insecure about her true looks or worse. This is now her life. What right did he have to take it away? His Eliecia was gone, what difference did it make if this woman some how wound up with this SKIN. His wife was gone and was not coming back. That was his fate, to live a very long life without her. That was his penance for his crimes against the innocent, for the crime of his invention. He should just let the family be. Do the right thing for once in your miserable life old man. Just do it!

He was convinced that he would help this couple with their child; he would ignore the pain and anger that this woman wore a face that didn't belong to her; He would not give in to the temptation to destroy. He looked up and saw the beauty of the child, his child and the wife; his wife and he lost his resolve.

No! This man will not have his family. This was his family on the other side of that glass. They were alive again and this man would not take them away. If he couldn't have her, no one would.

"Please step into the circle next to the interior control panel, Mrs. Shipley." Said Michales in a flat tone.

Michelle looked at the floor and found a red circle near the west wall of the chamber. She looked at Beth. She too had found a circle. It rested in the center of the floor. That presumably was her target.

"That's right, your place is on the circle in the center. It is the focus of the particle beam. This won't take long, only a few moments. Are we ready?"

Gary looked on with a miserable look on his face. Michelle's heart broke for him. She wanted nothing more than to reassure him that all would be well. Then without warning, she was badly out of breath. She looked toward the window and Gary was attacking the Doctor. In the center of the room was a horrified young lady slipping slowly out of her circle and backwards towards the east wall. She was backing away from the place where Michelle stood.

Time seemed compressed. There was a massive headache that came out of nowhere; the sensation that something was trickling down her forehead. When she wiped a hand across the place it stung to the touch and when she looked at her had through increasingly hazy vision, she thought she saw blood. That was not all she thought she saw either. She turned her hand over again and again amazed and confused at what she saw there. It was a larger hand, masculine. Then there was an enormous sense of fatigue. It was hard for her to stand. Worse her clothes no longer fit. She had burst out of her skirt and top.

"What... what is... " she couldn't catch her breath. Her voice sounded funny. There was a familiar ring to it but she couldn't quite put a name on it. Yes that felt right! It needed a name. "Gary?"

She could hear him ordering Michales to 'Open the God Damn door!' Then she heard the sound of the bolts being withdrawn and Gary charged in. "Michelle! God Damn... God Damn... What the hell did you do to her?"

"Her? That does not look like a woman to me. How long have you had possession of that stolen SKIN?"

Gary was rushing to her side. He tilted her face up to his. "Mikey." He whispered

"Gary?" Her voice was still sounded screwy. He called me Mikey... I haven't heard him say that for... Oh no!

"I gave her what she deserved."

"I came to you for help." Gary was crying. "We came to you for help!" He held Michelle who was fading. Her strength seemed to be bleeding out of a great open wound someplace.

She looked at her arms and was shocked to see so much hair. That was all she could take. Her overwhelmed system shut down and she collapsed on the red circle that she had been instructed to stand on. The world went completely black.

"Michelle!" Gary cried. "Wake up. Oh shit! We'll fix this, I promise. We'll fix this."

Gary looked up at Beth who had retreated to the opposite side of the room. "It's OK honey, really. I know what you must be thinking. But... I can... explain." Gary realized, however, he could not explain. He had led his wife here and this man had somehow known that she had been trapped in a SKIN. But why not return both to their former selves why was William still Beth?

He turned to the squirrelly little man, tears in his eyes and cried, "WHY?"

Michales suddenly couldn't answer that question. It seemed he had a good reason to begin with but now he wasn't so sure. Gary set his best friends head down on the ground. "You've destroyed my family. We had accepted what had happened and we were happy." Gary got up and advanced on Michales.

"Mr. Shipley," said Michales as he back peddled away from Gary, "I have to warn you. I'll call the police."

"Call them!" growled Gary. Concern in the young man's eyes turned to dark fear. It was true he couldn't die, not easily anyway, not quickly. This man however might give that genetic programming a good run for it's money 'and', Michales thought to himself. 'You can bet that he's going to make sure it hurts.'

"Mr. Ship... Wait!" The Doctor tried to turn to run but Gary grabbed him by the shirt and yanked him back.

"I asked you a question. You will answer it."

"You were using a stolen SKIN." Was all the reason he gave.

"And now?" Gary demanded.

"It's done. It's my guess you know how these things work."

"What about her?" he pointed to his former son.

Michales was now upset at being man handled. "There is nothing I can do for her now that I've freed this one. These SKINs are linked; only one can be deactivated at a time. I'm afraid that she's stuck." He gestured at the girl with his head.

"Liar!" said Gary his face bare centimeters from Michales face.

"No, Truth." The Doctor insisted.

"Change her back." He demanded of the doctor for his wife.

"I can't. You know that don't you?" The truth of it was a spear in Gary's heart. He had lost everything. The premonition that he had at Jason's door a week ago came down on him like a crushing boulder dropped from an impossible height. That was what he must have been feeling on the way here. He had forgotten completely about that. His hands slid off the man's shirt and Michales sidestepped Gary and removed himself to a respectable distance.

"All we wanted was some help." Gary said miserably. Michales felt the Saints of Heaven frowning down on him. He blushed and wanted desperately to help to turn back the hands of time and reverse what he had done but he could not. Not now. He had to stay strong, but if he explained what the situation called for now; maybe he could...

There was a groan from the floor. Gary rushed there dropping the slight eastern European man on his heels with a thud and a grunt. "Take it easy." He soothed. He seemed afraid to touch, and Michelle couldn't figure out why he seemed so hesitant. She made an attempt to get up and it made her head swim. It felt as if she had hit her head on something.

She whispered, "Mikey?

She fought the headache and looked down at her body. The dress she had chosen was torn at the seams. Stuffed inside it was a man's body. She was free of her SKIN. Some how... then she remembered.

She sat up quick and searched the room for William. But there was only Gary, Michales and the girl they had come in with, Beth.

"It didn't work." She said looking at Gary. "It went wrong?"

"No. It worked, on you." He knelt next to Michelle, "Why don't you ever listen to me? I told you not to come in here." Then Gary felt bad for admonishing Mike. He had only been trying to protect their child. Now this, he needed no more punishment and he offered. "I'm sorry."

He sat on the floor in the tattered remains of a pink suit that had burst open at the seams and was now in pieces around him. The trauma of what had happened now came crashing in on him and he began to weep. He had been exposed and now someone else knew who he was. How could they ever be safe now? Perhaps if this man could just change him back then there might be a price, some monetary figure that would satisfy his sense of silence.

He looked up with pleading, wet eyes at the doctor, "What will it take for you to turn me back and keep a secret?" As she looked into the doctor's eyes she say pity there and she realized that once a SKIN was "burned" it could not be reused. "I can't get back can I?" she felt suddenly very empty and hollow as is she had been stripped of all her internal organs. She could feel the love for her wonderful husband fading already. She was reverting back to Mike Vello. To that place where that selfish little brat had been when she got stuck as Michelle. The tears were flowing hard now. This was worse than dying and being buried. He understood that being a zombie is so much worse.

"Mom?" The word came from a timid voice from the far side of the small glass enclosed room.

Michelle looked at Beth. "I'm sorry honey. We should have told you." Mike looked at Gary. "We should have told her as soon as this happened to her. I see that now. We would have but we didn't think that this could reversed." Michelle looked back at Gary. "We should have told them all."

Gary could see the confusion in his child's new face. It crushed him. He was now going to have to carry on trapped as his mother had been. Gary was facing a life without the love he wanted so badly. His children... his family would have to accept the fact that their mother was dead.

Gary's face hardened into granite determination. He wheeled around to rip Michales apart. "I'm going to kill you."

Michales reached over and opened a drawer and withdrew an FTazor. This one was a law enforcement model, designed to instantly cook internal organs with a blast of 400 amps of AC current. "I can't let you hurt me. I am afraid you will have to leave now. I'm sorry for your family, but you have stolen SKINs. As far as I'm concerned, you are all getting what you deserve." The words were stern but now, his heart was no longer in it. Revenge was not sweet, it was as bitter as sucking on a greasy coin.

Gary advanced anyway. Terrance didn't know if he could actually kill a man. Hell he was having a hard time living with the reality of the crime he had just committed. Leese used to tease him about his training as a government agent and how he didn't have the heart to kill houseflies. It was true; he would trap them and release them outside rather than kill. He was going to have make a choice now. This very angry man was closing the distance between them very quickly now. "Gary. No... We have to get out here. They will be down on us soon. Think about William."

Gary looked down at Mike. He couldn't fool himself. It was over. The wonderful dream was over and it was time to wake up now. This was one hell of a wake up call.

"Let's go." Mike said.

"Dad, you can't change me back?" The girl was starting to hyperventilate

"Baby..." there was nothing to add. They had to go. Beth would remain Beth and Michelle was dead. Gary reeled from the idea. His beautiful lovely wife, all that love he needed so desperately was gone. He felt as if he was dying. She could read it in his eyes.

"And Mom? What about Mom? We can't leave here without her."

"I'm sorry child." Said the doctor. "There is nothing I can do for her now. I must insist, before my comrades come back. Otherwise you and your child will be taken."

Gary knew it to be true. It was over now. That beautiful dream that started so long ago and now... now it seemed like yesterday. Perspective was a fickle friend, while savoring time seems to slow; an illusion, a trick of the mind that lulls one into believing that the experience will never end. All good things do end, as the saying goes and when there is nothing else to savor, when what you had is gone, you would kill to have back that which you so quickly squandered. You lament over having not given more of yourself and your time to what you no longer have and cannot regain. All is mourning and pity and satisfaction and pleasure is nowhere to be found.

Gary looked sharply at Michales. "Give me something to cover him up with at least."

Michales stepped back out of the chamber and opened a closet at the back of the room. There he withdrew a gray overcoat, not exactly proper springtime fashion, but for a man, better than a torn pink dress. He tossed the coat on the floor and Mike slipped it on.

He tried to get up, smiled sheepishly at Gary and asked. "A little help here?"

Gary helped Mike, supporting by the shoulders and then held him still.

"I'll get the HOV and meet you out front." Gary told Mike. You bring... Beth out after I land." Mike nodded. The look in Gary's eyes was so broken and sad. Mike felt bad for him. But there was less emotion connected to it than there would have been if Mike had felt as he did just ten minutes ago.

Gary disappeared past Michales with a hateful look of revenge in his eyes as he passed. Michales held up the FTazor tight to his body and gripped it white knuckled as Gary slipped by.

Once he was gone, he turned to the two still in the chamber. "I'm sorry. I didn't think this would happen. I didn't know you were a man. I didn't..." he thought about what he was going to say. "I didn't know how traumatic it would be."

"If I'd been a female user, that would have been less traumatic somehow? Your logic is lacking." Mike shot back. He had been stripped of a life where he had been happy. Where the people he was close to cared. He had been thrown back into a world where he was dead. How was he supposed to resurrect himself after so long?

He turned to his child. That concept alone, that this was his child and it had actually come out of his body. From a male perspective, it was almost more than he could deal with. He reached for Beth and she shrank back away in a state of alarm.

"I'm not going to hurt you."

"I don't know you." She said. Mike hung his head.

"You do, I'm not that much different hon."

"Yes you are." She paused. "Is that how you see me now? Different?"

Mike shook his head. "No, I can still see you under 'all that girl', to quote your sister."

Beth's eyes narrowed and she studied Mikes face. Then a mournful look crossed over it and Mike knew she understood.

"Mom..." she cried and ran to the man in the room with her.

Mike held the girl. She seemed so much smaller now. She would, you've grown more than a foot taller if I remember correctly.

His thoughts were still heard in Michelle's soft sweet voice.

"There will be plenty of time for that. I want to get you out of here before Dr. Jeckyle here gets anymore ideas."

The two left, Michales stepped out of the way and allowed them a wide passageway to pass. They exited the door and left the building. He was left with the idea that Leese was looking down on him and she was not pleased, not pleased at all.

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

"Let me see your case Beth." Mike asked. Beth didn't comply at first. Gary understood where Mike was going though. He reached back and withdrew the compression case from back seat where it sat next to Beth. Beth followed it up to the front seat with her eyes and watched it vanish into the hands of the man her father called Mike.

Mike pressed the inflate key and the case sucked wind and became four times it's current size in an instant. Mike flipped open the case and pulled out the jeans, 'shrink sneaks' and tee shirt. He pulled of the shredded pink skirt and jacket. Pulled the torn white blouse from under the trench coat and slipped the bra off. He pulled the jeans up under the trench coat over the panties, he had left these on to avoid becoming completely naked in front of Beth, even if he was covered with the coat, and he still felt uncomfortable about the idea.

The jeans fit, they were tight, but they fit. Some small measure of relief was granted. He would not have to explain nudity to Police Services when he was picked up anyway. Mike was impressed that the clothes of his sixteen-year-old son fit the body of the man he had been at nearly twenty. It suggested that his son was going to be a very large man, tall and athletic. Would have been. He reminded himself.

He slipped the tee on and then the shoes. They were a bit loose, fitted to William's foot but they would do for now.

His life had been split the way no one life should ever have been split.

He had grown up male and matured female. Neither condition nor experience was by consent or approval. Both had been thrust upon him. One at birth the other at the transition from boyhood to manhood. Now he was being asked to transition again. No... Not asked, he was simply being thrust back into the fire.

Now as they drove toward the home they had shared when they had been man and wife one thing became absolutely crystal clear to him.

"I can't go home Gary."

"WHAT?" Both adults were on the edge of hysterics.

"Not like this!" He gestured to himself as if he were unclean. "Let me out."

"What are you talking about?"

Beth sat in the back terrified of the world as it had become. Everything she had known in life had been tuned on its ear. She was still a girl. The promise of a return to maleness had been a lie. It seemed she could never be rid of this body. It was locked on with an invisible pad lock that had no key or combination.

Worse yet her mom was now a MAN! She couldn't say now which was stranger to her, Beth could almost swear that she recognized the man her mother had become Stop the world please... I'd like to get off now!

"Stop the HOV and let me out Gary."

"I won't do it." Gary insisted.

"I can't face the kids like this. Please."

"It'll be fine. Besides, Erin and Shelly are at the lake by now. We have the weekend to figure this out." Those words echoed in the ears of the occupants. They were the same words used last weekend when they all got on this carousal from hell.

"Nothing's going to be fine GARY." Mike shouted at him. "I'm dead inside; and your wife... she's gone. Even if we had a thousand years, there's no going back."

"Michelle, please," he gestured to the back of the HOV.

Mike turned his head looked back the terrified young girl sitting there. The girl said nothing but the tears welling up in her eyes spoke volumes. Life was spinning helpless out of control for all of them now. Mike kicked himself mentally, he couldn't have left well enough alone. Now look at this mess. It was Mike's guess that things were only going to get more complicated as time went on. This was only the point where the wave began to crest. It had not yet reached it full height. One could only hope that when it finally broke it didn't drown everyone in its path.

"Where the hell are you going to go?" Gary asked then tried to make a course correction, "No... It's out of the question, you have to come home, and I'm not letting you run out on yourself or your family."

"Gary... I promise I won't do anything rash." He turned to Beth. "Honey... this has to be our secret for now, just the three of us. Your sisters wouldn't understand." He waited for some recognition and realized she didn't understand either. "Oh baby... I'm so sorry this has happened."

"Don't go... Please." the Beth squeaked.

Mike shook his head. "One day I'll explain. I have to go though. I can't do this to Erin... to Shelly. This has to our secret OK? "

The girl nodded without saying anything. Mike reached over and rested his hand on hers and the girl took it and squeezed it. It was a comfort to him in a world that suddenly had few to offer.

"I don't want you to go. Please!" Beth gripped his hand hard and pulled on it as if trying to pull him into the back seat with her. "Don't go. I'm scared."

"I'm scared too baby. I'm scared too." He didn't know if it was right to tell her that or not but it was the truth and he knew that the truth was always best in times of doubt. That was when the lightening struck.

"Stop the HOV Gary." Mile shouted and Gary slammed on the reverse jets bringing the HOV to an abrupt stop. He turned back to his daughter, "Baby, I'll call really, really soon. Don't worry. I'm always going to be your Mom. OK?"

The girl nodded but she was weeping openly now. This was more than he could take. As Mike, he had been pretty much an emotionless bastard since the death of his sister; jaded toward emotion he had even turned the few relationships he had with girls around campus into nothing more than fuck-fests. But here, his heart turned toward this little girl in a tender way. The link between mother and child was a stronger one to break it seemed. Or was it because it wasn't there before he became Michelle. He thought the bond between he and Gary to be unbreakable and yet, here he was, no longer in love with him at all. He knew what he had been to this man; knew what he had felt for this man and now, all he felt was revulsion at his behavior.

Gary had been right. If I had gone back twenty years ago, we would not have been friends. I couldn't have taken it. I wonder what he's feeling now?

Mike turned to Gary. He tried to take his hand but Gary gently pulled it away. "You see."

"I'm sorry. It's just that..."

A tear slipped from Gary's eye, but strangely, Mike didn't feel like crying. The emotion for Gary was leaving. He was rapidly becoming Mike more and more as the seconds clicked by.

"Where are you going to go?"

"Home!" he said simply and stepped out of the HOV. He looked back to his daughter and then disappeared down the sidewalk.

"Is Mom gone forever Dad?"

Gary couldn't answer her. He was dying; at least it felt that way. His head was spinning and he senses were numb. He didn't even want to breath. Every fiber of his being had just died in that lab. He kept waiting for the punch line but none came. This was final. Once a skin is burned off it can't be reused or regenerated. "My wife." He mumbled.

This is how it happens, He thought, you leave the house, thoughts of who won't be coming home that night never cross your mind until they happen. Then, when it does, you think 'Oh my God, She's not coming home!' and you die inside each time you think that if you had only known you could have stopped it. This is the same thought you have when you see a fatal accident. You think, 'When they left the house their loved ones did know that this person wouldn't be coming back this day, or ever' and you're lost, just like that in a moment in time.

All Gary could see was the long dead face of Becky Fenton welcoming guests to an empty and now haunted brownstone where her family used to life. Her words echoed in his head. "I'm sorry, there's no one home right now. I'm sorry, there's no one home right now. I'm sorry, there's no one home right now. I'm sorry, there's no one home right now."

Gary felt the same waive of nausea spill into his gut as he had that evening across from the park. He fought with all his strength to maintain his breakfast and his consciousness.

"Dad?" the girl was pleading. She was trying not to cry but she was loosing the struggle with herself.

"Baby, I'm going to do everything I know to bring her home."

"Can you Daddy?"

"We need to go home, Beth. Let's go home and see what we can think of, OK?"

"Yes Daddy. Let's go home." And in the tiniest of whispers so that not even her father could hear her, the girl said a prayer. "Please God, let my Mom be safe and bring her home to us."

Somewhere out there, Mike's older sister shed a tear for her dead sister.

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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