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

Skin Deep II: The Dance
Chapter 9: Change Your Partners Do-Si-Do
by Mark McDonald
©2002 Mark McDonald -- all rights reserved

Mike Vello, one time local rock hero (although at that time; unbeknownst to him) and college student once again walked the streets he disappeared from twenty years ago. His physical appearance had changed somewhat from his glory days. He was distinctly older. His age didn't reflect his now nearly forty years of life, but there was gray in his hair where there had been none 2082. The skin on his face was a bit looser and there were just the faintest shadows of crow's feet about the eyes.

Mike was unaware of the changes and might not have noticed them anyway. It had been a long time since he had seen himself in this guise. There had been times in the past when he was unable to remember what Mike had even looked like and would have been hard pressed to guess how he might have tuned out toward middle age. Even so, he didn't want to run the risk of being recognized. Not that anyone would after so much time, but still, with that damned statue sitting in the middle of the college campus right in front of Shipley Hall it was possible that someone could at the very least say, "You know something buddy, you look kinda' like..." or at worse case, " Hey, aren't you that statue out at the college..." So Mike turned up the collar of the borrowed coat and hurried down the street.

He was off balance as he walked; He remembered what it had felt like after the first change. He had been closer to the ground than now. That alone had been a strange feeling. Now mild vertigo threatened to make him dizzy and stumble. There was an uncomfortable wad of something in his pants that made him want to stop and adjust it's position with nearly every step. It was maddening. Each time he took a step the damned thing flopped around in his pants dropping between his balls and his leg, making him conscious of it, driving him crazy. How the hell did I ever learn to walk with this attached to me?

His chest felt bare, without breasts he felt exposed. Several times he felt that his hair had fallen into his face and he would brush it away only to find no hair. It was cropped short and neat. It took everything he had to keep his head together.

Funny how when everything's on the other foot you only then appreciate how comfortable you felt in a different pair of shoes.

Most confusing were his feelings toward Gary and the kids. He worried about Beth. This should have been her escape but that bastard did something. That Michales guy pulled some sort of double cross, but why? He claimed that both the skins were linked, that they had had some kind of common bond or coding system or something. Now that code or what ever it was had been executed and William was trapped as Beth, but Mike didn't believe it. Michales was a liar, a good one albeit but a lair just the same.

That sonofabitch! Why would he do this? More importantly, how did he know? Had they provoked him somehow? He seemed genuine in his desire to help but his air of helpfulness changed when Mike had entered the room as Michelle. He had expected a hand to shake but instead received a cold and almost hateful stare.

Michelle had looked questioningly at Gary but he hadn't seen the look.

Mike grabbed his hair; his jacket and grieved. He felt as if he were being split in two. He was still thinking like Michelle but his emotions seemed dulled down.

He plodded on along toward his parents house. The only one that still lived there of course was his mother and they hadn't spoken such a long time. He had never told her what had happened to him. Now he wished he had, wished he had at least written as Mike, just to let her know he was still out there if only hiding.

He was concerned now that if he just showed up she might die of fright or a heart attack one, but where else did he have to turn at this time. He couldn't go home and Gary knew it as well as he did. Otherwise Gary would never have let him go.

Here and there people would glance his way and although they offered nothing more than a causal nod and or a sideways look. Mike felt as if each one were scrutinizing him, trying to discern his identity.

Harrison Avenue marked the southern boarder of the historic district. This was where the western boundary of the city college and Mike's old living quarters were. The building itself still stood but no longer housed students. The rustic old 180-year-old building was now a VID streaming broadcast center. The older shops and the bank that had taken Gary's photo so many years ago were gone now, razed to make room for a new dormitory building dedicated to the memory of Frank and Karen Shipley. Shipley Hall was a magnificent structure for the area, done all in brick and comprising of wide marble porticoes at each door and marble framed windows. The building featured a large covered semi-circular drive to the main entrance of the building with large wide pink marble steps to the door itself. Through the large glass French door one could see the deep mahogany and walnut wood paneled walls and polished white marble floors. Deep in its depths was a private library that was vastly superior to that of the schools own library and the envy of most of the schools with in five hundred miles.

The rooms were appointed with a spacious living area with a small social area, separate bedroom with multi-access bath, small but full service kitchen and a built in study area and facility supplied VID with access to all informational outlets and most entertainment venues as well as free local personal calling features and online study and tutoring groups.

The waiting list to get in was staggering. At any time there might be as many and four thousand students trying to apply to get in for a much as ten years in advance. The building had three thousand individual rooms and fifteen hundred doubles for those that had roommates to help offset costs. These rooms could also conceivably house young married couples trying to work through college.

The massive structure ate three city blocks when it was built, obliterated four HOVWays, three ground streets and completely consumed the view of the bay from that portion of the city for fifteen stories. It's construction had boosted college attendance at the city college in four years by over fifty percent of it's previous average and made the university attractive to a higher quality instructional staff. This brought in revenue to the university and allowed it to act as a major player in student recruitment.

The proceeds from the rent of student rooms paid the buildings mortgage off in three years and the profits after operating costs were now turned over the university.

The entire project from concept to implementation, design and construction had been that of Michelle Shipley. As he passed the building, he offered only a cursory glance and moved on. Ghosts, he thought everywhere ghosts.

Shipley Hall slowly faded in stature behind him as he hurried along South Harrison to Washington. There he proceeded south. The once flourishing neighborhoods had declined here long before he was born. For many this was a place of pain. In the days since the last World War, this place and many others like it around the country had been abandon and neglected. Once before the war and the poverty of rationing the so called ghettoes and inner city zones of the late twentieth century had been eliminated; replaced by free trade zones where police protection was as reliable and as prevalent as it was in wealthier neighborhoods. Unique businesses began to prosper and a sprit of free enterprise flourished.

But during the war and most importantly during the Canadian invasion of the Northern States, POW zones were established in the larger cities. Citizens were not allowed to enter these zones unless they wanted to risk becoming a permanent resident of the area. After the capture and annexation of Michigan, Illinois and Ohio by Canadian forces many of these areas were stormed and burned to the ground, Rouston's POW zone was no different, thousands of Canadian nationals and sympathizers died. Now, no one seemed to want to return and the homes here fell to those that needed housing cheap.

To the east, where Gary had grown up just a dozen blocks away, the neighborhoods were still polished and neatly trimmed.

As Michelle, he had driven down here and only stopped a few times on the pretense that Gary had wanted her to check in and see how Rose was doing since her husband had died not long after Mike had disappeared.

What Michelle had seen was a beaten woman. Everything she had wanted for herself had been taken from her, both children and then her husband. Hell, she had looked like a woman that couldn't even die right. She just kept clinging to life even after all the will to live had been expended on grief.

Michelle would stay as long as possible, leave cash lying about and offers groceries but would never stay long. She would run away crying hysterically at the plight she had left to her mother to face alone. The afternoon of Mike' funeral would always play back in her mind. The way Gary and her parents had fallen together, her mother lamenting and grieving her loss, confessing her love for her lost son.

It took a long time for her to recover from these visits as consequently the return visits were few and far between. Selfish to end, that bitter part of me that I had always wanted to let go of. He thought to himself. The blame for all this swirled about in his head. He tried to justify his actions as Michelle with the fact that there were children to protect. She simply couldn't have told her mother what had happened.

Mike arrived at the house on which sat on a small lot of land one block east of Washington. He stood on the sidewalk looking at the small modular home he had once shared with three other people. It was tiny compared to what he'd been made used to. He took a step toward the house and froze.

He was empty and lost. Only hours ago he had been happy, with a home and children he had bore. He had money and someone that had loved him very much. He wanted nothing more than to stay in that life and now, fate had reared its ugly green head again and once more changed his destiny. He felt he had a trick or two left for destiny however. That greasy old whore didn't have control of everything in his life. An overdose of psychotics would put a kink in old destiny's plans.

What are you doing? He asked himself. You're dead! You show up here as a ghost and you're going to kill her too. God, will my actions on this never cease to haunt me.

"I don't want that..." he mumbled out loud. He adjusted himself and cursed the thing in his pants again. A deeper part of him wanted Gary's soft touch and the other part of him shuddered at the idea of an intimate touch from another male, friend or not. He now could no longer feel the transition from female to male happening, but he was still left with the residual feelings. Mike wanted comfort and couldn't tell whom he wanted comfort from, man or woman.

It took days the last time, hell months... remember? You may be in for a hellish time son! Did it; is that just another justification? The change was over in hours, hell maybe seconds, complete and total. When she had stood up off that warehouse floor, Mike Vello was completely female. It was getting used to the feeling, the wiring of the brain and the chemicals that body produced that had become a crash course in Gender Familiarity 101.

His heartbeat quickened at the idea that he might struggle with this as he had done before.

"Can't do that again. I just can't." The need for help for his situation seemed to get his feet moving, damned be the consequences.

Knock, Knock, Knock

He didn't want to use the security VID, that she could activate from inside but he wanted to know that she was aware he was there and not just screen the visitor. To his surprise the door actually opened with no VID response.

"Yes? Can I help you?"

He paused for a second. The elderly lady there was now only a ghost of the woman she had been when he left home. He had watched her age when he had been on visits as Michelle but it had been almost two years since she had been able to bring herself to visit; instead choosing to deposit funds into her account and pay her property taxes and grocery account anonymously. It made him want to cry but his incredible self-control was back in place and he couldn't allow it any longer.

"Mom. It's me..." He said, and then a thought crossed his mind, George... George Bailey, Don't you remember? Wild, hysterical laughter bubbled up with that thought and took a great deal of effort to keep from erupting. Help me Clarence!

Responding to the word 'Mom', a scowl crossed Rose's face. She felt this man was trying to pull a tick on her, perhaps to take advantage of an old woman. "What are you trying to pull? Everybody knows both my children are dead." Her conviction wavered as she studied the face a bit more. The features of her face slackened and even as she spoke the words, the realization came to her in pieces. "You get out of here right now or... I'll... call... the... Oh MY GODDDDDDDDDD!" she screamed.

The sound of it was so loud that it bounced off the walls of the larger buildings blocks away. He wouldn't have even considered his mother to have that much lungpower when she was in her prime let alone as a little old lady. She leaped at his neck and latched on to it. She clung there; hanging from his neck like some old, withered fruit on a still healthy tree. A bloom that, once beautiful and full of color and aroma, had long since dried up in the sun but refused to let go of the vine.

"Nice to see you too Mom." He said as he held her off the ground. This time he could not control the tears. He knew he had been wrong about his parents since the day of his memorial service. He had found, in fact, that he had been wrong or at least unaware of a lot of things at that service. He was not surprised at her emotional display. He tried to bite back the bitter sting of the tears but failed. He cried not for his pain but what he had put his mother through. Now he was back and what was that supposed to do for her? He had only crossed that threshold because he had needed her not the other way around.

Then suddenly she was walloping him in the chest with her open hand. "You bastard! You're a bastard. I just hate you! Where the hell have you been? I fucking hate you, you bastard."

The language took him off guard. She had always been in such control over her emotions in the past. So much so that Mike had always mistaken her reserved behavior as cold and unfeeling. As she was yelling at him all he could say between admonitions was "I know mom." And "I'm sorry." There was no good explanation for not ever letting her know. Not after finding out that she had really cared that time. The guilt set in like a smothering weight and the real impact of his negligence bore down on him.

She finally stopped and clung there to him and cried. Mother and son held each other. It was a scene from the history VID's. From a distance you could almost believe Mike was a POW home from the Canadian concentration camps and back in the arms of his mother. Up close one realized he was far too young for that.

After a great deal of weeping and time Rose, her face buried in Mike's chest finally said. "I missed you."

"I'm sorry Mom. I wish I had a reason for you. I wish I had something you'd understand to tell you. But I don't."

She allowed herself to be lowered to the ground. "What do you mean?"

"I mean... What DO I mean?" he unexpectedly asked of himself.

"There has to be something you can tell me. Where have you been all this time?" she demanded.

"You wouldn't believe me even if I did tell you Mom. Can't we just leave things like they are?"

"You're kidding right? You've been gone for twenty years, you blow back in here as if nothing happened and say to me, 'things are what they are Mom, don't ask questions.' Oh no, you have to give me something so I'll understand what happened."

Mike looked around his old neighbor hood and finally said, "Not out here."

"Then perhaps you should come in." His mother offered and stepped aside to let her son in the house. Mike stepped inside and right away the memories of his childhood assaulted him.

The house was warm. His mother liked it warm, not uncomfortably, just enough to take the edge of the crisp air outside. His mother had always been a believer that autumnal and spring chills belonged outside where they can best be appreciated.

As he looked about he noticed much had changed and a great deal had remained the same as well. Most of the utilitarian furnishings were different. The couch and chairs had all been replaced with somewhat newer pieces. The end tables and coffee table were also different. His grandmother's bookcase was still here however and still occupying the same space on the far left wall of the living room. The house had been repainted at some point but he guessed it had been some time ago. The light blue paint (it had been beige) seemed faded and old.

Through the archway that connected the kitchen to the living room little had changed. His mothers antique Formica and chrome table with its chrome and red plastic covered chairs was still there and in solid condition.

The smells were exactly the same. The smells of his mothers cooking lingered in the air. Behind that the rich smell of cedar from the various wooden trinkets, boxes and of course, the closets she had insisted on splurging on.

The house was remarkably clean. He could find no dust, no fingerprints, no smudges of any sort on any of the polished or glass surfaces. Granted, she only had herself to clean for, but she was also sitting on or just past seventy years old.

I guess everyone has to have a hobby. Must be easier when there's only one. A stab of pain bolted into his brain at the ice-cold thought. You really are one selfish bastard Mike... Do you know that?

"Sit Mike, please."


"Don't be so formal." His mother encouraged.

"It's been so long." He offered.

"I know it has." She tried to smile but it was a tired effort. "You're still my son... aren't you?" The question was genuine. Time and tragedy had humbled this woman. She was no longer in charge and no longer cocky or proud. She had been reduced to accepting that which others offered. She was asking for an offer from Mike, an affirmation that he was still hers. Long gone were the days of assumption.

Mike winced, "I'm sorry." He said and then tried to change the subject. "The place hasn't changed that much."

"Ummmm, no. We had the place painted after you moved out and went to college."

"I see that." Mike agreed.

"I liked that song you did, that one on the radio! That was very nice." She said. The small talk was getting silly in both their minds

"Erin wrote that one." He told his mother, sharing the credit.

"I found that out later, after you had... you know."

"Yeah." Mike agreed not to say it out loud.

The conversation was ten seconds old and was dying a miserable death. He leaned forward and put his elbows on his knees and started, "Mom... I..." His eyes squinted together as he searched his brain for just the right words to string end to end to explain this to his mother. In his mind he ran the dialog over and over in his head. I've been your daughter for the last twenty years. Or Mom, I had an accident a few years ago that resulted in my getting pregnant. Or Say... I bet you didn't know that, for a while I looked really good in a nice pair of pumps and skirt.

As he was... trying on the excuses to see how they fit his mother broke in, "Dear, maybe it will be easier if you just try the truth." She said sweetly. Mike somehow felt she had no idea what she really asked for. Be careful what you wish for...

"Well, I'm not dead! That's the good news." He said with a bright a cheerful smile.

"Yes, I'm grateful, but that doesn't explain why you left."

"Er... I didn't really leave."

"Now don't you try to lie to me Mike. You couldn't possibly have been anywhere near this place, not at first. Not for years. Your face was just too recognizable. Images of it were plastered everywhere."

"Yeah, I know." he said, with a 'Much to my chagrin' tone in his voice.

His mother seemed confused by all this. Could it be that he had actually been hiding out in Rouston all this time? No, she decide, that would have been impossible, there were reports of sighting all the way to Philadelphia to the North and Louisville to the West. Phantom sightings and false leads that would get her heart and hope running only to dash them on the rocks of despair and disillusionment. In the end being forced to accept that he was never coming home. But to claim he had hidden here all this time was ludicrous. She decided to call his bluff.

"OK then, where were you hiding then?"

"Don't do this Mom, please." He was now sorry he had come here. He should have gone west. Claimed he had joined the Free States Territories. that would have at least killed any further questions from his mother.

"Mike, it can't be all that bad. Just tell me so I can try to understand."

Mike sighed. He was not going get free of this; he was going to have to spread the secret around some more.

"I've been living with Gary Mom." He closed his eyes and waited for what he knew must come.

"What are you talking about? I happen to know that Gary has a family and good job. He and his wife are very prominent in this community. There is absolutely no way you could have lived over there. Mike I want you to consider something. I've even been over there a couple of times."

"Yes Mom, I know. We served Crab Louie the first time you were there and smoked salmon the second time."

"I woul..." her mouth dropped open and she stared at her son. "That had to have been six or seven years ago, how did you know that?"

"It was eight years ago. It started with Erin's eleventh birthday, I then decided I wanted you to come to William's birthday too."

Rose smiled with the recollection of it, "That's right, what a fine day that was. It was almost like having my own..." The conversation was getting stranger and stranger. "You decided? Mike really you're delusional, why would you have decided?"

Mike sighed again. "Because I thought it would be nice if you spent some time with your grandchildren, my kids."

An idea was forming in her head; Mike could see it taking form. "You slept with Gary's wife?"

"No Mom."

"I don't understand... You said they were your kids. That must mean they're not Gary's."


She was getting frustrated now. "Stop playing games with me Mike. I demand to... Holy shit!" Rose's eyes opened wide and her hand's, which had been very animated, now fell limp into her lap.

Mike, grateful for the recognition of the moment said, "And a single candle pierces the darkness and shows us the way." He sat back relieved it was out.

"They're your kids from someone else and Gary adopted them?"

"Arrrrrggggghhhhhh!" he cried and through his arms up in frustration. "Mom, I gave birth to those kids. They're MY kids, mine and Gary's." He shouted.

"You don't have to yell at me!" she said quietly. "I'm not deaf."

He shook his head, "I'm sorry Mom." He got up to hug her neck as an apology but when he reached for her she flinched away.

"Don't touch me!"

"What?" Mike asked in confusion.

"You heard me! You're a freak that's what you are. You left home and didn't talk to anyone because you wanted to do something weird with your friend? I don't know you."

"What are you talking about? It was an accident. I got involved with someone that had a shipment of skins."

"I figured that much. I'm not stupid either." She said angrily.

"I know Mom. Look, the thing is..." Mike began.

"I don't want to hear it. I don't care!" she was up and walking away from him. She made short quick steps to the kitchen but Mike hurried after her.

"Wait, you wanted to know now the least you can do is hear me out now that I've started." He pleaded. He wanted the release. This was is last sin, the last of his crimes were standing in front of him waiting for confession and he needed that now. It might help him from going insane.

"I don't owe you anything." She said and then turned on him. "Why did you take it off? I hear you can't go back, not as you were. Don't care about your kids like you didn't care about your own family? Selfish as always, the same old Mikey."

"That's not fair Mom." He declared, obviously hurt.

"Life's not fair. Tell me then and get it over with." She waived a hand at him dismissing the notion that she had to listen or would remember what he said. "Tell me what happened."

He told the story again, shorter this time than he had with Karen, Gary's mom so long ago, but it was accurate and he hoped had spawned some understanding in his mother's heart.

He finished with, "And now I feel like I'm being pulled apart. It wasn't so bad when I got here. I guess Mike, me, I mean the old me was taking over again; But I need my kids. I miss Gary but I don't feel like I'm in love with him. That bothers me too."

Dizziness was taking hold of him. He felt as if someone were pumping him full of adrenaline or had attached high voltage wires to his toes and fingers and turned the juice on. It was the worse kind of anxiety attack could have imagined. In the time he had taken to tell the story he had gone completely white. His lips were starting to turn blue and his eyes had sunk in to his head. Dark shadows had formed under his eyes. The next time he saw himself he would swear that he was dying.

His mother was seemingly unaffected by this.

"I hope you feel better having told me that."

"Actually I don't. I feel like shit. Can I lay down someplace?"

"I really think you should leave Mike. Go back to Gary if you care about that kind of life so much."

"What kind of life? Didn't you love Dad?"

"What's that got to do with anything?" she spun about and faced him, incredibly fast for an old lady.

"I was female Mom, I couldn't change that. My body... my body made me what I was, a woman. Believe me I wanted out at first, I almost got myself killed trying to get out of it once. But I couldn't and I did fall in love with Gary. So it was take the good or the bad. I chose the good." He hoped again for sympathy and found non. He added for sarcasm's sake "So sue me."

"Is Gary going to pick you up?" she was still asking him to leave.

"No, the kids wouldn't understand." He confessed. "If he's smart they are all on they're way out of the country. Michelle's gone Mom. That's going to be a hard thing to explain." He conveniently left out the dilemma William was in considering how understanding his mother was being today.

"At least Gary understands where his priorities are."

"Yes he does." He said as he turned away and the spun back and got in her face, "But it was my idea to spare the kids."

She seemed surprised. She opened her mouth to say something, when nothing came out she snapped it closed.

The spinning in Mike's head was getting worse. He felt as if he hadn't eaten in months and it was making him sick and weak. He reached out to steady himself on a chair and missed. He went crashing to the ground striking his head on the edge of the chair he had tried to grab on his way down.

"HUH!" escaped him as he hit the chair. He went to his knees and stayed there for a minute. Finally it passed enough for him to shake his head clear and get up. Without saying anything he started for the door.

"Wait!" came from behind him, her hands under his arms trying to help him up. "Are you..."

"No... I'd better leave." He said cutting her off. Mike got to his feet and waited to catch his breath before opening the door and then said with his face to the door. "I'm sorry. I never meant to hurt you, just like you never meant to hurt me. It's the same thing. We both just misunderstood the other. I found that out at the funeral, that's why Gary left that day so suddenly. It was because I couldn't cope with what I had done and couldn't undo. I was just hoping that... Never mind." He concluded with disgust and opened the door.

Next to him, a small frail hand appeared and pushed the door closed. He was so weak that even trying to fight to open it she was able to shut it easily.

"I don't approve of what you say you've been doing. But I won't turn you out when you're sick. You need something to eat and to sleep."

Mike struggled for just a bit intent on leaving. He didn't want to be where he wasn't wanted. He didn't seem to have enough strength to open the door against his mother's seemingly colossal strength. Finally, with a deep sigh, he relented. "You're the boss, boss." He said weakly. Once again he collapsed to his knees, resting his head against the door. Inside he was greatly relieved. At least the cops wouldn't find him on the steps of the house outside.

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At home Gary struggled with a plan. Something he could do until he could set things right.

Gary was going to have to get Beth to the mountains, to their house on Bear Lake where her sisters were now. He felt now that the shit was going to hit the fan. With Michelle now missing, he would be back in the spot light as a suspect for murder. He would have to play that hand out. He would not bring the suggestion of SKINs into this, not with William still trapped in one. It would be too easy for someone to piece it all together. Hell, Gary thought, they'll probably figure it out anyway, but I'm not handing them the answers.

He knew it was only a temporary solution. He was grateful that they had agreed to slip a record into the registry for Beth after all. At least her presence won't be questioned. Not right away anyway. That just might buy Erin enough time to get them all to France, or Brazil, or Ireland or some damned place other than where the Shop had authority.

He would send Erin up with the girls in Michelle's HOV. Then what?

Liquidate! He would collect the cash reserves he could get his hands on... Have Harmon, his lawyer sell off all their other assets. He could leave instructions for him to give half of everything to Rose. She could pass it on to Mike...

"Mike!" It became clear to him they were busted already. Once Mike came forth and re-established his life, everyone will figure out that he was Michelle. There's only one way that could have happened.

The children had to get out now. He would get them all the money he could in a couple of days, sooner if he could, but for their own protection, they had to get out; before someone came and took them all away.

"Daddy?" a sweet voice cried. It was Beth. He had forgotten she was sitting at the back of the room in an oversized lounge chair.

"Go on to your room. I'll be in, in just a few seconds I have to think about the best way to try to deal with all this."

"I'm sorry Dad."

Gary was distracted. He had expected the Beth to go straight to her room and hadn't been paying attention to her when she spoke.

"Hum? Sorry? For what?" But Gary knew what she was sorry for. She believed this was her fault. Gary almost laughed out loud at the idea. Beth really didn't have any idea what blame truly was.

"This is my fault isn't it? I mean all of this. I'm getting what I deserve but Mom isn't. She's always been good to us." She seemed stable and strong willed as she spoke but her red eyes betrayed her emotions

"None of his is your fault. If anyone is to blame it's me."

Beth looked at her father not comprehending what he meant. "How could this be your fault Daddy?" The use of the word daddy was becoming more and more a part of her ingrained speech patterns; she struggled to fight them off but was clearly loosing the battle.

"I suppose you need an explanation, deserve one as much as any one is more like it. And you'll get one too. But not now honey. I've got to try to think of a way out of this mess for all of us. OK?"

"OK dad." The girl smiled at her father. It was a smile that was hauntingly close to Michelle's. The striking similarity to Michelle leaped out at him again as it had when he had first seen the two standing side by side in William's room. It made him want to weep hard and long for his dead love. "I'll be a good girl. I'm not worried about me any more. If Mom's OK then I'll be fine. That all I want right now. To have Mom back." With that, Beth turned to walk away.

Her father stopped her by putting his hand on her shoulder and turning her around. "Have I told you recently that I love you?"

Beth smiled and threw her arms around her dad. Her father gently hugged her in return, kissed her forehead and let her go. "Thanks for being so patient."

"I love you Daddy." She said letting go of the fight for just a moment and letting herself be what she currently was, Daddy's little girl. Somehow it felt she was being more compassionate for him. They had all been through so much today but her Dad seemed so lost and sad she just didn't have the heart to burden him with her problems. She moved off as he stood there, he had tuned his back to her and was leaning, as if for support, against the counter that was the kitchen bar.

The shock and disbelief of the day was sore and fresh as a wound might be as it dried in the air. His world and that of his family was falling apart and he somehow couldn't keep it from spiraling down to the singularity at the bottom of the cone.

What the hell had happened today? Well, I lost my wife for starters. That single thought brought him to his knees. He hit the floor and clocked his chin on the counter he had been using to support himself with, but the pain barely registered.

It was as if she were dead. In his heart she was gone. In his life she was gone. They had been happy. It wasn't lost on him that a skin had become his salvation and now it was the cause of all his grief and misery. His grief washed over him in every growing waves of despair.

All those years ago, that diary she had written and given him as a Christmas gift; but that wasn't quite true was it, he thought to himself. It hadn't been the book but her that had been the gift. The idea that she had somehow become content and happy to be with him, to he his wife to be female after spending what amounted to at that point, a lifetime as a male. Apart from the children she bore for him, it had been the single greatest gift he had ever received.

She had indeed saved his life, but not in the way the diary had suggested and he had never told her how unnerved he had been about that prediction. He didn't believe that Erin had come back from the dead to guide them all on this most unusual journey. That had been, in all likelihood a mental reaction to being thrust into such a different style of life without consultation or consent. Put simply it had been her way of dealing with it. No surprise that the solution had manifested itself in the form of her sister, another woman.

The saving of his life had been a coincidence but a remarkable one though, mostly because it was true. He was so unhappy with watching life go on around him but not having the courage or ability or know-how or imagination or whatever you want to call it to make something substantial happen for him. A large number of his friends were already away at college in other states forcing him to draw alliances with people he had barely known. Rodney Tatallia had been one of those. But Mike had stayed, mostly because he had to. For whatever reason it was nice to have his best friend here. Still, Mike had precious little time for him with his studies and the band. Soon he would be gone too, off on a true adventure of fame and fortune.

The women he met in his circles were shallow and preyed like vultures on the men the dated or married. Times were hard and you used the resources at your disposal to make your situation better. He had it better than most and didn't want some woman glomming on to him because he or rather his parents were rich. So he slummed it most of the time, as a result the people that he met were even more desperate and opportunistic.

His time to make a move seemed to have passed him by. Now deeply in the grip of depression, he had fully planned to take is own life at the end of that weekend. It was one of the reasons it was so important to have Mike with him before that. Just once he had wanted Mike to share and adventure with him, but he had always refused. If he was going to go he wanted to take some memories with him and leave a few behind as well.

It never got that far. Mike got the female skin and his attention had been turned for making sure he had a good time to caring for a friend he had gotten in trouble. Then when she couldn't get back to normal all-selfish thoughts went by the boards. His new job was cleaning up the mess he'd made of someone else's life.

So she had saved him. She gave him something he had never known from anyone other than his parents. It was the one thing that he had been looking for from all the other women he had met. She gave him her, and only expected one thing in return, him. Not his parents money or the comfort it could bring in those hard times. Not status or stuff, not jewelry or money she had wanted HIM! That was all, end of issue.

Now she was gone forever. He bent his head, folded his arm over his face and struggled to keep the tears at bay. Blood splattered on his pants at the knees and on the floor around them from the gash on his chin. He finally lost the battle with his tears and an army of them came out and mobilized against him.

He thought about his friend and wondered what Mike was going through. Gary wondered what he was going to tell his children. Beyond that, he didn't much care.

GET UP! Get those kids out of the house before something else happens.

Before he went up stairs he went to the bedroom and retrieved the very book he had just been thinking of. This would serve as an explanation to Beth. This would have to be her mother's legacy to her. It was all of the real Michelle that was left now. He looked at the yellowing pages, and then hugged the book to his chest. He seemed to loose his breath. He stood there silently for a while mourning his wife.

"I love you Michelle. I will miss you so very much." He whispered. He wiped his eyes; took a deep breath and moved out into the hallway to collect his children. Upstairs, he came first to Beth's room.

There on the bed lay the girl he had been forced to pawn off as his niece. She was face down on her bed, her face buried in a pillow. How did they get to this point? This was more than a child should have to bear. "Beth?"

The child quickly turned and saw her Father standing in the doorway of the room that belonged someone else, someone who was officially dead. She wiped her eyes and pulled the back of her hand across her nose. "Hi Daddy."

Gary walked in as he asked. "Can I come in."? Beth nodded and Gary approached the bed and set the book he carried on the bed next to her.

"This will pretty much tell the entire story." He placed one hand on its cover reverently and exhaled. "It's all in your Mother's words. She wrote this... rather, she dictated it. It will explain a lot. You can read it on the way to the lake. Please take care of it. This book means a lot to me; and don't show it to Erin, not yet. I'll make explanations when I need to.

"The lake? Why am I going to the lake house?"

"You're going to join your sisters. You need to get some place where you'll all be safe if something happens." Gary said this as calmly as possible, not wanting to alarm any of the girls but Beth especially since she was here by the design of a SKIN.

"What kind of something?" Gary could tell that she was clearly upset and his tactics had failed.

"Honey, please just pack... you'll have to pack some of what ever she may have bought for you to wear. We have to hurry."

"You aren't going to answer my question?"

"No... not right now. It's more than you need to worry about. Just pack, I'm going call your sister and ask her to come down here and pick you up." Gary moved off to the door and down the hall. Beth thumbed through the pages of the book her Father had placed next to her.

Here were her Mother's words...

Out in the warehouse I could hear voices, different from the ones that I had come here with. I tried to count the number of distinct voices. I quickly came up with five. They were all male voices. Which meant I alone had drawn the lone female skin.

OK, I thought, all bets were off. I didn't come down here to become a girl! All the skins had been put on so that transmitter thing could be activated. I should be able to take this thing off now. So I'm off the hook! I smiled at the thought. I couldn't have been happier. Since I'd been dead set against this to begin with, the idea that all this was over so quickly was really making my night. And no one could blame me for ruining it for everyone else.

I reached behind me to undo the buttons that had activated it. Then I paused for just a moment, wondering briefly if this was going to hurt like it did when it activated. I figured it was worth it to get out this mess. My hands worked the back of the suit looking for a lump, a crease or an opening somewhere. They found nothing except smooth, continuous skin. Skins are imperceptible, even to surgery! A small voice reminded me. It had to be there. How the hell else was I supposed to get it off? If it was gone then that meant...

She flipped a few more pages and read...

The exit gate was at the back of the complex so we didn't have to go past the security booth again. Thank God for small miracles. Rod drove us all out and dropped Gary and I off about three blocks away from my dorm building. It was just nearing three am when we got out of the van and started making our way over the dorm building.

Gary and I now had about two and one half hours to figure out where we were going to spend the next two days. The sun would come up by then and we would be introduced to a city that didn't know us. Worse was the fact that it was now minus six young men that were not completely unknown to those in this small section of the city's community.

I tried not to think too much about these things. I tried not to think about how the things on my chest shook a little bit with each step. Or how I could feel the back of the skirt flapping against my ass as I walked along. I did try to remind myself that I had only a few hours to go, just a few more hours.

We had said nothing to each other since being dropped off. "What's it like?" Gary suddenly asked.

"What's what like?" I knew perfectly well what he meant. I was just hopping I could avoid answering.

"Being a girl, dick head!"

"Girls can't be dick heads! You on the other hand are being a major dick head."

"Oh, that's nice!"

"Thank you, and how the hell should I know. I've been one now for less than six hours. That's not a whole lot of time to research the subject. Not that I intend to do any further research on the subject than I have to. I intend to hide. And when my penance is done, I'll go to the parole board and beg for leniency.

Beth smiled at the loose references to a man she knew was her Father. She flipped through nearly to the back of the book.

"Then maybe you'll wind up with a dick where your nose is. Does that sound like I'm kidding. Your damaged good sweetheart, no telling where thing will wind up." He turned back to his desk and dug out the transmitter. "But most of it will be in the right place. Besides a dick for a nose, then you could watch at the same time." He laughed an evil laugh that made me cringe.

"Ok then three thousand to..."

"No!" he shouted and turned on me. He said very slowly. "I said thirty thousand." With a lecherous smile "and maybe some nookie on top of that."

I was floored. He wanted... SEX! Eeeeewwwwuuuuuuuu. I tried to focus on the lack of money. "I don't have that kind of money. I have three thousand. It will have to do." I handed him the chip with three thousand dollars plus remaining as a balance in good faith.

"Then more nookie."

"No... I'm not sleeping with you."

"Then don't sleep, only fuck." He was serious. And he was starting to look very dangerous. My thoughts went back to a scrawny little Chinese boy that very nearly kicked my ass and I thought it was best that I not underestimate this man as well.

Oh God... Please get me out of this and I'll be good. I'll never ever try to go against the grain again. Just get me out of here whole please.

I tried to stall. "What do you have to do to that to get me out of this?" And what luck. He held the machine up to me to actually show me. I felt it was a sign. I remembered how fast I could move, but I was wearing pumps and it was cold and I didn't have a vehicle. And with all that against me, I snatched the machine out of his hands and ran as fast as I could.

Oh God! Thought Beth. She wanted to read more, to find out what had happened so long ago, but her Father was calling for all of the to come... it was time to go. She hurriedly packed as many clothes as she could that her Mother had given her and stuffed the book in the bag and ran out to the living room where her father was. She had no intention of leaving her father. She had packed to stall for time, to help him focus on ways to get her mother back. She felt certain that he would need her right now; her father's concerns of danger were not going to drive her away in her parent's time of need.

In the living room, her father was speaking to Erin on the VID. "I don't understand, where's Mom?" Erin was asking, only her voice came through the VID's speaker system. Erin was speaking on the analog phone in the kitchen of the lake house.

"... No hon, just Beth right now."

"Dad, you're not telling me something..."

Gary tried to direct approach. "Erin, your Mother and I are asking for your help. Come back and get Beth. We will do everything we can to get up there in the day or two. Right now there are some things going on that I just can't talk about."

"I'm just going to have the same questions when I get there Dad, you might as well tell me while Shelly can't hear." Gary knew that Erin had an acute sense of logic. Although it was not the greatest tactical move she could have made, this would be a good time to tell her. The handset of the old telephone would at least secure privacy from Shelly's little ears.

For Gary, it was one of the hardest conversations he'd ever had. He couldn't imagine how Beth was feeling right now. He got the feeling that most of this had not yet sunk in for her. She didn't believe her mother was truly gone. Gary understood however; and now standing here lying to his oldest daughter, knowing the whole time that she was not coming back, that she was in fact dead, his mind was reeling. They should be commiserating her passing as a family. Now, however, Gary was trying to cover the event up and he was involving his own children in the cover up.

Please God; forgive me. You too Michelle, I hope you can forgive me. I'll stop and join you when just as soon as I can.

Michelle had always been a religious person, but now it occurred to him that if there was an after life, Michelle wouldn't be there waiting for him. Her soul was housed in the body of Mike Vello. Michelle was worse than dead, she had ceased to exist all together. As if she had never been. Gary found himself trapped in helpless whirl of emotions that threatened to drown him in sorrow and blackness. He gripped the chair to steady himself. Only Beth could see how badly racked he was and the thought came to her that Beth must think of a way to prevent Erin from coming back down from the lake. If she couldn't then they would all be exposed to danger.

Beth broke in with an idea of her own. "Erin, I think I want Randy to bring me up. It would be nice to have him up at the lake I think."

There was silence from the other end of the line. With no visual it was hard to tell what she was thinking. Then Erin asked, "Beth, Is everything all right down there?"

Beth looked at her father who seemed about to break down again. "Yes," answered the girl. "Everything is just fine. Mom and Dad are exploring some new possibilities for me if you know what I mean, that's all."

There was silence from the other end of the wire, then they could both hear Erin snort with resignation, "I guess you can't really talk about that can you?"

"No not just now we can't, I will when Randy brings me up." Beth added.

Gary spoke up without really understanding what Beth was getting to. "I really don't think..." Beth stepped back in and took over the conversation again. It wasn't much of a challenge taking the helm as she was doing. Gary was lost in the depths of his loss. He had only one concern now that was his children, Beth could see that, but she had to help, contribute to his efforts in the places he could see through his grief to.

"It will be fine Dad, Randy won't mind. If you and Mom find that this thing works out for use then we can always come back."

Gary saw what she was doing and had a hard time holding back the tears. Erin spoke up and thankful broke the mood. "Well, it's no skin off my nose. Saves me the trouble of packing up the squirt."

"Good, well it was nice chatting with you Erin... gotta' run!" Beth concluded and disconnected just as Erin was formulating a word. All that came out of the speakers was "Whe...", then she was gone.

"So what do you think," Beth asked, "Do you think that will buy us sometime?"

"Not us, you." Gary responded. "Call Randy and see if he'll come and get you."

"Dad, that was just so Erin wouldn't come down. She would have figured out something was wrong and not gone back putting everyone at risk."

"I understand that, you're very clever; but I want you to go. There might be trouble and I want you out of here. I'm the bait and whether you know it or not, you're the prey. I don't' want them to find you and take you. So you get to the lake, then the three of you go to Miami and you stay out of sight. Harmon will find you, tell Erin that he'll be looking for you and they will figure out a way to contact each other."

"So you're going to get Mom back and then join us?" Beth asked, "Dad, you need help." Beth pleaded.

"No. That's final. You're going to call Randy. If he can't take you up then I'll put you in a cab myself." Gary was trying to sound forceful but his voice was weak and defeated.

Beth stood glaring at her father as if it might help, finally she punched up Randy's VID address and there they were, in the kitchen preparing the evening meal together. Is it really that late, my, my how time files when some you love dies. Beth thought distractedly.

Claudia Benton answered. Beth introduced herself. "Mrs. Benton, Hi. My name is Beth; I'm a friend of Randy's from school. Is he available to talk for a moment please?"

"Well, hello Beth. Randy told me a little about you. Hold on, he's..." Claudia turned and looked behind her, "he's right back here. Randy! Your little friend Beth is on the phone."

Beth could see the look on his face at the sound of the words "little friend", and when he got to the screen he began apologizing for his mother. "Sorry about that little crack there... Hey, what's wrong?"

He can see it too. Oh no, we aren't going to be able to hide this from anyone.

"I need a favor, tonight." She said holding back nothing.

"Sure, anything." Randy replied.

Behind him his mother was listening and piped in. "After dinner young man."

"Randy turned to his mother and asked, "Please Mom, let her finish." Concerned, he turned back to the screen and said, "Anything, what do you need?"

"I need a ride to Bear Lake." She said

"What in the heck for?" Randy asked surprised.

"I can tell you on the way." To make sure that he would come she then added. "After that, we'll have to say our good-byes."

"I'll be right over."

"Randy, your dinner..." his mother was saying as he reached to sign off.

Beth could hear Randy say, "Will still be cold when I get back, save it for me."

When Randy showed up about fifteen minutes later, Gary wanted to make sure that it was not going to cause problems with his parents if he did this, and he also wanted to tell Randy how grateful he was. Randy assured him that; no this was no problem and saw that something was clearly more wrong than he had at first suspected. His mind was full of questions but respectfully deferred them until he could speak to Beth alone. He wondered, as he helped Beth with her things where Mrs. Shipley was. In all the years he had known William, she had always been there to say goodbye to her children when they left. The habit almost boarded on mania. It was as if she had experienced a traumatic episode at one point in her young life at not being allowed to say goodbye to someone she loved and had never gotten a second chance. Little did he know.

He was also fairly sure that neither Mrs. nor Mr. Shipley yet knew that he had be 'briefed' as to the reality of the current atmosphere of William's actual physical environment. That is to say, he was pretty sure Beth had not dared tell her parents that she had spilled the beans to Randy yet. So he was sure to keep a tight lid on things. So tight in fact that after yesterday, he was confused why Beth hadn't called today, but he was determined to respect the privacy her parents must want during this time and decided to wait until Beth broke the silence. Now it was clear, something had happened and they were distraught. Randy wanted desperately to help but felt honor bound to silence until he was included by all parties.

Randy put Beth's bag in the HOV and returned upstairs to find the two in a strong embrace. Tears were flowing freely now but no words were being shared. Gary sensed, rather than saw Randy reenter the room and gently broke their embrace. He kissed the girl on her upturned cheek and then again on her forehead. Silently, he walked to Randy sniffling, and trying to get himself under control. He took the boy by the shoulders and with a gentle look on his face asked, "You'll take care of her won't you?"

"Yes Sir, of course I will." Randy answer proudly.

"I'm sorry to put in this thing Randy and if you're ever asked you don't know anything and that's best. All you'll be able to say is that we were acting strangely."

"No Sir, I don't think you're acting..." Randy began but Gary was not done and acted as if Randy had not been speaking.

"I want you to promise me you'll be a gentleman with Beth. Whatever happens you treat her with respect."

"Dad!" Beth spoke up Both Gary and Beth recognized the error. Only Gary was unaware that Randy was all ready as closely knit to the Shipley family problems as the rest. Beth made several stumbling attempts to right the floundering vessel but it was soon apparent to Gary that Randy understood more than he had admitted. And why not, Gary reasoned. He was allowing some out side influence into the equation. He was letting someone else's child to assist in covering up his mess; doesn't this child at least have the right to know what he was getting involved in?

Beth came to her father; she understood that he was not angry with her. Upset, yes. But what was there not to be upset about. As the sun set on this day she realized that it had seen the ruination of the House of Shipley. She clutched to her fathers waist and wept. Gary tried to hold back the tears and failed. He looked up at Randy and started to speak but Randy spoke before Gary would work up the words. "Don't worry Sir, I won't let anyone or anything harm her.

Gary saw a fire in his eyes and understood, as he him self had so long ago; Randy had fallen in love with his best friend. His heart broke for both of them.

The two children left after a short but tearful goodbye and pulled away in Randy's HOV. As he mounted the stairs and rounded the corner in to his now empty flat which had once been dubbed 'Michelle's Nest' by their good friend and business accomplice, Frank; the VID flickered on and Gary could hear Michelle's voice answering from the automated answer system. His mind turned back to that evening at the Fenton's door and the image of a long dead Becky Fenton greeting guests. It's started for me now. I'd erase this message but it would be too much like killing her all over again. As the message was finishing up a thought came to him. Then the person, unseen on the other end started talking and he lunged for the VID's control pad.

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

When Mike had drifted off to sleep, Rose got Gary and Michelle's number from her state provided VID directory and dialed their flat.

It was a video image of Michelle that answered the call. She watched as the woman on the other end smiled and talked, she told Rose that no one was at home to take her call. She was so sorry that they had missed their call but wanted rose to leave a message.

For Rose, it was too hard for her to put together that beautiful woman that had recorded and the man that lay just feet away in his childhood room were one in the same person. She seemed so happy. She smile was infectious. She was perhaps the most beautiful girl she had ever seen. But unlike many good looking people she seemed to have no idea of her own outwardly beauty. That kind of knowledge usually brought power to the person that possessed it. But Michelle had been very down to earth. Rose had met her on a few occasions when she had been invited to eat at the restaurant (invited a bit to often if for someone that had been the best friend of her son if you asked her, but she was in no position to turn down a free meal.)

Perhaps Michelle's cordial attitude had been because she was hiding a secret. But Rose really didn't think that was the case. As she had watched her move about the customers in the restaurant, greeting people, loving her job. She didn't discriminate her affections. Everyone benefited from her smile and a touch on the shoulder or the hand. People warmed to her immediately and remained her friend once the met her. It struck Rose how sad it was that Michelle was gone.

"Please don't disconnect before you leave us a message. We truly want to hear from you. Thanks again for giving us a call. Have a wonderful day! Bye."

The screen when blue, the signal that the VID camera was now recording and Rose started speaking. "Gary..." she paused. What the hell was she going to say? "It's Rose."

"I'm here! I'm here!" It was Gary; he had turned on the VID for conversation mode. "I'm here." He repeated again.

"Hello Gary." Rose said, "How are you?"

"Rose, you wouldn't believe it if I told you." He said but there was something hanging between them. Neither wanted to blunder into the mine field but Rose knew it was her job, she alone knew what Gary didn't.

"Mike is here!" she said and waited. Gary appeared to fumble for words. So Rose put him out of his misery. "I know everything. I'm just calling to let you know he's here."

Gary seemed to collapse with relief. "Thank you Rose. How is she?" Gary closed his eyes for just a second then looked up again and said, "... he! How is he?" Gary blushed and Rose thought, "He's embarrassed. I wonder if it's because he's been sleeping with my son for the last twenty years or that he never felt I wasn't important enough to tell?"

"He's sick Gary." And he sat up at the words full of concern.

"Sick? Sick how Rose?" Gary demanded.

"I'm not sure. He's weak, confused, and feverish; he's just not well. I felt you should know. He'll recover. It looks like a cold to me." Then she asked, "How are you?"

"I'm... I'm... not good. I don't know what I'm going to do. I loved her so much Rose. I know what you must be thinking... but she was my wife and my best friend. Half of me is gone."

Rose was sorry she had asked. This is not what she had expected when and if her son had returned. These people were in such pain. They had been happy together; now kept apart and she could see that they truly had cared for one another. She didn't even think they could have seen the irony in it all through their grief.

"I'm sure that everything will be all right." It seemed lame but what does one say in a situation like this? "You have to hold on for your kids." Gary sighed and but said nothing. "Is there any thing you want me to tell? " she paused allowing Gary to fill in the blank.

"Yes! Please tell her that I love her and miss her. Will you do that for me Rose?" Gary's eyes welled up with tears. It was almost more than Rose could stand to look at. This mess, this whole bloody mess. It was all connected and it was still ruining people's lives. Now the pendulum was swinging the other way. The lives that should have been long ago were returning but there were now children involved. Rose had always wanted her children, her family back, but not this way. Not at the expense of children who didn't have anything to do with this.

"Yes Gary." And she added. "I'm sorry about all this."

"Be kind to him Rose. Tell him I'll call when we have things we have to talk about."

"I know Gary. I'll tell... her."

"God bless you Rose." He told her and the suddenly disconnected the VID.

She felt bad about her reaction to her son earlier. Her disgust of what he had been doing began to fade some. As Michelle she had done more than he might ever have as Mike. The only negative thing that had happened as she could see it was that she had been left out of the lives of her son/daughter and her grandchildren.

Rose didn't think she had it in her to punish her only living family member and her youngest child because of decisions made out of a sense of self preservation and eventually family.

She got up and went to her son's room. She felt his forehead and found it hot. Slowly she dabbed cool water on his forehead. She began the process of trying to reduce his fever and nursing him back to health. Next to her sat her daughter, and although Rose couldn't see her, she talked to her oldest child as if she knew she was there.

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

Mike woke to the familiar surroundings of his room, his room. And it seemed so far removed from any reality he could remember. In his distant and seemingly distorted memory he could remember some very bizarre things.

Gary had been there. In fact, it had seemed like the longest dream in history. He was tired, he could feel that and probably sick too from the feel of it. It could have been a hallucination. Shit, he felt awful, but he felt almost normal too again, after that damned dream.

Erin sat on the edge of the bed looking at him. He smiled at his sister and she smiled back. A tear slipped from the corner of his eyes. Oh good, that was a dream too. The whole messy business was one large sleepy time circle jerk.

"Hi baby brother!" Erin was saying in her soft sweet voice, "How ya feelin'?" she leaned over and pulled the blankets up to his chin.

"How..." he croaked out. It hurt to talk for some reason and he winced at the pain and clutched his throat. It was hardly recognizable as a human voice. "How long?" he managed

"Thirty hours." She said, "You need to rest. Quite now."

"No. Mom and dad... I want to see them."

A frown crossed her lips and a look of concern clouded over her features.

"What's wrong?" he whispered, no longer able to converse out loud from the pain.

"Rest!" she insisted. Clearly she had no intention of answer his question. Then his mother came in the room and with dawning horror he realized his mother looked to be in her mid sixties. He turned back to Erin with saucer wide eyes and a look of shear terror on his face. Sweat was beginning to pop out everywhere on his skin and his color was now stark white.

"Erin?" he croaked, with that his sister, who had one arm folder across her chest supporting the elbow of the other arm buried her face in her hand and shook her head in disbelief.

"Mikey?" his mom asked, "You're awake? I though you'd slipped into a coma." She smiled at him obviously she thought nothing of the kind. She walked over to the edge of the bed and stood behind Erin who was still sitting on the edge of the bed next to him.

He watched in utter disbelief as his mother sat down directly on the spot where Erin sat and the two melded into one creature, a MomErin. The MomErin sat and stroked his hair as he tried to withdraw into deeper and deeper in to the pillow his head rested on. "Mike? What's wrong?" MomErin asked and he tried to scream. His voice was now dry as a hot Santa Anna wind. The voice was a dual voice coming from everywhere and nowhere at once. Part of it belonged to Erin and part of it belonged to this little old impostor that was trying to claim she was his mother. It was a ghastly sound. It brought to mind the sound of the Banshee and how if you heard it three nights in a row you would die. He felt like that now. If it kept up, if she said one more thing he was just roll over and die. Then it spoke again.

"You need something to drink. I'll be right back." And with what seemed like incredible force the MomErin separated and became Mom and Erin again. Mom left the room and Erin got up and stepped to the foot of the bed.

"It was no dream baby sister."

"No!" he tried to say in a dry wispy voice.

"Yes, you're a mother, and you have to save Gary again. But first there must be proof. I'm sorry this has to happen this way."

"Proof? Of what Erin?"

"Time for that later, you need rest."

"I'm going insane." He whispered.

"I know you are. And I'm sorry for that too little brother. But nothing lasts forever."

"My kids? Gary? I was really married to him? All that happened didn't it?"

"You did good baby sister. Now it's time do it again."

"Why me?" he whined in a dry raspy whine.

"Because you were chosen to do it. You're the only one who can do it." She assured him.

"Who chose me? I want to talk to them. I want to tell them I don't want anymore of the fucking games. I want my life back!"

"Then Gary will perish at the hands of another and your kids will go on without any parents." Erin said in response and then added, "How's that?"

"Fuck you!" he spat out.

"Mike, I understand you're upset. This thing that was set in motion must be played out or your life with Gary and everyone you know will wind up being the vehicle that will drive you completely and utterly insane. You have to trust me."

"Trust you?" he said weakly but the surprise in his voice was plain just the same. "Each time I trust you, you bullshit me just a little deeper in to a hole I can't climb out of. I've lost everything, again!"

Erin face became stern, "You have no choice. You're the only one who can fix what's coming and this is the only way to do it. Mike had to come home."

"Can I get back to my kids?" he asked with a pathetic whine.

"You're children will always be yours." Erin said.

"What kind of answer is that?"

"It's the type of answer you asked for." She responded.

"Stop fucking with me Erin. I'm getting pissed off." He paused looking at his sister shrewdly. "I'm guessing that you had to stake something to pull this off, otherwise you wouldn't still be here arguing with me. So I do have a choice." Erin didn't answer him. "So tell me what I want to know or there's no deal."

Erin looked down at her hand and then up at Mike. "I don't know. This could be permanent. I just don't know."

"What's in it for you then?" he demanded.

"Please don't."

"I insist. I want to know."


"NOW ERIN!" he shouted not concerned if his mother heard or not.

"I can't Mike. It could impact the way things are played out."

Mike hung his head in shame. "You suck Erin."

"I have to go. I've been here too long as it is." Erin said suddenly

"Wait!" Mike suddenly didn't want his sister to leave. He was sorry again about all the things he'd said in anger. I detect a pattern here ole' boy. He thought to himself.

"You think it over," she continued, ignoring his plea's, "the life you save just might be your own."

"I don't know what to do Erin. Give me a hint at least. Last time I had Gary. I'm on my own this time."

"The file on your disappearance is still open. You may have been buried but you were never laid to rest. Start there, because soon Michelle and William will fall in to the same pit as far as the police are concerned and it will be your job to convince them that no one is to blame."

Erin faded out like a waning flame on a dying candle.

"Wait!" Mike pleaded as Rose came back in to the room.

"Wait for what Mike?" his mother asked as she returned with the water he had not asked for.

"Ah, I was just... just thinking," the stumbled and stammered searching for something to say. "I was just wondering if you perhaps had some... tea. Yeah, that's it. Some tea."

"I still drink tea, would you like some?"

"Yes, Mom, please that would be nice." He lied. He hated tea and always had, though as Michelle he had kept it in the house and had often had some instead of coffee in the afternoons. But now as Mike, he remembered that he didn't like it at all, but needed to excuse his outburst.

"Funny, you used to hate tea." His mother confirmed.

"Things change Mom."

She looked at his over her shoulder with an accusing look, "Yes they do, don't they?"

Mike felt as if he were drowning. His mind felt trapped in the thick black goo of depression. There were so many memories and emotions. A huge part of him was glad to be rid of the female form he now felt he had been unwillingly trapped in. He was free of it. The bitch was dead and no one could ever make him do that again. He could go on and do the thing that Mike would have done.

But there were parts of his brain that were still firmly anchored with his family. He had been loved there with them. His family had been built out of love. Gary's love for his wife and her love for him had resulted in children. They had been good together. No, not good, great. He could remember no other couple ever that had been more suitably matched than those two. His heart ached for that feeling again. But now he wanted it as Mike. He had asked Erin if he would ever get back to his children but he knew, if he stayed like this the answer was no. He also knew that he could never go back as Michelle.

Erin had said it herself. Nothing lasts forever!

He felt horror at the idea that he had left that poor little boy trapped in that awful skin. He was going to have to go through what he had gone through now. There was no way Gary would ever take him back to that son-of-a-bitch that had done this to them.

"You say he'll have to go through what you went through. But was what you went through really so bad?"

And now the mind of Mike answered back. "For a man to spend twenty years trapped in the body of a woman. For that man to be forced to become some man's wife and bare him children just to survive? Yeah, I'd say that's pretty damn bad."

His head screamed LIAR and BLASPHEMER at him. He was defecating on memories that he knew were the best he'd ever have. He couldn't shake the memory of that night on Christmas night when Gary proposed, the overwhelming emotion and love that had accosted her from all sides. His mind was filled with sights and sounds of days and nights spent with Gary in warm romantic places like the Barbados Islands Or St. Augustine. The times they had spent taking weekend trips to Philadelphia and jumping from Gino's to Pat's King of Steaks sharing cheese steaks going to see Phillies and Eagles games. Gary was not a sports fan but he knew Michelle was and went out of his way to make sure she had what she enjoyed. He has always been there to share it with her. Cruises, affection, family time whatever it was they did they were always doing it together. The long afternoons on South Beach in Miami stretched out on the beach chairs with Gary rubbing oil on her back There was the time the two of them had accidentally wound up on the topless section of beach and how he had teased her about how she refused to take off her top. He could here Gary's voice as if he were standing right there with him.

"Just look around Michelle. All these woman are doing it." Gary had gestured with his hand. He waived it out over the sands to show that the bare breasted women were everywhere, and they were. It had made Michelle feel somewhat self-conscious.

"Yes I see, and I would appreciate it if you not make it so plain that you see that too!" she paused. "Besides Gary, a woman just doesn't walk out in to public and take off her top." She had said but she knew that wasn't true either. She was making excuses.

"You have beautiful breasts Michelle. You could get rid of those tan lines! Here let me help you get that off." He had maneuvered behind her and started playfully tugging at her bathing suit top.

"GARY! She spun around to face him, her hand reaching up behind her to hold together anything he might have really unfastened. "Stop that!" she scolded him but she couldn't hide the smile that was forcing it's way through. The idea even made Mike smile as he reminisced about it. She had gone on to say, "You really don't want to do that Gary."

But Gary had assured her that he did. "You don't want me looking at the breast of these other women do you?" he had said. "Take your top off and give me something better to look at my sweet." He said with a sly grin and moved to her and kissed her tenderly on the lips. Then he made another playful grab at her top.

"Stop Gary." She insisted and then an evil thought had occurred to her. "You know, maybe you're right." She had said with a seductive smile on her face.

"I... I... I am?" he suddenly looked confused and unsure of himself. Michelle had loved moments like that. She was in full control of her husband at those times and she loved to play with his male ego much the way a cat will play with a mouse before either letting it go or killing it depending on the cat's mood at the time.

"Sure baby. Here help me undo this. I could do it but it would look terribly ungraceful. Slowly Gary had moved back around behind her. She suspected that Gary probably thought something was up, but hadn't put the whole thing together yet so he was moving cautiously not wanting to step hip deep in any traps she might be laying around for him.

She held the front of her top to her chest with one hand and felt the back of the top fall away to her sides. As she reached up and slid the shoulder straps off a man passing by about ten feet away suddenly stopped. Gary, who had come around beside Michelle stood staring at the man with narrowing eyes. "Ready honey?" she had asked her husband.

"No wait!" he suddenly said and put his hand over hers to stop her from letting the top fall away. Michelle had grinned but Gary hadn't seen it. He was too focused on the man who had stopped to watch the unveiling of his wife.

As she toyed with him, she spied a young lady, perhaps in her mid twenties, dressed very oddly for the hot Miami weather. She wore sweat pants and a sweatshirt; her sneakered feet appeared to have white crew socks over them as well. The girl looked absolutely miserable. She was going to die of heat stroke if she didn't get out of those hot clothes.

It was the strangest thing Michelle could remember seeing. On a beach where the beautiful came to be seen, this beautiful girl was doing every thing she could think of to avoid letting her body be seen.

Michelle could remember when she herself had insisted on sweats. Even in hot weather, it was so much better than facing her femininity. But that had been in the early days, just after her transformation and she was ashamed... Then it struck her, this girl was in trouble, and Michelle wanted to run to her, to offer some sort of help.

Michelle made one or two sleepwalking steps in the girl's direction when she turned and the two locked eyes. Michelle understood right then that this person was locked in a SKIN. She could see how miserable this woman was. Michelle had no other clues, no other evidence except those eyes. They looked exactly the way she used to feel.

She was snapped out of her daze by her husband's aggressive voice.

"What are you looking buddy?"

"You're kidding right?" the guy asked.

"No I'm not kidding. What the hell are you looking at?" Gary had said taking two steps toward the guy. He could see now that the man had a VID camera in one hand. Michelle looped a hand in to Gary's arm to stop his advance. She would have fastened her top back but that would have meant letting go of Gary. She was force to hold her top on place with one hand and try to restrain Gary with the other.

"Come on Gary... Let's Go!"

The man answered Gary's last question, "I'm looking at those." The man said pointing to Michelle's chest. "Waiting for this beauty to expose those beauties so I can add them to my collection." He held up his VID for Gary to see and Gary suddenly knocked it out of his hand in to the bright white sand of Miami Beach.

"Uh oh." Michelle said under her breath and tried to pull Gary back some more.

"What the hell did you do that for?" the man insisted recovering his camera from the sand and brushing it clean.

"Get out of here buddy, before I feed you that camera one piece at a time!" Gary said. He went around behind Michelle and refastened her top for her. She adjusted the shoulder straps and relaxed a bit. He turned to her and admitted. "OK, You're right, I don't want you taking your top off here. Let's go."

"Go where?" she asked. "I'm sorry Gary. I was just teasing a little. I didn't mean for that to get out of hand. I thought we were going to spend the day on the beach?"

"It was my fault," he had assured her. "Besides," he said and leaned in to whisper to her. "I still want that top off. But I want to get you someplace where I can get those bottoms off too." He had hooked a finger in to the waist of her bikini bottoms and pulled them out just a bit letting them go with a light snap against her skin.

He raised his eyebrows several times Groucho Marx style and took his wife in his arms kissed her. The man that had been waiting for a picture so it would last longer moved off mumbling something about assholes and bastards.

Memories like that were hard for him to justify. He had loved every moment he has spent with Gary as Michelle. He longed for those times and that love back. All at the same time he was repulsed by the very idea he longed for. It had been best that he never went back. He could see that now. It would have driven him insane.

Rose returned with hot tea and some small sandwiches. "It's not much I'm afraid. I haven't had things as privileged as you have. It will have to do."

Mike flinched at the acidic remark. "Mom, whatever it is I'm sure it will be heaven sent, thanks?"

"Don't flatter me. I know you're used to better. All I'm saying is that I can't give you that."

"Yes mom. I understand." He said giving up. He took the tray his mother was holding out to him and set it in his lap. The tea, although he now felt he hated it again sparked pleasant memories from both lives. He took the cup and sipped it. The taste was just as he remembered, weak and bitter but the warmth was soothing and it brought him closer to what he was familiar with in the most recent period of his life. He drained the cup and set it down on the tray.

"I'll get you another cup." His mother said collecting the cup. He thanked her as he lifted one of the triangle sandwiches and bit into it. The meat was imitation tuna, a soy compound. He had forgotten that this stuff even existed. It had all the tuna flavor of ploy-vinyl and about as much tuna texture as a cardboard box; but he was hungry and he ate it gratefully.

When he was done he made a feeble attempt to get to the bathroom. His mother came with the second cup of tea and caught him up and helped him to the bathroom.

"You're too sick to stay here. There's not much I can do to help you. You need to go to a hospital." She told him as he relieved himself.


"Mike, be reasonable."

"No Mom. If you want me to leave I'll understand. But I can't explain where I've been. My family could be prosecuted."

"Mike I'm sure..."

Mike came out of the bathroom. "I'm leaving Mom. I'm sorry but I've hurt enough people. I should have left this place after I got trapped. I won't hurt those children Mom. I'm begging you not to do that either. They've been though enough."

"Relax Michael, I'm not going to tell anyone. But you need to lay down." She tried to guide him to the bed but he refused to be lead there."

"What did do with my clothes?" He asked as he looked around to see if they were out some place.

His mother walked to the closet, "They're in here." She said sullenly her head down. She reached in the closet and removed them from the hangers. She looked at them and then clutched them close to her. "Please Mike. Don't leave again. I'm all alone; I'm sorry for the things I said before. I didn't mean them."

Mike was suddenly very angry. "You were chosen..." Erin had become very sanctimonious since her death. It felt like he had been chosen to deliver all manner of pain to man, woman and child alike. No discrimination here. Everybody gets some. Step right up and get a nice steaming plate of heartache. Plenty to go around you know.

The anger didn't last long, it quickly ebbed to fatigue, and Mike looked at his Mother with sympathetic eyes and said, "I know Mom. I know you didn't, I saw that a long time ago. But, don't you see? I'm going to be spotted here. Then what happens? My family will pay the cost for all of this. It's best if everyone thinks Mike Vello is still dead and Michelle Shipley died, because that's really what happened. There is nothing that can bring her back. Let her die and let me stay dead." He walked on wobbly legs to his mother and kissed her on the forehead. He took the clothes she held and she resisted briefly before he could wrangle them from her weak grasp. In the closet behind her he saw that all of the clothes he had not taken with him when he moved to the university campus.

"You kept that stuff?"

"You know, it's funny," Rose started, "I started to through it out many times. But each time I did there was a little voice in my head that said you'd be back one day." She looked wrung out, emotionally and physically. "You did. But not to stay." A tear slipped from her eye. "I'm sorry."

"For what mom?"

"I kept it to remember what I had thrown away." She wiped that solitary tear from her cheek. "Poverty can take its toll on a parent; mothers and fathers that want so much for their children. When they have to say no all the time it can make them feel very guilty. I felt I had to harden myself against that guilt."

"Mom, you were never..."

"Don't say it Mike. Because I was, I know I was. I didn't' mean to be but I didn't want to deal with the guilt. It was easier to be hard that to feel guilty for the things I wanted for you and your sister but couldn't get."

"Don't punish yourself. Most of what happened happened because I was a selfish brat. I stepped out of line and got... I got more than I deserved. I got a family of my own. I got something I wouldn't have gotten with a music career."

Mike and Rose had moved from Mike's small bedroom to the living room. Mike sat on the couch, his energy sapped from him. "Maybe I'll stay and get a little more sleep. If that's OK with you of course Mom."

Rose smiled a broad smile, "You need something to eat. Do you still like meat loaf? Don't worry; I have real meat to use in. I've been saving it."

"Sure Mom that sounds great." Inside however, his spoiled palate was doing somersaults in his stomach.

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Erin cleaned up after dinner; Beth put Shelly to bed. The lake was a secluded community, private and gated. The homes there dated from the late 1800's and had once been summer home village for the rich of Philadelphia. At this time of the year, most of the homes have been locked all winter. The Shipley home was one of the first open this year.

"I wish you were my sister... I love you." Shelly told Beth.

"You know, I guess in a way I am your sister." Beth smiled down on her younger sister.

"Daddy said you were his nice..."

"Niece." Beth corrected.

"Yeah." Shelly agreed.

"That means almost your sister." Beth went on.

"Then you're going to stay with us?" Shelly asked.

"I think so. We'll see." Beth said in a slightly sad voice.

"Can you read to me?" Shelly asked.

"What do you want me to read?"

"Quails eggs and Pooshootoe!" Shelly announced excitedly and both Erin and Beth broke out in raucous, hysterical laughter. Randy was confused and didn't laugh. In fact he was entertaining grave concerns about Beth's state of mental health at that moment. If half of what Beth had confessed to him on the trip up here then they were all hip deep in Pooshootoe.

"Can someone tell me what she means please?" Randy begged as he pushed the remains of an uneaten meal around on his plate.

"Haven't you ever read Green Eggs And Ham? It's a joke my Da... Uncle Gary" Beth corrected quickly. "...used to play on us. It didn't get funny until you saw the next kid in line struggle to understand what he was talking about." Randy still didn't laugh and Beth and Erin laughter storm kind of fizzled out with Erin saying, "I guess you had to have been there."

Beth reached across the table and covered Randy's hand in her own. "Thanks for staying."

Randy said, "I made a promise. I can't very well keep it if you're up here and I'm back in Rouston. Besides, I want to stay. I was hoping you'd ask." Randy sighed, "But I don't know about all this..."

Beth flashed a worried look at Randy as Erin turned from the sink to listen. Beth's concern was deeper than simply Shelly finding out who she really was. Randy now knew as much as she did. That knowledge might be enough to drive her sister crazy with grief. God only knew it was pushing her to her emotional limits. The only thing that saved her mind was something that book her father had given her. She had only had a chance to scan through it. But some of what she had read nagged at her.

Randy did an about face, he was clearly not used to keeping this many secrets. Beth could only hope that his involvement didn't spark resentment.

"Why don't you go read to Shelly? I want to talk to yon young stud here." Erin said as she walked from the sink wiping her hands dry on a dishtowel. She passed Randy, hooking an arm around his and coaxed him gently out of the chair and out to the porch. Randy looked over his shoulder to Beth, his eyes wide in an Ok, What now? expression that Beth could only reply to with another worried look and a shrug.

Shelly squealed, "Quails eggs and Pooshootoe!"

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Beth reached behind her and pulled an old faded book with an orange cover on it and began reading.

"My name is Sam."

"Sam I am!"

"Do you like..."

And Shelly interrupted with, "Quails eggs and Pooshootoe!" and then cackled with laughter like a little old lady.

The day's event's, no matter how funny the routine was, proved too much for Shelly. Half way through the story, she was asleep. After tucking her in and kissing her lightly on the cheek, Beth went down stairs and poked her head into the kitchen to see if Erin needed any help. "Hey, what can I do?"

"I'm good, thanks." Erin said and returned to the sink when she stopped and turned, a dripping, soapy dish in her hand, "You know, that's the first time you've ever asked to help me."

Beth bent her head, closed her eyes and then looked back up at her sister. "I've been a jerk. I'm sorry."

Erin shrugged. "I've been a jerk too. I shouldn't have teased you the way I did. In fact I want you to know that I'm pretty impressed how well you've handled everything. I can't say what I'd do if I woke up and found that I had a penis."

Oh Erin, if all of this were only that simple.

"Did you drown Randy in the lake?" Beth asked.

"Randy's fine. He's in the living room waiting on you." Erin said.

Beth went to the fridge and pulled out a bag of juice. She was turning away when Erin touched her on the shoulder. "Hey."

Beth turned back and smiled at her sister, raised her eyebrows and waited for the other shoe to drop. "I can see that something bigger is bothering you. I tried to squeeze it out of Randy's head but he's faithful to you. I don't suppose you're going to tell me what it is are you?"

"You're going to have to trust me on this one Erin." Beth replied.

Erin tuned back to the sink. "You don't think I can deal with it."

"Yes, yes and no. Right now Erin, you simply don't want to know. When Dad gets here OK?"

"I'm scared Beth. If there's something you can tell me that will make me feel better I'd really appreciate it." Beth only offered a thin and painful smile, sipped her juice and walked toward the living room as Erin sighed and muttered. "That's what I was afraid of."

In the living room Beth sat in the chair opposite Randy. He was sipping on a Budweiser staring out the window.

"Hi." Beth said and pulled up next to him. She slipped one arm around his waist and waited for him to slip her grasp. He didn't. Her insecurity was tremendous. She was grateful that he allowed her to withdraw from his great reservoir of comfort a little something that made her feel just a bit more secure.

Without responding to her verbal prompt, he slipped an around her and pulled her in. Then after a time he said. "Called my folks."

She turned to him. "What did they say?"

"Have fun. Tomorrow is Friday. I'm a straight A student. I'm taking the day. Even if I don't go back at all, I'd graduate. I'm here until you don't want me to be."

She turned in his arm to face him. "I believe you and an idea how I feel about you. But tonight." How do you say, All I want is for you to be there to listen and help me think?

Randy leaned forward and put his finger to her lips. "Don't. I understand completely. I can't imagine the pressure you're under right now. Without getting specific, I don't know how you're doing this."

A tear slipped from the corner of her right eye. It meandered down her face to her chin and hung there as evidence of just how close to the edge she truly was. Randy reached over and wiped the tear away as Beth followed his hand with her eyes. She looked back at him but said nothing. She was grateful and her eyes told the whole story. "I'm here for whatever you need."

"Tell me something." Beth asked. Randy nodded.

"How is it that none of the girls that I set you up with never found you amazing? " Beth asked. She wanted to say more but even now, aware as Beth was about how she felt; she was now afraid to go any further. It did not seem the time for confessions of feelings. Nor did seem fair to add the pressure of such an admission after Randy had, only just yesterday, been told who Beth really was. And yet, Beth thought, here he is, with a promise to stay as long as I need him to. Would I have made such an offer to any of the girls I had known?

Randy broke her train of thought with an answer. "I don't know that they didn't. I never found any of them amazing so I never went back out with them."

Beth wrinkled her nose in an expression of confusion. It had never occurred to her that maybe Randy didn't like the girls she, as William, had introduced him to. She had always assumed that Randy was introverted and shy. That the girls had called it off or not called back and on many occasions he had taken a tongue lashing from many of these girls for setting them up with such a boring geek. It was beginning to look like she had missed judged him. Had done so in the worst way in fact.

"Why did you let me believe you needed me to set you up then, that you needed me to protect you?" Beth asked.

William had protected him when he obviously didn't need it. Defended his geekish style in front of his friends where his quite demeanor was not shyness at all but apathy for what other thought of him. Randy it seemed had always been strong and confident. He had allowed William to act as big brother protector because it made William feel important. She was suddenly very embarrassed. She felt foolish and small before him.

"You're my best friend." He said and smiled.

It was hardly an answer. And it was the only answer that could ever have been given to that question that would have put the issue to rest. It spoke volumes about the respect that Randy had for his friend. Why tell someone you don't need a gift when it the simple act of giving that gift away bestows on the giver so much happiness and pleasure? Is that not the true gift? Are we not elated when we give something of real value to someone else? Do we not rejoice at their celebration for such a gift? It is no different than getting exactly what you had hoped for in return without ever asking for a single thing. It brings the same satisfaction for the gift giver as it does for the receiver of the gift, more perhaps. It made Beth feel insignificant that Randy understood her so well, even now in a different body than she did he.

"This experience has certainly done one thing for me." she said in a shy and weak voice. Randy waited without saying a word and she marveled at the strength that flowed around him. He didn't need to muddy thoughts with a lot of conversation or explanation. What she had seen as shyness had in fact been his desire to say something only when something needed to be said. Randy was not a waster of words. "It's helped me see that I'm a grade "A" jerk as a boy."

"That's just a little harsh don't you think. You did lots of good things..."

"Like what?"

"You have always been my best friend. Again. I think you have to focus on the idea that friendship had a great deal of value for at least two people." Randy said simply.

"You're an amazing man Randy," she said with a bit of a sigh to her voice. "Maybe I'm getting exactly what I deserve."

"If by that you mean you're learning a lesson from this. That's your business. I've never had any desire to point out what a few might consider flaws or other might consider virtues. Those are judgments better off left alone in my view."

"No not just that. It's everything. It's all of what you've seen and heard today. I lost in it. I want to help" Beth whispered now, "I want to believe there is still hope for my Mother. Mostly because I know that the person she was is still buried inside the body of that man I saw today and partly because I know that inside, no matter what I look like on the outside or what my sexual desires are now, I'm still that same person I was two weeks ago. At least my knowledge and memories are the same. Then, at the same time, I feel repulsed at who I was just a couple of weeks ago. Do you understand that?" Beth paused and asked.

"That's not the William I know talking."

"No Randy, I think that William is gone. I'm not even sure I want him back now. I've been such a jerk to everyone." Beth said miserably.


"No! Let me finish. I'm beginning to see that William wasn't even too well liked in the circles I used to travel in. I don't even like him Randy! If I had only admitted that to myself before this morning then none of this would have happened. My Mom would still be here.

"You can't blame yourself." Randy offered but if felt weak and small coming out of his mouth and he knew she wasn't going to buy it.

"Yes I can, because I'm to blame. If I had adjusted, Mom wouldn't have felt so hell-bent on trying to get me back to being William. Now that doesn't even seem important anymore.

Randy had to get her off this line or reasoning. Guilt was a huge black gooey monster that would suck you in and cause you to drown in it. Combined with grief you would never be able to come back enough to think about the problem. Beth had two more days before they had to move on to Miami. If she was going to think of something to help her parents, she was going to have to start doing it. She had to focus on the problem.

After a few minutes of silence, Erin stuck her head in from the back room where her things were and said, "I'm going to bed. Good night."

"Beth and Randy looked at each other in confusion. "You're not going to assign a place for Randy to sleep?"

"You don't tell me who to sleep with, I don't tell you who to sleep with." She said and withdrew back to her lair, leaving the two to stare at each other. Then her voice filtered in from the back. "Just remember your biology classes."

Both sat in strained silence for a time until Randy suggested that they read that book that her father had given her to see if there wasn't something that might help one of them.

Beth took the stairs in the kitchen up, Randy followed. The staircase was narrow as were many in older home. The interior of the house was primitive. Roughly constructed and hand built from material cut from the surrounding woods or pulled from the ground.

In the room she knew has hers, she flopped down on the bed, pulled out the manuscript her father gave her and Beth began to read out loud so that Randy could hear and help disseminate any information that might be there. Randy pulled up just short of lying down next to her; he sat on the bed and Beth instinctually inched closer until her waist was spooned into his hip. With her arms crossed beneath her as she lay on her stomach; book propped on a pillow, she continued to read.

The context of the story told was hard to fathom. The narrator spoke of a man Beth didn't know personally but had read and heard much about. He spoke of a life and of people that she had trouble believing were real at the same time knowing that some of them were now like family to her. Her uncle Frank and Uncle Kit had been there; they knew of this thing. Her father also had been there.

Here, this person she knew was Mike talked about her father as if he were some sort of goof or looser. At the same time she could detect respect and kindness for Gary as well, a kind of sympathy and concern for his well-being.

Beth detected a large amount of bitterness not only over the death of his sister whom he appeared to love very much but also over his parent's favoritism for her.

The minutes ticked off the old antique grandfather clock downstairs. The sound of the clockworks echoed off the hardwood walls of the old house and marked the time Beth and Randy spent reading. She grimaced with the remembrance of how much her own transformation had hurt physically. She understood the fear Mike must have felt with the knowledge that he was in fact trapped, albeit for just two days but trapped none the less in an alien body with strange plumbing and a brain schematic that was very different from the one she had previously owned.

She was equally as amazed how well her Father seemed to keep things together for his best friend, offering distraction after distraction to keep Mike sane. Beth had to work very hard to keep from laughing at the mental image of her father on bended knee in front of a newly transformed Mike with all his friends looking on. Or when he answered the door of the dorm room they were staying in and sneezing all over the girl her Father had referred to as the Klingon. She almost wished she had known these two way back when. Randy chuckled at the image of these things as Beth read them off to him, being careful not to wake Shelly asleep in an adjacent room.

Beth slowed down when she got to the part where the person that was her mother had fallen in love with and then loved her father. Still there was fear that she would remain a woman forever but the urge to go back was less demanding. Mike was becoming Michelle, becoming the woman that would birth three children and be loved by the entire community and eventually by the entire world through her music. Beth became teary-eyed when the two were re-united and chased to the harbor. Then separated again, she was horrified to think that her mother had felt her father had died to save her, to give her a chance to return to her life as Mike only to be reunited again. She had wanted them to run away together. Beth wept hard and furiously at the idea that her father would refuse the love that she, Beth, understood he wanted and craved so badly for only one reason; To do the right thing for Michelle.

She read on out loud the next part of the story.

        For just a brief moment I clutched against the fear that this might hurt as much as entering into this bargain had on Friday night.

        "10, 9, 8, 7, 6..."

        I reached out and took Gary's hand for just a second and let it go, mouthing the words, "Good bye," and shedding one single tear. Then I turned and faced forward waiting for the pain, not knowing if it would come or not.

        "5, 4, 3, 2, 1."

        And it was over.

        As I looked around there were the guys I remembered I had come to this place with two days ago. At their feet were small piles of ash. They were all brushing the stuff off themselves.

        Then I noticed that the proportions of the room were wrong. Gary still seemed tall to me. Hell they all did. It was a curious feeling. I started to bush the ash off as the others were doing and I turned smiling to Gary. I saw his face precisely at the same time my hand brushed some fleshy protrusion on my chest.

There it was again, a feeling that you're missing something. What are you missing? God! I bet if it were a poisonous snake, you'd be dead already. The answer, the one that would have caused the light to go on eluded her. She read past the panicked and frenzied confusion after everyone else had transformed back but Michelle had remained. How she became bitter and confused and ran away.

That one piece of the puzzle remained elusive; but she felt compelled to move forward, to move deeper into the story as though her own salvation lie there, a rare and exotic fruit hidden among the golden leaves of some beautifully rare tree.

"You feel you're on to something?" Randy asked startling her. His had rested on her back. He had put it her absentmindedly. She had smiled slightly at his touch but said nothing, afraid that he might remove it if he were to be made to feel self-conscious about it being there.

"I..." she shook her head in frustration. "I don't know." She said and exhaled in frustration. She suddenly rolled to her side spooning him with more of her body. She wrapped her arms around his one strong leg for a sense of security and then looked up at him. "It's like I see something or saw something..." Her eyes drifted off of his in thought. "It won't come. But I know that the answer is in here. I just can't seem to understand what it is I'm looking at." Beth was frustrated and Randy began to gently pet her head in an effort to calm her down. She laid her cheek on his knee and closed her eyes enjoying the feeling; she exhaled deeply.

"I don't know how I can help you find it. From what your Mother said about herself in that journal, I don't think she left any direct clues. In fact she pretty much believed she was on a one-way trip. So if she knew something then it was observed and not recognized. She wrote it down not knowing what significance it held, and probably without the knowledge that what she observed was even important to her situation. That makes it hard on us. That evidence is 20 years old now. Hell, some of those place don't even exist anymore."

They sat in silence, stumped. Then Randy rose and Beth watched him. He pulled the covers out from under her and Beth watched uncertain and a little excited as he did. He smiled at her and she slid over to make room for him but he didn't climb in next to her. Instead, he draped the covers over her, lifted her head and placed a pillow under it. Then he kissed her on the cheek and turned to turn of the light.

"Where are you going?" The disappointment in her voice was evident.

"Down stairs to sleep on the couch."

"You don't want to stay here with me?" Beth asked a little hurt.

"I do. Very much and that's what worries me. Based on what we read tonight, I don't to spoil any chances of freedom for you."

"Nothing has to happen!" she insisted.

"Will nothing happen?" Randy asked. Now it was Beth's turn to be silent. She knew she could not guarantee that. Randy was right. She realized that even with her confession of disgust at William's behavior and attitude over the years she couldn't say that she was completely ready to give up on returning.

"If I go back. If I'm ever William again you mean. Will you teach me how to be a man? I think I want to be like you if I do."

Randy smiled but said nothing. He turned out the light and walked in the darkness out of the door and down stairs to the living room.

Beth squirmed out of her shirt, shorts under the covers. She lay back on the bed and ran one open hand over her stomach. A tingling was built within her and she trembled at the idea of what she wanted to do. Don't do this! Her mind interrupted. Remember what Randy said.

But her hands were disobedient creatures and refused their Master's commands. With one finger she gently outlined the bottom of her right breast causing the nipple and areola to tighten unexpectedly. Beth allowed her head to bend backward on the pillow as she inhaled through her nose deeply. She circled the hardened nipple through the fabric of the bra she wore causing her body to convulse and both the lips of her mouth and her vagina to swell slightly with anticipation.

Oh God...I shouldn't do this, please stop doing this.

Again her hand refused the order and now from top most part of her chest she brought her open hand down over her breast cupping it. Her mouth opened to take in a deep, gasping breath and she could feel warmth and wetness between her legs.

"I... won't... do this." She panted. "I don't..." but her other hand was off and its way to the union of her legs. She ran the heel of her hand over the subtle mound of her sex and applied gentle pressure. Her eyes rolled back in her head with the pleasure of it. If she could be aroused so much by only a touch, what would happen when she actually had sex?

An image rose in her mind. Randy's face materialized from the fabric of pleasure she had started to weave. The idea was mildly disturbing, but she was surprised to find that the image also made her desire stronger.

You will never have sex as Beth! How's that for an answer? But her hands were pulling at the gown; try to lift it over her hips to get what was hidden underneath. She wanted so much more. She didn't want the feeling to stop. Never had she dared to believe a person could feel this way, feel so much.

The old analog telephone on the nightstand next to her bed rang and Beth leaped and squealed in surprise as if she had been actually caught masturbating. She sat up quickly muttering... "Shit! Shit! Oh Shit!" as she gasped for breath. After a second or two she slammed her fist down on the bed and reached for the phone. There were voices on the other end.

Erin was saying. "No, I can't Dave I have to stay here until my Mom and Dad decide to come up. I have to watch over my baby sister."

Then the voice of Dave Vinnings spoke up, tinny and small on the antique telephone. "This phone thing is weird. I don't have a picture. It's just black. Why can't your brother watch the brat?" Dave was Erin's on again off again boy friend.

"Ah... William's... in Europe." Erin said. Then there was silence. "Is someone on this line?"

"I'm sorry, I heard the phone ring." Beth said.

"Who's that?" Dave asked.

"Um... My cousin. Go back to bed Beth, it's for me."

"She sound's sexy. You going to introduce me Erin." Beth heard this as she was hanging up the phone. Something her mother had written in the journal came to mind... OK Ew!

The fire was still burning in her but Dave's comments had gone a long way to making her want to put it back out. She turned out the light and drew the covers up to her chin. She yawned a deep and drifted off to sleep eventually.

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Randy lay wake startled only once when the phone in the kitchen rang. The rapid thump, thump, thump of Erin's bare footsteps on the floor as she raced to answer it.

"Daddy? Oh, hi Dave."

It was that Vinnings character. He had met him once or twice at the Shipley's house. Then he heard

"Ah... William's... in Europe." A pause, then. "Is someone on this line?"

Another Pause

"Um... My cousin. Go back to bed Beth, it's for me."

"No, I will not introduce you Dave, that's not funny!" she sounded angry and a bit jealous. Randy couldn't help but smile. Beth was beautiful. She had managed to not only turn his head but also keep his attention; even with the revelation that she was hiding a terrible secret.

At one point Erin entered the living room apparently not knowing that Randy had opted to sleep on the couch.

"Oh!" she said in surprise when she saw him lying there on the couch. He lifted his one finger to his lips and Erin grinned. "You trying to be a gentlemen Randy?" She whispered to him; winked and turned with the antique handset stuck to her hear and walked back to the kitchen.

Randy only smiled. He had made no attempt to hide how he felt about Beth but he couldn't take advantage of her confusion. Now, having read most of the journal Mrs. Shipley had written, he felt more inclined to be helpful rather than selfish. It would have been to easy for him to get close to her. Beth wanted the security of touch and the warmth of a someone that cared next to her. He could have taken that for himself. His friendship would be ruined after that however. After hearing the sadness in that journal, Randy had decided to preserve as much of his friendship as he could for several reasons. Perhaps the most important was that if he slept with her and she went back to being William at some point, he felt he would die of a broken heart. He wanted to keep his distance until he was sure she could not or did not want to go back.

He considered the idea that if she did go back his heart would still be broken. Beth would go back happily to being William, he supposed, in short order on the influence of male hormones and plumbing and wiring took over again. William would remember how to be man, and if not a man then at the very least male. For, from her confession it seemed that Beth felt she had never truly acted as a man when she had been William. Once more this was a disturbing epiphany for her. That would soon be forgotten, Randy was sure of it. The influence of a male body would restore William to his former ideal of self-important greatness. The result for Randy would be the same. He knew he was not ever going to be as close to William ever again. The problem was that no matter how Randy turned the issue around in his head, no matter what angle he looked at it from it looked the same. If William came back, then William would be to blame for taking the one girl Randy have ever found worth fighting for.

An old proverb came to mind. If you love someone, you must set them free. If they do not return then it was never meant to be!

"Oh fuck you!" Randy whispered to the unseen harbinger of useless Chinese fortunes, but Randy knew it was true. If he slept with her upstairs the risk would be that they would end up in the flesh, one inside the other and if the manual was right then William would be stuck as Beth.

Randy sat bolt upright. That's not exactly true is it? Mike wasn't stuck as Michelle because he's Mike again isn't he? We're looking at the book all wrong. Like she knew what she was talking about when she wrote it, like she's a freakin' expert. But she's not! She knows as much as we do, as much as Beth does anyway. If we read the content and not take it at face value then maybe we'll see things differently.

He wanted to race up and tell Beth what he had realized, and then it occurred that they had not spoken out loud about any of his thoughts. It could be she had read the journal with just the perspective he had not. Even if she hadn't there was nothing they could do about it tonight. Randy rolled over; pulled a shawl from the back of the couch he was curled up on and covered himself with it.

It was a few hours before he went to sleep. When he did, his sleep was broken, invaded by a woman he did not know, on a stage with a guitar. She told him things he would not consciously remember in his waking hours, things that made his heart leap for joy and at the same time broke him down with incredible stifling grief. His life was about to change. The lives of the Shipley family was going to be broken down completely and a terrible sacrifice was going to be made. Randy was going to have to have the courage to face a choice when it was his turn to choose. Randy was going to have to choose to live or die and he was going to have to do it in the name of his love for Beth.

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One block from the Shipley building a small squad of police had been detailed at the order of one police Detective and an order for search and seizure. Callahan waited under the street lamp in the dim of the dawning day in an alley just out of site of the sidewalk reading the order that had just been transmitted and stored in his WristVID's on-board storage.

It said nothing about a suspicion of murder charge.

"God daaaammmmmn it!" he shouted and hit the lamp post with his fist causing it to emit a gong like vibration that the other three uniformed officers were certain could be heard up and down the street. At that moment the light cover popped off and tumbled to the ground just missing Callahan's large, melon shaped head where it then smashed to the ground in sharp shrapnel fragments. The officers shielded their faces from the debris.

"Search and Seizure!" He showed on uniformed officer as the man brushed off bits of heavy plastic light shielding from his uniform.

"No body Detective." The officer said and Callahan growled at him.

"Well, We're going to find a body today boys. I don't care if we have to take the fucking place apart brick by brick. I'm finding out what that bastard did with his son. I'm done letting this SOB do whatever in the hell he wants. DONE!" Shouted Callahan.

The evidence Callahan had gotten from the school had all be circumstantial but supported the finding that William had been withdrawn from school on the premise that he had traveled to Germany. Which was curious to the judge that heard the plea for a warrant since no travel records could be found in any system anywhere. The judge had told Callahan he would review the evidence and issue a warrant if he felt there was reason to look into his any further. Callahan and tried to continue the argument in his favor but Judge Ennis was gone, only a black WristVID screen in the place where only a second ago had been his face.

Well, Callahan moped; it got him inside and legally too. He could do any test he wanted, rip the place apart if he had to until he was satisfied. That is just exactly what he had in mind too.

"OK then, we have our warrant. Time to move." Two of the officers got into a marked police HOV and covered the roof exit while Callahan and the one remaining officer took the front door.

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After the Randy and Beth left for the lake, Gary proceeded to get drunk. It was not an intentional maneuver. He wanted quiet so he could think out a solution, some kind plan, good or bad that he could start to use to at least build on. He locked the VID on 'monitor' to filter out any unwanted messages, which as it turned out were all of the calls that came in. Next he had to address the pain in his heart. The anxiety in his head and stomach and most of all, the awful feeling that he had lost everything of any real value. His money was nothing. He had no use for it, unless he could find a way to use it to bring his wife and children home to him again.

His problem was, he was not a liquor drinker. Michelle was not much of a drinker either. She enjoyed beer and every once in a while vodka or rum but not often and certainly not in quantity. But at those rare times when the two were out drinking together, their friends were often amused that Michelle could easily out drink her husband. Gary figured that anything that hit him that hard would be just the ticket for the phantoms flying about in his head right now. The bourbon began to work it's magic. Sip after nasty tasting sip he began to feel, if not well, then relaxed. As he relaxed however he forgot how much he had drank. Then the melancholy of an alcohol induced grief set in and Gary started to cry uncontrollable. He was a man rocked to the core of his very soul. He could see no way out for his family. To ease the pain of this funk he drank more and more.

In an hour the two-liter bottle of booze was gone and Gary was struggling to focus on the bottle's cap on the floor at his feet. It seemed to be moving around down there and he couldn't quite get his eyes to lock onto it. The more he tried the more elusive the cap became.

Gary felt that if he had to look at that swimming cap a moment longer he would go helplessly and permanently insane. His head lolled up and bobbed and weaved on his neck. He tried to keep it still and failed.

"Houh doss Michelle drink thisssss crap?" he slurred. The mention of her name sent him into new waives of sadness and depression. The fresh jolts of emotion seemed to sober him up a bit though and he felt he was stable enough to walk over to the bar and fetch another bottle of bourbon to crush this latest assault on his wounded emotions.

He stood wobbly for a second then the room pitched left without warning. Gary tried to compensate for the sudden roll of the room and crashed sideways to the floor. "Fuch..." He cried angry with himself but made no attempt to rise. Soon he passed out six hours later he threw up. Had he not been lying on his side he would have aspirated it and drown like Jimi Hendrix had one hundred years before. Lying on his side didn't spare him the goop flowing out and round his head, caking and drying in his hair and sticking to the side of his face.

It was only a prelude of things to come.

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When the security system door monitor set the VID off early that morning, Gary woke to a headache the size of the five colonies on the moon. Downstairs he could hear the knocking on the door and the requests from the VIDLink for an answer to the bell. Each ring sent electric shocks into his head and threatened to rupture cell walls, blood vessels and tear his head from his shoulders. He felt sick. No, that's not quite right. He felt like he was in the last throws of a violently ill sickness that was taking great pleasure in dispatching him slowly.

The VID's speaker system announced who was at the door. "Shipley! This is Detective Callahan, Rouston PD. I know you're home. We have a few questions we'd like you to answer if you don't mind."

"Callahan?" He croaked. "Christ. I thought I had longer... God damn." He said miserably. He rubbed his head but the pain there wouldn't go away. The world swam before his eyes. He could have picked a better time, if I don't look guilty of something now, I'd be very surprised.

Why would I worry about looking...

The memory came back and slammed him to the floor. Michelle is dead! He threw up again on the floor before him, still unaware that his face and hair was stiff with the stuff. It filled the room with a renewed odor that made him retch more. She's gone; this is my first full day without her. How can I do this?

Down stairs the knocks were becoming more insistent. He wiped his mouth with his shirtsleeve.

The door downstairs burst open and Gary could hear footfalls on the stairs. He tried to stand but the overwhelming feeling of grief mixed with the bourbon hangover was more than his body could withstand. He collapsed back into the puddle that he had retched up and laid there as the police swarmed in and began shouting orders.

"Search the house, I need to know if anyone is here or if any one is dead." One officer demanded.

"Stairs here Sergeant..." said another.

"Hardy, you check up there. Take Blackman with you and Craig. Search all the rooms. I doubt we'll find bodies here, but maybe we'll get lucky and find them before they become just bodies." The compliment of officers had grown just before entry four more officers had joined the invasion of the Rouston PD.

"Greene and Thompson, check the bedrooms, and offices down here."

"Whew... what the hell is that smell?"

"Man down! Man down!" one officer was yelling. Gary supposed they had found him though he was too tired and sick to open his eyes to see.

There were footsteps about his head. "Aw God... someone get him cleaned up. That's Shipley. Get him cleaned up and we'll take him to the station." Callahan said.

Greene and Thompson, tasers drawn made their way down the glass brick hallway to the bedrooms to search for victims.

Gary's head felt as if it weighed a ton. He feared that if he lifted it from the floor his neck would detach and the head would just stay right where it is. "What about my rights." Gary whispered from the puddle of puke he lay in.

"Ah... it lives. Where are your children, your wife Shipley?"

"Gone..." he croaked.

"Yes, I thought as much."

"No... not here that's all." Gary tried to clarify.

"Where then." Callahan stepped closer to Gary and stepped on his hand as he did. He crouched down next to Gary's face; he could smell the vapors off the floor and the fermenting booze that had soaked in there. "I said where are they?" None of the other officers heard their conversation.

"You wouldn't believe me... That hurts." Callahan stepped down harder. "Ggggggrrrrrrrrrr." Gary grunted in pain. "Please..." Here was a crunch, then a snap but Gary didn't cry out, instead he sucked in, drawing in heavy, acidic fumes of vomit from the carpet that made him cough.

"Where did you bury them? And while you're at it... you can tell me what you did with Vello's body too.

"They all went to the French Rivera," whined Gary, the pain in his hand couldn't contain the smartass in him. .

Callahan shook his head. "I couldn't hurt you before, you were just a boy. This time, I've got you. Your son is not in Germany. Oh yes, I checked with the school. I was alerted through their VID system, that William withdrew from school rather hastily. I checked around, no jump tickets no hotel reservations under Shipley anywhere in Germany, No speed shuttle usage... just how is your son getting around in Europe, walking?"

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The bedroom was empty. The bed unmade. Further down the hall were a study and a library. Both were empty. Greene slipped into the bathroom that served the master bedroom and the study. It was a large garden style bath with a large Jacuzzi tub a wide stand up shower, a toilet and a large makeup counter with a wide mirror and two sinks.

The bathroom was clean except for the last activity that had taken place. A few makeup cases out, a towel hung over the back of a makeup chair and the throw carpet was bunched in the center of the floor. It looked as if someone were in a hurry to go some place. Someone who wore make up.

Thompson was in the bedroom searching for clues when Greene pushed the throw rug with the toe of his shoe. There on the corner was a small spot of what looked like blood. It was a spot of blood that had hit the rug when Michelle had bit her tongue after seeing the image of her sister in the mirror. She had carefully cleaned the blood of the tiled floor, sink and shower where she had let it bleed until the bleeding had stopped.

"Rick! I got something. Bring some luminol mist when you come." Greene shouted out to Thompson. Thompson came and brought with him a small box with eight aerosols inside it. Greene selected a bottle colored bright red, covered his mouth and sprayed in the air. He allowed the mist to settle on the fixtures of the bathroom and then turned off the lights.

The bathroom was aglow in a pale green phosphorescent light. The sink was covered in the light as was the shower. There were darker colored spots on the floor where her blood had dripped as she made her way to the sink. There, next to the sink was a handprint. She had placed it there to steady herself against the pain in her mouth and the fear that she might have severed her tongue completely. The lines of her prints were clear.

Greene turned to Thompson and said. "Holy shit! He must of cut her to pieces." Richard Thompson could only nod in stunned disbelief at the amount of blood coverage in the bathroom. Neither could have known that the coverage was a result of Michelle's clean up efforts. That she had smeared the blood around with the rag she had used to clean up with. It simply looked to the officers as if someone had tried to cover up a crime scene. Michelle could also have not known that even with the faintest amount of blood, they could still take type samples. These were fed back into a portable genetic cruncher and returned not only with her type but a "most likely match" scenario in which she was named as the person whose genetic material on file matched that submitted by the police. It would be enough to arrest Mr. Shipley. Thompson thought to him self that the old bastard had been right. They had not found a body, but they had found something just as good, it looked as if Mr. Shipley was a murderer after all.

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Callahan waited for just a second more, but Greene was moving toward them. Callahan stood and removed his food shoe from Gary's hand.

"Clean him up and get him down stairs. Grab him a suit of clothes, I want him to look respectable in front of the judge in the today.

"Sir, the bathroom." Greene was saying. Gary could hear from the floor but couldn't believe his ears. "It's covered with blood."

"Now? Visibly?" Callahan asked with hope in his voice.

"It's all been cleaned up, shower, sink floor, it's everywhere. We had to use a spray but to see it. But Sir, we took a sample we got a match on genetic material. It matches Mrs. Shipley's type and sample."

Callahan crouched next to a prone Shipley. "Any thing to say now?" he asked

"Sir, one more thing we have a bloody hand print. The prints match Mrs. Shipley's as well. "

Callahan smiled a long thin smile. He turned back to Gary and bent down even lower. "Gotcha," he whispered to Gary.

Callahan stood. "Come on Shipley, You are being remanded to the custody of Police Services. Under the charter of Police Services, you have the right to a clean cell, legal representation and two meals a days for the duration of your confinement. Police Services has the right to remand you in forty-eight hours to the Department of Prisons and Paroles. It will be the duty of your lawyer to offer evidence of your innocence before you will be freed from the responsibility of this governing institution."

"On your feet."

Men came from upstairs; they were dressed in body armor and hand weapons slung into their hands. "No one up stairs Sergeant." Sergeant Dayhew turned to Callahan and reported the house was secure.

"OK, I'm leaving a forensics team behind to gather evidence. No one touch a fucking thing until they're done. I don't want some over-priced lawyer coming along to tell me how one of the men on my team fucked up and contaminated the evidence."

Callahan turned to the lead forensics investigator, "You do anything in here to screw me and I'll eat your tits on a sandwich, you got me?"

The smallish girl, clearly intimidated by the hulking, crazy detective nodded her understanding with out saying a word and with that Callahan shoved past the woman and grabbed a partially cleaned up Gary Shipley and hustled him out the door and downstairs to waiting news reporters.

"Who the hell leaked this?" Callahan growled, "Which one of you puss filled pukes leaked this?" His self-righteous indignation was as thin as the hair on his balding head. Most of the officers on the raiding party knew he had leaked this arrest to the press yesterday.

The reporters ran forward hurling question after question at Gary, at Detective Callahan or at any other officer that would offer them a minute or a glance.

"Mr. Shipley... Gary... Did you kill your wife?

How the fuck do they know anything.

"Our sources say your son has been missing for over a week, did you kill your children?"

"Mr. Shipley, are you going to confess to the killing of Michael Vello?"

Gary was paraded slowly through the through the throngs of reporters as VIDCamers broadcast his image into houses through out the state of Pennsylvania and God only knew where else. He was finally dumped into a waiting HOV and flown off. The house itself was searched, what was believed to be evidence was taken and the house was locked. It would remain empty until for the next four days.

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"Local restaurateur and millionaire Gary Shipley, Owner of The Red Fish was arrested early this morning at his home downtown in the restored districted of Old Town Rouston. The charges have not yet been released, but our reporters have learned that there is a possibility that Mr. Shipley has been arrested for the murder of his son, William Shipley whse whereabouts are currently unknown."

"Oh Shit!"

"Police spokes person Melinda Geofferies told KAYX news that Mr. Shipley is only being questioned. When it becomes apparent where his son and now the remaining members of his family are, he will either be released or charged..."

"Oh Holy Shit!" Randy was about to leap up and out of his HOV. He had been rummaging around for his toothbrush and decided to turn on the VID to catch up on the news. He quickly switched it off and ran to the house.

Erin was up, not awake but up. She was the first person that Randy met. "Whoa there cowboy, where's the stampede?"

"I need Beth, Erin, is she up?" Randy begged.

"Didn't you have your chance last night..." Erin started.

"Erin! Is she up?" She read his face and the humor ran out of her face. Something was bad wrong.

"Talk to me, please." She begged. "It's happened hasn't it?" Erin wasn't sure what it was but she understood it was bad and feared it more than anything else she had ever feared before.

"You need to get to Miami like your father said, take Shelly protect her. I'm taking Beth. I'll contact folks; when you're settled you call them and they'll get you in touch with us." Randy dashed upstairs to wake Beth. Erin turned and fled crying to her room to dress. Today she didn't dress in her steel coated boots. Instead she wore, jeans, a blouse with a nice woman's leather jacket and "Shrink Sneaks".

Upstairs she could hear a commotion but could not discern it's content. She realized she didn't want to know. She had to get Shelly to safety.

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The graveside service was filled with people she didn't know. The clothes seemed old, out of date. Beth was dressed in a short black dress, a black hat and a shear black lace veil. She wore black high heels and clutched a black purse with no strap. They were all gathered under a great green tent that protected the gravesite from the sun; but she could see people stretched out over the hills of the cemetery as far as she could see. She sat with her sister Erin, Shelly and this other woman, the woman from the jousting matches.

"What are you doing here?" Beth asked.

"I'm here to watch over you. Your parents are both dead."

"No. That's a lie!" Beth insisted, but she knew that her mother was in fact dead. She looked back toward the grave to see if she could tell whom they were burying. There was the cage from her previous dream inside, her mother very much alive. The box sat beside a deep hole dug in the ground.

"WHAT ARE THEY DOING?" she leapt to her feet. She was alarmed that perhaps they might drop this box with her living mother in it do the bottom of the hole.

"This is a funeral, they are first going to bury your mother and then your father." Erin pointed to a queue boarded with red velvet rope. Her father was the only person in the queue.

"WAIT! They're still alive." She said screamed, she had not been sitting properly and her short dress clung to her rear end showing the bottom edge of her panty. "You can't bury living people."

She raced to the cage and tried to find a way out, a way to free her mother but there was no door, no lock to open. "Mother! Please... tell me what to do."

Michelle looked up at her daughter. She said nothing. She did look at the place where she had been sitting. There was a cage, just like her mothers. On it, over the top of the cage was the word


She turned back to the cage her mother was in. "Oh Mom... not... not that."

"I don't want that for you either. Walk away, go get the help you can and walk away from this. This is our problem..."

"Nice sentiments baby sister. But this actually is their problem too." Erin pointed to the children sitting on the first row of seats next to the cage that was Beth's prison.

"You shut your mouth Erin. This is my son we're talking about. What part of this could you possibly understand?"

"Mom, if I do this will you and Dad be OK, Will you come back to us?"

"Run William, for God sake run away."

Beth looked back at the cage and walked to it. As she approached she could here her mother crying, "Don't... Please don't."

There was a flash of light and William was standing on the floor of the lab where they had been two days ago. At his feet was a small pile of ashes. In the glass was his refection, HIS reflection. Beyond that, the ginning face of the good doctor, but this doctor was old, about a thousand years old from the look of it. "Back to the cage kiddies" he said in the thick accent that sounded Russian.

This time Beth was in a cage of her own. She panicked and fought her bonds but she could not free herself. "Mom?" she shifted in the cage and saw as they lowered her mother into the hole. "NOOOOO! I'm in the cage... You said you wouldn't..." She looked up at the other Erin. "You said." She screamed and rattled the bars of the cage.

But her mother's sister spoke only these words... "Ashes to ashes... Ashes to ashes..." as she sprinkled gray ash on into the hole.

"This is only a dream." Beth shrieked, "Only a DREAM!"

The lady she now knew was her Aunt said, "Then wake up."

"I can't!" Beth cried.

"Just wake up." Erin repeated.

Beth shook the bars of the cage and cried. "I want to wake up! I want to, but I don't know how?"

The bars felt soft and began to move when the world around her melted away.

"Wake up Beth, you're having a nightmare." There looking down at her was Randy. She clutched his arms tightly. She was breathing heavily. Sweat poured off her face.


"I'm here. You were..."

"I know. I've been having dreams for a while now. I remember them all suddenly." Then she wildly pulled him close to her. Her eyes had such a look of joy to them that he was worried for her all over again. "I remember my dreams Randy. I know..." She let go of his arms and grabbed the journal and leafed through the pages.

Then she found the passage...

        As I looked around there were the guys I remembered I had come to this place with two days ago. At their feet were small piles of ash. They were all brushing the stuff off themselves.

"Wahoooooooooo! That's it... Ahh ha hahahahahahaha. I have it... This is it Randy." She pointed to the book but Randy wasn't looking at the book. "I said I figured it out, I think I know how to get my... Mom... What's wrong?" she asked; the excitement suddenly gone."

"It's your Dad." Randy said.

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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