Archive for the ‘Section 8: A New Beginning’ Category.

106 Talking It Out

Mom came back just as I started mixing the flour and baking soda. “Go talk to your sister,” she said.

“She’s not talking to me, Mom,” I pointed out. “I thought you were going to find out what was wrong.”

“Go talk to her,” she repeated. “Or better yet, go listen to her. She’ll talk if you let her, but don’t push.” When I hesitated, she added, “Go now.” So I went.

I knocked on Tina’s door. “Teen? May I come in?”

All I heard in return was a grunt through the door, which I took to mean, “yes,” so I pushed it open to find Tina sitting at her desk with her back to me. She didn’t say anything, so I sat on her bed and waited. And waited.

Finally, she muttered, “It’s like I’m losing my sister all over again.”

“Wh-what?” I managed.

“I thought it was all set,” she said, bitterly. “I thought we’d worked it all out. You couldn’t change back, and it looked like you were OK with that. It was a secret that you and I shared – well, shared with Chad, and maybe one or two of your friends. You were really comfortable as a girl, you had a great boyfriend… as far as Mom and Dad were concerned, you were Marsha. And now this.”

“What do you mean?” I asked, cautiously.

“Well, now Mom and Dad know, and it’s not a secret anymore, and Daddy’s starting to treat you differently. You’re acting differently. And… now apparently there’s this lab thing, after all.”

“Tina…” I started, but she cut me off.

“So I guess one night I’ll just go to sleep and not wake up, is that how it will work?” She wasn’t crying – quite. But she definitely seemed to be on the verge.

“Teen, I don’t know what’s going to happen. I don’t what we’ll find when we get into the lab; if we get into the lab.”

“But you’re still planning on changing back, aren’t you? I mean you did say you were only promising me as far as Christmas, and we’re past that now, so I shouldn’t complain, right?”

I got up and tried to put my arms around her, but she pushed me away. “I thought you were happy!” she cried. “I did everything I could do! Why don’t you want to stay this way? Why do you have to change everything?”

“Teen,” I said, unsure where to put my hands now that she wasn’t accepting a hug, “I don’t know what’s going to happen. I just don’t know.”

“So you might stay this way?” she asked in a little girl voice.

“I…” I started. Then I looked into my sister’s hopeful, trusting eyes. What was the best thing to tell her? Saying I would stay a girl would make her happy, and it might be true – but saying that was what I intended would be a lie. “It’s… not impossible,” I finally told her.

“OK,” she said.

“OK?” I asked.

“OK,” she insisted. I knew what she wanted to believe, and I don’t think either of us wanted to pursue the matter too closely just now. It mean, though, that we sort of agreeing to lie to each other, or at least play make-believe. Or something. It seemed a pretty rotten way to leave things, though. I just didn’t have any better answers. At least she let me hug her at the end.

Then she asked, “Is everything going to be different, now? Are you still going to call me regularly?”

“Of course, Teen,” I answered, a bit surprised. “After all, we are–” then I hesitated before continuing, “we are sisters,” at least for now, “and sisters should talk regularly.”

Tina acted as though that was the end of it. When Jeremy came to pick me up, she greeted him as though nothing was wrong. Mom went along with things, too, but Dad… well… after greeting Jeremy and loading my bags into the car for me, Dad told Jeremy, “Take care of my little…” then he stopped himself, looked at me and then back at Jeremy. “I– I mean, drive carefully.” He looked as though he wanted to kiss me on the forehead, hesitated, and then leaned over and kissed me on the cheek, while I put my arms around him and kissed him back.

I didn’t think Jeremy would notice, but a few minutes after we left, he looked over at me and asked, “Is something going on between you and your Dad?”

I shrugged. Fortunately, I had thought about this earlier. “He’s dealing with the idea that I’m no longer his ‘little girl’ is all.”

“Hmm,” he responded. “Phyllis broke my Dad of that idea a few years ago. I guess it was time, for him. It’s really silly that he would still think of you as a little girl, under the circumstances, right?”

And really, how could I disagree?

Jeremy walked me to my dorm room carrying both of our suitcases. I could swear there are two people inside my head, because I found his ability to do that incredibly sexy, even while aware that I could have done the same thing just a few months and one reality change ago.

The hallway wasn’t as busy this time as it had been after midterm break; the only ones I saw were Lisa and Sheila, who stopped talking and stared at us. It embarrassed me to the point that I couldn’t bring myself to introduce Jeremy to them. He looked at me curiously, but I just swept passed them and led him to my door.

When we went in, my roommates were already there in the living room talking with a redheaded girl and they stopped and stared, too. I couldn’t just ignore them, of course, but all I managed was, “Hi, guys. This is Jeremy,” as I fled for the safety of my bedroom before they could react. Jeremy followed and I closed the door after us.

“Is something wrong?” he asked with a wry smile.

“No, I’m just… well, I guess everybody was surprised to see me with a boy. That’s all. Um… I know you’re not going to kiss me in front of the girls.” With the door safely closed, I threw my arms around his neck and give him a long kiss, which he returned, eagerly.

After a moment, he gently pulled himself away. “I really do need to get back to my room,” he said. Disappointed, I opened my bedroom door, and we walked hand-in-hand back past my staring roommates back to the front door.

“Thank you,” I said, really wishing I could kiss him again.

He glanced at the girls, and I hoped he was thinking the same thing. “Um, my pleasure.” He licked his lips, but only turned to them and said, “Nice meeting you” before turning back to me. “Bye, Marsh.” He said, opened the door, and left. I closed the door behind him and turned to face the interrogation.

“What? Who was that?” Terry demanded.

“’Jeremy’?” asked Lee Ann at the same time. “Did you say his name was Jeremy? The one you were crying about a few weeks ago?”

The redhead just looked confused. I glanced at her while I tried to collect my thoughts, and then with a jolt I realized that she looked very familiar. I forced a laugh. “We sort of… well, it was all a big misunderstanding.”

Of course, that just brought more questions. “What kind of misunderstanding?” “What happened to his girlfriend?” “How did you figure it out?”

My head was spinning, and amidst it all, I was increasingly sure I’d seen the redhead before. She might well have stuck in my mind; her hazel eyes hinted at knowledge of some secret, and her smiling lips suggested that it was an amusing one. I could easily have glimpsed her somewhere on campus.

She spoke up before I could answer any of the questions. “I don’t want to get into your private affairs, Marsh. “I was just hoping for a quick fitting. Your roommates said you wouldn’t mind.” She held a navy jumper up against herself. “This turned out so well, and Mom found two more of her old dresses for me, and I was hoping you could do the same thing to them.

“Wait!” Lee Ann exclaimed. “Celeste, that was before we knew she had something we wanted to know about.” She turned to me. “Marsh, you can’t just leave us hanging!”

“I’ll be really fast,” I promised, glad to be able to put off the explanation for another few minutes. “Come on, Celeste!” I led her into my room, trying to calm myself.

But I couldn’t. I’d recognized the jumper, as well. It wasn’t exactly a jumper, at least not the way I had learned to think of them. It was sort of a mini-dress/jumper, and I could imagine how cute Celeste must have looked in it. That had to be why I’d noticed her.

With the door closed, she quickly stripped off her outer garments and donned the first of the dresses. It was obvious why her mother had been willing to surrender them; they were decades out of style. Still, there was something intriguing about their structure, and seeing what Marsha had done for the first one gave me some ideas on how I could update the other two. Some pretty radical surgery would be needed, but I had Marsha’s dexterity, didn’t I? If I got stuck, I could always ask Nikki for help.

“I was so afraid you’d have forgotten me, what with my taking the semester off,” she said as I pinned the second dress on her.”

“How could I forget you?” I temporized. She took the semester off? That’s significant, somehow, I thought.

“Thanks,” she said. “It’ll be the same price as for the first one, right?”

“Um, sure,” I said. Marsha’s bookkeeping had been impeccable, and I’d followed her pattern. That meant that I might be able to find this girl’s information – there couldn’t be that many girls here with the same first name, and this kind of work would be unusual. Still… “But I’ll have to see if I have last year’s records. Why don’t you give me your number again, just in case?”

I walked my customer out past my impatient roommates and said goodbye before returning to face them. “So what did you want to know?” I asked, sitting down on the space on the couch recently vacated by Celeste. Actually, it was kind of exciting to be sharing my news with the girls.

“What happened with his old girlfriend?!” Terry almost shrieked.

“She’s just a friend,” I laughed. “I’d worked myself up for nothing. Not only wasn’t she his girlfriend, she’d been trying to fix him up, and if she’d known who I was when we met in the bathroom, she would have jumped at the chance to push us together.”

And then suddenly something struck me. Jumped reminded me of jumper, and that reminded me of Celeste and the dress Marsha had made for her. I was sure I’d seen her wearing it, but where?

“She sounds almost too nice,” Lee Ann suggested. “Are you sure this guy isn’t just leading you on?”

“I’m sure,” I said confidently, trying to put the question of Celeste aside. “Well, I wasn’t, before my sister forced me to go out with him.”

“She forced you?” Lee Ann asked, jumping on my words.

“Well,” I explained, “it turns out that she and his sister are friends, and they thought we would be good together. It wasn’t just a coincidence, our meeting. And then I sort of promised her that I’d say yes to the next guy who asked me out, and the two of them got Jeremy to call and I had to accept even though I figured he didn’t want to, but we went out and realized what was happening.”

My mouth seemed to be just running off on its own now, because my subconscious wouldn’t let me drop the Celeste issue. There was something wrong with my memory, but I couldn’t figure out what.

“So where did you go on this date?” Terry wanted to know.

“Wait!” Lee Ann said. “Didn’t Geoff ask you out?”

“Um, technically, no. He sort of got close to asking, but never actually asked.” Fortunately. “We actually went dancing, Terry. Swing dancing! And he’s really good at it.”

Dancing, I realized. I had a clear picture of Celeste dancing in that jumper/mini-dress thing. So why did it feel wrong?

“And afterwards?” Terry insisted.

Afterwards? I don’t remember seeing Celeste after the dance… Wait, I’m getting confused. “Oh! Um, well, we went dancing at a restaurant and ran into a bunch of my friends.  And they liked him and were happy for me.”

“And afterwards?” Terry repeated.

“Oh.” I turned red as I realized what she was actually asking. “Um, we kissed.” I saw Terry roll her eyes. “It was very nice… and it got better on our second date,” I added hurriedly. “And, on our third date we made out in the back seat of his car.” I remembered what that had been like, my first as a girl actually cuddling with a guy. I had no complaints, even if it had been a bit tame by my old standards.

And then it hit me what was wrong with my memory of Celeste. She hadn’t been here last semester, so I had to have seen her freshman year, when I was still Marshall. But how could I, as Marshall, remember her wearing something that Marsha had sewn? That was impossible!

“So you’ve been out a few times, then?” Lee Ann observed. “What’s he like?” And looking at Terry, she added, “and I don’t mean just physically.”

“Oh!” I said, now seriously distracted by the impossibility of my memory. “Um, well, he’s an engineer, and he’s extremely logical, but kind of shy… and he’s artistic. He made me this pin. And he was really sweet about giving it to me…”

Terry was rolling her eyes again. “Omigosh, he sounds like he’s still in middle school. He made you jewelry? Didn’t get past kissing until the third date?”

“He sounds very nice, Marsh,” Lee Ann said, glaring at Terry. “And just your speed. Some of us have things other than sex on our minds.”

Yeah, and what is on my mind at the moment is impossible memories. What was worrying me was that there actually was an explanation – I just didn’t like it.

“I’m sure he’s interested in me… that way,” I protested. “It’s just… we’re taking it slowly. I… don’t think he’s actually dated a lot. But he’s a fast learner! I’m not complaining. Um… in acting, we say, ‘always leave them wanting more.’ And he does. That’s better than me being bored with him, isn’t it? Or him with me?”

“Marsh, you don’t need to defend yourself – or him. Terry and I are very happy for you. You’re glowing, girl! I think he really is good for you. Right, Terry?”

Terry smiled. “Yeah, I didn’t mean to run him down, Marsh. I’m glad you found somebody.”

They did pry for more details, which I tried to supply, even as I tried to deal with the implications of my memory of Celeste. It couldn’t be mine; it had to be Marsha’s memory, which I really really didn’t want to believe. Maybe… maybe in the old time line, Celeste had gone to Nikki for the work instead? And Nikki had just happened to do it exactly the way Marsha did in this time line? Then I could have seen Celeste in it while I was Marshall. It was a real stretch, and I was having a hard time convincing myself that it was possible.

Firmly, I resolved not to think of it, while distracting myself with the details of how I was going to proceed with Celeste’s alterations. I’d come up with what I thought was a reasonable plan when my phone rang.

“Eric!” I answered, seeing his name on the display. “When are we going to see the lab?” That was a much safer thing to focus on just now.

“Well, Martin won’t be getting in until late, so we figured we’d meet tomorrow evening, around midnight at my dorm room and then head over to the Physics building.  It should be pretty empty by then, since it’s the start of the semester. I assume you and Vicky will both be coming?”

“Yes. Does Martin have a key?”

“No,” Eric said. “He said he was going to see if there’s any way to get one, but for now, all we may be able to do is see where the lab is – or was. One of us is going to need to learn how to pick locks, probably.”

“Actually, I think I know somebody who can help. You don’t mind if I bring somebody else in, do you?”

“If it’ll get us in sooner, no problem. That’ll be five of us, which is probably still manageable.”

“OK, great.” I said. “I’ll see you tomorrow.”

So that was one step closer to figuring this whole thing out – and now I needed to get it figured out even more urgently. The alternative explanation – that Nikki or somebody else had done the same alterations as Marsha had – made no sense; clearly, I now had a memory in my head that wasn’t mine, and didn’t belong there. And if Marsha’s memories were suddenly in my head… what if they started replacing my own? I’d lost my body in favor of hers, my skills, my history – all that was left of me was my memories. If I lost those…

“Actually, I think I know somebody who can help. You don’t mind if I bring somebody else in, do you?”
“If it’ll get us in sooner, no problem. That’ll be five of us, which is probably still manageable.”
“OK, great.” I said. “I’ll see you tomorrow.”
So that was one step closer to figuring this whole thing out – and now I needed to get it figured out even more urgently. The alternative explanation &emdash; that Nikki or somebody else had done the same alterations as Marsha had &emdash; made no sense; clearly, I now had a memory in my head that wasn’t mine, and didn’t belong there. And if Marsha’s memories were suddenly in my head… what if they started replacing my own?

107 Perpetual Anticipation is Hard for the Heart

The second semester of Organic Chemistry was in the same lecture hall at the same time, and when I took my usual seat, Geoff was already there. He took my news better than I had expected.

“Jeremy?” he asked, his face falling. Then he shook his head and smiled. “Well… that’s just great. I mean it, Marsha. I remember how unhappy you were at the dance. I’m glad that things worked out for you.”

“Thank you, Geoff. I’m sorry that–”

“Not a problem,” he forestalled me. “I’m learning my lesson, and I’ll just look elsewhere.”

If only all of my relationships could be so easy! Vicky, at least, seemed to be in a good mood. I called her after Spanish class to tell her about the midnight meeting and suggest that she come over to my dorm a bit early so we could walk to Eric’s room together. She not only agreed, but also suggested meeting in the early afternoon after classes, just to catch up without time pressures.

When she sat down next to me at the Grill, she was positively gushing. “I just can’t believe we’re this close!”

“Well, all we know is – probably – the location of the lab,” I pointed out. “We have no idea what we’ll find inside.”

“I know,” she agreed, “but even that is so much closer than any of the Strangers had gotten. And even more important,” she said, placing her hand on my arm, “is that you’re working to make it happen.” She shook her head. “I should have known you wouldn’t want to stay like this, that you could never be comfortable like this. I’m really sorry, Marsh.”

“Don’t mention it,” I told her quietly, wondering how I was going to explain Jeremy now.

“I have to,” she insisted. “I really gave you a hard time last year. But after you called me and told me about the lab, I realized how wrong I’d been. I mean, really. I should have known better.”

Suddenly, I wished I weren’t wearing the pin Jeremy had made for me. I must have tried to cover it up surreptitiously, because she suddenly did notice it.

“Is that new?” she asked, pointing to it. When I nodded, she persisted. “That’s kind of unique. Where did you get it?”

“It was a present,” I answered, vaguely. I should have known it wouldn’t put her off.

“… From?”

I hesitated before answering. “Jeremy.”

“Jeremy?” she repeated, confused. “I don’t remember…” Then her face went white. “Wait. Jeremy? That’s not… are you dating a boy, Marsh?”

I started to look away, but changed my mind and looked her in the eye. “Yes, I am. As you said last month, I have needs – and they weren’t being met.”

She stared back at me for a moment before sneering, “That’s disgusting. I cannot believe that you’re sleeping with a boy.”

“I’m not! At least… we’ve only had three dates so far.”

“You and I slept together on our second date,” she reminded me, acerbically.

I squirmed. “Well, Jeremy isn’t as forward as I was – and I’m not as forward as you were.”

“So how far did you go?” she demanded.

This was definitely getting out of comfortable ground for me, but I didn’t know how to forestall her. “Well… I sat on his lap and we kissed.”

This time, her stare seemed to go on for ages. “That’s it?” Embarrassed, I nodded. “And that’s what you call, ‘getting your needs met’?” She exclaimed. I cringed in response. “You’re in love with this boy, aren’t you?” she asked. “Or at least you think you are.” She shook her head. “Oh, Marsh, I see what’s going on. It’s the hormones. You’re not used to them and this… it’s really not your fault. But we need to get you back to your real self fast, or who knows what will happen?”

Before I could reply, her phone rang. “Hey, babe!” she said. “No, I’m with my girlfriend… well I figured a few minutes would be OK… no, of course not… I suppose… OK…” I saw her wince and add in a more subdued tone, “I’ll meet you there in ten minutes.”

“Kevin?” I asked.

She nodded. “I need to go. I was supposed to see him right after my classes were over, but I didn’t think it would be a problem to talk with you first.” She laughed, but it sounded forced. “Sometimes he’s just so needy!”

If she hadn’t run out so quickly, I would have… what? She wanted to believe that I couldn’t really be attracted to boys, that I was just being buffeted my hormonal responses, but was it really more true for me than anybody else?  I didn’t think so. I wasn’t really sure what I would have said; besides, if it made her happy to think that my feelings for Jeremy weren’t real, it was probably better to let her believe that for now. It would only be better for our relationship if I changed back, after all.

I shrugged and finished my soda, then called Jeremy as I left. The way my heart pounded when I talked to him – even though we weren’t together or discussing anything important – felt just as real as the feelings I’d had for Vicky. That was something else I wasn’t about to share.

By eleven-thirty that evening, I had finished all of my homework and made good progress on my sewing jobs, so I went into the living room with a book to wait for Vicky. Lee Ann looked up in surprise when I sat down on the couch.

“Well this is new. Did you want a turn?” she asked, indicating the Wii attached to the TV?

“No,” I told her. “I’m actually going out in a bit with Vicky, and I’m just waiting for her.”

“Vicky? Oh.” She put down the controller. “What’s her problem, anyway? I can’t think of anything I might have done to her, but she sure doesn’t seem to like me much.”

I almost choked. For some reason, I had assumed Lee Ann wouldn’t notice, and Vicky’s problem had nothing to do with this time line, anyway. “She… blames you for being too friendly with a boy she liked,” was the best I could come up with.

Lee Ann furrowed her brow. “You’ve got to be kidding,” she said. “This is over me being friendly with a boy?”

“Well… it was really the boy’s fault for neglecting her. But she blames you.”

She sighed. “Well, no offense, but that’s really dumb.”

She returned to her game, and I started getting into my book – or, I should say, one of Marsha’s romance novels. I’d underestimated them; they were a lot more enjoyable than I had realized. Of course, they were a bit silly, but sometimes silly could be fun, too. In any event, it wasn’t a big deal to put it down and answer the door when Vicky knocked.

“Ready to go, Marsh?” she asked.

“It’s a bit early, yet,” I told her. “Come sit down for a few minutes. I don’t want to get to Eric’s place too soon.”

She came in and took off her coat but then stopped when she saw Lee Ann, and looked tentatively toward me.

“Sit,” I insisted, sliding over and patting the couch between me and my roommate, who had put down her game controller again.

“I’m not going to bite, you know,” Lee Ann promised.

Vicky sat very tentatively, and suddenly I noticed that she was holding her head in a very odd position, tilted so that so almost seemed to be looking at Lee Ann’s feet, but with her neck very stiff.

“Is something wrong?” I asked.

“No,” Vicky answered, sounding a bit strained. “Um… I need to use the bathroom!” and she jumped right back up and ran there.

“What happened to her?” Lee Ann asked, looking concerned.

“What do you mean?” I responded, a bit confused.

“Her eye, Marsh. Her left eye. The one she was trying to hide? Take a close look when she comes back.”

So I watched carefully when Vicky came back from the bathroom, still holding her face oddly, and now I could tell that she was indeed turning so that her left eye was away from me. “Why don’t we just go now?” she suggested, looking away from Lee Ann. “I’m sure Eric won’t mind.”

Well, making peace between my friend and my roommate was obviously going to wait. Besides, now I had a minor mystery to explore. What was going on with Vicky? I grabbed my coat and followed her out the door, saying good bye to Lee Ann. Vicky, I noticed, made it a point to walk to my left down the hallway, making it hard for me to see the eye in question.

I had a suspicion about what she was hiding, and waited until we were on a path, about to pass an overhead light before asking, “What’s wrong, Vicky?”

Surprised, she stopped and started to face me, but snapped her face forward again. “What makes you think something’s wrong?”

I reach up with my right hand and turned her chin toward me. “Because you’re hiding something,” I said. When she tried to pull away, I grabbed the top of her head with my other hand. She freed herself after a few seconds, but I saw what I had expected.

“You’ve got a lot of extra makeup on your left eye, Vix. You have a black eye, don’t you?”

She froze. “I… well, I told you how clumsy I’ve been lately… I sort of fell and hit my eye on a doorknob.”

I put my hands on my hips. “Don’t give me that. I’ve read about that excuse, Vix. Kevin hit you, didn’t he?” She opened her mouth and closed it, and then something clicked. Those times last month when she’d claimed to have injured herself – Kevin had been with her then as well. “And it’s not the first time, either, is it?”

“He… he didn’t mean to,” she protested.

“Didn’t mean to?” I echoed, incredulous.

“I just make him mad, sometimes,” she whined, wringing her hands. “And he can’t help himself. But he always says he’s sorry, after.”

“Vicky, are you out of your mind? He’s abusing you!”

“No… he’s just…”

“Did I ever hit you? Did any of your other boyfriends ever hit you?”

“Not you, no…”

“Well, then…”

“But my other boyfriends…”

“Wait. What?! You never told me that!”

Her shoulders fell. “I was afraid… You were always so nice to me. I was afraid if I said something… you’d start hitting me, too. But you never did.” In the overhead light, I saw her eyes start to tear up. “It’s my fault that he hits me. That all of them hit me. You should have, too.”

I put my arms around her. “Vicky, it’s not your fault. He’s a creep. And any guy who ever hit you was a creep, too.” I moved so I could look into her eyes. “You have to leave him, Vix. You deserve better.”

“I can’t,” she whimpered. “I don’t want to be alone.”

“There are plenty of guys–”

“No, there aren’t,” she insisted. “There’s like four guys for every six girls here, and half of those guys are taken, and half of what’s left are jerks – much worse than Kevin – and then it’s like the four girls are all competing for the one guy… and how did you wind up with him?!”

“Uh–” I stammered.

“So I settle,” she concluded, bitterly. “It’s better than being alone. I had a nice guy, once. One guy in my whole life who was kind and never hurt me… and then she flirted with you and you lost interest. It figures. And now look at you.” She sighed, heavily. “That’s why you have to change back, Marsh. I need you. Jeremy can always find another girl; there’s plenty. But I need you.”

I didn’t really know what to say. Over the past few months, I’d come to see some real problems with myself as a boyfriend, and it had been hard to understand why Vicky had been so positive. We’d never really talked about the guys she’d dated before me. I was outraged on her behalf. She deserved better!

“Vicky,” I said. “If this works… if we really do track down the people in charge of this experiment…” I didn’t think there was any need to say anything more. I hadn’t told her about my memories, but if what I thought was happening… I didn’t really have a choice. I suddenly felt really guilty about enjoying my time as a girl, my time with Jeremy. It was all a lie, really. Jeremy deserved better. Vicky deserved better.

“Well, anyway,” I finished, awkwardly, easing myself out of the embrace. “Let’s go and see what there is to see.”

Eric opened the door when we knocked and introduced us to Stan, who had gotten there before us. Stan was tall and slender, with a wispy beard and a ski jacket that looked as if it had been in his family for at least three generations. Vicky shot me a glance that I interpreted as classing him among the boys simply not dateable; whatever sense girls had that warranted such a judgment, I had clearly not picked up as yet.

I didn’t want him to notice, so as we left Eric’s room, I asked, “Is this going to be hard, do you think? I mean picking the lock?

He laughed. “The school has so many locks, they go cheap. I don’t think they spend more than about $10 on any of them, and they’re all one of three types. Now, technically, most of us don’t actually pick locks most of the time. We bump them.”

“Bump?” Eric echoed.

“Yeah – now you’re a physics major, so you’ll probably find this kind of interesting. You know how locks work, with two sets of pins?”

I don’t,” put in Vicky.

So he explained some of the basics of locks – or at least the type most of us use. I can’t say that I followed it all, but the point seemed to be that if you could just hit the pins in a certain way, they would clear the region between the cylinder and the body of the lock and allow it to turn.

“To do this,” he concluded, just before we reached the physics building, “you use a specially made bump key, which allows you to impart a force to the pins all at once. I have one for each of the types the buildings authority uses. It shouldn’t take me more than about five minutes to get through the door.”

Eric got us through the front door of the physics building by using his key. “Martin will be meeting us inside,” he said, holding it open for us. “Oh, there he is.” He introduced us. “Martin Chang, this is Marsha Steen, Vicky Gordon, and Stan Warrick.”

We exchanged hellos and Martin led us up the stairs and down a couple of hallways. Now that we had a guide, I was able to convince myself that the path seemed familiar; of course, my weeks of roaming the halls of this building could well have tampered with my recollection. No matter. After more than two months, we were finally going to see the lab!

108 Girl Next to the Door

Finally, Martin stopped outside a door marked only ‘317.’ “This is the lab,” he said, gesturing. “Or at least it’s the one that matches the address on that package we received. Obviously, I have no idea what’s inside.”

“Well, let’s fix that right now,” Stan said confidently, striding to the door and pulling out a bag from his pocket. Kneeling, he studied the lock for a moment, and then whispered, “Hey, cool!” Then he stood up. “Um… I guess you guys might not think so, but… it’s a Sargent Keso lock! I’ve heard of them, but never got a chance to see one, before.” He pulled a couple of flat tools out of his bag.

“What does that mean in terms of opening the door?” I asked.

“Well, you can forget what I said about bumping. These locks aren’t bumpable. This is going to be a challenge.”

“What do you mean?” Vicky asked.

“Well,” he said, “these aren’t the cheap locks I was telling you about. Keso locks are specifically designed to be hard to pick. In fact, I don’t think I know anybody who’s picked this model. But there’s always a first time, right?”

“Wait,” I said. “Are you saying that you can’t open this door?”

“Well, I would say rather that I don’t know if I can get the door open; it certainly won’t be quick.” At Vicky’s groan, he added, “look on the bright side. These locks are kind of pricey and you don’t put one on an empty room. If somebody felt the need for a Keso lock, there’s something in here they don’t want seen.” And with that, he inserted a flat piece of metal into the lock and started moving it around.

“This is going to be really annoying if it turns out to be the wrong room,” I muttered.

Suddenly, Vicky grabbed my arm. “It’s not the wrong room,” she hissed, excitedly. “Look!” She pointed to a fire extinguisher on the wall opposite the door. “See the half-torn label? I remember staring at that while I was waiting for them to open the door. This is the lab, Marsh!”

I looked; I hadn’t especially noticed the fire extinguisher myself, but she seemed pretty excited about it, so I was willing to believe that she had just found an additional confirmation that room 317 was indeed the right lab. If so, we had just taken a major step forward, or were about to. It was starting to feel real – I could really become a guy again!

Eric pointed out that it could be really bad if somebody happened on Stan while he was trying to break in, so he suggested that we split up and act as sentries. He and Martin headed one way down the hall, and Vicky and I headed the other, far enough away that we couldn’t be heard, but close enough that we could watch Stan.

From time to time, Stan would look into his bag and pull out a new tool, try it for a few minutes stare at it and put it back into his bag. Watching him got boring quickly, though. “So what are you going to do about Kevin?” I finally asked, my voice low.

“Why do I need to do anything?” she responded blithely.

“Oh come on, Vixy, you can’t stay with a guy who hits you.”

“He hasn’t done it a lot,” she insisted, “and he’s really sorry, and promises not to do it again. I just need to stop provoking him.”

“Vicky!” I hissed.

“Besides, you hurt me a lot more,” she added, and at my astonished expression, she explained, “ when you dumped me for Lee Ann.”

“I didn’t–”

“Besides, like I said, I don’t have any better options – but maybe I will once wonder boy gets through that door?”

“Of course,” I said, and I’m pretty sure I believed it, but I was still more than a bit thrown by the whole abuse thing. Shouldn’t I have noticed something?

“You’re mad at me, aren’t you?”


“Are you really dating a boy? Or was that just something to throw in my face?”

“Well…” I guess I was thinking that I’d find some way to downplay it, especially in light of our current efforts to change me back, but I thought better of it. “Yeah, I am dating Jeremy. I just didn’t think it should be that much of a big deal.” She raised an eyebrow and I flushed. “Like you said, if we change back, it won’t have happened, and… I guess I don’t want to be alone, either. But… I suppose I did sort of throw it in your face. I was really bothered about the whole Kevin thing.”

“OK,” she said.


“I guess you understand, then.”

Actually, I wasn’t sure I did, but I smiled and nodded. “So… what are you going to do about Kevin?”

“If we get this worked out, he’s history,” she replied. “Why would I date him if I could date you?”

“Thank you,” I said quietly, feeling more than a little pleased. Take that, Kevin I thought. There didn’t seem to be anything to add right then, so instead we talked about her schoolwork and the courses she was taking now. She was taking several art classes, and she was pretty excited about them. She was just telling me about the techniques she was going to try when Stan straightened up.

“OK, this is not working,” he said. “I’m going to have to do a bit of research and what people have tried and what they think should be tried.”

“You’re not saying you can’t get the door open, are you?” Vicky asked sharply, as we headed back towards him.

“Well, it’s going to take some time.” He looked at Eric, who was returning from the opposite direction. “Would you be able to get me in a few more times to try things?”

“But you can get in for sure, right?” I demanded.

Stan looked uncomfortable. “Well… I think there’s a good chance. I mean, eventually, somebody’s gotta figure out how to get through this lock. Why not me?”

“I don’t believe this,” she shrilled. “You said you could pick any lock Piques was likely to use!” She turned to Eric. “Can we just smash this door in or something?”

“Whoa, whoa, whoa!” Martin exclaimed, putting out his hands as if to stop Vicky physically. “Nobody is breaking any doors! I don’t want to get tossed out of my program or out of school. That wasn’t in the plan,”

“He’s right, Vicky,” I said. “We’re just going to have to think of something else.”

“Something else?” she snapped. “Like what?”

“Well… the lock means that the lab is probably not empty, right?” I pointed out. “And so that must mean that they’re going to come back for the stuff. Doesn’t that make sense?”

“Not necessarily,” Eric started. I gave him a look and he hurriedly changed whatever he was going to say. “I mean… sure that makes sense. Um, probably.”

Vicky was not mollified. “And if they come back before we get the door open? And take it away? What then?” She whispered in my ear, “What about your manhood then, Marsh?”

I turned crimson. What if the boys had overheard? They were looking at us curiously, but didn’t seem surprised at anything, so maybe they were just reacting to the fact that she had whispered rather than what she’d said. To cover my embarrassment, I suggested, “Maybe we could film whatever was going on when they came to open the door? At least that way we might get some idea of what’s inside.”

“What, like a spy camera?” Stan scoffed.

“Actually, I meant…” I started, but then concluded, “Wait! Why not? I have one of those pocket camcorders. Isn’t there some way we could hook it up so it would go off the door was opened?” I saw blank looks for a moment. “They do this in spy movies, right? We attach a thread to the door, and… somehow that triggers the camera. It’s pretty simple to operate: just press power and then press the big red button to shoot.”

Martin and Eric looked at each other. “Think we could build something in the metal shop?” Martin suggested.

Eric looked up. “There’s a drop ceiling, so it might be possible to hide the camera up there. If we aimed it right, that would cover a fair bit into the room.” He nodded. “I think it’s a good idea, Marsh, and worth a try. If you want to bring your camera to my room, Martin and I will see about setting it up.”

“Wait a minute. I want to be in on this,” I said. “What can I do?”

They looked at each other again. “Well, it’s your camera, and your idea,” Martin acknowledged. “But I think we’re going to have to be the ones to make it happen. You haven’t done any metalworking, have you?”

“I’ve… done some woodworking,” I said, tentatively. I might well discover that what skill I’d built up there was gone, along with my skill with the guitar.

Not that it mattered. The guys had decided that it was going to be metal, not wood, and they were probably right. Martin said, soothingly, “We’ll keep you up-to-date Marsh. If we get any pictures, we’ll let you know.”

“Well, that was kind of annoying,” I told Vicky, as we walked back to her room. “I thought this was going to be the easy part.”

“It’s not going to happen, is it?” she replied, sounding more subdued than I’d heard her in a long while. “I’d almost rather we hadn’t found the lab in the first place. It feels like somebody’s teasing us.”

“Come on, Vix,” I said. “We did take a major step, and now we have two chances to find out what’s going on.”

“Yeah, right. And what happens if they never come back? Or they find your camera? Or… what if you do get pictures and it’s just them taking all the stuff away?”

“Then we’ll at least be no worse off than we are, right?”

We walked on in silence for a few minutes before she commented again. “You really are accepting this, aren’t you? That’s why you’re so intent on breaking me up from Kevin. You don’t expect ever to be Marshall again. If you did… well, it wouldn’t matter, since I’d never have been dating him in the first place.”

She stopped and faced me. “And that’s why you’re dating a boy. It’s not just physical needs. You’re really thinking of yourself as a girl, now.”

I thought for a bit before answering. I hadn’t told her about my memory issues, and I wasn’t sure I was ready to. “Vicky,” I said, “I really don’t know. I’ve been trying to get used to the idea that I might be stuck. Trying to find some way to be happy with the idea… in case I have no choice. Is that really so wrong? I’m sure I’ve been telling you this all along.

“And I want you to stop seeing Kevin because I care about you. I… care about you a lot and I hate to see you hurt.”

“Really?” she said, skeptically. “How much? I’ll break up with Kevin if you break up with Jeremy.”

“Vicky! That’s not fair! Jeremy is good to me – he’s never hurt me. Not on purpose, anyway.”

She turned and started walking again, and I hurried to catch up with her. I said, “You can’t be serious, Vix. I’m just trying to do what’s best for you.”

“That was a test, Marsh, and you failed. You don’t want to be alone? Well, neither do I. Kevin may hurt me sometimes, but he’s at least there for me when I need him.”

“And haven’t I always…?”

She stopped again, but didn’t turn. “I don’t think that came out right. I’m not saying you’re not there, but… I really like having a boyfriend. And Kevin isn’t seeing anybody else, and he’s there. What’s that saying? He may not be Mr. Right, but at least he’s Mr. Right Here and Now. I’m not asking a lot… I don’t think you know what dating you meant to me. It meant there was actually a guy who thought enough of me, who respected me enough never to hit me. I don’t know if you remember… I used to do things, say things, just to see if I could provoke you. But you never hit me.”

She turned, and I saw the tears in her eyes. “I don’t want to believe this is the end for us. I want to believe that it can all be the same, be what it was.”

I didn’t even think. I just put my arms around her. “I’m not giving up, Vix. I’m just doing what I can do. I’m trying to make the best of things. And I mean to watch out for you, whatever happens.

And meanwhile, I was getting an idea.

109 Remembering What Can Be

I was going to have to drop my camera off with Eric, to make the whole spy cam thing work. That meant that I wouldn’t have it to record video messages for Grandma, which was the reason she had bought it for me in the first place. I therefore recorded one more message before going to bed. Who knew when I’d get it back to do another?

The situation made me feel annoyingly helpless. I knew it was illogical. Eric and Martin were used to building things in the metal shop, and had ready access to the physics building at night; I didn’t. Still, I couldn’t help feeling that it was two guys taking over for me because I was a girl. Even though I had more to gain or lose from this operation than anybody else, I was being deprived of the chance to control it.

I’d told Vicky that we just had to stop worrying about things we couldn’t control, and that was what I was going to do. I had an idea of something that I could control; something that I could do to make our lives better in the interim.

I had to wait until the next morning to put my idea into operation. As we left the Orgo lecture, I pulled Geoff aside. “Can I talk to you a moment?” I asked.

He looked surprised, but I was pretty sure he’d like my idea. A guy should watch out for his girl and make sure she doesn’t get hurt. I couldn’t be a guy for Vicky the way she wanted, but there was something I could do. She was only with Kevin because she didn’t have an alternative and didn’t want to be alone, and I knew Geoff would be much better for her. Geoff, on the other hand, had been looking for ‘somebody special’ and I knew better than anybody how special Vicky was. And there was no reason for me to be jealous, because if I changed back, Geoff and Vicky would never have dated, but in the meantime, I could make them both happy.

My own romance with a boy who treated me well and never tried to hurt me made me feel a bit guilty. But… if I could be a guy for Vicky in this one thing, I’d be free to be a girl for Jeremy.

Things never seem to be easy, though. “Doesn’t she already have a boyfriend?” Geoff asked when I suggested it.

“Sure,” I admitted, “but he’s a jerk. She’ll be much better off with you.”

“Marsha,” he said, “no. Are you forgetting about Lee Ann and me? Remember how Chandra tried to use me to break her up from her old boyfriend? Do you really think I want to go there again?”

“But this is different!” I protested.

“Really? How? Did Vicky say she wanted to dump the guy I saw her with? The one she promised to ‘make it worth his while’? I don’t think so. There are plenty of girls around with no entanglements. Try somebody else. I’m out of the substitute boyfriend business.” And he started to walk off, presumably toward his next class.

I ran after him. I wasn’t proud, not about this. “Wait, Geoff!” I called.

He stopped and looked at me impatiently.

“I really think this would be good for both of you. Can’t you give me a chance to make it work?”

He looked incredulous. “Don’t you think the two of us are grown up enough to make our own choices?”

“I don’t think either of you are doing very well about it,” I explained.

He sighed heavily. “Much as I like you, Marsha – I hate this impulse you girls have to manage other peoples’ lives.” And he walked off, leaving me with egg on my face.

At least things were still going well with Jeremy. He called me a bit after lunch, suggesting that we get together to study tonight. If it had been any other guy, including the old me, I’d have expected it to be an excuse for a make out session, but with Jeremy, I was pretty sure he actually meant studying. Not that I would have minded a make-out session, of course. As long as I was a girl, I saw no reason not to enjoy it.

Since I needed to save at least some studying for this evening, that left me with a bit of free time, which meant that I could start on Celeste’s outfits, certainly a serious challenge. I had found the receipt for her first outfit in Marsha’s notes, and the amount encouraged me. I could easily justify spending about fifteen or twenty hours on each of the ones she’d dropped off, and it would put me well on the way to reaching the amount my parents expected me to contribute.

But after studying the dress Marsha had made, and the two I was supposed to work with, I realized that I was stuck. I had an amateur’s perspective on how things might look, and outsider’s view of fashion, and a general insecurity when it came to major clothing alterations. Obviously, I was going to need to ask Nikki for help.

“Oh, I’d love to, Marsh,” she said when I called and explained my request, “but I’m spending time with Alvin, now. Can we do it tonight?”

I explained my own plans for the evening, and she checked with Alvin, and decided that she might be free around five o’clock, so if I was willing to eat dinner a bit late… I did think of maybe waiting until the next day, but we hadn’t spoken face-to-face in a couple of weeks, so I decided to do some bio homework and then knock off some simple sewing jobs in the meantime.

I arrived at Nikki’s apartment at a bit before five, carrying Celeste’s clothing in plastic bags to protect them from the snow. I was taken a bit aback when Alvin answered the door. “I’m sorry, Alvin,” I said. “I don’t want to rush you.”

He laughed. “It’s OK. Nikki said you were coming over. You don’t mind talking with me here, do you?”

I hesitated, since there were things about me that Nikki knew and Alvin didn’t, and if he was there, we’d have to be careful about what we said.

But he only laughed again. “Don’t worry, I’m not going to intrude on any private girl talk. I’m going to be in the corner, listening to the Sweeney Todd soundtrack on my headphones. Believe me, I’m not going to be listening to you guys!”

I looked past him and caught Nikki’s eyes and saw her shrug, so I went to sit in her sewing area while she made some tea for the three of us. She came in and asked, “so how does it feel, being back at school with a boyfriend?”

It wasn’t the question I had been expecting, but… “It’s pretty neat, actually. I’m still dealing with the weirdness, and I haven’t actually seen him in almost two days, but it is really nice to be in a relationship again.”

“Just any relationship?” she teased.

I flushed. “OK, I admit I am sort of… stuck on him.” I couldn’t help giggling. “It’s really gotten me in trouble with Vicky.”

“I can imagine.”

“I just don’t know what to do for her,” I whined. “She seems really lost without me, sometimes.”

“Why do you have to do anything? You’re not her boyfriend any more.”

“Well, I know that, but she’s my friend, and I feel…”

“Marsh,” Nikki said, putting down her cup. “I’ve figured out what you are to her, but what is she to you?”

“What do you mean? I told you – she’s my friend.”

“And that’s all?”

I sighed. “And my past, and… maybe my future.”

“Even though you’re ‘stuck on’ Jeremy?”

“It’s super confusing,” I admitted. “But after all, you know that a year from now, you’re still going to be a girl. I don’t. So… It’s not so easy for me to just focus one way and ignore everything else.” She opened her mouth to respond, but I stopped her with a gesture. “But it’s getting late, and I came over for some help. Why don’t we take care of that first, and then try to solve my problems with Vicky?”

She nodded and put aside our mostly empty cups. “OK, so show me this project that has you baffled.”

I took Celeste’s finished dress out of the bag and held it up, and she exclaimed. “Oh! I remember that piece! I told you that you were crazy when you said what you were going to do, but it turned out well.” She glanced over at Alvin, who wasn’t paying us any attention. “I mean, I told Marsha.”

“And that’s the problem,” I said. “Marsha did it and I have no idea how, and Celeste wants me to do it to these as well.” And I pulled out the others.

“Oooh, I’m not sure I can help much,” Nikki admitted. “I got the idea, generally how she did it, but…”

“You’re not saying Marsha was a better seamstress than you?” I asked, now concerned.

“No, only that she had her own way of doing things, and in this case, she was willing to try something that I wouldn’t have. But you have her skill, you should be able to figure this out.”

“I have her dexterity, apparently,” I corrected her. “My hands seem to know what to do, but my brain is lost. I never knew how to do anything until you told me – and then I found that I had the skill. But this looks like something that needs to be figured out. And if you can’t help me, I don’t know where to turn.”

“Your mother?”

I considered that. “Maybe. Marsha might have asked her… “

“Too bad you don’t have some of Marsha’s memories,” Nikki commented.

I nearly choked.

“What…” she asked.

“Actually… I think some of her memories are leaking through,” I told her. “That was something I needed to talk out.”

“You make it sound like a bad thing.”

“Well, yeah… I mean, what if her memories are replacing mine? What if I start forgetting who I was? What if I turn into Marsha?”

Nikki opened her mouth and then closed it, evidently thinking better of her first response. She looked at me for a few seconds and then said, “I can see how that would bother you.”

I said, “Yeah, seriously. All that I have left of myself are my memories. I don’t want to lose those. I don’t want to lose me.”


“Problem is,” I continued, “I don’t know if I’ve already forgotten some things. What if I don’t remember something important and don’t remember that I once knew it?”


“I think… maybe I need to start writing things down – you know, everything important that I can think of in my life. My old life, that is.”

Nikki blinked. “And exactly how are you going to do that?”

I sagged. “Obviously, I can’t. Not thoroughly. The best I can do is write down some really important things that I did that Marsha didn’t; at least that way I might have some idea if it’s happening to me.”

Nikki stood up suddenly, and as I watched her, she picked up one of Celeste’s finished dress and spread it out to examine it. Then she dropped it and went over to her sewing basket and started rummaging around. Finally, she pulled her hands back up, and while facing away from me, said softly, “Maybe… maybe it would be better if you didn’t know.”

I felt a chill run through my chest. “What do you mean?” I asked cautiously.

“I was just thinking,” she continued, her back still toward me, “that if you can’t do anything about it… maybe it’s kinder not to know it’s happening. Sort of like the way you didn’t want to tell your sister about the chance of your changing back.” She turned and looked me straight in the eye. “I’m not saying that’s what I want for you, Marsh. I’ve gotten to know the you you. The one who remembers…” she looked over her shoulder at Alvin again and lowered her voice so that she couldn’t be heard over his earphones. “… the one who remembers a very different life. But if there’s no way to avoid it, is there any reason to make yourself miserable while waiting for it to happen?”

My jaw dropped. I mean, I could see the logic, sort of, but to have her say it like that? It didn’t seem like her. At least… I had expected her always to say what I would have been thinking, and I’m pretty sure I wasn’t thinking that. Unless… was she tweaking me for having been insensitive to Tina?

“I can’t accept that,” I said. “I can’t. I have to fight this, no matter what. And… if I do figure out a way to know if I’m forgetting, at least I’ll know if I’m not, right? So I do want to know. I would want to know, if only to make sure I don’t have to worry if it’s not happening. Doesn’t that make sense?”

“Sure,” she agreed. “Either way, it’s your choice. Nobody but you can decide something like this. But what makes you think you’re losing your memory in the first place?”

“I don’t know I am,” I admitted. “I just don’t like having somebody else’s memories in my head. And it just makes me wonder, what if?”

“Could I make a suggestion?” Alvin said. We turned; he still had his earphones on, but it suddenly struck me that I had no way of knowing whether there was actually music coming from them, or how much he had heard. I tried to think if we had said anything specific about me being a boy in my old life.

“If Marsh is having memory issues, shouldn’t Ben as well?” Alvin continued when we didn’t stop him. “Nik, can’t you ask him? He’s even less comfortable than Marsh is with this whole thing; if he were suddenly remembering his current life, don’t you think he’d be all angsty about it?”

“I haven’t noticed anything from him beside sullen, lately,” Nikki said, “but I’ll ask.” Alvin nodded, pushed a button on his iPod, and turned away from us. Nikki and I looked at each other again, but Alvin had definitely broken the mood.

“Well, anyway,” I said, standing up, and feeling a bit awkward. “I should probably get going… I’ll ask Mom for advice on the dresses; thanks for the suggestion. And thanks for talking with me about the other thing.”

“No problem,” she said, standing as well.  “Um, I’ll let you know what I find out from Ben.”

We hugged good-bye, I waved to Alvin, and left for dinner, and tried to focus instead on my upcoming study session with Jeremy.

110 A Logical Error

I had specifically saved my logic homework to work on when Jeremy and I got together, figuring that as an engineer it would be easy for him. Of course, I didn’t actually need help with it; I was repeating the course I had started as Marshall, but which Marsha hadn’t taken. I had done the work, and figured that I might as well get credit for it.

Jeremy came over to our dorm to pick me up shortly after dinner. I had told my roommates of our plans, and they had told some of the other girls and, well… when he got there, there were seven of us in the living room, waiting for him. I’d explained that it wasn’t really a date, but that he’d arranged to pick me up just so I wouldn’t get lost trying to find his dorm in the dark, but the girls were very eager.

“I’m really sorry,” I said as I opened the door. “My friends just all wanted to meet you. Um, Lee Ann, Terry, Lisa, Chandra, Sheila and Susie, this is Jeremy. Jeremy, you sort of saw them a couple of days ago, but these are my roommates Lee Ann and Terry, and our friends Chandra, Lisa, Sheila and Susie.”

I could see he was overwhelmed, but he shook hands with everybody and didn’t seem too phased by the whispers and giggles in the background. As we left, he said, “Do you mind if I say that that was kind of strange? I hope I’m not supposed to remember all of those names.”

I shook my head. “The important ones are my roommates. Lee Ann is the blonde in the green top and jeans; Terry is the tall brunette.”

“Tall?” he asked, looking amused.

“To me, she’s tall,” I retorted, elbowing him in the ribs.

He snickered. “To you, everybody is tall.”

A few months ago, I would have been really annoyed by a comment like that. Now, I tried not to grin and failed. “This is a side of you I haven’t seen,” I observed. “You sound really… comfortable.”

He shrugged. “I guess I am, a bit. Being back at school, and now that we’ve been seeing each other for a while… and accepting the idea that you really do want to be with me. It makes a difference. Plus, getting together for something as low-key as studying together…”

“We’re really just going to be studying?” I asked, trying to put just a hint of seductiveness in my voice. I wasn’t sure I succeeded, because he gave me a really innocent look and I couldn’t tell if it was feigned.

We reached his dorm, which wasn’t all that far from mine; he hadn’t really needed to come get me, although it was more fun this way. We took the elevator to the third floor and I followed him to his dorm room, which turned out to be a fairly utilitarian single. His bed was placed at the end of a shoebox-shaped room that actually seemed to deemphasize its odd dimensions, with his desk along one wall and his closet and dresser along the other. I didn’t see a gaming console, which suggested that he either didn’t game, or just used his computer. His room was actually a bit tidier than most guys’ rooms in my experience – certainly, it was tidier than mine had been.

He only had the one chair and there was nowhere else really to sit, other than the bed, which made me suspect that I had been wrong – this wasn’t just a study session. But I hadn’t had much time to process that thought before he grabbed some books and led me back out, saying, “OK, this way.”

We walked down the hallway to a small lounge that was already occupied by several people sitting at tables. Well, that certainly answered my question. He helped me off with my coat and introduced me around, but I was a bit off balance, and didn’t actually remember any of the names. I think there was a Jon and a Michelle and a Grady or Gary in the crowd, but I couldn’t be sure. It was pretty obvious, though, that they were as intrigued about Jeremy having a girlfriend as my roommates were about Marsha having a boyfriend.

We sat at a table that was already occupied by another guy and a girl; I couldn’t tell if they were a couple or just friends, but they were softly discussing what I think was a history reading assignment. Jeremy took out an engineering text of some kind and I took out my logic notes. I had intended to do the ‘helpless girl’ bit, remembering how well that used to work on me, but I didn’t think that would work with somebody else at the same table.

To my surprise, though, I found that I didn’t actually remember all that much of the subject. True, it had been close to three months since I had looked at it, but surely it should have seemed more familiar than this; even worse, I was having trouble making sense of some of my notes. I know I remember it being pretty easy. Had I just discovered a case of memory loss?

On the other hand, it did give me a clear excuse to ask for help. I didn’t have to pretend to be confused at all. “Jeremy,” I said quietly, leaning my head near his. “Can you explain what an ‘exclusive disjunction’ is?”

He looked surprised. “Do you understand the difference between Boolean ‘and’ and ‘or’?”

I nodded. “’And’ just means that it’s true if all the parts are true, but ‘or’ means that any of them is true. Right?” It is a measure of my confusion that I wasn’t even completely sure I had that right.

“Well, ‘disjunction’ is just a fancy way of saying ‘or,’ but an exclusive ‘or’ is one that is only defined for two inputs, and is true if exactly one of the inputs is true, but false if they are either both true or both false.”

I blinked. I felt stupid. I still didn’t understand it.

He must have realized that, because he tried again. “Let me put it another way. It compares two inputs and is true whenever they’re different. So it’s like a ‘not equals’ operator. It means ‘one or the other, but not both.’”

“OK,” I said slowly, still feeling stupid. I know I hadn’t had this much trouble last semester. “Thank you.” Why didn’t I remember any of it? Now that he had explained it, it was easy – the problem had been the stupid name. If they had just called it a ‘not equals’ operator, I’d have gotten it easily.

Doing the problems after that was fairly easy. I only needed to ask for help on one more problem, but I asked him to check over my answers anyway. To my embarrassment, he found a few mistakes and it took several minutes of explanations before I thought I understood what I had done wrong.

“Don’t worry about it,” he soothed me. “Logic is one of those funny classes, where some people grasp it immediately, and some people have a lot of problems with it. Chances are, for what you’re studying, you won’t ever really need it.”

I nodded gratefully, but my mood was pretty dark. Last semester I had been in the ‘grasp it immediately’ group. What had happened to me?

I moved on to some Spanish review after that, and wound up actually getting ahead of the night’s assignment. After my problems with logic, I was relieved to see that I could at least do well with Spanish and hadn’t forgotten large parts of it. So my brain still seemed to work – except for that one course.

I was more than ready then when Jeremy suggested we call it a night. “Let me drop off my books and I’ll walk you home,” he said. Home seemed like a good idea to me. Even though we were going back to his room on the way, just now I wasn’t in the mood to cuddle. The idea that I was not only forgetting my old life, but also losing some of my abilities was terrifying. I didn’t want to lose everything I had been, however much fun some parts of my current reality might be. I really needed to hear from Nikki whether her brother was experiencing something similar. Vicky probably wouldn’t be a help here, since her reality hadn’t changed so much, but Ben’s change was pretty significant, even if much less so than my own.

As we walked back in the cold, Jeremy put his arm around me, which I really appreciated, for both the warmth and the comfort. “Don’t feel so bad about having trouble with Boolean logic, Marsh. Some people’s brains just don’t seem right for it. And I’m not say you’re not logical or anything, but if you haven’t spent much of your life doing puzzles and logic games, you can’t expect this to come easy.”

“I’m a science major,” I pointed out. “I’m supposed to be able to do this kind of reasoning. What if I can’t even do science any more?”

“Well, how did you do last semester?”

“I got pretty much straight A’s,” I admitted.

“So you’re clearly capable of doing this kind. You just need practice. Look how quickly you got it once I explained it to you. You’re a smart girl, Marsh. I’ll help you, and you’ll be fine.”

“Thanks,” I said, a bit mollified. “It’s just kind of a bit humiliating.”

“Well, look at it this way,” he continued, giving me a squeeze. “You’re letting me have a chance to look out for you. A guy should be able to look out for his girl, right? And I’m hardly going to be able to help you with your Bio class.”

I nodded, and a smile worked its way to my face. Maybe he was right. I was trying to think with Marsha’s brain, and maybe she’d just had a lot different experiences than I’d had. For example, I knew that I was – or had been, at any rate – a better musician than she, since she was just a singer, while I had been an instrumentalist. Pure singers almost never seemed to develop the same grasp for rhythm and music theory that instrumentalists do, and both of these can correlate well with mathematical logic. I used to love to do logic puzzles; maybe Marsha hadn’t. I knew that she hadn’t been into science fiction. So maybe I just needed to pick up some of my old habits and I could train this brain I was using.

By the time we got back to my dorm, I was in a much better mood. If I had to go through this, at least I had a guy who would be watching out for me. A rather cute and sexy guy, at that.

I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised to see my roommates waiting for me, although they acted surprised.

“Oh! I thought you were already in bed–” Terry said, and got kicked in the ankle by Lee Ann. “I mean, I thought you were in your room!”

“Yeah, we didn’t expect to see you up,” Lee Ann chorused.

I snickered. “It really wasn’t a date, guys. All we did was study, in a room full of his friends.”

“We weren’t expecting…” Lee Ann said, but trailed off as I looked at her impatiently.

I turned to Jeremy. “Come say good night to me,” I suggested, wishing he weren’t so averse to kissing me in front of the girls. I really wouldn’t have minded letting them titter over me sharing a long passionate kiss with him.

As soon as we were in my bedroom with the door closed he took me in his arms and gave me exactly that sort of kiss. We broke and just stared at each other, lips as close as I could get without standing on my tiptoes.

“They’re still out there, you know,” he whispered.

“I know,” I whispered back. “They’re probably making bets on how long you’re going to be in here.”

“And how long am I going to be in here?” he teased.

I raised my eyebrows. “Are you in a hurry?”

“I just hate to make them wait…”


“Not a bit,” he chuckled, and kissed me again, longer this time.

We went for a third kiss and this time he surprised me by picking me up and sitting on the bed with me on his lap. I didn’t exactly protest, although I got a bit giggly at the thought that my roommates might be listening at the door. We kissed for a while more, and this time he even got a bit daring – for him – and starting kissing me on my neck and even lower.

After a few moments, I whispered, “Do you think they’re still there?”

When he whispered back, “I have no idea,” I jumped off his lap and ran to my door and pulled it open. I startled Terry, who was just outside the door, while Lee Ann was still sitting on the couch, looking amused.

“Hear anything you didn’t expect?” I joked, and then all three of us laughed. But Terry looked really embarrassed, said goodnight, and walked more quickly than absolutely necessary to her own bedroom.

“I think I’ll head off to bed, too,” Lee Ann said, hastily, picking up her book.

Once they were both gone, I closed my bedroom door and climbed back onto Jeremy’s lap. “The coast’s clear,” I giggled.

“Oh, are you trying to get rid of me?” he murmured, nibbling on my chin.

“No, you can’t leave,” I said. “I’m sitting on you to keep you here.”

“You think that’s going to do it?” he shot back. And then he started tickling me! Now, I am very ticklish, so there wasn’t a lot I could do – but I could tickle back. It turned out that he was ticklish, too, and in less then a minute, the two of us were lying side by side on my bed, exhausted with laughter.

We looked into each other’s eyes for a moment, and then he started kissing me again, up and down my neck. He reached across my body and started stroking my side, and I held my breath, because I knew what was coming next. His fingers were working closer and closer to my breast as though he was uncertain that I would accept the touch, uncertain that he would have the courage to offer the touch.

So far, we had mostly only kissed and hugged. Having my breast touched by a boy, though; I could imagine that was a whole different thing. It was a type of virginity for me, a uniquely feminine experience, and I was both nervous and eager. All of my sexual experiences as Marshall – they didn’t count, just now. Anything Marsha had done with Dirk or anybody else – I didn’t remember them, so they didn’t count, either. This was me, Marsh, girl Marsh, about to experience something brand new and exciting and scary.

Slowly, he dragged his fingers up my breast, not quite touching my nipple. And I really wanted him to. I wanted him to touch me more and more. I melted closer against him, catching his mouth with mine every so often as he continued kissing me all over my neck and face.

And then he rubbed his nose against mine and I jumped in shock. Such a simple, innocent gesture – but Vicky used to do that, and so did Maddy, and I had a sudden image of myself male and in bed with Jeremy – and I tensed.

He obviously noticed and pulled up in alarm. “Marsh? What’s wrong?”

I tried to speak, but nothing was coming out.

“Are you OK?” he asked, urgently. “Did I go too fast for you? Do you want to stop?”

I shook my head, but I was still making whimpering noises in my throat; he sat up and pulled me up next to him. He put his hands on my shoulders and tried to get me to look and him, but I couldn’t. “Oh my gosh, Marsh; I’m sorry. I didn’t think… I didn’t mean…”

“Alright,” I choked out. “It’s alright. I just…”

It’s not alright,” he contradicted me. “You’re white as a ghost and you’re trembling. Marsh, I’m really, really sorry. I didn’t realize.”

“Not that… I’m just… just… having a panic attack… I…” I took deep breaths and tried to calm myself. I remembered the breathing exercises Mr. Condrin had taught us to combat stage fright. I’m a girl, I told myself firmly. It was another reality in which I was a boy. I’m not going to change back while with Jeremy.

It was no good. I was too rattled. “I’m sorry, Jeremy. It’s not your fault. I’ll be OK.”

“But maybe I should leave,” he suggested.

“I don’t want you to,” I said, earnestly, “but that’s probably for the best.”

He pulled me to my feet. “Do you want to end this? Or maybe just take things more slowly?”

“I don’t want to end it, and we weren’t going too fast,” I insisted. “Something just struck me the wrong way and it all fell apart. I hope you don’t think me too crazy to go out with.”

He leaned down to put his forehead against mine, and I managed not to flinch. “Sometimes a bit of crazy can be a good thing. Are you OK with going to a movie with me on Friday?”

“Yes, please,” I nodded.

“Good. Then I don’t mine leaving, as long as I can come back.” We walked together to the outer door.

“May I kiss you good night?” he asked.

I nodded again, and he kissed me – a very chaste kiss, this time, lasting only a few seconds, but I trembled as he did; I don’t know if it was from fear or eagerness.

“Good night,” he said, opening the door.

“Good night,” I whispered, and closed it after him. Then I collapsed against the door, hugging myself. How was I supposed to be a girl for Jeremy if I started thinking of myself as a boy while we were together?

111 Not So Close to You

My abortive cuddling with Jeremy was such a letdown that I couldn’t sleep. I called Nikki in hopes of talking things out, but she didn’t answer; I figure that either she was sleeping, or occupied in something similar to what I had just failed at. I couldn’t think of anybody else I could talk to about this and who would be willing to accept a phone call at eleven-thirty, so I was on my own.

The problem, I decided, was that I was still thinking of myself as male too easily. I stood and looked at myself in the mirror. That is definitely not a boy, Marsh, I scolded myself. You’re a girl. Maybe one day you’ll be a boy again, but right now you’re not.

Once before I had had this argument with myself, and at Tina’s advice had undressed completely. So I did that now. Any more questions? I asked my reflection. Any doubts at all? It was so easy to remember, at least as long as I was looking at my naked body. The idea that I could visualize myself as male while naked just seemed ludicrous. Maybe what I needed to do was to be naked whenever I was with Jeremy. Yeah, right.

And it’s not as though this was the only problem that had come to the fore this evening. It still bothered me that I couldn’t remember having learned the… what was it called again – exclusive disjunction. With Jeremy’s explanation, I could see that it had to be a basic idea, so I should have learned it. Why didn’t I remember? It was one thing to tell myself that I could teach myself to get the logic course material, but that didn’t explain the gap in my memory. How could I have gone through half a semester and not have at least this cemented in my brain?

I pulled out my lecture notes – there was no text for the course – and tried to see if anything else sounded unfamiliar. Nothing did, which should have reassured me, except that I couldn’t tell if they were familiar from last semester or from the lecture; I couldn’t even remember whether they had seemed new when the professor was speaking. I guess some of the concepts, like ‘and’ and ‘or’ were so intuitive. It was just this particular one that wasn’t – at least to me.

I did finally manage to fall asleep after deciding that I was going to just try harder; I had obviously been overconfident in the lecture and probably hadn’t paid attention. I would worry about why I didn’t remember later. For now, I needed to learn – or relearn the material. As for Jeremy, I decided to try some visualizations; just think of myself as a girl cuddling with him, rubbing noses, and everything I could imagine I might have done with a girl that I might do with him. If that wasn’t enough, maybe I could at least be ready for the wrong self-image and not react to it the next time.

When I left my room the next morning, my roommates were already up. “Did… Jeremy spend the night?” Terry asked, peering past me.

I stopped short. “Um, no,” I answered, “he left about ten minutes after you guys went to bed.”

“Ten minutes? Why?”

“Um…” I said, “he just had to leave, that’s all.”

“Did you guys have a fight or something?” Lee Ann asked, sounding concerned.

“No, he just… had to leave.”

“Too bad,” Terry commented, looking disappointed. “I was hoping to congratulate you on your entry into womanhood. Better luck next time.”

I blinked in surprise, and Lee Ann explained, “she means, losing your virginity.”

I did understand that, actually, but now I felt myself reddening, for some reason. I’d certainly been no stranger to sex as a guy; why was I embarrassed now? “I… no, we…” I stammered. “I mean… no, we didn’t…” I fled to the bathroom. I hadn’t actually thought that far ahead, yet. But I didn’t see why I should object to the idea, in principle, anyway. The reality might take a bit more time to get used to.

I thought about it some more as I washed up and got ready for the day. It made sense, didn’t? I mean, Jeremy and I were really attracted to each other, and I had always liked sex in my old life. I seemed to have some hang ups about it, but I could work those out. If I were going to stay like this, I’d certainly not want to be celibate my whole life, and if could change back… well, it would be a real shame to miss the opportunity to experience sex from the other side. So there was no reason to be uncomfortable with the subject. I just had to keep telling myself that.

I entered my first lecture a bit nervous. I had tried to pressure Geoff and he had sort of snapped at me; would he still be angry? But he greeted me when I sat down next to him with his usual, “Good morning, Marsha!” Then he leaned over and said in a low tone, “Any luck fixing up your pathetic girlfriend?”

“She’s not pathetic!” I hissed back. “If I were a guy I’d go out with her in a second!”

“If you could pry her away from her current guy.”

“She’d leave him in a second if she could go out with me – if I were male, I mean,” I said.

He sighed. “Marsh, I’m sorry. I know you hate the guy she’s with; but in my experience, a lot of girls go out with unsuitable guys and won’t accept advice that they shouldn’t. Now, I’ve met Stephen and I think Chandra was wrong about him; for all I know, you’re wrong about Vicky’s boyfriend, too.”

“I’m not,” I muttered.

“For that matter, I don’t know anything about this new guy you’re seeing other than that you like him. What if your friends have an issue with him?”

“An issue with Jeremy? Why?”

He chuckled. “You probably wouldn’t notice if there was something wrong with him, but if there ever is – if he ever hurts you – let me know and I’ll take care of him.”

“It’s not going to happen,” I said, smiling and shaking my head, “but thanks.” Seeing this side of Geoff made me all the more certain that he would be good for Vicky; the question was how to make it happen.

For now, though, my top priority was to focus on the Logic lecture, which I had right after Spanish. The professor was explaining about one thing implying another, which seemed pretty straightforward. I had no trouble following the terminology he was using of antecedent and consequent, but then he gave some examples of true statements and my eyes crossed. Some of them sounded completely illogical, and the idea of illogical statements in a logic class could have made me giggle if I weren’t so close to panicking. What if I couldn’t get this class?

The thing that kept me somewhat calm was the trust that I could always go to Jeremy to get it explained, which would give us a chance to spend time together, which might lead to him walking me home… I shook my head to clear it, and checked the board to see what I might have missed. The professor had written a couple more equations down, which I dutifully copied without understanding them. I didn’t feel any less intelligent now that I had before my change, so I should be capable of figuring this out, at least with help. I’d just have to work harder, that was all. That needed to be enough.

I suppose I looked pretty down at lunch, because Phil noticed. “Is something wrong, Marsh?”

“No…” I said, shaking my head. “I’m just a bit down about this Logic class. It’s harder than I expected.”

“Logic?” he echoed. “You shouldn’t be having trouble with Logic. It’s pretty easy.”

I shot him a bitter look. “Thanks for making me feel good, Phil,” I muttered.

“Phil,” Jay commented, “she’s been having trouble with logic for months. Remember the ‘time travel’ story she fell for?”

“Give it a rest, Jay,” Phil shot back, coming to my defense. “She hasn’t mentioned that for like, months.”

“Yeah, but I’ll bet she still believes it,” Jay countered. “Don’t you, Marsh?”

“I thought it was an interesting idea,” I said quietly. And soon, I promised myself, I’ll have proof – and boy am I going to rub it in his face.

“Look, Marsh,” Phil said, “forget about that. You should be able to get this Logic stuff. If you can’t, it’s probably just not being explained properly.”

I leapt on that explanation. Maybe he was right. I didn’t remember this professor from my old life; maybe he just wasn’t a very good teacher.

“So all you need is somebody to explain it better,” Phil continued. “I’m free most evenings, if you want some help.”

“Oh… thanks so much, Phil,” I said, sincerely, “but my boyfriend is already helping me.”

Phil looked shocked. “Boyfriend?” he echoed.

I could have kicked myself. I’d told the girls about Jeremy. Could I really have forgotten to mention it when Phil was here?

“That’s right, Phil,” Susie said, looking him in the eye. “She has a boyfriend.”

Phil smiled, but I thought it looked forced. “Oh! Well… that’s… that’s great.” I sure didn’t feel great. I guess I’d thought that he had lost interest in me. I’d thought that he and Susie were a couple, now. Maybe they only were in Susie’s mind.

“I’m sorry,” I mouthed silently when Susie looked away, and I meant it. Phil had always been good to me, and if things had worked out differently, he and Marsha should have been a couple. Or, for that matter, if I had been able to recognize and accept my attraction for boys from the start, he and I would probably be together now. Not that I had any regrets for myself, but I was starting to believe that he deserved better than Susie. Which gave me an idea…

I put that thought on hold. I’d messed up with Geoff; I was going to have to think of the right way to work this out with Phil. There had to be a way to make it work.

I hadn’t come up with an idea by the time lunch was over, but I had made a decision. I needed to talk with Chad and my father about what I’d learned so far, so I decided to email them to set up a call for the three of us. First, though, I called Jeremy.

“Sure, Marsh, you can just come over whenever you’re ready,” he answered, when I asked if I could get some help again tonight.

“Great,” I said, “I’ll see you then. And Jeremy… I’m really sorry about last night.”

“It wasn’t your fault,” he told me, “I messed up.”

“No, you didn’t,” I insisted. “And if you’ll give me another chance, I’ll prove it to you.”

He laughed, which made me feel really good, “If you insist…”

“See you tonight,” I said, and blew him a kiss through the phone before hanging up.

Dad called me at seven o’clock, as agreed.

“I have Chad here, Marsh,” he said, “what’s going on?”

“Well, we didn’t get into the lab,” I told them, and explained about the lock and the video camera.

“So you’ve set up a spy camera,” Chad laughed. “Any luck so far?”

“Not yet, but it’s been less than two days,” I pointed out.

“OK, so… anything else?” Dad asked.

“Yeah, something really big,” I said. Now that I was bringing it up, I was a bit hesitant. Actually saying it made it real. “I seem to be… losing my memories, and I don’t think it’s simply forgetfulness. I’ve remembered something that I’m pretty sure happened in Marsha’s life, and I don’t remember a class I took as Marshall at all.”

I explained about the Logic course, and about Celeste. They were both silent for a moment when I finished. “So what do you think?” I prompted them. “Any ideas on why I don’t remember this stuff?”

Chad was the one who spoke, but he seemed hesitant. “Marsh, do you know for certain that you knew it when you first… changed?”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean, that it might be that you’re forgetting things, but maybe… maybe you never knew them – in this reality, I mean.”

My stomach seemed to have discovered a new acrobatic routine. It seemed to be seeing the implications of Chad’s suggestion, even as I tried hard not to. Taking a breath, though, I asked, “what are you saying?”

“Well, I’m not saying this for sure, but… maybe you’re forgetting things, but… maybe any memory losses happened when they did the experiment. You said that they somehow preserved your memories across the change, right?”


“Well, what if whatever they did wasn’t perfect? What if they made mistakes while copying your memories? Or just only copied some of them? Can you think of anything specific that you knew afterwards that you don’t know now?”

I had to admit that I couldn’t.

“OK,” he continued, “let’s try something. Do you remember losing your virginity?”

“Chad!” I yelped, even as Dad cleared his throat. “My Dad’s on the line!”

“Um…” Dad said, “If you were trying to hammer home the idea that you’re not the daughter I remember – and I do mean hammer – I suppose this is a way of doing it.”

“Sorry about this Dad,” I said, “but of course I do, Chad. It’s not the kind of thing you forget.”

“Who was it with?” Chad pressed.

“Um… Cindy Cauthon.”

Chad gasped. “The ice lady?!”

“Hey, that was never a fair name for her, and… well, I can personally attest that it’s simply not true.”

“I think I’m really not comfortable with this conversation,” Dad put in.

“We’re done with the subject, Dad,” I promised him. “So what did we just prove, Chad?”

“I don’t know, maybe nothing,” he admitted. “I was trying to see if I could find something you’ve definitely forgotten. I think it makes a difference.”

“Yeah, I do, too. I just don’t know how to tell, unless I start trying to write down everything I remember. And Nikki says that would be a waste of time, probably. I’m not even sure where I was going with this whole thing, anyway.”

“Maybe you don’t need to worry about it, Marsh,” Dad said. “People do forget things, and you’ve been through an incredible trauma. And if you have forgotten, what can you do about it, anyway? What we need to focus on is getting more information – even it’s just a bit, I might be able to use it to apply pressure in the right places. Then we could find out more and possibly see what can be done for you.”

“I’m trying, Dad, I really am. But I think first we need to see inside that lab. Until then, all we have is rumors. But I wanted to let you guys know what I’ve found out so far and see if you had any ideas.” Ideas that I could live with, anyway. Chad’s suggestion didn’t bear thinking about.

Suddenly I wished I hadn’t told Jeremy that I was coming over, or else that I hadn’t spoken with Chad beforehand, because now I was focusing to an uncomfortable degree on being male, and I really didn’t want to see myself that way when I was with Jeremy. It looked as though I had another impromptu performance coming up.

112 Working Through It

As I walked to Jeremy’s dorm, I called Nikki and explained my problem. “It’s just really messed up,” I said. “I’m crazy about him and I want to be physical with him, but then things happen and I start seeing myself as male again, and I freak out.”

“I can imagine,” Nikki laughed. “That’s not the kind of problem most girls have.”

“I know, right?” I said. “So what am I supposed to do about it? I just know he’s going to expect to walk me home and come inside and cuddle, and I’d really like to, but the whole idea grosses me out.”

“That’s really rough,” she sympathized. “You’re going to have to be honest with him upfront, so he doesn’t expect it.”

“Yeah, that part I’ve figured out. But how do I get past it? I don’t want to be an ice maiden or anything like that. I need to stop seeing myself as male, at least when we’re together.”

“Any ideas on how to do that?”

“Well,” I noted, “I don’t have any troubles when I’m naked…”

She chuckled. “Are you really ready for that with him?”

“No, it but it would certainly be effective.”

“Oh, yeah, that it would. Oh, Alvin wants me to remind you of Sweeney Todd auditions for tomorrow.”

I laughed. “I’ll be there, but I hope he isn’t expecting too much.”

“You know Alvin; he expects everything!”

“Yeah, I know. Well, I’ll do my best.”

“Take care,” she said, “and good luck, both tonight and tomorrow!”

I found the study group without any problems, and several of the students nodded at me in recognition as I made my way to the table where he was sitting. I wasn’t quite sure how I should be behaving towards him now; my resurgent male identity wasn’t preventing me from finding him really hot, but the combination was horribly uncomfortable. I forced myself to give him a chaste kiss – or tried to – but he flinched away.

“Is something wrong?” I whispered.

“No, just… not in front of everybody, if you don’t mind,” he whispered back.

I nodded, a bit embarrassed at having forgotten. “Would you be able to help me with my Logic homework again?” I asked, switching to a safer subject.

“Of course,” he answered, “What’s the problem?”

“We learned about ‘implies’ in the lecture today,” I answered, reaching for my notes, “and most of it makes sense, but he said this one statement was true and I can’t figure out how.” I’d found the page and read from it. “’If I am a frog, then there is life on Mars.’ Now how could that possibly be true? The two have no connection!”

He laughed, and I got chills. I really did like that laugh. “Nor do they have to; it’s not ‘if I were a frog there would be life,’ and so on. It’s not cause and effect.”

He was very patient in explaining what I had missed, and when he was done, it really did start to make sense. He said that I had been over-thinking it, and showed me a simple way to understand it. I tried working out the problems on the homework sheet, and when Jeremy checked my answers, he only saw one place where I’d made a mistake. Maybe Marsha’s brain could handle this, after all. I was pretty sure it had been easier before, but it no longer seemed beyond me; at least not as I long as I had Jeremy to explain it to me.

“You know, you’re good at this,” I said. “Have you ever thought about teaching?”

He shrugged. “I do like to teach, but I can’t see standing in front of a class and lecturing. This one-on-one stuff is a lot more fun; especially when I have a student who’s so quick and… and beautiful.” He stuttered a bit as he complimented me, and hurriedly looked away and back at his own studies. I found myself reddening, even as I stammered out thanks. Thinking back, I couldn’t remember him ever complimenting me like that; at least not on my looks. To my surprise, I really liked it. I mean, I’d never been all that vain about my appearance, before; now I was mostly just doing what seemed appropriate for Marsha. But it really felt good, having him call me ‘beautiful.’

And what about you feeling like you’re a guy stuck in a girl’s body? I asked myself. I did: I really did, and yet I found myself preening a bit. It was nice to have him tell me things like that. He’d gone back to his own studies and I wished he hadn’t; I’d have liked to hear him say more. And at the same time, I wasn’t really ready for it.

Focus, I told myself. You’re here to do homework, not flirt. But what I really wanted just now was to get back to my room and be alone to sort out what was going on in my skull.

It seemed an eternity before he leaned over and whispered, “I think I’m done for the night; how about you?” I nodded in relief, gathered my books and papers, and stood up. Quietly, we slipped out of the room to avoid disturbing anybody. “Let me just drop this stuff in my room,” he said, “and then I’ll walk you home.”

“Uh… you don’t have to do that,” I said, awkwardly.

He stopped and stared. “Is there something wrong?” he asked.

I looked around, not wanting to be overheard. “I… I’m just not in the mood to cuddle tonight.” And I had to be upfront about it. I really didn’t want to be touched while the two me’s inside my head were fighting things out.

“Marsh,” he said quietly. “I’m not walking you home because I’m expecting to cuddle with you, although that would be great; I’m walking you home because you’re my girlfriend, and guys are supposed to walk their girlfriends home. I want to make sure nothing happens to you – you know, just in case – plus it gives me that much more time to be with you.” Then he raised his eyebrows at me for a moment, and starting walking again towards his room. It took me a second to react before I hurried after him.

We didn’t actually talk very much on the way back to my place, although I was thinking furiously. Did I do that, too? Walk my girlfriends home without ulterior motives? Or did I always expect some kind of good night kiss or cuddle at the end? I couldn’t quite remember. I only knew that I really respected Jeremy for it, and I was feeling really inadequate as a guy by comparison. Suddenly I realized what I was doing. I am walking with my boyfriend, I reminded myself. Why am I thinking about myself as a guy?

I felt his hand touch mine and looked down. It took me by surprise last night, I told myself. I’m ready for it now. Taking a breath, I forced myself to hold his hand. I forced myself to remain calm. I’m an actor; I can do this. It’s just like when I had to kiss Jared. We walked on together in silence.

It wasn’t working. I was supposed to be Jeremy’s girlfriend, not a fellow actor. This was life, not a play. I didn’t want to have to pretend. I didn’t want to feel male when I was with Jeremy. It wasn’t fair to him, or to me. I had to find a way always to feel female when I was with him, no matter what.

He must have noticed something, because he asked, “Marsh, what is it?”

“I’m just… just… I don’t know,” I said.

“Am I making you uncomfortable?” he asked, sounding really concerned.

“No, you’re not,” I answered, looking up at him. “You’re not, really. I’m just working through some issues.”

“What kind of issues?” he pressed.

“Um…” How was I supposed to answer that? “Nothing important.”

“Really? It seems to be bothering you a lot.”

I shook my head. “Can I just say that I don’t feel ready to talk about it?”

“Oh. OK. Um, are you coming over again tomorrow?”

“Um, no. I have an audition. For Sweeny Todd.”

“Really? So I’ll get to actually see you on stage this time. What role are you trying for?”

“Just chorus,” I laughed. Marsha probably could have done better; I had to hope Alvin would understand.

“Well, good luck anyway. What about Friday? Can I take you to a movie or something?”

“I’d like that,” I told him as we reached my dorm. “And thanks for walking me home.” Looking around to make sure nobody was watching, I closed my eyes, stood on my tiptoes and kissed him quickly on the lips. As kisses went, it was pretty sad, but it was a kiss – a goodnight kiss.

“Good night,” I whispered and quickly threw myself through the door into the first floor hallway before he could react. Fortunately, nobody was there to see my gasp in relief. This has to stop, I told myself. I need to do whatever it takes; I need to be unambiguously female when I’m with Jeremy. If I had sex with him, that would do it. I knew from experience that sex fundamentally changes a relationship, and I needed to change this one – or at least my part in it.

By the time I got to my room, I had made my decision. Neither of my roommates were in the living room, so I knocked on Lee Ann’s door, knowing that at least she wouldn’t be entertaining a guy.

“I need some advice,” I said when she opened the door. “Do you have a few minutes?”

“Sure, come on in,” she replied, backing out of my way. “What’s up?”

I hesitated. “Actually, I was hoping to get Terry’s thought’s too. Do you know if she’s free? I didn’t want to knock if Greg was there.”

“I’m pretty sure he’s not,” Lee Ann said, pushing past me to knock on Terry’s door.

“Yeah?” asked Terry, as she poked her face out of her room.


“Hey, Terr,” Lee Ann said. “Got a moment? Marsh wanted some advice.”


“Um… Jeremy,” I said. The two of them looked at me. “I want to lose my virginity.”

“Whoa!” Terry said, turning and tossing something that thudded onto her bed before coming out of her room, “Good for you, Marsh!”

“Really?” Lee Ann asked skeptically at almost the same moment. “Are you sure?”

“Um, yeah,” I responded, surprised. Since it was all three of us, I moved to sit on the chair in the living room, while the other two took the couch. “Why?”

“What’s the problem, Lee Ann?” Terry asked

“Well, how long have been seeing him?” Lee Ann asked.

“About… three weeks,” I answered. “Why?”

Lee Ann leaned forward. “You were seeing your last boyfriend for two years, if I remember correctly, and you weren’t ready for sex with him. Why is three weeks suddenly enough for this guy?”

Because I’m not the girl who wouldn’t sleep with Dirk, I thought. Because I like sex, and I want to experience it in my new body. But that wasn’t how I was actually reacting. I found myself stammering nervously and wringing my hands. “I… I just really…”

“Back off, Lee Ann,” Terry said. “Marsh says she’s ready. Isn’t that enough?”

“Marsh, I’m not saying you shouldn’t. I just think you need to be really sure. I’ve been with Stephen for three years, but we didn’t start sleeping together until we’d been dating for about six months. Boys… well, some of them aren’t really into commitment, and especially for your first time. I don’t think you’ll be too happy if he breaks up with you like the week after.”

“He wouldn’t do that!” I said, hotly. “He’s not like that.”

“How much do you know about him?” she asked, patiently. “You know, your friends haven’t had a chance to check him out, yet. How close are you to… sex? How far have you gone with him?”

“Well, we’ve cuddled in bed a bit, and that’s about all,” I admitted. I knew what she meant; as Marshall, I’d been no stranger to all kinds of intimacies, and Jeremy and I had basically done nothing, by comparison. I was just trying to think how to explain it away as irrelevant.

“No undressing? Has he touched you under your clothes at all? Below the waist at all?” I had to shake my head, and try to ignore Terry staring at me.

“At the rate you’re going, Marsh,” Terry noted, “you’re not going to have to worry about actual sex for months, if not years.”

“Well, that’s sort of my problem. I don’t want to wait years. I want to, you know, hurry things up a bit.”

“That’s going to depend on the two of you, Marsh,” Lee Ann said. “It really doesn’t sound as though the two of you are ready for it, and I think you’re really going to be happier if you wait.” I opened my mouth to protest, and she continued before I could say anything. “But if you’re seriously thinking about this, you at least need to deal with the birth control issue. Tomorrow afternoon, one of us is going to take you to the women’s clinic and see about getting you started on the Pill, and you’re going to need to get some condoms as well. But those are just in case. Don’t rush this, OK?”

I nodded, a bit disappointed. Maybe she was right; maybe we weren’t ready; I really did have a lot more experience than Marsha had, but I suspected Jeremy didn’t. But what alternative was there?

I was trying to decide if there was anything more I should say, when Terry asked, “You had another ‘study date’ today, right? How did it go?”

I shrugged. “Well, I was feeling really uncomfortable, and didn’t really wanted to be touched. You know?” They both nodded, although obviously their reasons were different from mine. “And I told him he didn’t have to walk me home, but he said he would anyway, just because he… well, you know… he wanted to make sure I was safe.” I got chills – good ones – just thinking about it.

My roommates clearly agreed. “That is so sweet,” Lee Ann commented.

“Yeah, he sounds…” Terry said and then shook her head. It looked to me as though she might be trying hard not to laugh. “I’m sorry, Marsh, but I’m picturing the two of you together – and I can’t help thinking how cute a couple you must make.”

“Cute” was definitely not what I was feeling at the moment. “Frustrated” seemed a lot closer. This was going to require a bit more thought and planning.

Author’s note: I know these are coming out very slowly of late. I am working through a bit of carpal tunnel in my right arm and it is making typing very painful and slow.

113 Trying Things Out

Tina had left me a message on Facebook, wishing me luck in the Sweeney Todd auditions. Everybody seemed to expect a lot of me. Alvin seemed really eager for me to try out, which made no sense if he shared my expectation that I would just win my usual place in the chorus. Maybe I did have a chance at a main role; at least it was something to focus on instead of my relationship issues.

It seemed a long shot, but I had been doing some thinking. There were only three female roles, and Mrs. Lovett just seemed completely unrealistic for me. Johanna’s songs were too high, which was too bad, since I was sure I could act the role just fine. That left the Beggar Woman. She was a soprano, but not as high as Johanna, and the acting would be a lot closer to the role that I had originally been assigned in Mousetrap, before the change. If Alvin was thinking of me for her, I would be thrilled. Even if I didn’t actually get the role, being seriously considered would be an accomplishment.

Of course, I couldn’t kid myself. It was only because I was in Marsha’s body that I possessed a voice capable of doing the role. I wasn’t nearly as good a singer as Marsha had been, but I thought I was passable, and my own knowledge of music theory would be sure to help. It was a good thought to take to sleep.

When I arrived at auditions early the next evening, Nikki was sitting at a desk outside the auditorium. She looked up from a stack of papers and waved me over.

“Glad you could make it, Marsh,” she said, handing me a piece of paper. “After you fill out the audition form, you can go wait in the Green Room.”

“A lot of people here?” I asked, taking the paper and a clipboard from her and pencil from a pile on the desk.

“Not yet. You’re only the fifth one so far, but we’re expecting a lot.”

I looked over the form quickly and saw a problem.

“Nikki,” I said in a low voice in case somebody came in unexpectedly, “They want me to put down experience. Would it really be honest to put down Marsha’s roles?”

She chuckled. “That’s mostly just to get a sense of you. Alvin knows you’re not the same girl who did those other shows, but he also knows your work in Mousetrap, so just put down what you would if you were really her.”

I nodded and filled out the form as best I could. By the time I was done, three more people had come in; only one of them even looked familiar. And when I went downstairs, the only one I knew was Cheryl, who greeted me and said that they would start calling us in to sing in a few minutes.

It wasn’t until the third person had gone out to sing that somebody I knew showed up – Jo, who had been in Mousetrap with me. I greeted her almost out of relief.

“Good to see you, Jo,” I said, hugging her.

“Yeah, I guess most of Alvin’s regulars won’t be here; I don’t think he’s done a musical for two years. Are you trying out for Johanna?”

“I can’t reach her notes, or I would,” I answered. “I’m hoping for the Beggar Woman. What about you?”

“Same,” she laughed.

And then Cheryl tapped me on the shoulder and it was my turn to sing. They don’t really make you comfortable at these things. I stepped out onto the lighted stage, and squinted into the darkness as an unfamiliar voice asked me what I was singing.

“The Simple Joys of Maidenhood,” I answered – it was safely in my range, plus had a slight taste of bloodthirstiness that I thought would help them think of me in the Beggar Woman role.

I felt that I performed it well, but I got absolutely no feedback – just a polite, “Thank you. Cheryl has some scenes for you to look over.”

Jo looked expectantly when I got back to the Green Room, but all I could do was shrug. I had a chance to read later for both the Beggar Woman and Johanna – again, I have no idea what they felt about how I had done. After everybody had had a chance – Jo actually read for the Beggar Woman and Mrs. Lovett – Alvin came downstairs and thanked and dismissed us, telling us that we would receive casting notices via email.

“Some of you will receive roles or chorus parts immediately. We may have to do callbacks for some of the roles; anybody who is called back for a role will definitely be offered a place in the chorus if they’re not otherwise cast. Once again, thank you for coming out to audition and I hope to see most of you at our first rehearsal in a week.”

Naturally, I checked my email the first thing in the morning. They had cast a few roles, but had announced callbacks for most of them – and, to my disappointment, I was not on the list for the Beggar Woman. I did find my name on the callback list for Johanna, which did me little good; no doubt a range check would be the first order of business at callbacks, and I would walk off with a polite thank you once they realized I couldn’t hit all of the notes required.

I tried to be philosophical about it; whatever zing Marsha had that had landed her those leads was obviously not working for me, and the chorus of Sweeney Todd was a pretty good chorus to be in. Still, I had hoped for more. Jo, I noted, had been called back for the Beggar Woman, so I could at least root for her.

It was still bothering me after my last class that afternoon, and I didn’t want to mess up my date by being depressed, so I called Mom to vent, but she surprised me.

“What do you mean, you can’t hit the notes?”

“Mom,” I explained. “The role goes up to a high B flat.”

“And you sing up to a C. What’s the problem?”

I choked. “C?! Mom, my top note is an F, almost an octave too low. I can’t come close to a C!” Then I realized something. “Mom, are you forgetting that I’m not Marsha?” After months of secrecy, I sometimes had to remind myself that Mom and Dad knew.

“I’m not forgetting anything, Honey. I see no reason that you shouldn’t be able to sing the same notes that she could.”

“Well, great, but I obviously can’t,” I pointed out. “I’ve tried. Mom, I never had voice lessons. I sing – I mean, I used to sing – with my guitar, and it was always mostly the guitar that people listened to, not me. I mean, maybe Marsha could sing those notes, but I haven’t learned how, and there’s no way for me to learn how before Sunday callbacks.”

“There was also no way for you to learn to sew, but you did, didn’t you?” Mom countered. “And I can tell you now that your skill with a needle is just as good as hers ever was; you’re just limited in what techniques you know. So why shouldn’t you be able to sing as well as she did?”

“But…” I sighed. “Mom, I’ve tried. If it were just skill, wouldn’t I be able to do it now? I know that I can probably sing as well as she did – certainly I could never have made notes like these, even in my old range. But it’s like you said with sewing techniques. I just don’t know how to do the higher notes.”

“Okay,” Mom said, doing her patient thing. “Let me hear you, Sing a scale for me from about the middle of your range to up as high as you can go.”

Well that was easy enough, and just to be sure, after I had finished singing into the phone, I found my highest note on the guitar. “There, Mom, see? I can sing the F, but not any higher. Now how exactly am I supposed to learn all the way up to B flat in two days, if that’s even possible? Doesn’t it make sense that the combination of me and Marsh just wound up in my having a lower range?”

But she just said, “I didn’t hear a break.”

“Excuse me?”

“Well, I don’t know how men’s voices work, but women have a definite break between chest voice and head voice. All you sang was chest voice.”

“What… what does that mean?”

“Well, for one thing, it means that you can hit those high notes. You just need to sing in head voice.”

“I have no idea what head voice is,” I said, confused. “Is this something you learn when you take voice lessons?”

“Well,” she replied, “It’s mostly something you learn by being a girl and singing a lot.” She explained about the difference between chest voice and head voice and how they feel, but when I tried, all I got was the same strained feel when I had tried to sing higher all along.

“Okay,” she said. “Let’s try something else.” And she did. She came up with one way after another for me to try, none of which worked. And then, suddenly, something clicked and I sang a note I’d never thought to hear coming from my throat.

I stopped in shock. “Did you hear that, Mom?” I asked.

“I sure did, and you just sang in head voice, Marsh. I’m guessing that was at least an A.”

I checked the guitar. “B flat, actually, Mom… I just sang a B flat! I can’t believe it. I just sang a B flat! And it didn’t hurt at all. It was easy!” I tried to recapture my thoughts when I had done it, the way I’d sung it, and sure enough, I did it again. Then I sang a bit lower and did a brief scale, up and past that impossible, incredible note. “I can do it, Mom! I can really sing this high!”

“I told you so…”

“Yes, but it was easy! I can sing this – I can actually sing the role! And… I know Alvin likes to use people he’s worked with before, so I should have a real edge there, and…”

Suddenly I sat down, hard. “It was… easy, Mom,” I told her. “Too easy. You’re not supposed to be able to suddenly sing like this.”

“Well, obviously, it wasn’t quite that easy for Marsha – you’re just the beneficiary.”

“That’s not what I mean,” I insisted, shaking my head, “It just seems unfair. It’s as though I’m being taunted.”

“How is this different from the sewing? That came pretty easy, too, didn’t it?”

“It’s not the same,” I said. “I never cared about sewing. But… and please don’t tell Tina this, Mom, but while I was always proud of her for being such a great singer, I was also, well, jealous. I never got more than bit roles in musicals – you know, maybe a singing line here or there, but never more than that. And Tina got a lead her first year in high school!

“And then Tina told me about Marsha, who not only got a lead her freshman year, but all four years! That’s the girl who was born instead of me, and she was successful beyond anything I could imagine in being cast. So… yeah, I was really jealous. Envious… whatever.

“And… it’s not just that, and I know this is stupid, but… Jeremy. Tina planned to introduce him to Marsha. Not me… Marsha. She was supposed to be his girlfriend, not me. And I’m a bit jealous of her for that, too. Really stupid, huh?”

“How can it be stupid?” Mom said, soothingly. “It’s how you feel. You didn’t do anything stupid because of it, did you?”

“I guess not, but… I just have this feeling, and all of a sudden I can sing like Marsha, and without really doing much. I feel guilty, somehow. I’m going to go to callbacks and maybe / probably get the role over girls who really worked to get their voices to this level, and it just doesn’t seem fair somehow.”

“So you’re going to pass up the chance, then?”

“No!” I exclaimed. “I want to do it; I just feel a bit guilty about having the ability handed to me like this.”

“Marsh… do you feel guilty about being beautiful? About being smart? About everything good about yourself?”

“I’m not–” I started to say almost by reflex, but stopped.

“Honey, everybody has good qualities, some innate, some learned, and not everybody is the same. You are what you are and there is no reason to apologize for it or feel guilty.”

“I don’t think you’re quite getting–”

“Now, who you are is a bit… unusual… I know this uncomfortable for you, but if having Marsha’s singing voice is a good thing, accept it. There are enough things you don’t like in what’s been done to you, that you shouldn’t feel at all guilty about taking the good things. Look at it this way: if Marsha were still Marsha, she wouldn’t have any reason to feel guilty about winning the role or having this voice. As far as the other girls are concerned, it really doesn’t matter whether you are ‘Marsh’ or ‘Marsha,’ does it?”

“I guess not,” I admitted. “Only… it sort of feels as if I’m being bribed with this, you know, to just accept what’s happened and not think about changing back.”

“And is it enough to make you decide not to try to change back?”

“No! I mean, it’s really nice, and… there are a lot of things that are really nice,” Like Jeremy, I thought with my heart clenched. “But I want to be myself again. I want to be who I’m supposed to be.”

“Well, I can’t help you with that, Honey,” she said, reasonably. “But I can love you for who you are now.”

I nodded. “Thanks, Mom. I love you.”

“I love you, too, honey.” And she hung up.

I sat back and tried to process what had just happened. The obvious thing was finding out that I could sing higher, which meant that I could actually have a chance at a major role in a musical, but… Mom had said something that seemed to touch at the core of my existence. It didn’t seem to help me make any decisions, but it felt kind of good, at the same time. I had to laugh at myself. I had been so worried about what my parents would do if they ever found out, and yet Mom was super accepting, and Dad… well, he did try to take over, but backed off really quickly when I objected.

I guess, if I had to go through all of this, at least I had the right parents to do it with. And that was worth so much more even than having the right singing voice.

114 Call to Action

Jeremy called to confirm that we were going to go dancing, just so that I’d know what to wear. I took my time getting ready; I went over my makeup carefully, selected a frilly pink blouse and to top the whole thing off, I found a YouTube video that explained how to tie a bow in your hair. As I surveyed the result in the mirror I found myself getting really confident that I was not going to experience Sudden Male Identity Syndrome on this date!

I do not understand why people always seem to be surprised to see me. I was at Danby a short while later, waiting while Jeremy hung up our coats, when I heard Vicky gasp, “Marsh?!”

I turned, definitely not surprised to see her with Kevin. “Hi, guys,” I said, “how are you?”

“Waiting for – oh, there he is,” I said, reaching for Jeremy’s hand when he caught up with me. “Jeremy, this is my friend Vicky and her boyfriend, Kevin.” I even managed not to let my opinion of Kevin show in my voice, which took some doing.

While Vicky stared at Jeremy, then back at me, and then at our clasped hands, Jeremy extended his free hand to Kevin and said politely, “Nice to meet you.”

Kevin responded with his usual Neanderthal grunt.

Then suddenly nobody was speaking and we all seemed to be just staring at each other, so I asked Vicky, “do you guys have a table?”

She hesitated, as though she was looking for a reason to deny it, but looked at Kevin and back at me before nodding. “Why don’t you guys join us?”

Kevin led the way, while Jeremy and I followed. Then I noticed Vicky was not with her date, but was walking close to me and giving me significant looks until I stopped and whispered to Jeremy, “Why don’t you go on ahead? I think Vicky wants to talk to me.”

He’d gone about twenty feet ahead of us before Vicky hissed in my ear, “What are you doing?”

I blinked. “What do you mean? I’m here to dance with my boyfriend, same as you.”

She rolled her eyes at me. “No, I’m here to dance with my boyfriend; you’re just confused.” I gave her an annoyed look, but before I could say anything, she added, “Look at you, Marshall. You’ve really gone overboard now. A hair ribbon? What are you supposed to be?”

“What’s the problem, Vicky?” I asked, a bit confused. “I’m just on a date and I got dressed up.”

“You’ve given up, haven’t you?”

“What? No!” I insisted. “It’s just… I’m trying to live the life I’m stuck in as best I can, that’s all.”

“And the hair ribbon?” she demanded.

“Oh,” I blushed. “That. Well…” I looked around. Nobody seemed to be paying any particular attention to us, but I still wanted a bit more privacy, so I started walking toward an empty corner, knowing that she would follow me. I lowered my voice as well. “The last time we tried to… cuddle, I had this sudden vision of myself as a boy and freaked out.”

“Hmm,” she sniffed. “Maybe somebody’s trying to tell you something.”

“Vixy,” I almost whined, “we’ve been over this. I’m a girl, now, and I’m attracted to boys. If I do change back, I’ll never have dated Jeremy or any other guy, so what’s the problem? We’ll be together again, and none of this will have happened.”

“Except that I’ll remember.”

“And I’ll remember you dating Kevin. It’s the same thing. We’re going around in circles, Vix.”

“It’s not the same thing at all, Marshall,” she snapped. “You’ll remember me as the girl you knew, dating another guy because you weren’t available, dating another guy just as you knew I had done before I met you. But I’m going to have to remember you as a girl, mincing around in your little pink blouse and a skirt with that stupid ribbon in your hair. How attractive do you think that’s going to make you when you change back, Marshall?”

I flinched. “I… hadn’t thought about that,” I admitted. “But, Vicky, I don’t see what choice I really have. Wouldn’t it be stupid to put my life on hold forever, just in case? Is it fair to expect me to be alone, when you’ve said that not being alone is why you put up with a guy who beats you?”

“He doesn’t beat–” she retorted, hotly. “I mean… he doesn’t hit me all that often, and…” she shook her head. “Don’t change the subject!”

“I’m not,” I insisted. “I’m just doing what I think makes the most sense. As long as I’m a girl, why not be the girl I am?”

“Because you’re not a girl, not really. You’re a guy, Marsh. You’re just fooling yourself.”

“And round in circles we go again. Is this what you’re telling me, Vix? That I need to be miserable and lonely to make you feel better?”

“I… don’t think that’s a good way of putting it.”

“You don’t? Why not?” I challenged her.

“Well… I mean…”

“I can’t believe you want me to be miserable.”

“I don’t!” she exclaimed. “I just…”

“Just what?”

“Can we just get back to the guys?”

“The guys?” I echoed. “So I’m not a guy, right?”


“This isn’t easy for me, Vix. I don’t really know what I’m doing. You could help me. Teach me about being a girl on a date with a boy, in a relationship with a boy. Teach me how to… you know… just so I can be happy. You do want me to be happy, right? I want you to be happy…”

She stared at me for a moment. “I think… you might think I’m a better person than I am.”

“No,” I corrected her. “I know you’re a better person than you think you are. I know you’re a generous, loving girl. That’s why we were together for so long.”


“I’m really struggling here, Vicky. I want the same thing any girl wants, and I’m not looking to hurt anybody. Yes, it’s weird – and I have this extra problem that I keep seeing myself as a guy and getting grossed out at cuddling with him. But… all the pain that you say you have about not wanting to be alone? I’ve got that too. All the heart-thumping oh he’s so cute thing that you get when you think of your boyfriend? I’ve got that, too.”

She muttered something that I thought might have been, “I wish I did…” but I couldn’t be sure.

“So I’m asking you to overlook me acting feminine, even going overboard a bit; I think I need to. But… maybe you can coach me through this and help me work on my relationship with Jeremy? I promise if I change back I’ll work really hard on making you forget I was ever anything but the manliest boyfriend you could want.”

“I don’t know if I can, Marsh…”


She sighed. “Let me think about it, OK? It’s a lot to process.”

I nodded. “Thanks. Um… ready to catch up with our dates?”

She shook her head, “’Our dates’ – Oh boy… you’re really going to rub my face in this tonight, aren’t you?”

I chuckled. “I’ve been living with this reality for some time – it’s about time you started really getting used to the new me and really starting to accept me for who I am now.”

“I guess…”

Jeremy and Kevin seemed to be getting along when we found them, and by ‘getting along’ I mean that they weren’t glaring at each other. They weren’t talking very much, either. Jeremy rolled his eyes a bit when I explained that Vicky and I had just needed time for girl talk, and he jumped up when I said I was ready to dance.

As we walked to the floor, he leaned over and whispered, “You know that guy is really kind of creepy? He asked me what you were like in bed. I guess that’s his way of making conversation.”

I shuddered. “Poor Vicky. So…” I smirked, “what did you tell him?”

“Well, I just said that it was none of his business, and I had no complaints.”

I grinned. “Good for you.”

“And I really didn’t like the way he just pulled her onto his lap and smooched her when you two showed up. I mean, there’s a time and a place for that sort of thing.”

“I know, right?” I said. “She really needs somebody better. I’m trying to help her see that.” He raised his eyebrows at that, but didn’t say anything.

Dancing with Jeremy was wonderful, as always, although there were too few slow dances for my taste. I took advantage of what few opportunities there to press my body against his and feel his strong arms around me. I’m sure Vicky would have been revolted to realize to what I extent I was throwing myself into this new existence; we could be having some very interesting discussions, if she could just be a bit open-minded.

It wasn’t really possible to talk much on the dance floor, but the next time we took a break, I leaned over to Jeremy as we walked and batted my eyes at him in what I hoped was a suggestive manner. “So you really have no complaints?”


“Well, I know a lot of girls here seem to give it up to their boyfriends after just a few dates, and you’ve barely gotten to second base after several weeks.”

He looked surprised and then thoughtful. “I guess we haven’t talked about that, and I suppose we need to, since… you know.”

“Um, no…?”

“Well, let’s talk when we leave, then, OK?”

Now he had me really curious. My own experience was pretty limited to what I personally had done, and what few discussions I’d had with some of my buddies; I don’t remember any of them saying that they had talked about it like this with their girlfriends ahead of time. You just sort of let it happen, or pushed for it to happen. Jeremy seemed to have a different take on things.

We didn’t actually much more time with Vicky and Kevin; we saw them dancing, of course, and I can’t be sure that they were avoiding us, but somehow they were never at the table when we were. We did see Geoff with Lee Ann and Greg with Terry and wound up sitting with them for a while. Geoff was very polite to Jeremy, but I thought I caught him shooting my boyfriend a quick jealous look once or twice. I hoped it was just my imagination.

When we left as the dance was winding down, I waited until we’d gotten away from the crowd before asking, “So what was it you wanted to talk about?”

“Well,” he answered, “I don’t want you to feel that I’m upset with our lack of… you know, physical intimacy. I don’t want to rush you into anything you’re not comfortable with.”

“You didn’t,” I assured him. “I really wasn’t upset at you touching me. It was something else completely.”

“Really?” he asked, a bit skeptically.

“I promise.”

He seemed to think about that for a moment. “In that case, would you be comfortable coming back to my room for a bit? I have something I want to show you.”

My heart leapt. Was he actually being aggressive? This sounded very promising.

We got to his room, and he kissed me quite satisfactorily. I sort of leaned against him, and he backed up and sat on his bed, and I climbed onto his lap and deliberately rubbed noses with him. So far, so good – the images that had plagued me the last time we’d done that stayed away, and we kissed some more. His hands were stroking my back, but I had one more hurdle I needed to clear, just so that he would know I hadn’t been uncomfortable. I took his right hand and placed it on my breast.

He stopped kissing me for a moment and just let his hand rest as he looked at my face. I nodded and he started kissing me again, this time stroking my breast and I just leaned into him, trying to let him know that I was more than OK with it. I tried to think about how girls I’d cuddled with had done that, but then immediately shied away from such thoughts. I did not want to think about my experiences as Marshall – not now.

And then suddenly he stopped, and said, “I almost forgot,” and gently slid me off his lap and stood up. “Let me just get this,” he said as he walked away from me towards his dresser. With his back still toward me, he said, “You remember that book I told you about when we first met? Gödel, Escher, Bach? I wasn’t sure if you’d ever gotten a chance to look it up…”

My jaw dropped. Now? He had to be kidding. Then he turned around and laughed. “You should see your face! Actually, this is what I wanted to show you.” He held up a pendant on a silver chain. “I hope you don’t mind; I had some free time and I made this for you.” He brought it over so that I could see it. The pendant was actually just a pretty green rock inside a spiral of thin silver wire. “See? This is serpentinite. The shape was really interesting and I thought it would make a nice necklace for you.” And he slipped it over my head.

For a moment I couldn’t speak. “Wh-what’s the occasion? Why are you giving me a present like this?”

“It’s not expensive,” he assured me. “I found the stone and polished it. I told you, I do this for fun; but there’s no point in making a piece of jewelry if nobody’s going to wear it. Usually, I’ve given them to my Mom or my sister, but… well, I wanted you to have this one.”

“It’s beautiful,” I said, lifting it to my eyes. Then I decided to get a bit daring. “Of course, it would really look better hanging between my breasts, not in front of my shirt.”

“Well, yeah,” he answered, “but you don’t wear shirts that…” he held his hand horizontally in front of his chest, indicating the top of a shirt that would have shown off my cleavage.

“I didn’t say it was for anyone to see,” I said, again hoping to sound seductive. “Anyone but you, that is.”

He blinked as though confused for a second, and then whispered, “Oh…” He hesitated a moment and seemed to be gathering his courage before adding. “Would you… like some help trying that?”

“Please,” I whispered back, and held my arms away from my body, my heart pounding.

He took the pendant over my head and placed it on the desk next to him. Then slowly, gently, he slid his hands around me and unbuttoned my blouse. As I held my breath, he eased it off of me and gazed for the first time at the bare tops of my breasts. He seemed transfixed at the sight, and didn’t lift his eyes back to look at mine for almost half a minute. Then he put the pendant back on me and carefully arranged it to fall between my breasts.

It actually rested inside my bra. “I think the chain’s too long,” he said, starting to reach for it.

I took a deep breath, feeling excessively daring, and said, “the chain’s fine. Something’s just hiding the pendant. If you want to see it…”

His eyes widened and he started in surprise. “Marsh, I don’t need you to prove anything to me.”

“I think I might be trying to prove something to myself, actually.”

“I don’t want you to do something you’re not comfortable with.”

“Well, I won’t know if I don’t try, right?”

I don’t think any guy would be able to pass up a chance to take off his girlfriend’s bra, and Jeremy was no exception. He kissed me again, hard, and slid his hands to my bra strap. I close my eyes. I felt him move the clasp and held my breath, but his fingers slipped and it snapped against my back. He tried again, but when he pushed, the strap just bent instead of opening.

I opened my eyes when he broke away from the kiss and I saw beads of sweat on his face. I felt him reach for the clasp once more, but his fingers slipped and he seemed to slump. He was breathing more heavily, but he didn’t seem passionate now, just frustrated.

Forcing myself not to think of my own experiences in this, I said, “It’s a bit tricky; would you like me to unhook it for you?”

“I’m sorry,” he said. “I guess I hadn’t expected to be doing this tonight; I was worried about pushing you too far, and suddenly it feels as if I’m moving to fast. Look. I want to be able to do this, but… maybe we should wait for another time.”

What just happened? I wondered. How could he stop now? Was he not really attracted to me?

“It’s OK,” I said, trying to cover my disappointment. I tried to make it a joke. “I don’t want to make you do something you’re not comfortable with.”

He winced, and I bit my tongue. “I don’t think that came out right.”

“It’s OK, Marsh,” he said.

“Do you want me to put my shirt back on?”

“Uh well, you know, I have an early class. Um… why dont I walk you home?” he said, in a tone that suggested that the sooner he got away from me and back to his safe engineering work, the better.

I had to bite my tongue. Apparently, this was going to be a lot more work than I had anticipated.

Vicky called the next morning way too early, considering what time Jeremy had walked me home and suggested that go out that evening to see a movie and talk. “I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about what you said, Marsh, and I’m not happy.”

“Vicky,” I said, “I’m sorry, but–”

“We’ll talk tonight, OK?” she interrupted. “And I think this time I’ll pick you up. It’s time to move outside of my comfort zone.” Then she hung up before I could ask what she meant.

I went back to sleep and then spent much of the day practicing for the Sweeney Todd callback, doing my homework, and working on some sewing projects, all the while wondering what Vicky was going to say. But she avoided the subject when she came by for me in the evening, and all through the movie. It was only afterwards, when we went to the Grill for a late dessert, that she got to the point.

“I’ve done a lot of thinking,” she repeated, “and I don’t like it.”

“What don’t you like, Vicky?” I asked, trying to be as patient as I could.

“It’s as though you’ve forced me to look in the mirror, Marsh, and it’s not a pretty sight.”

I waited. I could tell that now was not a good time to open my mouth.

“You say you think I’m a good person. You called me ‘generous and loving,’ but that’s not how I feel. The way you’re acting now… I don’t know if it is the stress, or you’re just trying to play a crappy hand with a smile, or…” she looked at me, and I saw tears in her eyes. “The fact is, for all my bitching, this is ten times worse for you – a hundred times worse – and you’re handling it so much better than I am, and I’ve been treating you horribly.

“I’m not a nice person, Marsh. I don’t know why you think I am; I wish I were. I want to be a nice person, but I don’t know how. It’s like all of my instincts are wrong. Maybe you’re right. Maybe there is a ‘generous and loving’ girl inside me, and you’re the only one who can see her. I want your help, Marsh. I want your help to try to be that nice girl; to let her come out. I just don’t know how.

“So, all I can think of is to try to do what you asked – to ‘coach’ you in… in being a girl with a boy. That’s something I know, I think. At least, you never complained. I can’t promise that I won’t get jealous, or try to… well, I’ll try not to give you bad advice. I mean it, Marsh. I think I need this. I need something to shake me out of my pattern.”

For a moment, I couldn’t think of anything to say. Then I said, quietly, “Vicky, I really appreciate that. I need you, Vicky. I think we need each other. This is going to be very different, but I think if we help each other…”

“That’s what I’m going to try to do,” she said, wiping her eyes. “So… tell me… um… where do you stand with Jeremy? How far have the two of you gone? And note, please, I’m only asking because I’m helping you know, right?”

So I told her about the night before – well, I told her about the important things. Not the joking – I thought that was a private thing between us. Not the pendant. That was hidden away between my breasts, as I had said it would be – where only Jeremy was going to be able to see it. But I told her about him taking off my shirt and failing to take off my bra.

For the first time that evening, I saw Vicky crack a smile; in fact, she seemed to be trying not to laugh. “He had trouble taking off your bra, Marsh? That’s so… so high school. No. Middle school, even! You’ve really picked a winner, there. Had he even looked at a girl before?”

“Be nice, Vicky,” I pleaded. “He’s a bit innocent, but… as a girl, so am I, sort of, kind of. He’s very sweet and… I’m comfortable with him.”

“You don’t want advice on dealing with his innocence, do you?”

“Well, maybe not just yet. Lee Ann said to take my time, and with Jeremy, I think that’s going to be the answer. I’m just going to be patient.”

“OK,” she said, putting on what sounded like a professional air. “So why were you so eager to bed this guy?”

“Aside from the usual, you mean? You know how much I like sex, Vicky. I figure I’ll like it as a girl, too, but somehow, it doesn’t feel exactly the same – looking forward to it, I mean. Plus, as I said, I’ve had times when I started seeing myself as a male again; as male when I’m with Jeremy, and believe me, that’s serious freak-out time.”

“I can imagine.”


“But you’re serious about this? You’re actually sexually attracted to him?”

I nodded.

“OK…” she said, shaking her head. “I’ll try to help you. Um… how am I doing so far? I’m really trying not to be selfish here, and it isn’t easy.”

“I think you’re doing just fine,” I said. “Um, maybe you would have an idea about something… he had a bit of trouble trying to take off my bra, and then he sort of just gave up. I even offered to undo the clasp for him, but he wouldn’t let me. I mean, we kissed a bunch more afterwards, but he had the chance to see me topless and backed off. Do you have any idea what that was about?”

She looked pained for just a moment. “Wow, this is really not going to be easy… OK. Excuse me while I recover from imagining you wanting a boy to take off your bra. Um… I can’t say this ever happened to me, but one of my girlfriends…”

She took a breath. You probably can’t relate to this, Marsh, but not every guy has the confidence you… did. If he hasn’t had a lot of girlfriends, he might really have been more worried about not making a fool of himself undressing you than he was about seeing your… um, boobs.”

“Which means…?”

“Just that he’s nervous. And I really apologize if I’m a bit relieved. I need time to adjust to the whole idea of you wanting to be sexually active as a girl and if your boyfriend is tentative, that just works in my favor.”

I couldn’t help tease her… just a bit… by asking for reassurance that he was attracted to me. But she put up with it very well. I think I like this new Vicky.

The next morning, my phone rang again, at about the same time, only this time, I was already awake, trying to get myself mentally ready for callbacks that afternoon. I picked up the phone, expecting it to be Vicky again, or maybe Jeremy, but it wasn’t. It was Eric. “Marsh,” he said, “We got a nibble. Somebody triggered your camera. Somebody’s been in the lab.”

115 Taking a Close Look

“The camera thing worked?” I gasped. “We have pictures of the lab?”

“Well,” Eric replied cautiously, “The trigger went off, and I presume that means that the camera caught whatever there was to see. At any rate, it seems to have filled up its memory. I didn’t want to play around with it, though. I figure you know more about the camera than I do.”

“I don’t believe this!” I enthused. “We’re actually going to see the lab! Can you bring the camera over to my room? I’ll call Vicky, and you can invite Martin.”

“See in you a few minutes.”

Vicky was so excited I could swear she flew all the way to my dorm. “Did you get it?!” she exclaimed when I let her in.

“Get what?” Terry asked, as she came back from the bathroom, causing Vicky almost to swallow her tongue.

“Some friends are making a video with my Flip Cam,” I explained, having thought ahead this time for an explanation.

“Oh, cool! Let me see it when you’re done,” she said, vanishing into her bedroom. Oh well. I can always tell her it didn’t turn out, I guess.

“Eric’s on his way over with the camera,” I told Vicky. “Then I’ll import it so we can watch it all together.”

“How can you be so calm about this?” she almost shouted, following me into my room.

“I’m just trying not to get my hopes up too high, is all,” I said. “But I’m not calm. Look.” I held out my hand. “I’m shaking. I so much want this to give us all the answers. I want to see a big sign that tells us where to find Professor Davis. I want to see a journal that says that they’re all set to change back anybody who wants to be changed back.” I shook my head. “Don’t mind me, I’m just rambling.”

A knock on the outer door sent me running to open it before my roommates did. Martin and Eric were there when I opened it and I almost snatched my camera out of Eric’s hand when he offered it to me. “Come on in, guys!” I said. “Vicky’s already here.”

I turned to lead the way and spotted Lee Ann looking curiously at my guests. “Oh, Hi, Lee Ann,” I said, trying to sound nonchalant. “This is Martin and Eric. They’re working on something with me.”

“Oh. Hi,” she said, sounding a bit dubious. I guess having a couple of strange men visit early in the morning wasn’t typical for Marsha. “Are you not going to be eating with us, then?”

“Yeah, go on without me. I’ll grab something when we’re done.”

Back in my room, I wasted no time in hooking the camera up to my computer. And then we had to wait. “This is going to take a while to import, guys,” I said. “So… how is everybody?”

“I’m going to strangle you, you know,” Vicky said, with her eyes wide. “How long is it going to take?”

I laughed. “About two minutes, according to the manual. I’m just trying to ease the tension a bit.”

“Well, it’s not working!”

The guys just watched us, looking a bit amused, and before long the import was done and I moved the monitor so that they could see it from the bed. “Everybody ready?” I asked, and when they nodded, I pressed ‘play’ and quickly joined them on the bed.

We saw a man standing with his back to the camera open the door; unfortunately, his body blocked our view of the room. Then he moved aside to let another man enter and removed the key from the lock. As the second man entered the room, we caught our first glimpse of the interior over his shoulders.

“That’s the lab, alright,” I whispered, not wanting to drown out anything that we might hear from the video.

“But where is everything?” Vicky whispered back. “Didn’t there used to be something against that wall?”

Before I could answer, the first man followed the second into the room. And closed the door behind him.

For a moment, nobody spoke. Then Vicky found her voice. “That’s it?! All the build up for that?”

“They have to have come out eventually,” Eric noted.

I dashed to the computer and started fiddling with the time slider. “Right. As long as they came out before the memory was full…” For most of the timeline, the image was unchanged – just that same closed door. But then, at around forty minutes in, I saw the picture jump. “I’ve got it!” I exclaimed, and slowed down my search. I moved the slider to just before the earliest point where I’d seen something and hit play.

For half a minute, nothing happened – I’d obviously started too early. Then suddenly the door opened and the first man came out and secured it – only this time, we could see his face.

“I know him!” Vicki gasped. “That’s the grad student who signed me up for the experiment in the first place.”

“Yeah,” I nodded in agreement. Behind him, we could see the second man, who was clearly older, standing behind a crate that was about three foot high, and behind him we could see the lab again.

“Is it my imagination–”, Martin started to say, but Eric shushed him.

“They’re talking!” he whispered.

And indeed the camera had picked up voices. “… why you brought this,” the older man said, lifting something that was sitting on top of the crate.

The grad student’s back was to us, so it was harder to make out what he was saying, but it sounded like, “… noticed it while I was unhooking the… -zer and wond- … group B might recognize it.”

“It’s risky,” said the other, “how would you introduce it?”

The student’s answer was lost as the two of them carried the crate with the object on it out of the room and down the hall, shutting the door behind them.

“Isn’t some of the equipment gone from before?” Martin asked, once the two were no longer audible.

“I think so,” I said. “We can always go back and check. Do you think that’s professor Davis?”

“Could be,” Eric said. “I think I’ve seen him around the department, only not for a while. The other guy, too,” Martin nodded.

“So what was that about ‘group B’?” I asked. “Does that mean that they did different experiments on different people?”

“Could be,” Eric repeated. “I wonder what that thing was that they wanted to show…”

“You recognized it, didn’t you, Marsh?” Vicky asked. “It was hanging over the table when we lay down on it.”

I shook my head. “I’m pretty sure I’ve never seen it before. Do you suppose that means that you and I actually did different experiments?”

She and I stared at each other. Maybe that was why I had changed sex and she hadn’t? But if so, which of us was ‘group B’ and why hadn’t we met anybody else who’d had the response that I had?

“But how are they talking to their test subjects?” Eric wondered. “None of the Strangers are cooperating. Do you suppose that some people didn’t join because they were still helping out? I think we’ve got more questions than answers, at this point.” He turned to Martin. “Did you recognize any of the equipment?”

“Well,” started Martin, “I thought I saw some counters, like you might use to detect subatomic particles. I didn’t recognize most of the stuff, though. I have no idea what I’d even expect to see in a time travel lab. It’s kind of uncharted territory, you know? Not sure why the particle detectors would be there, though. There was clearly some custom-made equipment, too. At least a lot of things looked breadboarded rather than mass-produced. But some things… there are some places that make one-off equipment, and I thought I saw an enclosure that could have been from one of them. I don’t remember the name, but I can check in my lab if we have something similar. That’s about all I can think of.”

“And I think there was printing on the crate,” Eric said. “Can we go back and look?” I backed up the video to the point when the crate was passing the camera. “Yeah, it looks like three words at the top. I think the middle one might be ‘MILLS.’”

“Or ‘HILLS,’” I suggested, looking closely and moving the video back and forth, looking for better angles. The word after it looks like it starts, ‘ENG,’” I think.

“It’s annoying,” Eric went on. “Their bodies are covering a lot of it, but I think there’s another ‘N’ later in the third word – or maybe an ‘H’.”

“The first word might end with ‘N’,” Martin observed. “Maybe… Malvern Hills, England?”

“England?” Vicky wailed.

“Hold on,” I said. “Why England?”

“Just a wild guess,” Martin said. “I’m just trying to figure out what the words could mean. I just happen to know that there’s a Malvern Hills in England.”

“I don’t think we have nearly enough information,” I said. “The last word could be ‘engine’ or something like that. Anybody know enough to make an internet search based on this?”

All I saw were blank looks. About all we were sure of was that Davis and his student were sneaking stuff out slowly, so I gave Eric the camera again, hoping that we would catch them the following weekend as well. Otherwise, we seemed to be out of ideas.

“Thanks for coming over, guys,” I said, standing up. “I think we’ve taken an important first step.” I walked the boys out, but Vicky stayed.

“Shouldn’t we talk about this some more?” she asked.

“Well, I’d like to,” I told her, “but I need to get ready for my call back audition.”

“Are you out of your mind? How can you put a show before…?” she looked around. My roommates weren’t visible, but she hurried me back into my bedroom and closed the door. “How can you put this before regaining your true self?”

“I’m not,” I protested. “But this problem isn’t going to get solved this morning, and the callbacks are on a specific schedule. I’ll call you afterwards and we can talk all you like.”

The callbacks actually turned out to be pretty straightforward. Marsha’s voice was clearly at least as good any that of any of the other girls, and my acting was better, and they announced then and there that I had the role. Jo got the Beggar Woman, so we’d be working together again. I joked about calling her, ‘Mom’ and she jokingly admonished me about eating my vegetables and being careful about boys.

But the obviously disappointed faces of the girls I’d beaten haunted me. They’d worked so hard to get themselves into a position to compete for the role, and I’d just woken up with this voice and hadn’t had to work for it at all. It didn’t seem fair. Not that I was going to give up the role, of course, but I did wish that there could have been some sort of consolation prize for them other than the chorus.

The conversation with Vicky basically went nowhere. Neither of us had any brilliant ideas on how to follow things through. We agreed that Martin’s suggestion about England was really unlikely, but I think both of us were a bit concerned that it fit what we knew about the writing on the crate.

My weekly call with my father and Chad that night was a lot more productive.

“England?” Chad scoffed when I told them what we’d learned. “You see that’s impossible, don’t you?”

“Well, it seemed unlikely,” I said, not quite understanding his confidence.

“Impossible,” he repeated. “Look, first of all, it sounds as though they are still interviewing test subjects, who pretty much have to be local – and yeah, they could do that over the internet, but… you also said that they’re taking stuff out bit by bit, right? So, assuming that they’re moving to another lab, it only makes sense that it has to be close by, no more than a few hours or so. There’s just no way that these guys are flying across the Atlantic Ocean every week to grab one crate and pack it up.”

“Couldn’t they be staying locally and just shipping it overseas?”

“Not with the secrecy you claim. I can’t imagine that they’re going to let this equipment sit away from them for months. They have to have been doing this for months, right?”

“Um, hold on,” I said, finally remembering to compare the state of the lab before and after they were in the room. “I’d say that this time they probably took out maybe a tenth to a twentieth of what was in there. It’s kind of hard to be sure from what I can see. And it looks like they’ve cleared about half the room by now, as far as I can see. So, yeah, it would make sense that they’ve been doing this for a while.

“So if you’re going to search for ‘something Mills Engines’ or ‘Engineering’…”

“It’s still too large an area, Chad,” I pointed out. “We don’t even have the first letter.”

“And that’s another thing,” he continued. “Why bother even labeling the crate of their carrying it themselves. They have to shipping it somewhere, right? But you didn’t see an address. So what’s up with that?”

“The address could have been in smaller print,” Dad suggested. “Or maybe the name is a fake, just in case somebody asks why they’re carrying a crate around. Or maybe different crates are going to different places and they have to keep track.

“Marsh, the problem is, you have no idea what the name means, and you don’t even have it in the first place. I don’t want to step on your toes, Honey, but may I make a suggestion?”

“Of course, Dad,” I said, fighting for some reason now not to call him, ‘Daddy.’

“Send me the images you have, showing the door – it has a number, I think you said – and the lab and the secrecy. That’s not normal. Let me get a court order to open that door, as well as the records of who’s using it. I think we have enough information now, don’t you?”

“I… guess so,” I admitted.

“Can you really get something like that, Mr. Steen?” Chad asked.

“I don’t know for sure. They could be questions of standing. But I might be able to bluff the school into providing some information, especially if I can get the backing of the other parents. You can get that for me, right, Marsh? The names of a bunch of parents who would be willing to throw their weight behind this?”

“I… think so… I’ll have to ask Eric, since we’re not supposed to contact the Strangers directly. But yeah, that sounds reasonable. What do you think, Chad?”

“I don’t know about bluffing, but then again, I don’t play poker. Only I have nothing better to offer. Maybe… see if the Better Business Bureau has a list of businesses names and search against them? But you’d need to contact a lot of agencies, I guess.”

“Maybe somebody in the Strangers is a comp-sci genius and can do it. OK, Dad, I’ll get you some names, and you can start doing what you need to do, OK?”

I didn’t want to get my hopes up, and I was starting to enjoy the life I was living for now, but it really did seem that there was a good chance that it would only be temporary. That had to be a good thing, right?