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

116 Not Yet the Moment

As soon as I hung up, I called Chad’s house. “Hi, Mrs. Barnes,” I said hurriedly. “It’s Marsha Steen. Could you ask Chad to call me when he gets home?” I figured I could get away without a long discussion. I was wrong.

“Jennifer!” she said. “We haven’t spoken in so long! I’ll definitely have him call you. How are you? How’s the new school year?”

I bit my tongue and answered, telling her about Sweeney Todd and my classes. Then I felt a bit guilty and told her just the tiniest bit about Jeremy. And then she said, “He’s here” and handed over the phone.

“Marsh?” Chad said, surprised. “Is something wrong?”

“No, I just remembered that I was supposed to tell you some things that I didn’t really want my Dad to hear.”


“Well, you said I had to tell you everything, even if I didn’t think it was relevant, right? So…” I took a deep breath. “Jeremy and I are dating.”

“I knew that…”

“I mean… you know, really dating.”

“Wait a minute. You mean… like sex?”

“Well, not yet,” I admitted, “but he took off my shirt the last time we were together, and–”

“Whoa. Whoa! Whoa!” Chad yelped. “You know what? Let’s qualify that. I do not need to know those kinds of details. Geez, Marsh, you should know better than that! Did you really used to tell me about how far you’d gone with girls?”


“I don’t want to hear this.”

I bit my lip. “You did say everything. You sure you don’t want to know?” I teased. “It was kind of hot…”

“How about… just tell me how you’re feeling about him and guys in general – that you’re acting and responding more as Marsh and less as… Marshall… is important. But I really don’t need more than that. Um… how did that happen? His taking off your shirt?”

“Well, we had stopped off in his room…” I started.

“Wait!” he exclaimed, cutting me off. “Not the details! I mean… well… it’s kind of relevant how you felt, right? That’s a reasonable question. But… I mean…”

“… you’re uncomfortable with a girl telling you about her sex life.”


“Although,” I pointed out, “given your passion for porn, you’re probably also dying to know.”

“Marsh, you’re making this har– uh, more difficult than it needs to be. Can I take it that you didn’t object?”

“You could say that,” I giggled.

“OK, look… um… this is going way wrong for me. All I want to know – all that matters here is, are you, um, looking to… wait, you said that you didn’t think he was going to get serious about you.”

I really did try to speak in a more sober tone, and I could tell what I was doing to Chad, but his reactions were so funny. “I didn’t say he was getting serious, Chad. We were just, well, making out. Come on, it’s normal for healthy adolescents–”

“Normal? Normal? How is anything about you, normal? Just a couple of months ago, Marsh, you were whining about not finding girls attractive, and now you think it’s normal to be making out with a boy?”

That did shut me down. “I’m sorry, Chad, you’re right. The thing is, I am a girl just now, and I’m reacting to things the way a girl would. I’m almost comfortable with it, and… well… who knows?”

“What do you mean, ‘almost comfortable’?”

“Wait, didn’t I tell you about that? Um… I was cuddling with him one time and I suddenly freaked out, imagining doing it as my real self. I never told him why, but this last time I worked really hard not to let it bother me.”

“And you succeeded?”

“Um, yeah. That’s when I sort of teased him to take off my shirt.”

“Because you wanted to see how comfortable you felt with… this whole idea?”

“I… guess so. I mean… well, I am attracted to him, too.”

“Yeah, but if you’re having these kinds of freak-outs, that would be a problem if you can’t change back, wouldn’t it?”

I sighed. “Probably. I’m hoping it doesn’t come to that. After all, we have found the lab, so there should be a way back, right?”

“I hope so. Anything else?”

“Not that I can think of. Thanks, Chad. Have a good night.”

The next morning, as my roommates and I were about to head to breakfast, I noticed them look at one another, nod, and then look at me.

“So what’s going on with the two boys, Marsh?” Lee Ann asked, almost too casually.

“Not to mention your friend, Vicky.” Terry added.

“Oh… well, I told you, we were working on a video,” I said, surprised that they were asking.

“And how did that come out?” Terry asked, meaningfully.

I looked at her for a moment. She seemed to suspect something. I wasn’t sure what I had said or done. “It didn’t,” I said after a moment. “It’s turns out that we couldn’t use the video.”

“Uh huh. This would be a video of the experiment?” she said.

I stared. “Um… what are you talking about?” I asked looking back and forth at the two of them.

“Miss Big-Ears here overheard you and your friends talking about an experiment, Marsh,” Lee Ann said.

“My ears are not big,” muttered Terry.

“Maybe not until you spent all that time with them pressed to Marsh’s door.” She looked at me again. “You’re still going on about that time travel experiment, aren’t you Marsh? You haven’t mentioned it at meals recently but you’re serious about it, right?”

I stared some more, trying to think of what I could tell them; they didn’t seem hostile, and they were my friends, so… “Yeah, we found the lab, and we’re trying to figure out what’s going on.”

“You mean it is real?” Terry gasped. “There really is an experiment? Not just a joke?”

“Well, I know people who volunteered and were… changed, yeah. Including me,” I added ruefully.

“That’s kind of hard to believe, Marsh,” Lee Ann said. “I mean, if people were really changed, how could they keep it a secret?”

“What happened to you?” Terry asked, obviously ignoring Lee Ann’s doubts.

I hesitated for a second; telling my family had been OK, but I was living with these girls and I was pretty sure that they’d be uncomfortable thinking of a boy looking at them in their underwear from behind my eyes. So I temporized. “Well, I am a bit smaller, now…”

“Oh my gosh,” Terry gasped. “That girl who lost…” she indicated her bust, “… that was you wasn’t it?”


“Seriously, don’t worry,” she said, putting her hands on my shoulders. “You look great. It’s probably easier for you now, isn’t it?”

Maybe I can find a way to tell them another time, I thought. “It’s definitely different.”

“Are you serious, Marsh?” Lee Ann asked, staring. “You were actually changed? I mean, physically changed?”


“And nobody remembers the old you?”

I shook my head. “Well, actually, Vicky does – since she was changed, too. And… well, I don’t know that she and I ever met in this timeline.” I turned to Terry. “That’s why you don’t remember her. We were close for a long time, but…” I stopped, not sure what I could say that wouldn’t reveal more than any of us would be comfortable with.

“So it’s not just physical changes, then?” Lee Ann asked, quietly. “Is that why… wait! Did this happen over midterm break last semester?”


“So that’s why you seemed so unsure of yourself – I mean, more than usual, even for you. That must have been really tough. Why didn’t you just tell us? We’re your friends, Marsh. We’ve known each other for a long time – I mean, you’ve known Terry since you got to Piques, practically. Don’t you think we would have understood?”

I hesitated again, and before I could say anything, Terry jumped in. “Or did you know us?” she asked.

After a moment, I shook my head. “I had different roommates, before, and they don’t remember me… the only ones who remember me are you guys, and the rest of our friends. Even my family doesn’t remember the old me.” To my surprise, I seemed to be crying, and I found myself sitting on the couch with my roommates on either side of me.

Terry put her arms around me. “Marsh, I hope by now at least that you know you can trust us?”

I nodded, but I was roiling inside. It’s not a question of trust, I told myself. It wouldn’t be fair to them to tell them the whole truth. I tried to relax. Besides, I’m reacting more like a girl now anyway.

“So what else is different for you, now?” Lee Ann asked.

My heart clenched. The truth would be so much easier, but how could I possibly tell them? “Well… Jeremy is actually the first boy I’ve really gone out with,” I ventured. It was the truth, after all.

“Wait!” Terry exclaimed. “What about Dirk? You didn’t date Dirk in high school?”

“No… I mean… no, I didn’t.”

“Were you self-conscious about your chest? Was that the problem?” Lee Ann asked. “I know I used to be. The boys just keep staring at you, and won’t look you in the eyes.”

“I can’t believe you ever had a problem,” I said, my head popping up. Lee Ann seemed to be so incredibly at ease with boys.

“Well, this was in middle school,” she admitted, “but I definitely remember the discomfort.”

“Oh yeah,” Terry laughed, “not to mention being taller than all the boys in my class. I swear, half of them managed to be boob-high on me for most of seventh grade.”

I have absolutely no idea why I laughed along with her; was that really funny? But I did laugh, and so did Lee Ann, and suddenly we were standing up again and Lee Ann was adjusting her clothing, and saying, “We really should get to breakfast. And Marsh? Be sure to come to us, next time, OK? This is why you have friends.”

“I’ll remember,” I promised.

And if I thought the matter was settled, Lee Ann disabused me as we walked to breakfast, pulling me aside to whisper. “I know there’s still something you’re not telling us, Marsh – like why bigger breasts would have changed who your friends are. But we’ve got time. I’ll get it out of you eventually.”

I was really afraid she might be right.

Jeremy called just after lunch to see if I was coming to the study session. “I can’t,” I told him. “I have my first rehearsal for Sweeney Todd tonight. But I’ll be over tomorrow, OK?”

“OK…” he said.

“What’s wrong?” I asked, noting the tone in his voice. “I’ll be over tomorrow.”

“I just… I was really embarrassed about what happened.”

“It’s really fine, B– it’s fine” I said, catching myself and flushing with embarassment. I’d almost called him, “Babe.” Pet names were for couples who were starting to be serious; we were just two people enjoying being together, that’s all. “If you want, we can talk about it.”

“Um… yeah, maybe tomorrow, then, OK?”

I agreed, a bit surprised at his hesitation; we said our goodbyes and hung up – and only then did it occur to me that I had wanted to talk things out and naturally, he hadn’t. The shoe was definitely on the other foot, and it wasn’t the greatest fit.

The first rehearsal for Sweeney Todd was similar to the first one for Mousetrap, with introductions all around, only this time I knew the people I was supposed to know, and I knew what shows Marsha had done, so things were a lot smoother. We didn’t actually do a read through, this time, since there is so much singing in the show. Instead, Alvin handed us schedules of when we were working with the musical director or him, and dismissed those of us who weren’t scheduled for that evening.

Nikki came over as I was picking up my score and script. “I’m done as well,” she said. “We haven’t spoken much, lately. Would you like to get some hot chocolate?”

I looked up, a bit surprised. We hadn’t been talking as much, I realized. A lot of the conversations we’d had before break had been about my discomfort with the life I’d been forced into, and now that I was becoming more comfortable, I’d been neglecting her. So the two of us grabbed our coats and headed to the Grill.

“Congratulations again,” she said as we walked. “How do you feel about the role?”

“Well, it’s my first lead in a musical, so I’m a bit nervous…”

“Alvin knows that; but you showed that you could do the role in Mousetrap, so he was confident that you’ll come through on this one. Even if you don’t remember Marsha’s life, you do seem to have her abilities.”

“And none of my own, I know.” We walked on a bit more before I asked, “What was the name of the boy playing Anthony?”

“Oh, Todd Phelps,” she said, sounding a bit amused. “He is a cutie, isn’t he?”

“I know, and we have a bunch of… romantic type scenes together. Does it make me bad that I’m sort of looking forward to them?”

She laughed. “No, but it certainly makes you different than who you were a few months ago.”

“Yeah… I keep thinking that it would almost be like cheating on Jeremy, but it’s just acting, right? I mean, it doesn’t mean anything?

“And his girlfriend is in the chorus, so if anything, he may be a bit nervous about doing those scenes.”

We shared a laugh at that, and walked into the Grill and ordered our drinks.

“I think I should warn you about something, Marsh,” she said as we sat down with our hot chocolates. “You’re clearly adapting well, and you’re even comfortable with your sexuality as a girl, which is great. But… I don’t think you’ve learned the cautions that girls do – and if you’re going to be lusting after boys, that’s something you need to know. If you let Todd know that you’re attracted to him, you could have a real problem, both with Jeremy and Todd’s girlfriend. And now that I think of it, maybe you need to be careful with Jeremy, too.”

“Jeremy wouldn’t do anything to hurt me,” I protested. “He’s not like that.”

“Oh Marsh, you’re so naïve sometimes. Were you ‘like that’ as a guy?”

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

“Well, you’ve said that you dated a lot of girls, and slept with a number of them, right? Were they eager to have sex with you?”

“What? What do you think I am… was? I never forced myself on any girl, and I never slept with a girl until we’d been dating for a while. Well… except for Vicky, but she was a special case. And every time, my girlfriend was more than willing.”

“Uh huh. Or maybe you just assumed that they wanted to have sex with you, and didn’t pay as close attention as you should have to signs that they didn’t.”

I flinched back, hurt. “That’s… a heck of an accusation, Nikki.”

“I’m not trying to put you on the spot, Marsh. I’m just trying to point out that a lot of guys – especially the ones who do sleep with a lot of girls – are likely to believe what they want to believe about girls’ willingness. And on the other side, girls sometimes do things they wish they hadn’t if they’ve been cuddling with a boy they really like. I’m telling you that you need to be careful, that’s all.

“For a start, you need to pay attention to birth control. Some guys will take responsibility for it, but you can’t count on it. And if you forget, you can really mess up your life.”

“I know that, Nikki,” I said, a bit defensively. “Lee Ann gave me the speech about waiting; and… I’ve started taking the Pill, you know, just in case. I’m not stupid.”

“I’m not saying you’re stupid, Marsh – but boys are not as aware of these kinds of things as girls are. And a lot of girls manage to get pregnant by accident even so. You need to know in your bones what you’re doing. And that’s assuming you’re even seriously ready for sex. I’ve seen guys have sex and it’s like it doesn’t even matter so much, but most girls are really affected by it. Lee Ann is right. Waiting is the best idea right now; but you’ve been acting as though your hormones are driving you and you need to watch that.”

I nodded, and she seemed satisfied, so we moved to other subjects. With less than six months to go before graduation, the two of them were planning for life after school. Alvin had gotten an interview with a regional theater and she was very excited about his chances. She had no idea what she was going to do, as yet.

We talked and talked until it was kind of late, and we got up to leave. And it turned out she wasn’t quite done. “One more thing, Marsh,” she said. “If you decide eventually that you are ready, and you really want to have sex with your boyfriend, fine. But be sure it’s what you want, and not because he wants to and you’ve gotten lost in the moment. It’s very easy to forget. That’s all I’m saying.”

117 A Step Too Far

So I had a lot of advice now from girlfriends about the advisability of trying for a sex life. There was just one obstacle – Jeremy seemed to be really tentative when it came to intimacy. I was sure he’d like if he gave himself a chance, and I was more than willing to give him time; Lee Ann suggested four months. On the other hand, if I could change back sooner, I’d hate to miss the opportunity to see what it was like for a girl, so I really did need to understand what I was dealing with – and it seemed to me that the one person who would have the key to Jeremy was his friend Janine.

Finding her was pretty easy – she was listed as one of his friends on Facebook – so I sent her a message, asking if we could meet Tuesday afternoon, or at any rate some time before the study session. The next morning I had both a positive answer and a friend request, and as agreed, made it over to her dorm room after lunch.

“I’m so glad you contacted me, Marsh,” she said, opening the door. “I’ve wanted to talk to you for ever so long; I’m so glad you and Jeremy got together. I’ve been really worried about him.”

“Worried?” I laughed, as I followed her into her room. “He’s a big boy; he can take care of himself.”

“In most things, sure. In relationships…?” She sighed. “I just wish I’d known who you were, that night in the bathroom.”

“It all worked out,” I assured her.

“So,” she said, offering me the only chair and sitting on her bed, “Jeremy has told me a little about you. I know you’re a sophomore and that you’re in Sweeney Todd, and that’s about it. Oh, and that he really likes you. A lot. But I’m guessing that’s not a real surprise.” We both laughed, and she went on. “That’s just about all. I don’t even know if you’ve picked a major, or what you do besides acting and studying.”

So I told her about myself and my major and my sewing, and if it seemed that I was talking more about Marsha than myself, well, of late it was getting harder to tell where she ended and I began. It was a bit awkward, though, when she suddenly snapped her fingers and said, “Wait! Your name is Marsha and you do alterations?”

“Yes…” I answered, figuring she must have seen some of the ads I had around campus.

“This is so funny! It has to be you!” and when I looked curiously at her, she said, “Last year, I was admiring this outfit a girl in one of my classes was wearing and she said that a student named Marsha had made it for her out of an old dress that used to be her mother’s. That was you, wasn’t it?”

“Um… yeah,” I managed. Was she talking about Celeste, or had Marsha done the same thing for another girl?

“I just wanted to tell you, the design was brilliant.” She smiled. “I’m surprised you don’t want to be a fashion designer or something like that.”

“Uh… thank you?” I answered, trying not to be embarrassed at having been praised for something Marsha had done. “I… just always wanted to be a doctor, is all.”

“Marsh, I didn’t mean to embarrass you,” she said, putting her hand on my arm. “It’s just so nice to see you as somebody really unique!”

You have no idea, I thought.

“So, anyway, you said you had questions about Jeremy? I really want things to work out for you guys – I mean, this is the first time I’ve seen him really interested in a girl since… well, forever.”

So I told her about the New Year’s Eve party where he’d freaked out about my sitting on his lap, and she nodded, not looking at all surprised. She looked as though she was about to say something, but when I paused, she said, “Go on – it sounds as though there’s more.” And of course there was. I told her about his nervousness while trying to take off my bra, and she looked pained. “It’s been three years,” she murmured. “I’d hoped he was over that.”

“Over that?” I echoed.

She nodded. “Did you know that he and I had dated a few times?”

“Yes, he mentioned that, but he said it wasn’t anything serious.”

“Oh, it definitely wasn’t. But I did try to sit on his lap at a party once, and well… he pretty much reacted the same way.”

We looked at each other. “This sounds like a real problem,” I noted. “But he has no problems with… um, cuddling in private. So what’s the problem, here?”

“I wondered the same thing,” she answered, “but I didn’t get the whole story until last year.”

“The whole story?”

“Did he ever mention Meredith to you?” she asked, and I shook my head. She took a deep breath. “I’m sure he wouldn’t mind my telling you, and I think you really need to know. Meredith was his girlfriend in high school.”


“She was a year behind him and they dated for about three years before he came to Piques. From what Jeremy told me, I gathered that she was really inhibited – I mean, a lot of girls do say no to sex with their boyfriends, but she went way beyond that. I’m pretty sure she never even let him take her shirt off, but he really liked her, and well…

“So she came up to visit him at Piques freshman year, and you know how aggressive some of the girls are. Jeremy says it was mostly just girls on his hallway being friendly, but I think some of them were leaning on him a bit more than necessary, touching his shoulders and arms… you know.” I nodded.

“Well, apparently Meredith really didn’t like it, and fought a bit with him, but he said he calmed her down. That was her first campus visit. Do I need to point out that she slept in the room of one of the girls on his hall, and not in his room?

“Anyway, she came back to Piques a few weeks later, and I don’t think she had anything to drink or something, but they went to a party, and suddenly she was all over him. I mean, sitting on his lap wasn’t new, but then she turned around to face him and wrapped her legs around him…”

“At a party?!”

“I know, right? Even his friends thought she was going too far. He was really embarrassed. He wouldn’t tell me everything she did, but I guess it was pretty bad – and way out of character. I think she just decided that if she didn’t want some other girl stealing him, that she had to do more than they did.”

“OK,” I said, “I see how that would put him off a bit, but… just one time? I’m surprised they didn’t just talk it out and resolve things, afterwards.”

“Well, as I said, it was way out of character for her, and he was so used to her acting a particular way, and he was comfortable with it. But that wasn’t the end of it.

“He took her back to his room, you know, to make out they way they usually did, and she got all seductive and did a bit of a strip-tease for him, down to her underwear, and then invited him to take off her bra. Well, he was already a bit uncomfortable with this sudden change, but he is a guy, and he obliged, or tried to. He says he was really nervous, and I’m sure he was exaggerating, but to hear him tell it, he was working on her bra strap for like forty-five minutes, and she started getting really mad.

“She accused him of not really trying, of being sexually satiated by all the girls at school, at deliberately teasing her… after a while, she just pushed him away, undid the bra herself, flashed him, stuck out her tongue and sashayed into the hallway and back to the room where she was sleeping.”

“… topless? On a co-ed hall?”

“And probably in just her panties, yeah. And then she wouldn’t talk to him when he followed her, and the next day she dumped him, and said some more really unpleasant things. Well, I didn’t know about it at the time, but I asked him to go to a party the very next week, because I was upset about breaking up with my boyfriend, and I sat on his lap… and I guess that probably wasn’t a great idea under the circumstances.”

“I see. So you mean, he’s traumatized from one girl on one date?”

“Plus me stupidly reinforcing it the very next week, yeah. Remember he got used to a very celibate kind of relationship, and he’s shy in general, so he hasn’t always been eager to try very hard with new girls. I mean, seriously, you’re the first girl he’s been with for more than a few dates since Meredith. And… I think there may have been another disaster date somewhere along the way, that is, another girl pushing him faster than he was ready to go.”

“So you’re saying I need to be patient with him.”

“Yeah, he’s a very traditional kind of guy. Let him take the lead. It’s not as if you have to throw yourself at him, after all; you already know he likes you.”

I nodded again, thinking hard.

When I got to the study session the next evening, Jeremy was nowhere in sight. I put my books down on one of the tables, figuring that he was would join me later, and pulled out my logic homework. It was definitely getting easier than it had been, but it was much more of an effort than it had been when I was Marshall. I was starting to grow philosophical about it, though. Marsha had had her own strengths, and that’s what I was living with, now.

I looked up in response to a tap on the shoulder. It was Janine. “He’s on his way,” she whispered. “Now remember – be patient.”

“I’ll try,” I promised. She went back to her own work and pulled out my logic homework, but didn’t actually start it. Janine had just handed me the answers to some mysteries about Jeremy, and I needed to think about what it meant.

I was still pondering that when Jeremy rushed in, a bit out of breath. “Sorry I’m late, Marsh,” he murmured, dropping his books next to me. He dashed over to Janine and handed her something, and I heard him say something like, “I hope this was what you meant.”

Then he came back and sat next to me. “Sorry again. I told Janine that I would pick up something for her and it wasn’t ready when I got there. How’s the logic homework look today?”

We studied together for a couple of hours before we both decided we were done. As we got up, I caught Janine’s eye and silently mouthed, “thank you.”

As usual, we headed back to his room to drop off his books before he walked me home, only this time I noticed him starting to look a bit nervous. “Are you still worried about what happened on Friday?” I asked him. “Did you want to talk about it?”

“It’s not worried so much as embarrassed,” he said, looking a bit chagrined. “It shouldn’t have been so hard. I just didn’t know what I was doing.”

“I’m not judging you,” I reassured him.

“I guess you’re used to guys who aren’t so… inexperienced.”

We had reached his door, and I stopped and put my hands on my hips. “If you’re asking about my own experience, Jeremy, there was one boyfriend in high school and that’s it.” I lowered my voice, even though there was nobody around us. “And I didn’t sleep with him; I know you were wondering. So stop feeling sorry for yourself; there’s lots of people who are pretty innocent at physical relationships.” Well, I was physically a virgin, anyway, and I wasn’t really experienced as a girl.

He nodded. “You’re right, you’re right. I just have this idea that guys are supposed to know things… so I did a bit of research,” he continued, and as I looked sharply at him, he looked away, but not before I noticed him starting to blush.

“Research…?” I asked, staring. “You don’t mean… how to take off a girl’s bra?” For a second I imagined Janine helping him with this research and I saw red.

“Um… yeah, I looked it up on the web.”

I had to bite my lip. “On the web…? Jeremy, that is so…” I started to say nerdy, but changed it to, “… so adorable.”

He shrugged. “I just thought…”

“… that you might want to practice…?”

“If that’s OK…”

Well, Janine had said to follow his lead… Once in his room, I lifted my arms for a kiss, and only then did it occur to me that I hadn’t exactly prepared for this. Unlike on our date, I was wearing a dress rather than a blouse and skirt, which meant that I was liable to wind up a bit more undressed that I had intended. Oh well, I thought, as he started kissing me and stroking my back, I’m sure it won’t be a problem.

When I woke the next morning, I was bit disoriented at not finding myself in my own bed. What’s more, the décor of the room seemed to be distinctly masculine, and I wondered why I was in a boy’s room. Then I saw Jeremy watching me and jumped in surprise. I would probably have fallen out of bed if I hadn’t been on the side against the wall; as it was, I banged my head.

“Are you OK?” he asked, concerned.

“Y-yeah… I’m fine…” I stammered, trying desperately to calm myself. “Um… I think I need to get going. What time is it?”

He peered at the clock on his desk. “It’s only a quarter to seven. Why don’t you stay and have breakfast with me?” I shook my head, and he asked, “What’s wrong? Did I… hurt you?”

“No, I’m fine,” I answered hurriedly. I took a breath. Calm, calm, I chided myself. “I just need to get going.” I tried not to look at him as he got out of bed to get out of my way, but I forced myself to kiss him on the cheek. Just a peck; it was the most I felt I could manage.

“Well, then, I’ll get dressed, too, and walk you home,” he declared.

“Jeremy… I think you should stay here. Look, I have rehearsal tonight, but I’ll be done by about ten. Call me? I need some time to think.”


“And… could you turn around while I get dressed?”

I watched him face the door and stripped off the T-shirt he had leant me to sleep in and quickly put on my dress and coat, not even worrying about my underwear, which I stuffed into my bookbag. “Goodbye,” I said, resting a hand on his back. He turned and kissed me, and I didn’t struggle, but as soon as he released me, I was out the door. “Thanks,” I called as I left.

Stupid, stupid, I thought as I walked through the wintry morning. Without tights, my legs and bottom were freezing, but I barely noticed. You can’t let this go on, I chastised myself. By the time I reached my room I was feeling pretty low. I knew my roommates would be up, so I wasn’t surprised to see Terry in her pajamas staring when I unlocked and opened the door.

“Lee Ann,” she called, “Marsh just walked in!”

“She what?” Lee Ann called from her bedroom. Then she came out and looked at me, and said in a worried tone of voice. “Oh Marsh, you didn’t.”

I shook my head. “No, I didn’t.”

“You didn’t?” asked Terry, surprised.

“No, I…” I dropped my books and my coat on the floor. “I’m OK, I just…”

“Yes…?” Terry prompted. So I explained about Jeremy and his research. “He was kissing me and he unzipped my dress…. Then he kept on kissing me and stroking my face and he undid my bra with one hand. That must have been some web site.”


“Well, considering that him seeing my breasts was a first for both of us… um… I wasn’t really ready for what it felt like when he put his mouth on me… and I sort of…”

“We know about that,” Lee Ann said. “Maybe I should have warned you.”

“Anyway, the next thing I knew, I was completely naked, and his shirt was off, and I was reaching for his belt…”

“Marsh… you know you haven’t been on the Pill long enough for it to be safe.”

“I know, but I wasn’t really thinking clearly. I was just… too busy feeling, and it felt great and I wanted… anyway, he pushed my hands away and I said it was OK, and he said it wasn’t and that Janine… that’s his friend. Did I tell you about Janine?”

“No…” Terry said, “what did…?”

“Well, she got engaged this summer to a boy Jeremy introduced her to, only she’d slept with a guy her sophomore year so she wasn’t a virgin and it bothered her.”

“Why…?” Terry asked.

“Well, to hear Jeremy tell it, she decided that it would have been special if she and Carl – that’s her fiancé – could have been each other’s first, only she didn’t wait and then she was sorry when she met him – that she hadn’t waited, I mean.”

“What does any of this have to do with–?”

“I see where she’s going, Terry,” Lee Ann said, stopping Terry with a hand on her elbow. “So Jeremy didn’t want to take your virginity, you mean?”

“Uh huh,” I nodded. “He said that you only get one chance, and that I would probably wish one day, you know, when I was a lot older, that I had waited, and he didn’t want to take that chance away from me.”

“That’s ridiculous!” Terry snapped. “So are you saying that the only way you’re going to be able to have sex with him is if you cheat on him first?”

“I think it’s kind of sweet, actually,” Lee Ann said. “I mean, Stephen and I have never been intimate with anyone but each other, and it’s really kind of special. It shows that there’s one part of ourselves that we’ve never shared with anybody else.”

“Yeah,” I continued, “and anyway, he said he didn’t want to deprive me… and then he said, ‘I couldn’t do that to the girl I love.’” I just let the words hang there.

“He said he loved you?” Lee Ann asked quietly.

“He said it just the way I told you. I don’t know if he even realized what he’d said. “I mean, I like him a lot, but I don’t know that I’m ready to say love.”

“But you spent the night after he said that,” she pointed out.

“It didn’t register until he’d fallen asleep. And I was already dressed for bed and his arms were around me, and I was tired and it was really cold outside….”

“You know, you really got lucky, Marsh,” Lee Ann said.

“I know.”

“Except for the whole ‘no sex’ thing,” Terry muttered.

“Yeah. Anyway, thanks for talking it out, guys. I need to wash up; I don’t know if I’m going to make it to breakfast.”

Of course, I still had stuff I wanted to talk about – things I didn’t want to share with my roommates. Fortunately, Nikki wasn’t too busy when I had a break at rehearsals that night, so I told her the whole story, with one additional detail.

“You thought you were a guy again?” she asked, after I was done.

“Well, I was really disoriented when I woke up and for a moment I thought I’d changed back and I was back in my suite with my old roommates – and then I saw him in bed with me and I kind of freaked.”

“But you covered it up.”

“Yeah, I think he figured I was upset about spending the night with him, and now I have to reassure him that I wasn’t.”

“You guys are really out of sync here, Marsh. He’s thinking he loves you, and you’re not even sure what sex you are.”


“So what now?”

What now indeed?

118 A Need to Talk

I was still talking with Nikki when Jeremy called.

“Excuse me, Nikki,” I said. “I told him to call me around now. Hi,” I said, answering the phone.

“Hi,” he said, sounding almost resigned. “Are you OK?”

“Yeah, I’m fine. I’m talking with my girlfriend.”

“Oh. Should I call back later?”

“Uh… no, I don’t think so.” Nikki gestured to ask if she should leave and I shrugged. I had no idea how long with conversation was going to go.

“I see… Marsh, I’m really sorry,” he said.

“It’s OK,” I told him. “You didn’t do anything wrong.”

“How can you say that? I mean, you were really upset this morning!”

“Yeah, but that’s… it’s not you, Jer, it’s me. Are you going to be up for a while? Maybe I should come over. I think we need to talk.”

I could swear I heard him whimper. “I’ll be up,” he said, quietly.

“OK, then, I’ll be over in a bit,” I told him. “See you in a few.”

Nikki watched me hang up the phone before commenting, “So much for that relationship, huh?”

“What do you mean?” I asked, baffled.

“Aren’t you going over to break up with him?”

“No, why…?” I played back the conversation in my head. “Uh oh.”

She nodded. “Uh huh. ‘It’s not you, it’s me’ followed by ‘we need to talk.’ Classic break-up phrases. He’s probably bracing himself for this conversation.”

I stood up. “Should I call him back?” I looked at her and answered my own question. “No, I might make things worse. I need to get over there, now.”

“So you don’t want to break up with him?”

“No!” I couldn’t even imagine wanting not to be with Jeremy.

“Then you need to realize what you’re doing to him. You freaked out after spending the night with him, for reasons that you can’t tell him, right?”

“Uh…” I really don’t like somebody making me feel guilty, especially when they’re right.

“But you have to make him really believe that it is your problem, and not that you’re just trying to avoid hurting his feelings.” She stood up and came over to me. “Let me ask you something,” she said. “How do you feel about Jeremy?”

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

“Is this a serious relationship? Something you hope will lead to something more?”

“What…?” I gasped. “Nikki, you know I’m hoping to change back. And we’ve found the lab… and we sort of think we might have some clues.”

“So this is just for fun? You have no feelings beyond the physical for this boy?”

I hesitated. “Well… I mean, I don’t know that I can change back. What if I can’t?”

“So it’s OK to hurt him, just in case your plans don’t work out?”

“What? No! I’d never want to hurt him! I mean… he’s… I mean… I really need to get going, Nikki. Jeremy’s probably going crazy, worrying what I’m going to say.” I started gathering up my things and pulled on my coat. Nikki watched me without saying a word.

Her silence was deafening, and I had to stop what I was going and explain. “I’m not trying to hurt him, Nikki. I think I know enough about relationships that I can keep this one from getting too serious. We’re just two people who are enjoying being together. There’s nothing wrong with that, is there?” She just kept looking at me, so I tried again. “All right, I guess it did hurt him when I reacted the way I did this morning. I’m working on that, and I’m going to apologize. I don’t know if I can promise that it won’t ever happen again, but at least he’ll know that it’s my problem. Isn’t that as much as I can do?”

“I just want you to be sure, Marsh. In the past, you’ve said it doesn’t matter since it will all go away when you change back. I just want you to be sure that you can’t rely on that excuse to justify hurting him in the meantime. Even if it all gets erased, the pain will still have happened.”

I nodded, guiltily. “I do understand, Nikki, and I’m really going to be careful. OK, ‘Mom’? May I go if I promise to be a good girl?”

I took her laughter as agreement and headed out into the night, thinking hard. Jeremy was one of the major positives in my life right now, and I really did have to make sure not to mess things up. Nikki had been right – I had to make sure there was no doubt in his mind that he hadn’t done anything wrong.

I knocked on his door and he opened it, looking fully as though he was bracing himself for a death sentence. I winced. I’d really messed up. I put my hands on his chest and rested my head against him. “Just in case you wondering,” I said softly, “I’m not breaking up with you.”

I felt him release a breath I hadn’t realized he was holding. “I was wondering,” he admitted.

“May I come in?” I asked, as he held me lightly, with his hands on my shoulders.

We sat side-by-side on his bed, both of my hands in his. “I’m really sorry,” I said. “I guess I sort of did freak out. I… just had some very strange thoughts.”

“What kind of thoughts?”

I hesitated. I really hadn’t thought this far in advance. “Embarrassing ones,” I said, looking down at our hands. “I’d really rather not talk about them.”

“O…K…” he said, slowly. “You’re sure I didn’t do anything? I thought I might have been rushing you again.”

“You weren’t, I promise. It’s me. I have this… problem, and sometimes I freak out over things because… well, because…” I looked into his patient eyes, and continued, miserably. “I’m working on it. It’s so unfair of me to have let you think you did something. I should have stayed this morning. I should have waited until I’d calmed down and could explain.”

“Well, I guess if you were really upset, that might have been hard,” he acknowledged. “So what do we do now?”

I shrugged. “Just keep going and hope? You’re too great a guy for any girl not to want to be with you.”

“I don’t think there’s too many girls who feel that way,” he laughed. “But I only need one, right?”

We looked at each other; I wasn’t really sure what to say next, and he looked as though he wasn’t either. Then, just as it was starting to feel awkward, he started laughing, and so did I. That was one of the great things about him – he could laugh and make me laugh, even in awkward situations. I gave him a sort of flirtatious look then, and he responded by pulling me into his lap and kissing me hard.

“Friends?” he asked, and I nodded and kissed him again. “Let’s go kind of slowly, then,” he suggested. “Maybe it’s better to wish we were doing more than having you upset that we’re doing too much.”

I giggled – I was getting pretty good at that – and said, “We have a saying in the theater – always leaving them wanting more. I guess that’s good advice for relationships, too.”

So we cuddled a bit more and then he walked me home. I made sure to get a serious good night kiss, though – just to hold me over until the next time.

I met Vicky the next afternoon and told her what had happened. “No sex?” she asked, surprised.

“That’s what he said.”

“Huh. That’s kind of nice, actually.”

I looked at her in surprise. “Nice? I thought you liked sex. I mean, you never gave me the impression that I was forcing you.”

“You didn’t. I mean, you weren’t,” she reassured me. “And it’s useful with Kevin. Keeps him from having all the power in our relationship. Only… I don’t know if I ever told you how I lost my virginity.”

“You didn’t tell me a lot about your previous relationships,” I pointed out. “It’s only since… well, since I looked like this that you even told me about guys abusing you.”

“Yeah… I guess I was afraid… anyway, my first time was with George, sophomore year in high school. He was in college, which probably wasn’t such a great idea for me, I guess. Anyway, we kind of got wasted, and we were cuddling, and… he sort of just did me. Didn’t ask, no warm-up, nothing. I was pretty much already undressed, so I suppose I should have expected something, but… I really wish I’d waited. That any guy would turn down a girl for sex because he cared about her that much… I guess I’m jealous, a bit.”

“And really mellow, Vix. I’m used to you raging over everything lately.”

“I know, right? Only… since I’ve been trying to live up to your unrealistic opinion of me, it’s hard to get up such a mad. I’m really starting to doubt almost everything. I don’t know if I believe you can change back, if I’m really getting anything out of this relationship with Kevin… aside from bruises, I mean. See?” She rolled up her right sleeve and showed me a massive black and blue mark. “He can be so sweet sometimes – I mean, not like your Jeremy, but in his own way – but sometimes I guess I provoke him. I have to walk a fine line between being too easy and pushing him too hard. Sometimes it’s kind of exciting, sort of the way I guess guys must get a thrill out of riding a bull, but sometimes you fall off.”

“Why?” I asked. “Excuse me, Vixy, but that doesn’t sound exciting, and certainly not loving. Why do you stay? You deserve better.”

“Yeah, you keep saying that, but I don’t really believe it. Not when this happens over and over. That’s why I knew you were going to leave me. If it hadn’t been Lee Ann, it would have been another girl.”

“I don’t accept that. I… I just had a lapse. If this hadn’t happened, I know I would have come back to you, if you’d let me.”

“That’s sweet of you to say so.”

“Vicky, listen to me. You do deserve better. You know my dating history. Do you really think I would have dated a loser?” She opened her mouth as though she was going to comment, and then closed it again. I pressed my point. “I don’t know why you think you should be dating jerks, but the fact that you were my girl means that you’re lowering yourself. You can do better; you just need to accept that about yourself and don’t settle for any guy who doesn’t respect you. OK?”

She bit her lip before answering. “You make it sound so easy.”

“I know it’s not easy,” I admitted. “But you’re worth it. Believe that of yourself. I’ll… um… I’ll help you,” I added, my voice trailing off. Then I said quickly, “I mean, as long as I can’t do it myself, I can at least make sure you’re with a decent guy – it makes me look bad, you following me up with a jerk, like you didn’t appreciate me or something…”

“I did appreciate you, Marsh… Marshall… I really did. I do. I just… I guess I’m afraid, that’s all. At least I know where I stand with Kevin.”

“And you don’t like it. Let me help you find somebody better,” I suggested. “Only, I think you’d have to break up with Kevin, first,” I noted, remembering Geoff’s reaction.

She seemed to consider that. “Tell you what, I’ll let you help me find a new guy and I’ll help you find one, too.”

“Me?” I asked, surprised. “I’m not looking for anybody new.”

“No sex, remember?” she pointed out. “And you said you had needs. Well, Jeremy obviously isn’t going to be satisfying them, so it’s time to cut your losses and find somebody else.”

“Uh…” I stammered. “But I like being with Jeremy.”

“You are in love with him, then.”

“N-No! I just… I just really like being with him, that’s all. Look, this is silly. You know me – the six months you and I were together was a record for me. How could I even think of a serious relationship?”

She sighed, so I don’t think I had made my point well, but at least she let the matter drop. Maybe I really did need to put a lot more thought into this. And only later did I realize that she had sidestepped the question of breaking up with Kevin.

At least my relationship with Jeremy didn’t seem to have suffered; we went to a movie that weekend and finished up back in my bedroom with no problems, although he didn’t stay the night. It did give me a chance to learn more about him, though. I was particular surprised when, as we walked back to my room after the movie, he suddenly stopped, dropped to one knee under one of the lights from a dorm and picked something up from the ground.

“Look at this, Marsh,” he said, holding up his find. So I looked, and saw… a small dull pebble. “I think this might be jasper. You can actually find these all over the world; the ground freezing and thawing probably brought it to the surface, here. I’d have to cut it to see if I could use it in something. Hmm… maybe a bracelet? Would you like a bracelet? I could probably get a few decent-sized stones out of this.”

Fortunately, it was dark enough that he couldn’t tell that my smile was forced. “You’re really too generous,” I told him, thinking that such repeated gifts might suggest a relationship more serious than I was counting on.

“Don’t be silly,” he said, standing up. “I told you; I love making these, and half the fun is seeing them worn. You’re my girlfriend, so I’m allowed to give you presents, right?”

What was I supposed to say? I looked at my wrists. I did have a few cheap bracelets that Marsha had collected. I suppose another couldn’t hurt. So I just said, “Thank you.”

After he kissed me good night and left, though, I started wondering if I might be missing something. I tried to think if I might actually wind up hurting him somehow. If we were still dating up until the time I changed back, he wouldn’t be hurt, would he? It wasn’t a question of hurting him and then trying to erase it – one minute we’d be dating and the next he’d never even have heard of ‘Marsha Steen.’ That should be alright, shouldn’t it?

It would be so much easier if I just knew for sure how to reach Professor Davis! Well, if the pattern held, there was every chance that I would wake up Sunday morning with another message from Eric and Martin, telling me that we had another shot of the lab, and might be able to gain some more information leading to the change-back. Much as I really liked being with Jeremy, I was beginning to worry that the longer that was delayed, the more chances there were of my doing something to him that I would regret.

Indeed there was such a message the next morning, and by ten o’clock, the four of us – Martin, Eric, Vicky and I – were gathered in my room again as I searched for the moment when those who had tripped the recording exited the lab, presumably with another crate.

“It occurs to me,” I said, “that if we could put the camera on the hallway ceiling, we’d get a good view of the address on the crate.”

“I didn’t think of that,” Eric said. “I figured you’d want another look inside, but lets plan to do that the next time.”

And then I found the moment and sat back to watch. As before, “the grad student” and “the professor” emerged, holding a crate, and as before, they didn’t make it easy for us to read the writing on it, although it seemed that it was probably the same as the last time from what we could see.

“You know,” we heard the grad student joke as the two of them put the crate down below the view of the camera, “I hadn’t expect to have to specialize in furniture moving as a condition for my doctorate.”

“Don’t worry,” the other reassured him, “the ejector” (at least that’s what it sounded like – it might have been ‘projector’ or something similar) “is the heaviest thing we had left. The rest of the equipment should be much easier.”

“C’mon,” Vicky muttered, “tell us something important.”

The professor closed the door and then suddenly bent over to look at something. Then he pulled out a small flashlight and shone it at the door and Martin whispered, “Oh crap.”

“Come here, Brian,” the professor said, sounding urgent. “I think we’ve got a problem. Look,” he added as “Brian” joined him, “somebody’s been trying to get into the lab.”

“But who could it be?”

“That’s what puzzles me,” we heard the professor say, “It can’t be anyone in the department – they’ve got a copy of the key. If the administration wanted to get in, they’d just get the key from the department. So it pretty much has to be a student.”

“But the only students who might even have wanted to should be group 2,” Brian objected. “And we know from Strangers in the Mirror meetings that they’ve given up.”

At that comment, Vicky and Eric started speaking at once, but I shushed them urgently, just in time to hear Brian say, “…for after all.” I ran to my computer and backed up the movie to hear what we’d missed. What we heard then was, “… given up. It sounds as though we might have missed somebody and there must have been a group 4, after all.”

We looked at each other, baffled, but nobody spoke.

The professor stood up from the lock. “We can’t take a chance. If the wrong people get into this lab, we’re finished. We need to clear it out tonight.”

His student nodded. “It’s going to be tricky, getting all those crates into the truck. I’ll call Simon to help. We’ll just have to hope that nobody notices.”

The two of them started down the hall with their burden, but just before they went out of range, the professor added, “We need to know if something happened. Contact Luke and see if he can shed any light on this.”

If their previous comments had surprised us, that little bombshell shocked us all into silence for a moment before everybody seemed to start talking at once and I had to shout to be heard. “Hold it!” I said. “One at a time! We need to figure this out.”

“But first, we need to hear what Martin knows,” Eric suggested. He looked at our own grad student. “What’s going on?”

Martin sighed. “Remember your friend who wanted to pick the lock? I let him in this week, because he said he’d learned of some new techniques that might work. As he was doing it, though, he slipped and left a scratch on the lock and the door. I was hoping that they wouldn’t notice. And no, he didn’t get the door open.”

“And now they’re going to the empty the lab and we’ve just lost an important set of clues!” Vicky noted, unnecessarily. “And what was that about the Strangers?”

“Sounds as though we’ve been betrayed,” I said. “Luke’s been playing along with the administration all along.”

“Could it be some other Luke?” Eric asked. “Allie seemed pretty sure she could trust the guy.”

“I don’t know,” I admitted. “But it’s not all that common a name, and given that they clearly know about the Strangers, I doubt it.”

“So now what?” Vicky asked.

“Do you think your camera might have caught any more?” Martin asked.

I wasn’t sure, so I scrubbed forward on the movie and, sure enough, the two of them, accompanied by a third man who was presumably ‘Simon’ showed up again, just going back into the lab with a bunch of rope and a handcart. The video ran out before they came out again.

“I think we’re going to have to confront Luke,” I said. “But I want to run some ideas past my father first. Things are getting complicated, fast.”

119 Getting So Close

I could barely wait for Chad and my father to call that evening, and when my phone finally rang after dinner, I gushed, “Wait until you hear this!” and told them what we had seen.

“That’s incredible!” Dad said when I was done. “So the school already knew about the Strangers?”

“Sure looks that way,” I agreed. “I don’t understand why Dean Peterson was pumping me for information on them.”

“Maybe the school does, but he wasn’t in on the secret?” Chad suggested.

“Could be,” I said. “Anyway, They’ve probably cleared the lab by now, so I don’t think your court order’s going to do us any good, Dad.”

Dad chuckled. “Oh, right – well, the judge practically laughed in my face when I told him about it, so it’s probably just as well. But it does mean that you can’t get that address, doesn’t it?”

“Yeah,” I admitted, “but we might not need it if we can get the information from Luke. Vicky, Eric and I have been talking about whether we should challenge him alone, or with just his roommate present, or in front of the Strangers. I’m worried that Ian must have been in on the deception all along, but Vicky says no.”

“Could be a bit messy if you have a crowd, I’d think,” Chad pointed out. “What if some of them agree with you and some don’t? Keeping the audience small might be safer. And consider: you’re the outsider, here. They’re likely to be loyal to Luke and Ian.”

“How are you planning the confrontation itself?” Dad asked. Well, that was something I’d hoped to get ideas about from this call, so we talked it out for a while before coming up with a plan. It seemed reasonable to trust Vicky’s sense of Ian and Luke, since she knew them so much better than I. We agreed that bringing Eric could be problematic, fearing that introducing a newcomer into the mix might make the guys more defensive. That didn’t that he couldn’t be useful, of course.

I called Vicky immediately afterwards and she liked the idea, so she called Eric, who called Allie, swearing her to secrecy and getting her best guess of when Luke and Ian were likely both to be in their room with no company. Then we were ready.

It was hard to tell whether it was Vicky or I who was more nervous as we approached Luke and Ian’s dorm room Tuesday evening; my heart was pounding, and she was chattering as though afraid of the silence.

“You’re sure you don’t want to bring anybody else?” she asked, as though we hadn’t hashed over the point a dozen times. “Maybe we need a guy there for backup? You know, in case we start a fight between Ian and Luke?” I just shook my head. She wasn’t really looking for an answer I hadn’t given her multiple times before.

“And what about Jeremy? Why did you say he was upset when you said you couldn’t study with him tonight?”

She’d found a new question, so I sighed and answered, “He wasn’t exactly upset,” I told her. “He was disappointed, since study nights have been almost like dates for us, and I have rehearsal on both Monday and Wednesday this week. We don’t usually go that long without seeing each other.”

“So how are you planning on making it up to him?” she asked, and I stopped walking and stared, seeming to hear a conspiratorial tone in her voice.

“You know if this works out he’ll probably never see me again, right? He’ll never know we’d met, and he’ll probably have fallen for some other girl. So why are you asking me about ‘making it up to him’?”

“And you’re OK with that? I just want to be sure, Marsh.” She looked away and started wringing her hands. “I just want to be sure that if this works and… and we’re together again that you don’t find yourself wishing you were still with him instead of me.”

“Vicky, what’s wrong?” I asked, taking her shoulders and forcing her to turn to face me. “Are you having so much trouble believing that I really want to be with you? How many times do I have to reassure you? I’m crazy about you, Vixy. OK, yes, I like Jeremy a lot. Maybe, maybe I’m even in love with him a little, but it can’t work out. And I’m sure he knows that… he hasn’t dated a lot of girls and he’s way too sensible to get serious about me this quickly, and…” I shook my head to clear it. I didn’t want to think about what I was planning on giving up. “Anyway, it’s not going to matter because I intend to be your boyfriend again. OK?”

She nodded, and suddenly she had her arms around me, awkwardly trying to slip her arms under mine as she always had when I was the tall one.  A couple of guys passed us, but barely looked at us. I guess a couple of girls hugging is no big deal.  Still, I waited for them to pass before stepping back. “OK, let’s do this.”

Ian answered our knock almost immediately, gasped and dragged us inside. “Are you two insane?” he hissed. “You know you’re not supposed to be here! What if you were followed?”

“It’s no good, Ian,” Vicky said, as he closed the door. “The game’s up. The administration knows about the Strangers, don’t they?”

“What did you guys do?” he asked hoarsely. I don’t believe he could have faked the horror that showed in his eyes. At that moment I became convinced that Vicky was right, and he hadn’t known about Luke’s betrayal. Well, that was about to change.

“We didn’t do anything, Ian,” I said, walking up to him and prodding him in the abdomen. “It’s your roommate. He’s been playing both sides from the beginning. Call him.”

“What are you talking about?” he retorted. “Luke’s been straight with all of us. He’s been protecting the group – and now you’ve brought the authorities down on us and you’re blaming him? No way.”

“Call him,” I repeated.

He looked at me arrogantly and then shouted. “Hey Dude, get out here.”

One of the bedroom doors opened and Luke poked his head out and saw us. “What are you guys doing here?” he asked, sounding shocked. “You know you’re not supposed to be here!”

“And you’re not supposed to be telling the deans where to find us!” countered Vicky.

I’ll give him credit – he blinked, but was otherwise apparently unfazed. He laughed at us. “Girls, I can promise you I have never spoken with any deans about the Strangers – or anybody else from the school administration. Did you not notice how hard Ian and I have worked to keep them from finding you guys? I don’t know where you’re getting your information, but it’s just wrong.”

He was so sure of himself, I might have doubted what I’d heard – only, I’d made it a point to transfer a portion of the video to a sound file, which I had on my mp3 player. “Does this voice sound familiar?” I asked.

I pressed ‘play,’ and the professor’s voice came out of the speakers. “Come here, Brian I think we’ve got a problem. Look. Somebody’s been trying to get into the lab.”

I’d been watching Luke to see his reaction, but he barely twitched at the voice. I thought I saw his eyes flicker, but that was all. Ian, on the other hand, gasped. “Is that… is that Professor Davis? You actually met him?”

“We didn’t meet him,” I said, still watching Luke, “but we did get him on tape.”

“That’s… amazing,” he said. “So you actually found the lab? And tried to pick the lock?”

“Who said anything about picking the lock, Luke?” I asked quickly. “You seem to know all about it!”

“What? No – but if Professor Davis said somebody was trying to get in, I just assumed…”

Did somebody try to pick the lock?” Ian asked.

“Yup,” Vicky answered him, “and they left scratches on the lock and the door.” Ian was now looking carefully at his roommate.

I pushed ‘play’ again, letting everyone hear Brian’s comment, “But the only students who might even have wanted to should be group 2, and we know from Strangers in the Mirror meetings that they’ve given up.”

“What?” Ian exclaimed. “They do know about us?”

“Dude,” Luke tried to reassure him, “Marsha spilled the beans, remember? She told Dean Peterson. Remember how we set this big thing up so she wouldn’t come here anymore? This isn’t news.”

“I wasn’t here, then,” I pointed out. “And I never told them that people had given up looking.”

“So you say,” Luke retorted. “You’re still the only one we know told the people in charge about us. No point in trying to pin it on Ian and me. We never spoke with the administration about the group. Never.”

“Uh huh,” I said, and pressed ‘play’ again.

This time I watched Ian as the sound of Professor Davis’s last comment played. “We need to know if something happened. Contact Luke and see if he can shed any light on this.”

Ian did not disappoint. At the proof of his roommate’s perfidy, his head snapped around. “You bastard!” he hissed. And then he launched himself at Luke.

Automatically, I tried to stop him, but I don’t have the mass or strength I’d been used to and he barely noticed me. He pinned his roommate against the wall, screaming at him in language that no longer felt comfortable to me, while Luke yelled for help. Afraid Ian was actually going to injure our culprit,, Vicky and I finally managed to stop him by wrapping ourselves around each of Ian’s arms and allowing him to try to lift us off the ground.

Luke kept his back pressed to the wall and watched Ian warily, as both guys were panting heavily. “You’d better tell us everything,” Vicky warned him, “or we’ll let him go.”

Ian emphasized the point by snapping, “Liar!” but didn’t try to shake us off.

“I didn’t lie, Ian,” Luke said softly. “I never spoke to the administration about any of this.”

Ian spat in his face.

“I’m pretty sure they don’t know anything. But… I have been in touch with Brian and Rolf – that’s Professor Davis. And believe me, they want this kept from the administration as much as we do.”

I felt the tension in Ian’s arm diminish, and cautiously let go. Vicky did the same. Ian made no move to resume his attack, but only whispered, “Why? Why did you do it, Luke?”

“You’ve got them all wrong,” Luke insisted, looking at all three of us. “They’re good guys. Only the administration panicked and made them leave campus and tried to pretend they never existed.”

We waited, and he went on, “Rolf is a visiting prof from out West, and he wasn’t teaching classes. He and Brian and I think another grad student came here to do some more research; I don’t know the details. Only they needed to know exactly what the results were and the administration told them they couldn’t talk to any of the students under threat of losing their funding, or whatever they were supplying.”

“So where are they now?” I asked.

Luke shook his head. “I have no idea. I’ve only communicated with them by email since they got booted. Unlike most of you guys, I did go back for an interview, and since they knew my roommate had also volunteered, they contacted me and suggested setting up the Strangers in the Mirror, both to keep everybody together and to let me send them information. So I’ve sort of been telling them what you guys have said about your own experiences.”

“But why?” Ian repeated. “Why did you do this to us?”

“I didn’t do anything. Look, if they’re going to be able to undo what happened, they need to understand it, right? So I was doing this for all of us. But I had to keep it quiet, ‘cause if the word got out they might have to close up shop and then where would we be?”

By now we had drifted to the couches so that we could speak more comfortably. I could see that Ian had calmed down a lot. His last question had been much more of a query than an accusation.

“So they’ve said that they’re going to change us back?” Vicky asked.

“Well, not in so many words,” Luke admitted. “But why wouldn’t they? I mean, once they have enough data? I have to believe that this was all a mistake. They would never have been allowed to do this experiment and mess up our lives on purpose, would they?”

“Maybe that’s why they had to leave that place out west,” Ian pointed out. “Did they pay you? Or just trick you? I’ve never known you to be so naïve, Dude.”

“Look, this is all very interesting,” I said, “but what’s really important to me now is getting in touch with them. Can you give me their email address? Or at least have them contact me?”

Luke looked really uncomfortable. “I can’t actually do that.”

Ian snapped at him. “Luke, you need to decide whose side you’re on. Some of us are really hurting here, and Marsha’s acting like she’s one of the worst. Hand over the information!”

“No, I mean I really can’t,” Luke repeated. “I don’t have a way to reach them. See, they really don’t want to be found, so they contact me using one of the disposable email addresses. You know, the ones people use when they have to register for websites and don’t want to give out their info? They’re good for like a few hours or a day, and I have to answer within the time limit. If I need more time to get them the answers they want, they just send me another message a couple of days later.”

He pointed to the wall, and I saw the object that had been taken from the lab the previous week. “They dropped that off and emailed me to see if anybody noticed it and how they reacted and then of course they had to email me again after the meeting to get the answers.”

“Fine,” I said. “Then send them a message the next time they contact you. Tell them I really want to talk with them and I promise to keep their secrets, but it’s kind of urgent.”

He shook his head. “No can do. I don’t think they’re ever going to contact me again. They sounded really freaked out – apparently somebody had actually found the lab, and tried to pick the lock…”

I felt all the blood drain from my face. “You’ve got to be kidding.”

“They asked me if I’d heard anything from the Strangers about it and I hadn’t, so they figured it was somebody we didn’t know about and said they were breaking off communications. I’m really sorry, Marsha. I didn’t even think about it being you.”

Vicky came over to sit next to me and put her hand on my arm. We looked at each other without speaking. No words seemed necessary.

“If they do ever contact me again, I promise to let them know that you want to talk, Marsha. That’s all I can do.”

It wasn’t much. In fact, it really wasn’t anything, if he was right about Professor Davis panicking. And it was all my fault! If I hadn’t tried to get somebody to break in…

But Vicky was whispering to me, “I think we should go, Marsh.” I tried to stand, but my legs were rubbery and she had to help me up. “Thanks for the information, Luke. We won’t tell anybody – and do let us know if you can get them a message.”

She adjusted my coat, wrapped my arm around shoulder, and supported my weight as I stumbled into the hallway. I couldn’t move on my own. I was in shock, and I just let my legs fall under me as Vicky half-dragged my upper body. Neither of us spoke until we were out of the building, where the cold on my face brought me partially back into focus. “Are you alright?” she finally asked.

“That’s it? Just like that? It’s over?” I managed, my eyes staring at nothing. “How can that be? We found the lab, Vicky! We found somebody who had actually been speaking with those guys all along, and we still don’t know how to reach them. How is that even possible?”

“Just bad luck, Marsh. Bad, horrible, stupid, stinky luck. You know, I don’t think I can even cry now. I’m beyond tears.”

“Did we miss something? My brain is shutting down.”

“Well, we do have that address,” she continued. “Some of it, anyway. Maybe we can–”

“I don’t see it, Vix. I just don’t see it. There’s not enough there. How are we ever going to figure out where they are from the little bit of an address we got? I wish I’d never thought to ask Stan to pick a lock. I wish I’d never heard of picking locks. I wish… I don’t know. Maybe if we go back. Maybe there’s something Luke hasn’t told us.”

“Then why would he now?” she pointed out. “Marsh, you know how much I want this… I just don’t think there’s anything else there. I don’t want you hurt, banging your head against a locked door.”

“You’re saying I need to accept this. To move on. How do I do that? How do you?”

“I don’t know,” she admitted. “Maybe we’ll able to think after a good night’s sleep. I’m out of ideas.”

“Yeah, me too, Vix. Me too.”