Archive for the ‘Section 4: Moving Forward’ Category.

46 Putting Things in Their Places

After Nikki demonstrated to my chagrin that neither of us was strong enough to carry the amp, she called Alvin to help. I really shouldn’t have been surprised after my experience with the suitcase when I returned to school, but I had been so used to hauling my amp around at will, that finding myself too weak to do it now was disheartening. Still, the prospect of being able to practice, of actually having a guitar in my arms once more, more than made up for it.

When the three of us arrived at my dorm room, my cradling the guitar like a beloved child, Lee Ann was sitting in the common room, reading. “What’s this, Marsh?” she asked.

I indicated Alvin. “Lee Ann, this is Alvin Tomlinson, my director, and Nikki’s boyfriend. Alvin, this is my roommate, Lee Ann Taylor.”

I watch enviously as Alvin shifted the amp to one hand and shook hands with Lee Ann with the other. I used to be able to do that.

“Nice to meet you, Alvin,” Lee Ann greeted him. Then she looked back at me. “I mean the guitar, Marsh. What are you doing with a guitar?”

“Oh. I’m borrowing it. I’m going to teach myself to play.”

“Aren’t you already kind of overwhelmed as it is?” She looked at Alvin and Nikki. “I think we should talk… when you’re free. And isn’t that going to be a bit noisy?”

“I’m going to plug headphones into the amp. I promise you won’t hear anything.”

“Marsh, why don’t I just put this in your room?” Alvin interjected.

“Oh, I’m sorry,” I said, aware that I was ignoring him. “Lee Ann, let me just–”

“No, it’s OK,” she replied. “We’ll talk later.”

“OK, this way,” I instructed Alvin.

After we had dropped off the guitar, amp, and of course the appropriate cables, I walked Alvin and Nikki to the door and thanked them. Then I returned to Lee Ann.

“I know it seems like a lot…” I started.

“It’s OK, Marsh,” she stopped me. “You’ve been talking about your grandfather and his guitar for some time. It’s obvious you’ve wanted to learn. I just worry that you’re avoiding things. I don’t believe that you’re really OK ignoring boys. Maybe this Jeremy thing isn’t going to go anywhere, but there are still lots of nice boys around. Don’t just lock yourself in your room all semester.”

“I… I’m not,” I protested. “I just really want to play the guitar.” She eyed me doubtfully. “I’m serious, Lee Ann. That’s all this is.”

“So you’re coming out with us this weekend?”

“Sure. Absolutely.” I remember some of the girls discussing an outing of some kind, although I hadn’t paid an awful lot of attention. At this point, though, I was ready to agree to almost anything to get Lee Ann off my back; I really didn’t want her trying to ‘fix me up’ or anything of the sort. This had seemed like another girls’ night out, which should be pretty safe.

I finally managed to escape back to my room. I had told myself that I needed to deal with the reporter, and my failure to play the guitar in Nikki’s room made that all the more dire. So far, I had failed to find the experimenters, failed to play the guitar, failed in fact just about any test that could demonstrate that I was really Marshall. This was probably my last chance. If I couldn’t find somebody who remembered me that way… I just didn’t want to think that through.

My idea was simple. Cracraft had called me, “Miss Steen,” which suggested that he was possibly an older gentleman, and didn’t care for the title, “Ms.” I figured a man his age would have trouble resisting a sobbing teenage girl, so I was going to go see him in person, and if he wouldn’t help me, I was going to cry. After all, I might as well make use of the tools I’d been handed. So first, I needed to figure out where the Messenger was located. But that guitar was calling me…

I really couldn’t resist. It had been so long. I plugged everything in and started with a simple chord progression: D7 – G – A7. This used to be as easy as breathing for me, but now it took real effort. Each change took me about a second, and I had to watch my fingers to get them to go into the right place, and I had to concentrate to make sure that each finger was actually pressing down on the string enough so that it would sound when I plucked it. I didn’t have a pick, so I used a quarter; I could check to see if the bookstore had picks tomorrow. I practiced those chords for about fifteen minutes before my fingers hurt too much to continue.

It wasn’t much, and it was depressing to hear how bad I was, but it was a start. It was a connection to my past, to the real me, the one nobody knew… unless Chad’s idea worked out. And it was enough to get me willing to work on that idea, now. I found the office location pretty easily; according to the online map, though, it was about eight miles from campus. Clearly, I was going to need a ride or to borrow car. Somebody in our group should have one, surely.

At dinner, I waited until most of our group was seated before making my request. Unfortunately, that included Jay, and even more unfortunately, he was already in a testy mood over something. But I was a man with a mission – well, in my heart, anyway – and I wasn’t going to let him deter me.

“I need to go into town tomorrow afternoon,” I announced. “Would somebody be able to lend me a car or give me a ride?”

Phil was the first to respond. “Where do you need to go, Marsh?”

“I… I wanted to go to the newspaper offices,” I said, and I couldn’t help glancing at Jay as I did.

“Why?” Sheila asked, sounding just a bit curious.

But I should have known that Jay would be suspicious. “Oh for crying out loud!” he raged. “She’s still on that time travel kick. Marsh, how can you –”

“Let me try, Jay,” Sam interrupted him. “Marsh, don’t you say that the whole story is impossible?”

“No,” I said, a bit impatiently. “Why is it impossible? Just because Jay doesn’t believe it?”

“It’s not a question of belief –” Jay started, but Sam cut him off again.

“Look at what they said,” Sam pointed out, patiently. “They found themselves changed, right?”


“But look at what they didn’t say. They didn’t say that everything else was different. If somebody went back in time and changed something, everything should be different. Not just their bodies, but also all of their friends, and their clothes, and school, and… everything! Right, Jay?”

But Jay didn’t give Sam the affirmation he was evidently expecting. Instead, he looked even more aggrieved. “No,” he stated flatly. “No, no, no!”

“Sure it should,” Sam insisted. “Because a lot of those depend on random happenings, and if you run a random event over again, you’re almost certainly going to get different results.”

“No,” Jay repeated, glaring at both Sam and me. “Look, you picked a really bad day to try this with me, because I just sent half an hour arguing with this idiot over the same idea.”

“Time travel?” I asked.

“No, the idea of random events.” He took a deep breath. “This moron was insisting that science inherently conflicts with religion, because it describes how things happen from the creation of the universe and through evolution of species, and works through random processes plus selection.”

“Well, that makes sense,” Fred commented. “After all, what do you need God for if you can explain everything scientifically?”

“Because when scientists say that something is ‘random’ that doesn’t mean that anything could happen, or that all of the choices are necessarily undetermined.”

“Then what does is mean?” Sam challenged him.

“A more precise term might be ‘uncorrelated.’” And now Jay’s tone took on the sound of a lecturer. His words sounded almost rehearsed. “Look, science is all about predicting future observations based on past ones. If something is inherently non-observable, it is also irrelevant to science. So, for example, we think the Big Bang was a singularity. If so, then it is impossible for anything that might have preceded it to affect our universe, and so we ignore it. Similarly, the Many Worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics says that the universe splits whenever an event happens, but once again, if we cannot observe these hypothetical other universes, whether they exist or not may be interesting to philosophers, but is irrelevant to science. They cannot affect us.

“When we say that something is ‘random’ all we are saying is that we cannot correlate it with something that happened earlier; we cannot predict it. But that doesn’t mean that there can’t be some more basic reality that we cannot observe that could determine it.”

“You mean, like God?” somebody suggested.

“Maybe,” Jay continued. “Maybe God controls all the dice, all the random events, and just makes them happen with the right frequencies to make us think that they happen randomly – randomly as most people use the word. Maybe they do happen randomly and if you could run them again, they would all happen differently. Maybe some of them would happen the same and others wouldn’t. The point is, we have absolutely no way to tell, because we cannot rerun an individual dice roll. All we can do is roll the dice again and again and see how they behave in the aggregate.”

“If you had time travel, you could do the experiment,” I pointed out.

“Yes, we could,” he said, hotly. “But we don’t. Time travel is impossible, not because some reporter didn’t describe a chaotic effect, but because it conflicts with some really fundamental things we know about the Universe. Things like conservation laws.”

“But don’t physicists change their ideas of laws when they learn new facts?” I insisted. “Why wouldn’t you just rewrite the laws if somebody could prove time travel?”

“Because…” he sighed in exasperation and threw his hands up. “Look, just trust me on this one, Marsh. You’re a science major. You know how science works. There are some basic things that you know aren’t going to have to change. Some things we can be pretty damn sure about.”

“And we decide all of this via evidence, right? We’ll, I just want to explore the evidence. I want to see what the reporter learned that he didn’t report. I want to find the people who made the claims and see exactly what happened. That’s the scientific way, right? Going to the evidence rather than just taking things on faith?”

“Fine. Fine,” he said. “Go ahead and waste your time. I’ve tried to help you get off this kick. You won’t listen. You can apologize when you wind up with egg on your face.”

“I don’t think I will,” I said, calmly. “I just need a way to get to the newspaper office.”

“What time did you want to go, Marsh?” Phil asked quietly, once Jay had turned away from me and assiduously attacked his dinner.

“My last lab tomorrow ends around two-thirty, and I’d like to leave soon after that. I don’t want to miss him if he leaves early on Fridays.’

“No problem,” he smiled. “Why don’t you come over to my room when you’re done and I’ll lend you my keys?”

“Finally got up the courage to ask her back to your room, Phil?” cracked Fred.

We both ignored him. I might not be interested in dating Phil, but he was showing himself to be a good friend to have.

47 Making Time

Thanks to Phil, I arrived at the Messenger’s offices around 1:30 and immediately asked the receptionist if I could see “Mr. Cracraft.” Told by her that “an attractive young lady” was calling on him, my target came to the receptionist’s desk fairly quickly. He was a bit older than my father, and his carefully trimmed and elaborate gray moustache added a slightly debonair touch to an otherwise plain appearance. When he learned my name, however, he was somewhat less eager.

“Miss Steen,” he said severely, “I told you via email that I couldn’t help you.”

“I was hoping that I could at least speak to you about the article,” I said, whimpering slightly.

He rolled his eyes and nodded. “Fine. Why don’t you come back to my desk? I’ll give you ten minutes.”

Seated demurely in his extra chair, I told him how distraught I had been at finding my life turned upside down, and how I had been forced to get used to a completely new group of friends, none of whom had known the old me. It wasn’t completely true, as both Lee Ann and Sheila had known me as Marshall, although of course now they didn’t. I shed a tear as I explained how the one friend in whom I had confided had suggested that it all a delusion, and that the old self I remembered was a complete fabrication.

“And I just hoped,” I said, starting to break down into tears, “that if one of my old friends had also been subject to this… this horrible experience, that she might remember me and we could comfort one another.” I was effective, and I knew it, and he was clearly affected, although trying to maintain professional detachment.

“Miss Steen,” he reminded me, “a reporter owes a bond of confidentiality to his sources. If we gave out their names, we would soon lose their trust, and we would not have important information available to print, and our readers would lose out.”

“But–” I protested.

“The students who came to me relied on my journalistic integrity not to give out their names. In this case, they could well be in a lot of trouble with the school administration, which has tried to pester me to find out who they were. I don’t know if there was any real experiment, or if the whole thing was a hoax; that’s for my readers to decide. What I do know is that the school administration clearly wanted it silenced.

“Now, if it was real, you may well be the damsel in distress that you appear to be. If not, you could be an administration spy, trying to get around me. In either case, I cannot tell you how to contact my sources. It is not my place to make that choice and possibly put them at risk.”

“So you can’t help me at all?” This time, I didn’t need to act to sound upset. I had been so certain that he would fold; this was my last chance to prove my identity, if only to myself. “I… I really need this. I know I’m who I think I am, but I can’t prove it, and I’m starting to doubt myself. I’m… kind of going crazy. Isn’t there any way you can put me in touch with them?”

“As I was saying, I cannot place them at risk; however, there is one thing I can do for you. I know how to reach some of those who came to me. If you will give me your phone number, I can pass it along. If they choose not to contact you, that’s the end of it. I can do no more. If they do contact you…”

Feeling utterly defeated, I gave him my cell number and returned to school. Either somebody would contact me or they wouldn’t. I didn’t know what I would do if they just ignored me. There had to be some other way; I just couldn’t think of one.

In the past, when I’d felt this much at a loss, I’d generally sat and played my guitar. The best I could do now was to practice my chord progression: D7 – G – A7. I played it over and over again until my fingers ached and I had to stop. This was going to take forever, but it was all I had. I needed to find that lab. I spent another fruitless hour searching for it, and dragged myself back to my room for more studies.

Yeah, I was feeling sorry for myself; I knew that. I just didn’t have a great solution. And to think that just two days ago, I had been elated at being able to kiss a boy convincingly.

So it was actually a bit of an up for me when several of “us” girls went out that evening. It turned out that our destination was a sort of concert a few of the student rock bands were giving on the basketball court. At the very least, I’d get a chance to see how some of the other guitarists on campus were doing. I remembered some of them, although of course they wouldn’t remember me as a fellow musician.

Sheila and Lisa met us at our room after dinner, and Terry was with us as well, making five. There was a fairly decent turnout, probably close to two hundred students, and we found seats about halfway up the bleachers where we had a good view, but wouldn’t be blasted if the bands didn’t know how to work the volume control of their amplifiers.

The first band called itself Wet Smoke and played an odd mix of punk and metal. It seemed that they were still experimenting with their sound, and not really impressing anyone, although their bassist had a very good command of his instrument and a decent voice, which I felt was showcased too little. The girl who was their lead vocalist didn’t do justice to the few original songs they played, although she was competent on the covers. If they had asked me, I would have dumped her, had the bassist do the singing, and added another instrument. There were a number of boys sitting in the two rows behind us, and they seemed a lot more interested in trying to pick up Lisa and Sheila than listening to the music. One of them made a play for Terry, which she deftly rebuffed.

Mercifully, the set was over after about forty-five minutes, and we got up to stretch while the second band set up. The boys behind us introduced themselves as Carl, Umberto, Scott, and a couple of others, whose names I didn’t actually catch; I didn’t really want to get into conversations with them, lest they think I was flirting with them. It was just so much easier for me to talk with guys who already knew Marsha either as a friend or fellow actor.

The second band was much better. They had dubbed themselves Debt and the Midterms, and played a classic rock style, mostly covers. Both their bassist and their guitarist were quite competent, although not quite up to my standard. Their music was very danceable, and Lisa, Terry, and Sheila were on their feet fairly quickly, swinging their hips and generally rocking out to the vocal appreciation of the boys behind us. They were clearly having a blast, and Lee Ann joined them, leaving only me of our group sitting. Of course, my friends weren’t going to permit that, and Terry and Lisa each grabbed one of my arms and pulled me to my feet.

I started to sway very tentatively, aware that there were guys staring at my body, but then I remembered something that Mr. Condrin had said: if you are timid, you will look foolish and your audience will know that something is wrong, but if you act as though you know what you are doing, any laughter will be with you, not at you. So I took a deep breath and started to imitate my friends. It was kind of fun, actually. I felt the rhythm and just let it took hold; my hips seemed to be made for this kind of movement. It felt feminine, to be sure, but I was playing a role, so it was really OK, and as a performer, I reveled in the reaction that we were getting from our private audience. The adrenaline rush wasn’t too bad, either.

We wound up not staying for the third band; the boys talked my friends into coming back to their dorm to party. I objected, but was easily outvoted. It was not until we got to our destination that it occurred to me that there were five of them and five of us, meaning that we were probably going to be expected to pair off – something I had absolutely not bargained for. Fortunately, Lee Ann wasn’t particularly interested in the idea, either, so we wound up sitting together on a couch, with Scott and Carl seated separately on either side of us, and just talked.

The music the boys were playing was fairly soft, so that we didn’t have to raise our voices, and Terry and Sheila were slow dancing with two of them. I didn’t see Lisa, and didn’t particularly care to know where she and the other boy had gotten to. Carl was interested – or at least pretended to be interested – in the play, and promised to attend. I’m sure he thought that he would get a more hospitable welcome if he did. The thing is, I was quite familiar with what the boys were doing – I had done it myself many times, and with no little success. It would not have surprised me if at least one couple formed as a result. Of course, they didn’t know that three of us were effectively off limits; Lee Ann and Terry seemed to be enjoying some harmless male attention, while I just tried to keep my own situation under control.

I can’t really say that Carl did or said anything inappropriate. It’s just that, as a guy, I knew what he was thinking, in a way that girls almost certainly didn’t. Vicky and Jackie and… I guess I’d have to include Maddy as well, had all seemed so innocent about male motivations. It was as if they had expected all guys to be like me – primarily interested in a relationship, and seeing sex as something that made sense as part of it. I knew from conversations with my buddies, though, that most of them would have been quite happy to jump right to the sex part, relationship be damned. Lisa had apparently already succumbed to this.

I was quite relieved when Terry decided it call it a night after about an hour and a half, and collected our crew – all except for Lisa, that is. It was my first real experience at fending off male advances (I didn’t count Jared’s inept proposition), and I was quite relieved to have managed without any hurt feelings or harm. It made me wonder – had I always been as considerate of girls I had chatted up at parties? I would really hate to have thought that I’d made them as nervous as I myself had felt. Of course, in most cases, the girls I’d been speaking with had been interested in boys and presumably wouldn’t have minded having advances made, right? Surely I had never been so insensitive as to force myself conversationally on a girl who simply wasn’t interested?

It was a vexing question – how would I have known? What should I have done to make sure? And what should I have done tonight to make sure that Carl knew I wasn’t really interested in anything beyond conversation? I’d always thought myself something of an expert at all of this courtship stuff – yet I seemed to have found some blind spots. Suddenly, I didn’t feel as confident as before. It was one more thing to worry about when all of this was finally sorted out.

48 Casting Pearls

I awoke the next morning to find a reminder on my computer. It said, simply, “tampon.” Shaking my head, I dug one out of my dresser drawer. After my disastrous first experience with a period, I hadn’t wanted to take a chance on recognizing when the next one was starting, so I had set up a reminder for myself. I figured it wasn’t likely to start less than twenty-five days after the last one, and that time had just come up.

The insertion process was more embarrassing than difficult, forcing me to confront once again the reality of the body I was wearing much more intimately than I cared to, and stripping from me once more my comfortable but increasingly insupportable illusion that I was simply wearing an elaborate costume of some sort. It was particularly troubling to me, since I had now spent an entire fruitless week exploring the physics building, and the students who had gone to Cracraft had not called me. I had considered asking Ben, but he didn’t know me, and from Nikki’s description, it didn’t sound as though he would be particularly open to talking about the experience with me, much less helping me find other victims.

So when my cell phone finally rang, I jumped for it, eagerly. I had it to my ear and had squealed out a “hello?” before realizing that the ring tone indicated a call from home.

It was Tina, and she was crying. “Miss Pumpernickel Pastry,” she sobbed, “Take a lemon!”

I didn’t have to think. Even though she couldn’t see me, I automatically mimed taking dictation and quietly responded, “Yes, Ma’am,” while wondering what might have happened. A problem with her boyfriend? A poor test score?

“To the world at large, casting division,” she continued.

Casting division?

“It has come to my attention that the roles of Julie, Carrie, and even Nettie have been assigned to other girls. I have further been informed that this was not the choice of the director, but was the result of parental meddling. That my sister and I were resented after getting the lead in the school musicals for five straight years, and that the director was ordered not to give me one this time.”

“What?!” The partner isn’t really supposed to react at this point, but I was incredulous. How could Tina have been denied a lead?

“But I will rise above this,” she said in a determined voice, her tears starting to ebb. “I’ve been assigned the role of Mrs. Mullin, and I will do my best with it. I will show that I can act as well as anybody else in the cast, and that I can be a good supporting actress. I will hide my resentment and try again next year, when they won’t have this excuse. And I will earn the lead next year and the year after that!”

“Good for you, Teen,” I said softly. “But… Mrs. Mullin? That’s not even a singing role! How did everybody else react when the cast list went up?”

She sniffled, and her tone turned angry. “It hasn’t, yet. Mr. Condrin is posting it on Monday. He just called me; he’s really upset at being told whom he could cast and whom he couldn’t, and he apologized to me. He said that I really deserved to do Carrie, but he wasn’t allowed to cast me. People said that ‘the Steen girls have gotten the leads for five straight years and it’s time for somebody else to have a chance.’ He said that he was ordered not to let me sing any solos in the play so that I wouldn’t show up the girls who were cast instead of me.”

“That’s really horrible, Teen. That’s not fair. Just because– ” Then I suddenly realized the implications of what she had said about ‘the Steen girls.’ “Wait. Marsha got leads all four years in high school?”

“Yes, Marsh,” she said, annoyed. “You had the lead four years in a row, and when you graduated, I got the lead the next year.”

“But… wait, are you saying that Marsha was a good singer?” Then I realized what I was doing. I was making this about me, not Tina. “Never mind,” I said. “Forget I asked that, OK? It is absolutely outrageous and unfair of them to prevent you from getting the role you wanted, when the director felt that you were the best for the role. Do you think anybody else will notice?”

“Marsh, of course they’re going to notice! You know how the auditions go; lots of people heard me sing. And of course, now they’re going to blame poor Mr. Condrin.”

“Well, I think you’re handling this very well, Teen. I’m almost surprised that you’re not angry at me – I mean, Marsha, for–”

“Why would I blame you, Marsh? It’s not your fault. You earned those roles; I was just expecting to follow in my big sister’s footsteps.”

Hearing that felt weird. I suppose in the sorrow and anger over being denied a good role, Tina had forgotten, or was at least ignoring, my reality. She and Marsha had had quite a bit more in common than she and I had; certainly, I hadn’t blazed any trails that she would have been interested in following. It wasn’t a thought I really wanted to pursue.

Instead, I simply asked, “So what are you going to do now, Teen? I mean, aside from just doing a great job with the role you got?”

I could almost hear her shrug. “There isn’t much I can do, is there?”

“I mean, about the politics involved. You know, when people start asking why you weren’t cast?”

“I have absolutely no idea. You worked with Mr. Condrin for four years, Marsh. Tell me what to do. I don’t want to make things worse.”

“But I–” never had a lead, I had been about to say. But now was not the time to remind her that I wasn’t really Marsha, and it didn’t matter all that much anyway, just now. As a mere chorus member in the musicals, and playing supporting roles in the straight shows, I might never have been the focus of attention the way that Tina – and Marsha – were, but I had been in a position to observe.

It also gave me a chance actually to play big brother again, advising my little sister on how to handle something. “The biggest danger, Teen,” I suggested, “is that some people will want to use you to get at Mr. Condrin for giving in, or at the girls he had to cast over you.”

“I figured that much.”

“’Cause they’ll assume that you’re resentful–”

“Of course I’m resentful!”

“… and that you want to get even.”

“Oh!” She hesitated. “Well, I don’t want to hurt Mr. Condrin, of course. But I wouldn’t mind seeing Marnie Woodcock look bad over this.”

“She’s the one who got Carrie?”

“Mm hmm.”

“But you can’t, you know. This is between Mr. Condrin and the administration. They’re the ones who have to have pressured him, and if you show that you’re resentful, it will just disrupt the show.”

“I don’t want that.”

“I know. You were cheated, and you just have to deal with it. As you said, you have to hide your resentment. And you need to tell your friends that, too – not to talk about you being cheated. I mean, you can let them know that you’re upset and all, but not to tell anybody else.”

“If I tell them, Marsh, they’re going to tell their friends. You know how that works.”

It took me a moment to catch on, but then I remembered Maddy telling me about how she had told just two friends a secret and later found out that dozens of girls knew it. I wasn’t quite sure how that worked, or why, but it gave me a sudden chill. Surely Nikki wouldn’t tell anybody about me…? Maybe I had been too open with her? It was yet another thing I didn’t want to think about.


“Oh, sorry, Teen,” I said, forcing myself out my reverie. “In that case, you’re going to have to pretend with your friends, too. You’re going to have to convince them that you’re a little disappointed, but not resentful at all. That you think it’s perfectly fair that, um, Marnie, got the role, and that you look forward to the acting challenge of doing Mrs. Mullins. Um… because it’s not the kind of role you’re used to, or something like that.”

“You know they’re not going to believe that.”

“You’re an actress, Teen,” I insisted. “I have to pretend things in real life now. You’re going to have do the same. Or at least be so consistent about it that they really understand that you don’t want them telling everybody else that you’re upset and angry. Mr. Condrin knows how you feel, right?”


“So he’ll appreciate the effort you’re making, when it’s obvious nobody can get a rise out of you. And you have two more years. There’s no way he’ll let them do this to you again.”

She took a moment before responding, and when she did, she sounded optimistic for the first time in our conversation. “Marsh, you’re right! And he’ll make sure I get the right roles in the next show…”

“… because he’ll know that you’re a team player. Acting is a team exercise, and you have to be willing to contribute, even if you’re not happy with your role.”

“Right. And if I sulk about a lot, he might not want to cast me again?”

“Maybe. But you can always call me when you want to complain about this. I’ll be here for you, Teen. It’s safe to tell me anything you want.”

“Marsh, thanks. And you know you can call me when you’re upset, too, right?”

“Oh! Sure, Teen. Of course I know that,” I claimed, while actually knowing nothing of the sort. I was the big brother; I wasn’t supposed to show weaknesses like complaining to Tina.

But she must have picked up on something in my voice. “What’s wrong, Marsh?”

“Nothing, really,” I insisted. “I’m fine.”

“No, you’re not. You…” Then she hesitated. “I called you Marsha, didn’t I?”

“No,” I admitted, “but you treated me like her. I didn’t get leads, Teen. Not one. This role I’m doing now? It’s the first time I’ve ever gotten to do one. You’re the one who always got leads. Not that I resented you, or anything,” I added hastily. “I was proud of you. But I hate that Marsha seems to have been better at so much than I was – I mean than I am.

“And what’s worse,” I went on, “I’m starting even to doubt who I am. I went looking for the guys who did the experiment–”

“I thought you were going to wait,” she said softly.

“Not to ask them to change me, Teen. Just to be sure they’re there. To be sure that there is a way back. To be sure I really am who I am. I’m not sure that Chad believes me, not completely. I can’t play the guitar, Teen. I’ve tried. I’m horrible at it. Almost ten years of practice and it’s all gone. But I can sew. Can you believe that? I mean, it’s great that I can sew, since I need the money, and it’s kind of fun and all, but it’s not me, it’s Marsha. And I thought that I could find somebody who might remember me as me, but the stupid reporter won’t tell me who they are. I’m not sure you really believe me, sometimes. And when you kept insisting that I got all those roles and calling us, ‘the Steen girls…’”

“Oh, Marsh, I’m sorry. That must feel terrible.”

“It’s like I’m fading away. I have one friend, Nikki, who figured things out. I mean, at least she believes that I was a boy…” I had to stop. It was as if there was something in my throat or something.

“I believe you, Marsh,” Tina said quietly. “And I’m really sorry that I treated you like Marsha.”

“No, it’s OK, Teen. You were upset and you had a right to be upset. I’ll manage. I don’t know how yet, but I’ll manage. It’s my job to be here for you.”

“And it’s mine to be here for you, too, Marsh,” she said. “After all, we’re si– siblings, right? We have to look out for each other. “

“Yeah,” I agreed quietly. “OK. I’ll look out for you…”

“… and I’ll look out for you. You know? I think this is about the best talk we’ve had since you were home. I feel better, Do you?”

I had to think about that a minute. I didn’t feel a lot better. But sharing my pain had been kind of nice, so I told her, “Yes. I think I do. I feel a bit guilty, though for talking about myself when you were doing ‘take a lemon,’ but…”

“No. Marsh, if you’re in pain, you’re allowed. Seriously. I’d feel horrible if I couldn’t listen to you because of my own problems. And you helped me, Marsh. You really did. I just wish I could help you, too.”

I smiled. “Thanks, Teen. I really appreciate that.”

“So? What are you doing this weekend?”

“Well, I have rehearsal tomorrow, and I have a bunch of sewing jobs I’m almost able to tackle. I’ll have to ask Nikki for another lesson. The last one sort of got cut off because I freaked out about not being able to play her brother’s guitar.”

“I’ll bet that felt horrible.”

“Yeah, and she wound up lending it to me so that I could sort of teach myself.”

“That’s great!”

“So I’ll probably be doing that for part of the weekend. That’s about all I have planned. Oh, and I’m hoping that one of the other victims of the experiment actually does call me. I just want to be sure…”

“… that somebody remembers you as Marshall.”

“Yeah. That’s about it for me. What about you?”

“Well, Danny and I are going to a movie tonight, and I have homework. That’s about it. I’ll probably look for some videos of Carousel on YouTube to see if I can start figuring out Mrs. Mullins.”

“Great idea,” I told her. “Um, that’s all I have.”

“Me, too… it was really great talking to you, Marsh. Take care, and be sure to call me, OK? Let me know if you find somebody who remembers Marshall.”

“Will do,” I promised. “’Bye, Teen.”


49 Strange Reflections

I was practicing my chords and getting very frustrated, when my phone rang. The ring tone told me that it was from a number with caller ID blocked, and since none of my friends or family did that, it meant that a stranger was interrupting me. As a result, I was possibly a bit abrupt when I answered.

“Marsha Steen?” said a male voice in what was almost a whisper.

“Yes, this… this is she,” I replied, trying not to let the frustration show in my voice.

“Do you see a stranger when you look in the mirror?”

“Do I what?! Who–?” I caught myself as I realized the implications of the question. He had to be one of the people who had gone to the paper! “Yes, yes I do,” I said eagerly. “Who is this?”

“I have a question for you, Marsha,” the caller continued, ignoring my question. “Do you remember the opening performance of the welcome back concert at the beginning of the school year?”

What an odd thing to ask. But I certainly did remember; I had been the opening performance. “Yes,” I responded. “I– I mean, I remember a guy playing the guitar. Why?”

At that, the caller’s voice became actually friendly. “What dorm are you in?”

“Laramie Hall.”

“Fine,” he said. “Meet us outside in about five minutes.”

I scrambled. I pulled on a sweater, checked my hair and makeup in the mirror, and ran out the door. When I got downstairs, I realized that my sweater wasn’t really adequate for the blustery November weather, and dithered a bit about whether I really had time to go back up to get something heavier. I finally decided that I didn’t want to take the chance on missing my caller, and simply sat outside, my arms wrapped about myself and shivering.

As I waited, I thought enviously of the body I had worn just a month ago, which would have shrugged off this cold easily; I just wasn’t yet used to having to dress more warmly.

My phone rang again.


It was the same caller as before. “Look to your left.”

I did, and saw two guys waving at me, standing between the two entrances to the dorm. I waved back, and they walked over to me.

One of them put out his hand to for me to shake. “I’m Ian Carter,” he said, and this is Luke Granger.” He indicated the other guy with a nod of his head.

“I’m Marsh Steen,” I said.

“Yes, we know,” Luke said, shaking my hand as well. “Let’s don’t talk here. You never know…”

“Never know what?” I asked.

“Somebody could overhear.” And he looked around, cautiously.

Terrific. I finally find the people who might have the link to my reality, and they’re paranoid nuts.

“So where are we going to talk?” I demanded.

“Shh.” Ian warned me. “Follow us. Be careful.”

So I followed. I followed them as they ducked around Danby hall, dodged in one door and out the next, and – to my intense discomfort – crawled alongside a low wall. As I stood and brushed leaves off my dress, I saw them preparing to wade a stream.

“Hold on!” I said. “I’m not going through that!”

“We have to make sure nobody’s following us,” Luke insisted, fingers to his lips.

“That water is at least two feet deep,” I pointed out, “and my dress comes down almost to my ankles, and I’m not hiking it all the way up to cross. There’s a bridge right over it. Why can’t we go that way?”

“We might be seen,” explained Ian. “Shh” And then suddenly, he picked me up and waded across with me in his arms. I don’t know if it was the shock or just my fear of being dropped, or of having them decide to have nothing to do with me if I struggled or yelled, but I didn’t manage to say anything until we got to the other side.

“Are you out of your minds?!” I hissed when he put me back on my feet. “What is this, some kind of spy thriller? We are college students, not… not… I don’t know!”

Luke spread his hands as if to calm me. “It’s OK. We’re here.”

“Here” was the back of another dorm, which I recognized as we walked around to the front.

“This is about two minutes from my dorm!” I snapped at them. “Why did we have to run that obstacle course?!”

“We just wanted to make sure nobody saw us,” Luke said quietly.

I withheld the scathing remark than came into my head next, since it was scornful of the entire male gender; I must have been about to repeat something I’d heard from one of my friends – it certainly wasn’t my thought.

“Why does it really matter…” I started, but Ian held up his hand as well. “Wait until we get inside.”

So I waited. The two were apparently roommates, and they dropped all of the stealthy mannerisms once we got to their room.

“Sorry about all that, Marsha,” Ian said, “But we have to be careful.”

“Why?!” What exactly are you afraid of?”

“Well, you spoke with Cracraft. Did he tell you about what the college is doing?”

“Only that they were trying to shut the whole thing up.”

“Yup. They’re trying to make this whole thing go away. To pretend it never happened. I mean, they actually threatened the reporter over this. We just don’t know how far they might go, and we don’t want to take any chances.”

“Well, what do the guys who did the experiment have to say?”

The two of them looked at each other. “You haven’t tried to contact them, I take it?” Luke asked me.

“I’ve been looking, but I haven’t found them.”

“And you’re not going to. They’re gone. The administration disappeared them.”

“Oh come on! What do you think this is? Russia? Why would they do that?”

He looked at me sympathetically. “Because they don’t care about us. Because they have interfered with our bodily integrity and they don’t want us going to the authorities. They’re waiting for us to make one false move…”

“I don’t believe this,” I said, standing and getting ready to leave. These people were just nuts, and I didn’t see how I was going to get anything useful out of them. “I don’t believe any of this.”

“You don’t?” Luke continued. “You’ve looked in the mirror, haven’t you?”

“Of course.”

“Isn’t it obvious why we call ourselves, ‘Strangers in the Mirror’? How can you possibly say that you don’t believe it? You’re living it, aren’t you?”

“I mean, all the paranoia. So many of my friends don’t believe this even happened…”

“Which is what they want, Marsha,” Ian explained. “They want us doubting ourselves. They’re hiding all the evidence, so that we won’t be able to do anything to them.”

“Do anything? What are we supposed to be able to do?”

“Nothing. Nothing at all. But that’s not good enough. They were asking Cracraft about us. They want to know who we are.”

“And what would they do if they found us? This all makes no sense!”

“We don’t know; that’s the point. They could be sending spies to try to follow us, to try to infiltrate us. That’s why we have to be careful. Why we have to be sure.”

“OK,” I said impatiently, “and why did you trust me? How do you know I’m not a spy?”

“Because you remembered the guy playing the guitar. That’s something we figured out pretty quickly. Everybody we’ve found remembers him. Everybody we’ve asked who wasn’t in the experiment remembers the first performance being a girls’ trio. So that’s our test.’

“Oh,” I said, sitting down. “Oh. That makes sense.” Obviously, in this timeline I hadn’t performed, so they had to have used somebody else. I remembered the trio, too, as they had come on right after me.

“So,” I asked. “What do you do, you know, when people find you?”

“We mostly just talk and support each other. Try to find ways to prove things. There’s got to be something we can do, something the administration is afraid of.”

“Hmm,” I agreed. Then something else occurred to me. “What… kind of changes happened to people?” I was particularly curious about how many people had changed sex, and how they were handling things.

“Well, I guess you read the article, right?”

I nodded.

“The ones mentioned there – Ben loosing height and Kim losing bustline – were the most drastic. For most of the rest of us, it was mostly a question of identity. I look about as much like my old self as my brother does, for example, and that seems to be the rule, pretty much.”

“So your lives are otherwise pretty much unchanged?”

“You mean aside from not recognizing myself when I look in the mirror? That’s pretty major, Marsha. What about you?”

“Oh… I more or less look like… like I could be my own sister.”

Both of them nodded. “Pretty upsetting, isn’t it?” Ian suggested.

“Oh, yeah.” So either I was the only one somehow, which seemed really odd, or the others were just being close-mouthed, as I was.

“Do you by any chance have a list of people in the group?” I asked, as though it didn’t really matter to me.

They were instantly suspicious. “Why do you need that, Marsha?”

“I… “ I had to think about how much I could tell them. If sex changes weren’t common, I wasn’t sure I really wanted to give my secret out to a couple of strangers. But at the same time, I really did want them to help me. I took a deep breath. “The thing is, my change actually did change my life a bunch. I have different roommates, and different clothes, and even a different name… and I was really hoping that I could find somebody who remembered the old me.”

They looked at each other again. “I don’t like it,” Luke said, sounding a bit suspicious. “She remembered the guitarist, but maybe the administration found out about that?”

“How?” argued Ian. “The only ones who know that he’s at all significant are the people in the group. And if one of them tells on us, we’re done.”

“But we can’t give out the list. It puts everybody in the group in danger,” Luke insisted.

“What if we let her have a quick look? If she really knows somebody, she’ll be able to spot their name right away, but she won’t be able to memorize the whole list.”

“Unless she has a camera.”

“I don’t have a camera!” I yelled. “Come on, guys, if I were a spy, I already know your names and where you live, right? Look, do you need to search me or something?” I wasn’t exactly crazy about letting a guy touch my body, but I really wanted those names.

“We’re not going to search you, Marsha,” Ian said firmly. “Are we?”

Luke shook his head, reluctantly. “We’ll let you see the list for just a few seconds. It’s not that long, so you ought to be able to recognize any friends on it. Is that enough for you?”

“I hope so,” I agreed, but my hopes were already flagging. “If there’s not that many names, my chances aren’t all that great, but I really want to see if I can find somebody.”

Luke left us and went into another room, presumably his bedroom. When he came back, he was holding a folder, which he placed, closed, on a table. “Now come over here and get ready. I’m going to give you a slow five count then open it for another five seconds. Are you ready?”

The whole thing was feeling really overly dramatic, but I nodded.

“OK. One. Two. Three. Four. Five.”

He opened the folder and I looked at the revealed list as quickly as I could. There were about two dozen names there, most of which I didn’t know at all. Ben’s name was there of course, as were a few people I knew by reputation, but not personally. But one name jumped right off the page at me. The third name from the bottom of the list. Somebody I knew very well.

My old girlfriend. Vicky Gordon.

50 Who’s That Girl?

I couldn’t believe it. Vicky? My old girlfriend Vicky was a victim as well? Had we volunteered together, talked about it? I didn’t remember. But if anyone would remember the old me, Vicky certainly would.

I thanked Ian and Luke and promised to help out in any way I could, then I hurried back to my room. I wanted to be in a comfortable, quiet place to call Vicky. Then I dialed the number I remembered, silently praying that it hadn’t changed. I couldn’t believe just how eager I felt. I had nothing but good memories of Vicky, now. I still couldn’t believe that I had been so foolish as to break up with her, and the minute I changed back to Marshall, I was going to let her know. Seeing her this way would be… oh, forget it, seeing her any way was going to be terrific.

Too late, I realized that I had not planned out what I was going to say. I didn’t want simply to say something like, “Hi, remember me, your old boyfriend? Guess what? I’m a girl now!” so I decided to play the mystery route. She’d always enjoyed puzzles and surprises, and boy did I have a surprise for her!

She answered on the fourth ring, her voice being about the greatest sound I had heard in a long time.

“Vicky Gordon?” I asked, as though I didn’t really know.

“Yes, this is she.”

“I wanted to talk to you about… Marshall Steen.”

“What? Marshall Steen??” she exclaimed. “Wait? You know him? You know where he is? Who is this?”

“Could we please meet at the Grill in about… ten minutes?”

“Wait! Can’t you first answer-”

“I’ll be wearing…” I had to look down to see what I had actually put on that morning. “… a green dress with a white collar. I’ll meet you near the western entrance.”

“Oh… a mystery woman, huh? OK, mystery woman. You’re the first person I’ve spoken with in weeks who even knows Marshall’s name, so I’ll meet you there. I’ll be wearing jeans and a purple school sweater. You’ll know me because I’ll be the one not carrying a flower.”

Smiling to myself at her familiar sarcasm, I headed eagerly to the Grill. I didn’t see her, so I bought myself a cup of tea and sat at a small table near the entrance and waited. She came in a few minutes later, spotted me, and came over. The change in her was very minor. She was still clearly the girl I had dated, but her her formerly button-nose was now slightly larger, and her eyebrows were a bit more delicate. Her auburn hair seemed a couple of shades darker, and her chin was slightly sharper. Only somebody who had studied that face as intently as I had for half a year would probably have been able to tell.

“OK, Mystery Woman,” she said as she sat down. “How is that you know Marshall when as far as everybody else is concerned, he never came to Piques at all? I called his dorm room and his roommates say they’d never heard of him.” She studied my face for a bit. “Are you his new girlfriend? Last I saw, he was sniffing after Lee Ann Taylor. Or are you maybe a relative? Hmm… you look like a relative. A cousin, maybe?”

I smiled. With my acting background, I couldn’t resist the dramatic reveal. “Not exactly, Vixy,” I replied, using my pet name for her.

She sputtered nicely in surprise. “Vi-? Wait – how…? Where…?” Then she got it. “Marshall?! Oh my God! Marshall? Is that you? Oh my God! What did they do to you?”

“Actually,” I replied, “my parents named me, ‘Marsha’ in this timeline.”

“Oh my God!” She started to scream, but cut it off as nearby heads turned to stare. “How can you be so calm?” she hissed. “You’re a girl!”

“Yeah, I’ve noticed. Good thing, too, huh? I’d look pretty stupid wearing this dress if I weren’t.”

“But… how… I don’t…”

“Relax, Vixy,” I said, grinning at her. “This is just temporary.”

“What– what do you mean, ‘temporary’? How is this ‘temporary’?”

“I promised my sister I wouldn’t do anything about it for a while, but right after New Year’s, I’m going to tell them to change me back.”

She sat back at that, giving me a very intent look. “How are you planning on doing that, Marsh? Do you know where they are?”

“Well, I remember that they were in the physics building somewhere. I haven’t found them yet, but it’s just a matter of time.”

My answer made her sag visibly. “Oh, Marshall. My poor Marshall. They’re not there, Marsh. We’ve looked and looked. They’re not there.”

That’s what Ian and Luke had said, but I had dismissed that as part of their paranoid fantasies. “Of course they’re there. Where else would they be?”

“You haven’t really looked, have you? There is a Professor Davis in the physics department, but it’s not the one who did the experiment. That one’s office is empty. His lab has been reassigned to somebody else. He’s listed in the old hardcopy course catalog, but we can’t prove it’s not the one who’s there. There’s not even a mention of the other guy anywhere in the Physics building directory or the department web site. The administration disappeared him, Marsh.”

“Hold on. What are you talking about? Who’s Professor Davis?”

“Oh, Marsh…” she sighed. “About a week after we split, I woke up with this new face… and a couple of days later I saw a flyer on one of the kiosks. If I hadn’t known about that experiment and hadn’t had this experience I wouldn’t even have noticed it, probably. There’s this group, Marsh. We call ourselves, ‘Strangers in the Mirror’ and about twenty of us showed up for a meeting about a week or so before break and compared notes.

“We went to the administration, and when they stonewalled us, we went searching around the Physics building. About half of us remembered the professor’s name, and some of us remembered where his office was, or his lab… when we couldn’t find him, we went to the Messenger, for all the good it did us. Everybody thought it was a hoax. I think Cracraft believed us, but he got lots of grief for that article, so he stopped talking to us.

“We’re stuck, Marsh. There is no going back for us – for any of us. Some students are handling it better than others. For me, the change was mostly minor. My life is pretty much the same as it was, even though I barely recognize my own face in the mirror any more.”

“You’re still beautiful, Vixy,” I told her, sincerely.

“Thank you, Marsh. You don’t know how much that means to me. When I realized that I was stuck, I took stock of where I was and where I wanted to be. That’s when I realized that breaking up with you was such a mistake. So I tried to call you to tell you, but your cell number connected to somebody else, your roommates denied knowing you…”

“I’m actually rooming with Lee Ann, now,” I said. “How’s that for irony?”

She smiled in appreciation. “I’ll bet that was a shock for you!”

“Yeah, and you know what? Apparently she wasn’t going to break up with her old boyfriend, after all. What a jerk I was. I never should have let you get away.”

“Yeah,” she agreed. Then she looked uncomfortable, wouldn’t look me in the eye. “Marsh? Um… I can’t help still feeling for you, but… you understand that I’m really not attracted to other girls?”

“It’s OK, Vixy. Apparently, neither am I, now. And that’s why I can’t stay this way. I’m… I no longer seem to be attracted to girls. I’m totally asexual. That’s fine for the next couple of months, but after that? No way! He’s got to be still around. You made a mistake in his name, or he’s just moved to a different office, or… something. I’m not staying this way for the rest of my life. That’s not an option, Vixy. It’s just not an option!”

“I understand, Marsh. I… maybe you’re right. Maybe we missed something, but…” she seemed really reluctant to point it out, “… but I don’t think so. We were really thorough.”

I had just gotten over a crisis with my guitar playing. I was not going to repeat that now. “There’s no real option, Vix. I’m going to find them, and they’re going to change me back. I’m your guy and you’re my girl and that’s the way it’s got to be.”

“Oh, Marsh, I really hope you’re right. I want that, too. I really do. For now…”

“For now,” I informed her, “We’re friends. We’re very close friends. We still care about each other, don’t we? We still… love each other, even though there’s no physical attraction? We’re not so shallow as to need that, right? Besides, I need you. You’re the only one who remembers the old me.”

“Seriously, Vixy. You don’t know what it’s been like. Everything is different, almost. I told Tina and I told Chad, and they mostly believe me, although Chad wasn’t sure that I hadn’t imagined the whole thing. He’s the one who told me to talk to Cracraft, and that’s how I knew you would remember me. My guitar is gone, Vix. My cousin got it, and ‘Marsha’ never learned to play. My hands… look at my hands, Vix. These aren’t guitarist’s hands – they’re seamstress hands.”

“They’re what?”

“Seamstress hands. I have Mom’s old sewing machine, and I’m making money doing clothing repairs and alterations. Well, not alterations, yet, I’m still learning how to do that, but I’m picking things up really quickly.”

She stared at me, and then laughed. “I just cannot picture you with a sewing machine, Marsh. Please tell me you’re joking.”

“I’m not joking, Vix. I’m a seamstress; or, an aspiring one, anyway. I can’t play the guitar to save my life, and I need an income. So I sew.”

“Oh my God. This is… different.”

“You have no idea, Vix.”

“And… why the dress? Most girls on campus wear jeans or…”

“You know how my Mom and sister dress, Vix. Apparently, so does ‘Marsha’ – me. I don’t even own jeans. We’re kind of old-fashioned, that way.”

“Yeah. But… I’d have thought you’d be trying to act as unfeminine as possible.”

I laughed. “That had been my intention. But I sort of boasted to Tina that I could act the role of Marsha so well that nobody would notice that there was something wrong. This is how Marsha dresses, so…” I shrugged.

Vicky gave me an understanding smile. “Still the focus on acting. I guess that’s a useful approach to all of this.”

“Oh, and by the way,” I added. “I’m acting in Alvin Tomlinson’s Mousetrap.”

“You were cast in a Tomlinson play? That’s great, Marsh! I know how much you wanted… Wait. You were cast as a girl?”

“Well… um, yeah.”

“OK, this is too much. What are you playing?”

I had to laugh. “I’m the female lead.”

“No! Oh that is just too funny. I wouldn’t miss that for the world. Oh, man. It really is good to talk with you again, Marsh. You have no idea how much I’ve missed…” She started to tear up as she continued. “Oh God. I just can’t bear that you’re… do you know how much I’ve been dreaming about you holding me in your arms again, and…”

“I know, Vix. I know. It’s going to happen again. Trust me. I refuse to accept this as permanent. Somehow, somewhere, I have to find those guys. But at least I can talk to you again and we both remember us.”

“That simple, huh?”

“No,” I admitted. “I know it’s not that simple. But It’s going to happen. There’s no alternative. None.”

She gave me a look that wasn’t quite as trusting and worshipful as I could have hoped. “So, how do we do this? We’re not going to… date, or anything like that, are we?”

I laughed. “I guess not, especially given that we’re not actually attracted to each other. But friends can spend time together. I’m pretty busy, with the play and dealing with this whole sewing thing, but I can always find time for you, Vixy.”

“And I’ll find time for you, too, Marsh. I was sort of in the middle of something when you called, but when you mentioned ‘Marshall,’…” She stood up. “So… we’ll be in touch, OK?” Then she gasped as I stood up as well. At 5’6”, she had been five inches shorter than I was. Now she was three inches taller. “You’re so… um… petite!”

“I’m short, you mean. I’m 5’3” – I’ve lost eight inches, Vix.”

She started to look sympathetic, then suddenly snorted with laughter.

“What?” I demanded.

Her eyes were squeezed tight, as she was apparently trying not to laugh, although apparently not very hard. Finally she leaned over and whispered in my ear, “You never had eight inches, Marshall!”

I gaped in outrage for a moment. How could she joke about that? Then I saw the humor as well, and we laughed together before sharing a good-bye hug. It was just so nice to have her back in my life again.

51 Searching Questions

Vicky was back in my life! I almost felt like singing. And she had actively looked for me, even before I had realized how I felt about her. That meant that… in the original time line, she would have found me – me as Marshall, that is. And when I changed back, we’d probably have been dating again for a couple of months. That is, if I – that is, Marshall – hmm… this was confusing to talk about. I would come back to Marshallhood only in January, so who exactly would have been acting as me in the meantime? I’d really have to think of him in the third person. OK, Marshall, I told him in my mind, you’d better not blow this for me… us. Lucky bastard, he’d have two more months with Vicky than I would.

It was Saturday afternoon, and I hadn’t really thought things through. Vicky and I could have… gone to a movie together or something similar. Of course, maybe she had a date – she hadn’t been able to find me, after all, and it stood to reason that some guy on campus would have figured out how great she was. It wasn’t a particularly pleasant thought, but I didn’t have anything to offer her as an alternative. Dating had been an important part of my life for years, so if I were a girl, I’d – well, a girl who liked boys, I mean – I’d certainly go on a date with a guy I liked rather than hanging around with another girl, no matter how much I liked her. And face it, at present, that’s all I was – another girl to hang out with when there were no guys available. Yeah, changing back would fix this, and I’d just have to be patient.

In the meantime, I had a phone call to make; I had real news for Chad. Boy was he going to be surprised. I was in such a good mood, that I didn’t even mind the brief interrogation his mother put me through.

“Hey, Marsh, what’s up?” Chad greeted me when she finally handed over the phone.

“You are never going to guess whom I just found, Chad” I chortled.

“You’re kidding me! You found them? The guys who ran the experiment? They really exist?”

“No, no, no. I mean, yes they exist, but no I didn’t find them. But I did run into the people who gave the guy from the Messenger the information for the article, and they remembered me playing the guitar at the beginning of the school year.”


“Yup, and even better than that – I found Vicky! And she remembered me, too!”

“Um, who’s Vicky?”

“My last girlfriend. The girl I dated for six months up until a few weeks before break. And she did the experiment, too, and she not only remembered me, she had been looking for me!”


“She wants me to change back so we can date again.” She hadn’t quite said that, but she had made her preferences known, in my opinion. She also didn’t believe that it was possible for me to do so, but I didn’t need to tell Chad that.

“I am floored, Marsh. So this is real. I mean, unless you’re bullshitting me now, and doing one hell of a job of it, I might add, this is real. This really happened.”

I was incredulous. “You mean, after all we’ve talked, you still didn’t believe me?”

“I’m not saying I didn’t believe you, Marsh; just that I wouldn’t have been totally surprised if it was an incredible joke. And I suppose it’s still possible – I just don’t think I can believe that any more.

“Well, good, Chad, ‘cause believe me, if this is a joke, it’s on me and it’s not funny at all.”

“Right. So… this girl – is she hot?”

I chuckled. “Oh, you have no idea, Chad.”

“Got pictures?”

“Sorry, pal. I left my pictures of her in my other timeline.”

He laughed. “Yeah, gotcha, gotcha. So you seem to be feeling pretty good, now.”

“I am over the moon. We’re back together – or rather, we will be when I change back.”

“Yeah… as far as that… how’s the search coming?”

I tensed a bit. It wasn’t going well, and Luke and Ian and Vicky had all said that it was impossible, but I refused to accept that. “I… well, I’ve been through the building twice, but there’s still some offices and labs I haven’t been able to check. And there’s probably something else I could try. I guess. And it was really a great idea of yours for me to start looking now, since it’s obviously going to take a while.

“Hey, you know, Chad,” I added quickly. “I have a lot of stuff to work on, here. So… it was really great talking with you, and… If you have any more ideas, let me know, OK? See you.”

I hung up before he could say anything, and then I wondered why I had. Was he really going to be able to say anything that would bring me down, now? Vicky was back in my life – I shouldn’t be down at all. Everybody just kept telling me there was no way back, but that just couldn’t be. It just couldn’t.

It didn’t take me long after I hung up, though, before my exuberance over reconnecting with Vicky wiped out the bad feelings. It would be different this time, I promised myself. This might even work out really well for us. Without the physical attraction element, we’d have to connect on a deeper level, and when I changed back – well, then we’d be able to add the physical on top of everything else. Maybe now we’d be able to keep our relationship going. The fact that she had gone looking for me was just incredible.

My mood must have been really obvious, as Lee Ann commented on it as we walked to dinner.

“Did something really good happen today, Marsh? Maybe… Jeremy called?”

I laughed. “No, I ran into an old friend I hadn’t spoken with in a while, and I realized how much I had missed her. I think we’re going to start spending some time together.”

“Oh, that’s great! Do I know her?”

Did she? I had no idea, but Vicky had known about Lee Ann and my interest in her, and it hadn’t occurred to me to wonder how.

“Vicky Gordon,” I told her.

Lee Ann shook her head. “No, the name’s not familiar. Who is she?”

Now how was I supposed to answer that one?

“Just a girl I met last year, and we hung out for a while, and then sort of drifted apart.” I mean, technically that was true, but it felt like a lie, and I couldn’t exactly tell the full truth.

“What’s wrong?” Lee Ann asked, evidently picking up on something.

“Nothing is wrong!” I almost snapped. Then I caught myself and repeated in a friendlier tone, “Nothing is wrong.”

She gave me a considering look, but only said, “OK…”

That made twice in the past hour that I had been abrupt with a close friend, and I wasn’t quite sure why. It must be the pressure. Everybody kept telling me that I was stuck. Why did they have to do that? Lee Ann was supposed to be comforting me, making me feel better. Isn’t that what friends do? And Chad was supposed to be my idea guy; he should have shown me an easy way to find this… Professor Davis guy.

Lee Ann invited me to go out with the girls again that night after dinner, but I told her I had to study; I had an idea I wanted to follow. Since I had a name, maybe some kind of internet search would help? That seemed a much better use of my time just now. If I had mentioned the fact that Vicky had known his name to Chad, maybe he would have suggested something. I almost called him back, but decided that this was something I could do on my own.

The university web site was no real help. It showed a Professor Morton Davis in the Physics department, but Vicky had claimed that he was the wrong one. Maybe I could verify that.

I did a search for articles by Morton Davis, and got totally confused. All I found were titles and abstracts, and they were heavy in physics jargon and meant nothing to me. Could Dynamical Computations of a Non-Classical Integral have something to do with time travel? How was I supposed to tell? Jay would have been able to tell me for sure, but asking him was totally out of the question – he’d just declare that he wasn’t going to give credence to my fantasies. And it wasn’t as if I could prove it to him; he just didn’t know me well enough to tell that something was wrong.

I wasn’t getting very far and it was really annoying me. Stupid professors! Aren’t they supposed to be communicating something to the rest of us? Why do they have to make it so hard?

I searched next for any combination of “Piques” and “Physics” and “Davis” and came up totally empty of references that were not to the same Morton Davis I already knew about. If there was another Professor Davis in the department, shouldn’t he have published something? How could they possibly have covered all of this up? How could the administration have hacked Google?

The whole thing was proving to be a massive waste of time, and I angrily pushed myself away from the keyboard. At least when I searched the building I knew that he either had to be in a room or not. How was I supposed to find somebody who might not even exist?

52 Garlic and Sympathy

The next morning, I called Vicky right after breakfast, agonizing when she didn’t answer until the third ring. After all, she hadn’t exactly responded trustingly to my suggestion that we were going to be a couple again. And she’d said that she’d been “in the middle of something.” What if she had had a date last night? What if she was, even now, in some other guy’s bed?

“Hi, Marsh,” she greeted me, evidently recognizing my number.

“Hi, Vix… Um… I just wondered if you’d like to hang out for a bit.”

“Is something wrong?” she asked. “You sound a bit nervous.”

“No!” I said hurriedly. “It’s really none of my business if you were out with somebody last night.”

“I was, actually,” she said, sounding a bit puzzled. “Christine, Mandy, and I went to a movie. Why?”

“Nothing,” I admitted, feeling a bit foolish. “Anyway, do you want to come over?”

“Will you be sewing?” she asked.

“Well, I have a few simple repairs that people dropped on me this week, but I was planning on doing them tonight after rehearsal. Spending time with you is much more important.”

She laughed. “No, I mean that I would love to watch. I’m trying to get my mind around the idea of you sitting at a sewing machine. When I think of ‘Marsh Steen’ that’s just not the image that comes to mind!”

“Yeah,” I laughed. “I’m getting good at it, anyway. It’s another way for me to be creative. I’m thinking of sticking with it after I change back.”

“After you… right. So, when should I come over?”

“Anytime. I’ll probably be practicing the guitar for most of the morning, and you probably don’t want to be here for that. I’m really bad, Vix.”

“That’s… going to take some getting used to.”

“I’m just hoping that it doesn’t carry over to after I change back.”

Yeah… right. I mean, that would be really horrible. So… I have some things to do and then I’ll be over. What’s your room address?”

“208 Laramie.”

“OK, see you in a bit.”

Automatically, I looked around my room as soon as I hung up, figuring out how I could make my room presentable enough for a girl to come over. That’s when I noticed for the first time: my room was spotless! I’d never been able to keep it clean; despite my best efforts, underwear and socks seemed just naturally to gravitate to the floor beside my bed and all around my laundry bag. But not now. I had somehow kept my room tidy without even thinking about it. I checked under the bed and behind the desk and sewing machine and even inside the wardrobe. Nothing. Not a single thing on the floor that didn’t belong there. What had happened? To be sure, the clothes I was wearing now were different, most especially the underwear – and underwear had always been the biggest problem. Maybe there was just something about girl’s underwear that didn’t feel right tossing on the floor? Even if it was my own?

I hooked up the guitar and went back to practicing the chord changes. It was definitely getting easier; I could do them properly about half the time now. I imagine that this must be what physical therapy after an accident feels like for a jock – knowing that you used to be able to do something with ease, and having your body betray you, and yet trying again and again. I remember when I first tried to learn chord changes, about eight years ago – it was exciting, back then, thinking about what it would be like when I learned. Just being able to make the right sounds come out of the guitar had been a thrilling accomplishment. Now, it was more of a need – a hunger. It was a way to restore me to my rightful self, even just one part of me.

With the beginnings of calluses on my fingers, I was able to practice for about twenty minutes before it became too painful, and I could feel the improvement. A few more days of this and I’d have these chords down. Then I could add a few more to my repertoire, probably the C, A, and F. There were a number of songs that I could play with just those six basic chords, and managing whole songs would be a major milestone.

I shook out the pain in my left hand. I wouldn’t feel comfortable sewing until it subsided, and I didn’t want to get involved in anything that required a time commitment or concentration with Vicky on her way over. In my old room, I would have gone for a science fiction book, but Marsha didn’t have any; her light reading had been trashy romance novels, which I had so far avoided. It was possible that I would eventually become desperate enough to read one of them, but I wasn’t there yet – quite.

I heard the knock on the outer door and hurried to open it, getting there just in time to see Lee Ann opening it for Vicky. I surprised to see her in a dress; she had always been more of a jeans and T-shirt kind of girl.

“Vicky,” I said, introducing them “this is my roommate, Lee Ann Taylor. Lee Ann, this is my friend, Vicky Gordon.”

“Nice to meet you, Vicky,” Lee Ann said politely. “Marsh mentioned you.”

“Um, Likewise,” Vicky replied. But when Lee excused herself and headed back to her bedroom, the gaze with which Vicky followed her was pure poison.

I ushered Vicky into my own room and closed the door before asking about it.

“Well, how do you expect me to feel about her, Marsh? She’s the one who broke us up.”

“What? That’s not the way I remember it,” I countered. “I mean, I started flirting with her after we broke up.”

She rolled her eyes. “You are so naïve, Marsh. We were having problems, and I think we could have worked things out, but Miss Kissy-lips out there starting batting her eyes at you, and that’s when you told me that you thought we had fallen out of love with each other, and we might just as well break up while we still liked each other.”

At my shocked expression, she looked directly at me and added, “You might have fallen out of love, but I hadn’t. But I loved you enough to let you go, because I thought you would be happier that way.”

“Vicky… I don’t know what to say. I must have seemed a selfish…”

“…jerk? Yes, you were.”

I cringed at the judgment; how could I have been so stupid?

“And I was an idiot for letting you go,” she continued. “At least we could have had a few more weeks together before…” She broke off and started crying. I reached for her and she shook her head. “No, I’m sorry. I thought I was over this. I thought you were gone, somehow. Just never existed any more for some reason, like some say happened to the whole experiment. And then you called and said you knew where Marshall was and I thought we could try again, and then you showed up like this…”

“We can, Vixy. We can,” I promised her. “In January we’ll start all over again. And I won’t leave this time. I promise.”

“January?!” she stared at me through her tears. “What does January have to do with anything? What’s supposed to happen in January?”

“I…” I hesitated. “Well… my plan was to ask to be changed back in January. I mean, once I find those guys.”

“But… why January? Why wouldn’t you…?” Then her expression suddenly changed to one of understanding and impatience. “Marsh, tell me this isn’t another garlic boast.”

“’Garlic boast’?” I repeated.

“Don’t pretend you don’t remember. I mean the time your roommates were making fun of you because you were avoiding garlic, and Geoff sneaked some into your dinner one night–”

“We never proved that it was Geoff,” I pointed out.

“It doesn’t matter. What matters is that you claimed that you didn’t mind, and boasted that you would eat garlic with every dinner for the next three weeks, remember? Just to show that you didn’t really mind?”

“I made it for three weeks, didn’t I?” I insisted, looking away from her.

“Yes, and who was still expected to kiss you, garlic breath and all? Who was expected still to embrace you, with garlic coming out of your every pore?”

“I’m sorry, Vicky. I just had to prove–”

“… that you were really in control, right?”

I nodded.

“Even though everybody knew perfectly well that you hated it? And is that what happened here? Whom did you boast to this time, Marsh? What on earth would prompt you to agree to stay this way if you actually had a chance to change back?”

“They took my guitar, Vix,” I explained, “on top of everything else. Joey got it and sold it.”

“Your guitar? What does your guitar have to do with this?!”

“It’s gone. And I was really upset about that, so…”

“It wouldn’t be gone if you changed back, Marshall!” she thundered at me. “I don’t really believe that there’s a way back, but are you seriously telling me that if we found one tomorrow, that you would wait until January to use it?!”

“But, the play, Vix…,” I explained, cringing again in the face of her anger. “If I change back earlier, I’ll be doing the role of Paravicini, and I haven’t rehearsed it at all. I don’t even know the lines, and we’re supposed to be off-book for the whole show today, and…”

Oh boy. The look in her eyes was not good.

I tried to explain; explain to her what I had pretty much not admitted to myself. “I have to think this way, Vix. If… As long as January hasn’t come, well, I’m still a girl because I promised that I wouldn’t change back before then. I promised Tina. She doesn’t want me to change back at all, and I promised that I would wait.

“But without that promise… that means that every day I’m still a girl, it’s because I have no choice… I don’t think I can face that.”

Her voice turned soft and calming, and she took my hands in hers, looked down at me from her greater height, and looked at me with sympathetic eyes. “But it isn’t your choice, is it Marsh? We’re stuck. They’re gone.”

“I can’t accept that, Vicky,” I insisted. “I just can’t. Because it would mean that I’m going to be like this the rest of my life. And that just can’t be. This… this isn’t me. Not the real me. I can’t face that, Vix. I can’t face the real me being gone forever.”

Somehow, we had wound up in each other’s arms, were holding on to each other as though our lives depended on it.

“I can’t face that, either, Marsh,” she said. “I’ve never had a boyfriend who made me feel as good as you did. Who made me think I was beautiful–“

“You are, Vixy. Any guy who can’t see that is blind.”

“Thank you, Marsh. Nobody ever managed to say all the right things to me, the way you did, was there for me the way you were…”

“… except for leaving you, when you wanted me to stay, apparently.”

She nodded, her head pressed against mine. “Except for that.”

We stood there, clutching one another, trying to hold on to what we’d once had somehow, for way too few minutes before she finally pushed me away, wiped her eyes, and said with a forced smile. “So. I understand that there’s some sewing to be done here, today.”

53 Recounting Relationships

The hug had been comforting to both of us, but the drastic difference in my height and shape was an uncomfortable reminder of the impossibility of resuming our old relationship as it had been – at least for now. Vicky’s comment was at least as much a way of letting us break the embrace without dealing too much with that as it was an actual desire to see me sew – or at least that’s how I took it.

Still, it was a safe change of subject. “Were you serious about wanting to see me sew?” I asked as we parted.

“Um… to tell you the truth, I’m not sure I could handle that right now, Marsh.” She looked around my room. “Wow. This is really a girl’s room, isn’t it? Not exactly what I was expecting.”

“It’s the way I found it, except for the guitar.”

“Oh! So you got a new guitar?” She looked where I had indicated. “It looks different from your old one.”

“Yeah, I’m borrowing it from a friend. Actually,” I added, realizing the connection, “it belongs to Ben Fosberg. He’s sort of turned off by the whole thing and doesn’t even want to see it, and his sister’s a good friend of mine, so she said I could borrow it.”

“Oh, poor Ben. I think he’s had it worse than any of us. Except for you, that is.”

“Except for me? Are you saying that nobody else changed sex?”

She nodded. “As far as I know. At least nobody in the Strangers has admitted to it.”

“Yeah, well I didn’t exactly tell Ian and Luke the whole truth, either. I just told them that I looked like I could be my own sister.”

“So maybe it happened to somebody else. Hmm. I hadn’t thought of that. In fact, until I realized who you were, it hadn’t even occurred to me that some of the volunteers might have changed sex. Ben’s change seemed the most that anyone would have experienced.”

She looked around some more. “So you really do have a sewing machine, huh. And I guess all those,” she said, indicating my garment rack, “are things you’re supposed to sew. For money. Wow. I mean… wow. I’m seriously freaking out a bit, Marsh. I don’t understand how you can be so calm. I mean… you’re a girl, Marshall!”

“I’m calm, now. I certainly wasn’t when this first happened, but I’ve had a bit of time to get used to it – and of course, I still refuse to accept it as permanent,” and I looked stubbornly at her, daring her to gainsay me on that point.

But she just nodded.

“Out of curiosity, Vix,” I asked, “is there any particular reason you’re dressed up like that?”

She looked embarrassed. “I guess I just really felt funny about my ex-boyfriend dressing more girlishly than I was. It’s bad enough that I’m taller than you, without also being the only one who’s wearing pants. If you can wear a dress… so can I. Besides, the more feminine I look, maybe the more it’ll be easier for you to… I don’t know. I’m very skeptical that there’s any way back, but I want to give you as much of an incentive as I can.”

“Believe me, Vixy, I have plenty of incentive,” I laughed. “But I’m worried that I could be just going over old ground. What kind of things did the group try?”

“Well, we looked in the physics building, of course. I think we were pretty thorough, but I suppose we could have missed something. And we did web searches, but Davis is kind of a common name, and if you look for physics papers written by a Professor Davis at Piques in the past decade, the only one you find is the guy we know about, who is not the one in charge of this experiment.”

I sighed. “Yeah, that’s pretty much what I found. Anything else?”

“I think some of the guys had more ideas, but nothing seems to have panned out. That’s why we’re pretty much all convinced that there’s no way back.’

“So why all the secrecy, then?”


“I spoke with Ian and Luke and they took me on this incredible obstacle course to get to their dorm.”

She grimaced. “Oh, right. I didn’t realize that you had met them. Well, they’re just paranoid. Some of the group are convinced that there’s this massive cover-up, and that the administration is trying to find the people who went to the Messenger and do… I don’t know what to them. Others are convinced that the experiment wrote itself out of existence. Something to do with a grandfather paradox.”

“That’s what Chad thought might have happened.”

“Oh, you told Chad? That doesn’t really surprise me.”

“Yeah, and I told Tina and Alvin and Nikki, too.”

“Alvin – your director? And who’s Nikki?”

“Nikki is Ben’s sister. She’s also Alvin’s girlfriend, our costume mistress, and the one who’s been teaching me to sew and just generally been a really good friend.”

“Which is why you have his guitar. OK, now it all makes sense. But… that’s a lot of people, Marsh. I’ve told Christine, and that’s it, outside the Strangers. And my secret isn’t nearly as big as yours.”

I shrugged. “I only told people I thought I needed to. I needed more help than you did, remember.”




“Um… the Strangers in the Mirror…”

“Please, Marsh. I don’t want to talk about them right now. Can’t we try to forget about this whole thing for just a while?”

We sort of stared at each other for a moment; I assumed she was thinking mostly the same kind of thing that I was. It was great to be here together, but we certainly weren’t together in the way we used to be. There had been a fair number of things we used to do when we were dating, like dancing and skating – but those sort of required me to be a guy, or probably wouldn’t be much fun this way, even if we were willing to risk being viewed as a gay couple. She also used to love listening to me play song after song, but I was hardly going to inflict on her what I could manage now. Making out was definitely not happening.

That left talking, which we were already doing. We had always been able to talk for hours, and now we had plenty of things to catch up on, even if we sort of had to waltz around the question of whether there was a way back. So we just talked about stuff. We had over a month to catch up on, and despite her earlier reluctance, she was intrigued to see me actually use the sewing machine, so I worked on a couple of patch jobs that I had. I still wasn’t ready to try altering Terry’s gown, of course, but I felt comfortable enough with the simple work that I didn’t mind doing it in front of her. What was particularly odd was that it was almost easier to do when she was there, talking to me than when I was alone.

She laughed about how I had had to avoid Carl’s attempts to flirt with me, tsk’ed about the way I had given Nikki enough information to figure out the truth about me, and was scandalized about my having to kiss Jared for the play. But it was my admission about having been attracted to Jeremy that shocked her the most.

“A boy, Marsh? Seriously? You were attracted to a boy?”

“I was playing a role, Vicky,” I protested. “I figured that the girl I was portraying would be attracted, that’s all. So it seemed right that I should actually be attracted. Since I thought it was a dream, right? It doesn’t mean anything. If I ran into him today, I wouldn’t be attracted at all. I was just a bit confused.”


“So… what’s happened with you, since…?”

“Hmm. Well… it made me sort of re-evaluate things. Like our relationship, and… well, I’ve been looking at my drawings, and I’m thinking that maybe art shouldn’t just be a hobby after all. I mean, when you lose things you thought you never could, it sort of puts things into perspective.”

“Trust me. I know that very well.”

“Yeah, well… I’m sort of leaning towards making Art my major.”

“Really? What happened to the psych and sociology?”

“Oh, I still like those, but… I don’t know, maybe I’m just getting a bit selfish…”

“You’re entitled,” I assured her. “You have to do what you enjoy.”

“Yeah, well, it was kind of late to change my classes, but… remember that drawing class I dithered over? I asked the instructor if I could sort of audit it.”


“Yeah, well… he wasn’t too crazy about the idea, especially since the term was almost half over, but I showed him some of my sketches and he let me sit in.”

“Good. I’d love to see what you come up with.”

“I really wish I’d brought some of my latest work. I think I’m really improving, Marsh.”

“I’ll have to come over to your place, next time, so you can show me.”

“Yeah…” She looked around my room again. “Talk about putting things into perspective. I was really upset when I saw what had happened to me, but you… I mean, just about my whole life is really unchanged by comparison. I have the same roommates, the same friends, the same clothes, even my body isn’t really all that different.”

“And your face isn’t really changed all that much, either, Vix. Besides us two, nobody else would probably have noticed, even if they remembered the old you.”

“I guess so.” She sat silently, looking down and thinking for a few minutes. Then she looked at me, and said decisively, “We have to get you back, Marsh. I’m not sure I believe it’s possible, but at least we have to try.

“The Strangers meet once or twice a week, and I’ve sort of stopped going. I mean it’s kind of depressing. Everybody looks so normal, and we all sort of look at each other and think, ‘what happened to her isn’t so bad – why is she upset?’ And most of us have pretty much given up. But there’s some who haven’t, and it’s probably worth you meeting them. I don’t know if there’s any hope, but… I’ve never been so motivated as I am now. I want you back, Marsh. I want Marshall back.”

54 Dread to Rights

It was really hard to believe how much had happened to me since the last rehearsal: the nightmares, the discovery that I couldn’t actually play the guitar, getting to borrow one for practice, and most importantly, discovering that Vicky remembered me and wanted to be with me. It really made me feel that the play wasn’t all that big a deal, after all. And for me, thinking any play wasn’t a big deal was odd, much less one in which I had a lead role.

But I knew that the feeling would pass. The play was a big deal for me, and presumably would feel exciting again soon – and right now I owed it to my fellow actors to keep my enthusiasm and energy up, no matter what else was happening in my life.

I wish I could say that I had succeeded, Jared gave me an odd look the first time we came off stage together. “Marsh, is something wrong? You were much better on Wednesday.”

I shook my head. “I’m really sorry, Jared. I’m a bit distracted. It was kind of a roller coaster week for me.”

“Yeah, but you keep messing up your lines, and you seemed to be somewhere else when we were supposed to be fighting.”

Alvin had noticed, too, and stopped us twice so that I could try to get back into the role. I was messing up seriously, and that had to stop. I wasn’t worried about being kicked out of the cast, not now, but I was better than this – now.

“Look, just focus on one line at a time, OK?” Jared picked up my script. “Do you know your next line?”

“Um… wait. ‘Do you need me now?’”

“Close. It’s ‘Must I come now? It’s very inconvenient.’”

“’Must I come now? It’s very inconvenient.’ ‘Must I come now? It’s very inconvenient.’ Got it. I’m going to be all right, Jared. I’m just bit–“

“Yeah, well you can’t be. Come on, Marsh. We’re all counting on you.”

“You’re right, you’re right.” I admitted. “OK…” I took a deep breath. “Give me the cue.”

“Um… ‘Sit down, Major, Mrs. Ralston…’”

I looked at him impatiently, as Mollie was supposed to. “Must I come now? It’s very inconvenient.”

“Um… blah blah… ” he muttered, as he looked for my next line “… it will only be for a few minutes.”

I pantomimed crossing to Trotter and looking at him. “Have your skis been found, Sergeant?”

“OK, good. Your next line is… about a page later.”

“And I’ll be fine with it,” I said, a bit more impatiently than I should have. “I’m sorry.” I took a breath. “We have a couple of minutes before we go on. Thanks. I’m just going to collect myself and get into the show.” I closed my eyes for a moment, and then looked at him again, more calmly. “Thanks. I just needed… I just needed a moment.”

He looked at me, still a bit concerned. “OK.”

And I was better when we went back on stage, and again when we reran the act. I wasn’t where I should have been, where I had hoped to be, as far as lines and characterization were concerned, but at least I was focusing on the play again. When it came to giving notes, Alvin did point out my initial problems and improvement, and offered some specific comments, as he did for everyone else. He did look a bit worried about me, though.

“OK, people,” he said at the end. “Everybody should now be off-book for the entire show, and we’re going to start running the whole thing at each rehearsal. We’ll still be stopping and starting as needed, and Nikki will be prompting you for the next week only. After that, I’m going to expect you to ad lib your way out of any dropped lines. Good rehearsal, and I’ll see you all tomorrow night.”

He looked over at me and hesitated, but seemed to decide that it was more important to talk to Jack about something. I hadn’t noticed Jack having problems, but then I hadn’t been as aware as I probably should have been in general.

I hurried over the Nikki before I left. “I’ve got lots of stuff to tell you,” I said. “You wouldn’t believe what happened.”

“OK,” she said, very curious. “Call me tonight?”

“Will do.”

And that reminded me that I had promised to call Tina, so I pulled out my phone as I left the rehearsal. Mom answered.

“Marsha, so good to hear from you. I’m sorry I missed you when you called yesterday. How’s the play coming?”

“It’s… well, we’re off-book now and starting run-throughs. It’s challenging, but…”

“But you’ll be fine. “


With Mom on the phone, I found myself wrestling again with the question of what to tell her. The problem was, I wasn’t sure how to explain, or how she would react. And of course, she would tell Dad, so it was probably better that I tell them both. And, I reminded myself, once I told them, I couldn’t take it back, whereas, if I put it off, I could always tell them later.

“Marsh? Is something wrong?”

I might have known that she would pick up on something. And possibly if I knew how my parents were with setting rules for Marsha; if I’d been sure that I could predict their reaction, I might not have hesitated so much. But I wasn’t sure. Tina had been safe to tell, since I knew that she would keep my secret and that she had no authority over me. But my parents were different.

And besides, my discovery of the Strangers in the Mirror had changed everything. If we found a way back, Vicky would probably insist that we take it immediately, or at least once the play was over – I’d probably insist on that. And then wouldn’t it be kinder to my parents not to let them know that their memories had been changed and might be changed back?

“How’s Tina doing?” I finally asked. Let Mom think that was my main concern, now.

“She’s doing pretty well, considering. I told her that I would call some of our friends and complain, but she said not to.”

“Yeah, I think that wouldn’t be a great idea, Mom.”

“She told me that you two had had a good talk. It’s nice that my girls are still so close, even though you’re away.”

“Mm hmm. Is Tina around? I promised to call her.”

“Oh, sure. Hold on.” I heard her calling, “Tina! Pick up the phone. It’s your sister.”

Tina came to the phone pretty quickly. “Hey, Marsh. How’s the play going?” But I had no sooner started telling her about my rehearsal than she interrupted me. “OK, Mom’s gone. Is this something about…?”

“Yeah. I found somebody who remembered me. My old girlfriend!”

She took an awfully long time responding.

“Teen? Is something wrong?”

“No, no. It’s OK. I just… Oh this sounds horrible, but I was sort of hoping that you were wrong, that you were just imagining things. That you wouldn’t be able to find anyone and would decide that you were really Marsha, after all. I’m sorry, Marsh. I know how hard this must be for you, and I knew it was wrong to have that hope, but…”

“You didn’t really believe me?” I asked softly, but I felt really crushed.

“No. No, I did believe you. I mean, I do believe you. There’s too much that’s different. You have to be who you say you are, Marsh.” Then she whispered, “I mean, ‘Marshall.’ I didn’t really doubt you. I just… I guess I just sort of hoped that you were kidding yourself, and somehow pulling one over on me.

“So, girlfriend, huh? Would that be Jackie or Vicky?”

“Vicky. The one I broke up with just before…”

“Right. So… what kind of change…?”

“Vicky looks just a little bit different, not too much. And get this. She wants to get back together. Once I change back, of course.”

“Oh. Of course. So… you’re definitely changing back, then? I– I mean, you’re not going to consider staying my sister?” She said it so casually, but I heard the pain in her voice, and yet she was trying so hard to be positive – for me. I had always known that I wasn’t going to give up on changing back, and hadn’t known how to tell her. And now I had told her, and in about the worst way possible.

“Teen…” I sighed. “Teen… I don’t know if we can change back. Vicky’s part of a group of experiment victims, and they’ve been trying to find the guys who did this to all of us. So far, they haven’t been able to find them at all. Vicky’s going to take me to the next meeting to discuss what we can do. But it’s not really sure.”

“Oh. Well, good lu– I mean…”

“I know, Teen. I appreciate it.”

“If you do find them… I mean… If you do change back, you’re still going to wait until after Christmas, right?”

“I’ll try, Teen. Until we find them, I don’t know what’s going to happen.”

“OK… I guess… Marsh, I guess I just hope that you get what you want… and that… well, that you’ll be happy with your choice. I mean… you’re my sis– my… my sibling, and I love you, no matter what. No matter what, right?”

“Yeah, and… I love you, too, Teen.”

“Well, ‘bye… I mean… take care.”

“Take care, Teen.”

I am such a jerk. I was still pondering her words and trying to see how I was going to find an answer that didn’t give me fits when Vicky called with the news that the Strangers were meeting tomorrow night from eight to ten. I let her think that my measured response was due to the fact that I would have to miss half of it because of rehearsal. But I knew better.


55 Out of Focus

Monday after classes I went back to search the Physics building. With the meeting of the Strangers coming up, I was inspired. I wanted to come in with some evidence that everyone else had overlooked, somehow. Of course, what I found was pretty much more of the same – but now I had a name. Davis. I already knew that Morton Davis wasn’t my target, but I kept my eyes out for another one who might somehow have been overlooked. In particular, I was looking for signs of an erasure, for indications that there had been another Davis in the building, and that the evidence of his existence hadn’t been erased as completely as intended.

Well, I didn’t exactly find one, but I did find a Phillip Davidson. That seemed pretty close, and I wondered if people had misremembered his name. I didn’t see a lab specifically assigned to him, just an office.

I knocked at his door. I didn’t expect to recognize him, of course. I didn’t remember any professor at all when I went in for the time travel experiment. For that matter, I didn’t remember professors at most of the experiments I had signed up for; they seemed mostly to be student-run things. Still, if I could just learn what kind of research he was doing, I might be able to get some clues.

There had been no answer, so I knocked again. Again, there was no response, so I tried the door. It was locked. At this point, I did something that was probably not very smart. The upsides of finding out something about Professor Davidson seemed so strong, and my need was so great, that I decided to break in.

Now, I have no particular skill with locks, but I remembered somebody who did. He had lived down the hall from me Freshman year, and had shown off one day for a few of us, boasting that he could get into any dorm room he pleased. We made a bet that he couldn’t, and he took all of our money when he managed to unlock, not only all of our rooms, but two offices in the next building. The trick would be to persuade him to come to my aid.

He didn’t know Marsha, of course, and I was going to have to come up with a good story. I knew a price that any guy would have accepted, of course, but paying with my body was something I was not willing to do, not even for this, not when it was only for a slim chance.

Back at my dorm room, I looked him up in the student directory and called.

“Hello?” he answered, or somebody did. I wasn’t sure I recognized his voice.

“Is this Stan Warrik?”

“Yeah, do I know you?”

“No, you don’t. My name is Marsha Steen, and some friends tell me you’re pretty good with locks.”

He laughed. “’Pretty good’? I’m amazing. Your friends don’t know me very well, I’d say.”

“Well, I have a lock I need opened.”

“No problem,” he said confidently. “What did you do, lock a key in your trunk or something?”

“Um… actually, I sort of left something in my professor’s office and he’s gone for the day, and I really need it back tonight.”

I wanted for what seemed like forever before he replied. “A prof’’s office? That’s kind of difficult.”

“The locks are too hard for you?” I suggested.

“No,” he protested. “The locks are no problem. It’s the getting kicked out of school I’m not crazy about. You get caught breaking into a prof’s office, that could be kind of serious. Look, why don’t you call your prof? I’m sure the department has a key. All you have to do is get him to call the department office or the janitor and they’ll let you in.”

That was obviously not going to work, so I tried again. “You’re afraid, huh?”

“Um, yeah. I’m hoping for a career as a lawyer, helping keep people out of jail, not winding up in jail myself. Good bye, and don’t bother calling again.” And he hung up on me. Apparently, a girl’s ability to manipulate boys comes with practice, ‘cause I sure didn’t seem to have it.

Well, I could at least mention the name to the Strangers. Maybe they would have an idea.

I gave myself a severe talking-to before rehearsal. I was not going to fall short again. I was a professional, I told myself – and I was going to show it. I was acting better than I ever had, had a plum role and a great director, and there were no excuses. Even the anticipated meeting with the Strangers was not going to be a distraction this time, I told myself – I was going to be focused like a laser beam.

Alvin didn’t make it easy for me, although perhaps I shouldn’t blame him. When I got to rehearsal, he pulled me aside. “I just wanted to give you a heads up, Marsh. We have a visitor.” And he pointed to the seats on the stage left side of the room, where the girls were all crowded around a girl I didn’t know and fussing over something. “Sylvia played Mrs. Loman in Death of a Salesman, so she would expect you to know her. She graduated in January.”

Naturally, I had to go over to be polite and say hello, while noting curiously that all of the boys seemed to be on the other side of the room, laughing about something. When I reached the crowd, I saw the reason. The girls were taking turns holding a tiny baby and generally going crazy over it.

“Marsh!” said the girl who was obviously Sylvia. “Congratulations on Mollie! I hear you’re doing a great job with it!”

“Oh… thanks. Sylvia,” I stammered, staring at the baby.

She smiled. “This is Tyler. Did you want to hold him?” And she held him up to me.

It would have been rude to refuse, so I took him. It was… strange. I hadn’t held a baby since I was four or five, fussing over my new baby sister, and dealing with the conflicting feelings of pride at being a big brother and some resentment at no longer being an only child, as Chad still was. But the perspective of a five-year-old boy is a bit different from what I was feeling now.

The kid was cute. It was only with firm determination that I handed him back after the very briefest of squeezes. “He’s beautiful, Sylvia,” I told the obviously proud mother. “But I am really trying to stay focused for this rehearsal right now.”

She nodded and took him back, smiling. “I understand. I’m going to watch the rehearsal, so you can hold him after you’re done, OK?”

“Um… sure,” I managed, and then very firmly wrestled my attention away to focus on getting into character. Like a laser beam, I reminded myself. Like a laser beam.

The rehearsal itself went well. My energy was back, my lines were flowing more smoothly, and when I needed a line, I asked for it without dropping character and got right back into the scene. All in all, I felt pretty good about my performance.

Alvin’s notes were generally complimentary, for me at least, although he had some suggestions about timing in my argument with ‘Giles.’ And I kept my attention on him until he was done.

It was only afterwards that I went over to hold Tyler again, since Sylvia expected me to. And it was while I was holding him that Vicky arrived to walk me over to the meeting.

“Marsh?” she said, interrupting my conversation with the baby, “what are you doing?”

“Hmm?” I said, looking up in surprise, “Oh, did you want to hold him?”

“No, I just want to get to the meeting. We’re late, remember?”

“Oh, right! The meeting.” Out of politeness, I said good-bye to Tyler and handed him back to his mother. “Sylvia, it was great to see you again,” I told her. “And your son is adorable.”

“Nice seeing you again, too, Marsh. Take care.”

As Vicky and I left, I noticed that once again she had eschewed her usual jeans and shirt, this time for a skirt and a blouse that I would have found a lot more interesting a month ago.

“What was that all about?” she asked sharply.

“What do you mean? That was Sylvia; we did a show together last year. Or at least,” I corrected myself, “she and Marsha did. And I guess she must have gotten married right out of college.”

“I mean you, Marsh. You were cooing to that baby. You looked like you were really enjoying yourself. I’ve never seen you do anything like that before.”

“Well, that baby was cute, you have to admit.”

“Marsh, to a girl, most babies are cute. To guys our age? Not so much.”

“What… what are you talking about?”

“Marsh, all the boys were about as far away from that baby as it was possible to get. What were you doing?”

“I… “ I had no answer. I hadn’t been thinking, not really. I had just reacted.

“This body is getting to you, Marsh. You’re starting to act like a girl.”

“No!” I insisted, now very uncomfortable with my actions. “It was just… I don’t know. I don’t know what I was thinking. It just seemed like the most natural thing in the world.”

She sighed. “Just try to stay focused, OK, Marsh? We’ve got to get you out of that body. I just hope there’s a way.”

“I know, right? One of the Strangers had better have an answer.”

“Just don’t get your hopes up too high, OK?”

We were now within view of Christie Hall, where Ian and Luke lived. But to my surprise, Vicky turned in the opposite direction.

“Wait,” I said. “Isn’t the meeting at Ian and Luke’s place?”

“Oh – yes, it is, but it’s sort of a tradition for us to take some kind of a detour before going there. You know, to pretend that we’re trying to ‘lose anybody following us.’”

“You’re not saying that you actually think the administration is trying to find you?”

“No, pretty much only Ian and Luke take that seriously. The rest of us just do it as a group tradition. Seriously, if they wanted to find us, Prof. Davis probably already has all of our names, Marsh. If they could make him disappear, they could get his records, right?”

So I didn’t comment as we looped around the building next to Christie Hall and approached it from the back. At least we weren’t wading through a creek. We quickly reached the door and Vicky knocked: three times quickly, then a pause and another three, and then a pause and one more. At my questioning look, she nodded. Another “group tradition.”

The door opened a crack, and I heard Luke whisper, “Where you followed?” Once Vicky answered in the negative, he opened it all the way and greeted like old friends.

“Vicky! Haven’t seen you in a while! You look great!”

“Thank you,” she answered while I waited impatiently.

“And Marsha! Glad you found us again! Come in!”

He ushered us into the room, where about a dozen students seemed to be having some kind of a subdued party. Several were gathered around a Wii, taking turns with some game I didn’t recognize. A few more were playing a board game on the floor in one corner, and a boy and a girl were sitting together and talking earnestly on a couch in another corner.

“Oh, did we miss the meeting?” I asked, a bit disappointed.

Luke gave me an odd look, but Vicky quietly explained, while leading me toward the couple on the couch, “This is the meeting, Marsh.” Then she introduced us. “Dan and Allie, this is my friend Marsh. She’s one of us.”

The boy, Dan, stood and offered his hand. “Now that you know where we are, Marsh, be a stranger.”

I stared at him for a moment, even more confused, before realizing that he had actually said, “be a Stranger” and groaned in appreciation of the pun.

“We started out more formal,” Dan explained, “but over time most people gave up on the chance for finding anything about the experiment, and it turned into just a social gathering for people who all went through the same experience. There are only a few of us, like Allie and me, who are still trying to figure things out.”

“We think the professor in charge has to be studying either astrophysics or relativity or maybe chaos theory,” Allie said, as Vicky and I sat on the couch at Dan’s invitation. “My brother’s a physics major, and he says that he’s never heard of anybody trying to study time travel seriously, but that if anybody were, most of their research would probably be in one of those areas.”

“I don’t think I’d be able to tell what a physics prof was studying,” I admitted. I searched the physics building and did a web search, and that’s about it. I guess you guys have covered that ground already. Are there are any physics majors in the group?”

“No, most of the group haven’t even picked their majors, yet, Marsh, but I don’t remember anyone saying that they were interested in physics.”

“They haven’t picked their majors?” I echoed. “The group is mostly underclassmen?”

“It’s all underclassmen, Marsh,” Dan put in. “We don’t have a single junior or senior in the Strangers.”

“What?! That doesn’t make sense.”

“It’s data, Marsh, so it has to make sense. We just aren’t certain what it means.” He ticked off the possibilities on his fingers. “It could be that no upperclassmen volunteered for the experiment, or that they were immune to its effects, or that they didn’t see the flyer organizing us, or they just didn’t want to join us.”

“Why would they be immune?” I asked. “And why would none of them see the flyer or want to join?”

“I have no idea. I’m just listing the possibilities. Right now, it seems most likely that none of them did the experiment, which might mean that something happened on campus two years ago that warned them away.”

“And they didn’t warn the rest of us?”

“I have no idea. I’m just telling you what I’ve figured out so far. Now, as to what happened to the experiment, we have a few possibilities.” And again, he used his fingers to count them down. “There might be a massive cover-up going on, or the experiment might have wiped itself out of existence, or we might all be deluded.”

“What was that last?”

“Again, I’m just being thorough. But what if we were all hypnotized into believing in different lives? What if we really are who we seem to be now?”

“But that’s–” I protested, but he cut me off.

“The guitarist we remember would be an artifact – something added to all of our memories to distinguish us from people who didn’t go through it, or on whom the experiment failed. It wouldn’t have been a physics experiment, of course; that would be another part of the invented past for us.”

“Do you seriously–?”

“… believe that?” he interrupted me again. “No. First of all, the data requirements would be enormous. For most of us, it would be just false memories of our appearances, but Vicky remembers actually dating the guitarist. She has memories that make no sense in this reality. Where did those come from? And Ben’s memories of playing basketball would have to have been invented, and his memories of playing the guitar would have to have been removed. Thing is, I have never heard of any form of hypnotism that can do all that.”

I exchanged glances with Vicky. My own experience was an even more extreme case, although he didn’t seem to need it.

“But if we rule that out,” he continued, “that leaves either a cover-up or a no-longer existing experiment. And we have no data to distinguish them. That’s why people here argue about it over and over.”

“OK,” I said, impressed by what I had just heard, “How do we use this information? How does this help us undo it and change back?”

He looked at me with impatience. “Change back? I think you’re missing the point, Marsh. There’s no reason to expect that we can.”