118 A Need to Talk

I was still talking with Nikki when Jeremy called.

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

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

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

“Oh. Should I call back later?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What do you mean?” I asked, baffled.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What kind of thoughts?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“That’s what he said.”

“Huh. That’s kind of nice, actually.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“That’s sweet of you to say so.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You are in love with him, then.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“But who could it be?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“So now what?” Vicky asked.

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

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

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


  1. von says:

    I so don’t understand this Marsh dude. Oh well, next?

  2. scotts13 says:

    MARSH doesn’t understand this Marsh dude – that is and was always the problem, and most likely is the point of the story. I think the chapter is showing him beginning to grow a conscience, but IMHO you don’t drift into that as Marsh seems to be doing. You have a realization, which turns into a resolve to change your attitude and behaviour.

    But aside from that, Marsh’s behaviour is fluctuating rather rapidly. The conversation with Vicky, the reaction to the impending bracelet, and the attitude towards Jeremy are all over the map. You enjoy reading about a character because you can identify with them; if they’re inconsistent, at a certain point you stop trying and they become scenery.

    Oh, and I’d hoped the yes/no sparring with Jeremy would have been resolved by now – it’s getting tiresome. Maybe they’ve settled on NO.

  3. Hoopla says:

    I understanding Marsh a pre-requisite? 🙂
    This story twists and turns more than the ol’ 3D Monster Maze on the ZX-81.

  4. Hoopla says:

    Oops, I=Is.

  5. April says:

    Few bits of feedback, aside from the grammar fixes, for which I’ve sent you an email:

    Personally, if I was Marsha, I’d find the whole bracelet/jewelry thing to be really, really annoying. But I don’t know if I’d think it was leading towards a more serious relationship, at least from my end; I’d just think that this guy has some sort of sad puppy dog love thing going on. Grow up, Jeremy. 😛

    Also, I think you’re doing a good job with Vicky. I both dislike the character, empathize with her, and I also find her to be a realistic portrayal compared to other women I’ve seen in such a situation. She needs a self-esteem booster shot!

    I admit, though, that I didn’t think on it all that long.

    I find that sentence to be singularly disturbing, because it comes off as portraying Marsha as a bit psychopathic — almost flippant in her attitude. Although she has certainly wavered between what she wants to do, and definitely has made her share of mistakes, I’ve generally seen her as a thoughtful, empathic character. She clearly knows what she’s doing is wrong; her guilt with Nikki is evidence of that. I just find it hard to see her, well, *using* Jeremy, like she is, for any length of time, without some serious contemplation.

    If she wants to have sex as a girl and is committed to returning to being Marsh, she should break up with Jeremy and find somebody to have casual sex with. If she wants a relationship with Jeremy, then she should commit to giving it her all, and decide not to return to being Marsh until its end. This whole half-in thing strikes me as a bit unethical, especially given how obvious Jeremy’s feelings are for her… and perhaps vice versa.

  6. Russ says:

    You’re right, April, and I have changed it.

  7. von says:

    >>I’ve generally seen her as a thoughtful, empathic character.


  8. scotts13 says:

    >>If she wants to have sex as a girl and is committed to returning to being Marsh, she should break up with Jeremy and find somebody to have casual sex with. If she wants a relationship with Jeremy, then she should commit to giving it her all, and decide not to return to being Marsh until its end. This whole half-in thing strikes me as a bit unethical, especially given how obvious Jeremy’s feelings are for her… and perhaps vice versa.<<

    Well said, and part of what I meant by growing a conscience – damed slowly, though, and likely too late to spare Jeremy. BTW, anyone see a reason Luke won't have bamboo shoots under his fingernails soon? That, and breaking down the door to see what's left. Passive observation is over.

  9. April says:

    @von: For a character who is in their early 20s, got thrust into an incredibly challenging situation, and is still getting used to the flood that is female emotion and hormones… yes, I’d say Marsha is a pretty empathic character. Those are some tough circumstances!

  10. von says:

    @April: and here I thought he was selfish, egocentric and foolish. Indeed, I can’t think of anything empathetic he ever did. Perhaps you could enlighten me? In this chapter, for example:

    I took her laughter as agreement and headed out into the night, thinking hard. Jeremy was one of the major positives in my life right now, and I really did have to make sure not to mess things up.

    So, I need to be nice to Jeremy, because of ‘my life’.

  11. April says:

    Yes, that is why I specifically singled out her relationship with Jeremy as being unethical (and out of character), in a previous comment. It’s like, right there. :\

  12. von says:

    Implying that in some other relationship he has been empathetic… and leaving me at a loss what relationship that would be? Vicki? Nicki? Chad?

    Not sure where you see this empathetic and other oriented Marsh.

  13. April says:

    I think you and I had, and continue to have, very differing opinions on Marsha’s internal thoughts, emotions, and motivations. I don’t think a laundry list of character interactions is going to sway you at all.

    All I can say is that all three of those characters have continued to grow closer to Marsha over the course of the novel. If Marsha really was a psychopathic jerk as you seem to imply, then you’d think it would stand to reason that she would have fewer and more distant friends, instead of what we have seen happen.

  14. von says:

    I didn’t say anything about ‘psychopathic jerk’, I said, ‘I thought he was selfish, egocentric and foolish.’. And they grow closer because that’s what the boss wants 🙂

    But, as you say, different readers will have different views. I know that Russ shocked me with some of his views on my characters.

  15. Jerf says:

    Fellas, let’s all just get along. Opinion is opinion and what makes art is the inspiration of opinion and thought it provokes.

    On that note I see both sides. Like the bad feelings for getting lead, or not even wanting to try. Marsh is a person who has two conflicting brain modes. The entire life of a man thrown into the mind of a woman would cause strange emotions.

    She seems to want to assert her maleness about as much as trying to be a woman. It has slowly slid toward a medium. Most men like she was are built on charisma. Narcissim is core to that. Being all about how awesome you are. Marsh is a more reserved classic lady.

    You have to consider he/she has been in crisis mode since this all started. Triage is common. She is using checklist to live her life because she has no lifelong base to stand on. I can’t express it clearly from my phone but I will reply more from home.

  16. von says:

    The question isn’t about excuses, but about how the book has portrayed him. He may be the greatest guy in the whole world when he isn’t busy being turned into a girl, for all I know. All I know is, he has not been portrayed as being empathetic but selfish, not as courageous but cowardly. I assume that that is how Russ wants him portrayed.

    That’s all.

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