132 Going Downtown

“He’s not there,” called the boy I had just passed. I turned my head in surprise. “He said at breakfast that he was going to go into the shop this morning, since he had the time off.”

The shop? “You mean the jewelry store?” I asked.

“Yeah, that’s what he calls it.”

I wanted to bang my head against his door. How could he pick now to go do some work? Well, it was pretty obvious that I was going to have to get there myself somehow. If I stopped now, it could be days before I got up the nerve again to do this. “And where exactly is this jewelry store where he works?”

“Aren’t you his girlfriend? I thought he’d have told you.”

“Well he didn’t,” I said impatiently. “I never asked him.”

The boy shrugged. “All I know is that it’s somewhere near east campus. I think he mentioned that it was on some street named for a tree. Oak or Walnut, or something.”

“I don’t suppose you know the name…?”

“Sorry,” he said and kept walking. He didn’t look particularly sorry, and I opened my mouth to snap at him, but couldn’t think of anything appropriate, which just made me angrier. How could Jeremy do this to me?

The easiest thing, of course, would have been to call him, but then he would know I was coming and would start to think happy thoughts, which I would then crush. It would be too painful; besides, I was seriously annoyed at this point, and didn’t want to give him the satisfaction of me asking.

My annoyance ebbed, though, as I trekked through the snow across the campus. I was starting to feel a bit stupid, knowing that I was going to be walking for an hour in snow that was already four inches deep and still falling. I thought I had bundled warmly, but I was still not quite used to the way my smaller body reacted to the cold.

Then I reached the engineering buildings and my heart clenched, remembering the time I’d run into him, the day of House Parties and realized for the first time how I’d felt about him. And that led me to remembering how I’d agonized, watched him dancing with Janine. How was I going to feel when I saw him dancing with a new girlfriend? Don’t think that way! I scolded myself. You know you have to do this. I just didn’t have to like it.

You’d think an hour would feel like an eternity when walking in the snow, but it still seemed all too soon that I reached the road between the campus and the town. There was the clothing store where I’d bought the skirt that Jeremy had seen me in, to my embarrassment, and which he had mentioned as a reason to break up with me. Maybe it would have been better if he had, I thought. At least I’d be over this now. But then I would have missed all the wonderful times we’d had together.

Well. I could hardly blame Jeremy – this was my fault, for thinking I could actually live as a girl, while knowing my whole existence was a lie. That was why I needed to take care of things now. I just had to find the store where he worked. There couldn’t be that many Jewelry stores in a shopping district this size. How hard could it be?

The first cross street was Oak Street, and I peered down it, hoping to see obvious evidence of a jewelry store. Seeing none, I walked to the next, which was Elm Street. That was when I started getting worried. Maple Street was next, then Ash Street and Walnut Street, and I realized that “some street named for a tree” wasn’t really a useful direction. Doggedly, I headed down Walnut, just a few blocks, in case I happened to see it. I didn’t really expect to, and I wasn’t surprised when I reached the residential area after six blocks without finding anything.

At that point I laughed at myself. There were people in the stores, after all. Not many, due to the snow, but I only needed one. I was a girl now, so why not just ask directions?

I saw a man coming out of a hardware store with a snow shovel and grinned. That was an errand that justified coming out in the snow, for sure. I stopped him before he got into his car. “Excuse me, sir. I’m trying to find a jewelry store. Do you know where it is?”

His eyes defocused a bit, as he was apparently trying to remember. Then he looked at me confidently and pointed. “It’s about three-four blocks that way, and a little bit up.” So I thanked him and he drove off.

OK, so it wasn’t that far, and had I tried one of the earlier streets, I might have found it. I turned around and headed back up Walnut towards Piques, looking for the first cross street, so in case his “a little bit up” wasn’t very much, I wouldn’t miss it.

The first one was more of a one-way access road that passed behind a few buildings. There were back entrances, dumpsters, and a few parked cars. I had just started down the road when a car chose that exact moment to drive on it from the other side, forcing me to scoot over next to one of the dumpsters, and still managed to shower me with snow. I wasn’t exactly in a good mood then when I stumbled over a board.

Irate, I bent down to grab it – it was just a piece of 1×3 a few feet long, but I banged it on the ground and tossed it into the dumpster. I’d gone two more steps before my brain registered what I had just seen. I’d just knocked much of the snow off, and the board had had printing on it, and it seemed familiar!

Quickly, I retrieved it from the dumpster, wiped off the rest of the snow with my mitten and stared. ALLENTOWN MILLS ENGINEERING stared back at me.

My jaw dropped and my heart started pounding. I tried to remember what we’d seen on the crate as I turned the board in my hands. This fit! The board could easily have been part of a crate; I found nails or nail holes on both ends. It was actually the nails that had tripped me, in fact. The words fit what we’d known – the first word ended in “N,” the second in “ILLS” and the third word started with “ENG.” It had to be. They were here!

Wildly, I looked around. With all the bad luck we’d been running into, it was about time something like this went our way. They must have tossed the remains of one of the crates into the dumpster and missed this board – and now I had them!

This changed everything. If I could get them to change me back, I’d never have to tell Jeremy; I wouldn’t have to hurt him. Oh, I’d still probably agonize for a while at the prospect of him being with another girl, but I wouldn’t be a girl, so she wouldn’t really be my rival, anyway. The important thing was, that he wouldn’t be hurt. Dad would have the son he clearly wanted; Tina would get her role; Tyler would exist again. And now it was finally possible. They had to be in one of these buildings, but which one?

I walked around to the front of the buildings. Two were storefronts; two were office buildings. The office buildings seemed more likely, so I went inside and looked for directories. “Allentown Mills Engineering” wasn’t listed on either of them. Just to be sure, I checked the storefronts as well. No dice.

OK, I shouldn’t have expected it to be that easy. But I’d seen listings for “Piques College” in both office buildings, and Eric had thought that they could be in a college-owned office, so those seemed good places to try. I didn’t want to think that they might have used some other buildings dumpster; not when I could be this close to finding them.

So the next question was, which building? I could just go and knock on all of the Piques College doors, I suppose, and tell them… something. It just seemed such a pedestrian way to end things; besides, if they were hiding, they probably had some way to put off random visitors. There had to be another way.

Then I got a brainwave. There was a bench where I could sit and see the main entrances to both buildings. It was almost lunchtime; they had to eat, didn’t they? Maybe they would go our for lunch, or one of them would run out and pick up lunch, and if I were sitting and watching, I might see them. If it didn’t work, I could always try the “knock on all the doors” idea.

I quickly found a couple of problems with my idea. First, just sitting still robbed me of the heat I had been generating by walking, and it was cold. Second, due to the weather, everybody was bundled up. If you knew somebody well, you could probably recognize them from the way they walked, but otherwise, it didn’t seem likely. If I hadn’t gotten a break within twenty minutes, I’m sure I would have given up, but things seemed to be going my way today.

When Chad and I were younger, we were into playing ‘spies’ in a big way. We’d disguise ourselves and try to pick up information we weren’t supposed to have, mostly form listening to grownups’ – and girls’ – conversations. One lesson we learned was that the quick peeks and sidling up to doors that spies seem to do in the cartoons just didn’t work. They called attention to you. What you needed to do was to act as though you had nothing to hide and you had every right to be where you were.

Brian Harlin had clearly never learned that lesson. If he had, I probably would never have noticed him, but when the door of one of the buildings opened just a crack – and then a bit more, and then a face peered around it, I noticed. And when he took of his cap briefly to brush the hair out of his eyes, I was sure.

I didn’t say anything yet, because I didn’t just want to find him; I wanted the lab, and I was afraid that if he knew I was there he might still manage to conceal its location. But if he was going out, he had to come back, didn’t he? I waited for him to leave and then I went into the building from which he had just emerged.

The building had three floors, which meant that I couldn’t just camp out in a single hallway and wait. Brian would have seen me anyway. Nor could I see him coming, since the outside door was opaque. After a lot of agonizing, I decided that it would be perfectly natural to be seen talking on a cell phone – so I waited five minutes and then called Nikki.

“You’re not going to believe where I am,” I chuckled when she answered.

“Um, skiing with Jeremy?” she guessed.

“Not even close,” I giggled. Then I caught myself and turned it into a laugh. No more giggling for me, no sir!

“Tell me then?”

“I am in an office building,” I gloated. “An office building from which Professor Davis’s grad student just emerged to go get lunch. I am now waiting for him to come back so I can get him to bring me into the lab, where I will insist that they change me back!”

“You– you’ve got to be kidding me.”

“I’m serious. So if I cut off suddenly, it just means that he’s back and I need to watch him. You know, I probably should have taken a picture of him, but I expect him to be back here within the hour.”

“You’re not planning on confronting him alone, are you?”

“Of course I am,” I told her. “Why not?”

“Because it’s dangerous, that’s why!”

“Oh please. They’re academics. What are they doing to do, read me a boring lecture, or something?”

I heard her sigh over the phone. “That’s the boy in you talking, Marsh. Any girl would know to be careful. Strangers are dangerous. These people have disrupted the lives of numerous students, completely changed their pasts, using who knows what kinds of techniques. They’ve been sneaking around for months, when people are trying to find them. How do you think they’ll react when you just walk in on them?”

“I don’t know. I figured I should find out. They hold the key to my changing back, Nikki! They can set my life back to where it should be!”

“Or make things even worse for you, if they think you’re an inconvenience to them. You should wait until we can bring a group of people.”

“No,” I said firmly. “I know where he is today. What if I leave and he goes somewhere else? What if they have another lab and don’t come back to this one? This could be my only chance! I don’t want to throw it away.”

“Fine. Fine. Go and confront him, if you want. I just want you to take one precaution, OK?”

I listened to her idea. It sounded perfectly reasonable, so I agreed.

“So… how will this work, exactly? This changing back.”

“I don’t know, Nikki,” I admitted. And now suddenly I was nervous. If this worked the way I expected, I was suddenly going to lose a whole bunch of friends. I was going to feel like a stranger in my own body and life for a while until I got used to it. What would Vicky remember? Would she know that I had been a girl for a few months? Would all of the growth I’d seen her experience go away? It was still the right thing to do, I was sure of that. I just wasn’t so sure that I was going to enjoy it as much as I would have, had I changed back sooner.

“So… this is goodbye?” she asked, and her voice didn’t even waver.

“You don’t think it’s really going to happen, do you?” I said, trying to keep the resentment out of my voice. The alternative, it seemed to me, was that she didn’t care if she didn’t remember me.

“Marsh, I’ve told what I think. I hate the idea that we won’t be friends anymore, but I won’t remember, will I? So you’re the one who’s going to be remembering the friendship we have now and missing it. So if you do decide to go through with this, I just want you to know that you’ve been a good friend, and even though I won’t remember, there’ll be something missing from my life.”

“Now I feel guilty,” I whined. “I’ve thought of how almost everybody’s life will be better if I change back, except maybe yours. I don’t want to be inconsiderate.”

“Marsh, this whole idea sounds incredible to me. I have no memory of you as a boy, so it is hard for me to really feel what that’s like. If that’s the way things are supposed to be, how can I really complain? I won’t know what I’ve lost”.

“But I will,” I said, under my breath. I wasn’t deterred – I really had no choice, but I hadn’t thought very much about the downsides. Maybe I didn’t want to think too much about them.

The whole thing got me even angrier at Davis and Harlin. How could they have been so irresponsible as to turn people’s lives upside down like this?

“I don’t get how you can be so calm, Nikki,” I told her, starting to watch the outside door a bit more closely.

She laughed. Laughed! “Would getting upset help? I figure it’s nothing I can control and nothing I’ll actually notice. And you don’t actually know what will happen either, do you?”

“Well no,” I admitted. And then I had to work hard not to laugh myself, because the outside door had opened suddenly, and my quarry had spun himself around so that he could see if anybody outside had noticed his entrance. He spilled a couple of French fries as he did so, looked at them with annoyance and then allowed the door to close after him.

I turned my back, dropped the phone into my purse and listened very carefully. I heard his footsteps approach and then pass me. To my relief, he didn’t go up the stairs or elevator, but stopped at a door marked, “Administrative Offices.” I watched him juggle a bag of food and two full drink cups at the same time he was fumbling in his pocket, presumably for his key.

With a smirk, I crept up behind and casually asked, “Do you think you have enough data yet?”


  1. TJ says:

    Wow, unfair on so many levels, but a great chapter still

  2. April says:

    Two great cliffhangers in a row! Excellent chapter! 🙂

  3. Wei-Hwa Huang says:

    “the clothing store where I’d bought the skirt that Jeremy had seen him in” —

    “him”? Who is “him”?

  4. Wei-Hwa Huang says:

    “went out way.” -> “went our way.”

  5. scotts13 says:

    Wow, can’t say that things aren’t happening… though the “which tree?” wandering the streets almost put me to sleep.

    I’m curious, though – doesn’t anyone else feel it’s idiotic, not to say irresponsible, for Marsh to barge right in at that exact moment? These people are not her friends; in fact (though we have no direct evidence of malice) their lives would be much simplified if Marsh just disappeared at this point. She’s alone, with no backup, and the phone call she’s made doesn’t even pass along WHERE SHE IS and how she got there. There are other people who need/want that information!

    Maybe I’m paranoid, but before I approached that door I’d be wired for sound, with armed accomplices waiting and listening a few yards away. After, of course, having cached the information already gained in several places.

  6. April says:

    Oh, it’s definitely idiotic and irresponsible and possibly dangerous. Of course, Marsha has never been a brilliant tactician and she’s practically infamous for her lack of caution.

    And in this case, I think Marsha hasn’t fully learned all the lessons of her new body. The kind of lessons that most women learn about situational awareness at a young age, that is. :-\

  7. von says:

    Oh, I don’t know. Unlike reality, the opposition in this book seems to be very wimpy and incompetent; not the kind who is likely to whip out a pistol and give Marsh concrete golashes. The word ‘academic’ comes to mind… as if the whole thing were so college based it was void of reality.

    I, personally, am disappointed that this doesn’t come after the confrontation with Jeremy. I would have loved to see this scene happen in the middle of their fight… “Look, there’s one of the guys right there!”

  8. Russ says:

    Good points, all. While Marsh wouldn’t think to be cautious, Nikki certainly would. I’ve updated the chapter to add the appropriate discussion.

  9. von says:

    Well, the change needs to be more retroactive then, since this seems a new Nikki. Never before has she expressed this, seems to me.

  10. April says:

    “Fine. Fine. Go and confront him, if you want. I just want you to take one precaution, OK?”

    I listened to her idea. It sounded perfectly reasonable, so I agreed.

    Was her idea meant to be something that wasn’t revealed in this chapter?

  11. Russ says:

    Correct. It will be revealed when appropriate

  12. TJ says:

    Seem like a dues ex to me, lol.

  13. Don says:

    “go our for lunch” -> “go out for lunch”

    “mostly form listening to grownups’” -> “mostly from listening…”

    “Marsh, I’ve told what I think” -> “Marsh, I’ve told you what I think” (more a suggestion, though)

    “Well no,” -> “Well, no…” (again, suggestion)

  14. Von says:

    Why do I complain? It is what Russ pays me for. I am an actor, and russ pays me to come on and complain, which causes you all to rush to his defence which you all fathfully do, exacept for Scott, who is another actor 🙂
    Yes, there really is no difference between the time travel and the many worlds thereory as far as marsh is conceded. And, despite russ’s throw away denial there are still huge possibilities for transforming him back… I.e. getting the boy memories back in the boy body and vice versa.

  15. von says:

    Well, that’s what happens when you get one son to type in a comment for you on his brother’s iphone… the comment above was meant for chapter 133.

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