I couldn’t imagine what had happened. Tina had been fairly upbeat on the way in. As I drove us homeward, I tried to pump her for information. After all, something that surprising pretty much had to be related to the meaning of the dream, but she was unresponsive, even turning on the radio to drown out my questions. I snapped it off and insisted, but she just jammed on her ear buds and turned it back on.
Now I was starting to get angry. This was my dream, and I needed data to understand it. If I had dreamed Tina in a snit, there had to be a reason for it, and she was withholding it. I was about to shut the radio off yet again, when I suddenly heard the name, “Piques College” – my college. That got my attention. This dream was started to get really complicated – there were more and more potential clues for me, and I wasn’t sure which were the most important. But Tina would still be here after the radio show, so that was clearly where I needed to focus first.
The format of the show was a couple of guys who seemed to be commenting on news articles, or at least “News of the Weird,” a column that ran in our local paper, the Mohawk Herald. And they’d found something there about my school, which they were going to discuss – after the commercial break, naturally. Now, I’m sure most college students think that their schools are weird in one way or another, but Piques had always seemed to be closer to boring. Just about the most eccentric thing about it was the ‘joke’, if you can even dignify it with that term, of calling the nearby turnpike, “Piques’ Pike.” If my parents hadn’t met at Piques, and managed to get a great deal on tuition, I doubt that I would have even gone there.
“And we’re back,” the first announcer said, after the commercials were done. “And we have something that definitely counts as weird. Students at nearby Piques College are claiming that a science experiment has changed their very genetic makeup!”
“That’s not really possible, is it, Harry?” the second announcer chimed in.
He was right, of course, it’s pretty much one of the ironclad rules of biology. All organisms have construction instructions, known as the genetic code, embedded in their DNA, and since essentially identical copies of that DNA are found in every cell, that code is fixed at the moment of conception. It’s simply not possible to speak of modifying a person’s genetic code.
“I’d always thought so, Pete,” the first guy replied, telling me that he wasn’t a total moron, “but these students are claiming that it was a time travel experiment that did it – that somebody went back in time and altered their DNA. One guy claims that he used to be about six inches taller, and a girl is claiming that she used to have a larger bust.”
The two of them laughed at that, commenting on how it was all wishful thinking and a really stupid prank, but I was having trouble hearing them due to the roaring that suddenly filled my brain. With every new bit of information I hadn’t known, with every logical twist in what should really have been some kind of confused tangle of events inspired by my fears, the idea that this was all a dream was becoming less and less reasonable. The only thing that had kept me from deciding otherwise was the sheer impossibility of what I was experiencing. It was simply impossible for someone to go to sleep male and awake female. In stories, sure. Stories could always invoke magic or the supernatural or mythical, otherworldly biologies. But here on Earth in the real world, it was impossible. Then this. DNA was fixed at the moment of conception, sure, but what if you could redo the moment of conception itself?
I must have frozen in panic, because Tina suddenly emerged from her sulk and asked sharply, “Marsh! What’s wrong?” I should have responded. I was – at least in theory – driving a car, but I just couldn’t. Tina actually had to reach over and turn the wheel to keep us from crashing into a tree. That unfroze me, and I managed to steer us to the shoulder of the grass-lined road and stop the car, and sat there, shaking.
“Marsh!” Tina repeated. “What is it? What’s wrong?”
Her concern was genuine, and must have reached me, because I was suddenly able to stammer, “Did you hear them, Teen? Did you hear what they said?”
“Something about your school, right? And a prank?” I hadn’t turned off the radio, and the two guys were still laughing, laughing at the ‘silly girl’ who wished that she had a larger chest and had tried to tell everybody that she’d had one and had it taken away. They’d thought it funny because everybody remembered her as being fairly flat-chested. They’d thought the whole thing the big joke that the school claimed it was, but I knew better. It was real – or was it?
That meant that this wasn’t a dream after all. That I had actually been changed in my sleep. That I was actually a girl for real, and not just my subconscious trying to work out problems. It meant that I suddenly had a major problem. I certainly didn’t want to believe it, and then I realized something I had overlooked – something that gave the lie to the whole not-a-dream thing. I had seen myself as a girl, and so had Jeremy. But Mom and Tina hadn’t. Mom and Tina hadn’t called me, “Susie” or “Donna” or some other girl’s name. They’d called me by my own name, “Marsh.” I almost laughed in relief. “Marsh” is short for “Marshall,” and nobody would ever name a girl, “Marshall,” would they? I tried to remember if I’d even heard of a girl with that name. So all I had to do was get Tina to confirm it, and I would know it was just a nightmare. I would know that the impossible hadn’t somehow come into reality.
That was all I had to do, and I would be able to relax. Just one simple question which received the obviously right answer. Something was telling me it wasn’t that simple, that I’d overlooked yet another vital clue, but it was all I had, and I could rationalize why it had to be correct. I just needed Tina to give me that right answer. Which meant that I had to ask the question, and hope.
“What’s my name, Teen?” I asked, trembling.
I ignored her confusion and insisted, “Say my name, Sis. My full name.”
“Marsh, what are you –?”
I repeated, “My name, Teen. Just… say my name. I want to hear it from your lips. Who am I? What’s my name? My full name?”
The look she gave me combined concern with impatience. Naturally, she thought her brother had lost his mind. At least, that’s what I hoped she thought. The alternative was unthinkable.
Finally she sighed and almost chanted, “Jennifer Marsha Steen, elder daughter of Arthur and Miriam Steen, and big sister to Tina Elizabeth Steen – that’s me,” she added with a wry smile, not realizing that she had just confirmed my worst fears.
“Marsha…?” I repeated in a whisper. “My name is…? Oh crap. Oh damn. Oh my fucking God!”
“Marsh!” she exclaimed, shocked! “I’ve never heard you use language like that.” She looked embarrassed. “It’s not very lady-like.”
I just gaped at her. My life was falling apart, my very being had been brutalized –and she was worried about my language?
“Whatever your problem is,” she continued, “I’m here for you, remember? You’re my sister, and I love you.”
“But I’m not…” I protested. “I can’t be.”
“Not what?” she asked, puzzled.
“Not your sister. I’m not. I can’t be. It’s impossible.”
The horror on her face was wholly unexpected. “Don’t say that,” she gasped.
Now it was my turn to be confused. “But I’m not, you see.” I knew I wasn’t explaining it well, but didn’t understand the strength of her reaction. “Didn’t you hear what those guys said? You think I’m your sister, but I’m not. Not really.”
“Don’t say that,” she whispered, eyes wide. “You promised, Marsh.”
“What are you talking about?”
“You promised!” she screamed, and with tears running down her cheeks pushed open her door and ran down the street.
“Tina!” I gasped. I was the one who was supposed to be having a nervous breakdown. What in the world was she doing? I was out my door almost as quickly as I could think, but stumbled immediately, trying to run in one high-heeled shoe. I ran back to the car, tore off the one I was wearing and tossed it on my seat, and tried to follow her, but she had vanished.
That was the last straw. I collapsed against the passenger side door and cried my head off. I’d lost my identity, lost my sister… When Dad had walked out all those years ago, Tina and I had become extremely close, despite the four years that separated us. Most guys would have found it odd to confide so much in a younger sister, but it had become almost automatic for me, and she’d trusted me as well. I had finally realized why she was so upset. Once she’d been afraid that Mom and I might leave her, too, and I had told her, “No matter what happens, I’m your brother. I’ll always be your brother, and I’ll never leave you.” No doubt she now remembered “me” saying something similar, only with “I’m your sister” and now I had broken that promise. “No matter what happens,” I had said, and I’d apparently just betrayed the one person who had expected to find me reliable forever.