04 Looking for Loopholes

I remember girlfriends telling me that they had felt better “after a good cry,” but I had never really understood it. I had rarely cried. I’m not saying that I wasn’t sensitive – I had cried in certain movies and while reading particular books, and an actor needs to be able to cry under certain circumstances, but it had never been a particularly deep cry. Even Dad leaving hadn’t broken me down, as I’d had to be the “man” of the family, and Tina had relied on me. It was a lot of pressure, and I was probably close to the breaking point when he finally came back, but I had never experienced a deep, pathetic, drawn-out cry. Until today.

By the time I had stopped, I felt as though I had run a dozen laps. I just didn’t have the energy to cry any further, and it felt almost as though I could see things in perspective – almost. It might simply have been that I had walled myself off from the things that might hurt me. I really couldn’t be sure, but I did feel almost as though I could think again.

“Marsh?” I heard, and looked up. Tina had come back. “What’s wrong?”

I almost started crying again. I had inadvertently said about the most hurtful thing to my sister that I possibly could have, and she was worried about me. She sat down besides me and we shared a hug for a long moment.

“Teen,” I started. “Didn’t you hear what they said on the radio?”

“I guess I must not have,” she admitted. “What got you so upset?”

“They were talking about an experiment at school, Teen. An experiment that changed the subjects inside and out.”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean that I was a boy, yesterday. I was your brother. Dwight Marshall Steen.”

I had never seen Tina do the look she gave me right then, but I recognized it instantly. It was Mom’s “patient” look, usually reserved for times when I had tried to lie to her, or to give excuses that she’d known were ridiculous and flimsy.

“No, really, Teen,” I told her, “I was a boy – I am a boy – I mean… Look, you heard what they said: a guy woke up six inches shorter. Well, I woke up a different sex.”

“Marsh,” she said, oh so patiently, “are you having problems in school? Social issues? You haven’t told me about any guys you were interested in for a while.”

I had to laugh at the idea of my 15-year-old sister trying to play, “Mom.” I was sure she remembered her “sister Marsha” doing something similar, but it was just so out of character for her. Or at least it was, as far as I remembered.

“I’m serious, Sis. I actually volunteered for an experiment that sounds just like the one they were talking about, so I know it’s real.”

“You signed up for a sex-change experiment?” she said, still putting on the mature-beyond-her-years act.

“No,” I tried to explain. “Look, you know how college students always need money?”

“You’ve mentioned that,” she conceded.

“Well, one way to supplement your income is to act as a test subject for an experiment, usually one conducted by another student. The college regulates the experiments, of course, to make sure none of the subjects will be harmed, but somehow something must have gone wrong.

“The experiment that I remember had something to do with exploration of time. I guess I did toy with the idea that they meant time travel – that they had ideas on how to make it actually work – but that was just a fantasy. Even if it were true, all I would have expected is that we’d get a chance to go back in time and look around. I think they even said that they wanted our observations.”

“And you went back in time and that turned you into a boy?”

“Into a girl. I mean, no, I didn’t go back in time. They had me sit on a table in the lab and… hmmm. I don’t remember exactly what happened next, only they gave me a packet of papers to read.”

“And what did they say?”

“I have no idea,” I admitted. “I never actually got around to reading them.”

“And you left the lab after turning into a boy?”

“No, you’re getting it backwards. I was a boy before I went to the lab and after I left, and even when I came home last night. I only turned into a girl this morning.”

She was still wearing that patient look, so I went on, if only to understand all of this myself. After all, I’d never heard of a time-travel story that involved DNA alteration, but there was just no other plausible explanation.

“Look, Teen, a person’s DNA is established at the moment of conception, when… um… the parents…” I suddenly realized that I was about to discuss “the birds and the bees” with my little sister, and was not really comfortable doing so – especially when it involved thinking of our parents… in bed together. I stumbled a bit, my face undoubtedly turning red, as I tried to find a tame way to express it.

“Um, you know how babies… um, a man and a woman…”

“Oh for crying out loud, Marsh,” she interrupted me. “I’m fifteen years old and we’ve had these conversations before. I know about sex!”

“Oh,” I responded, feeling foolish. I wasn’t sure exactly how to square what she knew with her reaction to my cursing. I had certainly never spoken to Tina about sex, although “Marsha” seemed to have.

“Anyway, the particular combination of genetic material is determined by chance – well, half of it, anyway. The man’s half. The… sperm.” I watched her face carefully, hoping to avoid any more verbal land mines. I thought that using the scientifically correct terminology and clinical phrasing would be a safe way to avoid either talking down to her or falling into objectionable speech. “So if the… um… moment of conception were delayed a bit… the results might be different.” My face was still hot with embarrassment, but at least she was listening, if only to poke holes in my story.

She was definitely not helping out, though. It would have been nice if she could have prompted me to answer things that she could use to confirm what I had to say, but… after waiting a bit, I continued, “So, imagine that at just the right time, they were to do something, like, I don’t know… make a loud and distracting noise outside. That could throw Dad off…” This was really getting into creepy territory. I was trying to describe my parents having sex without actually completely embarrassing Tina, or myself or both of us, and failing miserably. At any rate, I was embarrassed. Tina was listening implacably. “So, at any rate,” I finished lamely. “That must be what happened. And that’s why I remember being a boy yesterday and am a girl today.”

At last Tina opened her mouth, but not to express understanding. I don’t know what she thought, but it wasn’t that I had explained anything. “Marsh, I think I’d remember if you were ever a boy.”

“No, you wouldn’t,” I answered her, glad to have something a bit safer to address. “Look, we’re talking about actual time travel. If you change history, everybody’s just going to remember what changed, and not what happened originally, because for them, the thing that used to have been what happened is no longer what happened.” Numerous writers have pointed out the shortcomings of our language in discussing time travel, including the problems with referring to historical events which had been written out of history, but I had never really appreciated the difficulties until now.

“So, in that case, you shouldn’t remember it, either!” Tina pointed out, triumphantly.

And I had to admit that she had a point. If they had in fact changed the past, and changed me, I should remember growing up as a girl, shouldn’t I? It was a real flaw in my explanation, and for a moment, I leapt at the chance to embrace it. If it was impossible, that meant that none of this could have happened, and I actually was still dreaming. That would be the solution to my problem. I wouldn’t have to deal with any of this. I could just wake up and be my masculine self.

Tempting as it was, I knew it wasn’t going to fly. And even if it did… I’ve always been scornful of characters who kept saying, “It’s just a dream, so I don’t have to deal with it.” After all, if it is a dream, why not go along with it? And if it isn’t a dream, treating it as real is what you have to do, anyway, so it’s by far the most sensible path.

“Tina,” I said, “I don’t know how they did it, any more than I know how they managed to change the past. I’d always thought time travel was impossible, but obviously they managed that. The thing I do remember is that we were supposed to report our observations, so it only makes sense that they had some way to preserve our memories. The whole thing couldn’t work any other way. I’m probably supposed to tell them how my life is different as a result of the change. So I’m stuck this way for a week, and then when I get back to school, I’ll just tell them that I can’t go through with it any longer, and they have to change me back.”

Tina shook her head, sadly. “Oh, Marsh. You don’t even realize how much you’re upsetting me with all of this crazy talk. I don’t know whether you think this is a great joke, or you’re just upset. Can’t we just forget this nonsense and talk the way we always do? You haven’t been home in months, and I want to sit and chat about things. Normal things. The kinds of things that two sisters are supposed to talk about, not experiments and turning into boys or stuff like that.”


  1. Nice catch Tina!! I was thinking the same thing.

  2. Maiden Anne says:

    I don’t think the tension regarding how he will do as a girl is built much in this chapter, but I don’t think that is a problem. Right now we are worried about him convincing Tina and both of their reactions to the change, and whether it will negatively affect their relationship.

    There is also a bit of curiosity as to how he got that way and, because of his easy assumption that when he goes back to school they will change him back, I am beginning to suspect that it might not be that simple.

    Marsh- Continuing to be impressed by their relationship and concern for one another.

    Tina -shows a side I like, the imperturbably patient sister, going along with her ‘sister’, but keeping her logic and common sense. At the same time she is perturbed, she cares about her ‘sister’ and what is ‘she’ is worried about.

    Jeremy, Marsh’s Mom- same as in the last chapter, only I wonder even more how Mash’s mom is going to take all this.

    I think the reactions were reasonable, and the conversation was easy to follow. The long paragraphs are easier in this chapter than in the last, because he is talking and she is constantly reacting. I do much better with a back and forth in dialogue form than in monologue form. Because she is always commenting and reacting to things, I am interested in the longer bits

  3. von says:

    >>hmmm. I don’t remember exactly what happened next, only they gave me a packet of papers to read.”

    Ummm… plot hole? Or an addition to memory?

    >>“Well, they had me lie down on this table – it looked something like the tables you lie on in the doctor’s office. They put like a helmet or something on my head. Then there was this noise from below me, and… I think they said it would take some time before anything happened and that I was supposed to come back and tell them about…” She shook her head. I think the thing made me a bit drowsy, ‘cause I’m having trouble remembering some of the details. I woke up changed a few weeks later. I tried to find the lab again because I was freaking out, but I couldn’t. That’s all I remember.”

  4. Um the Muse says:

    If I were in Marsh’s situation (but still thinking clearly) I might suspect that the experiment might’ve been some kind of mind-control–she only thinks that she used to be a guy. That would actually be easier to accept, even if she struggles with high heels, etc.

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