Ovid XVI: The Derelict
by The Professor (circa 2003)
Bob Wallace was at the end of his rope—
I think the day I really reconciled myself to being a woman was the day I discovered I really did like to shop. Yes, I know, it’s a tired old stereotype, but the shopping trips I enjoyed with Susan Jager allowed the two of us to bond as friends and as women. And it didn’t hurt that it gave us a few hours unfettered by children. I probably appreciated that time more than Susan, since she just had Joshua while I had Ashley and the twins.
Susan was leaving Joshua with her husband, and the two of us planned to spend most of Saturday morning at March’s Department Store trying on spring fashions. Then we’d finish off our morning with a pleasant lunch at The Greenhouse complete with a glass of wine to lessen the late winter chill.
I had just dropped all three kids off at Donna Pearson’s house down the street. Since Michelle—that’s my other daughter—and Donna’s daughter enjoyed playing together, it was common for us to leave our children with each other. I was amazed at how well Kimberly Pearson had settled into her role as a young girl, and I was glad Michelle had become her friend.
Of course, Mike mumbled about being left with a “bunch of girls.” Since Kimberly had only an older sister and Mike’s other sibling was little Ashley, he had a point. I had to chuckle to myself, knowing as Mike did not that once upon a time, he was one of my fraternity brothers and would have loved to have been surrounded by “a bunch of girls.” Besides, Kimberly used to be male and remembered it, so I doubted if Mike would be completely left out.
Susan had just pulled up in our driveway as I got home from the Pearson’s house. She had agreed to drive, and I think she just wanted to show off her new Windstar van. As I admired the gleaming dark-blue vehicle, I couldn’t help but think her law practice had come a long way from the days when she drove a battered old Toyota.
“Very nice,” I commented as she stepped proudly from the van.
“We like it,” she grinned. Then, a little wistfully, she added, “But I still miss my Lexus sometimes.”
“Another life,” I commented. Most places, that would have just been an expression, but in Ovid, it was a statement of fact.
“Are you ready to go?”
“In a minute,” I replied. “It’s a little nippy out today. I think I’ll go in and get a warmer coat.”
“Yeah, and I think I’ll use the restroom,” Susan said. “You know, when I was a man, I could go half the day and not have to take a piss. Now that I’m a woman, I can’t hold it back an hour.”
“Or ten minutes when you’re pregnant,” I laughed, and Susan laughed with me. It was great having a friend like Susan. Since we had both been born male, we found a lot in common to gripe about. But to be honest, neither of us would have given up our new lives for anything.
To my surprise, I smelled coffee when I opened the door. Granted, Jerry and I had shared a pot earlier in the morning before he went off to the store, but this coffee was not only fresh but smelled like no coffee I had ever smelled before.
“Anyone for a cup?” an attractive twenty-something redhead called from the door, a glass coffee pot in hand. She was dressed as a fifties housewife (or what the ads of the fifties would have you believe housewives dress like), complete with a homey full-skirted dress in bright yellow, a frilly white apron, three-inch heels, and, of course, pearls. While I had never seen this freckled, attractive young woman before, I knew at once who she was.
“Hi, girls,” she replied brightly. “Care for some Blue Mountain? I just picked it up in Jamaica about an hour ago. I can guarantee you, there’s nothing like it.”
“I’ve had Blue Mountain coffee before,” Susan told her, “but I don’t remember it smelling this good.”
“That’s because it doesn’t travel well,” Diana explained. “I just brewed this pot in Montego Bay a few minutes ago and popped up here.”
“I’d love some,” I told her as I shivered a little from the chill outside.
“Then let’s all go in the kitchen and have some while we talk,” she suggested. I knew more than talk was in store. Diana always showed up when there had been a particularly interesting transformation in Ovid. The funny thing was that I couldn’t think of any transformation that fit the bill. All of the cases before The Judge lately had been rather mundane.
While all of the gods were entitled to view the records of The Judge’s cases which were lodged inexplicably (if one didn’t accept magic) inside my head, few took advantage of that service. Diana, on the other hand, viewed all of the most interesting cases, and I had begun to suspect such a review was part of her duties to her father, Jupiter. Most of the time, I expected her, knowing from local viewings which cases would attract her attention. This time, however, I was at a complete loss.
As Susan and I sat at the table, Diana poured coffee like a perfect hostess. I sipped at mine first while Susan doctored hers with a little sugar. “My God, this coffee is incredible!” I exclaimed.
Diana smiled. “Isn’t it? Ceres owns a coffee plantation in Jamaica, so I can assure you that this is the best of the best.”
“It’s the best coffee I’ve ever tasted!” Susan chimed in, a look of pleasant surprise on her face. Given Susan’s former life as a prominent and rather wealthy attorney, that was saying something.
While Susan and Diana talked about the particulars of the coffee, I tried to sort through the recent cases which might have attracted Diana’s attention. Oklahoma highways are tricky in the winter and there weren’t as many travellers wandering into Ovid. In the past three weeks, The Judge had only tried five cases, and none of them seemed to warrant the interest of any of the gods, let alone Diana’s interest.
Well, Susan and I had shopping to do. It was time to test the waters. “So, Diana, I assume you’re just passing through this morning.”
Diana laughed a sparkling laugh worthy of a goddess. “No, silly! I’ve come to view a story.”
“Well, Susan and I were just about to go shopping...”
She put her hand on mine. “Don’t worry, dear. You know it will not take long.”
I had to admit she was right about that. It was odd, but while submerged in the life of one of the transformed, only ten minutes or so went by, but it seemed as if we had lived the life of another person for several days. “All right, Diana, but I’m at a loss. Whose life did you want to see?”
“Marsha Henry,” she replied decisively.
I mentally sifted through the files of recent court appearances until...
“Marsha Henry?” I blurted out. “But there’s nothing interesting about her, is there?” In fact, no one else had asked to view Marsha’s life. She was just one more nondescript resident of Ovid who had once been an even more nondescript man in another reality.
Diana smiled a smile which would have made the Cheshire cat envious. “We’ll see. Are you ready?”
I took one more sip of the delicious coffee and sighed, “I guess there’s no time like the present.”
And with that, I drifted off into a familiar trance...
I needed a drink.
That was nothing new, I suppose. Any time I was awake, I needed a drink. The need tugged at my insides, causing a parched sensation in my throat and an emptiness in my belly. To make matters worse, I was beginning to feel—feel the cold, the bitter wind, and the sourness in my stomach. Wine would warm my insides—wine and an open boxcar heading south.
I had hung around Kansas City far too long. I’d had sense enough to get out of Chicago before the end of the summer. I thought Kansas City would be a good place to winter over if I could find work, and I had been right for a while. I had worked as a day laborer—standing around in the morning bumming cigarettes and waiting to be selected for some low-wage, low-skill job that paid off in cash at the end of the day. Through a warm fall, jobs had been plentiful. There was always enough money to fill my stomach with cheap food and buy a cheap room where I could drink cheap wine in peace. For a man in my position, it was pretty decent living.
And then came winter, and it became pretty certain that little Bobby Wallace’s mother had, indeed, raised at least one fool—me. With the swift coming of winter, the need for day laborers lessened. Much of the work was outdoor work, sometimes construction related. That all slowed down when the snow began to fly. What few jobs were left went to the Mexes. They were undocumented and worked about as cheap as a man could work. Plus the guys who came up to the work centers in their dirty pickup trucks to hire laborers knew they wouldn’t have to withhold any taxes on them or pay them for overtime. I guess I can’t blame the Mexes. Many of them had families back in Mexico who needed to be fed any way possible.
The Christmas season helped a little bit. People tend to feel sorrier for the down and out during the holidays. So supplementing my meager day wages with panhandling, I managed to get by until after the first of the year. But with the first of the year, what little work I had managed to get dried up completely and people stopped giving me money on the streets as the reality of holiday bills made them more niggardly.
So with no work, I holed up in the mission for a couple of nights, my money to rent even a cheap room long exhausted. It was tough; they wouldn’t allow me a bottle so the need got worse. But at least it cleared out my brain just a little bit. I thought about it and figured it was time to head south. Maybe in Dallas or Houston it would be warm enough to provide more day work. Of course, there’d be more Mexes, but what the Hell? There were more Mexes than jobs in Kansas City. Even if that were true in Texas, it wouldn’t be so goddamned cold.
I’ve heard some of the old-timers talk about how it used to be easier to travel back in the days before computers. Railroad cars had a bill of lading attached to the cars so you could see which city the train was headed to. Now, they all had computer codes read by scanners so you just had to hop an available freight and hope to God it wasn’t headed someplace even colder.
I was familiar with the concept of computerization and couldn’t blame the railroads for going to it. Hey, I might have been a little down on my luck, but I had an education. I even had a year of college at the University of Illinois. That was some of the best partying of my life, but no sense in dwelling on what was.
The other problem was the railcars themselves. Boxcars were the preferred mode of travel. Unlike the gondolas and flatcars, they were enclosed, and believe me, you don’t want to be a passenger on an open freight car travelling at seventy miles an hour through a cold winter night. The only problem is that there weren’t as many boxcars as there used to be. Most stuff that could be loaded in boxcars could be loaded on a truck cheaper. Trains now mostly carried grain, coal, oil, and other commodities which were carried in cars that didn’t have the relatively comfortable confines of a boxcar. And the few boxcars that were out there locked up better than they used to, making it hard to find an empty to ride in.
Still, hope springs eternal. I found myself standing in the shadows on a cold, dark January night in the middle of the Argentine—the huge railroad yard that helped make Kansas City the second largest rail center in the US. And my hope was rewarded, for after a few minutes of searching, there it was—an open boxcar.
It was an old one—I was sure of that. The logo on the side of one panel was an odd-shaped design in black with the words ‘Rock Island’ in white. Along the other side panel were the words ‘Route of the Rockets.’ Now, I might not have been an expert on railroads, but I was pretty sure the Rock Island folded back when I was in elementary school in Chicago.
In fact, the whole train looked to be made up of over-aged cars bearing road names which I was sure were long gone and nearly forgotten. It looked out of place in an era of merged railroads and gleaming unit trains. Even the diesel poised to pull the cars out of the yard looked like a relic of the past with its cab-forward rounded nose structure. I hadn’t seen anything quite like it since the commuter trains Metra ran in Chicago twenty years ago.
My heart sank. The age and condition of the equipment indicated to me that the train was a local freight, going down some little spur line an hour or two. This wasn’t a train that would take me all the way to Texas.
I would have walked on, ignoring the open car, but I suddenly had reason to change my mind.
“Look what we got here.”
The voice was young but it contained a note of danger. I turned and saw three men silhouetted by the powerful yard lights. They were no more than thirty yards away and were slowly drawing closer. In their hands, I could see the dark outlines of lengths of pipe, gleaming with the frozen slick of winter condensation.
In the past three weeks, five men of my circumstances had been found murdered within a three-mile radius of where I stood. There seemed to be no motive for the murders; after all, men of my circumstances had nothing worth stealing. Police suspected gangs of youths, killing for the fun of it or to make their mark with their gangs. I had heard the whispered warning from others like me, but I hadn’t taken them to heart—until now.
“Just stay where you are!” the same voice ordered. “We won’t hurt you.”
“Much,” another voice giggled, sounding high on something.
“Shut up!” hissed the third.
My mind may not have been the clearest in the world, dulled by drink, cold and fatigue, but it was clear enough to realize if I didn’t do something quickly, I was going to be the sixth victim of this gang.
“Get up here!” a voice called out from behind me. In the darkness of the boxcar’s doorway, I saw someone moving. “Come on, hurry!”
There wasn’t time to think or even anything to think about. I didn’t know who had called out to me. For all I knew, whoever was in that boxcar could be a killer, too. But I knew instinctively that if I didn’t reach the boxcar, I was a dead man. I ran for the door, faster than I thought I was capable of doing, catching an outstretched arm which hoisted me up into the car. At least there was no bludgeon awaiting me. But I still wasn’t safe I realized, as I heard footsteps approaching the car rapidly.
“Quick, help me get this door closed!” the man in the boxcar with me ordered. I complied at once, realizing that the two of us were no match for the gang. Closing the door and keeping it closed would determine our survival. Still shaking from fear and the cold, I managed to stay on my feet, helping him slide the heavy metal door shut to the yells and curses of the three youths below.
“It won’t lock, so hold on!” the man ordered. Matching his motions, I put my weight against the door. With any luck, we’d be able to hold out against them. There were three of them, each in better shape than I, but we had the floor of the boxcar to help our leverage. They would be trying to pull the door open from a poor angle.
“The other door’s locked,” my savior told me, grunting as he pushed against an assault on the door. “If we can hold on until the train leaves, we’ll be safe.”
But how long would that be? I wondered. And what if those guys had guns? The door was steel but I wasn’t sure it was strong enough to withstand a gunshot.
Suddenly the car lurched, throwing both of us to the ground. I fell to the floor, my face looking out a two-foot wide gap where either our actions or the youths had opened the door. I was looking directly into a pair of feral eyes and watched in horror as the youth’s mouth broadened into a toothy grin.
But the train was definitely moving. I could see the other two youths had been pushed to the ground by the sudden jerk of the train. The grin suddenly disappeared as the would-be killer realized the only way he could be sure of getting me was to face whoever was in the dark car with me—by himself. “Son of a bitch!” he growled, his moment for choosing to jump on the car suddenly passing. I grunted in relief, suddenly too exhausted to get up from the floor.
“That was a close one!” my unexpected travelling companion said from the darkness. I could hear the sound of a zipper come from the same direction. He had a bag, I realized with envy. My own bag and all of my possessions—what few I had—had been stolen a couple of days before while I was... well, okay, while I was sleeping it off.
Suddenly, the interior of the car burst into a yellow-orange light, faint at the center of the car but bright on the floor where my companion sat. At first, I thought he had started a fire. That’s what most of us on the road would have done. Instead, it must have been some sort of new device—something really high tech—for it was small and circular, no more than the size of a golf ball. It gave off a nearly blinding yellow light, and even from a distance, I could feel its heat.
The man grinned, unusually white teeth for one of our ilk showing surrounded by a beard of dark brown that was just beginning to turn gray. His clothing was old and road-worn as would befit a knight of the road, but he seemed remarkably hale and hearty for someone reduced to our circumstances. He scooted away from the fire, wincing a little and holding his stomach. Perhaps he wasn’t as healthy as I had first thought.
“Come and join me, Bob,” he offered, motioning to a spot next to his device.
My blood froze in spite of the growing warmth. “How did you know my name?” I demanded, stiffening defensively.
“That’s not really important, is it?” the man grinned again. “What? Do you think I’m a wizard or something?”
“I didn’t tell you my name,” I argued, not moving.
“Well, maybe you did and maybe you didn’t,” he allowed. “But that is your name, isn’t it? Shall I call you Bob?”
I didn’t bother to answer. “And what should I call you?”
He shrugged. “Call me whatever you like. Or better yet, just call me Pro. That’s what most people call me these days.”
It wasn’t unusual for those of us on the road to come up with a short nickname. Mine was Wall—short for my last name. No one had called me Bob in years. Pro, of course, had to be short for professional—but professional what? Men on the road found strange and often seamy ways of making a living. I wasn’t sure I wanted to know how he came up with the name Pro.
“So, are you going to sit?”
Warily, I sat down beside him. My body involuntarily relaxed in the warmth the object gave off. I sat opposite Pro, but not directly across from his device. I wanted to be able to see his hands and not be blinded by the light. It was then I noticed that the source of the heat and light seemed to actually be floating a couple of inches above the floor. I reached out for it in curiosity.
“Better not touch it,” Pro advised calmly. “It’s hot.”
“What is it?” I asked. I knew in my position that I didn’t always have the resources to keep up on every new invention, but surely something as useful as Pro’s device would have been the talk of the nation.
“Just a gadget,” he replied, telling me nothing. “Nothing special.”
I had been so drawn to the object that I hadn’t noticed Pro had reached back into his bag. Looking up, I noticed a bottle of amber liquid in his outstretched hand. The label was black and white—Jack Daniel’s, I realized.
“You look like a man who could use a drink,” he suggested, motioning for me to take the bottle from his hand.
Gratefully, I did so. But at the last minute, caution stayed my shaking hand before I could raise the bottle to my lips. Pro was being very generous with something most people like me didn’t get to enjoy very often. Why was he being so decent to me? Was there something in the whiskey?
I looked at him. His clear eyes were laughing at me. He had to know, though, that suspicion was what kept men like him and me alive. Still, I asked myself, what did he have to gain by slipping me a Mickey? The only things I owned I was wearing, and they weren’t worth robbing me. Besides, the whiskey looked so good...
I tried to sip it; honest I did. But I had been without a drink for so long, I ended up taking a big swig from the bottle. It burned as it went down my throat, but it felt so good. I relished the near-pain from the fire as the liquor washed its way down to my stomach.
“Good, isn’t it?” Pro asked.
I nodded. “The best.”
Pro leaned back on his side, grinning at me. “Now, I’ve got to be honest with you. There is something in the whiskey, but don’t worry—it won’t knock you out. I just wanted to give you something to calm you down so you’d listen to my story.”
“All right.” Whatever was in the whiskey had already taken effect. I had never felt like that before. I was awake and alert in spite of the whiskey, but I was calm. I trusted Pro. I would have trusted him enough to jump off the train if he’d asked me to. Fortunately, he didn’t.
“Listen to that,” he commanded. When he saw my look of confusion, he explained. “I’m talking about the sound of the train’s wheels on the rails. Most rails are smooth now—they’re welded together and come in much longer sections than they used to. Hear that sound?”
He was referring to the more insistent clickety-clack of the wheels on the track. It had become louder and more frequent, its sound amplified in the crisp winter air.
“It means this train is off the main line and moved onto old, abandoned rails.”
“But why would it do that?” I asked, surprising myself with how calm I was. It was as if I had become a detached observer in my own body.
“Because it has just one item to deliver tonight, Bob—you.”
He nodded. “That’s right. Every car on this train is empty tonight except this one. Don’t worry, though. The railroad won’t lose money. The Rock Island went out of business in the early eighties. This whole train is sort of a past memory, diverted for tonight. In fact, it’s taking you someplace where the Rock Island didn’t even have track.”
Maybe I should have been just a little frightened, but the whiskey had chased away any fears. Just to be sure, I took another drink—a smaller one this time. “But who would want me?” I laughed. “I’m a nobody.”
“And you’re wise to realize that,” Pro told me. “But sometimes, even nobodies have their uses. Some very powerful... people think you’re useful.”
In a strange sort of way, that made me feel good. It had been a long time since anyone had said something like that to me.
“We think you’re useful, too,” he added.
“We?” I looked around the car, half-expecting someone else to emerge from the shadows. No one did.
“A group I’m associated with,” he replied nonchalantly. “You needn’t concern yourself with them. Just trust me when I tell you that they’re working for a just cause.”
Of course I trusted him, I thought, taking another sip of the fine whiskey. I trusted Pro with my life because... well, just because.
“You’re being taken to a town called Ovid,” Pro explained. “It’s in Oklahoma. I know, don’t say it: you’ve never heard of it. Well, that’s not surprising because you see Ovid is run by a group of gods from classical mythology. You remember the ones I mean—Jupiter, Mars, Venus...”
I couldn’t help it; I broke out laughing. “Get real, Pro. Even I know there’s no such thing as those gods.” Not even the power of the drugs in the whiskey was enough to make me buy into that story.
“Didn’t I tell you to trust me?”
“Then trust me on this point, Bob. You’ll have plenty of reason to believe me once you get there,” he assured me. “Once that happens, you’ll have to believe me when I say that I’m the only one who can save you from the... beings who run Ovid—just like I was the one to save you tonight.”
I didn’t want to believe him. The whole story was just too weird. But on the other hand, there was the oddness about this train. Then there was Pro’s strange fire. As for the drugs in the whiskey, I suppose any number of people might have access to those, but I had never known such drugs to act so quickly or completely. And lastly, there was the fact that Pro had rescued me. If it hadn’t been for him, I might have been the next victim of that gang.
“What do you want of me?” I asked.
Pro shrugged. “In a word—information. We have reason to believe you’ll be in a position to help us. Once you’ve done so, we’ll help you.”
“What if I don’t need your help?”
Pro grinned. “You will; trust me on that.”
So I did.
“Now it’s time I was leaving,” he announced, rising to his feet. The strange little fiery ball of light rose with him until it was chest high on him. “Don’t worry about the lack of heat in the car after I go, Bob. It should stay warm in here for at least three hours and by then it will be dawn. Now, I think you should get some sleep.”
As the word died on his lips, I felt my eyes close and a contented sleep fell over me before I could think of another thing.
I’m not sure what woke me. Maybe it was the sound of a truck shifting gears. Or it might have been the sound of birds in a nearby tree. Maybe it was the sound of laughing children on their way to school. Whatever it was, I heard all three of those sounds as I slowly returned to consciousness.
My back hurt, the result of sleeping on the rough wood floor of the boxcar. At least I had slept warm, though, the heat remaining long after Pro...
Where was Pro?
I rose up, needing a drink to get the taste of last night’s whiskey out of my mouth. Where was Pro? He must have the bottle. I looked around and saw no sign of him. He was an odd guy, but I kind of liked him. Talking with him had helped to pass the time. What had we talked about? Nothing consequential, I supposed. We must have talked about where we were from. I must have talked to him about being raised in Chicago and maybe I even bragged to him that I had even gone to college for a while. He had probably told me where he was from but I didn’t remember.
Come to think of it, I didn’t remember much of anything from the night before, except sharing that bottle after Pro had helped me escape that gang. Maybe I had had more to drink than I thought I had. All I could remember was that Pro was the right sort of guy—the sort of guy you trusted.
I stretched, feeling remarkably refreshed considering that I had spent the night sleeping on the hard floor of the boxcar. Maybe it was the whiskey, or maybe it was just that somehow, the railcar was warmer than it should have been. I seemed to remember that Pro had started a fire... Funny, there wasn’t any residue from the fire. It must have been a portable heater of some sort. ‘Now, there was something odd about that heater, but what was it?’ I asked myself.
Shrugging and letting my questions drift to the subbasement of my mind, I got to my feet. My stomach growled loudly, reminding me that I hadn’t eaten since before I had made my way down to the railroad yard. I had a couple of dollars in my pocket in change—well, a dollar eighty to be exact. Maybe it would be enough to get something to fill me up at some trackside eatery. I didn’t require much in the way of food. Most people like me with a fondness for drink really didn’t eat much. Plus, being on the road like I was meant that eating irregularly was pretty normal, and you got used to the constant pangs in your gut.
Bright sunshine spilled in the doorway of the boxcar, and a slight breeze promised brisk but not cold air. The bare tree limbs told me that wherever I was, it was still winter, but the weather promised to be milder than the bitter cold of Kansas City. My shabby coat would be sufficient for the weather outside. Still, just to be sure, I pulled the coat tightly around me before I jumped from the car.
A strange sight greeted me. I was expecting to be in a large town, someplace like Tulsa or Oklahoma City by now. Instead, I was at the south end of the business district of some little town. I looked around to see if the train had just come to an intermittent stop and got my next surprise—there was no train. Oh, the boxcar was there, emblazoned with the Rock Island logo, but the car rested on rails that went nowhere. The track began near one set of trucks and ended at the other set, making me wonder how in the name of God the car had come to be parked there.
I looked all around, but I saw no sign of additional tracks anywhere. Instead, all I saw was that small town business district, bustling with typical morning activity. Then I looked back once more at the boxcar, getting still another surprise—this one the biggest yet.
The boxcar was gone.
I don’t mean it had been moved. I would have heard it if it had been. It was just... gone, and so were the tracks under it. Where it had been, there was nothing but a grassy plot, covered with a few shrubs and the browning remains of last summer’s weeds.
Now I knew men in my line who drank themselves to the point that they saw things that just weren’t there, but I wasn’t one of them. I had always managed to avoid the DTs, and besides, I really hadn’t had all that much to drink the night before. And folks who get the DTs just see things; they don’t ride them hundreds of miles through the night. What the hell was happening?
I suppose I only had one reasonable decision to make. Whatever had happened, I was now stuck in some little town far from where I had expected to be. Now I’d just have to make the best of it. Small towns had day jobs, too. All I needed to do was walk up that main street and look for someplace where I could trade my muscles for a few dollars. Then I’d get something to eat, something to drink, and maybe even treat myself to a pack of cheap smokes before finding the nearest railroad yard and continuing my journey further south.
So I began to walk up the main street, which I quickly discovered was, in fact, called ‘Main Street’ toward the center of activity. There were a few morning shoppers and businessmen hustling for probable appointments. The strange thing to me was that everyone seemed to be better dressed than I would have expected. Coats and ties were worn by a number of men and an unusual number of women were in skirts. It was nothing overt, but more like the stylized version of a small town one might see on television.
Also odd was how prosperous the town looked. I had spent most of my life in cities, but I had visited smaller towns before. Most small towns were drying up. Farming was no longer labor intensive, so the small towns were no longer needed to service that industry. Certainly none of the small towns I had ever visited had the look of affluence Ovid did—unless they had become fashionable suburbs of nearby cities.
Ovid? Now where had I heard the name of the town? I wondered. I decided I must have seen it on a sign or something as I walked up the street. Yes, that had to be the answer.
But odder still were the people that I could almost see through. I realized it was probably something the booze was doing to me, but I had never noticed anything like it before. I couldn’t really see through people; it was just that I sensed what was on the other side of them, as if I could see right through them. It’s hard to explain and even harder to understand, I suppose.
I was just beginning to look over the various businesses, deciding which ones to hit up for work when I heard the siren behind me. It wailed for only a second or two, enough to make me turn around in surprise. I hadn’t even heard the police car drive up behind me and yet there it was, as if it had been there all along and simply escaped my notice.
I just stood there trying to look harmless as the big cop got out of the car. I was used to the routine. It wasn’t the first time I had been rousted by the cops, and I was sure it wouldn’t be the last time either. People in my circumstances were never very popular with the authorities. In cities, there were so many of us that we were tolerated. In small towns, we were usually asked to leave—and not always asked nicely. I tried to stand up straight and look as dignified as I could. Fat chance.
The cop’s voice was noncommittal and as guarded as the mirrored sunglasses that covered his eyes. At least he hadn’t started out with a string of derogatory profanities as some cops do. He walked toward me with an easy grace, his trim body moving effortlessly as if I were an old acquaintance rather than a potential town nuisance.
“Good morning, Officer...” I peered at his nametag, “...Mercer.”
“You’re new here.” It wasn’t a question.
“That’s right,” I replied as nonchalantly as I could. “Just passing through.”
“You’d better come with me,” he told me.
“Have I done something wrong?” I asked as innocently as I could manage.
“Just come with me,” he repeated. Although his voice was neither loud nor gruff, his tone gave notice that he was used to being obeyed. He had opened the back door of his cruiser, so with a resigned shrug I did as I was told.
Just my luck. In the cities, cops have just too much to do to run in guys like me. Besides, even if they did, their superiors would chew their butts for wasting their time and generating all the paperwork it took to process us. Small towns might be that way and they might not. This Mercer guy had to either be bored or some sort of an officious pencil dick to waste his time on me. What the hell, though, I thought. A few hours in a nice warm cell and a hot meal while he wasted his time trying to see if I was wanted on any outstanding warrants and I’d be back out on the street again. It wasn’t like I was in a big hurry to get anywhere. The only bad thing about jail would be that I wouldn’t be able to get a drink there. I felt an uncomfortable shudder in my body at that last thought. I really needed a drink.
I slid into the back of the cleanest police cruiser I had ever seen. There were no dark bloodstains and the fresh odor told me nobody had ever puked in this car. The upholstery smelled as if it had just come out of the factory. Yeah, this Mercer guy had to be an officious pencil dick. Nobody else would keep a squad car this clean.
The cop said nothing to me as we made what turned out to be a pretty short drive to City Hall. That gave me time to look around at the town that was probably going to be my home for a couple of days until they got tired of feeding and housing me for free and figured out how to get me out of town. It was actually a nice little town in a way. It reminded me of the town in Wisconsin where my grandparents had lived.
Or at least the way it used to look. As I’ve already noted, little farm towns used to be prosperous, but as farming became less labor intense and people moved to the cities for better opportunities, most small towns were beginning to die. My grandparents’ hometown was already showing signs of decline before they died. By now, I imagined it was a lot smaller than I remembered it.
But Ovid was obviously prosperous. People were well dressed, most cars were fairly new, and there were even bustling businesses still on Main Street that hadn’t been forced out of operation by the nearest Wal-Mart—assuming there was one. It looked like an updated version of Pleasantville—at least from what I remembered of that movie. I had watched it on TV someplace where I had managed to get a bottle of wine, so I didn’t remember much of the movie. I just remembered it involved some little fifties town where everything was bright and pedestrian. Of course, come to think of it, I don’t remember any cop in the film rousting a guy just minding his own business. Just remember, I told myself, tonight it will be cold and you’ll be in a nice warm cell with a full belly.
The only thing that kept me wondering about Ovid was all those damned see-through people. They were everywhere, and they acted just like everybody else. No one else seemed to notice anything odd about them though, so I told myself it was just some effect booze was having on my eyesight. Or maybe because I hadn’t eaten in a while, I was starting to hallucinate. Whatever the reason, ‘there’s no such thing as transparent people,’ I told myself.
Officer Mercer pulled up in front of City Hall. It was actually an impressive municipal building for a small town. Again, I noted Ovid appeared to be prosperous to afford such a building. I really had expected to be taken to a cell. In fact, I was really hoping to be taken to a cell when I got a glance at an attractive black woman in a police uniform walking by. Even in pants, she was a number. I tried to picture her bringing my meals on a tray every day, maybe dressed in something short and skimpy.
No such luck, though—Officer Mercer had a firm grip on my arm as he walked me down a corridor leading to what I knew would be courtrooms.
He opened an impressively large oak door for me. Inside, I could see the whole courtroom was set up just awaiting the entrance of some overweight small-town judge. My heart sank. Some half-assed local magistrate was going to try me, then suspend the sentence if I’d get out of town by whatever means he’d decided upon. There’d be no warm cell and hot meals for me tonight. More than likely, Officer Mercer would drive me a few miles out of town—just far enough that the next town down the road—I would be told—was closer. It’s commonly known as the bum’s rush and it wouldn’t be the first time I had experienced it.
There was also an attractive brunette seated at the defendant’s table. Undoubtedly, that would be my public defender—another name for an overworked and underpaid attorney who pretends to defend the indigent so that all the proper forms of justice are satisfied. She’d be the one who pleaded for a suspended sentence if I would just leave town and let her and all of her fine well-off neighbors go back to thinking there weren’t really any poor folks in the world.
I guess that’s just me feeling sorry for myself. I wasn’t raised poor. I had come from a middle class family and had been given enough opportunities to succeed that I knew in my heart I had only myself to blame for my circumstances. Maybe I deserved to be thrown out of town. It wasn’t that bad; it had happened to me before. Maybe if I was real nice to this cute little public defender, she’d arrange to let me stay overnight in the jail before they booted me out of town. That way, I’d at least get a hot meal or two.
“I’m Susan Jager,” the brunette said, extending her hand.
I just looked at her hand for a moment. It was soft and delicate with well-shaped nails coated in a very light pink. The bracelet on her wrist was tasteful if not expensive. The reason I just looked at her hand is that I was surprised she had offered it. My own hand was dirty with black grime under the nails. The fingerless gloves I wore were no better, having dulled from their original olive color to a dingy brown. Still, she showed no sign of reluctance to take my hand eventually; I offered it at last.
“Bob Wallace,” I replied softly.
She grinned. “I know. Look, Bob, we just have a couple of minutes before The Judge appears. I need to talk to you about your appearance.”
“I suppose it’s a little late to change into a fresh suit,” I pointed out with no little irony.
“I wasn’t referring to your clothes,” she told me, smiling at my witticism. “I just want to make sure you don’t say or do something that might get you into trouble.”
“I thought I was already in trouble.”
She shook her head. “I can tell you’re not taking this very seriously. Maybe you think if you do something off the wall, The Judge will throw you into jail for a few days and the city will have to feed you and give you a warm bed.”
That, of course, was exactly what I had been thinking. My public defender might be a youngster fresh out of law school, I thought to myself, but something about her spoke of wisdom well beyond her tender years.
“That won’t happen,” she went on. “You need to understand that right now. The way you conduct yourself here today will have great bearing on the rest of your life. Do you understand that?”
I nodded, but I really didn’t understand. She was making this sound like a trial for a major crime. Maybe this was her first case. Maybe she wasn’t as sage as I thought she was. Or maybe this judge she was talking about was one of those small town justices who thought he was hot shit. If he took a dislike to me, I could find myself someplace like a county lockup. That wouldn’t be as pleasant as their little jail was sure to be, and using prisoners for unpleasant labor in small towns wasn’t unheard of. I decided it was best to take her advice.
She must have seen something that assured her I’d behave. “Good,” she said. “Now, have you been drinking?”
“Not this morning,” I hedged. I didn’t bother to add that I’d gladly do anything she told me to do for a shot of whiskey.
“Okay. Then when The Judge asks you a question, just answer politely. Don’t try to BS him; he’s heard it all before.”
“Okay,” I agreed. “I’ll just tell him I’m on my way south and just ended up here by accident.” Some accident. How could I explain that I got here on a nonexistent railroad car, over tracks that weren’t there anymore?
Now I suppose in retrospect I should have realized there was something fishy about my whole situation. How did I end up in Ovid in the first place? And once I was there, how was it that probably the only cop car in town was right there to pick me up? Somehow, those questions just never seemed to come to my mind—until later.
“All rise!” Officer Mercer’s voice called out. He mumbled the usual stuff about the Municipal Court of the City of Ovid being in session while I stood there wishing I could have a drink.
The Judge was impressive, much to my surprise. Rather than the fat, pompous rube I had expected, he looked polished enough to be a big-time judge with his neatly trimmed beard and gold-rimmed glasses. He carried himself like he owned the world, and his robe flowed like a royal cape. It made me feel just a little bit important that such an impressive man would spend his time trying to figure out the best way to run me out of town.
“The first case is the City of Ovid versus Robert James Wallace on a charge of vagrancy,” he intoned, his voice deep and commanding. But how had he known my middle name? I didn’t recall giving it to the cop.
“Your Honor,” my attorney began, “I would like to point out that my client is not in the best condition. I don’t think he’s eaten in some time.”
That was true, I realized, and my stomach let out a little growl in confirmation.
“Yes, Ms. Jager,” The Judge agreed. “But it should be pointed out that his physical condition is much of his own making.”
“According to the file, you bear some responsibility for his condition, Your Honor,” she returned confidently. I just wondered what she was talking about. What file?
“That is somewhat true and why I am willing to be somewhat lenient,” The Judge replied. “Were that not so, I would argue that he had surrendered his humanity. I am willing to accept a plea of guilty with the assurance that the sentence will be both lenient and appropriate.”
My attorney looked at me. This was a little over my head, so I just nodded in response. “My client is willing to plead guilty with those assurances, Your Honor.”
“Step forward, Mr. Wallace,” The Judge commanded. When I had done so, he began, “Mr. Wallace, few things disturb me more than to see a man throw away a promising future by developing a dependence upon drugs or alcohol. I’m going to put you in what might be called ‘supervised probation’ for a few years. Try to do a better job with yourself this time.”
I hadn’t the foggiest notion what he was talking about. Probation? What did he mean by that? By sundown, I’d probably be over in the next county, never to cross the Ovid city limits again. But if I had been confused by what he had already said, I was completely lost when he spoke again. His words sounded foreign, but not a language I could readily identify.
It’s hard for me to describe what happened next. In retrospect, I now realize that my mind had been long dulled by the effects of alcohol, so when The Judge worked his magic on me, I simply became more befuddled than usual. My consciousness seemed to be floating in a warm liquid, ebbing and flowing with some strange mental tide. I felt almost as if facts and feelings were being poured into my mind while my identity, partially obscured from years of drinking, fought valiantly to survive this onslaught.
What made the attack all the more terrible was that the facts entering my mind seemed to be coming from two sources. One source, I knew, was the Judge. Whatever he was chanting was opening my mind to new thoughts and new feelings. But the other source was coming from somewhere else. It was information. I suddenly remembered everything Pro had told me—the fantastic story of a town controlled by the gods of classical mythology. I had scoffed at the story when he told it to me. I wasn’t scoffing now.
There were other fact flowing into my mind as well, but they were moving so fast I couldn’t quite capture them in my consciousness. I knew it was nothing Pro had discussed with me, but I also sensed they were coming from him nonetheless. I couldn’t dwell on them more. I had more immediate problems to deal with.
While my mind was being assaulted with impossible thoughts, I also sensed something happening to my body. It was tingling and somehow shifting, as if the rigid structure of my body had suddenly been reduced to a mound of quivering gelatine. The sensation wasn’t unpleasant exactly. It as something like the shudder one gets after a long stretch, only extended to every part of my body.
Suddenly, my head began to clear and I felt a hand gripping my arm. I hadn’t realized it, but I had been about to fall down in a faint. I looked around to see Officer Mercer. He seemed a little taller than before—more imposing. But I was glad for his support.
“Take the defendant to the high school,” The Judge was telling him. “The changes should be complete by the time you get there.”
High school? Changes? What was he talking about? My mind was still as fuzzy as it would have been if I had downed a quart of wine. Why was I being taken to the high school? Did they have some program to show derelicts to the students with a warning of study hard or this could happen to you? I giggled at the thought.
I had spent a lot of years swimming in a lot of bottles, but even with my mind fogged I was reasonably certain I had never giggled in my life.
My mind although starting to clear was still in a fog, I found myself back in the backseat of Officer Mercer’s police car once more. At least the backseat was roomy—much roomier than I had remembered it before. I carefully smoothed out my skirt and... and...
There was nothing terribly interesting about my skirt. It was black—the same color as my tights. It came down nearly to my knees—or the knees I now had, because they certainly didn’t look like the knees I remembered having before—not that I looked at my knees all that often. Even in my dumbfounded state, I soon realized I was looking at the lower half of a female body.
I reached out a hand to touch my skirt, praying that it was only an illusion. That was when I got the next shock. Not only was my hand small and slim, but as I watched, it darkened, the back of my hand becoming the color of coffee laced with a dash of cream. The nails were growing longer, then squaring off and turning a deep, glossy red.
“What’s happening to me?” I cried out, gasping as my voice cracked, then rose an octave in the middle of my question. Officer Mercer continued to drive as if he hadn’t even heard me.
Gods—gods ran Ovid; gods who had the power to control us, shape us, destroy us. The conversation with Pro had significant meaning now. My mind might have been confused and overloaded, but I had no doubt as to what was being done to me. I was being changed into a woman. Worse yet—I was being changed into a black woman!
My life on the road had become a day-to-day struggle for survival, but it was a life of my own making. I wasn’t a woman. I wasn’t black. I was a man—a white man—and I had no desire to be anything else, even if the black woman I was becoming was Vanessa Williams.
“Take me back to The Judge!” I screamed in my new, higher voice. “Take me back. I don’t want to be a woman! I don’t... want...”
My voice broke down into a sob. I was crying hysterically as my chest rose and fell in gasps. I cried all the harder as I saw that with each exhale, my chest still pushed out further swelling the dark red sweater I hadn’t been wearing moments before with two substantial breasts. “Oh my God!” I wailed. Perhaps I should have said “gods.”
I leaned against the door of the car, helpless as hair fell over my ears and down the back of my neck. There was a sudden tiny pinprick in my ear lobes—once, then twice in each lobe, and I could feel something small swinging back and forth from each new hole. My face felt different—not just in shape, but I could feel something slick on my lips. I touched them with my tongue, rewarded with a slightly sweet taste. I gathered my coat—my dark faux fur coat that hadn’t been there before—tightly against my breasts, as if by squeezing them, I could make them go away.
Then, as abruptly as it had begun, the tingling stopped and new sensations flooded my transformed body. I could feel a bra harnessing my breasts. I could feel the gentle constriction of the black tights on my legs. I could feel the gentle sway of my long tresses as I shook my head back and forth in disbelief. I could feel... nothing between my legs.
“Oh my God!” I cried again as Officer Mercer brought the car to a halt.
Through building tears, I looked out at where we had stopped. We were in front of a large, one-story building made of tan brick. There was a flag flying in front next to a large wooden sign that proclaimed in black letters over a gold background, ‘Ovid High School.’ In smaller script, the black letters declared, ‘Home of the Fighting Eagles!’
“Do you want me to go in with you?” Officer Mercer asked, speaking to me for the first time since my transformation had begun. There was no compassion in his voice, but no malice either.
“Go? Go where?” I managed to choke out.
“School, Marsha,” he replied as if that had always been my name as he got out of the car and opened my door. “You can’t miss school now, can you?”
Maybe I should have yelled, screamed and kicked my legs, but I did none of those things. Instead, I reached out with an instinct which almost caused me to shudder and picked up the black leather purse which had suddenly appeared at my side. I wasn’t even sure how I had known it was there. I demurely slid from the seat, making sure my skirt didn’t hike up and balanced on the small block heels that I suddenly realized I was wearing. They weren’t very high—only an inch or so I determined later, and somehow, my body knew how to perch on them and even walk in them without stumbling.
Why was I so cooperative? The answer was simple—I had come to believe what Pro had told me. This town was run by gods. I could think of no other description for them. And I had no doubt that this Officer Mercer was one of them. Police would have been bad enough to deal with, but gods were even less likely to tolerate disobedience. If they could turn me into a little black high school girl, what could they do to me if they got angry? That wasn’t a pleasant thought and I chose not to test it.
“You’re in Miss Samson’s civics class right now,” Officer Mercer told me as we entered the school. I felt almost a strange feeling of déjà vu, as I smelled the odor of the cleaning compound every school seemed to use and heard the sound of students in the classrooms excitedly talking before the final bell rang. A few students were hurrying into the classrooms. It was a reminder of my own high school days which I had nearly forgotten.
“Where do I go?” I asked, feeling the strange weight of breasts and wondering at the swinging movement of my hips. It all seemed so strange and yet somehow natural.
“First door on your right,” he answered, pointing to an open door.
I looked back in fear as he waited until I had entered the classroom. He actually managed to give me what might have passed for a smile. “You’ll be fine,” he told me. “Just relax and let it happen.”
Relax? I was in a strange body in a strange place and all I knew was that somehow, I had been changed into a young black girl named Marsha and I was supposed to relax? Gulping, I turned and entered the classroom. I felt as if I had just stepped over a cliff.
I looked around the mostly full classroom, trying to avoid what appeared to be appreciative stares from some of the boys as I searched for the source of the greeting. Finally, I spotted her. She was grinning at me from a seat near the window. She was a very attractive black girl, dressed much as I was. She was also transparent.
There was an empty seat next to her, and I could tell she expected me to sit there. I supposed it was actually my—Marsha’s—seat, so I made my way to it, smiling and greeting several other students along the way. No one seemed to think there was anything odd about my being in the classroom. It was as if they had known me forever and expected me to be there.
“Girl, where is your notebook?” the black girl asked me as I plopped down quite unladylike in the seat.
“Here, take one of mine.” She thrust a florescent pink notebook in front of me along with a matching pen. “You know how Miss Samson is about expecting us to take notes.”
She frowned at me. “Girl, you don’t sound right. Are you on your period or something?”
Period! Jesus H! I was a woman. I could actually have those... those... things now. Shit! Shit! Shit!
“All right class,” a woman’s voice called out from the doorway. I looked up to see a fiftyish woman walking primly to the front of the class. She wore a dress which made her look ten years older, especially with her gray hair pulled into a tight bun. This had to be Miss Samson, I thought.
It was, and class began with no nonsense, which I came to understand was Miss Sampson’s style. It was a surreal experience for me. There I was, sitting attentively listening to this middle-aged woman droning on and on about the relationship of the states to the Federal government. I was back in high school for God’s sakes. And to make even stranger, I was now a girl—a black girl no less. This just couldn’t be happening, gods or no gods.
Now one thing I’d like to make clear; I never had anything against blacks. I wasn’t too nuts about Mexicans because I saw them as taking work away from good Americans like me, but I had known a lot of blacks on the road. I just never, ever in my wildest dreams expected to be one of them. Looking down at my dark skin was almost as big a shock as looking at the breasts I now sported.
“You’re new here, aren’t you?” a boy’s whispered voice came from behind me.
“How did you know?” I whispered back, frightened that I had somehow done something wrong to give myself away.
“I’ll tell you after class,” he replied softly, and I could sense him leaning back in his seat to a peevish glare from Miss Samson.
I wanted to take a look at my Samaritan but I didn’t dare turn around. Miss Samson was watching me like a hawk, and I certainly didn’t want to get detention. It was bad enough being turned into a little black high school girl without the embarrassment of having to stay after school as well. I just wanted to meld into the crowd until I could figure out what had happened and why and maybe do something about it.
At last, the class bell sounded and I was able to turn around. Grinning at me was a muscular and visually solid boy in a black and gold letter jacket. He was, I suppose, handsome, and it wasn’t without some concern that I realized I was suddenly much more aware of boys’ looks than I had ever been before. His hair was short and brown with just a little bit of curl to it. He was also white, and noting that made me all the more aware that I was not.
When everyone else was out of earshot, he said softly, “Welcome to Ovid.”
“How... how do you know I just got here?” I asked.
“Marsha Henry used to be a shade,” he explained. When he saw the confusion on my face, he added, “I’m talking about the people you can see through. We call them shades here. But be careful. The shades don’t know they aren’t real, and neither do most of the other people around here.”
I was very relieved to have someone who knew the ropes and was obviously willing to help me. As we both rose to leave the classroom, I asked, “What do I do now? Where do I go?”
“We have the same afternoon class schedule,” he told me. “Just stick with me. But we’d better go by your locker and get your books. Spanish class is next and you’ll need your book. Miss... or rather Senora Sanchez doesn’t like it when we forget to bring our Spanish books to class.”
“But I don’t know my locker number!” I nearly cried from frustration.
“Look in your purse,” he suggested. “If you’re like most girls, you probably have it written down somewhere.”
He was right. It only took me a moment to find a little notebook inside my purse, and folded inside it was my class schedule and my locker combination and number.
“Is it like this for everyone?” I asked, my frustration showing. “Does everyone have to feel their way around in the dark trying to figure out what we’re supposed to be doing?”
“Pretty much,” he laughed, but I felt as if he was not laughing at me. “By the way, I’m Pete Conway.”
“I’m...” Sticking out my hand, I realized my old name meant nothing now.
“You’re Marsha Henry,” he reminded me, not offering his own hand. I was afraid that meant he just didn’t want to shake hands with a black girl, but he quickly explained, “It would look a little funny for us to be shaking hands since I’ve supposedly known you since elementary school.”
“Oh, yeah,” I agreed, withdrawing my hand before anyone noticed.
Suddenly the bell rang.
“Shit!” Pete exclaimed. “Come on; we’ve only got a minute to get to class.”
We barely made it to class on time. Fortunately, Pete nodded to me to sit next to him toward the front of the classroom in what was apparently my assigned seat just before the final bell rang. The youngish woman with long wavy hair which spilled in soft, black curls over her shoulders glared at Pete and me as we found our seats. I guess she didn’t like it when students were almost late to class either.
Now I took Spanish many years ago when I was in high school, and I was pretty good at it. I even managed to use a little of it on the road. But there was no way I should have been able to keep up in a Spanish class—yet I did. It seemed if I just let myself go and floated along, I was able to understand what was being said in class. I even managed to answer a couple of questions. I began to realize when basking in the teacher’s smiles at my answers that I must be a fairly good Spanish student.
I began to wonder if it worked for other things as well. Maybe I could let myself go like that and... what? Do my hair and makeup? How could I even think about that? Maybe if I let myself go what would really happen is that I would lose myself. Maybe Bob Wallace would disappear mentally as well as physically and only Marsha Henry would be left.
I suppose no one ever thinks much about it, but no matter how bad a person’s life might be, I can’t think of too many folks who would be willing to completely lose their sense of being and become someone else. I might have had a little drinking problem, and life might not have been too sweet for me, but I didn’t want to forget I was ever Bob Wallace.
The funny thing is, I sort of sensed that a lot of people in Ovid had forgotten who they had been. Either that or they were mostly a terrific troupe of actors. Everyone in the classroom—solid or not—acted as if he or she had been who they were now for their entire lives. And none of the transparent people seemed to notice there was anything wrong with being sort of transparent, and none of the solid students let on that they saw anything odd. Even Senora Sanchez was transparent, but the longer I listened to her in class, the more I found myself just thinking of her as just another person.
There was a subtlety to Ovid. I don’t know how many changed people noticed it, but I did. Maybe it was because my mind was truly clear for the first time in years. It was as if a deaf person suddenly could hear sounds. Every little sound would be something to be savored, and I was doing a lot of savoring.
For one thing, as I sat there in class, I wondered why my stomach wasn’t growling. After all, I hadn’t eaten anything in the last twenty-four hours. Correction, I realized suddenly. Bob Wallace hadn’t eaten in a day. Marsha Henry had probably eaten a bland but filling lunch in the high school cafeteria. My flat little stomach felt as if it had been filled right on schedule. Well, at least I hadn’t been wrong about one thing. Getting picked up by the police had at least meant a warm meal for me.
I even managed to meet some of my other classmates that afternoon. Of course, they didn’t know I was meeting them for the first time. One of them was Yolanda Montgomery. She was the black girl who sat next to me in civics and had a locker next to mine as it turned out. Even though she was a... what had Pete called them? Oh yes, a shade. Even though Yolanda was a shade, I found when she squeezed my arm in a friendly embrace that she felt as solid as anyone would.
Of the others I met, I liked two of them instantly. Trish Yamamoto and Jennifer Tilton were both cheerleaders, but they were not stereotypes of that breed. Both were real and both were pretty enough to be cheerleaders, but both were obviously very bright as well. When Pete and I nearly bumped into them after the last class of the day, they were engrossed in a paper they were writing for a physics class.
“Wait!” the Oriental girl said when she saw Pete and me. “Let’s ask Marsha. She’s great at physics.”
Then she looked at me closely. “Oops!” she chuckled.
“She just noticed you’re real now,” Pete whispered to me.
I found as I was introduced to the girls that everyone had become much more circumspect, speaking as if we had all known each other forever. Even the introductions were careful, not sounding like introductions at all but rather like greetings among old friends. Trish had obviously noted that there was something different about me. I wondered if the other girl—Jennifer—wasn’t in on what had happened to us. Pete explained to me later how only two people could talk knowingly about Ovid. I discovered that Trish and Jennifer were as self aware as Pete and I were, but in a group, we could only chat like normal high school students.
“By the way, Pete,” Jennifer said conspiratorially, “Carole Sue is looking for you.”
Pete groaned while Trish and Jennifer laughed.
“Yeah,” Trish added. “She wants you to wait for her after cheerleader practice tonight.”
“Uh... don’t tell her you saw me, okay?” Pete asked, his cheeks turning red.
“Don’t worry,” Jennifer assured him with a chuckle and a chummy squeeze of his arm. “We won’t.”
“Oh I don’t know,” Trish teased. “Shouldn’t we cheerleaders all stick together? I mean, Carole Sue is one of us now.” She struck a mocking cheerleader pose.
“Don’t remind me,” Jennifer grinned, shaking her head. “Besides, she’s only on the squad because Dana Porter sprained her leg so badly. She’ll have to try out for next year.”
Trish and Jennifer waved goodbye to us, but as they walked away, I heard Jennifer say, “Let’s just hope Carole Sue sprains her leg before the tryouts.”
When they had left and a number of the students had already left the building, I asked, “What was all that about?”
“Carole Sue Wilcox,” Pete replied. From his tone, it was obvious he didn’t think much of her. “She’s a sophomore—her dad’s a prominent attorney here in town. He handles most of the good legal work. So little Carole Sue has grown up having everything she’s set her sights on. Right now, she’s set her sights on me.”
“A cheerleader? Cute, I suppose.”
“And rich to boot,” I mused as I unconsciously picked just the right books to take home that night, stuffing them in my book bag.
“Right,” Pete agreed. “She’s rich and beautiful—and I can’t stand her.”
As we walked out of the building together, Pete explained how he had been fairly new to Ovid when Carole Sue took an interest in him. She was real, but had no memories of her previous life before Ovid. I was later to learn she was in the majority. Most transformed people had no memories of their previous lives.
Anyhow, Pete dated her from the beginning of the school year. Then, a couple of weeks ago, he dropped her.
“She was just becoming too possessive. Then when we broke up, she just hasn’t been able to accept it,” Pete explained rather tactfully. I knew what he meant. I had dated a girl in high school who went absolutely nuclear when I broke up with her. She had been too possessive, too, assuming that whatever she wanted, it would be up to me to provide it for her. And she hadn’t even been rich like Carole Sue apparently was.
“So who were you before Ovid?” I asked as we walked together. I felt strangely uncomfortable talking with Pete about his former girlfriend. I suppose it had something to do with being a girl myself now.
Pete shook his head. “It’s a bad idea to tell anyone who you were. It creates complications.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well,” he went on, “take you for example. You probably weren’t black before, and maybe you weren’t even a girl. No, stop! Don’t tell me. I don’t want to know. You see, that’s the problem with knowing who you were. Then I have to take that identity into account every time we talk. It’s better if you think I’ve always been a boy named Pete and you’ve always been a girl named Marsha.”
But I didn’t want to be a girl. Even being black didn’t bother me that much. There were plenty of black guys on the road, and some of them had gotten to be passing friends of mine. I didn’t mind them like I did the Mexes. After all, the blacks were at least not foreigners taking away decent jobs. And they spoke English. I suppose if The Judge had really wanted my number, he would have turned me into a sweet little Mexican girl with a thick Mexican accent. I wondered why he didn’t.
“So what’s all of this about—this Ovid?” I asked him.
He shrugged. “Nobody knows. You’ll figure out soon enough who The Judge and his cronies are.”
I didn’t let on that I already knew.
“Suffice it to say they leave us alone for the most part. I think there’s some big plan and Ovid is a part of it, but none of us can figure it out. When only two of us can discuss it at a time, it makes the exchange of ideas rather hard.”
“But you must have some idea of why we’re here,” I pressed.
“I do,” he agreed. “I think the whole town is something like an elaborate movie set. Did you ever see The Truman Show?”
“I never watched much TV,” I replied, unsure as to where he was going with all of this.
“It wasn’t a TV show,” he corrected me. “It was a movie about a TV show. In it, a TV network created a phony town somewhere in Florida and wrote a script around a man who had no idea it wasn’t real.”
“Sounds a little contrived,” I commented.
“I suppose,” he allowed. “But the point of the whole movie dealt with how he coped when he found out what they had done to him. It was just too hard for the network to maintain the illusion they had created. But Ovid is more like a real town. I grew up in a town about this size, and I can tell you it’s about as real as you could make it. What if Ovid was created to make someone—or several someones—think it was real?”
“But for what purpose?” I asked. “You think it’s an alien TV show or something? Why would anyone go to this much trouble?” I wanted to ask how gods could go to this much trouble, but I didn’t want him to know what Pro had told me. I was also getting the idea that speaking of the gods was a taboo.
“I don’t know,” Pete admitted. “All I know is that life here has been pretty pleasant—except for Carole Sue.”
We both shared a laugh over that.
By the time we stopped, Pete had explained quite a bit about how Ovid operated. I now understood how the ‘autopilot’ worked. All I had to do is relax and I’d act just as Marsha Henry would normally act. I learned about how just leaving town wouldn’t work since all roads led right back to Ovid. I learned that there were no cell phones and no cigarettes (gasp!). The lack of cell phones didn’t bother me. I had never owned one. And as for the lack of cigarettes, the strange thing was that I didn’t seem to crave one as I always had before.
“Well,” he said at last. “I guess I’ll see you tomorrow.”
“Yeah, you know—Thursday, school?”
“Oh.” I looked around. “Is one of these houses mine?”
“That one right there.” He pointed at an attractive two-story house, neatly landscaped with lots of trees and shrubs.
“It looks as if your mom isn’t home yet,” he commented.
“You know her car?” I asked. Then I noticed the closed garage door. “How do you know her car isn’t in the garage?”
“Because she always leaves the garage door up.”
“You seem to know a lot about my mom’s habits,” I commented. I was smiling at the time but I was curious.
Pete just shrugged. “Marsha and I walk home together every now and then—particularly at this time of the year since I’m not on the basketball team. I just go out for football and track. Of course she was a shade before. You’ll find there’s really no difference between shades and real people. Some of them will be your friends.”
Like Yolanda, I thought.
“So, can I walk you to school tomorrow?” Pete asked.
“Oh! Sure. I guess.” I frowned. “Did you and the shade version of Marsha walk to school together as well?”
“Sometimes,” Pete told me. But the way he said it made it sound as if he hadn’t walked to school with her very often. I was probably somewhat different from the shade Marsha. Maybe I was more... interesting since I was a newcomer to Ovid. It couldn’t be anything else. I mean Pete was this really good-looking white guy and I was a black girl.
But I was a girl, I realized. And I had only gotten a glimpse of myself in the mirror in the girl’s restroom, but even that glimpse was enough to tell me that I was an attractive black girl. I wasn’t even all that black, really. I was sort of Janet Jackson black—features distinctly black but with skin light enough to declare that there had been a few whites in my genetic background.
Yes, I was a girl and Pete was a guy... I suddenly realized that I had thought of him not as just a guy but as a good-looking guy. Oh-oh...
As I waved goodbye and headed for the house, I began to realize my transformation might have been more than just a physical one. Now as a man, I had been one-hundred percent heterosexual. The problem was that my years on the road in search of the perfect bottle had left my sexual impulses dulled to the point that I’m not certain my old self would have even been able to get it up for Miss America. In fact, the more I thought about it, I realized I hadn’t even masturbated in years and as for having a woman... it had to have been seven or eight years at least.
As Marsha, I had not had my sexual senses dulled. Now the hormones of a young woman were flowing through my body, and my atrophied sexual condition as a male was no defense against them. My God, I had only been a girl a few hours and already I was noticing boys? I tried to imagine myself kissing one...
Okay, so maybe I was noticing them, but that didn’t mean I was attracted to them, did it? I’d have to remain on guard, though. What if I went on autopilot while a boy was trying to grope me? I shuddered at the thought.
The front door of the house was unlocked. Well, it was a small town, I thought. And Pete had mentioned how Marsha’s mom tended to leave the garage door open, so why bother locking the front door? Besides, who was going to break into your home when there were weird cops like Officer Mercer on the prowl?
I opened the door and stepped into the sort of living room that took me back to my childhood. I don’t mean it was old-fashioned or anything like that. No, the furniture looked fairly stylish although some of the knickknacks had a distinctive African flavor to them. There was the sound of some rap song (if you could call a rap number a song) coming from upstairs. I doubted if it was something my new parents would play. Great, I thought. I’ve got a sibling. Just what I needed.
The boy who called out to me was bigger than I was now, but I suspected he was actually younger. He was wearing jeans but no shirt. Like me, his skin was fairly light, and I had little doubt that I had a ‘baby’ brother.
“Hey!” I replied. I couldn’t very well call him by name since I had no idea what his name was. I watched him with fascination, though. He was a shade, and this was the first time I found myself alone with one of them. I knew from touching Yolanda at school that he would seem to be as solid as I was. It was odd how quickly a person could get used to something that at first appeared to be a somewhat insubstantial apparition.
“So how was school?” he asked as he shambled into the kitchen. If I were to answer him without yelling, I’d have to follow him. Since I had nothing better to do, I did so, watching as he opened the refrigerator and pulled out a carton of milk. He sniffed at it and then downed probably a pint of milk in one long swallow.
“School was okay,” I replied noncommittally, wondering if ‘mom’ would have a fit if she saw him drinking milk directly from the carton like that.
“Oh! Mom called,” he told me. “She said to go ahead and start dinner. She’s going to be a few minutes late.”
“Yeah... hey, is something wrong with you. You look kinda pale.”
Oh, of course not. Nothing was wrong at all. I had just been left in the body of a black teenage girl and thrust into a family I knew nothing about. Now I was expected to start dinner when I didn’t even know what I was supposed to do. Starting dinner on the road usually consisted of heating a can of cheap stew over a small fire—or eating it cold if no fire was available. What the hell was I supposed to do now?
“I... I’m fine,” I lied.
“Well girl, you sure as hell don’t look fine. You having your time or something?”
“Time?” I must have paled even more when I realized he was talking about my period. He was the second person that day to ask me about that. Would I really be getting those now? Of course I would. Shit. Could this thing get any worse?
Before either of us could say another word, I heard a rumbling sound. A garage door was going up and I could hear the sound of a car engine purring as it slowly entered what had to be the garage just beyond the kitchen.
“Sounds like mom’s car,” the boy muttered. “She’s early. I gotta turn down my stereo. She hates this song.”
He scrambled out of the room just as the door to the garage opened. I don’t know what I expected ‘mom’ to look like, but the woman who entered was very attractive and professionally dressed. Like my ‘brother’ and me, her skin was fairly light and her features showed a mixed racial heritage. In my circumstances, I seldom had the opportunity to watch television, but I had caught an episode of a show called ’24,’ and the woman I was facing looked a little like the woman who played the candidate’s wife, accentuated by the well-tailored blue suit and black heels she wore.
She started to speak and then stopped, staring at me. “Well hello,” she finally said.
“Hello,” I replied timidly. Just the way she looked at me, I was sure she realized I wasn’t exactly the daughter she had said goodbye to that morning. I think one of the first things anyone learns when they come to Ovid is how to recognize whether or not someone they meet remembers their previous life. ‘Mom’ remembered, and she knew I was a newcomer.
“How are you coping?” she asked. The question was innocuous enough, but it was apparent she saw something in my eyes or my mannerisms to make her believe I hadn’t lost my memories.
“Okay, I guess,” I answered with a shrug. “It’s all pretty new to me.”
“Well, welcome to the Henry family,” she grinned, laying a tan trench coat over one of the kitchen chairs. I thought for a moment she was going to try to give me a hug, but she kept her distance. She motioned with her head toward the stairs. The music wasn’t as loud as it had been, but it was still loud. “Have you met Jake?”
I could only nod.
“He’s two years younger than you,” she told me, confirming my suspicions. “Do you know about shades?”
“Yeah,” I nodded. “Somebody at school told me about them.”
“So you’ve been here most of the day,” she surmised. “That’s good. That will make things a little easier. Just so you’ll know, your father has no memories of his past life, so we’ll have to watch what we say around him and your brother. They think Ovid is just a normal small town.”
She smiled at me. “You seem nervous. Don’t be. Everybody here has had to go through what you’re experiencing. The best thing to do is to just relax and let it happen. Pretty soon, your new life will seem perfectly natural to you.”
I didn’t think being a girl was ever going to seem natural, but I kept my mouth shut about that.
“We don’t usually talk about our past lives around here,” she went on, echoing Pete’s admonition. “I’m not going to ask you about yours, even if I tell you about mine. If you ever want to tell me, though, I’ll listen.”
That was fine with me. I was more than a little embarrassed to find myself a minor, female, and black. It was sort of like winning the trifecta in hell. I certainly didn’t feel like telling all of that to this woman who the gods had decided would now be my mother.
“It’s a good thing my meeting got out earlier than I had expected,” she explained. “I wanted you—or rather the shade you—to start dinner. But I’ll take care of that now. I need for you to help me, though.”
She turned to the refrigerator, opening it and pulling out several items. “Wash and peel these carrots,” she ordered, placing a bag on the counter. “The peeler’s in the first drawer to the right of the sink.”
She busied herself with other tasks, expecting me to start without question. She was treating me like... like... her daughter, I realized. I was her child and expected to obey without asking why. I remembered how it had been when I was a teenage boy. Now I would have to go through all of that again.
I thought of rebelling. I thought of telling her that I was an adult and would make my own decisions. I didn’t need someone telling me what to do and when to do it. But I realized suddenly that in the eyes of the world I was now a part of, I was not an adult. At most, I suppose, I was a ‘young adult’ and under the wing of my ‘parents.’ Since I already realized who ran Ovid, I could imagine what might happen if I rebelled. I might find myself back in the courtroom, this time leaving as a five-year old girl with fewer options than I now had. Resigned for the moment to my fate, I dutifully picked up the carrots and began to wash them.
As a boy, my kitchen duties had been mostly cleanup. As a girl, I found helping ‘mom’ to be a strangely enlightening experience. Since my lifestyle had never afforded me the opportunity to cook in a civilized fashion, I was mesmerized by the careful, sanitary preparation of boundless foods. We were having pork chops—stuffed pork chops no less—with mashed potatoes and glazed carrots and even a green salad. It was an abundance of food I knew only at the shelters on special occasions, such as Christmas or Thanksgiving. I found myself salivating like a dog seeing a steak. I quieted the rumbling my stomach had started, to make do with a few slices of carrot before ‘mom’ set them aside to be cooked in a mixture of brown sugar and butter.
She smiled at me as I munched on the carrots. “Hungry?”
“I haven’t eaten in a while,” I admitted sheepishly.
“Well, carrots are good for you.” She just watched me for a moment and then commented, “You seem to be taking all of this pretty well. When I was transformed, I raised all sorts of hell.”
“Well, I’m not too happy about being a girl,” I admitted. There. That was said. She now knew I used to be a man. I expected her to laugh, but she didn’t, so I went on, “My life wasn’t too easy. I have to admit that Marsha’s life—my life now, I guess—looks to be a little better than the one I left behind—even if I do have to be a girl.”
“Yeah, I guess the sex changes are the worst part of Ovid,” she agreed. “I was always female, so not everyone changes sex. But I do understand a lot of the women in Ovid used to be men. They all learn to cope eventually.”
All of them? I began to wonder again if they were given a little help in the coping department. Surely there were some former men out there who were furious every time they had to squat to go to the bathroom. I had known men who measured their importance by the length of their dicks. Maybe there was something in the water that caused them to calmly accept their magical castrations.
“You sound as if you’re happy here now, though,” I commented as we got back to work on dinner.
“Actually, I am,” she admitted. “I’ve got a great family, a loving husband, and a job that takes me to the cutting edge of my field.”
“What do you do?” I asked, genuinely curious. The idea of a small town like Ovid being on the cutting edge of anything surprised me.
“I’m an engineer at Vulman Industries,” she explained. “I’m working on a project that... Well, I can’t give you details. It’s really hush-hush. But if it works, we’ll really be able to change the world.”
I was still curious, and her answer had actually heightened my interest, but I knew better than to quiz her more. I suspected she had already told me more than her superiors would have been happy with. So I changed the direction of the conversation just a little.
“Did they give you the engineering skills you needed when you came here?” I asked her.
She shook her head. “No, I guess it doesn’t work like that. They can give you certain basic skills—like for example, if you just sort of let yourself go, you’ll find you know how to do your hair and your makeup just as if you’d always been a girl.”
“I sort of figured that out.”
“Good. Anyhow, professional skills require more discipline than they seem to be able to give us. I was an engineer with Boeing before I came here.” She looked just a little wistful for a moment. “So was my husband—I mean my husband outside Ovid.”
“Is he here, too?” I asked, sorry at once that I had asked. She looked so sad when she mentioned him.
“No... I was on a business trip to New Orleans. He stayed back in Seattle with our babies.”
“You had children?”
“No!” she laughed. “I’m talking about our dogs—two golden retrievers. You see, I couldn’t have children in that life. I suppose that’s another reason I’m pretty happy here. I have you and Jake.”
That made me feel sort of funny. It’s hard to explain. Here was a woman I had never met before who considered me to be her daughter. I suppose if I was to prosper in Ovid, I’d have to act the part. Besides, except for Pete, ‘mom’ was the only person I had met who cared enough (or remembered enough) to help me out.
In a way, she made me feel like I hadn’t felt in a long, long time. She made me feel safe. I hadn’t felt safe since I had lost my own mother years ago. See, my mother was the person who held our family together. Dad was wrapped up in his career, and my one sibling, an older sister, was just like him—even including the drinking problem. But dad had a good job and managed to keep his drinking under control so that his superiors knew nothing about it. It was when he was home that he overindulged the most. Fortunately, he wasn’t a vicious drunk; he was just a drunk.
Mom had been too late to see the developing signs of a drinking problem in my sister. Like my father, she had been a stealthy drunk. So was I, but mom had seen enough of the signs to realize that whatever genetic inclination to drink that ran through my father and sister ran through me as well. She kept me sober through high school.
It wasn’t until college that everything fell apart. Free of her scrutiny, I quickly found that college could be a terrific place to drink and party. Of course, those who aren’t careful find themselves drinking and partying right out of college. That was what happened to me.
Maybe I would have fled to the safety of my mother’s arms if I could have, but by the time I flunked out, she was gone. Her heart gave out on her. I found out heart problems ran in her family, and her death was undoubtedly both natural and predictable. But I’ve always wondered in my more lucid moments if the failure of her family hadn’t just broken her heart.
Now, I had a mother again. Of course I knew she wasn’t exactly my real mother, but I saw in her the same instincts and emotions my own mother had. I only hoped this new mother of mine would not have to go through what my mother had experienced.
Not knowing what else to do, I just smiled at her remark and said, “Well, I guess I have homework to do.”
She smiled sweetly. “Fine. Thanks for your help. You can study until dinner.”
Finding my room wasn’t difficult. I was relieved to find my room didn’t share a wall with my ‘brother’ so I was somewhat isolated from the confusing rhythms of his hip-hop music. I hoped I wasn’t expected to like it because I never would. Sighing as I closed the door to my room, I realized I was really alone for the first time since my transformation.
In some ways, life in Ovid was a definite improvement over my previous life, I thought to myself again. I seemed to be reminding myself of that often—usually when I looked down at my dark skin or felt the swirl of long hair or the gentle sway of my new breasts and the strange but not altogether unpleasant void between my legs. It was going to be difficult adjusting to my new race, sex and age, but at least I had the satisfaction of knowing I had been given a second chance... one in which I appeared to be a good student and reasonably popular. The future actually looked as if it might be promising—unless, of course, I started drinking again.
It was odd, but when I thought about it, I hadn’t felt the need for a drink since my transformation. I think it was the first time since I was eighteen or so that the craving for a drink had been a significant part of my life. Come to think of it, I had seen anyone smoking or drinking in Ovid. Maybe the gods had banned such things. If they had, I’d probably be better for it. Apparently, my new body had no need for such things, and it had done nothing to convince my mind otherwise.
I wondered as I studied, if my new body would also affect my mind when it came to sex. When a person drinks as much as I did, the need for sex seems to ebb. In fact, I was having a difficult time remembering the last time my male body had experienced an erection. Now, my body was young and female. Would I start to find men attractive?
I thought for a moment about Jake. He had been standing there in front of me in jeans with his chest bare. I knew some girls found that sexy, and I suspected Jake knew that, too. He wasn’t a bad looking guy, I supposed, but I might have said that of him clinically when I was still male. Besides, he was supposed to be my brother now. What normal girl finds her brother to be sexy?
Then I thought about Pete. I had noticed when he introduced himself to me that he was attractive. There was no denying that. But was I attracted to him—I mean sexually attracted? I would have to say no. I was certainly drawn to him as a friend, but that wasn’t the same thing, was it? Of course it wasn’t.
‘Dad’ looked a lot like Jake. He was balding, sported a moustache, and had the beginnings of middle-age spread, but only a few pounds above fighting weight, but in spite of all of that he could never deny Jake. He hugged me warmly as I came down for dinner, and I had to remind myself that ‘mom’ had told me that he had no memories of his past life or I might have decked him for being so familiar. Thank God he didn’t call me “princess.” I think I would have thrown up.
Eating with my new family proved to be much more pleasant than I had imagined it would be. My real family hadn’t been as close. Dad often stayed late and drank his dinner with co-workers. My older sister was never around—usually out with her latest boyfriend drinking and screwing. As for my real mother, I think she just gave up on all of us and died fairly young—and I probably had something to do with her early death as well. So the closeness and affection the Henry family had for each other was both heart-warming and infectious. I found myself quickly participating in the family banter and enjoying every minute of it.
‘Dad,’ it turned out, was the Chief Engineer for someplace called Capta College. I had never heard of it, but I supposed it was one of those small liberal arts schools that dotted the country. Still, he managed a considerable staff of people and seemed happy with his job. I wondered idly if he had been an engineer before his transformation. ‘Mom’ had told me that we weren’t given professional skills with our transformations, but maybe those who didn’t remember their previous lives were not subject to that rule.
I managed to pick up from Jake that he was on the freshman basketball squad at school, but was taking a week or two off from practice due to knee strain. He also was apparently a good student as well, but from his complaints about his teachers’ expectations, it became obvious that I was considered the brainy sibling.
“Ms. Potter is always wondering why I can’t do as well in math as you did,” Jake complained to me as he polished off a second plate complete with a second pork chop. I had no idea where his slender frame was stashing all of that food. I couldn’t even finish one, in spite of the fact that it was great. “‘Your sister never had problems with this’,” he mimicked, causing ‘mom’ to laugh.
“I think that’s a little unfair,” she commented. “After all, Marsha won an award for top math student when she was in ninth grade.”
That was news to me. Actually though, as a boy, I had been the top math student in high school—until I started partying and drinking. I actually did have a pretty good mind for math, so I figured I have no problems maintaining Marsha’s reputation—if I chose to.
All-in-all, I thought as I got ready for bed that night, my first day as a girl hadn’t been all that bad. In a strange way, it was more ‘normal’ than the life I had been leading since my youth. My mind was clear—really clear—for the first time in years. And as for drinking...
I realized once again as I turned out the light that I hadn’t had a drink since the night before with Pro. If I were still in my male body, I’d probably be shaking after being without a drink for that long. Did that mean I was no longer an... alcoholic?
There. I was able to admit it to myself at last. I had been an alcoholic. A wino. A sot. A drunk.
I tried to remember what a drink tasted like. Cheap wine, bourbon, scotch, gin, vodka, brandy... I couldn’t place the taste. It was as if I had never experienced any of them. Perhaps I hadn’t—or at least the person I now was hadn’t. I wondered what something alcoholic would taste like in my new body.
Now, part of me was sending out warning signals. Alcoholism is probably equal parts of physical need, genetic predisposition, and mental derangement. I didn’t need to worry about the physical need in this body. The need simply wasn’t there. As for the genetic predisposition, I hadn’t noticed my new parents needing a drink. ‘Dad’ looked from his developing waistline as if he might enjoy an occasional beer, but at dinner we just drank water or iced tea. But as for the mental...
I had to know. I wanted to know how this body would react to alcohol. If I didn’t find out and had to spend the rest of my life as Marsha Henry, I needed to know if I could face my liquid demons and I had to know right now.
I sneaked out of bed, slipped on a robe and listened for activity outside my room. I had been studying late, to catch up on subjects I hadn’t studied in years, so I had been the last in the family to go to bed. I confirmed my suspicions when I opened the door to complete darkness. I could even hear faint snoring coming from my parents’ room.
I tiptoed down the hall and headed down the stairs and into the kitchen. Turning on the small light over the stove so I could see, I carefully inspected the cabinets. My life of drinking had taught me many things about where people tend to store their liquor. Even teetotallers often keep some in the kitchen for drinking guests. Almost everyone who doesn’t have a home bar keeps their stock in the kitchen, often under or near the sink. I suppose that’s so a person can pour a shot and dilute it with water (a terrible waste of water, my old self would have observed).
Yes, there it was—a lonely bottle of Jim Beam just under the sink. The bottle was nearly full, too. I didn’t want to leave any evidence such as an empty glass, so I thought I’d take a shot directly out of the bottle. The bottle seemed heavier as I raised it—probably because of my weaker muscles as a girl.
I opted for a small swallow, letting the brown liquid wash onto my tongue and...
It felt as if my mouth had caught on fire, and the sweetish taste I had expected tasted like something out of the sewer. Coughing, I spit the foul liquid out into the sink, splashing water around the porcelain to wash away the evidence. Hurriedly, I replaced the bottle and shut off the light, rushing to my bathroom and grabbing for my toothbrush.
“Marsha, are you all right in there?” It was ‘mom’ and she sounded worried as she tapped on the bathroom door.
“I’m fine!” I managed as I used the brush to scrub the nasty taste from my tongue. “I just forgot to brush my teeth.”
“Okay,” she said uncertainly, but I hear her footsteps recede from the door. Had she known what I was up to? I doubted it. I only knew she wouldn’t have to worry about me doing it again. I was certain that The Judge had made certain that I would never drink again. At least I had answered my own question. I need not fear ever falling into a bottle again.
When I awoke in the morning, my nipples were freezing. Like a fool, the night before I had luxuriated in my new opulence by putting on a pair of what appeared to be boxer shorts as my only nightwear. Since while on the road I mostly slept in my clothing, sleeping only in boxer shorts was reserved for those times when I was able to afford my own room. I had gone through the drawers before bed past all of the frilly nighties and feminine pajamas which I now seemed to own until I found a lightweight pair of summer weight pajamas with short bottoms that resembled boxers. Of course, they had no fly, and to my chagrin, they were pink, but they were the closest things to boxers I could find.
They had felt comfortable at first, but sometime during the night, I had apparently thrown back the covers (I wasn’t used to sleeping in a warm room) and exposed my breasts. How was I to know that a girl’s nipples could be so sensitive to cold? After all, given my lifestyle choices, there weren’t many women in my life.
I was just slipping on my robe when I heard a knock at my door. “Marsha, are you up yet?”
“Yes,” I replied, not adding ‘mom’ since it was hard for me to think of her in that term.
“Can I come in?”
“Sure,” I replied, wondering why she sounded so concerned.
‘Mom’ had a very worried look on her face. She was already dressed for work in a professional gray suit jacket and matching skirt. She looked fantastic, I thought. “Is something wrong?” I asked innocently.
She sat next to me on the bed. “Honey, when I got up this morning, there was an open cabinet door in the kitchen.”
Shit! I thought. I had replaced the bottle but neglected to close the cabinet door.
“I want to know if you were in that cabinet last night.”
The old me would have had no trouble lying about it. I had lied to my real mother so many times I had lost count. But that was the old me. The new me couldn’t decide what to say, so I simply remained silent.
She put her hand on mine. “I want to tell you a story, Marsha. You know I told you I had been married before...”
I nodded silently.
“What I didn’t tell you is that my husband was an alcoholic.”
She went on to tell me how she met and fell in love with her husband-to-be and how they had nearly split over his drinking. At last, near the end of their freshman year, things came to a head. She had managed to keep him sober enough to stay in school, but she hadn’t stopped his drinking completely.
“I finally told him he had to choose,” she concluded. “It was going to be me or the booze.”
“And he chose you,” I surmised quietly.
She nodded. “It wasn’t easy for him. I knew that. Be we were in love and I guess that was enough to tip the balance. Bob never took another drink. Now, you want to tell me about that cabinet?”
“Okay,” I sighed. “I... I had a drinking problem, too. In my past life, I mean. I... I just had to see if... if...”
“If you still needed it?” she prompted.
“Yeah.” I looked down. “I didn’t need it, though. I didn’t even need it when I went looking for it last night, but I had to know what it would do to me if I tried it. I found out I no longer was hooked on it. In fact, I couldn’t stand it.”
She patted my hand. “I’ve been given to understand that happens around Ovid. The Judge doesn’t seem to like addicts of any kind. There’s even a rumor he turned a drug dealer into a tree. I guess in your case, he decided to make sure you lost your taste for alcohol.”
“That’s what happened to me,” I admitted. I was quiet for a moment, then looked at her. “Mom?” Somehow it didn’t feel so unnatural to call her that for once.
“I’m... I’m sorry.”
She gave me a hug. I noticed there were tears in her eyes. Come to think of it, there were tears in my eyes as well. “You’d better come downstairs,” she said, her voice trembling. “Breakfast is almost ready.”
“Okay.” I returned her sudden smile. Then something struck me as she was leaving. “Mom?”
“Where did you go to school? I mean where did you really go to school before Ovid?”
“The University of Illinois,” she told me as she left.
Bob? University of Illinois? No, it couldn’t be. There had to be a lot of guys named Bob at the University of Illinois, and a certain percentage of them had drinking problems. But as I remembered mathematical set and union theory, I realized there were a lot of coincidences here.
But how could that be? I wondered as I dressed for the day in a knit sweater and jeans. I never knew anyone like her in my brief college life. I would have remembered.
Or would I?
‘How could a town like Ovid remain secret?’ I reasoned. Unless those captured and transformed were somehow removed from reality outside Ovid. Could even gods do such a thing? I thought back on memories of reading the myths as a child. Come to think of it, the gods could steal memories. It was a common theme. But were they taking memories or actually reshaping reality as blithely as they had reshaped my body? How could I ever know?
Was it possible, I wondered as I silently ate breakfast, I was the Bob she was referring to? It would mean that when this woman who was now my mother had been taken on her business trip and transformed, everyone who ever knew her would find their lives changed. It would mean that a stern lover hadn’t been there to save me from myself, causing me to fall into the bottle and ruin my life.
Then I remembered something my attorney had mentioned in court. She had told The Judge that he bore some responsibility for my situation. Was this what she was referring to? Did she mean that I had become a drunk and a drifter because of something The Judge had done—like transforming my wife into a black wife and mother in Ovid?
I was still thinking about that as I stepped out into the chilly morning air to start my walk to school. My thoughts were interrupted when I spotted a friendly face. “Pete! What are you doing standing in front of my house?”
He grinned, his cheeks a bright red indicating that he had been standing there for some time. “I thought you might like someone to walk to school with, remember? You know, to get you to the right classes and all.”
“I have my class schedule in my book bag,” I told him. I realized I was grinning, too, and had said it just like a girl would.
He just shrugged. “Well, let’s just say I get lonesome walking to school by myself.”
We started walking together, and I asked, “Didn’t you say Marsha walked to school with you before?”
“Sometimes,” he said with a little blush. “Well, not really, I guess. She was always sort of...”
“No, not that. She had a boyfriend...”
“...but she dumped him a couple of weeks ago.”
“He’s on the basketball team—Nate Daniels.”
I tried to remember all the students I had spoken to the day before. “Isn’t he that big black guy in the letter jacket—the guy with the real short hair? The shade?”
There weren’t that many black students in Ovid, so I had certainly been aware of him, especially since he seemed to be very interested in me. Maybe this was why. Maybe he wanted to get back together with Marsha. Well, that just wasn’t going to happen. I might be a black girl now but that didn’t mean I was interested in black guys—or any guys of any color for that matter.
So we just talked on our way to school. Pete was great at coaching me. He told me more about the people who were supposed to be my friends. I was actually surprised how much he knew about Marsha’ life, but I supposed they had talked together walking home from school. By the time we got to school, I felt confident I’d be able to fake my way through the day. I found myself regretting that he and I didn’t have the same classes first thing, but he walked me to my locker and made sure I knew how to find my first classes. It was right after he left me to go to his own locker that I saw someone I never expected to see again.
It was Pro.
He was dressed in a drab gray work shirt and matching pants, and he had with him the badges of custodians everywhere—a push broom and a large set of keys swaying from his belt. I had just caught a glimpse of him as he turned a corner, but I was sure it was he. I started to follow him.
I turned to see Yolanda standing there along with another black girl—a real one. “Where are you off to? Chemistry is this way.”
“Uh... yeah,” I managed with one more glance down the hall. I’d have to find Pro later. If he was really a custodian at the school, I should have no trouble finding him.
Or so I thought. I had a free period right after Chem class, but I couldn’t use it to look for him. I found out when questioned by one of the staff that I needed a hall pass to be wandering around during class periods. I couldn’t believe it! When I was in high school as a boy, we were free to roam anywhere—even off campus—if we didn’t have a class.
So I decided I’d use the free period to learn more about the gods and about Pro. Yes, I suspected he was a god himself, so I should be able to find something on him in the school library. It was simple really. In no time at all, I had him identified as Prometheus. The clues were there—the magical fire and the scar where an eagle had burrowed in to eat his liver as it continually reconstituted itself. Ironically, he had been freed by Hercules—the son of Jupiter.
Armed with this new information, I started back down the hall to my study desk. Imagine my surprise when I saw Pro standing just a few feet away in the middle of the hall as I turned the corner. He smiled at me. “So now you know who I am.”
“Yes,” I replied calmly. “You’re Pro... Pro...”
“Don’t try to say it,” he warned. “You can’t say our names—at least not in the context you were about to use.”
“But you’re working with The Judge?” I asked. “After what he did to you?”
The smile became a little less wide. “That’s a subject for another day, Ms. Henry.”
Before I could reply, the period bell rang and students began pouring out into the hall. “Look, shouldn’t we go someplace a little more private?”
He raised an eyebrow. “A pretty coed meeting in private with a custodian? Ms. Henry, what would everyone say?” Before I could respond, he laughed, “Don’t worry. No one can see us right now.”
“Huh? Why not?”
“Think about it, Ms. Henry—or may I call you Marsha? Good. Think about it, Marsha. There are certain people who are never seen unless they want to be seen—janitors, bus boys, shelf stockers, and others like that. I’ve simply amplified that power so that you and I can carry on a private conversation right here.”
He was right. Students scurried past us as if we weren’t even there. None of them obviously dodged us, but instead naturally avoided us.
“Okay,” I sighed. “Just tell me what’s going on.”
“To do that would take more than the break between classes,” he mused. He waved his hand and I noticed the activity around us slowing down to an almost imperceptible pace. “There. That’s better.”
“How did you do that?” I gasped. Everyone was still moving, but very, very slowly.
“Many of us can do it,” he replied with no little pride. “Mercury, of course, is the best at it. The rest of us can only do it for a few minutes without getting extremely tired, but he can do it almost all the time.”
“You were going to tell me what was going on,” I prompted.
“Was I? Oh, I suppose I was. Although there’s not much to tell I haven’t already told you.”
I sighed, “Pro, stop playing games. You knew what was going to happen to me when I got to Ovid, and you did nothing to stop it. You’re working with Jup... The Judge and his crew. You’ve all set up some sort of a weird Olympian ant farm here with people like me as the ants. I want to know why.”
“So do I,” he said seriously.
He put a familiar hand on my shoulder. “Look Marsha, I know you’re upset. I understand. I didn’t tell you what was in store for you because I needed someone here I could work with. And you’re wrong about me. I’m not working with my cousin and his ‘crew’ as you called them. I’m as curious to know what’s going on as you are.”
“But you know some things I don’t know,” I pointed out.
His hand dropped to his side. “Yes, that’s true. I’ll tell you what. I’ll answer your questions now if you’ll help me.”
I looked at him suspiciously. “No, you answer my questions and then I’ll decide if I should help you or not.”
He shrugged, defeated. “Very well. But we only have a few minutes. As I told you, slowing down time like this can be very tiring, and besides, I don’t want to take the chance of one of my cousin’s cohorts noticing I’ve done it.”
I nodded. “Okay. First of all is my new mother really my wife?”
“She was,” he corrected me. “You see, when they remove someone from reality, there’s a reaction. It’s not always entirely predictable, but the Oracle determines who should be removed based upon the effect a person’s removal would have on the future rather than the effect upon the past. The past has a way of correcting itself, sort of like the way a rock dropped in a stream just moves the water around it. The water ends up in the same place but uses a slightly different path.”
“So in my case, my wife’s removal meant that I never met her and there was no one to stop my descent into alcoholism.”
“So The Judge is responsible for what I became,” I surmised.
Pro shook his head. “No, only you are responsible for what you became. Time would have been content if you had managed to straighten yourself out without your wife’s help. In fact, time would have preferred that. Your wife nurtured you and brought out the best in you, but ultimately only you are responsible for the use or misuse of your life.”
It was a stinging rebuke. Since mom had told me things that made me realize she had once been my wife, I had been angry at The Judge for ruining my life. Pro was right, though. My wife might have given me the reason to stop drinking, but only I was responsible for my actions.
“But is our former relationship the reason I’m her daughter now?” I finally asked.
“Partially,” Pro agreed, “but not entirely. The Oracle recommends new residents for Ovid based on need, and don’t ask me what that need is. I’m in the dark on that as well. I would imagine your previous experience with the woman who was transformed into your mother was part of what determined your identity here. Ultimately, The Judge decided whether or not to follow the Oracle’s advice. The fact that you became a black person might have resulted from prejudices in your other life.”
“But...” I started to say that I had never considered myself prejudiced against blacks. But then I remembered how I had developed a low opinion of Mexicans since they were unexpected competition for the low-paying jobs I felt I was entitled to. It was a selective form of prejudice but prejudice nonetheless.
“Yes,” Pro smiled, “you can see it, can’t you? As for being a girl, that is the most common change in Ovid—a change of sex. You see, few women are selected to be transformed because of the difficulty of getting them to Ovid. Unlike your male self, few women ride the rails, and few travel alone on the back roads that can lead them to Ovid. Therefore, a number of men must be made into women. I think it also gives former men a broader view of life, don’t you?”
I refused to be drawn into a debate about that. “So why is Ovid here?” I asked. “Surely the gods don’t need us just for entertainment.”
“You’re right about that, Marsha. All I can do is tell you a little of the history of Ovid, and then maybe you’ll understand.
“You see, until a few decades ago, we gods were wanderers. Some still are. There are pockets of forgotten gods of any number of pantheons spread all over the world. Would you believe there is even a colony of gods in Greenwich Village? Anyhow, an event happened at the close of World War Two which changed that for some of us.”
It wasn’t too hard to guess. “The atomic bomb?”
He nodded. “Yes. We hadn’t anticipated it. We no longer paid attention to our own oracles. We were too busy roaming the Earth and living as we pleased, sampling the best humanity had to offer while avoiding all of the responsibility. Then, the bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. There were three known gods in the city when the bomb was dropped. Don’t bother asking their names; they were minor Oriental deities whose names would mean nothing to you.”
He stopped for a moment, pain in his eyes. “Can you possibly understand what it means for Immortals to learn that they can be destroyed after all?”
I shook my head, sensing the horror of his memories.
“We really thought we could not be killed—at least not unwillingly. Charon, of course, added his immortality to my own so he could die, but that is rare. It constitutes in our eyes a form of suicide which is unhealthy in any culture. Even when we do die though, we still exist on other planes. We can... sense each other when that happens. Oh, we can be hurt sometimes. Look at what was done to me, though, and yet I didn’t die. In fact, when Hercules freed me, I healed almost at once.
“But when the bomb was dropped, its power tore into the very fabric of the universe. Our brethren were vaporized along with everything else. How can even a supposedly immortal being survive when the very atoms of his body are shattered in the heat and power of a nuclear explosion?”
I thought I could understand how mentally painful it might be. Mankind grows up with the idea that life on Earth is both fragile and finite. As we get older, we become more and more aware of that fact. Besides, we have our beliefs in a belief in the afterlife. How must it be for a god, though? What a shock it must have been for all of them to find that they were vulnerable after all. I didn’t ask Pro if the other gods were able to reach their fallen kin on another plane. I was afraid the answer would be no. Whatever afterlife they experienced was probably swept away by the nuclear explosion.
“So how does all of this explain Ovid?” I asked at last.
Pro brightened a little, happy to have told the worst of his story. “Ovid was founded a few years later by... The Judge and a few of his favorites. The word is he has a plan to make certain nothing like what happened in Japan ever happens again. Ovid is the physical manifestation of that plan.”
“But I don’t understand,” I pressed. “How can a small farm town in the heart of the country be of such importance?”
“I don’t know,” Pro said sadly, shaking his head.
“Then why not ask him? After all, you’re a god, too, aren’t you?” I pointed out.
“Yes, in the broadest sense I am,” he admitted. “The problem is that not all the gods are important enough or trustworthy enough to be involved. Some of us panicked, forming a group known as ‘The Others.’ They thought The Judge and his followers were interfering in something that could only be made worse. They sought to release the Titans to bring my cousin and his supporters back under control. They failed.”
“You mean you failed,” I broke in. “You were one of The Others, weren’t you?”
“You know, you’re really quite perceptive,” he chuckled. “When we met on that boxcar while your mind was so damaged by liquor, I had no idea you were so bright. Yes, I was with The Others. They still operate, but many of us became disillusioned with them as well. Their plan was to do nothing—other than exposing the Earth to the rule of the Titans. I can assure you, Marsha, that would not be in Mankind’s best interests. I’m aware of that now.
“I represent another group now, Marsha—one that would be willing to help The Judge if we could be assured that he is right.”
“And what if you decide he isn’t right?”
“Then we’ll fight him.”
“So why do you need me?”
Pro grinned. “Yes, you really are perceptive. We need you to gather information for us—information you will come into possession of if my ability to see the future is correct.”
I wanted to ask how he knew and what the information was, but first there was something else I needed to know. “So what’s in it for me?”
“The opportunity to be a man once more,” Pro replied simply. When I said nothing, he continued, “It can be done, you know. Not only The Judge has the ability to alter your form. Others among us can do so as well.”
“What if I don’t want to be a man again?” I asked carefully. In fact, I wouldn’t mind being a man again, but given the choice of being a man like I had been before or being Marsha Henry, Marsha was the lesser of two evils.
Pro looked around. “Marsha, I can’t hold back time any further. We’ll talk another time. I’ll answer the rest of your questions then. Please understand, though, that we need your help.”
“But...” I began, but time abruptly continued its normal speed. I was suddenly assaulted by the cacophony of dozens of conversations. I had to weave and swerve to avoid being run over by students who were only now aware of me. One actually did bump into me. It was a girl—about my size. But unlike me, her skin was pale and her hair was long and blonde. She would have been very, very attractive if it had not been for the sneer on her face as she looked at me. Finally, she dodged around me.
“What’s wrong with her?” I asked, not realizing I had said it out loud.
“Maybe she’s pissed about you and Pete.”
I looked around to see Trish Yamamoto grinning at me. At her side was Jennifer Tilton with a matching grin. Trish turned to Jennifer. “You go on. I need to talk to Marsha.”
I realized what she meant. It wasn’t that Trish had something to tell me that she didn’t want Jennifer to hear. It was simply that only two of us could discuss some things without being in violation of the gods’ rules.
“I’ll walk you to class,” Trish said. “We’ve both got math next period.”
“Okay,” I agreed. “I assume the blonde who just gave me the evil eye is what you want to talk about.”
“You got it.” Trish grinned that impish grin once more. “That was Carole Sue Wilcox.”
“Of course,” I muttered as we walked along. “And she thinks I’m out to steal Pete from her?”
“Right in one.”
“But Pete and I aren’t... like that!” I protested with a laugh. “We’re just friends. I mean, I just got here and all. Besides, I used to be a guy.”
“So was I,” Trish admitted, “but you’ll find that doesn’t count for much around here. Carole Sue is one of those transformees who doesn’t remember who she was before Ovid. Who knows? Maybe she was a guy, too. It’s not uncommon. But the point is that she thinks she’s always been a girl, and as Carole Sue Wilcox, she’s used to having her way. No guy has ever dumped her, but she’s dumped a few guys. Then along came Pete.”
“But I get the idea Pete isn’t even dating her—at least not anymore,” I protested. “What business is it of hers anyway?”
“You don’t know Carole Sue,” Trish laughed. “She’s beautiful and she’s rich. Some girls think when they have that combination everything is their business. Pete dumped her and that doesn’t sit well with her at all. She probably even thinks you’re the reason Pete dumped her.”
“Well you can tell your friend she’s got nothing to worry about,” I told her. “Pete is just helping me through this... transition. We’re just friends. If she wants to date Pete, that’s no problem.”
Actually, I wasn’t exactly telling the truth there. It wasn’t that I wanted to date Pete. I might be adapting all right to being a girl, but the thought of dating a guy just didn’t sit well with me. The problem I had was caving in to a bitch like Carole Sue Wilcox. Here we hadn’t even said a word to each other and I already disliked her. I didn’t realize it at the time, but it was a pretty feminine reaction.
“Well, Marsha,” Trish replied quietly, “the problem is that Pete doesn’t want to date her.”
Maybe that was part of the reason Pete was hanging around with me, I thought. I was camouflage. Being new to Ovid, I wouldn’t want to be attached to him, but I would keep girls like Carole Sue away from him. I wondered why he wasn’t interested in Carole Sue any more. She was attractive and her family had money. When I was a guy, I would have found that to be a winning combination. Of course it was pretty obvious she was something of a bitch, but a guy like Pete had the balls to keep her under control, sort of like Petruchio in Taming of the Shrew. Come to think of it, even the names were similar.
“Look, Marsha, some of us girls are getting together tomorrow to do some girl stuff. You want to join us?”
“Don’t worry. Carole Sue won’t be with us.”
I needed to get to know my fellow students better, I realized. I finally nodded. “Okay.”
“Great!” There was that grin again. “I’ll call you later and set things up.”
We ducked into math class just as the bell rang.
I had studied my butt off the night before to be ready for all of Marsha’s classes, but math was something I didn’t need to spend much time on. Back in the days before drinking had dulled my mind, I had a natural talent for math, and now that I was working with a brain undamaged by booze, I found it all came back to me quickly. That was fortunate, because it turned out Marsha had the reputation of being a math whiz.
The rest of the day went smoothly as well. Other than almost stepping into the boys’ room once, I didn’t make any obvious goofs. I was finding that Marsha Henry had a ‘good girl’ reputation, was a top student, and was reasonably popular—or as popular as a black girl could be in a mostly white school.
I suppose I should address the black-white issue, though. Ovid might have been created by the gods, but they did nothing to change human nature. Oklahoma borders three states that were once slave states. Two of them even seceded in the Civil War. So attitudes in Oklahoma can be just a little bit Southern at times. This meant that while blacks and whites got along pretty well with each other, there wasn’t a lot of interracial social activity—at least with the shades and those who had no memories of previous lives.
I think the reason those of us who were transformed and remembered who we had been were more color blind is that we had personal experience in realizing that we’re all pretty much the same inside. I thought of myself only as being black when someone else considered me black. It was the same with being a girl. The rest of the time, I was just... me.
As I prepared to walk home from school that day, I had one of those moments where I had no choice but to consider myself black. Pete and I planned to walk home again together, but as I started to approach Pete after school, I was warned off by a glance from one of the black guys from the basketball team. He, along with two other black basketball players was having a heated discussion with Pete. I hung around in the hall, just out of earshot, pretending to sort through my locker until they were finished. Then Pete joined me.
“What was that all about?” I asked as I shut my locker door.
Pete just shrugged. “They’re friends of Nate Daniels. They wanted to let me know that Nate is still interested in you.”
“Then why did they come to you?” I asked. “Why didn’t they come directly to me?”
Pete looked a little embarrassed. “Well, they’ve seen the two of us together. I guess they just thought... you know.”
Yeah. I knew. I had just forgotten how rumors got started in high school. All you had to do was be seen together in public and half the student body figured you were sleeping together. Well, let them think what they wanted, I thought. Pete had befriended me during my first hours as Marsha. He was the sort of guy I would have wanted as my friend when I was male and I saw no reason to change my taste in friends.
“What did you tell them?” I asked quietly.
“That they should talk to you about it,” Pete said frankly. “I told them we were just friends.”
“And they believed you?”
He shook his head. “No. I’m sorry, Marsha. I shouldn’t have gotten you into this trouble. I remember how it was when I was in high school—before Ovid, I mean.”
“Yeah, so do I,” I told him. “But this really pisses me off. Where do they get off telling us who we can be friends with? Come on, let’s start for home.”
“You... you still want to walk with me?”
“Sure.” Then I added cautiously, “That is unless you don’t want to be seen with me...”
“My God, no!” Pete blurted. “Let’s go.”
We were both fairly quiet on the way home. Pete would say something requiring an answer, and I would reply in terse one or two word replies. Then, after a few moments, I’d say something and it would be Pete who responded with short replies. No, we weren’t angry at each other. Rather, we were both just trying to figure out exactly what our relationship was. I wasn’t used to being a girl yet, and the idea that Pete might be hitting on me did cross my mind. As for Pete, having an interest in a girl of a different race probably required some thought. I tried to imagine what my parents would have said if I had brought home a black girlfriend. Yes, times have changed, but interracial dating is still not all that common—especially in small towns.
I stopped for a moment in front of my house to wish Pete a good weekend, but before I could, he asked, “Hey you want to go to a movie tonight and maybe get a pizza?”
My mouth dropped open in shock. “Pete? Are you asking me out on a date?”
He blushed. It was a good thing that my dark skin had disguised the fact that I was blushing, too. “Well, no—not really. I mean... well, sort of, I guess...”
He was starting to sound like Jimmy Stewart hemming and hawing like that. I couldn’t resist having a little fun at his expense.
“Well? Are you or aren’t you asking me out on a date?” My hands were on my hips by then.
“Well... I guess so,” he admitted at last. “I mean, friends can date, can’t they? It doesn’t mean we’re serious about each other or anything like that. I mean, we’re just friends, right? What do you say? I’ve already got permission to use dad’s car...”
There it was. He had been planning to ask me out—even getting use of his father’s car. Then Nate’s friends had cornered him and he started having second thoughts. I had been wrestling with the whole idea of being a girl as we walked home; he had been wrestling with whether or not asking me out was such a good idea.
“Okay, Pete,” I laughed. “But just as friends, okay?”
He managed a weak grin. “Okay. Six o’clock? We can grab a pizza and then go to the new James Bond flick.”
They were still making James Bond movies? Gee, I had been out of touch. Of course, my entertainment budget as a bum wasn’t very high. “Sure. Six will be great.”
Mom had just gotten home as well. I found out later she had a very flexible working schedule at Vulman which was great for the family. I think she also wanted to make sure she was home for me when I got out of school. Like everyone who retained their old memories, she must have realized how difficult the first few days in Ovid would be for a newcomer. She was watching Pete walk away from the living room window. “Was that Pete Conway you were talking to?” she asked.
“Yeah,” I answered, pulling off my backpack. “He’s a good guy. Do you know him?”
“His father works at Vulman,” she told me as she stepped out of her heels. “He’s Personnel Director. Trisha Harris works for him... Oh, that’s right. You haven’t met Trisha yet.”
“He asked me to go to the movies with him tonight,” I said as matter-of-factly as I could.
“And you told him...?”
“I told him yes.”
“Shouldn’t you check with me first?” she asked carefully.
“Why? Oh, I see what you mean. I’m what—sixteen? Do I have a curfew, too?” I asked this as lightly as I could. Mom didn’t know I had been an adult, and she certainly had no idea I had been her husband. That was ironic. She remembered the old me but had no idea that I had been Bob Wallace. I, on the other hand, knew that she had been my wife but had no memories of her. Now I had to somehow develop a mother-daughter relationship with her. Weird.
“Well, I always asked Marsha to be home by eleven...”
“I’ve got no problem with that,” I assured her. “I’ll just ask him to bring me home right after the movie.”
“But Marsha, he’s...” She was having trouble saying something.
“He’s what? A known sexual offender? A child molester?”
“No, Marsha, he’s white,” she blurted out quickly.
“Wait a minute,” I said, sitting down while I studied the stricken look on mom’s face. “I’m not real clear on this whole black-white thing. I thought it was okay to have interracial dating these days. Did I miss something?”
“Well, no one will stop you,” she admitted, sitting down next to me. “And the... the people who run Ovid would never stand for open prejudices. It’s just that... well, look around you. All your friends are black.”
This probably wasn’t the time to tell her I had agreed to a shopping excursion with a white girl and an Oriental girl.
“You... that is, Marsha always dated black boys and your brother dates black girls.”
“But we’re just friends,” I tried to explain. “My God, I’ve only been a girl for a day. I’m not about to swap saliva with boys. I may never get serious about them. Besides, what’s the big deal? I used to be white and you used to be white...”
She frowned. “How did you know that? I never told you what race I was before Ovid.”
“Well, I just assumed,” I recovered quickly. “From what I’ve heard, The Judge likes to mix things up a bit—making whites into blacks and men into women.”
She relaxed a little bit. Good. I wasn’t ready to deal with our former relationship just then. “Well, I suppose it won’t hurt,” she said slowly. “Maybe I am overreacting just a little. But don’t tell your father. He gets upset about that sort of thing. He’s sort of old-fashioned...”
Was she telling me he was prejudiced? This was an interesting perspective for me. Having grown up white in a fairly typical Midwestern home, I knew that people like my real parents were all for civil rights, but if my sister or I had brought home a black date, they would have been quite uncomfortable. I never realized the same could be true of black families.
I decided rather than upset my new father, I’d just make myself scarce. Mom would tell him I was going out with some friends. By the time Pete arrived to pick me up, dad was already sitting in the den, a pre-dinner beer in hand while he watched the news on TV. I was able to slip out the door without causing a fuss.
“You look really great tonight,” Pete told me with an appreciative inspection as we walked to his car.
I hoped I hadn’t overdone it. I wasn’t up on what girls wore out for a pizza and a movie. I assumed jeans and a sweater would do it, but somehow, that didn’t seem right. I had tried on three or four outfits. I don’t know why I was so indecisive. Maybe it was because girls just seemed to have so many clothing choices and I wanted to look... right. I ended up wearing a nice conservative dark gray wool skirt and a black pullover sweater. I wore black tights with the outfit since I knew from the day of my transformation that they looked nice. I found a pair of black flats that in spite of the name had just the hint of a heel, but nothing I couldn’t handle.
Mom had helped me with the jewelry—just a simple gold necklace and bracelet really—and had reminded me to carry a black purse. It was one of the few times I had carried one, since my backpack had sufficed before. I just hoped I didn’t leave it somewhere since I wasn’t used to carrying it.
I had actually done my makeup by myself. Mom had reminded me that evening makeup could be a little bolder. I just shrugged and let my autopilot take over. The result was something I could live with. I had to admit I was a good-looking girl.
Pete and I didn’t say much to each other in the car. I think it was because both of us had become suddenly aware that no matter what we called this little social experience, it was a date between a boy and a girl, and I (gulp!) was the girl. It was an uncomfortable feeling for me, being a young girl. Actually, I think it would have been almost as uncomfortable if I had been a young boy. As Bob Wallace, drunk about town and itinerant laborer, I hadn’t had much of an opportunity to date. Alcohol seems to take away sexual attractiveness and sexual desire in equal measure—at least in the quantities I consumed. I hadn’t had a real date as a man since college.
In all honesty, though, sitting there in the car next to Pete wasn’t an unpleasant experience. He was a friend—a good friend—and I hadn’t had one of those in many years. Plus Pete was a guy I was sure could take care of himself—and me. One thing I had already noticed about being a girl is how nearly every male looks bigger and stronger. It felt good to know that if I needed protecting, Pete was big enough to do the job.
I got a little concerned when Pete turned off Main Street toward a darker side street, but I was relieved when I saw a green and white neon sign in the middle of a window framed by red neon. ‘Tony’s Real Italian Pizzeria’ the sign declared, and from the small crowd of patrons carrying take-out sacks and boxes, I had to admit Tony was doing a thriving business. I wondered if we’d be able to find a table.
“It’s still a little early for the eat-in crowd,” Pete told me, reading my expression of concern. “A lot of these cars are here for takeout. Besides, the place is bigger than it looks.”
Pete was right about that. Although the front of the store was fairly small, the restaurant was deep and well lit, with the usual cheap tables covered in red and white checkered tablecloths held in place by empty Chianti bottles. I suppose by city standards, it wasn’t much of a place, but I nearly choked up thinking about how long it had been since I had been in an eating establishment anywhere near as nice as this one.
We weren’t the only teens in the place, and I was a little taken aback by the glances we were getting. While there were both whites and blacks in the dining room, there was not a single table where whites and blacks were dining together.
Both of us looked around. I spotted Trish sitting at a table with a tall, slender boy wearing glasses. Both of them were motioning us over. “You guys want to join us?” the boy called out.
Maybe under other circumstances, I might have said no, but the looks Pete and I had been getting were just uncomfortable enough to make Trish’s table look like a safe haven. In numbers there is strength. Besides, even though I didn’t know the guy she was with, he looked safe enough, and if he was a friend of Pete’s, he could be a friend of mine.
“Luke, call for a waiter,” Trish prompted as we sat down. One would have come on his own, but I knew Trish was just prompting me with the boy’s name. I got the idea I was expected to know him.
“Hey, Marsha,” Luke said with a friendly grin.
“Hey, Luke,” I said with a grin of my own while Trish smiled in approval.
“You guys going to the flick?” Luke asked.
“Yeah,” Pete replied as the waiter took our drink order. It turned out that they hadn’t ordered food yet, so we all agreed to share a Tony’s Special—whatever that was.
“I’m really looking forward to this Bond picture,” Luke explained enthusiastically.
“Boys and their toys,” Trish sighed. “Another Bond-fighting-evil-Orientals flick.”
Given my own color, I could see how Trish might be a little sensitive about that. I think I would have felt the same way if we were going to see a flick where all the blacks sounded tough and ignorant. It was funny how sensitive one could get to things like that so quickly.
“Hey, Bond fights white guys, too,” Luke argued. “And there are a lot of Oriental good guys, too.”
This started an impassioned discussion about the portrayal of other races in the movies. I mostly just listened, since I hadn’t had the opportunity to see many films. I could appreciate the irony of the situation, though. Here we were, two non-white girls dating two white guys discussing the finer points of racial stereotypes.
The pizza was outstanding and the conversation stimulating. I almost hated to see the dinner end. While I was curious about the movie, just sitting around having a good time talking to friends sounded like even more fun. And the best thing about it was that I was having a good time without alcohol. The pitchers of beer being carried to tables inhabited by college-age couples didn’t have any appeal to me after my taste of liquor in this new body.
We walked together to the movies. The theater was up on Main Street. The Olympian was one of the old style theaters that used to populate nearly every small town in America. The lighted marquee listed the names of the actors and the title of the film. Under that were the words ‘Bond is Back!’ and a listing of show times. The whole building was a throwback to my youth. In spite of my recent circumstances, I was aware that most movie houses like the Olympian had been shut down in favor of large, multi-screen complexes.
We chose our seats and the guys even got some popcorn. How they could eat that after the pizza we had was beyond me. Trish was a little put off by it as well. “If we ate like those guys do,” she told me while the guys were at the concession stand, “we’d have asses too wide for these seats.”
I hadn’t thought of it that way, but I suppose she was right. Not that it mattered. I don’t even think I could have eaten popcorn on top of pizza when I was in college. But of course I was male then and would have probably finished off more pizza than the slice and a half I had eaten that evening. Oh, it was a fantastic pizza, but a girl has to watch her figure. Besides, that was more than enough to fill me up.
The movie was actually pretty good. I hadn’t seen a Bond film in years, so this Brosnan guy they had playing him was a surprise. But the real surprise was the romantic interest. I had no idea who Halle Berry was, so imagine my shock when a very attractive black girl walks confidently out of the water in an outfit just like the one Ursula Andress wore in Dr. No.
I quickly forgot about James Bond and started avidly following every move Jinx—Berry’s character—made. I watched the way she moved, listened to the way she talked, and wondered how my hair would look if I cut it short like hers. Without realizing it, I was bonding to the character, seeing myself in her role. And when the romantic scenes began, I found my new body becoming aroused at the thought of someone like Bond touching me.
I glanced over toward Trish who was sitting next to me, wondering if she was feeling the same things. She was snuggled up against Luke, her head resting on his shoulder. It was then that I realized I was sitting closer to Pete than I had meant to. His arm wasn’t around me, but it was resting on the back of my seat, touching my long hair. I would have said something, but for the moment, I enjoyed having his arm so close to me. I even wondered what it would be like to nestle up against him like Trish was doing with Luke...
When the film was over and we were filing out, Luke said, “There! See, a black woman was one of the good guys.”
“Yeah,” Trish snorted. “And all the bad guys were Orientals.”
Pete and I just chuckled as we followed them out of the theater. We didn’t even seem to be aware that at the moment, we were holding hands just like Luke and Trish.
After we broke away from Luke and Trish, Pete took me home, good to his word that we were just going out as friends. There were no groping hands in the car, no suggestions that we find some dark country road and snuggle, and no suggestive come-ons for me to worry about. I felt I had made a good decision going out with Pete. It confirmed that we were just friends, just as I had told mom.
But a little tiny part of me was just a little disappointed that Pete didn’t try something. Other than holding hands when the movie ended and a few casual brushes against each other during the movie, we had respected each other’s personal space. But watching Halle Berry up on the screen in the arms of Pierce Brosnan had made me at least a little bit curious. It didn’t take much to project myself into Halle and Pete into Pierce. I couldn’t help but be a little curious.
“I had fun tonight,” Pete said as he walked me to the door.
“So did I,” I replied, realizing not for the first time that it was true.
He took my hand after I unlocked the door. “Well, goodnight, Marsha.”
I squeezed his hand. “Goodnight.”
And that was it. Or it would have been if I hadn’t given in to a sudden impulse and kissed him gently on the cheek. He blushed. I probably did, too, but with my skin color, I doubt if he noticed. I just smiled and shut the door.
What was I thinking? I asked myself. Pete is just a friend.
The house was quiet when I entered. My new parents had left a small light on in the living room. I left it on when I went upstairs since Jason had announced he wouldn’t be home until midnight. I heard whispering behind the closed door of the master bedroom, followed by a feminine giggle. Apparently, my parents were still sexually active. I felt something akin to jealousy with that realization. The woman who was enjoying sex behind that door had once been my wife in another time and another place. Now I had lost her to a man who, strictly speaking, wasn’t even really her husband since both had been transformed into the relationship...
That started me thinking again. Ovid did more than just change us—it defined us as well. It had taken a woman who had once been my wife and changed her into another woman—a black woman—who made love with a man who had been defined as her husband. And she was obviously enjoying it.
Would I be like that? Would I find I really thought of myself as a black teenage girl who liked boys—maybe even a white boy?
A combination of experiences was causing me to become noticeably aroused. Watching Trish and Luke cuddle, the love scenes between Jinx and James Bond, the sound of my new parents making love, and even the gentle sisterly kiss I had given Pete were culminating in a feeling I had never felt before.
I stripped out of my clothes under the bright light of a full winter moon. Had I been a girl longer, I would have probably been more modest and closed the drapes, but I liked the effect the moonlight had on my dark body. I looked at myself in the mirror when all my clothing had been removed. I was attractive; there was no doubt about that. My dark skin and long dark hair were exotic in the moonlight, and I realized perhaps for the first time how desirable my body must be.
I wondered if other men whose sex was changed were aware of all of this sooner than I was. For me, with my sexuality drowned in alcohol, thinking of myself as a girl was second to thinking of myself as a rational, sober person. My mental house more in order, I was suddenly aware of the sex I had become—and what that might mean.
I placed my hand between my legs, feeling as if for the first time the softly curled hair about my sex. I probed cautiously with a slim finger, careful only to brush against my clitoris. I let out a small gasp. I tried to think of myself as Jinx being touched there by James Bond. I sensed a growing warmth between my legs as I urged the fantasy on. It didn’t take me long to get myself off, but when I came, I realized I was no longer thinking of James Bond.
I was thinking of Pete.
“Now be careful,” Jennifer whispered to me. Trish and Tanya were just out of earshot, so Jennifer could speak freely. “March’s is a little strange. Vera March and her husband are... associates of The Judge.”
In other words, they were gods, I thought. It wasn’t hard to figure out which ones, either. I noticed the gods chose names for themselves that were close to their Roman names. Mars and March sounded almost alike, and Vera and Venus at least began with the same letters. “What can happen to me that hasn’t already happened?” I whispered back as I struggled to keep an unfamiliar purse on my shoulder.
Jennifer chuckled, her breath producing puffs of white as we walked along the sidewalks of Main Street on a chilly but sunny morning. “You’d be surprised. If Vera March gets hold of you, you could find yourself having a particular affinity for short skirts and three-inch heels.”
“I’ll try to remember that,” I said. In my limited experience, it seemed as if the gods were willing to transform us and then leave us alone. But from what Jennifer said, it sounded as if they weren’t above occasional tweaking. From what I had gleaned from Pete, Jennifer, and Trish, the gods ran just about everything of importance in the town, from the largest industry to the courts to the schools. I suppose it made sense that they would control some of the major retail businesses as well. It seemed a little odd that Mars would have chosen to run a business, but I supposed business and war did have certain similarities. Besides, not too many small towns had their own armies.
March’s Department Store wasn’t particularly large as department stores go. Still, it seemed surprisingly well-stocked although given my previous circumstances, I hadn’t been in many department stores in recent years. We made a beeline for the women’s department. I just tried to keep up with the other three girls since I had no idea of how to act, but they hurried to their goal like thirsty horses smelling water. I hoped none of them noticed that I wasn’t nearly as enthusiastic.
Tanya Davis was a shade, so whenever she would pick up an item and hold it up to herself, it would take on the same ethereal character associated with shades. “Do you think this goes with my eyes and hair?” she asked me, holding up a salmon pink sweater. She was a blue-eyed blonde so it did look good on her. I told her so.
I watched in growing alarm as the three girls held various items of clothing up to each other, commenting and giggling as they did. Then came round two, as they each selected several items and headed for the dressing rooms, leaving me alone in stunned silence. I wondered if Jennifer and Trish had been girls before Ovid. Certainly, no former man could ever take such delight from selecting clothing.
“Can’t find anything you like?” the most beautiful voice I had ever heard in my life asked from behind me. I turned to find the woman who had spoken had an appearance to match her voice. Her hair was the most beautiful shade of blonde I had ever seen, and not a strand was out of place. She wore a stylish suit of what I would someday learn was called winter white. Her poise, her figure, and her smile were beyond perfect. I didn’t even have to look at her nametag but I did. It only confirmed that this woman was a true goddess—Vera March.
“I...” I started to say but realized I hadn’t even looked at anything yet.
“Let me help you,” she offered. “It can be hard at first. Jennifer and Trish would tell you that if you asked.”
“Hard for them?” I asked. “They were men?”
“Most women in Ovid were at one time,” she replied. I suppose she hadn’t really told me they had been men, but the implication was clear.
“Here!” she said brightly, pulling a tan dress from a rack. I would swear the dress hadn’t been there a moment before. “This would look nice on you.”
“It looks a little... lightweight,” I told her. It was just something that came to mind. I didn’t want to be trying on dresses.
“It’s for spring.”
“But... it’s winter now,” I pointed out.
Vera March gave me an indulgent smile. “The dressing room on the right is available.”
With an exaggerated sigh, I plucked the dress from her hands. I had certainly been warned about Vera March and had no intention of ending up in short skirts and three-inch heels, but I knew better than to argue with a goddess.
I had to admit, once I had struggled to get into the dress, that it did look pretty good on me. It was sleeveless and the skirt was short, so a fair amount of skin was exposed. The color of the dress complimented my skin tone very well.
“Let’s see what you found,” Trish called out from outside the dressing room. I heard giggles after that—probably from all three of the girls. Well, why not? I had watched them model clothing in front of the mirror for what seemed like hours. I supposed it wouldn’t hurt to do so myself.
My resolve collapsed as I stepped out of the dressing room. My three new friends were waiting expectantly for me, and Vera March stood behind them with an encouraging smile.
“Cool!” Jennifer pronounced.
“Yeah!” Tanya seconded while Trish just grinned.
I must have blushed as my exposed skin felt strangely warm. “I don’t know...”
“Oh come on!” Jennifer laughed. “That will look so cool this spring.”
“But it’s winter,” I reminded her.
Jennifer gave me an indulgent smile just like the one Vera March had given me.
“You really need some shoes to go with that,” Vera March commented, making me aware that I was standing there with nothing but sweat socks on my feet. And so began my initiation to shopping.
How long had it been since I had been able to go into a store with the intention of buying something that didn’t have alcohol in it? It seemed like forever. Now there I was, standing in the middle of the women’s department trying on different outfits and being as silly as any teenage girl might be. I even bought some things since mom had allowed me to use her charge account.
Of course, Tanya had no idea who I had been, so she didn’t notice when Trish or Jennifer would guide me along as we shopped. To my relief, Vera March seemed willing to let them take a hand in my initiation and had backed away to take care of other customers. I didn’t think she had used any mystical influence over me since I felt no sudden urge to dress in satins and frills. I had bought a knit top and a pair of cool jeans and no three-inch heels. Well, I did buy the tan dress but it did look good on me...
So I ended up having a much better time than I had expected. I wasn’t ready to block out every free moment for shopping excursions, but I could see myself doing it again sometime—especially if it meant spending more time with my new friends.
The only bad experience of the day came when we stopped for lunch. We ended up eating at a place called The Greenhouse. It was fairly upscale for a small town. I found out later that its proximity to the city offices and courts meant that it did a booming business during the week, depending more on shoppers on Saturday.
By the time we were seated, I was talking and giggling as if I had been a girl all my life. Then after ordering, we went in pairs to the restroom. Tanya slipped in ahead of me, while I had to dodge someone mopping the floors. As I did, time slowed down just like it had in the hallway at the high school.
“I promised you we’d speak again.”
Pro was leaning on a mop, smiling. I looked back into the dining room and saw that all motion had nearly ceased.
“Apparently you have many jobs,” I said wryly.
“All of which allow me to work unnoticed,” he agreed. “Now, you had more questions before you would agree to help me.”
“I seem to remember asking you what made you think I wanted to be a man again.”
He raised a single eyebrow. “Don’t you?”
I tried to show an impassive expression. The real answer to that question was: I wasn’t sure. It had been so long since I had been a virile male with a clear mind and in control of my own life that I had almost forgotten what it was like. Liquor will do that to a man. My last few years had been an impotent fog, alone, shuffling from town to town in a futile attempt to stay alive long enough to take my next drink.
Now, all that was changed. I was alert—probably as alert as I had ever been in my life. My ability to reason was restored. I had a family now, including a person who had cared for me in another existence. I was intelligent, popular, and healthy.
But I was a girl.
Was the trade-off worthwhile? I wasn’t really sure. After all, the gods had robbed me of a decent life when they took my wife from me. With her help, I had apparently been sober and successful in a life I would never be allowed to remember. So wasn’t I entitled to have some measure of that life returned to me—including my proper sex?
No, I realized, I wasn’t. It seemed that without her at my side, I was doomed to a besotted life. If she had just simply died, leaving me alone in my original life, I might well have turned back to the bottle for solace. It was my nature, it seemed.
“Don’t you?” Pro repeated, obviously hopeful that I would say yes.
“My life here isn’t so bad,” I finally replied.
“You say that now,” he cautioned, “but you don’t know what’s in store for you.”
Now that worried me. “And you do?”
He shrugged. “Only in a general sense. I see... problems for you. Your new race, your unfamiliarity with your new sex, the rather unusual relationship with your mother—all of these things could lead to disaster. I can save you from them.”
“In return for what?”
He smiled faintly. He thought he had made his point, and perhaps he had. I’ll admit I was concerned. Prometheus was known to have the gift of prophecy. He had chosen me with care—and perhaps with foreknowledge. “Next Wednesday is Engineering Day at your school. Several of you who have evidenced abilities in math and science have been invited to Vulman Industries to spend the day.”
That was news to me. I didn’t know what Engineering Day was and I didn’t really care. Of course, I had had a lot on my mind lately, and next Wednesday seemed far away. “So?”
“My associates and I believe that there are things going on at Vulman that are part of my cousin’s plan. We need to know what they are.”
“And you expect me to waltz into a high security area and retrieve your information,” I surmised. “Just because I’m a girl and black doesn’t make me Jinx.”
“It’s not important,” I said. “Look, my new mother works out there, sure. But I don’t think I’m going to be allowed to wander around on my own looking for Jup... Jup... your cousin’s secrets.”
He smiled. “Haven’t you learned anything from watching me? You’ll be given my gift—you’ll be able to move about freely going wherever you need to go for long enough to bring us the information. No Vulman employee will even notice you should they happen to see you.”
“I’ll think about it,” I told him. In truth, I had no intention of doing what he asked. While I might contemplate being a man again, I had a lot to lose. I had only his word that I was heading for a fall if I didn’t go along with him.
To my surprise, he nodded. “That will do for now.”
Before I could respond, I felt time speed up again, leaving me standing somewhat flustered at the restroom door. It opened suddenly. “Well, are you coming in or aren’t you?” Tanya asked. Realizing only moments had passed I slipped into the restroom.
“So what did you find?” mom asked with amusement as I walked in the house. I’m sure she heard me coming, with all of the giggles and girlish yells coming from Jennifer’s car as she dropped me off.
“Oh, a couple of things,” I replied laconically as I dropped the sacks in the living room and sat down next to her.
She grinned. “You really got into this girl stuff pretty fast, didn’t you?”
“Well, I’m not exactly built for football anymore,” I said sarcastically, “so shopping appears to be the sport of choice for girls around here.”
“You’ve got that right,” she laughed. “Show me what you got.”
“I don’t have to model it, do I?” I asked suspiciously, remembering how my older sister would come home from shopping and insist everyone see her modelling her new clothes.
“Only if you want to.”
I didn’t want to, so I just showed her the outfits I had purchased and was strangely pleased when all of them met with her approval—especially the dress Vera March had picked out for me.
When I was finished, she said conspiratorially, “Look Marsha, your father and brother will be home soon, so we have a few minutes alone if there’s anything you need to ask me.”
I would have liked to have asked her about our previous lives together, but I knew that would be a big mistake. Instead, I asked her something much more innocuous. “Okay, can I go over to Jennifer’s tonight? She invited me over to watch a movie with Tanya and Trish.”
“No date with Pete tonight?” she asked with a twinkle in her eye.
“Pete’s just a friend,” I reminded her. Besides, he hadn’t called me.
She put a motherly hand on my knee, and once again I found it hard to imagine that this maternal woman could ever have been my wife. “Sure, you can go. Just don’t stay out too late. We have church in the morning.”
Trish picked me up after dinner and we were off to Jennifer’s house. I thought she might mention something about my transformation but instead she acted as if I had always been a girl. I supposed that was the best way. Immersion was probably the way to fit in, in Ovid. The more everyone treated me as if I had always been Marsha Henry, the quicker I would assimilate.
With that in mind, the four of us had what was probably a typical girl’s night in. Jennifer’s parents were out for the evening, so we had Jennifer’s impressive home to ourselves. We loaded a sappy Meg Ryan chick flick in the DVD player. It was the first time I experienced a home theater so I was impressed. I didn’t get much out of the movie, though. All the way through it, we ate vast quantities of popcorn and drank diet sodas until I had to pee every twenty minutes or so.
In the quieter moments, I managed to think back at where I had been the previous Saturday night. It had been cold in Kansas City—bitterly cold—and I had managed to get a few bucks unloading a truck for a furniture warehouse. I had settled back in a dingy little room I had rented for a single night with a bottle of no-name bourbon and a cheap take-out burger. There had been no TV so I had just lain there on my musty bed watching the cars go by on the street below as I ate the cold burger and washed it down with the booze.
I shuddered at the thought of how miserable my life had been. Now I was warm, well-fed, had lots of friends and my mind was clear of alcohol, and all I had needed to give up to achieve all of this was my sex. Big deal. Pro was barking up the wrong tree if he thought he could sweeten the deal for me. Being a girl wasn’t all that bad. I could probably get used to it. After all, what could possibly be wrong with my new life?
Of course, I was to learn soon that it was a question I should have paid more attention to.
My reverie was broken when the doorbell rang. Jennifer bounced off the couch to answer it, and soon I heard her giggling and the sound of deeper voices. Moments later, Luke, Barry, Dan (who I knew was Tanya’s boyfriend), and Pete walked into the room. Barry already had an arm around Jennifer.
“Hey!” Trish called out. “We’re watching chick flicks in here. No guys allowed.”
Obviously, no one paid attention. Dan Garibaldi slid down on the couch next to Tanya, and the two shades kissed briefly. Jennifer and Barry filled in the rest of the couch. Trish, in spite of her teasing warning, had already scooted over in her overstuffed chair to give Luke room to join her.
It was then that I noticed Pete was still standing, but he was looking at me hopefully. Well, what else could I do? I was sitting in the same type of chair as Trish, and all the other seats in the room had been taken. I scooted over, too, and a very relieved Pete sat next to me.
He put his arm around me. What else could he do sitting so close to me? It was okay. After all, Pete was a friend. But it felt so strange to be in such close contact with him. In my old life, I couldn’t remember the last time I had held a girl the way Pete was holding me. I only knew that in spite of the strangeness of Pete’s larger, more angular body pressing against mine, the feeling was pleasant.
No. It was more than pleasant.
I began to feel something I had never felt before in my life. I felt as if I were melting. It was as if my body had heated up and began to flow against Pete’s. I felt warm and... safe, I guess. Yes... safe.
My concentration returned to the movie where Tom Hanks had finally established his friendship with Meg Ryan, but she had no idea that he was the one she had fallen in love with through emails. How could she not realize that it was Tom Hanks who she was in love with I wondered? Could girls really be that dense? I snuggled up a little closer to Pete and thought about how lucky I was to have a friend like him.
We started another movie—a comedy this time with some girl named Sandra Bullock as an FBI agent working undercover at a beauty pageant. The guys seemed to like that film better, although I suspect it had something to do with the hot girls who paraded around in sexy outfits.
Beyond that, we mostly talked and ate popcorn and just enjoyed each other’s company until it was time to go home.
“You going to church tomorrow?” Pete asked as we were all getting on our coats.
“Yeah. Mom said something about it.”
“Cool! I’ll see you there.”
I had no idea we attended the same church, I realized as the guys left.
“Pete really likes you,” Trish commented as she drove me home.
“Yeah, he’s a good friend.”
Trish just laughed. “I think you’ll find he may become more than ‘just a friend.’ It happens with regularity around here.”
“Yeah, I noticed you and Luke seem to be more than friends.”
“I suppose we are,” she admitted. “I think it’s part of the transformation. Think about it. If The Judge just changed our bodies, some of us would still be lusting after girls when we became female. But that doesn’t seem to happen.”
“Not at all?”
“Well... who knows what everybody in Ovid does when they turn out the lights,” Trish laughed. “But I don’t remember seeing any Gay Lib demonstrations around here. Luke and I just sort of happened. That’s the way it could be for you and Pete, too.”
I was still mulling that over when I walked in the house. Was I really starting to think of Pete as more than just a friend? I didn’t think so. But it had been pleasant sitting there next to him while we watched the movie, and I did feel a little more comfortable when he was with me.
It had been some time since I had been in high school as a boy, and even there, drinking had been more important to me than girls. But I remembered some of my friends who had steady girls. Most of them seemed more possessive and more intimate relationships than the one Pete and I had developed. I thought... no, I was sure that Pete and I were just friends. I wasn’t ready to be his possession and I certainly wasn’t ready to be intimate with him.
In spite of my determination, I did have to admit I liked having him around. Besides, I suspected if he wasn’t hanging around with me, I’d be under a certain amount of pressure to renew whatever relationship the shade Marsha had enjoyed with Nate Daniels. Nate seemed like a nice enough guy from what little I knew of him, but he wasn’t... well, he wasn’t like Pete, I guess.
And, I told myself again as I climbed into bed, Pete was really just a friend.
As many times as I told myself that Pete was just a friend, I had it brought home to me the next morning that no one else believed that.
It all started before church. Pete caught my eye and we talked for a few minutes—just innocent stuff as he complemented me on my dress and told me what he and the guys had done after they left Jennifer’s house. It was hardly a conversation designed to raise eyebrows. But it was enough to start the ball rolling.
“Who was that boy you were talking with?” dad asked when we had settled into the pew.
“Just a friend from school,” I replied, a little uncomfortable with his challenging tone. “Pete Conway.”
“Vince Conway’s boy?”
“You shouldn’t have anything to do with him,” dad said suddenly and decisively.
His tone shocked me. “Why is that?”
“His father is a racist; that’s why.”
“Stewart!” mom interjected. “You know that’s not true.”
“He wouldn’t hire Donna White—Eddie White’s girl.” I had heard dad mention Eddie White before. I knew he worked with dad at the college, and I knew that he was black like we were.
“Dad,” Jake broke in, “Donna White is a ditz. That’s probably why she didn’t get hired. It had nothing to do with her race.”
“That’s not what Eddie thinks,” dad insisted.
It was strange. Since I had been changed into a black girl, I had fully expected to be subjected to a certain amount of prejudice. I had even braced for it at first. I had just never expected it from the man who was now my father.
“Pete’s just a friend,” I told him pointedly, thinking to placate him. He was on the verge of making a scene in church. I was quietly hoping the service would begin quickly to calm him down.
My hopes were answered as the organist began the introit. Dad settled down as we all rose, but I could tell from the look on his face that I hadn’t heard the last of it.
Although I hadn’t known the man who was now my father very long, I didn’t have to look past mom to see that he was seething. Maybe Pete’s father really was a racist, I thought to myself. Just because Pete wasn’t didn’t mean his father felt the same way. Why else would dad be so upset? But no, I realized. Pete told me his parents knew we were friends. If his dad was a racist, Pete would have said something about it by now.
What right did ‘dad’ have getting all pissed about my friendship with Pete? We were nothing more than friends. Even if we had been the same race, I would have felt no different about him. After all, I had been a girl for just a few days. I realized that I was starting to become mildly attracted to men, but I wasn’t ready to be romantically interested in Pete or any other guy.
If I was upset about dad’s attitude, Yolanda’s attitude was even worse. She came up to me after church with two other black girls who I vaguely knew. “Hey, girl,” she started, but there was a challenge in her voice.
“Hi, Yolanda,” I managed, still upset at my father and not really expecting the attack which came next.
“So how come you’re hanging out with the white girls now?” she demanded. There were frowns on all three girls’ faces. “You go hanging around with them now. We aren’t good enough for you now that you have a white boyfriend?”
“You heard me, girl,” she pressed, stepping closer toward me. “You didn’t call all weekend, but you and that Jap girl double dated Friday night.”
“It wasn’t a double date,” I protested. “We just ran into Luke and Trish at the restaurant. And what’s with that ‘Jap’ stuff? How would you like it if she called you a nigger?”
Yolanda’s eyes got wide but not as wide as the other two girls. “Did you hear that? She called me a nigger!”
“I did not!”
“Come on, Yolanda,” one of the other girls huffed. “She don’t want to hang with the likes of us. We aren’t good enough for her.”
“Yeah,” Yolanda sneered. “But don’t you come crawling back to us when your white friends desert you.” With that, she turned and stormed off, the other two girls in tow. I was too shocked to say anything to them, but maybe I should have pointed out that Trish wasn’t white either.
“What was that all about?” Mom asked. She and dad had been chatting with friends not far away. Thank God it was she who noticed and not dad.
“I’ll tell you later,” I sniffed, realizing for the first time that I had begun to cry.
Dad drove and Jake rode shotgun on the way home. They had the good sense to be quiet while I whimpered softly in my new mother’s arms in the backseat. I felt like such a wuss, sniffling and crying like that. I tried to tell myself that I should just shrug off Yolanda’s behavior. As a man, I would never have broken down into tears over something like that. But there I was, either sobbing or getting ready to sob over nothing at all.
I hadn’t asked Yolanda to be my friend. Our friendship had been part of the package when I became Marsha Henry. Could I help it if I felt a kinship to Trish and Jennifer that was stronger than the artificial friendship with Yolanda? It wasn’t as if I was shutting Yolanda out; it was just that Yolanda thought of me as a typical Afro-American teenage girl with everything that such a life would entail. But that wasn’t me. At least not yet it wasn’t. Maybe it never would be.
Mom took me up to my room, sat down beside me on the bed with her arm around me and let me finish crying. It didn’t take long, for I was just about all cried out.
“Feel better?” she asked at last.
“Uh-huh.” Oddly enough, I did feel better. It was as if the act of crying had washed some of the hurt and confusion out of me. Maybe women had something over men with their ability to cry over trivial things.
“You want to tell me about it?”
I did. Somehow, I managed to blurt out all the details on my friendship with Pete, Jennifer and Trish. Mom listened silently as I explained how each of my friends had helped me adapt to my new life. I prudently left out any references to Pro or the fact that I knew mom had been my wife in a previous, forgotten life. I almost broke down into tears a time or two, but I finally finished with, “What am I supposed to do?”
She hugged me tightly. “It’s hard; I know. It was hard for me when I came here. I missed my husband...” I hope she didn’t notice as I winced. “...and my friends. I was now married to a man—a black man, no less—who expected me to have sex with him. I had two children and no idea how to relate to them. I had never been black, never been a mother, and didn’t really know anyone.”
I hadn’t considered any of that before. I had secretly thought my former wife was lucky—she had always been a woman, after all. But what must it have been like for her to pretend to love a man she had never seen before? Had her black friends become angry with her for not really seeing herself as a black woman? “So how did you manage?” I asked in a small voice.
“Well, I didn’t strike up a relationship with a white boy for one thing.”
She was just teasing me, but I rose to the bait. “Pete and I don’t have a relationship! We’re just friends. Can’t anyone see that? Can’t you see that?”
“How do you think serious relationships begin?” she asked back.
I didn’t have an answer for her. We might have once been husband and wife, but I didn’t remember that. I didn’t remember any serious relationship with any girl in my life.
“I’ll tell you,” she said, answering her own question. “Most couples are friends before they’re anything else. You and Pete might just be friends now, but some people seem to be worried you might become more than friends. Now just so you know where I stand, I know you’re just getting used to being a girl. Maybe when you’re completely acclimated, you’ll be more...”
“Normal?” I finished for her, tension in my voice. “You mean I’ll listen to hip-hop and chum around with Yolanda and her friends, talking about how awful white folks are? Maybe I’ll hop in bed with one of the big black guys on the basketball team and wonder what I ever saw in some white boy like Pete. Is that what you mean?”
“Of course not!”
“Just because you kept me sober when we were married...”
Oh shit. I had stepped in it now, I thought. The look on her face was so pained and shocked that I was afraid for a moment that she was having a heart attack.
“What did you say?”
I thought about lying. I thought about just running from the room. I thought about just finding a hole to crawl into and die. All of those things would have come naturally to me in my former life. But not in this one.
“I found out,” I began slowly, “that you were my wife... before.”
“But how could you know we were...? I mean I didn’t even know it until now. If you were Bob, you shouldn’t even remember me. Who told you?”
I shook my head. “I can’t tell you that.”
She looked at me as if I had suddenly changed into something alien. With a sinking feeling, I realized at once that my careless mouth had instantly changed our relationship—perhaps forever. She had long ago accepted Marsha Henry as her daughter, and when I had taken the place of the shade who had been Marsha, nothing had really changed in her mind. But that was because she didn’t know me—the old me that is. All that had changed with my emotional outburst. I wasn’t her daughter anymore; I was her former husband—a man who lacked the willpower to stay sober without her support.
“Can’t tell me or won’t?”
“Please, mom, don’t press,” I pleaded.
She stood up, and I felt an even wider gap come between us. “All right, I won’t. But please don’t call me ‘mom’ until you can tell me. If you can’t trust me with that...” Her voice trailed off and I could see tears glistening in her eye. Oh what had I done?
Before I could reconsider, she rushed from the room, closing the door behind her. I threw myself down on the bed, wanting this time to cry, but there were no tears left. I just groaned, feeling very sorry for myself. What had started out as a good day talking with Pete had turned into a disaster. How could it get any worse?
I found the answer to that not long after.
I was still lying on my bed when I heard a car pull up. There was a knock at the door and I heard a voice that sounded like Jennifer’s. That was confirmed a minute later when Jennifer called out from the other side of my door.
I fought back the urge to tell her to go away and got up and opened the door.
“Jeez,” she muttered. “You look like hell.”
In spite of myself I laughed nervously. “Oh, that really helps.”
“You’re still dressed for church.” Jennifer, on the other hand, was wearing jeans and a sweater. “Come on, let’s get you presentable.”
I was still too upset to ask why I needed to be presentable, so I didn’t argue as she picked an outfit for me similar to her own and repaired my damaged makeup. “I’m not very good at doing this on your skin color,” she admitted as she applied lipstick to my lips. Actually, she had managed to do pretty well. I found I had to go on automatic to do my makeup or I’d end up looking like something out of a horror movie.
“There!” she said at last. “Let’s go.”
“Go?” I asked. “Go where?”
She giggled, “Oh! I guess I forgot to tell you. I told your mom we had a study group at my house this afternoon.”
“But we don’t, do we?”
“No. Now just trust me.”
The Lincoln Navigator was missing from the garage, and I surmised Jennifer’s parents were out, so I was surprised when we entered the house and I heard a basketball game blaring from the family room. The TV clicked off suddenly and in a moment, Pete met us in the hall.
“Marsha!” he called happily, a grin on his face. “I’m glad you’re okay.”
“Okay? Why wouldn’t I be okay?” I asked as Jennifer made some lame excuse to go to her room leaving us alone.
“I heard about your confrontation with Yolanda and her friends,” Pete told me, escorting me into the family room where I sat next to him on the couch.
“It was nothing,” I lied. “Is that what you were worried about?”
Pete shook his head. “Not exactly. One of the girls with Yolanda—Belinda McAfee...”
I remembered the name and realized she had been the shorter of the two girls with Yolanda at church.
“...she’s Wilson Corey’s girlfriend. He’s on the basketball team.”
I was starting to see where this was going and shifted uncomfortably on the couch.
“So she apparently told Wilson you called Yolanda a nigger.”
“But I didn’t!” I practically screamed. “Has everyone gone crazy around here?”
“Anyhow,” Pete went on, “Wilson told Nate and challenged him to ‘get your girlfriend in line.’ Nate called me since he knew we were friends.”
I was too dumbstruck to respond.
“I tried to call you at home but your dad picked up the phone and wouldn’t let you talk to me.”
It just got worse and worse.
“Listen Marsha,” Pete explained. “I’m not going to say blacks don’t call each other by that name sometimes, but it’s all in the context. Carole Sue Wilcox stirred Yolanda and her friends up, starting the rumor that you thought you were better than the other Afro-Americans in school and that was why you were hanging around with the white kids.”
That explained a lot, I realized. Carole Sue knew better than to attack me herself. Instead, she took advantage of the hidden concerns many blacks obviously had and coaxed them to the surface causing the black community to attack me. She must have known she would have gotten nowhere taking her case to any of my new white friends. They remembered who they had been and had forged new lives from their transformations, but my black friends had no other memories. Girls like Trish and Jennifer were too strong to listen to Carole Sue’s nonsense, but Yolanda and her friends could be manipulated. Even my own father would have agreed with Carole Sue, and I had managed to alienate my only black supporter when I had withheld information from my mother.
In short, I was screwed.
“Look Pete,” I began slowly, “I don’t want to cause any trouble. We’re just friends but that seems to be too much for a lot of people. Maybe it would be better if we didn’t...” I almost said, “see each other,” but that sounded too much like a dating relationship. “...chum around together.”
To my surprise, Pete put his arm around me. “Look, Marsha, I told you when we first met that it wasn’t a good idea to tell people who you were before until you were sure it was a good idea.”
Yeah, I thought grimly. It’s a shame I didn’t remember that before I told ‘mom’ that I used to be her husband.
“I want to tell you who I was,” he continued.
“You don’t have to,” I protested, realizing now the pitfalls of such information.
“Yes I do,” he said softly. “Then you’ll understand. You see, I’ve always been male. At least I didn’t have to go through a sex change like so many do here in Ovid. But I wasn’t the middle class white boy you see now. I was black—blacker than you by far. I grew up in the projects back in Chicago, but I was big and smart and a damned good athlete. If things had worked out differently, I’d be aiming toward an NFL career by now.
“I got a football scholarship to the University of Oklahoma—playing linebacker. I was a senior, due to go high in the draft. I was just heading back up to Chicago for a few days to see my brother when I ended up in Ovid instead. It seems I was due to have a fatal car wreck later that day, so that made me fair game. The Judge only takes people who are about to die.”
I thought about escaping from that band of thugs in the Kansas City rail yard. If that ghostly train departing for Ovid hadn’t been just where it was, I would have been killed—just like several other derelicts had been. I shivered at the thought of such a lonely, senseless death.
“So the next thing I know, I’m a white boy,” he went on.
“That doesn’t sound so bad,” I told him, thinking of how much simpler my life would have been if The Judge had turned me into a guy like Pete.
He smiled, shaking his head. “No, for you it wouldn’t sound bad at all. But I was black and I was proud of being black. You think blacks want to be white? Bullshit! Most blacks are perfectly happy being black—and yes, I’ve figured out you weren’t black before. It’s not that hard to tell, you know. Blacks are just like everybody else. They have the same needs, the same aspirations, the same fears...”
“And the same prejudices,” I finished for him.
“Exactly. I can’t say I was ever too crazy about white folks. They seemed to look down on what they saw as a big dumb black jock. But I had—and still have—an IQ of 140. The more they looked down on me, the more I felt they were the dumb ones.”
“Okay,” I said. “So yeah, I used to be white and you used to be black. What does that have to do with our problem?”
Pete shifted uncomfortably, pulling his arm away from me and turning to look me in the eye. “Marsha, when I first became Pete, I noticed Marsha—the shade Marsha—right away. I thought she—you—were the most beautiful girl I had ever seen. You see, my taste in girls hadn’t changed. In my mind, I was still that big black guy and Marsha Henry was my kind of girl. But she was like I had been when I was black. She didn’t want anything to do with the white kids. Oh, we’d talk and even walk home from school together a few times, but she always kept her distance. Then you became Marsha.”
Oh no, I thought, realizing for the first time where all of this was going.
“When you became Marsha, you were different. You were still beautiful, but you were more approachable...”
“No, I’ve got to say it,” he insisted resolutely. “Marsha, I think I’m in love with you.”
Well, I wondered how the day could get any worse. Now I knew.
“I know you don’t love me,” he continued. “How could you? You just got here. For all I know, maybe you were a man. But even if you were a man before, this is who’ll you’ll be from now on, and maybe someday—somehow—you’ll start to feel the same way about me.”
Before I could say anything, he jumped to his feet. “There! That’s why I wanted to see you today. I wanted you to know that I cared for you, but I realize you’re not ready for anything like that. All I’m doing now is causing trouble for you. I’ll back away and let you adjust to your life without my interference. I’m sorry.”
Maybe I should have called out to him as he rushed out of the house, but I really didn’t know what to say. I considered Pete a friend—a very dear friend. But his admission that he was romantically interested in me was shocking. Underneath it all, I realized he had paid me a very great compliment, but on the surface, it was as if I had been betrayed. There was nothing in my experience that would have prepared me for such a thing.
Jennifer stepped into the room as soon as Pete closed the door behind him. “You heard?” I asked.
“I didn’t have to hear,” she replied. “I knew why he wanted to see you.”
“You knew he was... was...” I just couldn’t say “in love with me.” It was just too alien to roll off the tongue.
She sat next to me where Pete had been only moments before. “It wasn’t my place to say anything, Marsha.” When I said nothing, she continued, “Look, I know how complicated this can be. It took me a long, long time to get used to being a girl. Did I tell you that I was a man before? Well, I was—a college football player no less. I still know more moves than most of the guys on our high school football team, but now I have to cheer them on from the sidelines.”
I didn’t recall telling Jennifer I had been a man, but I guess it had been sort of obvious. “Yeah, but did anybody hit on you your first week?”
Jennifer laughed, thrusting out her chest and brushing back a lock of her blonde hair. “Are you kidding? Looking like this? Of course guys hit on me. Even now, every time they think Barry and I are going to split up, guys hit on me constantly.” She grinned. “Of course when Barry and I do have a spat, we have a lot of fun making up.”
It was nearly impossible for me to look at her and imagine that she had ever been a man—a jock, no less. “But didn’t you feel...”
I might as well just say it, I thought. “Didn’t you feel... well... gay, dating a boy and all?”
“Oh yeah,” she giggled. “You see, Barry and I used to be friends—male friends. We played football together in college. When I first realized he liked me—as a girl, I mean—I just about flipped out. So you see, you’ve got it easier than I did.”
“Assuming I decide I like guys,” I corrected her.
She shrugged. “Sorry, honey, but you won’t be able to avoid it. That’s part of the transformation. There’s no Gay Lib movement in Ovid. I think The Judge may have some sort of hang-up about that. Relationships are strictly hetero, and that means you’re going to be attracted to guys. If it doesn’t happen now, in a couple of months when you start having periods, you...”
“Well yes, sweetie. What did you think—that you were immune?”
It had just never crossed my mind, but Jennifer went on to explain how newly transformed women didn’t have to worry about that for a couple of months. It was apparently sort of a built-in protection to allow us to get used to our new bodies. By the time Jennifer dropped me off back at my house, I had come to realize that I was destined to become someone’s girlfriend eventually—if not Pete’s then some other guy’s.
I brooded about that and other things all evening. I couldn’t believe how my world had turned to shit so quickly. In one day, I had managed to be chastised by my classmates, alienate my mother, lose one of my best friends, and learn that I was going to have periods and be stuck with a boyfriend. Suddenly, Pro’s offer was looking better.
I began to wonder as I saw him standing there leaning on his broom Monday at school if he didn’t have something to do with my woes. His smile was simply too smug. Maybe he had been at church the day before, invisible even to me as he listened to Yolanda’s tirade.
“Want to discuss my offer?” he asked lightly.
Time had already slowed down around us once more. I was actually getting used to the strange effect. “What is it you want me to do?” I sighed in resignation.
I didn’t think his smile could get any wider, but it did. “Don’t act so worried. It’s not going to be that difficult. As I tried to tell you, some of your math class is going to be participating in Engineering Day this Wednesday.”
I still hadn’t looked that far ahead in my calendar. “What the hell is Engineering Day anyhow?”
“It’s just an afternoon excursion to Vulman Industries,” he explained. “You’ll have lunch there and get a presentation on careers in engineering. Then you’ll all be given a tour of the building—or at least the parts of the building you’re allowed to see for security reasons.”
“And why is it that I suspect what you want me to do isn’t in one of those areas we’ll be allowed to see?” I asked, my hands on my hips.
“Oh, you really are perceptive,” he laughed. “But don’t worry. You’ll be fine.” A set of plans appeared in his hands out of nowhere. He unfurled them and pointed to a location marked Lab 1-21B. “There’s where I need you to go,” he told me. “All you’ll need to do is drop off the tour here at this women’s restroom. Then, you’ll get past the checkpoint and take a look in the lab.”
“And just how do I get past the checkpoint?” I asked sarcastically. “And won’t somebody see my James Bond spy camera?”
The sarcasm didn’t faze Pro. “The checkpoint is a simple retinal and palm scan. Since you mother is cleared for the lab, I’ll set you up with a little spell so that all you need to do is give her a hug that morning and you’ll have her palm print and retinal pattern for the next twelve hours or so. As for the camera, don’t worry; there aren’t any in that area. And as I’ve assured you before, if anyone who works at Vulman sees you, they won’t think anything is amiss. You’re harmless—just like me. Just observe. I can take the images I need from your mind later.”
“And what do I get out of all of this?” I pressed.
“I presume you want to be male again?”
I nodded, albeit a little slowly. Male—female—it didn’t really matter as long as I got the hell out of Ovid.
“Sure, why not?”
“Then that will be your reward,” he said with a grin.
“Yeah,” I scoffed. “You’ll do that for me. But come to think of it, I was male and white before and I made a mess of it. So far, all you’ve promised me could be my old life back again. And to get that, I get to risk pissing off The Judge and maybe getting turned into a French poodle or something. Have I got that right?”
“Well,” he explained innocently, “I’ll admit that you haven’t had much success as a white male, but then again, you’ve sort of made a hash of your life as a black female, too. And in only four days, too! That must be some sort of a record.”
I saw I wasn’t the only one who could be sarcastic.
“Don’t worry, Marsha. We’ll give you a fresh start. You’ll be sober, healthy, and bright enough to make your may in the world—especially with the stake we give you to start out. As for annoying The Judge, I suppose that’s just the risk you’ll have to take to get things back to where you can handle them. Now, do we have a deal?”
There it was. I had an out. I could be white and male again, only this time, I’d have a fresh start. No more wearing skirts and cosmetics. No concern about having periods—or not having them and getting pregnant someday, no more jealous girls, no more prejudice, no more dealing with former spouses. In short, no more Ovid.
“All right,” I said softly.
Time resumed its natural flow, and I heard the whispered voice of Pro promising, “See you Wednesday.”
So I spent the next two days wondering if I’d made the right decision. When I had finally agreed to help Pro, I had been angry. I was angry at Yolanda and the other black girls for treating me as a pariah for daring to be friends with whites. I was angry at my father for his unreasonable prejudices. I was angry with mom for just being who she was. I was angry at Carole Sue and Nate—two people I barely knew—for fomenting trouble while their real agendas remained hidden. I knew Carole Sue wanted Pete and I was pretty sure Nate was looking for an opening which would make me his girl again.
But most of all, I was angry at Pete. Oh, I know I shouldn’t have been, but I felt as if he had misrepresented himself. He had wanted to be more than a friend from the start. What had he expected me to do? There I was, just changed into a girl. Was I supposed to fall madly in love with him or something?
The funny thing was that if he had taken more time, he might have achieved his goal. Like it or not, I was a girl and I had begun to think like a girl in my unguarded moments. Pete was a nice looking boy—maybe even handsome. He was personable, witty, respectful, and intelligent as well. So what if he was white? That wouldn’t have mattered to me. After all, until recently, I had been white as well.
And to top it off, I was mad at the whole town as well. At first, I had seen Ovid as some sort of paradise—an ideal community where I could wash off the dust and pain of years on the road and settle down into a pleasant life. Yeah, it would have been the life of a black girl, but wasn’t that one hell of a lot better than the life of a penniless sot who happened to be white and male?
The last day had taught me that there was a snake in my Eden after all. Ovid was a town with all the petty jealousies and prejudices as the world outside. A person could be disliked for his race, religion, sex, or any other pigheaded reason one could imagine. It seemed as if the transformees who remembered weren’t so bad. Pete had actually been black once, and both Jennifer and Trish had been men. Trish had also had her race changed as well. They seemed more understanding, but most residents of Ovid were either shades or people who didn’t remember any other life. They were just like small-minded people everywhere.
But once the anger began to ebb, I began to wonder if I hadn’t been entirely too hasty. After all, what had I bargained for? If I succeeded, I was to be male once more—and white. But I hadn’t done a very good job when I had enjoyed those two attributes before. What made me think I’d do any better with them returned to me?
Besides, being a girl hadn’t been all that bad. I had made some good friends—like Jennifer and Trish. I had actually been avoiding them after I talked with Pro. I guess I figured in a short time, I would never see them again, so why bother? Then there was Pete. As much as I wanted to hate him, I couldn’t. He was making good his promise to avoid me, and I found whenever I glanced at him in a class or in the hall that I really wanted to hear his voice and touch his hand again.
Even mom wasn’t a worthy target of my anger. Dad had continued to stew over my ‘relationship’ with Pete, sure that I was about to run away and marry him or something. Mom—and Jake for that matter—tried to tell dad that it was now the twenty-first century and blacks and whites could be friends without fear of the KKK burning a cross in the front yard, but he would have none of it. I was amazed that a man as sweet as dad could be so sour when it came to the issue of race.
Did I say sweet?
Well, there it was again. Words like ‘sweet’ had crept into my mind. I was starting to notice clothing colors and how they fit together. My gestures, from the way I moved my hands or flipped my hair back to the way I crossed my legs or stood, were becoming obviously feminine. If I didn’t shed them when I turned back into a man, everyone would think I was a gay interior decorator. And as disturbing as that thought was, I was already becoming comfortable with my new thoughts and moves. I wasn’t sure I’d ever be able to give them up.
The other thought that began to run through my head was that I was running away again. I say ‘again’ because that is what I had come to realize drinking was all about. I had run from my problems by running straight into a bottle. As Marsha Henry, I no longer had the ability to lose myself in an ocean of alcohol, so I had found a new way to run away from my problems—I would become someone else.
So there was my dilemma. Part of me felt that the new life that had been forced upon me had already fallen apart. My best friend had run away, my new mother had lost faith in me, my father and black friends and probably my former boyfriend considered me unfit because I had non-black friends. Oh yes, and how could I forget? Carole Sue Wilcox and most of her crowd hated my guts.
But another part of me actually enjoyed being Marsha Henry. I was smart, attractive, and sober with a potentially bright future ahead of me. So what if I had to be a black girl to have all that?
Maybe I could have the best of both worlds. Pro had promised me a fresh start as a man. If he was playing straight with me, maybe I could have a lot of those things I enjoyed as Marsha Henry but as a white male away from the problems of Ovid. It was a hope I clung to.
At least I had schoolwork to take my mind off my personal problems. As Marsha, I had a sharp mind. I guess I had really had a sharp mind as Bob Wallace once upon a time—until I had immersed it in alcohol that is. Facts and ideas long buried in my teenage male mind re-emerged unbidden, allowing me to maintain Marsha’s reputation as a top-notch student. Math and the sciences were particularly easy for me, and I found I was pushing Marsha’s already high grade point in those areas to even greater heights. I just hoped that whatever The Judge did to replace me when I was gone didn’t cause those achievements to fall.
But by Tuesday evening, I was no longer able to hide my anxiety. Mom noticed during dinner when I was even quieter than usual. Since dad was still angry with me, suspecting there was more to my relationship with Pete than I had let on, and Jake barely spoke to me in front of dad, fearing dad might come down on him for supporting me, my only words at the table were monosyllabic answers to mom’s prompting.
“What’s wrong?” she asked me as I studied in my room for classes I would never attend again.
“Nothing,” I lied.
She sat down on the bed where I had been half-heartedly studying. “Marsha, look, I’m sorry I got upset with you. It’s just that you caught me by surprise. When I thought about it, I realized you didn’t owe me an explanation. I suppose you really don’t even remember being married to me, do you?”
She put her hand on mine. “Marsha, I love you very much—and not because you used to be my husband. I love you for who you are and for who you’ve become. I know this is hard for you, but you’ll adjust. I think everyone does. And when you do, you’ll find out how wonderful it can be to be a beautiful and intelligent young lady.”
I looked away so she couldn’t see the tears forming in my eyes. Damn her! Why did she have to say all of that? Why couldn’t she let me hate her?
Before I knew it, I was in her arms, sobbing softly.
“It will be all right,” she said, stroking my long hair. “You’ll see.”
But I wouldn’t see, would I? I thought later as I lay alone in the darkness on what was to be my last night as Marsha Henry.
I awoke Wednesday morning and started to get ready for school as if nothing was out of the ordinary. Mom came in as I was getting up and gave me a hug. I think I had actually convinced myself that nothing really would be out of the ordinary—that Pro was nothing more than a bad dream. But while I was in the shower, I had reason to believe that I was just deluding myself. I felt a tingle on my fingertips and palms and an itching sensation in my eyes.
‘You now have fingerprints and retinal patterns which will get you into the lab this afternoon,’ a voice whispered in my mind so softly it could have almost been one of my own thoughts.
“But what...” I began.
‘You don’t need to speak out loud,’ the voice told me. ‘Just think back to me.’
‘But what am I supposed to do once I’m in the lab?’ I asked silently.
‘Just observe. I will see whatever you see. Now here’s the exact location of the lab...’
It was almost as if a bright light had been turned on inside my head. Images flashed behind my eyes until I knew exactly where I needed to go. I think I could have found the lab in the dark.
The sensation that someone else was inside my mind evaporated, and I realized suddenly that I had never asked Pro what I needed to do to be changed back into a man. Maybe it would just happen at the completion of my mission. I hoped not, though. I wanted to be able to savor my last moments as Marsha.
Classes that morning seemed interminably long. Thankfully, I had no tests or quizzes and the teachers never bothered to call on me. If they had called on me, I would have probably had no idea what they had asked me since my mind was completely on the mission now facing me. I nearly passed out in relief when just before lunch hour the PA system summoned all of us scheduled for the Vulman tour to report to the bus.
Since I hadn’t been involved with the initial decision to go on the field trip to Vulman Industries, I hadn’t realized that the tour was made up of prospective math and science majors. When I was originally in high school, membership in the Math Club or the Science Club was a passport to permanent nerd-dom. No so in Ovid, it appeared. A number of popular students piled on the bus, including Pete. I hung back, allowing him to board well before me. I just hoped I wouldn’t be asked to sit with him on the bus.
No, that wasn’t really right. In fact, I would have loved to sit with him on the bus. I would have loved to have someone to talk with since my self-imposed isolation from my classmates was starting to wear on me. Well it wouldn’t make any difference in a few hours, I told myself. I’d be a man again by then.
Why was it that thought didn’t bring me more comfort?
When I got on the bus, I looked around for a place to sit. I spotted Pete and my heart sank at once. Carole Sue was sitting next to him. That bitch! What was she doing on the bus? She couldn’t add two and two and get the same answer twice in a row. As for science, Carole Sue impressed me as the sort of girl whose only interest in chemistry would be whether or not her makeup had something in it which might make her face break out.
Yes, I know it was catty of me and a stereotypically female thought, but there it was and I couldn’t take it back. In fact, Carole Sue was a good student—not as good as I was, but good.
I slipped silently into an empty seat near the front of the bus, several rows from Pete and Carole Sue and right behind Mr. Potter, the faculty advisor for the Math Club. I tried my best to ignore Carole Sue’s smug look. She knew I was pissed, though. Just a few more hours, I reminded myself, and none of this would matter.
Vulman Industries had a fairly impressive headquarters. The office building was two stories high, trimmed in light-colored brick and attractive landscaping. Behind the office building, I could see what I understood to be the manufacturing plant where parts for new Fords were stamped out. To the east, connected by a new corridor, was the area I would have to enter—the labs. The information Pro had provided for me was pretty complete, and I knew that I’d need to make my way to the secret lab at the start of the tour not long after we left the briefing room.
An attractive young woman in a smart blue business suit met us in the lobby and introduced herself as Holly Cache. She was dark, although not Afro-American. Rather, I suspected she was American Indian. “We’ll swing by the cafeteria where a sack lunch has been prepared for you,” she told us. “Then we’ll go to the briefing room for lunch and a talk from our president, Eric Vulman. We’ll start the tour about 1400.”
She giggled when she saw the confusion on a number of faces. “Sorry, that’s two o’clock.”
Holly Cache was real, and her use of a twenty-four hour clock made me wonder if she had once been military. Of course even if she had been military, it was possible she had always been female, but I wondered if the beautiful young Indian girl had once been a man like me.
The briefing room actually looked suspiciously like a classroom with white boards and the front and an AV stand near the back. But unlike our classrooms, long curved tables covered stair-step tiers and the chairs accompanying them were padded in a soft blue fabric and turned like executive office chairs.
It was actually going to be easy to split away from the group, I told myself as I munched on a rather tasty sandwich. No one had bothered to sit next to me. Jennifer wasn’t on the tour or she might have sat with me. Trish was there, but Luke was occupying her when I entered the room and I didn’t want to sit next to them and disturb them. With Trish and Luke only having eyes for each other and the rest of the group avoiding me as if I had the plague, I’d be able to break away unnoticed.
I didn’t have much time to think about that, though, because Holly came back into the room followed by a man of fifty or so. I knew from Pro’s information that Eric Vulman was the god Vulcan, but after seeing other gods who all appeared to be in both perfect health and perfect shape, the president of Vulman Industries was something of a surprise. Beefy and somewhat good-looking in a rugged, blue-collar sort of way, Eric Vulman looked as if he would be more at home on a construction project than in a board room. Also, he walked with a slight but noticeable limp.
Once Holly had introduced him, he gave us all a fatherly smile. “It’s a pleasure to have some of Ovid’s brightest students here today,” he began in a casual, unrehearsed manner. “Hopefully, you’ll like what you see today and it will encourage you to follow careers in science and engineering...”
He went on to explain the history of Vulman Industries—which I suspected was bogus—and then went on to describe the products Vulman Industries provided to the world. I noted that he spent a great deal of time talking about more mundane products, such as parts for cars and trucks, and very little time discussing military products. Maybe Pro was right after all. Maybe there was more to Vulman Industries than most people suspected. Well, I’d soon find out.
He was actually an interesting speaker, keeping the students interested and even asking some of them questions, calling them by name. I suppose that it shouldn’t have been a surprise then when he called on me but it was.
There were giggles from around the room.
“Have you ever considered a career in engineering?” The look on Eric Vulman’s face told me that he knew more than he was saying. I supposed all of the gods talked amongst themselves, and he probably knew who I was and that I had actually been an engineer in a life I could not recollect.
“Maybe,” I allowed carefully. I didn’t know what powers the god had. The Judge, I suspected, could read my thoughts right down to their very core. As for gods like Eric Vulman, I wasn’t so sure. I didn’t want him to probe me and find out that by nightfall, I probably wouldn’t even be Marsha Henry.
“I hear you have excellent math skills,” he told me. “I would encourage you to pursue a career in engineering to make maximum use of those skills.”
“Th... thank you,” I managed as he moved on to question another student.
Maybe I could be an engineer, I thought to myself. Once I had been changed back into a man, I could go back to school and make something of myself.
Or could I?
After all, who would I be? Pro had only promised to return me to being a white male with a ‘stake’ as he put it. Would the stake be enough to send me back to school? Would I have the credentials I needed to even get into college? As Marsha Henry, I suspected my parents would be more than happy to send me to college. Plus I would be younger than I was sure to be as a man. I’d have my whole life ahead of me, even if it was as a black woman. Was I trading a comfortable future for a lot of unknowns?
I had agreed to help Pro in a fit of pique. I had felt friendless, unsupported, and unloved. Well, I mean unloved by my mother—not Pete. After all, Pete and I were just friends. And I missed my friend very, very much.
But the time for misgivings had passed. Holly Cache had asked us all to follow her for the tour. My moment had come, and I had not found any solid reason for not doing what Pro had asked of me.
I hung back from the group as we passed the restrooms. It was almost too easy, I thought, as I ducked into the women’s restroom and listened at the door until the class had turned a corner out of sight. I hurried to the door of the lab I was supposed to check out, but I tried not to look as if I was hurrying. I probably did a bad job of that but I saw no one in the halls.
Pro had told me his intelligence indicated that there were no surveillance cameras along my path, but I found myself looking up for them nonetheless. To my relief, he was right. After what seemed to be hours but were in reality only a few seconds, I reached the lab.
I had indulged in a silly fantasy that there might be a glass window in the lab, allowing me to observe without actually going in. No such luck, I’m afraid. But Pro had assured me that I would now be able to make the security system believe I had the proper retinal pattern and palm print to allow me to enter.
I left the door slightly ajar so I could make a quick getaway if I needed to. If the lab was occupied, I might have been able to get away before anyone noticed me. To my relief, I was alone in the lab. The only noises in the room were the sounds of my breathing and a gentle hum coming from a test stand.
As I looked at the test stand, I felt as if I should have one of those little spy cameras and be clicking away at the mysterious if a little mundane item it supported. I recognized it as some sort of motor, humming almost silently to itself, its smooth silver skin bathed in the sunlight falling from the large skylights above. Although my memories of being an engineer were long gone, something in me recognized it as being some type of solar generator, converting sunlight to power. But the speed of the rotor inside the silver casing seemed to be much too fast for any known solar generator, as if the device was drawing power from another source as well.
Curious, I looked more closely at the rotor. It was attached to a shaft which ran through a round hole that penetrated the block, as I had come to think of the silver device as a streamlined engine block. The odd thing was that as I looked at the shaft, I could see that it wasn’t physically attached to the engine. It seemed to hover precisely in the center of the hole, virtually frictionless.
I had become so enthralled with the engine, wondering how I could have ever thought it mundane, when the door flew open. My heart was in my throat. I had been discovered! If whoever just opened the door reported me to The Judge, today might be my first day as a sewer rat. I turned in terror of who I might discover...
I was instantly both angry at him for startling me and relieved that it wasn’t anyone else.
“Marsha, you have to get out of here!” he snapped.
“Listen, Carole Sue saw you hanging back and followed you. She just told Mr. Potter and that Holly person that you were up to something.”
“Shit!” Nobody was supposed to notice me... Shit again! Pro must have been too specific in his spell. He had promised me no one working at Vulman would think what I was doing was unusual. But Carole Sue didn’t work at Vulman. Besides, with her inherent dislike for me, I’m not even sure one of Pro’s spells would have been enough to deter her.
Pete took my hand. “Come on; let’s get out of here.”
“Too late,” I said resignedly as the sounds of agitated voices could be heard just beyond the lab, getting closer. I had been caught.
Before I could think of anything, Pete tugged me close to him and planted his lips on mine while placing his free hand under my sweater. I tried to gasp and break away, but he held me too tight, the hand which had been holding mine now crushing me against him, smashing my breasts.
“Mr. Conway!” I heard Mr. Potter screech in his reedy voice. “Ms. Henry! Just what do the two of you think you’re doing?”
Pete broke away from me as if he had been hit with a cattle prod. He jumped in front of me as if to shield me from harm. “Oh! Mr. Potter! We... uh... the door was open, and we... uh...”
“I can see what you were doing,” Mr. Potter interrupted. “There’s a time and a place for such activities, and this is not among them. Do I make myself clear, Mr. Conway?”
“Oh yes sir, Mr. Potter,” Pete replied. I was glad he was shielding me. His performance was so convincing he deserved an Oscar for it. He had completely bamboozled Mr. Potter into believing he and I had just slipped away to make out. Other than spying, it was the only logical explanation for us being there.
While Mr. Potter huffed, I could see that Holly was not quite as convinced. “Mr. Vulman will have to be informed,” she explained, paging him on her cell phone as she shooed us out of the lab. She was obviously concerned about what we had seen in there. At least Mr. Potter hadn’t seen anything. He was too busy being scandalized that two of the school’s best math students had been making out on a field trip. I didn’t know until then that it was possible for a shade to flush.
Mr. Potter and Holly ushered us into a part of the building we hadn’t seen before. It contained well-appointed offices and was obviously Vulman’s version of Executive Row. We were motioned into the largest office of them all. “Here they are, Mr. Vulman,” Holly said once we were standing before the man I was certain was the blacksmith of the gods.
“Thank you, Holly,” he replied pleasantly. He looked over at Mr. Potter once the door was closed. “Sleep,” he said.
I heard a plop behind me and looked around to see that Mr. Potter had fallen like a limp dishrag into one of the comfortable leather chairs along the wall.
“Now we can speak candidly,” Eric Vulman explained to us, motioning for us to be seated across from his desk as Holly joined him at his side.
“The two of you just caused quite a fuss,” he commented calmly.
“We’re sorry,” Pete said, speaking for both of us. “It’s just that the door was already open and...”
“Open, you say?” The expression on his face was one of scepticism.
“Yes, sir,” Pete continued more innocently than I could have managed. “And you see, Marsha and I have been sort of... stifled lately. Some of the other kids...”
“...don’t like interracial relationships?” he finished for us.
“Well...” Pete drawled.
The god nodded. “Yes, I know. When we formed the shades, we erred in giving them completely human personalities. That means they can be prejudiced just like anyone else. It’s the same with the transformed ones who don’t recall their previous lives. The rest of you come to understand that such differences as race or sex are not so important.”
He noticed the shocked expression on our faces and chuckled, “Oh yes, I am a god—the god Vulcan—but I suspect you already knew that. Ovid’s a small town and there aren’t that many secrets. But there are secrets, my young friends—very important secrets.”
He was no longer chuckling. A serious expression covered his face and Holly’s as well.
“Do you have any idea what was in that lab?” he asked.
Pete I found out later was about to say he saw nothing. I suppose he would have been telling the truth since he never took his eyes off me. It was a question I thought I should answer instead. “It’s some kind of motor,” I admitted.
The god nodded. “Yes, go on. Do you know what type of motor it is?”
“I don’t know much about cars,” I told him.
“Oh come now,” he scoffed. “You were, I happened to know, once a man. Men and boys alike are enamored with cars.”
“Yes, that’s true,” I agreed. “But it’s been a long time since I’ve driven a car—even longer since I owned one. I haven’t kept on modern developments.”
“You knew enough to think it was a car engine.”
“Is it?” I asked innocently.
“What it is doesn’t concern you,” he grumbled, sinking back into his chair. Pete and I had sense enough to realize he was about to decide if we were lying or not. Actually we weren’t. Pete, as I have already said, wasn’t really paying attention to the engine, and although I had been sent to discover it, I really had no idea what made it so special, but I could speculate—not that I was about to in front of a powerful god.
I only hoped Vulcan couldn’t read minds. In case he could, I tried to think of anything except the real reason I had been in the lab. I tried to think as if Pete and I really had gone in there to make out. I tried to imagine what it would have been like to anticipate Pete’s attention—to feel the thrill of kissing him and being held by him as his hand moved up under my sweater. To feel...
Why was I suddenly feeling so warm? Why did my nipples feel so sensitive and why was there a liquid sensation between my legs? I looked over at Pete and suddenly the sensations became even stronger. I began to think of Pete in a way I never dreamed possible. I guess I began really to see him through the eyes of a young woman for the first time. I wouldn’t go so far as to call it love, but it was definitely a form of attraction I had never felt before.
“Should I call The Judge’s office?” Holly asked suddenly, breaking the silence.
I don’t know if my efforts to avoid thinking about my mission succeeded or if Eric Vulman simply lacked the ability to read my thoughts. Whatever the reason, he tapped his fingers on the top of his polished walnut desk for a few more seconds and then replied, “No, Holly, I don’t think there’s any reason to involve my father in this. No harm was done this time. Put out a memo to all employees, though, to make certain doors to secured areas are firmly closed when they leave them.”
I found myself holding Pete’s hand as we left the office. At first, we held hands just to make it look good as we left Mr. Vulman’s office. But even after we were completely out of his sight, we continued to hold hands. In think we were both still so nervous that we would fallen to the ground had we not felt the touch of the other’s hand. I even found I wanted Pete to hold onto me. I leaned into him and he released my hand, putting his arm around me.
I had been a fool, I realized. I had risked everything—a new life, friends, and someone who might turn out to be more than a friend—and for what? For the dubious opportunity to be a man again? As if I had done a very good job in my former sex the first time!
It was as if I had always been running from myself—drowning myself in a bottle or trying to run from a second opportunity. How could I have been so stupid? I was young and attractive. So what if I was a girl? So what if I was black? And so what if my best friend—and maybe just a little more—was male and white? That’s just the way it was going to be. Deal with it, people.
So it was a new and defiantly confident Marsha Henry who rejoined her classmates for the end of the tour, but I was in for something of a surprise when I did. Looking around the room, there were friendly grins and whispered kudos as Pete and I melded with the crowd. Our classmates were actually proud of us! I guess it had been too long since I had had to think like a teenager. I had forgotten how such crazy stunts as finding a forbidden place to make out were actually marks of cool—no matter what else any of them might have thought of our relationship.
And I guess I hadn’t realized that in the eyes of our classmates, Pete and I were officially an item. Oh sure, there were people like Yolanda and her friends who didn’t think the relationship was right, but they were obviously in the minority on this point. Mr. Potter continued to give us disapproving glances as well. But the person who was most upset was Carole Sue Wilcox. The rest of the students knew she had been the one who snitched on me, and it was obvious to them now that her plan had backfired.
Pete sat next to me on the way back to the school, of course while Carole Sue had to sit next to Mr. Potter. It seemed as if none of the others wanted to sit with her. Pete held onto my hand so tightly that he must have thought I was in danger of floating away. It felt good, though. I found I actually liked having him hold my hand like that. It made me feel safe.
Our classmates were still congratulating us when we all got off the bus. I began to realize that most of the students had no problems with seeing Pete and me as a couple—even many of the black students. It was only a few who really had hidden agendas who were resentful. Maybe that was part of the black experience, though. Maybe most people were okay with the idea of blacks and whites mixing as equals and even in close relationships. Maybe it was just a few prejudiced people who by their vehemence made it seem that their attitude was the majority view.
And that warped sense of racial purity or whatever one wanted to call it wasn’t limited to whites either. All I had to do was think of Yolanda and her friends or even my own father to realize that blacks could be prejudiced as well.
“Can I walk you home?” Pete asked, almost shyly.
“Sure,” I smiled. “I need to go by my locker first. Just wait here.”
Pete offered to go in with me, but I wanted to go alone. I knew Pro would be waiting for me and I wasn’t disappointed. He was sweeping up in the hall, the smell of cleaning compound wafting through the air although the few straggling students didn’t seem to notice.
“You succeeded?” he asked, leaning on his broom as I opened my locker.
“Turn toward me.”
“What are you going to do?” I asked warily.
“Just see what you saw,” he replied simply. I relaxed at that. I didn’t want him doing anything to me until I had a chance to explain something to him.
As I did so and felt a tingling in my mind as he pulled what he needed from my head. It didn’t hurt or anything, but it was as if I was being... violated. I didn’t like the sensation one little bit and vowed never to let it happen again. Fortunately, it was over in a few seconds.
“Of course!” he chuckled. “How simple it is.”
“Simple?” I managed to ask.
“Certainly. The ills of your world revolve around too few resources for too many people. Jupiter is using humans to develop a new energy source. Don’t you see? Oil will be unnecessary. The engine will run on air and light, completely free of pollution. The Middle East will be forced to integrate into the rest of the world, unable to blackmail the rest of the world with its oil. You see, we lack the technological mindset required to develop such an instrument. Jupiter’s plan is sound. Now I can recommend that the opposition to Ovid be ended.”
Pro was genuinely happy, so I didn’t want to burst his bubble. I knew a thing or two about human nature, and I knew that mankind had developed a number of devices through the centuries which naïve individuals thought would either usher in a golden age for mankind, end war, or both. It was never that simple.
“Ovid is like Los Alamos,” he continued, almost talking to himself. “In World War II, your government established an entire town just to develop the atomic bomb—the very device we gods fear. Now Jupiter has used the same technique to save the world from conflict. Such symmetry!”
Such idealism, I thought in return, but I said nothing.
Pro now concentrated on me with a happy smile. “Now, it’s time for me to honor my part of the bargain.”
I should have felt relief, shouldn’t I? After all, this was the payoff for the deal I had made with Pro. I would get to be male again—and white. But relief wasn’t what I felt; I felt alarm, as if a loaded gun had been aimed at my head and was about to fire.
Pro’s hand, which had risen to start some sort of arcane gesture, sank to his side while a look of puzzlement crossed his face. “What’s wrong?”
“I... I don’t want this. I don’t want to be a man.”
“If you’re worried about becoming addicted to alcohol again, I can change you so you have a complete aversion to it just as you do now,” Pro offered.
I shook my head. “No, it’s not that. Well, it is that, but it isn’t just that. I just... I don’t...” I couldn’t find the words to explain it to him. I realized now that I had agreed to his offer because I had been angry and frustrated. I realized also that I might even be happier if I could be a male and white once more. But in the balance, I had been ready to run from my new life headlong into another life because it seemed easier than facing my problems. Wasn’t that what I had done in my previous life as well when I turned to the bottle to transform my life?
“I want to try this life out,” I finally said. “I want to try to make it work.”
Pro surprised me by smiling. There was sudden understanding in his expression. “I think that’s a wise decision.”
I smiled back at him.
Changing the subject, he told me lightly, “But that leaves me in the position of owing you for the information.”
“You don’t owe me anything...”
“Yes I do,” he insisted. “My associates and I always pay our debts.” He opened his hand and produced a delicate gold necklace with a small teardrop stone hanging from it. The stone was the color of amber, but it seemed to glow as if a tiny fire had somehow been trapped within in.
“Wear this as a reminder of my debt,” he told me as he handed me the necklace. The stone was actually a little warm to the touch. “If you ever change your mind—or if you need something else from me—just rub the stone and call out my name.”
A very girlish thought crossed my mind as I looked down at the necklace. I wondered just for a moment what outfits I had which might go with it. Then I looked up to thank Pro, but he was gone. I was alone in the hallway. I smiled and carefully put the necklace in a pouch in my backpack. A look at my watch told me Pro had slowed time again and only a couple of minutes had gone by. Still, Pete was waiting and I hurried so I could get back to him.
“You look happy,” he commented as we walked home together.
I thought about it for a moment. “I suppose I am,” I admitted. After all, my mission was over, I was back in my new mother’s good graces, a god owed me a favor, Carole Sue had gotten hers, and of course Pete and I were friends-who-were-maybe-more-than-friends again. And just to add a cherry on top of this sundae of life, I had come to realize that I could shape my own future without running away. I was a girl—a black girl—and I was going to stay that way for the rest of my life. It was up to me and me alone to make certain that life was a pleasant one.
“You want to tell me what you were doing in that lab now?” he asked.
I shrugged. “It’s really a long story. How much time do you have?”
He looked at his watch. “I need to get home right now. Mom has some stuff she wants me to do. I suppose after dinner.”
“Look, mom told me she’s making lasagne tonight. I think she’s making enough to feed the Italian Army. You want to chow down with us?”
Pete looked a little uncomfortable. “I don’t know, Marsha. It’s pretty obvious your dad doesn’t like me.”
No, my new father was working hard to win the black Archie Bunker award. But I wasn’t about to let him get away with it. “Look, show up at six, okay? I’ll make sure dad is under control.”
Pete gave me a funny look. “What’s with you, Marsha? You seem more confident than before.”
“I am,” I told him simply with a smile and a quick peck on the cheek as we came up in front of my house. “See you at six?”
Pete grinned. “Sure. At six.” He gave me a little wave and headed off to his own house. Was it my imagination or were his feet several inches off the ground? I don’t think I realized until that moment just how much a girl can control a boy. I made a mental note never to forget it.
Dad’s car was in the garage next to mom’s, and I could smell the heavenly aroma of home-baked lasagne as I approached the house. “Set another plate!” I called cheerfully as I greeted mom and Jake. Mom was getting out dishes while Jake was cutting up veggies for a salad.
Mom looked at me happily. “You invited a friend?”
“Yeah, Pete Conway,” I replied nonchalantly.
“Oh boy!” Jake said rolling his eyes.
“Marsha...” mom began worriedly.
“Don’t worry, mom,” I assured her as I heard the sounds of the evening news blaring from the TV as dad enjoyed his evening ritual of a beer and Tom Brokaw. “I’ll tell dad.”
“Are you sure you know what you’re doing?” she asked me.
I smiled. “I’m sure.”
I strolled up to dad, bending to give him a hug and a quick kiss on his stubbled cheek. “Hi, daddy!”
“Hi, sweetie,” he returned with a smile.
I sat down on the arm of his chair. “Daddy,” I began slowly but confidently, “guess who’s coming to dinner...?”
“So what did her father say to that?” Susan was demanding as my trance faded and Marsha’s thoughts trickled from my conscious mind.
“Oh. I imagine everything went all right,” Diana said simply. She changed the subject by looking at my coffee cup. “Your coffee’s gotten cold. Let me heat it up for you.”
The smell of fresh—not reheated—coffee sprang from my cup.
“There’s something missing here,” Susan insisted. “All of these events happened nearly a month ago. Did Marsha’s dad accept Pete? Are they still going together?”
“That isn’t why Diana wanted to see Marsha’s story,” I told Susan, surprised that she hadn’t figured it out for herself. Maybe it was because although she spent a fair amount of time in The Judge’s courtroom, she didn’t have the almost constant contact with the gods that I did. I was starting to understand their convoluted thinking more than I would have liked to admit.
Diana just smiled at my comment, but I could see in her eyes the expression of a proud instructor, delighted that her pupil had mastered a difficult concept.
“What do you mean?” Susan asked, perplexed.
“What Diana wanted to see was if Marsha had figured out what had really transpired and why. The answer is that she didn’t. I suppose she never read the book.”
“What book are you talking about?” Susan demanded, frowning.
“Did you ever read Ayn Rand’s book—Atlas Shrugged?” I asked her.
“A long time ago,” she replied. “I was an undergrad at the time. It was one of those books everybody seemed to read. I thought it was sort of preachy and dated.”
I was a little disappointed in her assessment. It had always been one of my favorite books. “There’s a scene in the book where the heroine and her friend explore a deserted factory—in Wisconsin, I think. Sitting all by itself in one of the labs is a motor—a motor unlike anything they had ever seen before. It’s a motor that would revolutionize the world.”
Susan was quick to pick up on my observation. “And you’re trying to say that this fantastic motor was what Marsha and Pete saw in the lab.”
“Sort of,” I answered. “Pro had to be shown something he would have understood. As the Titan who gave fire to mankind, he would have understood the gods giving such a motor to us and would have appreciated the irony of the god who had punished him for dispensing technology now doing the same thing to help save mankind. But there’s irony and there’s irony. Pro didn’t understand the truly ironic twist Eric Vulman and The Judge had for him.”
“Which was?” Diana prompted.
“I said the scene sounded as if it was out of Atlas Shrugged. The title is derived from the idea that Atlas—a Titan as well, by the way—found the weight of carrying the world on his shoulders too much and simply shrugged the world off. So you see, The Judge used a scene from a book named for a Titan to fool another Titan.”
Susan looked at Diana. “Is this true?”
“It certainly is an interesting theory,” Diana replied, and I noticed she had not really answered the question.
“So let’s see if I understand your theory,” Susan said turning to me in her best courtroom manner. “You believe Eric Vulman didn’t turn didn’t turn Marsha and Pete over to The Judge because the powers that be had known all along that Pro would try to co-opt her.”
“It makes sense,” I told her. “After all, the train that brought Robert Wallace to Ovid wasn’t a real train. It was just placed there for him to find. Surely they were watching it all the time. They must have known Pro was on that train with Bob Wallace. My guess is that Pro didn’t make a move without The Judge observing it.”
Our eyes turned back to Diana, but she had already risen from the table. “Thanks for sharing the story with me,” she said formally. Then she added with a grin, “Have fun shopping.”
There were other questions we both wanted to ask her, but there was a soft puff of air as one second she had been standing before us and the next she was gone. At least she had left our coffee cups topped off with the fantastic brew.
“The more we learn, the more there is to know,” Susan sighed, taking a sip of her coffee. I just nodded in reply.
Was there such a motor, or was it merely a prop to make Pro believe that the gods’ plan to forestall a nuclear holocaust was a simple technological gift much as Pro and his followers might have devised? I felt in my heart that Pro had told Marsha the truth regarding the concern of the gods, but I had a sneaky hunch The Judge had not been equally forthcoming.
As Susan had said, there was still much to learn...
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