A man who's having an affair would love to leave his wife for his best friend and love. The problem is that the wife has the power to ruin him if he tries. He needs help – magic help of the kind that Bikini Beach specializes in. But the results aren't quite what he was thinking.
This is an all-new Bikini Beach tale which grew out of an e-mail conversation I had with Ellie. Thanks to ib12us and Sir Lee for their suggestions and help editing, especially in improving the ending.
This story is copyright by the author. It is protected by licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.
The flickering TV provided almost all of the illumination in the otherwise-darkened room. On the floor, a girl of about nine or ten lay asleep on a sleeping bag. Behind her, on the sofa, a man sat with his arm around a woman, who was resting her head on the man's shoulder.
Tyler Lofton sighed as he glanced at the clock. "It's late," he said. "I need to get home."
"I wish you didn't have to go," Julia Richards sighed.
"So do I," Tyler echoed. "But you know _she's_ waiting."
Julia turned, lifting her finger to put across Tyler's mouth. "Shh," she chided softly. "Please don't talk about _her_!"
"Sorry," Tyler quickly said. "I had a great day today." He changed the subject. "I think Tracy did, too."
Julia let her head rest on Tyler's shoulder again. "I know she did. She loves having you around. You're like ..."
"A father?" Tyler asked hopefully.
Julia laughed, a soft, mellifluous sound. "No, more like ... a very good friend. I love the way you treat her like she's your second-best friend. So does she."
"And who's my _best_ friend, then?" Tyler asked.
In response, Julia lifted her lips and kissed him. "That would be me."
Tyler squirmed, and Julia knew that their evening together was coming to an end. She stood with him, and, clinging tightly to his arm, walked with him to the door of her apartment. Before he could open the door, she lifted herself on her toes and kissed him again, this time longer and with more passion.
"I wish we had more time to ... you know," Tyler suggested as he gazed at Julia.
Near the door, a light was on, so that her loveliness could be better seen and appreciated. She was a pretty woman; five foot eight made her a little taller than average, but she was slender. Tyler knew that was a result of being a struggling single mom with an extremely hectic schedule. She usually wore her wavy, long, brown hair swept back over her ears and hanging free in the back. While she would never be described as a model, she was pretty in a refreshingly simple way. Even without makeup, she was attractive with her pert nose, her sparkling green eyes, and her sensuous lips.
Julia smiled, and even her simple smile was warm and beautiful. "It's kind of difficult to find time for just the two of us with Tracy around," she answered. Her smile broadened. "Even when we don't have any physical intimacy, though, I love the emotional intimacy we share whenever we're together."
"So do I," Tyler answered. In contrast to her simple beauty, Tyler seemed rather ordinary. Average height and average looks made him tend to blend in to a crowd rather than stand out. He kept his light brown hair short and neatly trimmed, and his hazel eyes sparkled when he looked at Julia. Clean shaven, he had a rugged jawline that made him seem like a throwback to the days when men rode to the rescue, like cavalry. He kept himself fit with much exercise, including swimming – a luxury his situation permitted him, and he always seemed to be dressed in business-casual attire, such as the Dockers and knit polo shirt he was wearing. The contrast came on his left hand – his finger was encircled by a gold band, where Julia's hand was plain.
Tyler permitted himself to kiss Julia one more time. He knew that if he didn't force himself to walk out the door, he'd stay, and then there would be hell to pay when he got home. But she'd be worth it, he thought, even as he turned down the hall toward the stairwell of the apartment building.
Tyler looked out of place as he walked out of the apartment building. He appeared – and was – upper-middle class, but the apartment building was clearly for people of far less means. The contrast was striking enough that any outside observer would think that, leaving this late at night, he had been visiting a mistress. Indeed, he had been. Tyler had known Julia from his office for over twelve years, during which time he'd been unhappily married, and she'd stayed single, passing by several suitors as she waited for him.
He climbed into his Lexus and started the engine. Every yard he drove closer to his home seemed like agony, both because he was getting further from his best friend and lover, Julia, and because he was nearing _her_. He wondered how he'd ended up in this messy situation, even as he knew the answer. All his life, he'd needed to find some sense of belonging and security. He had succeeded, but the cost had been high.
He'd lost his mother when he was four, and was raised by his blue-collar, sometimes-employed dad. Though his dad didn't drink, unlike many fathers in the neighborhood, he was a strict disciplinarian, and any infraction, no matter how minor, resulted in a belting. There was no love; only tolerance. Beyond doing his chores and getting passing grades, his dad didn't seem to care what Tyler did. It was an unspoken expectation that Tyler would follow his dad into blue-collar work as a longshoreman. Tyler's older brother bullied him constantly, and his dad never intervened, explaining that Tyler needed to 'toughen up'. As an act of rebellion against his dad, Tyler began to follow a tough crowd, and that often got him into serious fights, and into trouble with the law.
As another act of defiance, Tyler pushed hard to get into college, to escape the type of life his dad lived. He'd barely been admitted, and because of a double load of classes and a full-time job to pay for his schooling, he wasn't a stellar student by any means. He knew that his future prospects weren't exactly bright. There, he'd met Olivia Carston, the girl who would become his wife. When he first saw her, he knew she was from a well-to-do family; even casually about campus, she wore designer clothes and expensive jewelry, and she carried herself with an air of sophistication and dignity that spoke of an upper-crust upbringing. She was pretty, in a reserved, formal way. A little taller than average, she kept herself trim and fit with her personal trainer and time in the gym. When in public, she wore her long blonde hair in a bun or other very conservative style, letting it down only in private. Tyler saw her as an opportunity to escape his poorer roots, to climb up to a better life.
It didn't take long to catch Olivia's eye; early in his life he had developed a talent for schmoozing. Before long, they were dating, and then, just after they'd both graduated, she encouraged him to propose to her. After their wedding, Tyler started working as a mid-level manager in one of her family's companies. In his first week with the firm after their honeymoon, he'd overheard some managers in a break room discussing a deal they were trying to make. Perhaps because of his upbringing, he had an uncanny knack for reading situations and people, and understanding what they wanted and needed, and how to win them over. In addition, he was vocal with his opinions. His suggestions were rudely discounted, but when the negotiations went sour, one of the managers remembered what Tyler had suggested. He was given a role in the next set of contract negotiations, where his street-smarts proved their worth, and the company benefited greatly.
As a result, he got a promotion and a fancy office. From then on, his role was negotiating with suppliers, vendors, and subcontractors for all of the Carston companies, and he earned a reputation for always getting a great deal, while keeping everyone happy. He also had the luxury of setting his own work schedule, since he was 'family' and the chief negotiator. Tyler thought he'd made it, and that now, life would be good.
He'd figured that after they settled down, he and Olivia would have children, and that they'd be happy. It was then that her true nature became apparent. She didn't want any children, making her view on the subject very clear, and letting him know, for the first of countless times, that she was boss, and he was nothing without her. It was her way, or she'd ruin him. It hadn't been a direct threat then, and it still wasn't, but the implication was clear: she had the money and power and resources to utterly destroy his life if he didn't toe her line. It also became apparent that she had an acid tongue and she was controlling and vindictive in an almost petty way. Tyler thought bitterly that she could have easily been the inspiration for Shakespeare's "Taming of the Shrew." It took its toll on Tyler – he started feeling angry at everything, and it showed. Olivia, with her temper and demanding attitude, had slowly broken his spirit. Years of her abuse and unspoken threats slowly made him subservient to her. He lost the edge and independence he'd learned as a tough youth.
Tyler hadn't learned to love; only to survive. Even after marrying Olivia, there was no love. For him, it was a ticket out, an escape, a way to make contacts and move up, so that he'd never raise children in the manner he'd grown up. Love was a foreign concept.
That all changed when he met Julia. She was working as a temp in one of the Carston family businesses, and Tyler was doing his usual job of negotiating. He had bumped into Julia, as she was scurrying with a stack of copies to one of the manager's offices. His coffee had splashed over both of them, and over her precious copies. She had been horror-stricken, both by getting hot coffee on Tyler, and on messing up her paperwork. Naturally, he was angry, and he started to say something petty and mean, but then he saw her eyes. He saw warmth, and kindness, and sincerity which he'd never seen before. The verbal lashing he intended to deliver died in his throat; instead, he found himself apologizing for having gotten in her way. Since she had no time to redo the copies, Tyler had walked with her to the manager's office, and explained that he'd accidentally spilled coffee on her copies, and that it wasn't her fault.
It took no time for a romance to develop. Julia gave love that Tyler had never known. In return, he found a growing ability to be trusting and loving. Once Olivia suspected the affair, she made sure that Julia was fired. Tyler used his contacts to get her a job, despite Olivia's spitefully negative personnel appraisal. When he could, he used some of his "allowance" from Olivia to help Julia out financially.
Tyler thought of Tracy, Julia's charming daughter. He was certain that she was his daughter, even though she'd never told him, nor even suggested it. She was as cute as her mother was pretty, and had the same enchanting brown eyes and innocent look. Tracy was a smart girl, too – she usually got all A's at school. And most importantly, she treated Tyler like he was her dad, even though she'd never been told the truth.
Tyler pulled his car into the garage, parking his Lexus next to her car. He hadn't noticed any lights on as he came up the driveway, so he hoped that she was already in bed. Slowly, silently, he opened the door and crept into the house.
The light came on with a blinding suddenness, startling him.
"You're late," Olivia chided him sternly.
"I didn't want to wake you," Tyler replied automatically.
Olivia drew herself up out of her chair and walked over to him. "I suppose you were with _her_ again, tonight?" She stood in front of him, blocking his path into the house. "How is she, these days? Still trying to enjoy her miserable, poor life?"
Tyler wanted to stand up to Olivia, but he knew that she held all the power. He said nothing, but his nostrils flared with his anger at her accusation and petty delight in Julia's situation.
Olivia noticed his reaction. "Tell me," she continued in a wicked voice, "did the two of you have ... fun tonight, or did that bratty daughter of hers interfere with your passion?"
"For your information," Tyler said through clenched teeth, "Tracy is a wonderful little girl, and spending time with a ... friend doesn't necessarily have to end in sex."
"Good." She was taking delight in tormenting him over his evening. "That means you've got something for me."
"You know," Tyler observed, trying but failing to sound impassionate, "you've completely spoiled the mood. Men ... don't perform on demand."
Olivia sneered at him. "We'll see. You could always take one of your little pills, couldn't you? I doubt you'd be able to resist me, then. You _will_ try to please me, too, won't you?" She turned and strutted toward the bedroom, one of her long, sexy legs showing through the slit in the side of her nightie. "It's time for bed." It sounded less like a suggestion than a demand, and she knew that he'd comply. He always did.
"Where?" Tyler was astonished by Julia's suggestion.
"The water park south of the mall," Julia repeated. "You know the one – Bikini Beach."
Tyler sighed. "I was hoping for a more relaxing day. Something more conventional, like maybe a picnic, or a movie."
"Tracy wants to go to the water park, and I've been promising her for a while. You don't want to disappoint her, do you?" She nibbled on his ear. "Besides, we'll have the rest of the evening, and if Tracy gets tired from too much excitement ...."
A smile crept over Tyler's face. "Well, we can't disappoint Tracy, now, can we?"
Twenty minutes later, Tyler pulled into a parking spot at the park. "Unusual that they have such a tall fence, don't you think?"
Julia shrugged. "Maybe. But I've heard wonderful things about the park."
"Okay." Tyler glanced in the back seat. "Ready for some fun, Tracy?"
Tracy grinned. "Yeah," she said enthusiastically. If she'd tried her best, she wouldn't have been able to contain her excitement.
As they walked across the parking lot, swim gear tucked under their arms, Julia wrapped her arm around Tyler's, drawing him closer. He smiled at her. This was going to be a pleasant day, he decided. Then he noticed something that seemed odd. "I don't see any other men going in," he said, his voice cautious. "You don't suppose that this is a ladies-only place, do you?" If it was, then the day would be ruined, and Tracy would be very disappointed.
Julia frowned, but then she spotted a couple of college guys at the ticket window. "There are a couple of boys in line," she answered. "I swear, you're too suspicious."
Tyler chuckled. "Yeah, but do you see all the women going in? Are you sure you want me in a park, in my swimsuit, surrounded by all these attractive women?"
Julia punched him lightly in the arm. "I know you won't be looking at anyone but me," she said playfully. "Besides, I thought your tomcatting days were long over."
"You know me too well."
As he waited in line for the window, Tyler noticed another odd fact – most of the patrons were bypassing the booth and using some type of pass-card to enter. He failed to notice that the person in front of him had moved.
"Yes, Mister Lofton," a dark-haired girl behind the glass said, regaining his attention, "this is a membership-only private park, so not many of our patrons need to buy passes."
"What?" Tyler frowned. "Uh, how ...?" He was puzzled that the girl had seemingly read his mind. She had _certainly_ called him by name, which he hadn't given her. It added to the puzzle of the park. For all his life, Tyler had had a sense of things feeling wrong. That feeling was back, in spades. Despite that, though, he suppressed his wariness; after all, the day was for time with Julia and Tracy.
"I get that question a lot," she answered enigmatically. "So I've learned to recognize when people are wondering." She glanced at Julia and Tracy. "Since we're a private park, we sell only a limited number of passes. You're early enough that we haven't sold out of those, and besides, this is a slow day."
Tyler's eyes widened. From the traffic he'd seen, the park was quite busy. "This is a _slow_ day?"
"Relatively. I'm Anya. My grandmother and I run the park. I take it you want three passes for the day? Two adults and one junior?"
"Oh, yes, that's right." Tyler was getting quite distracted by all the little things that seemed out of place or unusual. He dug out his wallet and paid for the passes.
"Remember to shower before you leave the locker rooms," Anya reminded him. "It's a health department regulation. And have a fun day."
Tyler smiled. "We will." He took the passes and stepped away from the window. After passing through the entrance, he went to the men's locker on the right, while Julia and Tracy went to the women's locker on the left.
Perhaps it was from his upbringing, in a rough part of town, and from a relatively poor family, but Tyler couldn't help but be suspicious. For a very busy park, as the girl at the window had described, the men's locker was very small. He filed that fact away to think of later – maybe, and tossed his gear on a bench. He took off his clothes, placing them in an empty locker, and pulled on his swim trunks. To be certain that he didn't lose the key, he fastened it inside the tiny pocket of the swimsuit with a safety pin.
Tyler stepped toward the door, where he saw a large mirror. He posed, admiring his physique. While he wasn't twenty any longer, he still was in much better shape than most of his contemporaries. He had no belly fat, and his muscles were well toned without being exaggerated. There were still the scars, though, on his chest, from his high-school days. Tyler wore them proudly, as a badge of honor, for having survived his very turbulent, rough childhood and escaped the poverty trap. One had nearly killed him – if the blade had been millimeters down, it wouldn't have deflected off his rib, but would have slid between them and pierced his heart.
Tyler tore his thoughts away from reminiscing about the past, and focused on the present. The girl had said that he needed to shower, so he walked to one of the shower stalls. He twisted the knob, and then stepped in, having steeled himself for a blast of cold water. Instead, it was pleasantly warm, and invigorating.
After a few moments in the shower, longer than he'd intended due to the relaxing effect of the shower, he stepped out, turned off the handle, and started toward the exit door. Something seemed odd to him, but he couldn't put his finger on it. Something wet was dancing around his shoulders in an unexpected way, and it seemed like hair was flitting into and out of his peripheral vision. The feel of walking was different, too.
As soon as Tyler came around the corner to the exit, he instinctively flinched and averted his eyes at the topless woman in front of him. It only took a few milliseconds, though, for him to know that something was very wrong. Only moments before, he'd been flexing and posing in front of a mirror. That meant – he flinched at the thought – that the shower or something in this room was magic, and that _he_ was the woman in the mirror. He looked back, and saw that the woman was mimicking his every move.
Slowly, fearfully, he looked down, and saw what he knew was on his chest – a pair of moderate sized, perky breasts, capped in large dark nipples. Between the breasts, he could see a very flat stomach, and an equally flat groin, covered with a bikini bottom. He gasped in surprise, and even that tiny sound was softer than what he'd expected. Almost automatically, his hands reached up and cupped his breasts, and his hands and breasts confirmed that what his eyes saw really had happened. He was a woman. Somehow, impossibly, he'd been changed into a woman.
Years of dealing with the unexpected as he grew up served Tyler well. He fought the instinct to panic, and assessed the situation. The woman in the mirror – himself – was of average build, and moderately attractive. She was well-toned, just like Tyler had been, and had little excess fat. Her brown hair was short, and, being wet, it was hard to say how it was styled, but Tyler suspected, from the cut, that it was a bob with the front feathered a bit. Her face was Tyler's face, but feminized, a face that he would have had if a different sperm had won the race. She didn't have super-model looks, but she was far from unattractive. A bit above average, Tyler decided.
A knock sounded on the door, and then it opened, letting the bright sunlight stream in as a figure stepped through the door. As if it were an instinct, Tyler lifted his arms to cover his naked breasts, and retreated a half step from the door.
"Don't worry, Tyler," the figure said. Tyler recognized the voice as belonging to the girl from the ticket window. "This park is magic, and yes, it transformed you into a woman."
"Why?" Tyler demanded simply. "Why did you do this to me?"
The girl smiled. "My grandmother built this park as a refuge for women, a place where they could relax and not worry about being ogled and treated as objects."
"That doesn't explain why. Or how? And ..." He didn't want to push the unthinkable question – was this a permanent change?
Anya smiled. "No, it's not permanent. The magic lasts until around midnight of the last day your pass is valid. Since you bought a one-day pass, the magic will wear off about midnight, and you'll change back to your male self."
"Oh," Tyler sounded relieved about changing back. "Magic?" he asked skeptically. "You expect me to believe this was magic?" He started as he realized that she'd apparently read his mind – again.
"Do you have another explanation?" Anya asked with a smile.
"No, I guess not," Tyler admitted softly. The sound coming from his mouth was soft and feminine, and impossible in his ears.
Anya waved one hand, and produced a bikini top. "Before we go any further," she said, "please put this on. Grandmother really dislikes topless sunbathing in her park."
Tyler took the garment as if it were a snake. "How ...?" he started to ask.
"The magic gives you skills to cope as a woman. If you don't think about how, but just about putting it on, you'll find it's natural, like you've been doing it all your life."
Tyler did as directed, and his jaw dropped as he put on the bikini top. "That's ...." he started to say.
"Spooky? Yes, it is – at first. And just so you don't worry, I've already spoken to Julia, and she knows what to expect. You two can have a fun day with Tracy, just like you'd planned."
Tyler couldn't help but glance down at his new body. "Not quite like we'd planned," he said, smiling wryly as he looked back at Anya.
"Mostly, though. You wanted to treat Tracy to a fun day at a water park, and you're willing to sacrifice ... intimacy ... with Julia to do so." She smiled warmly. "It sounds to me like you enjoy the warmth of a caring family more than the sexual aspect of your relationship."
Tyler started at her words. "I ... I guess you're right," he said slowly. "But ... how do you know all this? Unless you're reading my mind."
Anya grinned. "You catch on pretty quickly. Now why don't you go out and have a fun day? Oh, by the way, since you're changed, your female name is Tiffany." She saw the wrinkled nose and brow on Tyler's face. "Yes, I know it can sound a bit bimbo-ish, but it's how the magic worked."
Tyler shrugged. "I guess I'll make the best of it, then, since it's only temporary." He squared his shoulders, flinching at the jiggle on his chest as he did so, took a deep breath, and marched through the door out to the entrance plaza.
After being momentarily blinded by the bright sunlight, he started looking around, and eventually spotted Julia and Tracy sitting at a table waiting. He walked, uneasily, toward them.
Tracy hurled herself at Tyler and wrapped her arms around him in a big hug. "Hi, Aunt Tiff!" she exclaimed with glee. "I'm so glad you could come today! We're going to have lots of fun!"
Tyler uneasily returned the hug. "You know I like spending time with you," he said, "and your mom."
"I want to go on the slides first," Tracy begged. "Can we go on the slides first?" She pointed toward the turquoise Pele's Race on the side of the 'mountain.'
"Sure, honey," Julia said, giving Tyler a wink. "Why don't you run on ahead and we'll be right behind you?"
Squealing with delight, the girl raced down the pathway toward the ride, leaving Julia and Tyler behind.
"You look exactly like I pictured you, after the girl from the booth explained things to me," Julia said with a smile. "I'm almost jealous."
Tyler shook his head, feeling his short hair brushing his shoulders. "You didn't know this would happen?" he asked, amazed.
"No," Julia replied. "Honest to God, I didn't know!"
"It kind of spoils anything this evening after we get back to your place," Tyler observed dispassionately. "Tracy thinks I'm really her Aunt Tiffany?"
"Yup," Julia smiled. "That's what the girl said would happen, since Tracy doesn't know about the magic." She looked at Tyler – looking slightly down to him for the first time ever. "You're not mad, are you?"
Tyler smiled. "Like I said the other day, I love spending time with you as a friend, even when we can't ... you know."
The day went far better than Tyler had imagined it would. The girls had a wonderful time, floating around the "Old Man River", riding some of the milder tube slides that were suitable for Tracy, and sunbathing and swimming in the "Tropical Lagoon". While Tracy swam and floated, Tyler and Julia had time together to talk and share some 'friend time'.
All too soon, the loudspeaker announced that the park was closing. Julia glanced at Tyler, then back at the Junior Lifeguard Academy pool, where Tracy was playing with a couple of girls on the Safety Scramble, a fun course to test agility and balance as kids used the overhead net and fake tortoises in the water to cross the pool. "Tracy," Julia called.
Tracy turned toward her calling mother; as a result, she lost her handhold on the net and fell with a splash into the pool. She came up sputtering. "Aw, Mom," she complained," you made me fall!"
"It's almost closing time, so we need to go."
Tracy looked at the net and tortoises, and the other kids scrambling across the obstacle course, and considered ignoring her mother to try one last time. It was obvious what she was thinking for that brief moment, but she decided not to risk getting in trouble. She turned, and splashed and swam to the edge of the pool. She'd never had many swimming lessons, and it showed. For a brief moment, Tyler wondered if he couldn't do something to help her swim better, so she didn't feel so awkward around girls her own age who were better swimmers.
As they walked back toward the locker rooms, Tyler began to have his doubts about the rest of the day. "Now what?" he asked Julia.
Julia smiled pleasantly. "How about if we get something on the way home, and then we can have a 'girls night' watching a movie?"
Tyler winced. "Can we get something at a drive-thru? Or maybe order a pizza?"
"Afraid to be seen in public like that?" Julia asked with a grin.
Tyler nodded sheepishly. "Yeah, you could say that."
"I don't want you to feel uncomfortable," Julia chuckled. "We'll order a pizza."
As they came to the locker rooms, Tyler was somehow not surprised to see that the "Men's" sign had magically changed to read, "Women's Locker Room 2". He smiled to himself – that would help cut down on awkward questions from people who didn't know someone had changed. The owner and her granddaughter seemed to have thought of everything.
Inside the locker room, Tyler noted further that all the masculine details were gone, and the room now had makeup mirrors, blow dryers, and other accoutrements typically not found in a men's locker. There were other women present in the room, and many of them turned toward Tyler, their expressions varying from amused to worried. Tyler reasoned that those familiar with the magic found the nervousness of newly-changed men entertaining, while those who were new to the change, such as himself, found the thought of being a woman, changing in a room full of women, to be unsettling.
He steeled himself, squared his shoulders, and stepped directly to his locker. Inside, as he dreaded but somehow knew, he found his clothing was altered. Instead of his polo shirt, he had a pale blue, sleeveless knit blouse with a deep Vee neckline. His ever-present Dockers were tan Capri pants, and his shoes were feminine flats.
Bowing to the inevitable, Tyler slipped out of his bikini, and stepped to an empty shower stall. Inside, he used the floral-scented body wash and shampoo to cleanse the chlorine and dirt from his body and hair. A little voice in his head seemed to be telling him something, and knowing of the magic, he followed that voice, he applied some conditioner and crème rinse to avoid tangles. After a few seconds, he rinsed it out, and then turned off the shower. Without stepping from the shower, he took his towel, which he'd hung on a hook just outside his stall. The voice told him not to scrub his hair with the towel, like he usually did, but to pat it dry. After quickly drying, he wrapped the towel around his wet hair, and walked back to a bench in front of his locker.
Somehow, the sight of a dozen or more naked women in the locker room did nothing for Tyler, even though he knew it should. He suspected, correctly, that the magic had given him female instincts and attractions, and as such, looking at other women was of no interest. That thought also caused Tyler a moment of fear – if his attraction for women had been turned off, did that mean he would have a woman's attraction to men? He was suddenly very grateful that his change would only last until midnight, and that he and Julia were going to her apartment for a movie, and not out clubbing.
Without thinking, Tyler pulled on his panties, then his bra. After he removed the towel from his head, he pulled on his blouse, pulled on the pants, and then slipped into his flats. He rolled his bikini up in his towel, and then took the purse that was in his locker in place of his wallet.
As he started to blow-dry his hair, Tyler suddenly wondered about something. He glanced in his purse, and to his surprise, found no wedding ring. Tyler had always worn his ring, even though it was offensive to Julia, simply out of habit. With the change, though, he apparently wasn't married. That thought caused him to smile as he finished his hair. That was one less thing to have to worry about, and it seemed almost liberating to not be married to Olivia.
Gathering his stuff, he stepped out of the locker room and walked toward the entrance. He didn't see Julia, but he saw the pretty brunette girl, Anya, walking past. "Excuse me," he called to her.
Anya stopped and turned, a very pleasant expression on her face. "Did you enjoy yourself today, Tiffany?" she asked.
"Very much so," Tyler answered. "There's something I don't understand though."
"What's that?" Anya asked.
"When I changed this morning, this," he gestured toward the men's room over his shoulder, "was a men's room. Now, it isn't."
"It helps cut down confusion when people leave," Anya answered, "just like you figured."
"But ... what happens if someone is leaving in the middle of the day, when someone else is coming in?"
Anya laughed. "You're one of the first people to ask that," she chuckled. "It's pretty complicated. It's kind of like a whole bunch of parallel dimensions. Each person or group coming in has a private changing room that's in its own reality space. But once the day ends and men are going out, it's no longer necessary."
Tyler felt his head spin as he tried to comprehend what Anya was telling him. "So ... it's like a Twilight Zone thing? You set it up so men can't bump into women accidentally?"
Anya nodded, still smiling. "That's a simple way to describe it. The magic, though," she said in a hushed voice, "is pretty complicated. Even I don't quite understand how Grandmother did it, yet."
"Tiffany!" Julia called from near the women's locker as soon as she spotted Tyler. She and Tracy started toward him.
"Uh, you said this wears off ... around midnight?"
Anya nodded. "I would suggest you not go home until after the magic wears off. Olivia might not understand, and she'll get even angrier than she normally does."
Tyler's jaw dropped. "You ... know that I'm married?"
Anya nodded. "I can read minds and auras pretty well, but not as well as Grandmother."
"You're not going to say anything, like I'm a slime or something for cheating?" Tyler asked cautiously.
Anya shook her head gently. "It's not my place to judge," she said. "I read your mind, remember? I know _all_ about your marital situation. Besides, if you were some kind of low-life, I wouldn't have sold you a pass in the first place."
"Uh, thanks. I guess."
Anya turned, but then looked back over her shoulder. "Keep an open mind. Problems like yours have a way of working out – if you look for unconventional solutions." She walked off, leaving Tyler standing, puzzling over her meaning.
Tyler paused in the doorway and turned to the bed. "Sleep well, Tracy," he said gently to the girl.
"Thanks for the fun day, Aunt Tiffany," Tracy replied. She sounded tired, but very happy.
"Any time. Now go to sleep, before you get in trouble."
Tyler turned to the living room of the small apartment. He sat down wearily on the sofa next to Julia.
"It's been a long day."
Julia laughed. "You played hard, and you're not used to that body."
Tyler nodded. "You got that right." He looked down at the bulges on his chest again. "I don't know how girls deal with all these ... curves."
"We grew up with them," Julia explained with a grin. "It doesn't seem that unusual – just like you don't seem bothered by all your ... stuff ... in your shorts."
"Okay," Tyler conceded. "I get the point."
"Do you want to watch another movie?"
Tyler sighed. "You want me to suffer through another 'chick flick'?" he asked sarcastically.
"Why not? You _are_ one right now," Julia teased. "And if the magic gave you any female skills and feelings, I'm willing to bet that you liked the first movie."
"No, I didn't," Tyler countered angrily. "I don't have female feelings."
"Then why were you crying when they got together at the end?" Julia asked with a smile. "And don't deny it; both Tracy and I saw it."
Tyler knew it was pointless to argue; he'd been caught. "Okay, so I'm a little more emotional right now. Blame the magic."
"Whatever caused it, I think it's sweet that you show emotions." She paused. "So, now what?"
Tyler glanced up at the clock. It was almost eleven. "I don’t have a lot of time left like this," he said, with a tiny hint of regret in his voice. "And then I have to go."
Julia rose, smiling, and then offered a hand to help Tyler up. "Then I'll brew some tea, and we can sit and visit for a while, okay?"
Tyler nodded. "That sounds ... nice."
As the two sat at the kitchen table, sipping tea, Julia decided to broach the dreaded subject. "What are you going to do about Olivia?" she asked.
Tyler shook his head, his eyes half closed and a sad expression on his face. "I want to leave her," he said, "but you know what she can do to me."
"I know," Julia said, nodding. "But you need to do what _you_ want, and what you need. You know she destroyed your sense of independence, and she's slowly killing your spirit and zest for life. She completely controls you."
Tyler simply nodded; she was speaking the absolute truth.
"She's not really a wife, is she? She's more a bossy ...." Julia didn't want to say the word.
"Bitch." Tyler sighed heavily. "But if I leave, she'll completely ruin me. Her family has that kind of power. She can make sure that I'll never get any kind of meaningful job ever again. She can ruin my credit, my reputation – everything."
"Sometimes," Julia said wistfully, "I feel like I'm your mother, and you're a teenager trying to sort through a tough problem. I can't tell you what to do. All I can do is offer advice." She put her hands on Tyler's atop the table. "I can tell you that if you do leave her, we'll figure out how to work things out. No matter what, we'll somehow figure out how."
"I know," Tyler said.
"She scares you, doesn't she?" Julia asked the obvious.
Tyler's eyes widened in surprise at her question, and then he slowly nodded. "Yeah. I never thought I'd say it, but she _does_ scare me. Her family scares me. I've seen them do things that are ... almost evil. I've seen them lie, cheat, and use people. I've seen them ruin people." He took a deep breath. "I never thought I'd say it, but for the first time in my life, I'm afraid of her and her family."
Tyler suddenly sat upright, his eyes widening in surprise. "Oh, I think it's starting!" He felt a strange tingling in his extremities, and on his scalp. Slowly, the tingling radiated up his arms and legs, and down his head, until his whole body was enveloped in the strange sensation.
"I see it!" Julia exclaimed. She watched as Tyler's hair shortened, while his face slowly morphed and became more masculine, more angular. His hands, atop the table, lost their feminine grace, and turned into his normal rough, scarred hands. His body was changing, too, losing the prominent bumps on his chest as his whole torso swelled outward, becoming more muscular and more masculine. Even his clothes were changing – they flowed like liquid cloth, changing color and shape as they reformed into Tyler's normal attire.
In seconds, it was over. Tyler was back to normal.
"Wow!" Julia exclaimed softly, her eyes wide open in amazement. "That was ... incredible! If I hadn't seen it, I wouldn't have believed it!"
Tyler smiled. "It's weird to be on the changing side, too."
Sadness slowly crept over Julia's face. "I know you have to go, now."
Tyler nodded. "It's the last thing I _want_ to do, but I have to."
Tyler stood slowly, and offered a hand to Julia. They walked slowly to the door, where he swept her into an embrace and kissed her.
Half an hour later, Tyler pulled into his garage. The lights in the house were on, which meant that Olivia was awake, and probably furious. He swallowed hard, not wanting to deal with her and her rage, but knowing it was inevitable.
He walked into the kitchen, half-expecting Olivia to be waiting like a panther to pounce on its prey. She wasn't, though.
"In here," she ordered harshly from the dining room.
Tyler walked in, trying his best to look stern and defiant, but he knew that he'd fail. Olivia would see right through his façade.
"You're late," she chided.
Tyler simply shrugged.
"You were out with _her_ again, weren't you?" she demanded.
"What if I was? What does it matter to you?" His tone was resigned, not defiant.
Olivia's face reddened, and nostrils flared. "It matters to me because people notice! I heard gossip from two different ladies at the country club tonight! Your tawdry little affair is going to ruin my reputation!" she screamed.
Tyler stood, silently taking her abuse.
"It's over! Do you hear me? It's over." Her voice lowered to a menacing, angry tone. "You are _not_ to see that tramp again. You are not to contact her." She glared at Tyler. "And in case you think you can sneak past me this time, all it takes is one little phone call, and I can get our internet records, and your cell phone records."
"You're a first-class bitch," Tyler said in the first angry reply to her in a very long time.
Olivia grinned wickedly. "Yes, I am, aren't I?" She turned angrily and started from the room, but paused and looked over her shoulder, an evil triumphant smile on her face. "And just because you've pissed me off, you can sleep in the guest room – at least until I decide I need your ... companionship." She turned, tossed her head back haughtily, and walked away.
Tyler stood, silently fuming. He knew that Julia was right – he was afraid of Olivia, and she'd destroyed part of him.
Tyler poured a cup of coffee and sat down in the breakfast nook. He felt groggy; he hadn't slept well on the uncomfortable guest bed – like he'd done all week. Olivia was still angry, and using every little thing she could think of to punish him. He sipped the black coffee, hoping the caffeine would help him wake up.
"Are you going in to work today?" Olivia demanded as she stepped into the kitchen. She was wearing a robe over a very sheer negligee, incompletely tied so the front was open, exposing much skin and her creamy breasts. It was as if she was tormenting his remaining sense of manhood, since he'd been exiled to the guest room and had no contact with his mistress.
Tyler shrugged. "Maybe," he answered simply between sips of coffee.
"You _know_ that there's that big contract with our biggest supplier coming due soon. You need to be on your toes to make sure we get the best deal. We can't have you moping around like a love-sick puppy anymore, can we?" She sounded condescending, like she was lecturing a five-year-old.
Tyler managed an angry glare at her. "You've taken every little bit of joy out of my life. What the hell do you expect?"
Olivia acted surprised. "Oh, that's right! I haven't let you play with your mistress and her little brat for the past week and a half! That's why you're so upset." The sarcastic tone was unmistakable. She glared at him. "Except for the two messages from your phone."
Tyler simply glared into his coffee cup as he took another sip.
"Did you think I wouldn't find out? Did you really think you could slip that past me?" She had nothing but scorn for his feeble attempts to stay in touch with Julia. "Oh, I know what's wrong!" she exclaimed in a mockingly surprised tone, "I never let you have a chance to say goodbye, did I? That's why you're so sad, isn't it?" She clucked at herself as if she really cared, when Tyler knew she didn't. "Well, I'll tell you what," she said, sounding conciliatory for the first time, "I _do_ have a heart. Since I'm going to be at the trade show for the next week with Daddy, I'll let you have one last week with her."
Tyler frowned. He knew she was up to something. "What's the catch?"
"Catch? Oh, I'm so hurt! You doubt my sincerity?" She feigned surprise, but that was another part of her psychological torture. She reached into the pocket of her robe and extracted a card. "Well, the only catch is that you meet her at that water park you and she took her brat ... daughter to." She took a step and held out the card toward Tyler.
Tyler took the card warily. He was now very certain that there was more to this than she was letting on. As he examined it, he noticed the some information on the card was smudged, but that could have easily been because it had spent time in her purse. The date was for that day, and Olivia was leaving in the afternoon for her business trip.
"Well, aren't you going to thank me?" Olivia asked in a rather demanding tone.
Tyler looked warily at her. "Thank you," he said simply.
"Well then," Olivia sounded suspiciously cheerful, "you'd better call her and let her know that I'm allowing you a last goodbye, and then you can go meet her at the park."
Tyler walked into the shower happily, knowing what to expect, and not caring, because he'd spend the day with Julia and Tracy. Even if the first day was as a woman, he had the rest of the week to be Julia's lover. As he felt the changes, though, he noticed that something seemed odd. Just from how far he had to reach up to the shower knob, he knew he was much smaller. As the other changes happened, he noticed that his chest had not swelled out into full female breasts, but instead, into small cones.
Warily, he stepped toward the door – and the tell-tale mirror. As soon as he spotted himself, he gasped, a faint cry of despair.
He was small – less than five feet tall, and very slender. He also appeared to be no older than eleven or twelve, a little girl instead of the adult woman he'd been before. Tyler started to panic. His – her – hair was the same wavy brown as Julia's, cut shoulder length. She had a cute little nose, slightly upturned, and soft, hazel eyes. His gaze snapped down, to where he saw tiny budding breasts, small, soft bumps on a thin, pre-teen chest. A little girl's chest. He looked into the mirror again. He was thin and a bit gangly – just like any pre-teen girl going through maturation and a growth spurt.
As he stared at the mirror, a sinking feeling in his heart, the door opened. To his horror, Olivia stepped through, grinning wickedly. "Oh, aren't you adorable!" she exclaimed with her usual snide tone.
"What ... did you do?" Tyler asked in a feeble voice.
"You didn't think I'd really let you spend a week playing tomcat with your little mistress, did you?" she sneered.
"You ... said I could spend the week with her," Tyler protested.
"And you will," Olivia crowed. "As her other daughter!"
Tyler's mouth dropped open in confusion. "Other ... daughter?" He suddenly felt worried, and helpless. "How ... did you know? About the park, I mean?"
"I have my ways," Olivia said. "Oh, and by the way, I fudged the expiration date. It doesn't expire today. It expires the day I get back from my trip."
Tyler's eyes widened in horror. "You mean ...?" he stammered, unable to finish the question. He ran back to his locker and pulled out the pass. He wiped at the smudged numbers, and saw that, beneath a little white-out was a _real_ expiration date. His heart sank as he read the date.
"You're stuck as her little brat for the next week!" Olivia said gleefully. She turned and stepped haughtily from the locker room.
Tyler stared after her, with a sinking feeling in his heart. Tears started to trickle from the corners of his eyes as he contemplated just how nasty a trick Olivia had pulled on him. His hatred for her grew, while he wondered what was going to happen now. Did Julia know? How was she going to react?
The door opened again, and an older woman came in, smiling. She was a little overweight, and her hair had a touch of gray. "I know you have a lot of questions, Mr. Lofton, and we'll answer them in a moment." She waved her hand, and produced a bikini top that matched the red bottom Tyler was wearing. "But please put this on first. I don't really like women – or girls – going topless in my park." She extended the top to Tyler.
Having been in the park before, Tyler knew that he'd have some female skills. He took the top, his eyes still teary from Olivia's cruel trick, and tied it on. "What's going on?" he whimpered in a little-girl voice.
The old woman gently took Tyler's arm. "Let's go outside, so when your mother realizes that you're missing, she won't have to wonder, or panic." With Tyler wiping at his tears, the two walked out to the entrance plaza, and the old woman led him to an out-of-the-way table in the corner of the plaza.
"Why? How did she do this?" Tyler cried as they sat down.
The old woman bit her lip. "To be honest, she pulled one over on us." She saw the surprised expression on Tyler's face. "I was tired, and I got careless. Your wife had a third party buy the ticket, and he didn't know anything of her plan. She told her associate that you wanted to spend a week as Julia's daughter, so her deception was a step removed." She shook her head, wincing as she chided herself for her mistake. "If she'd have bought the pass directly, I would have read her intentions, and prevented it. If it had been a lifetime pass, I'd have been very thorough in checking. But since it was short-time, third-party purchase, I didn't check as thoroughly as I should have." She put her hand on Tyler's arm. "I'm so sorry, dear."
"So ... what do I do?"
The old woman smiled pleasantly. "I know you enjoy spending time with Julia. You enjoyed your last visit, and being her friend for the night. Now you can spend the whole week. I think you'll find a lot more affection from her as her oldest daughter."
"But ... the last time, only a little bit changed. How will she ...?"
The old woman shook her head. "This time, reality was rewritten. You're her daughter now. She knows it, everyone knows it. Tell me your name, please."
Tyler looked confused, and then answered. "Trinity Marie Richards," she answered. "Wait, that's not right. I'm Trinity." Her brow wrinkled. "Why can't I say my name?"
"That _is_ your name, in this reality. It's part of the magic, to make sure you don't make a mistake." She saw the look on Tyler's face. "At least it's better than Tiffany." She glanced toward the women's locker room. "Here she comes now."
Julia was coming over, and she didn't look very happy. "Trin," she called in a stern voice, "I told you to wait in the locker room."
The old woman winked at Trinity, and then smiled to Julia. "It's my fault, dear," she explained. "Your daughter was very curious about the expansion we're doing, so I started talking, and, well, here we are."
Trinity glanced at Julia, then at the old woman. From the corner of her eye, she saw a paper on the table that hadn't been there moments before. She looked down and saw a map of the park, with the new sections highlighted.
Julia sat down and hugged Trinity. "Please don't do that again," she said, trying to sound angry but sounding caring and loving instead. "You know I worry about you."
"I promise, Mom," Trinity said, and her eyes widened. She had intended to say "Julia", but couldn't. The old woman's magic really _was_ keeping her from making mistakes.
Julia smiled. "Good. Now let's go have some fun."
As Julia stood, Trinity glanced at the old woman again, and then looked up at Julia. "She was just telling me about the new spa and Roman baths," she said, searching for an excuse to ask just one more question of the old woman. "Since we're reading about that in school, can I at least hear how the park will be?"
"Okay. One minute, okay?" Julia smiled. "I'm going to get your sister from the gift shop. If I know her, she's window shopping for a new swimsuit that I can't afford." She turned and left, a happy bounce in her step, as if she was used to spending a day with _two_ girls instead of one.
"How? How can we afford this? Mom is ... not well off!" Trinity asked.
"Reality has changed a bit. She has a little better job than you remember."
"Oh." Trinity frowned. "What else has changed?"
The old woman smiled. "If you think about the past, you'll remember the details."
"Okay." Trinity stood and turned to leave, but turned back. "Thank you for the help, um ..." She paused, looking puzzled. "I don't know what to call you."
"Most people just call me Grandmother."
"But ...?" Trinity was confused. She still had Tyler's memories, and they did not include sleeping in the same bedroom as Tracy, in the top bunk. In fact, Tyler's memories didn't have a bunk bed in Tracy's room. "I'm not sure I want the top bunk," Trinity said.
"Any more, you mean," Julia said. She rolled her eyes. "After all the fussing you made about being oldest and getting first choice, after all these years of demanding the top bunk, now you want to change your mind at nine o'clock on a school night?"
As Julia spoke, the memories of those arguments came back to Trinity. She frowned; why was she so upset about the top bunk? Just as suddenly, some of Tyler's memories resurfaced – having the top bunk as a kid, only to be thrown off while wrestling with his older brother. Tyler had broken his arm, dislocated his elbow, and gotten a concussion. After that fight and resulting trip to the emergency room, followed by surgery, he'd had a phobia about the top bunk, and willing gave it up to his brother.
For a moment, Trinity felt caught between two realities, not sure if she loved or hated the top bunk. "Okay, Mom." She knew she didn't have a choice.
"We can talk more tomorrow night," Julia said as she gave Trinity a hug. "And if you still want to move, we can do it tomorrow night, when you have more time, okay?" She kissed Trinity on the forehead. "Now get in your jammies and get to bed. You've got school tomorrow."
"Okay," Trinity agreed. "Can we talk a bit ... after I get ready for bed?"
"Sure, honey," Julia answered with a smile. "As long as you're in bed by nine-thirty." She left the room, closing the door behind her.
"Do you really mean it? I can have the top bunk?" Tracy said excitedly.
Trinity smiled at her 'sister'. "Sure. Why not?" The smile turned into a grin. "That way, if you act up, I can always kick the bottom of your bunk!"
Tracy laughed. "You wouldn't, would you?" She saw the look on Trinity's face. "You _would_!"
"Just kidding," Trinity said with a grin. She saw Tracy starting to undress, and the uneasy feeling returned with a vengeance. Tracy was a girl, and she _shouldn't_ be seeing her undress. Should she? After all, she was a girl, too. She shook her head; this mixing of memories was confusing.
Trinity half-turned away from Tracy and pulled off her blouse. She wriggled out of her shorts, and then slipped off the training bra that she'd been shocked to discover in her locker earlier that day. As she glanced down at her chest, at the slightly-swollen areolae, she realized that she _needed_ a training bra, and that soon, she'd need a real one.
As if on autopilot, she pulled down and stepped out of her panties, tossing them in the laundry hamper, and pulled a clean pair from her dresser. Without thinking, she pulled them on, and only then did she marvel at how nice and silky they felt. A slight purr of contentment rippled through her before she pulled on her nightshirt.
Trinity was grateful for the showers and the bath products in the stalls. Because she'd cleaned herself thoroughly there, she didn't feel dirty, or in need of another shower. At least, she thought, it delayed the inevitable, when she'd have to shower in the apartment.
She slipped out to the living room, where Julia was sitting at a desk working on bills, and plopped down on the sofa.
As soon as she heard the noise on the couch, Julia put down her pen and turned. "What's on your mind, sweetie?"
Trinity shrugged. "I don't know. I'm just ... feeling weird inside."
"Do you want to talk about it?"
Trinity shook her head feebly. "I don't know. It's just that I feel ... different."
Julia came over and sat beside her daughter. "I understand, honey," she said in a soothing voice. "I know some of the kids have made fun of you because you don't have a dad, and because we're not as rich as they are." Her voice started to crack with emotion. "I know it's hard."
Trinity's eyebrow rose. She was still trying to assimilate all her new 'girl' memories, and that hadn't been the intent of her words. She didn't know how to tell Julia that she felt torn, because she'd been Tyler until that morning. She _couldn't_ tell Julia, because, in the current reality, Julia would have never experienced someone changing at Bikini Beach, and wouldn't believe Trinity.
Instead, Trinity realized that the subject of which Julia was speaking was very sensitive to her Mom. "I'm sorry," she apologized quickly. "I ... know you don't like me to talk about it."
Julia wiped at tears, a gesture noticed by Trinity. "I ... miss him," she said softly, her voice cracking with emotion. After a moment of silence, she turned to Trinity. "It's past your bedtime. Scoot."
Trinity nodded. "Okay, Mom," she answered, and then gave Julia a hug.
"Get out of bed, sleepy!" Julia shook Trinity. "You're going to be late for school."
Trinity rubbed her eyes, and as soon as she started to open them, she was alert. Things were _very_ wrong! She was in a girls' room, and she quickly established that she was in a bunk bed, and that Julia was waking her up. Her! In a flash of stunning recall, the events of the previous day came back to mind, and Trinity remembered that she was a girl!
Trinity let her body – and memories – go on autopilot as she dressed, just like the old woman from the park had advised. It still seemed weird to be dressing in the same room as Tracy, but less so than the previous night. Without thinking, she ended up in a pair of tight jeans, with a rhinestone pattern on the back pockets, and a tan sleeveless blouse. In the bathroom, she brushed her hair, and, without thinking again, pulled it back and fastened it with a scrunchie.
Inside, Tyler's voice was crying out, angry at what Olivia had done. He wanted to spend time with Julia, not go back to middle school. He wanted to enjoy a passionate, loving embrace, not a familial mother-daughter hug. He wanted to enjoy the wonderful fragrance of her perfume, not smell it as an ordinary, boring, unexciting odor. He wanted to revel in her lips tenderly brushing his, not get a kiss on the cheek from a doting mother. Trinity was crying inside at her predicament.
Julia noticed that Trin seemed a little slow as she sat down at the table for breakfast. "Are you okay, honey?" she asked, concern in her voice.
"I'm fine, Mom," Trin protested, flinching again at how she'd automatically addressed Julia. She half-heartedly lifted a glass of juice and took a sip.
"Well, if you're so fine, how come you're not eating your breakfast?" Julia asked, indicating the plate with a slice of toast, cottage cheese, and strawberries in front of Trin.
Trin felt a stab of panic. Memories of Tyler's childhood flooded her, of a time when Tyler's father would verbally flay him for anything less than what was demanded, even to the point of what and how much he ate for breakfast. There was no mercy, no compassion. "I'm not hungry," Trin said cautiously, expecting trouble, as she pushed around the white lump of cottage cheese with her spoon.
Julia stopped what she was doing and turned toward the table. She reached an open hand towards Trin's forehead, causing the girl to flinch. But, to Trin's shock, instead of a backhanded slap, Julia gently put her hand on Trin's forehead. "You don't feel warm," she said. "Is your stomach upset?"
"Really," Trin insisted, "I'm okay."
"Okay," Julia said, not sounding convinced. "If you say so." She turned back to the kitchen counter. "I've almost got your lunches packed."
To satisfy her mom, Trinity forced herself to eat a little breakfast. From the disapproving look, she knew that her mom had expected her to eat more.
"Hurry up and clean up your plate," Julia insisted. "You're going to miss your bus."
"Yeah, Trin," Tracy added as she walked into the kitchen. She'd already eaten, cleaned up after herself, and now wore her book backpack as she stood, waiting for her older sister.
Trin sighed, and then scooped one last strawberry and some cottage cheese onto a corner of the toast and shoved it into her mouth. As she chewed, she picked up her plate and moved toward the sink, out of habit, to scrape the leftovers into the garbage disposal.
"What are you doing?" Julia interrupted her in a reproving voice.
Trin flinched again, unsure of what infraction she'd committed, but expecting to be chastised for something. "Uh, I was cleaning my plate," she explained weakly.
Julia shook her head, letting out an exasperated sigh. "Sometimes, girl, you'd forget your head if it wasn't fastened on." She took the plate from Trin and scraped the food into a plastic container. "Here," she said, "_now_ rinse it off and put it in the dishwasher." She shook her head as she finished packing her own lunch from the breakfast leftovers. "I swear you do that just to get me to clean up your plate! Now hurry before you miss the bus – again!"
Trin put the plate in the dishwasher, thinking as she did so. Memories were faint and hazy; they were far from well-off, and Mom wouldn't let anything go to waste, including breakfast, which she recycled into her own lunch. Trin picked up her backpack and started toward the door.
Julia interrupted again. "Wait a sec," she said as she scurried to the two girls. She wrapped an arm around each of them, and then, in turn, kissed each on the forehead. "I love you girls. Have a good day," she said in a cheery, loving tone. "See you after work."
"Bye, Mom," Trin said before she even realized that the words had come from her mouth. "Love you, too." She puzzled at the words – where they'd come from, how automatic they'd been. Had Tyler ever said he loved his dad? Probably not even once. And his mom? She'd died when he was way too young, and there were only faint memories of a kind woman's face.
Still wondering about the morning, Trin trudged out the door, her backpack on her back, to the bus stop, where other pre-teen kids were likewise waiting. As she neared the stop, one girl's face brightened, and she called out, "Hey, Trin!"
Trinity felt the panic return. She was frantically sorting through memories, trying to filter Tyler's strong memories from the shadowy "new reality" memories of Trinity. "Morning," she mumbled unenthusiastically. A name came to a ghostly memory. "Beth?" she said cautiously. As she spoke, the bus pulled up, the doors opened, and the kids started climbing aboard. Beth stood beside Trinity as the littler kids got on.
Beth's smile broadened. Apparently, Trinity had gotten the name association right. "Same as always. I hate Monday." Beth was about the same size as Trinity, but her hair was long and sandy blonde, and she had some faint freckles. Trin noted that her big brown eyes and innocent-looking face were probably going to break some boys' hearts later in life. Where Trin's clothing was older and plainer, Beth's jeans looked new, and her top was very stylish. Trin suddenly felt self-conscious about her clothing.
Beth looked closer at Trinity. "Are you okay?"
Trin sighed. "Mom asked the same thing. Everyone thinks I'm not feeling well or something, when I'm really just tired." She couldn't tell Beth the truth – that she was really an older man who'd been magically changed into Trinity, and her mind was a jumble of conflicting memories and thoughts. She stepped up into the bus, followed closely by Beth. Trin took an open seat behind Tracy, who was busily talking with one of her friends. As expected, Beth sat down beside her.
"Are you still up for going to hang out at the mall after school? Topside is having a sale, and I want to see if ...." Beth stopped suddenly, and her hand rose to cover her open mouth, as she realized what she was saying. "I'm sorry," she apologized. "I didn't mean ...." She fell silent.
Trinity frowned momentarily as she tried to assimilate the memories and Beth's sudden apology. She remembered clearly that her mom didn't want to waste any food, and .... The memories snapped into place. They weren't very well off, financially. While they weren't poor, her mom's job didn't pay an extravagant salary, and with two girls, they rarely got fancy new things. Trin suddenly realized that almost all of Tracy's clothing had been hand-me-downs from her, and that new clothes were a rare treat. She _couldn't_ go shopping, because it was a luxury the family couldn't afford.
"That's okay," Trin found herself telling Beth. She saw Beth's worried look ease. "I can still help you look." For some reason, she smiled. "Especially if you let me borrow one of your outfits now and then." Inwardly, she wondered where on earth those words or thoughts had come from. Then again, she thought, the old woman's magic was pretty thorough, so it wouldn't be too much of a stretch for the magic to give her not only girl's skills, but also thoughts and memories to match the new reality. She shuddered inwardly at how powerful the magic was.
Beth grinned, and she gave Trin a quick hug. "Deal."
Fortunately for Trin, Beth felt talkative, so Trinity didn't have to say much during the short ride to school. As soon as they got off the bus, the girls were rushing to their classrooms, so Trin didn't have much time to talk with Beth until lunch. She was going on 'autopilot', relying entirely on the memories and skills the park's magic had given her. She did find, though, that her true memories, those of Tyler, gave her a considerable advantage in her classes, since Tyler had memories of college coursework. All that was left was the busy-work that some teachers found necessary to inflict on their students.
Despite Trinity's misgivings, shopping with Beth was a lot of fun, even if she felt self-conscious about her clothing. She saw some outfits in the store that, according to her girl thoughts, she really wanted. Tyler had never enjoyed shopping. Trinity had fun with Beth, trying on different outfits, talking about which would look best with what pants or jeans, and giggling about some of the 'gossip' from the other girls. Beth bought a couple of new tops, promising that Trin could borrow them whenever she wanted. It was nearly six when Beth and Trin climbed into Beth's mom's car for the ride home.
When she got home, she saw that her mom's car was already in its parking spot. Trin gave Beth a hug, thanked her mom, and then scurried up to the apartment.
As she opened the door, Trin remembered that she was responsible for some of the household chores. She winced as she wondered if her mom was going to be upset.
"Trin?" Julia called from the kitchen, "is that you, honey?" She didn't sound upset.
Trin was nervous. "Yes, Mom," she answered as she dropped her backpack out of the way. "Sorry I'm late."
"Did you girls have fun?" Julia answered.
The answer wasn't what Trinity feared. "Uh, yeah," she replied cautiously. "Beth and I had a lot of fun shopping." She walked around the corner to the kitchen.
"And I suppose you found a lot of new outfits that you're just dying to have, right?" Julia's words could have been biting and unkind, but they sounded playful and cheery.
Trin felt her head spinning. Memories were swirling in a dizzying torrent, Tyler's old memories, the false memories of the new reality, Trinity's experiences of the past day and a half. She felt like she was walking blind through a fog, unsure of what shapes were real and what weren't. "Nothing I need right now," Trinity answered unsteadily. She wasn't sure how her mother would react.
"Maybe something for your birthday?" Julia asked with a smile. "Or Christmas?"
"Maybe." Trin looked at her mother preparing the meal, and realized with a start that _she_ was supposed to cook the meals. But she'd been out goofing around with her friend.
"Can you empty the dishwasher, please?" Julia asked.
"Sure, Mom." Trin set about the chore energetically, hoping she wouldn't be called to task for not doing the cooking. In only a few minutes, she had the clean dishes put away, and then loaded the dirty ones from the sink.
As soon as that was done, Trinity thought for a moment, and then went to the hall closet. After a bit of a struggle, she extracted the vacuum cleaner. She plugged in the machine, and then commenced vacuuming the living room.
All of a sudden, Trinity felt odd, like she was being watched. She looked up, and her eyes widened in uncertainty and a bit of fear when she saw her mother standing by the door to the kitchen, staring at her. "Uh, I was just doing my chores," she protested feebly, her memories of Tyler and his chores overriding all others.
Julia walked over and shut off the vacuum, then swept Trin up in a warm hug. "I know," she answered with a smile, "and I really appreciate everything you do to help around here."
"I'm sorry I was late and didn't get dinner cooking," Trinity apologized again, feeling her eyes watering. She felt truly ashamed that she'd let fun with a friend get in the way of her household chores, and she _knew_ that trouble was coming.
Only it didn't. Julia gave her another kiss on the forehead and hugged her all the more tightly. "You told me that you might be a little late," she explained patiently, "so I'm not upset." She smiled. "You don't have to clean the house to make up for it, either. But if you really want to swap bunks with Tracy, you _are_ going to have to help with that chore."
Trinity sat, looking down at the backpack on the floor, afraid to look up at the principal's secretary. She knew that, at any moment, her mom was going to come through the door, and after her mom found out what had happened from the principal, Trinity was going to get in serious trouble.
When the door did open, Trinity couldn't help glancing up, and she saw her mom. She quickly dropped her gaze, knowing that she'd let her mom down.
Julia stepped to the secretary's desk. "Excuse me," she announced her presence, "I'm Julia Richards, Trinity's mom."
The secretary looked up from her computer, annoyed at being interrupted. "Mrs. Henderson will be right with you," she said. "If you would like to have a seat."
Trinity felt as if her mother's eyes were burning into her, piercing her with anger. She knew she'd disappointed her mother greatly, at the very least. Her mom had had to take time off work, too.
Julia stood her ground. "If you don't mind," she replied firmly, "I think I'd like to hear what my daughter has to say first."
The secretary looked at her as if she'd just come from Mars. She'd never had a parent request private time with the student first. It just _wasn't_ done. "Um, I believe Mrs. Henderson is waiting for you."
"I understand," Julia countered, with forced politeness. "But I'm going to speak with my daughter first, so when _we_ talk to Mrs. Henderson, Trinity will have had a chance to tell me _her_ side of the story, and I won't have to make any decisions or accept any punishments unfairly."
"Uh," the secretary stammered, "I ... I guess you could talk in ... the assistant principal's office?"
Julia smiled, knowing that she'd forced the secretary to back down. She knew better than to rub it in. "That's okay. We'll be fine talking right here." She turned and sat down beside Trinity.
Trin looked up, and then looked back down, afraid of facing her mom.
Julia's hand gently lifted Trinity's head, so she was looking at her mom. "A long time ago, I promised you I wouldn't get angry or punish you until I knew the whole story, remember?"
The memories were sorting themselves more quickly as time passed. Trinity remembered, faintly, such a conversation. "Yes."
"Okay. Now just tell me what happened."
Trinity wiped at her eyes. "We were at lunch, and I heard Hailey and some of her friends calling Tracy names and making fun of her."
"What were they saying?" Julia asked, glancing at the secretary who she knew was listening in to the conversation.
"Hailey and Deanna were calling her poor white trash, and saying she was a poor hillbilly. They said she wore trashy clothes and didn't have any fashion sense. They were laughing at her trying to make her cry."
Julia glanced at the secretary again. "So what happened next?"
Trinity looked at the floor. "I guess I told Hailey to shut up."
"Is that all?" Julia asked knowingly.
Trinity gulped. She knew that she was going to be in trouble. "I ... called her a ... a rich bitch," Trinity admitted. She looked up at Julia, her eyes almost defiant. "I told her that someday, her daddy's money wasn't going to do any good, and then she'd find out that being a snob to people wasn't working any more, and she wouldn't have any friends."
Julia tried to keep from smiling with parental pride at how Trinity had stuck up for her little sister. "You didn't hit her, did you?"
"No," Trin said softly. Then she looked up, a defiant look in her eyes. "But I wanted to. I _should_ have!"
"No, you shouldn't have," Julia chided her softly. "You don't hit people, unless absolutely necessary, remember?"
Trinity nodded. "Yes, ma'am."
"Did you say something else?"
Trinity looked down again. "Yes, ma'am. I said that she'd be up a creek without a paddle."
Julia tried to keep from laughing, because she realized exactly what Trinity had said. "Were those the exact words you used?"
Trinity winced. "No, ma'am. I said she'd be up shit creek without a paddle," she admitted. "And I called her a snotty cow, too."
"I see." Julia decided it was time to shift the focus of the discussion. "How long did they tease Tracy before you said anything?"
Trinity looked up at her mom. "Most of lunch period," she answered. "And they had Tracy crying, and they were laughing at her."
"Was anyone else with you?"
"Beth," Trin answered quickly. "And Sally and Natalya were at my table, too."
"I think I understand what happened," Julia said. She patted Trinity on the shoulder. "Let's go talk to Mrs. Henderson and see what she has to say."
Mrs. Henderson, to Julia's surprise, was standing in the doorway of her office, listening to the conversation. Julia's first impression was that the woman had an over-inflated sense of her own importance, just from how she carried herself.
Julia decided to take the offensive. "I assume you heard Trinity's side of the story?" she asked the principal as Julia stood.
"Let's discuss this in my office," the principal replied. It was a transparent display of her power.
Julia and Trinity walked into the office and sat down across from the principal. She was using her desk as a throne, a display of her importance. Julia was unimpressed.
"Your daughter became verbally abusive toward a student today in the lunchroom," Mrs. Henderson said sharply, dispensing with the formalities. "She used some foul language, and threatened a girl."
"That's not true," Trinity started to protest, before Julia hushed her by placing her arm on Trinity's.
"Could you please provide more details than a general accusation?" Julia asked calmly.
"At lunch, she interrupted a conversation and began to call Hailey Wilcox names, using profanity, and then threatened physical harm if Hailey was seen talking to your other daughter."
Julia nodded for a moment. "That doesn't at all match the story my daughter told," she replied. "What do the other witnesses say?" She saw the principal's eyes widen. "Surely, if it was in the lunch room, there were other witnesses?"
"Trinity said that several other girls were nearby. They should be able to provide some insight as to what happened."
"We ... have the facts we need," Mrs. Henderson retorted angrily. "Because of the threat, I am suspending your daughter for three days."
Trinity felt a surge of panic. She glanced up at her mom, her mouth agape, stunned by the unfairness of what was happening.
Julia didn't flinch. "Mrs. Henderson, I understand that, as principal, you have to keep order in the school, and that you have to take threats seriously so you can protect the children. I may be only a secretary at a law firm, but even _I_ know that there is such a thing as due process, and schools are not allowed to ignore that."
Trinity glanced up at her mother, her mouth hanging open in astonishment at the way she was defending Trinity from being railroaded by the principal.
"If there were witnesses, they should have been interviewed to establish the facts. One of the girls is not telling the truth. If Trinity's story is true, then you are not only putting up with social bullying, but your actions condone it." She saw the principal pale slightly. "If she is lying, then she deserves punishment, not only for her actions here, but also by me for her lie." She took a deep breath. "I realize that the Wilcox and Edmunds families contribute a great deal to the PTA and other fundraisers, and I am, unfortunately, not in similar financial circumstances to help," Julia continued, her voice emotionless. "But if you think I'm going to sit by and let you railroad my daughter and impact her grades based on as-yet-unproven hearsay from wealthier girls, then you'd better think again."
"Are you threatening me?" Mrs. Henderson asked, her voice tinted by anger.
"No, Mrs. Henderson, I am not," Julia countered quickly and calmly. "I'm only saying that you may have a problem in your school with social bullying. And I don't think, given the news stories of the past few months, that you want that sort of negative publicity if, in fact, my daughter's story can be verified by witnesses."
Mrs. Henderson's eyes narrowed as she contemplated what Julia had said. She was clearly unhappy at what Julia had said. "Perhaps we should interview the other students," she said after a long, awkward silence.
Julia smiled. "That's all I ask."
"For now, there won't be a suspension, while we interview the other children."
"Thank you." Julia stood. "Now, I know you're very busy with other things, so if we're through for now, I'll take Trin home."
"Good day, Ms. Richards," Mrs. Henderson said as she stood, extending her hand to shake Julia's in a stiff, formal gesture. As soon as that was done, she sat back down and turned to her computer, indicating that Julia and Trinity were dismissed.
As they walked out of the building toward their car, Trinity started trembling. By the time she sat down, she was visibly shaking. She _knew_ that she was going to get in serious trouble for having caused her mom to miss some work.
Julia noticed, and she leaned and gave Trinity a hug. "I'm so proud of you," she said in a tender voice, "for standing up for your sister."
"I ... I thought you'd be mad," Trinity said as she started to sob.
"How could I be mad at my baby girl for defending her sister?" Julia answered. "You did what you thought was right, and you didn't lose your temper or do something stupid. That took a lot of courage, and a lot of self-discipline. How could I possibly be mad at you for that?" She smiled. "I know adults who couldn't have handled that kind of situation the way you did."
As she lay in bed late Tuesday night, Trinity’s cell phone buzzed. She bolted upright, and quickly picked up the phone from her nightstand, hoping that it wouldn’t wake up Tracy, who was sleeping soundly – she hoped – above her in the top bunk. She smiled to herself at the big hug she'd gotten from Tracy after they swapped beds. Tracy had called her "the best sister ever." Trin still felt warm inside at the love Tracy showed.
Trinity’s phone was a reminder of the family’s financial status; while other girls all had smartphones, she had a basic cell phone that did only text and calls. It was, as she’d discovered, a point that other girls, such as Deanna and Hailey, used to emphasize Trin’s and Tracy’s lower social status. Trinity huddled up on her bed, working the phone’s controls.
It was a text message. Trin wondered for a moment, and then she saw the number. It was from _her_.
“R u enjoying your time with your mistress?” Olivia had texted.
Trin’s mood instantly turned foul. “Why did u do this 2 me?” she texted back.
“U wanted time with your girlfriend. C U Sunday. Have fun.”
Trin shut off her phone and sat on her bed, fuming. Olivia knew how to get under her skin, and she was doing exactly that. What Trin wondered, though, was how Olivia had gotten Trin’s cell phone number.
For a moment, she thought of showing the harassing text message to Julia, but then she remembered that Julia knew nothing of Trin’s change. Reality had been altered, after all. Only Trin and Olivia knew, and Julia would probably think that Trin was crazy if she mentioned it. She wondered if, in this reality, her mom even knew about the magic of Bikini Beach. There would be no reason for her to know, because she wouldn't have gone there with Tyler, who didn't exist, or didn't exist anymore. Would he have existed? Trinity's head was starting to hurt from trying to figure out the reality change.
On the other hand, a text message from a strange woman late at night _could_ be considered threatening or harassing. Trin was stuck, and she fumed as she realized that Olivia was off somewhere, gloating at the predicament she’d put Tyler in. It was yet another demonstration of the power Olivia had over Tyler’s life, and Trin felt helpless, snared in a web not of her making. She fell asleep trying to figure out how to handle the offensive message from Olivia.
Trinity lay awake on her bottom bunk, trying to sort out her thoughts. The week so far had brought a jumble of emotions. She was thoroughly confused. She _should_ have been in serious trouble the other day for missing chores. Instead, her mom was making allowances for Trin to have a life outside the home, and was very appreciative of Trin's efforts. She _should_ have been in trouble for causing her mom to miss work and bail her out of trouble at school. Instead, her mom was proud of her to the point of tears for defending her sister.
"Tracy?" she whispered softly. There was no answer. She looked around, and saw a faint glow coming through the door; a light was on somewhere in the apartment.
Trinity slipped from beneath her covers and sat up, sliding her feet into her slippers. Quietly, so as not to disturb her sister, she crept out of the room, following the light to the kitchen.
Julia sat at the table, quietly writing checks to pay the bills from one stack, sliding the bill and check into the envelope, and placing the envelopes in another stack. It was neat, methodical work, and she was so engrossed that she didn’t notice Trinity standing nearby. The clock read just after eleven.
Trin glided silently to the table. “Can I help?” she asked softly.
Julia started at the interruption, and then smiled. “It’s way past your bedtime,” she admonished Trinity. Even her reminder was tender and caring.
“I couldn’t sleep,” Trinity said as she sat down beside her mother.
Julia chuckled. “I’m not surprised. You had a pretty busy couple of days.” She pushed the stack of completed envelopes in front of Trinity. “As long as you’re up, you can help.” She saw the look on Trinity’s face. “Just for a bit. You’ve got school tomorrow, remember?”
“Seal the envelopes, and then put stamps on them,” Julia directed.
After a couple of envelopes, Trinity spoke. “Mom, I was scared when I had to stand up to Deanna and Hailey.”
Julia nodded. “That’s understandable. Sometimes, when you do what you know is right, it _can_ be scary.”
“I was so afraid that you were going to be mad at me,” Trin admitted softly. “Or disappointed in me.”
Julia stopped and put her hand on Trin’s cheek. “No, sweetie,” she said reassuringly. “How could I be disappointed in you for sticking up for your sister?”
“You always told us to never get in fights,” Trin recalled.
Julia laughed softly. “I told you to not start a fight, but to fight when you had to.” She closed her eyes for a moment, lost in some distant memories. “In a lot of ways, you’re like your father, at least, the way he was when we first met.”
“Mom,” Trin asked, now curious, “someday, will you tell me about Dad?”
Julia leaned back and sighed. “I knew that someday, sooner or later, you’d ask, and that we’d have to talk.” She looked at her hands on the table, clearly not sure how to proceed. “Your dad was a very special man. He was kind and loving, and he cared very much for us.”
“What happened to him? Did he … leave us?”
Julia wiped the tears that suddenly came. “He … died in a car accident shortly after Tracy was born.”
Trin felt tears welling up in her own eyes. “Is that why you never talk about him?”
Julia nodded sadly. “That, and how much it reminds me of what could have been, if only he’d have been a little stronger.”
Trin frowned. “I don’t understand.”
Julia put her hands gently on Trin’s. “I guess you’re old enough to know.” She paused, searching for the right words and fighting her own emotions. “Your father and I … we … never got married.”
“Oh,” Trin said. For some reason, she felt disappointed, and very sad for her mother. “Did he love you?”
“Oh, he loved all of us very, very much!” Julia exclaimed softly. “He loved us all more than anything else.”
“Why didn’t you get married?” Trin asked, dreading the answer.
Julia looked down and bit her lip. Trin could feel her hands trembling. Finally, after what seemed an eternity, Julia looked back up. “He … we … had an affair.” She wiped her tears. “He … was already married.”
Trinity frowned. This was starting to sound too familiar. “Oh.”
Julia shook her head sadly. “She was a very mean woman, and she wasn’t nice to him.”
“Why didn’t he leave her?” Trin already knew the answer, but she figured that if she didn't ask, it would sound odd to her mother. On top of that, by this point in the conversation, she was curious to hear Julia's unvarnished views.
“I don’t know,” Julia said as she wiped her eyes again. “He wanted to, but at first, she and her family threatened him. After a while, I think he forgot how to stand up for himself, and he was just afraid of her.”
“Oh.” Trinity thought. “So Tracy and I are illegitimate?”
Julia’s eyes widened with surprise, but only for a moment, and then she smiled. “I prefer to say that I’m a single mother of the two most wonderful girls in the world.”
“Did you want to marry him?”
“Oh, yes, sweetie,” Julia said, unable to disguise the anguish in her voice. Some painful memories were being stirred by the conversation. “I wanted very much to marry him. Even if we’d have been poor, I’d have married him.”
“Did he want to marry you?”
Julia nodded slowly. “Yes, I’m sure he did. But he couldn’t get a divorce from his wife.” She made yet another futile attempt to dry her tears. “I never told you, but you girls look a lot like him.”
Trin paused, looking down at her mom’s hands still atop hers. “I wish I knew him.”
“So do I," Julia said.
Trinity looked at the task her mother was doing, late, and thought of all the chores associated with looking after two girls and running a household. “It’s hard work for you, isn’t it? Raising us, I mean?”
Julia smiled, nodding. “Yes, dear, it is. But you’re worth it.” She suddenly took her hands off Trinity’s, and turned her attention back to the bills. “It’s late. You need to go to bed.”
“Okay,” Trin said reluctantly. She stood and gave Julia a hug. “Nite, Mom,” she said softly, before she turned and padded back to her bed.
Saturday night, after a busy day that included a picnic in a park, playing by the seashore, and homemade pizza and a movie, the exhausted girls crawled into bed, weary but very happy.
Trin felt happy, happier than she’d ever felt. She felt at peace, very content being tucked into bed by her loving mother. Above her, in the top bunk, her sister, her best friend, was already asleep. She'd loved playing with Tracy. Her eyes closed slowly as sleep overtook her tired little body, but she went to sleep with a smile on her face.
The buzzing of her cell phone interrupted her sleep. She felt groggy, still half-asleep, as she sat up and looked at her phone. Suddenly, her eyes were wide open.
“U change at midnite. Get home.”
Trin swallowed and looked at the clock. It was a few minutes before midnight. Slowly, the pieces reassembled themselves in her mind. The pass was supposed to expire in a few minutes.
She pulled on her slippers, stood, and padded softly to the living room. Moonlight filtered through the vertical blinds, giving the room an eerie, shadowy appearance. Trin shuddered inwardly as she felt a tremor of unease. She was going to change back – and she didn’t know what else would change with it. She sank slowly into a wing chair, her hands resting on the arms and holding tight, like she was expecting a wild ride.
A faint tingling sensation was the first sign that things were changing. It spread quickly, and Trin found herself growing, stretching, as the magic wore off and she returned to Tyler’s form. She watched her hand as it swelled, growing from the delicate little-girl fingers to the rough, scarred hands of a grown man. She knew the rest of her was changing as well.
Tyler glanced up, and his eyes widened as he saw the entire room wavering. The sofa seemed to dissolve, until it was changed to the old sofa on which he remembered cuddling with Julia. The walls themselves seemed to become translucent for a moment, and then solidified. Around him, the room reformed, until it was Julia’s old apartment that she shared with Tracy.
Tyler’s clothes flowed like liquid around him, until the little-girl pajamas had become his customary casual pants and polo shirt. Slippers elongated and widened, the fuzzy material changing to fine leather.
In moments, it was over. Tyler glanced and saw Julia sleeping on the sofa, covered by a light blanket. Across from them, the television screen flickered, displaying the last image of the movie that had been playing.
Tyler’s phone buzzed in his pocket, and he pulled it out. Once again, it was his smartphone.
On the screen was a message from Olivia. “Get your ass home now.”
Tyler sighed heavily. It felt like the past week had been a dream, and now he’d returned to his nightmarish existence. Slowly, quietly, he lifted himself from the chair. He bent over and gave Julia a tender kiss on her cheek, and then padded to the door.
Tyler sat silently and rigidly in the breakfast nook, staring into the cup of coffee he was sipping. On a plate in front of him was a poached egg on a slice of toast – all cold and untouched.
“The trade show was fabulous,” Olivia crowed. “I had a great week. Did you enjoy your week with what’s-her-name?”
Tyler didn’t look up; he didn’t want her to have the pleasure of seeing him seethe and fume at her deliberate taunting, which he knew she was doing in a very deliberate and calculated manner.
“Aren’t you going to talk about your week? Surely, you had a good time.”
“You know what you did to my week,” Tyler replied acidly without looking up.
Olivia sat down opposite him. Her expression was almost frightening. “And just remember that,” she hissed. “I’m in charge. You play by _my_ rules.”
“Or what? I’ll have a convenient ‘accident’, like other people that have crossed your family?” Tyler snarled at her.
Olivia’s smile was particularly wicked. “Nothing so kind. If I catch you with your mistress again, I’ll have you change permanently into a little girl.” She saw him look up at her. “Only next time, you’ll be _my_ daughter!” Her eyes narrowed, and her lips curled into a sneer. “If you think it was hell being a poor girl, you haven’t seen anything!”
Tyler stared at her, his face clouded by anger. Slowly, he took another sip of coffee.
Olivia seemed more enraged that he hadn’t responded to her threat. “Your little affair is over, do you hear? It’s over now!”
“You know,” Tyler said, forcing his voice to remain calm and emotionless, “in some ways, you’re the worst of Miss Havisham and Estella.”
Olivia frowned. “What? What are you talking about?”
Tyler permitted himself a wry smile. “Surely you remember the English Lit class we took together in college? When we studied Dickens?" He wondered if she'd get the reference.
Olivia thought for a moment, trying to remember, and then suddenly she flew in to a rage, throwing her coffee cup at Tyler before she stormed from the kitchen. She paused in the doorway, grasping the door casing to steady her nerves. “It’s over! Do you hear me? It’s over! You will not call her, you will not e-mail her, you will not text her! It’s over!” she screamed as she slammed the door behind herself.
The distinctive ring of his cell phone interrupted Tyler’s brooding. He was sitting in his office, the door closed. His elbows rested on his cold, hard desk, and his hands supported his forehead as he stared unseeingly at the simulated wood surface.
He sighed heavily as he lifted his head and pried his cell phone from his front pocket. As soon as he saw the number, he pressed the button to refuse the call, and he sighed again as he shook his head.
Tyler went back to his brooding. What had happened to him during the week he’d been a little girl? Everything since then seemed so alien to him. Olivia seemed less tolerable. The job, and the management around him, seemed harsher and less pleasant. And he desperately missed Julia.
Tyler couldn’t help but wonder – did he miss her because she loved him as a man, or because she’d given him a mother’s love that he’d never had growing up? It had been so different – and pleasant – to have a mother hugging him and thanking him for doing chores, helping him with homework, and tucking him in at night.
He thought of Tracy, and of standing up to bullies to defend her. He remembered, being a young man, when he’d had to stand up to his brother's bullying. He shook his head. “How much did she take from me?” he asked himself softly. “How much did she destroy?” He couldn’t remember the last time that he’d stood up to Olivia, or to anyone, for that matter. Had Olivia cowed him that much, that he really was afraid of her? Was Julia right – that he was afraid to confront or leave Olivia?
Tyler sat upright suddenly. He closed his eyes and took a deep breath. As he stood, he glanced around the office. What kind of life was he leading? It all seemed so wasted, so futile, so joyless. Julia deserved better from him. Tracy deserved a loving father, not a part-time friend. And _he_ deserved more.
Tyler marched from his office. His secretary looked up, and she cleared her throat to get his attention, but a glance from him let her know that he didn’t want to be interrupted. “I’m going to take a long lunch,” he said simply. He continued straight for the entrance, pausing at the door to take off his badge and drop it unceremoniously in the trash can.
As he drove, Tyler was formulating a plan. His first destination was the bank, where he withdrew some money from his ‘stash’, a savings account where he’d been secretly depositing the excess ‘allowance’ that Olivia gave him. Next, he stopped by an Internet café. As he sipped another cup of coffee, he called up a specific website. He typed in a number, and then began typing a message.
“I’m leaving her. I’ll meet you when you get off work, and we’ll make plans.”
A few seconds later, a reply came. “I’ll meet you earlier.”
Tyler smiled. He typed in a suggested meeting place, and Julia quickly agreed.
It had been a long time since Tyler had felt as inwardly contented as he did walking from the Internet café.
The drive home was short, and, after confirming that Olivia was at work, he went to his closet and quickly pulled down some clothes. He did the same at his dresser, and then he retrieved a suitcase. Without bothering with neatness, he shoved the clothes in. A quick stop got his toiletries, and then he zipped the suitcase shut.
Nervously, Tyler carried the suitcase through the house, and in the garage, dumped it into the trunk of his car. He crawled in the car, and as he pressed the garage door opener, started his car. Automatically, he turned his head to back out of the garage.
Tyler’s heart sank. Olivia’s car was parked across the driveway, blocking him quite thoroughly in the garage. She stood behind his car, her arms crossed and an angry frown on her face.
Unable to move his car, at least for the moment, Tyler shut off the car and crawled out. He walked to Olivia, and defiantly faced her. “Out of my way,” he ordered.
“Where do you think you’re going?” she sneered. “Off to meet your little tramp?”
“I’m through with you, and your abuse,” Tyler snapped. “I’m leaving.”
“Oh, no, you’re not.”
“Don’t you get it? It’s over. I’m done with you.”
Olivia shook her head. “No, it’s not. It’s just beginning.” She glanced to her side.
Tyler’s scowl changed to surprise when a very large man in a dark suit climbed out of Olivia’s car. He was at least a head taller than Tyler, and probably outweighed him by sixty pounds – and all of that was muscle. His expression was so neutral that he could have been carved of stone.
“Do you want to do this the easy way, or the hard way?” Olivia sneered.
Tyler stood, breathing slowly and fuming inwardly. “You don’t own me,” he said evenly. “I’m leaving.”
Olivia shook her head. “If that’s the way you want to play it.” She turned to her ‘enforcer’. “Bruno, help Mister Lofton into my car.”
Tyler considered his options. He could bolt back into the house, then out through the patio and over the fence into the neighbor’s yard - except the neighbor had a very large, unfriendly dog. The other neighbors – Tyler considered that, perhaps when he was younger, he could have scrambled over the high fence, but now, not having kept in peak shape, it was doubtful. The back yard was completely fenced, so he couldn't go out the back and then escape around the house. He was thoroughly trapped. Nonetheless, he had to try. He bolted to the door into the house, slamming it shut and locking it behind him. That would slow down ....
A large pair of arms encircled him. Tyler felt stupid – of course Olivia would have another 'associate' just to cut off an escape. Some of her family ties were on the thuggish side, so she'd probably learned the tricks of using 'enforcers' at a young age.
Olivia opened the door with her key like she was coming home from the club, nonchalantly and in no hurry. She didn't deign to even look at Tyler as she strode into the house, followed closely by Bruno. She paused, lost in thought. "I was going to have you be about ten. But six sounds a little better. It'll give you a few more years to know that _I'm_ in charge." She turned to Tyler. "I think I'll have the guest room done over. Maybe a canopy bed, with pink and white ruffles on the linens. Would you like that, dearie?"
If looks could have killed, Olivia and Tyler would have slain each other on the spot. Tyler stood, held like he was in concrete, but his head held defiantly erect. He refused to be cowed by her, or to let her taunts get to him. Inwardly, he was already thinking of ways that he could escape her evil clutches, even if he had to do it as a six-year old girl.
"You just wouldn't learn, would you?" Olivia snarled. "I gave you everything. I made you. And now, I'm going to destroy you."
"I'm not going to let you win again," Tyler spat angrily. "Two can play at this game."
Olivia laughed in his face. "I'll find the strictest live-in nanny for you. I'll have you in whatever classes I need to mold you into the perfect little submissive girl. And if that fails, I'll send you to the toughest boarding school I can afford." She grinned. "And that's pretty much any school I want." She reached up and held his jaw. "And I'll ruin that little tramp of yours, too," she said with an evil glare.
"Let her go. She's not ..." Tyler started to protest.
"She's just as guilty as you are!" Olivia shouted. "Well, maybe she'll have an easier time making ends meet when she doesn't have to worry about paying rent after it's discovered that she's been embezzling from her workplace. The state will give her three square meals and a lovely orange wardrobe. And I'm sure her brat will do very nicely in a foster home or an orphanage after mommy is sent away as a felon."
Tyler blanched. He knew she was evil enough to frame Julia just for spite. He felt sick inside. He'd finally gotten up the nerve to leave her, but his failed attempt was going to cost Julia and Tracy dearly. It was completely within Olivia's character to have Julia framed for a crime she didn't commit. He knew Olivia wouldn't rest until she completely destroyed their lives, too.
Tyler nervously took the pass from Olivia's outstretched hand as she glared at him with an evil sneer. Tyler gulped as he felt the strong hand clamped around his upper arm. The arm belonged to one of the two enforcers who'd been with Olivia at the house. Tyler glanced to the side, and saw the man standing there like a statue in a dark suit, firmly grasping Tyler in case he decided to try to run. There was not a hint of expression on the man's face, but his eyes had a cold determination.
"Go ahead, _dear_," Olivia taunted him. "You like this place so much, I got you the lifetime pass that you wanted. Now go in and get changed."
Tyler gulped again. Olivia had made her threat, and now she was carrying it out. Silently, he was escorted to the turnstile by the enforcer. He glanced around, hoping to see either the girl Anya or the old woman. Sadly, he saw neither. In fact, no-one seemed at all surprised at seeing him half-dragged through the turnstile. Bruno clamped his hand like a vice over Tyler's and forced him to swipe the card that Olivia had given him. Then Bruno swiped his own card.
"Don't try to run," the man said in an emotionless tone. "You can't get away."
At the door, he paused, looking back at Olivia. The wicked glare she gave him confirmed that he had no way out. With no further word, he stepped into the locker room.
Tyler knew what was going to happen. He wondered, for a moment, if Bruno knew. Somehow, he doubted it. Olivia wouldn't tell her 'associates' any more than they needed to know, which in this case, wasn't much. Maybe he could use that to his advantage.
Bruno dragged Tyler to one of the shower stalls. He pulled the curtain aside. "Inside," he said simply.
Tyler reached in and turned the handle, starting the spray of water, the spray that would seal his fate as Olivia's young daughter.
As he started to step in, he ducked suddenly, raising his elbow hard toward Bruno's solar plexus. He connected, and judging from the "oof" coming from the giant, Tyler knew that he'd connected. He twisted, breaking his arm free of Bruno's grasp, and stepped to one side of the shower. Bruno recovered quickly, and he turned, just in time to get punched again, this time toward his windpipe. Tyler knew how to fight dirty, and he knew he needed to put the big man down, and quickly. Bruno, however, wasn't completely stunned by the first blow, and he deflected Tyler's punch. As he turned, however, he received a side-kick to his knee.
Tyler punched again, aiming for spots he knew, from street fighting, to be vulnerable, or even lethal. He was amazed. That kick to Bruno's knee should have dropped him, but the big man still stood. Grinning sadistically, he easily absorbed Tyler's blows, and then started toward Tyler, his fists raised in a boxing pose as he balanced carefully on his feet. Tyler wasn't going to take him by surprise again. Tyler jabbed, and connected with Bruno, to no affect.
"Don't make this harder on yourself than it needs to be," Bruno grunted. "You can't get away."
"Do you know what's going to happen to you?" Tyler asked as he backed further from the advancing man. "The water is going to turn you into a girl, just like Olivia wants it to do to me."
Bruno laughed. "Bullshit!" he roared.
Tyler swung, and connected with Bruno's jaw. The only result was a sharp pain in Tyler's hand; the big man seemed unaffected. Tyler swung again, and the big man simply caught his fist.
As Bruno dragged Tyler toward the shower, Tyler knew he was screwed. There was nothing he could do. Except ...
As Bruno pushed against Tyler, who'd wedged his body so he wouldn't go in the shower, Tyler desperately reached into the shower stall and grabbed at a bottle of one of the wash products. He reached toward where he thought the big man's face was and squirted.
The pressure on his arm relaxed suddenly as Bruno, blinded as he was by a face-full of crème rinse, wiped frantically at his face. At the same time, Tyler brought his knee sharply up into Bruno's crotch. The big man doubled over, blinded and in pain.
Tyler ducked to one side of the shower stall, grabbed the big man's jacket, and pushed him forward, head-first, into the running water.
Instinctively, Tyler backed away from the shower stall. It would take time for the magic to do its work, and until Bruno was changed, he knew he was still vulnerable. But even as he backed away, he felt a familiar tingling, and with a sickening feeling in his heart, he looked down at his arm. The bottle of hair rinse fell to the floor as Tyler sank back onto a bench, staring aghast at the wetness on his sleeve. He hadn't escaped, after all.
Tyler knew what Olivia intended his fate to be, and he trembled at the thought of her evil plan. He saw the pink mist spreading from the shower to fill the locker room, and he knew he was starting to change. He lost height and mass as his body shrank quickly, and his hair grew until it was suitable for a young girl. He sighed as he watched his hands grow slimmer and more feminine.
Behind him, Tyler heard a strange croak come from Bruno's mouth, and he turned to see the large man quickly losing both height and weight as his muscles melted away, replaced by the shapely curves of a young lady. Bruno looked down at his body, now draped comically by his large suit, and he screamed again. This time, the scream was higher in pitch, and as Tyler watched, Bruno's clothes began to mold around him, until the enforcer was attired in a very skimpy bikini.
Bruno looked at himself in horror, seeing what he'd become. He looked up at Tyler, his eyes pleading and confused. He tried to speak again, but all his addled mind could do was scream.
Knowing that he'd have to face her eventually, Tyler ignored the panic-stricken, changed enforcer and stepped around the corner to the exit, toward the damning mirror that would show him his fate, and to where he knew Olivia would be waiting to gloat.
His mouth dropped open at how young he was. He knew that Olivia had carried out her threat to make him about six. He was a very small girl now, just as she'd planned. Small, and weak, and helpless before Olivia and her anger and vindictiveness. He felt faint, and slowly, darkness closed in around him. The last thing he remembered was the girl, Anya, reassuring him that everything would be okay as she caught him, keeping him from falling.
An acrid smell pierced his senses, causing him to cough violently and flinch from the source. As if a light switch had been snapped on, Tyler's eyes snapped open. "What...?" he started to ask, not surprised at the little girl's voice that came from his throat.
"Shh," a very gentle voice assured him. "You're okay. You just fainted."
He turned, and saw a lovely young lady, in a blaze-orange T-shirt with the medical caduceus and a red cross on her sleeves. The inevitable "Bikini Beach" logo was printed on the front of her shirt. "I'm Dr. Chastity," the lady said. The lady seemed very large in comparison to him; he knew that he was much younger and smaller than the last time he'd been changed.
"What ... happened?" Tyler asked, still confused.
Dr. Chastity glanced at the old woman and at Anya, and then smiled back at Tyler. "You fainted. Maybe the change was too much of a shock for you." She stood slowly. "I think you'll be fine, now. I want you to rest here for ten or fifteen minutes to make sure you're okay, and if you feel faint or dizzy again, have someone come and get me." She strode easily to the doorway into the park. "I've got to get over to the wave pool. Someone injured an ankle." She excused herself.
Tyler assessed his situation. He was in what appeared to be a first-aid clinic, lying on a sofa. "Where ... is she?" he stammered uncertainly as he pushed himself up to a sitting position.
"I'm right here," Olivia answered in a demeaning tone, "dear." She stepped into view, a sneer already on her lips. "I told you to behave, but you wouldn't."
Tyler's heart sank. Olivia had won. She felt tears welling up in the corners of her eyes as she contemplated her new plight, and, more importantly, what Olivia had threatened to do to Julia and Tracy. He glanced around the room, looking for anything that indicated she might escape Olivia's punishment, and she saw the old woman give her a wink.
Olivia leaned over next to Tyler. "Are you sure you're okay, Vanessa?" she asked, emphasizing the feminine name. She grinned with satisfaction when she saw Tyler wince. "Vanessa is such a pretty girl's name, isn't it?" she whispered to Tyler. "And I'm going to make sure that you're a very pretty, very obedient little girl. And when you get older, I'll make you into whatever I want you to be. I want you to always remember that – I'm in complete control of who – and what – you are!" She was gloating.
"Ms. Carston," the old woman interrupted, sounding completely businesslike. "Anya told me that there were a couple of minor errors on your and your daughter's applications. Since your daughter has to rest a bit, why don't you and I walk over to the office and make sure all the paperwork is in proper order? Anya can stay here to make sure that your daughter is okay."
Olivia nodded. "Yes, I think that would be wise. After Vanessa's fainting spell, I'd like to get her home so she can rest some more." She was almost chortling with joy at her triumph over Tyler.
As soon as the two older women had left, Anya sat down next to the little girl, who was crying. "How could you let her do this to me?" she bawled. "Do you know what she's doing? She threatened Julia and Tracy!"
Anya gave Vanessa a reassuring hug. "It'll be okay. She didn't pull one over on us."
"But ...?" the girl was confused.
Anya smiled. "What's your name?"
"Vanessa Taylor Carston," the girl replied automatically, her eyes widening as she spoke. It was just like before – she knew, with a sickening certainty, that reality had changed.
"But what's your _real_ name?" Anya asked with a smile.
"Tyler Lofton." Vanessa's eyes widened. "How ...?" Her mouth hung open in astonishment. "Last time ...."
Anya patted Vanessa's hands. "I told you, she didn't pull one over on us. Your pass is only for one week."
"One week?" Vanessa said, a spark of hope stirring in her eyes. "And then I change back?" She suddenly realized that the old woman had used the 'paperwork' to allow Anya time to talk alone with Vanessa.
Anya nodded affirmatively. "But you have some very important things to do in that week," she added.
"Normally, when we change reality, everything changes. But this was a very complicated spell, because only parts of reality changed." Anya's enigmatic comment confused the girl.
"I don't understand."
"You were gathering some data, weren't you? As Tyler, I mean?"
Vanessa nodded slowly. "I ... felt like I better protect myself – because some of what that family does is ...."
Anya nodded her understanding. "I know. They play dirty. And you were wise to document things to protect yourself."
"So the files ... still exist?"
"When we changed you, we didn't delete all of Tyler. The files still exist on your computer at work and in the computer at home."
"So I need to get those files, right?"
"Yes," Anya confirmed. "But there's more."
"How good can you act? Because you're going to have to act like you're a sullen, defeated, angry little girl. Olivia has to be confident that she's winning, and that your will is crumbling. You can't act like you immediately accept the change, or else she'll get suspicious."
"I think I understand." Vanessa had a sudden, horrifying thought. "What about Julia and Tracy? She's going to ...."
Anya smiled. "She's planning to frame Julia for embezzling. I know. It'll take her time to set it up, though, so Julia and Tracy will be safe."
Vanessa's worried look vanished. She trusted Anya and Grandmother to take care of Julia, and to help her out of this mess. She didn't have any choice.
"I'll explain how this will work, so you understand," Olivia glared down at Vanessa, who was seated on a very girlish bed with, as Olivia had threatened, pink and white ruffled linens on a white canopy bed. "First, you will refer to me as 'mother' whenever you speak to me. Do you understand?"
"Yes," Vanessa answered softly. Olivia held Vanessa's chin so the girl couldn't help but look up at her.
"Yes, what?" Olivia demanded, frowning.
"Yes, ... mother," Vanessa said softly. The way Olivia was holding her chin was painful, and tears formed in the corners of her eyes, adding authenticity to her acting.
Olivia grinned triumphantly. "Second, you will obey me exactly in everything."
"Yes, mother," Vanessa answered again. Tears were starting to stream down her cheeks, but Olivia didn't need to know they were from pain. It would be enough for her to think that Vanessa was crying at her plight.
"You get three strikes. If you disobey more than three times, I _will_ send you to a very strict private boarding school. Do you understand?"
"You will never, ever wear anything that isn't girlish. If you have jeans, they will be very feminine jeans. The same is true for your shirts and blouses. Once a week, we will go shopping for clothes for you, and you will pick out the most feminine looking clothes you can find, and then you'll wear them. Understood?"
"You will not be allowed to have your hair cut shorter than shoulder length, and you will always have a very feminine haircut. As soon as we're done here, we'll go have your ears pierced, and as soon as you can, you'll start wearing very feminine earrings. You will wear a necklace. Once you get a little older, you will wear makeup whenever you can. Understood?"
"Yes, mother." If she hadn't known of the plot, Vanessa would have been crying at how Olivia was intending to humiliate her.
"Every day, you will spend ten minutes in front of a mirror, nude, and during that time, you will repeat over and over that you are a pretty girl and that you love being a pretty girl – loud enough that I can hear you." Olivia was nearly chortling with delight at the tortures she was outlining for her 'girl'. "You'll be on a strict diet to ensure that you always have a slender, girlish figure."
"Yes, mother," Vanessa answered softly. After only a few minutes, it was already becoming automatic to add the word "mother" when she answered Olivia.
"If I catch you doing anything tomboyish, your time in front of the mirror will triple for a week. Understood?"
"Good. When you get older, you'll spend time becoming more intimate with your female body, and learning to love it. I have you enrolled at St. Theresa's school. Your books are on your desk," she tilted her head toward a white desk in a corner, that matched the other furniture. "After dinner, and every school night, you will spend at least one hour with your homework. If you don't have homework, you will spend the time either reviewing your material, or doing get-ahead work."
"Now change for dinner. I want to see you wearing the girliest dress that you have, and I want your hair curled before you come to the table. I'm going to talk to the cook about your dietary needs. After dinner, we'll talk to your nanny about your expected behavior." She let go of Vanessa's chin, stood, and walked to the door. "Dinner will be served in thirty minutes. That gives you time to shower, spend your ten minutes in front of the mirror, get dressed, and get your hair done." She frowned menacingly. "Don't be late. And I want to hear you."
"Yes, mother," Vanessa replied dutifully. She watched Olivia leave the room, and took a moment to consider Olivia's devious scheme. Was she going to program Vanessa to be a Stepford wife? Or was her goal to program her to be a slut? Perhaps she was doing as Ms. Havisham did in Dickens' novel, Great Expectations, and program Vanessa into being a man-hating, cold-hearted bitch – just like she was. Vanessa shuddered inwardly, grateful beyond measure that Anya and the old woman had interrupted Olivia's plans.
Vanessa glanced nervously down the hall, and then slid herself into the chair by the computer desk. Olivia was at the gym, the cook was busy fixing dinner, and her nanny thought that Vanessa was doing homework. She moved the mouse, bring the computer to life from its hibernated state.
She felt her stomach turn when she saw the choices of logins. There was one for the administrator, one for Olivia, and one for "staff", but not one for Tyler. She mentally smacked herself – of course there wouldn't be one for Tyler. In this partial-reality-change, leaving a login for Tyler would have been a tipoff to Olivia that something wasn't quite right.
Vanessa thought quickly. The "staff" login would have very limited access. Olivia was smart enough to have changed her password. That left only the administrator login. Vanessa wished that she'd paid more attention when the technician from the company had installed the computers. He'd told them both the administrator password – if only Vanessa could remember.
Out of the blue, a thought struck him – Olivia had a poor memory for computer things, so she'd probably written down the password somewhere. Vanessa started rifling through the drawers, looking for something – anything – that resembled a password. Two pieces of paper yielded nothing; the computer didn't recognize any of the information as a password.
She stared hopelessly at the monitor, wondering what she was going to do now. She was sunk. In less than twelve hours, she was going to change back, and this was her only chance to get the data. During the past week, she hadn't had any time alone, except at night when she was sleeping.
"Where would she put it?" Vanessa muttered to herself. She struggled to get Tyler's memories; as the week had progressed, under Olivia's regimen of feminine programming and critique, she found it more and more difficult to access his memories as the brainwashing slowly took its toll. She'd even started to despair of remembering _any_ of Tyler's memories when the week ended, or of even getting alone long enough to get the data. She knew that Olivia's program of brainwashing was having its effect; Vanessa didn't know how long she could hold out before she forgot Tyler and was thinking of herself _only_ as a pretty girl.
As she leaned back, sighing heavily in frustration, she suddenly had a flash of recall. She turned the keyboard upside down, and there, as Tyler's memory told her, was taped a password. She quickly memorized the relatively-simple password, then turned the keyboard back over and typed it in.
Vanessa sighed with relief when the computer accepted the password. She pulled a thumb drive from her pocket and inserted it into the USB port, then opened an Explorer window and began to search for the hidden directory. In no more than five minutes, the incriminating data was all copied to the thumb drive. Vanessa took the drive out and logged out of the computer. After standing, she carefully moved everything – keyboard, mouse, monitor, and chair, back to the way they'd been. She eased her way quietly to the door and opened it a crack.
The coast was clear. Vanessa slipped out of the study and tiptoed back down the hall toward her bedroom.
She paled when she heard the tell-tale double-chirp of the house alarm, which was wired to sound an alert whenever a door or window was opened. That could only mean that Olivia was home. She glanced down the hall – if, as usual, Olivia had been at the gym, she'd come directly back to her master suite to shower, which gave Vanessa only a couple of seconds to get to her room. If Olivia caught her running down the hall, she'd be suspicious.
Fighting the panic, Vanessa ducked into her bathroom. She _had_ to find a way to hide the thumb drive; Olivia might decide to have her change outfits on a whim, and the staff would clean up dirty clothes and the bathroom.
"Vanessa!" Olivia called from the hall. "Where are you?"
"I'm in the bathroom, mother," Vanessa answered fearfully. It wasn't an act any longer; Olivia's intimidation tactics were having an effect on the girl. She quickly pulled down her panties, hiked up her dress, and sat on the toilet.
"We're going out for dinner tonight," Olivia directed. "Do your mirror exercises, and then I've got a new outfit for you to wear tonight." Olivia opened the door and glared at the girl. "As soon as you're done, strip down and do your exercises. Then put on this." She hung a very frilly dress on the door. "And I got you a very girly new pair of panties, too."
"Yes, mother," Vanessa replied automatically.
"And I want your hair extra-curly today, understand?"
Olivia closed the door partway so she'd be able to hear Vanessa.
Vanessa breathed a sigh of relief as she flushed the toilet and then slid the thumb drive into the folded pair of new panties on the vanity. Shaking her head sadly, she pulled off her clothes, placed them in a hamper, and stepped before the full-length mirror.
The little girl stood, naked, in front of the mirror, and quickly assumed the posture that Olivia had demanded of her – shoulders squared and back, and chest out. She looked in the mirror. "I am a pretty girl," she began to recite. "I love being a pretty girl." As she repeated the line, over and over, tears started seeping from her eyes. It was humiliating, and it was effective. After a few days, the conditioning had started to take effect. Whenever Vanessa looked in any mirror, she was automatically saying, if only in her mind, "I am a pretty girl. I love being a pretty girl." Slowly, even knowing that it was temporary, Olivia was driving Tyler from Vanessa's mind and molding the little girl into what _she_ wanted.
Just after midnight, Vanessa awoke to a tingling feeling in her body. She bolted upright, and then quickly pulled off the lacy nighty that Olivia was making her wear, before it constricted her body. She felt the tingling running through her body, and as she watched in the ghostly shadows, she could see herself growing bigger. In a minute or two, it was all over, and Tyler sat naked on a little girl's bed.
For a moment, Tyler pondered how he was going to escape the house naked. Then he remembered that the Bikini Beach magic had altered clothing as well. His brow wrinkled; that set of changes was the 'total reality change' that the magic had done. But Anya had said that this change was partial. Would she remember to get him clothes?
He needn't have worried. A set of man's clothes was neatly arranged in the spot where Olivia had set out Vanessa's clothing for tomorrow. Tyler slipped on his clothes, noting with satisfaction that his keys and wallet were in his pants. He carried his shoes; he didn't want any sound on the hardwood floors to tip off Olivia. She'd always been a light sleeper, and he worried that she'd awaken before he could make his escape. In his stocking feet, he cautiously tip-toed through the house, to the door into the garage.
Once more, Tyler winced. The alarm keypad was right there, but he had no idea if Olivia had changed the code. She probably had, just to keep her "daughter" trapped so she couldn't run away. But had the magic changed it back? And Tyler knew that whenever a key was pressed, there was a beep from the system to confirm a key press. One of the control stations was in the master bedroom, and Olivia would hear any beeps.
Tyler had to risk it. When he'd changed to Vanessa, his Lexus vanished. Now that he was back, it might, or might not, be in the garage. The key was certainly in his pocket, so he was confident that the car would be there as well. It was an all-or-nothing gamble; once the alarm controls started to beep, he had only a couple of minutes to get out the door, into a car, and out of the driveway.
Tyler took a deep breath, and then pressed the buttons. As expected, the system beeped, and after he pressed the final key in the sequence, the alarm indicated that it was disarmed. Even as he opened the door, he heard noise in the house, indicating that Olivia was stirring – as expected. He slipped through the door, pulling it shut behind him, and slapped the garage door opener.
Anya was as thorough as she'd promised; his Lexus was in the garage, as he'd hoped. He started it, drove out of the garage, and out onto the street – and freedom. Behind him, he knew that Olivia was going to be screaming in rage – and the thought gave him satisfaction.
The businesswoman stopped by the reception desk. She was very neatly attired – professionally and attractively, and she exuded an air of power. She looked to be about forty, but Tyler knew that she was older. She obviously kept herself in shape physically, and from the stature of her business, mentally as well. She was attractive in the way of an older woman who carried herself with an air of grace and charm. At the moment, however, she also looked very happy at having her day interrupted.
Tyler watched as the security guard pointed his direction. He felt self-conscious in his business-casual attire, especially meeting the woman, as Anya had directed. Still, he didn't have much choice – not yet, anyway.
The businesswoman walked slowly toward him. Tyler knew she was doing a mental assessment of him even as she put a smile on her face. He stood, and when she neared and extended her hand, he shook hands graciously.
"Mister Lofton?" the woman asked.
"Yes," Tyler answered. He was far more nervous than he showed. "Anya and her grandmother suggested that you might be able to help me out."
The woman's face softened at Anya's name. "I'm Ronnie Harris," she replied.
"Yes, I know. Everyone knows who you are."
Ronnie smiled. "The price of success and notoriety, I guess. And I know all about you. Your reputation as a tough, but fair, negotiator precedes you."
Tyler was taken aback. He knew that she'd check on him, but hadn't quite expected her to know as much as she apparently did. "I try."
"And you work for Carston Enterprises," Ronnie continued, "by virtue of your marriage to Olivia Carston."
"Soon to be former marriage," Tyler answered.
Ronnie's eyebrows rose. "Oh?"
"Perhaps we should talk somewhere a little less ... public?" Tyler suggested.
Ronnie nodded. "Why don't we go up to my office and continue this discussion."
Ronnie didn't press any more discussion in the elevator, nor when they walked into the outer office. "Sarah," she addressed a very professional – and competent – looking secretary busily typing at her computer, "could you get coffee for Mr. Lofton and myself?"
Sarah nodded simply and turned from her computer. With the secretary following, Ronnie led Tyler into her office.
Tyler's eyes widened as he took in her office. He'd seen wealth and power displayed at the Carston Enterprises headquarters, but even the most lavish Carston office paled in comparison to Ronnie's. Behind her large solid-wood desk, large windows gave a stunning view of downtown, with the seashore and the marina in the background. A couple of small palm trees framed the window. One wall was filled with a bookcase, with impressive keepsakes, busts, and leather-bound books arranged attractively. Opposite the bookcase, two doors led to what Tyler guessed were a bathroom and a private apartment. All the furniture, from the massive chair behind the desk, to the smaller chairs in front of it, and the informal sofa and wing chairs, were covered in burgundy leather.
"Have a seat, Mister Lofton," Ronnie indicated the casual sitting area. She gracefully sat in one of the wing chairs.
Tyler sat on the sofa, feeling very self-conscious. Ronnie's suit was exquisitely tailored, in marked contrast to his casual pants and short-sleeve shirt. "Thank you."
"Would you care for coffee, tea, or a soft drink?" the secretary asked.
"Right now," Tyler admitted, "I think I'd prefer a 7-up."
Ronnie laughed lightly. "I take it you're a bit nervous?"
"It's not every day that one meets with the head of a major business, such as yourself," Tyler replied.
"And yet, you dealt with the upper management of Carston Enterprises for years," Ronnie countered.
Tyler smiled. "Touche."
"So tell me, why would the owner of my favorite water park – and a personal friend - call me and ask me for a favor in meeting with you?" Ronnie asked bluntly.
"She ... called you?" Tyler stammered.
Ronnie smiled. "How about if you start at the beginning?" she prompted. "And, just in case you're wondering if your tale would be unbelievable, I _do_ happen to know how ... magical ... the park can be."
Twenty minutes later, Ronnie took another sip of coffee. "What do you need from me?" she asked, blunt again.
Tyler was taken aback – again. "To tell you the truth," he admitted softly, "I'm not really sure."
Ronnie laughed. "Honesty. I like that." She set her coffee cup down. "Okay, let's start with the easy one. In my opinion, you need to take that thumb drive to the district attorney." She saw Tyler's eyes widen, and she nodded. "It's been very strongly rumored, in the business world, that Carston was skating on the edge of the law, if not breaking it. If what you say is true, and you have documentation of it, as you say, the DA needs to know."
Tyler winced visibly. "They ... have a reputation for, um, getting even."
Ronnie nodded. "Which is why you need to go to the DA. You might want to send a copy of the data to the Securities and Exchange Commission and the federal prosecutor's office, too – just in case the DA is a friend of Carston."
"All I want to do is get away from Olivia, so she can't hurt me – or Julia – anymore."
"She's a first-class bitch," Ronnie's expression wasn't polite. "And that's the most polite thing I can say about her." She sighed. "If you want to get out from under her thumb, you need to make sure she has no power. The only way to do that is to take away her money – and her power will evaporate with it."
"That sounds pretty ... ruthless."
Ronnie nodded. "And what are they? Marshmallows?" She shook her head. "You're dealing with a family that's as close to a crime family as we have. They wrote the book on ruthless. You know that Olivia will use any resources at her disposal to get even. She won't give up."
Tyler nodded sadly. "I know."
"Second, as a favor to Grandmother and Anya, I can have my lawyers draw up divorce papers for you. With my name behind it, I don’t think she'd dare fight."
"I'd be in your debt if you could help."
Ronnie smiled. "It's a favor, remember?"
"Thank you," Tyler said simply.
"To be honest," Ronnie continued, "I'd love to hire you on my team. But I can't. Not if things go to the DA and the SEC. It would look pretty ... fishy. And you've probably got a non-compete clause in effect."
Tyler laughed. "Yeah, that's what I figured. That's why I didn't ask for a job. Besides, I've stashed away quite a bit from Olivia's 'allowance' that I can go several months before I need a job."
Olivia stormed into the office, her face a mask of rage. "What did you do with her? Where is my Vanessa?" she demanded of Grandmother even before the old woman could speak. "You ... she ..." She was speechless in her anger.
Grandmother gestured to a chair. "Sit down," she ordered. She didn't move from her 'power position' behind her desk.
Olivia glared at her, then slowly took a seat opposite the old woman's desk.
Grandmother gestured toward Anya. "You know my granddaughter, Anya?" she prompted.
"Yes." Olivia's glare was even harsher. "Now what did you do with my daughter?"
Grandmother smiled. "If you mean your former husband, Tyler, then I assure you that he's just fine."
"I paid for a lifetime membership! You didn't follow through on your end of the contract!" Olivia snarled.
"You tried to use my magic for your own perverse ends," Grandmother retorted, her voice even and unnaturally calm. "I don't like it when people try to pull one over on me."
"You're in breach of a contract," Olivia said accusingly. "I'll have my lawyers ...."
Grandmother's smile was unnerving. "Oh, please do! There's nothing I like more than making monkeys out of lawyers. First of all, I think you'll find that all your lawyers – and your company's lawyers – are suddenly extremely busy with other things. Second, I dare you to try to convince a lawyer to argue that I breached a contract to _magically_ turn your husband into a six-year-old girl. Third, based on what I was told, your conduct toward 'Vanessa' could easily be considered child abuse, and I don't think you would dare have _that_ exposed in court."
"What ... what do you want?" Olivia was rattled; her voice was wavering and uncertain.
"It's not what I want," Grandmother said simply. She pushed a button on her phone. "Come in, please."
The door opened, and Olivia paled. "What ...? What's going on?" she stammered, for once at a loss for words.
"Simple," Tyler said as he strode easily across the office and sat casually. "I'm done with you and your meddling and controlling attitude." He was carrying a plain folder.
"We have .... You can't ...."
Tyler smiled pleasantly. "You'll sign these divorce papers," he said as he handed Olivia the folder. "And you'll sign a consent decree that you won't interfere in any way with Julia, myself, or Tracy."
"So, it's about your little slut," Olivia hissed.
Tyler didn't let himself be rattled. He pulled a thumb drive from his pocket and held it for Olivia to see. "You can do this the easy way, or you can do it the hard way. The easy way is to sign the papers, and I give you this. The hard way is to fight, in which case I give this data to the district attorney and the federal prosecutor." He smiled. "You see, over the years, I've been collecting data about how your family operates their businesses. On this thumb drive are files that personally implicate you."
Olivia was white as a sheet. "That's ... blackmail. You'd threaten my entire family ... and our businesses ... for _her_?"
Tyler grinned. "You misunderstand. The data about your family's business has already gone to the DA and the federal prosecutor, and the SEC. That data doesn't tie you in to what will, according to the DA, be a rather large scandal and prosecution." He waved the thumb drive. "This data _does_ tie you in - personally. So, you give me what I want, and I give you the thumb drive, and you get to escape direct implication in the ... mess."
Olivia glared at Tyler for several long seconds, before she took the folder. After a cursory examination of the papers, she pulled a pen from her purse, signed and dated the documents, and put them back in the folder.
Tyler took the folder. "Thank you," he said simply. Even after what she'd done to him, his words were kind and non-judgmental. He handed her the thumb drive, and then rose and walked out of the office, a happy smile on his face and a bounce in his step, both of which had been missing from his life for far longer than he could remember.
"Why?" Olivia angrily demanded. "Why did you get involved? It wasn't any of your business."
"It became my business when you tried to use my park's magic," she said. "You paid to exact your own perverse type of justice on a man who tried, desperately, to love you and be loved by you. Instead," she continued, "you treated him as a toy, a plaything, a man whose spirit you could crush for your own sadistic pleasure."
"And you took delight in taking away the one source of refuge he had, the one woman who gave him the love he so needed and deserved," Anya added. Her tone wasn't pleasant. "You couldn't be happy, so you wanted to make sure he shared your misery."
"He ... he ... he cheated on me!" Olivia tried to protest.
"Only after you pushed him away," Grandmother retorted angrily.
"He took everything from me!" Olivia complained. "With the investigations, my family will lose everything."
"Your ex didn't take everything," Anya countered. "Even after everything you did to him, he was generous enough to not implicate you directly. He let you avoid prosecution, and possibly prison."
Grandmother watched as Anya's words sank into Olivia. She'd never considered just how generous Tyler had been all these years. "Now, leave, please," Grandmother said insistently. "I have a business to run, and I'm through dealing with you and your petty childishness. I don't want to _ever_ see you at my park again."
Grandmother gave Julia a hug, and then repeated the gesture for Tyler, who stood next to her. "This is such a wonderful day for the two of you," she said, smiling.
Julia, in a flowing white wedding dress, beamed with joy. She had one arm around Tyler's waist, as if she was never going to let go of him again. "Thank you. Thank you for all your help." Around them, the wedding guests were talking and enjoying themselves as the reception continued noisily and happily.
Grandmother smiled. "It was my pleasure."
Ronnie Harris joined Grandmother congratulating the newlyweds. "Congratulations."
"Thank you," Tyler said warmly. "I appreciate your advice."
Ronnie smiled. "Actually, when I gave you the advice, I had ulterior motives."
"Oh?" Tyler's eyebrows rose in surprise. "Was it so you could leverage a buyout of Carston?"
Ronnie shook her head, still smiling. "No, that was just a fortunate opportunity. Actually, I was hoping I could convince you to bring your talents to work for me."
Tyler was even more surprised. "You know I just got a job with a consulting firm, right?"
Ronnie nodded. "I know. But why don't you schedule an appointment and we'll see if we can do something better? I know that, with a new family, you won't want to be traveling so much, and I think I can make a better offer. I'm going to have a lot of work negotiating how to absorb the parts of Carston that I want to keep, and spinning off those parts that don’t' fit my core business."
Tyler glanced at Julia, then he smiled at Ronnie. "I'll make sure to get an appointment as soon as we get back from our honeymoon."
"Good. And again, congratulations." Ronnie gave Tyler and Julia hugs. She lightly touched Grandmother's elbow. "If you've got a minute, I'd like to talk to you about developing some of the acreage around the park." Suddenly talking business, Ronnie and Grandmother moved toward the refreshments.
It was Anya's turn to hugged Julia. "Congratulations," Anya said enthusiastically. "I know you two ... er, three ... will be very happy."
"Thank you." Julia bent a little closer to Anya. "And it's not the three of us," she whispered.
Anya's eyes widened. "You mean ... you're ...?"
Julia grinned. "Tracy is going to have a little sister."
"Congratulations!" Anya hugged Julia. "I know you're going to be very happy." She paused. "How far along are you?" she asked, glancing at Julia's figure. Julia wasn't showing.
"Only about eight weeks," Julia answered. "And in answer to your second question, we know it's going to be a girl because Grandmother told us."
Anya glanced around, and shot her grandmother a quick, disapproving look. She turned quickly back to Julia. "She didn't tell me."
Julia shrugged. "I guess you'll have to take that up with her. When I talked to her, you were in Miami at a trade show."
"And she told me more." Julia's voice lowered. "She let me see the magic, so I know what Olivia did to Tyler that first week."
Tyler nodded. "Julia knows that I learned a lot about myself, and found something that I'd been missing for years. Olivia didn't know it, but when she tried to punish me that week I was Trinity, she helped me learn to stand up for myself again."
"I'm glad," Anya said. "So, have you started thinking about names yet?"
Tyler glanced at Julia just as she glanced at him. Both were smiling. "Trinity," Julia and Tyler answered together. "Trinity Marie Lofton."
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