Freed from her programming at last, Jo Stark thinks about her past and wonders about her future. And her first case since her release takes her team back to the US, to help a man in a trap from which there seems to be only one escape.
"Never make your home in a place. Make a home for
yourself inside your own head. You'll find what you
need to furnish it - memory, friends you can trust,
love of learning, and other such things. That way it
will go with you wherever you journey." — Tad Williams
The Rolls moved swiftly across the Swiss countryside, gliding over the well-tended roads with a certainty that was almost the exact opposite of the way Jo felt inside.
It had been less than a day since she had been freed from the programming that had dominated her life for years. Once she had been Joseph Stark, journalist for the Baltimore Herald. After her abduction from a Baltimore street corner, a group of wealthy man-hating psychopaths had transformed him into an ultra-feminine plaything just for the fun of it. After he had become a she, they twisted her mind and tried to break her. In the end, they succeeded — although not quite the way they had intended.
Instead of trapping Joe in a hell he never deserved, they set free the part of him that most people keep locked up deep inside — the part no one ever sees. The uncontrolled rage pushed back the psychological programming they tried to imprison him with, but it also eliminated any thoughts of restraint or mercy. And on the night of her “coming out” party, the woman Joe Stark had become rose up like an avenging angel, broke free of their control, and slaughtered them all.
The anger freed her long enough to liberate all of the other men the bitches had captured and changed. But in the end, the programming was still there, only kept at bay by a constant supply of raw anger that ate at what had been Joseph Stark’s soul as much as the programming did. A well-conceived and executed plan by her friends had unlocked the mental chains that bound her, and allowed her to let go of the anger and embrace her new life.
Now that she was free, a whole new future had opened for her. The problem was, Jo wasn’t sure what to make of that future ... or of the rest of her life, for that matter.
‘Going back to Baltimore isn’t an option, really,’ she thought. ‘Not anymore. There’s nothing there for me. Too much time has passed since the man I was went missing. And as much as I miss being a reporter, no one at the Herald would believe I’m Joe Stark anyway, not looking like this. Heck, I look in the mirror sometimes and I still don’t believe it.’
She looked out the window of the car at the passing scenery, catching a ghost of her reflection in the window. She was still too pretty, even with her golden blonde hair half-tousled and a minimum of make-up. Jo shook her head. She was a long way from the man she’d been ... probably too far to convince anyone that she’d ever been Joseph Stark.
‘And even if I could convince them I’m me, what’s that going to buy me? At best, I’m headlines for the tabloids, another freak for the talk show circuit. At worst, if the Swiss government find out what went on at the mansion when I first freed myself and everyone else, they’ll throw me in a cell until hell freezes over for killing a bunch of very rich women and disposing of their bodies without notifying the authorities.’
Jo looked down at what she wore, and smiled. For the first time since Baltimore, she was wearing a pair of pants. Jeans, too. Authentic American blue jeans, with an oversized powder blue sweatshirt, and white running shoes with white socks. The underwear was still way outside her new comfort zone, a white lace thong and matching demi bra. It wasn’t her first choice, but every time she went into a Paris store to buy plain Jane lingerie, the responses of the staff ranged from scorn to disbelief, and she eventually just went with what she had in her bags from her old life.
And it wasn’t even what the underthings felt like that bothered her. Truly, after all this time, they felt almost normal to her. But in her mind, they still represented a time when she was forced to wear them, and now that she was free, Jo wanted to choose.
She’d almost forgotten what pants felt like. Even now after a few hours of wearing them, they still felt strange. Maybe it was the way the soft denim felt when it rubbed against her hairless legs. Maybe it was how these jeans fit, like they were painted on, hugging every curve and pressing gently between her legs every time she moved.
Or maybe it was just a ghost of the old programming sticking around, making her uncomfortable with the idea of even wearing anything but a skirt or dress.
Chesser said something like that might happen with some of the programming they’d manage to erase.
“It’s like muscle memory, sorta,” the hacker had said as he drove her, Jeff and Chrissy back to the hotel after the life hack that had set her free. “Things like skin care and make-up, how to walk and sit, or take care of that mane a’yours. Even how to go to the loo. That stuff gets to be automatic for most folks over time. The programming they put in to make you do it is gone now, but the body remembers. Some of it you won’t mind keepin’ — I’m pretty sure you don’t want to learn how to paint your face all over again, right? But some of the less useful shite might sneak up and surprise you, so just keep your eyes open for a while.”
Jo felt Jeff take her hand and give it a soft squeeze, and turned to give him a smile. He smiled back, and it warmed her inside, although part of her still wondered how the man she once was could ever fall in love with another man. She loved Jeff, she knew that much. She just didn’t know how to move forward from here, and she was afraid of disappointing him somehow.
‘Things were supposed to get less complicated,’ she thought. ‘I’ve been either a puppet or a monster since the first time I looked in a mirror like this. I have no idea how to be a woman, and Jeff deserves so much more than I could ever give him. But I love him — what the hell am I supposed to do?’
Jo glanced over at Chrissy. She had been a grown man named Craig until an accident with a magical item had turned him into a preschool girl. She could have been restored pretty easily at the time, but her girlfriend threw away the item and chose to keep her a powerless child, just to satisfy some twisted need for control. Jo had saved Craig and taken her back to the mansion in Switzerland, where she had found a new home and a family that would accept her for who she was. Stark had watched her blossom and find happiness again, and in an odd way, the little girl had become her closest friend, after Jeff.
Chrissy was buckled in securely, wearing jeans and a sweatshirt that almost matched Jo’s. She caught Jo looking at her and grinned, glad that her mission had succeeded and that Jo was finally free. Her grin faded a bit as she saw the expression on Jo’s face, but it was too late for Stark to hide it, and when Jeff’s phone rang, Chrissy reached across and pulled the unbuckled woman over to sit next to her.
“What’s wrong?” She put her arms around Jo and gave her a hug. It wasn’t what Craig would have done, but Chrissy had figured out long ago that her future was as a girl, and girls liked to be touched — even girls like Jo, who never wanted to be one but was finding it impossible not to be.
‘You do whatever you need to do to make the people you care about feel better,’ Chrissy thought, her face half-buried in Jo’s side. ‘If anyone needs a hug, it’s Jo.’
Jo’s arm wrapped around her in return.
“I am,” she replied softly. There was a pause, and the little girl gave her a squeeze, as if to tell her to go on. Jo looked over at Jeff again to make sure he wasn’t listening, and sighed.
“I’m what’s wrong, Chrissy. Here I am, free at last, but instead of feeling free, I feel trapped.”
“Now that I have a future, I’m asking myself a lot of questions I can’t answer,” Jo replied, keeping her voice low. “But I need answers if I’m going to move forward.”
“Things like, who am I, now? Or even, WHAT am I, now? Can I really be the woman Jeff deserves when I’m still not sure what being a woman means? Is it fair to Jeff? Can I still play avenging angel now that I don’t have what those bitches did to me chasing me through life? Do I want to? I’m so confused, I can barely see straight. I feel like I’m trying to find my way across a burning swamp in a fog. I can’t take a single step because I’m afraid of drowning in quicksand, but I can’t stay still because the fire won’t let me.”
Chrissy pushed herself far enough away from her friend to look up into her eyes.
“The swamp is only burning because you think it is,” she said. “Jeez, Jo ... you’ve only been free for less than a day. Give yourself a chance to breathe. Freedom means making decisions, choosing paths, learning how to be. And you have time. I’ll help. In fact, let’s talk about some of the questions you just asked, ‘kay?”
“Can you really be Jeff’s woman?” The little girl smiled. “Seems to me you already are. I know he thinks so ... hopes so, anyway. You’re not sure what being a woman means? Join the club. I’m pretty sure there are a lot of women out there who were born this way who don’t know the answer to that question. You’ll learn as you go.”
She reached out and touched Jo above her heart. “For now, how about you work on being Jo for a while? Isn’t that enough of a challenge, figuring out who you are? In the end, the kind of woman you are is the kind of woman you’ll be. And right now? You’re the kind of woman Jeff loves. So why not go with that?”
Jo sat there for a moment, her mind spinning. Chrissy watched her.
“Are you okay?”
The older woman shook her head. “I’m not sure. Lots to take it. Lots to think about. And when did you get to be so smart, anyway?”
“Not sure I am ‘smart,’” she replied. “I’m just a little farther away from the questions you’re asking than you are. After all, even though Crystal stole my life, she never changed who I was inside. And even though I had to do a lot of things she made me do to fit in as a little girl, I never quite gave up on the man I was. Almost … but you found me before it was too late, and gave me back part of the life I thought I’d lost forever. It took some time, but I’m happy now. You can be, too.”
“So why don’t you take a little time and just live for a while? Bet you haven’t done that since ... well, since they took you.” She smiled. “After a while, if you need more help, you could talk to Andrea. That’s why Jeff brought her to the mansion, after all. He thought it would be a good idea to bring in a professional, to help everyone try to get past what the bitches put them through. She’s there to help people move forward, if they can. And that includes you, missy, now that you’re actually free to talk to a therapist instead of hiding under the bed when one walks by.”
Chrissy took Jo’s hand and gave it a squeeze. “You’re on the road to somewhere again, right? Maybe you could use a guide.”
Andrea’s office was warm and inviting, matching her personality. The walls were painted with soft yellows and decorated with posters from 1940’s movie musicals, and the furniture was soft and well-padded. Classical music played from a small stereo system on bookshelves crammed with both fiction and non-fiction. Her dog, a mixed-breed named Harley, was curled up on a dog bed in the corner, and he watched every visitor carefully for any hint they might be inclined to pet him, or give him a treat.
Andrea herself sat in a chair across from the sofa, legs crossed at the knee while she focused on her visitor. She wore a pale blue cardigan over a simple blouse, and a long brown skirt with a pair of calf-high boots made of soft brown leather. Her long graying hair fell in soft curls onto her shoulder, framing a smiling face with high cheekbones and welcoming eyes.
When Jo delivered a hesitant knock on her door, the therapist greeted her with a soft hug, made her a cup of tea, and sat down across from her. What was supposed to be a therapy session started as a meeting between new friends, and as time went on, Jo found herself sharing more and more. From her kidnapping to her release from the programming, and then about her hopes for her new life, and her fears about figuring out who she had been, who she was … and who she wanted to be.
After four hours, Jo ran out of words. She looked down at her hands and waited, until she felt Andrea sit next to her on the sofa, and turned as the therapist placed a soft hand on her knee.
“Therapy is never about instant answers,” Andrea said, her voice gentle. “Sometimes, it takes years to untangle the knots that time and experience tie us all up with, and therapists are really not supposed to be giving you the answers, Instead, we’re supposed to help you find them for yourself.”
“But after what you’ve been through, I understand your need to figure out who you are and who you will be right now. I hope this is the first of many meetings to follow, because you’ve been through so much, and I can’t possibly hope to help you find the peace you need in just a single session. However, this is an important crossroads for you, and leading you to the truth in the traditional sense would only frustrate you at a time when what you need most is some kind of certainty. So I’m going to break the rules. I’d like to give you a few guideposts … simple truths you need to think about on your own until our next session, that will hopefully give you some peace. Would that be okay?”
Jo nodded, not expecting anything like this so soon. Andrea smiled.
“Good. The first truth is a given. Of course the past few years have changed you. Time changes everybody, and I’ll be the first to admit that you’ve been changed more than most. But maybe deep down inside, you are still who you’ve always been. The decades you lived before they took you weren’t erased, and the Joe Stark you were was a decent man. Can Jo Stark the woman really be any different?”
“Just look how far you’ve come since Paris. Jeans and a tee shirt … and a pony tail? The women who did this to you would be spinning in their graves if they could see what you look like now. And when you admitted to yourself, and to Jeff, that you loved him? You’ve gone way beyond just freeing yourself from their programming. You’ve totally destroyed whatever plans they had for you. They wanted you unhappy forever, and here you are, picking up the pieces and starting all over again.”
“Can you still be an avenging angel now?” Andrea shrugged. “I’m not sure you ever really wanted to be. Joe Stark wasn’t.”
Stark raised an eyebrow. “How could you possibly know that?”
“Give me a little credit, Jo. I couldn’t meet with you because the programming kept you away from the psych team, but I could still read everything about you they had in the files they assembled before and during your … conversion. I also talked to Jeff at length about the man you were, and interviewed some of your co-workers from the paper you worked for. I ever asked Chesser to get me all of your work from your days at the Herald. He dug up your stories from their archives, and I read them all.”
Jo cocked her head, genuinely surprised. “You did?”
The therapist grinned. “Oh, yes. And what’s interesting is that everyone who knew you back then told me the same thing, and the stories you wrote back then confirmed it. Joseph Stark was all about justice. Slumlords, loan sharks, pimps, corrupt cops – whoever the villain was, you used your skills to level the playing field and make them pay. It was who you are then, and it’s who you are now.”
“But when I first pushed the programming away …”
Andrea leaned forward. “When you broke free of the programming the first time, your mind went where it always went before, when you were Joe. You wanted nothing more than to punish the wicked and save the victims. The anger you needed to fight the programming made you homicidal at first, and kept you driven to painful punishments afterward. But now that the anger is gone, I don’t think your overall mission will change much. A little less revenge now, I think, but I’m pretty sure you’re still going to get in there and mix it up for the little guy.”
She gave Jo’s hand a squeeze. “Because man or woman, you’re still you, after all. It doesn’t matter if you’re Joseph or Jo, you’re still going to want to make things right. And whatever you want to do is going to be just fine with everyone at the mansion, because they love you, no matter what.”
The therapist stood up.
“I think that’s enough for now, don’t you? We’re both hungry, and I think homemade pizza is on the menu tonight, so let’s go visit the kitchen and see if dinner’s ready.”
Jo stood up too, a small smile on her face, then stopped.
“And what about Jeff?”
Andrea looked at her. “Do you love him?”
“Does he love you?”
Jo smiled. “Yes, he does.”
“Then I think your relationship will work itself out, don’t you? You’v been friends for a long time, and loved each other as friends, even when you were both male.” Stark looked at her, confused, and Andrea sighed. “Honestly, girl, do you really think Jeff would throw everything away back home to come here to rescue you if he didn’t care about you that deeply? Men can love men, even if they avoid ever saying it out loud.”
“In any case, this is enough for today. There will be other sessions, Jo, and maybe even a few with both of you together. For now, think about what I’ve said, and we’ll talk more in a few days. For now, let’s hope the pizza is waiting!”
As they walked to the door, Jo felt a little of the weight she’d been carrying lift from her shoulders.
‘There’s time,’ she thought, letting herself feel a little happiness for the first time in a while. ‘She is right. I’m still the person I used to be, inside. But I can use what’s happened to me to keep making a difference. And isn’t that what I always wanted?’
I balanced precariously on the garage roof, breathing in the fresh air and feeling free for the first time in weeks.
”What are you doing, baby?”
I turned to look at my oldest daughter, her body halfway out the bedroom window with one arm reaching for me. Her eyes were filled with the anger she never seemed to lose these days, whenever she looked at me.
I stood there, just out of reach, and took a moment to think about my answer. I was wearing my youngest daughter's pink party dress, and out of the blue, I remembered when she wore it last. I had been carrying her on my shoulders from the car to a friend’s birthday party, and I listened to the laughter from inside the house before putting her down to run away with the other girls for party games and cake.
She had grown out of it two years ago, but I had shrunk into it a few months back. Now the whole outfit fit me just fine, from the pink bows in my hair to the plastic panties with the ruffled bottom and the white socks with the lace around the tops. Even her old Mary Janes fit my feet now, although they were a poor choice for climbing around rooftops.
Finally, I replied, in my not-so-new little girl voice.
“I’m taking control of my life again.”
She laughed out loud, and shook her head, still smiling.
"How could you possibly do that, Missy?" There was a sweetness in her tone that just barely hid the burning hate in her voice. “You’re just a toddler now. You can’t do anything for yourself anymore, not even use a potty.”
I smiled at her. “Oh, I can do this, Jeannie. This one thing, I can do. Trust me, I’d climb mountains of broken glass if i had to, just to get away from you. From all of you.”
I moved a little closer to the rain gutter. “And for the record, I did pretty well getting out here. The sliding screen was a little hard to move at first, but after that, it was easy for me climb through the opening I made. I guess being small does have some perks, after all.”
“But there’s nowhere you can go from there, Daddy dear.”
“I can’t believe you’re that slow, Jeannie. There is one place left, I’m afraid. Just the one. And once I’m there, you’ll never touch me again.” I looked down at the hard surface of the driveway below, and wondered if the roof was high enough.
If a fall from here would kill me.
“I probably should have done this a month ago,” I said, turning back to Jeannie. “But I had hope back then. I was alive, and with people I loved, and I thought somehow, eventually, things would be okay. Better. After all, I thought you all loved me back then, and I figured love would find a way. After all, I only looked like a little girl. I was still your Dad. You wouldn’t want to take what was left of my life away from me. Why would you?”
“Then you went and did it anyway.”
“And it was fun!” Jeannie grinned. “Little Laurell loves having a new baby sister.”
“I can’t blame her for treating me the way she did. How could I? She still doesn’t understand why I keep fighting it. She thinks being a girl is the best thing ever.”
“Yeah, Mom treats you like a baby too, now.” I heard the edge of cruelty in her voice. I blinked back sudden tears.
“She does, and it hurts,” I said, after a moment. “Her husband is a little girl now, and she doesn’t have a clue how to deal with it. So she takes the easy way, and treats me as a baby instead of remembering the man she loved is still in here. She doesn’t care how much it hurts me. I still can’t believe she’s evil. I loved her. She’s just … selfish.”
“But you? You’re the one I blame. You hate me. God knows why, but you hate me enough to slip laxatives into my food to keep me in diapers, and do everything you can to hurt me every chance you get.” I started crying, and didn’t care. “Maybe you want to get back at me for all the times I said no when you wanted something, or set a curfew that kept you from doing what you wanted. Maybe you’re just stone cold crazy, and somehow I missed it. I don’t know, and in the end, it doesn’t matter.” I took a step back, closer to the roof’s edge.
“Why, baby?” Her tone was mocking, as if nothing I said to her meant anything at all. “Of course it matters!”
“Because it’s over, Jeannie!” I screamed at her, tears streaming down my face. “That’s it. I’m done. I can’t live in this house, constantly humiliated by people I thought loved me. There’s nothing left here for me except pain, and I won’t let either of you torture me anymore. It ends today, the minute my head hits that driveway. And thanks to you, I’ll be damned glad when it does.”
A voice came from down below.
“You don’t have to die, Mr. Clemson. Not today.”
I looked back to the driveway and saw a blonde woman in a black jacket over blue jeans and a white button-down shirt, standing next to a little girl in jeans and a “My Little Pony” tee shirt. Closer to the street, two men in dark suits held my wife between them, and a third man stood next to a limo, talking on a cell phone.
“Hello, John,” the woman said.
“You … you know who I am?”
She nodded. “The medical team at the hospital wondered why you weren’t coming back for scheduled follow-up visits. The infection that did this to you was unique, and your medical treatment wasn’t supposed to end once you left the hospital. Phone calls to your wife were never returned, and when they came to the door to speak to her, your daughter told them the family had no intention of ever bringing you back to the hospital. That’s when they became worried and called us.”
“Who are you?”
““My name is Jo Stark, and I run something called The Stark Initiative. We’re a global organization dedicated to rescuing people in unusual circumstances from those who would torture and terrorize them, or twist them into something they’re not. They thought you might be being abused, and from what I just heard, I think they were right. So you deserve a little rescuing, don’t you think?”
There was a struggle behind me, and I turned to find two more men in black suits pulling Jeannie back through the window.
“What can you do to help?” I looked at her, chewing on my lower lip. “Can you fix this? Can you make me … what I was?”
Jo shook her head. “No, we can’t. The doctors don’t think anyone can. They’re pretty sure you’ll grow older normally from this point, even if you’ll still be female. But they aren’t certain about anything, since they don’t know exactly what caused this transformation in the first place. Until they know more, all we can do is give you a place where you can be who you are inside – a place you can be safe.”
The little girl next to the blonde woman spoke up.
“John, listen. A few years ago, I was like you – just a guy in a bad situation. Instead of the weird virus you caught, an accident turned me into a little girl.”
“You used to be a man?”
“Used to be,” the girl said. “My name is – well, was Craig, although I usually go by Chrissy these days when we’re out in public. My girlfriend could have helped me be myself again, but instead she decided to keep me this way and treated me like a little girl for years, just so she could have power over me. I was 22 when I was changed, and the next three years were a living hell.”
She looked up at the blonde and smiled. “Eventually, Jo came and found me, and brought me back to live with her in the Initiative’s headquarters in Switzerland. It’s a safe place, because that’s what it’s supposed to be. I’m doing good work there, with people who care about me. And no one treats me as anything other than who I am.”
“Is that where you’d take me?”
Jo spoke up. “If that’s where you want to go, eventually. Right now we need to get you back to the hospital.”
“First, because the doctors need to check you out. You’ve been away too long and they need to make sure you’re okay. Also, your eldest daughter has been feeding you laxatives every day for weeks. We need to get you to where you can get those out of your system, so you can work on regaining any control you might have lost. I’m sure you want to get out of those diapers as soon as possible.”
“You also need to figure out what you want to do next,” Chrissy said. “And the best place to do that isn’t here. Considering how your family has been treating you, I’m thinking divorce is probably an option.”
I looked at my wife, and as she looked into my eyes for an instant before she turned away, I saw the shame, and the tears. She knew what she had done, but I still loved her enough to cut her some slack.
Yes, I’m an idiot.
“We probably need to talk, my wife and I,” I said. “But I’m pretty sure our marriage is over. After all, if she can’t see past my body to the man she loved, there’s not much of a marriage left, right? As for taking care of the bills and the children? I sure as hell can’t work like this, and without the income from my job, she’s going to have a hard time keeping things together. Unless she remarries, her job won’t be enough. And my kids need to be taken care of, even if I can’t do it anymore.”
“We might be able to help with that, at least for a while.” Chrissy looked up at Jo, and she nodded.
Jeannie came out of the front door, flanked by the men who had pulled her from the window. She kept her head down as they walked her to the bottom of the driveway.
“Can we get Jeannie some help, too?” Chrissy tilted her head. I shrugged. “The things she was doing to me … she’s carrying around a lot of hate. I don’t know why, but I don’t want her to spend the rest of her life taking that hate out on others if we can stop it now. She’s still my daughter.”
“We’ll see what we can do, John.” Stark stepped forward. “I know what it’s like to have hate burning you up inside. But she’s got to want it to stop, or nothing anyone else can do will help.” I nodded.
“Also,” I raised my voice so my wife and daughter could hear, “I want custody of Laurell. She comes with me.”
My wife raised her head. “Why? Why take my baby?”
“Because she’s my baby, too,” I replied, “and after what you’ve done to me, leaving her with you could make her your next target for cruelty. Worse, she could grow up to be just like the two of you, and I’d be abandoning my responsibilities as a parent if I walked away and let either of those things happen.”
She turned away, head bowed. She was surrendering without a fight.
“Anyway, why not climb back through the window and come down the easy way?” Jo smiled, and it lit up her face. “We’ll get you to the hospital and get things started, so you can get out of here and get your life back again. All right, John?”
I looked down at her, and smiled in return.
“Yes, Ms. Stark,” I said. “I’d like that. And … thank you!”
The Stark Initiative private jet moved swiftly across the Atlantic Ocean, gliding over the cold waters with a certainty that seemed to match how Jo Stark felt inside.
Jo stared out the window at the clouds, and tried to sort out how she felt. John Clemson and his youngest daughter were curled up side by side on the bed in the sleeping section. The horrid effects of the laxatives had been purged from John’s system, and the doctors had examined her and done all the tests they needed, for now. She had decided to come to Switzerland and see the Initiative, and the doctors there would continue the tests and share the data with the physicians and researchers who had seen her through the first phases of this disease.
“So how does it feel?” Chrissy slipped into the seat across from Jo and looked up at her.
“Good,” Stark replied, “but to be honest, a little empty, too.”
“You made the save, Jo. Accept the win.”
“I do, but … somehow, it’s not enough.”
“We got John out of there, and they won’t be able to touch him again.”
“But they did more than touch him, didn’t they?” Stark felt some of her calm slipping away. “They tortured him, diminished him. They punished him for being sick and for winding up small and weak. They did it deliberately, and they did it over and over again, for weeks!”
She leaned forward in her seat and put her head in her hands. “Now they just walk away and get on with their lives? There need to be consequences! What if they try and do it again?”
“To who? What happened to John was a fluke. It was a one in a trillion viral infection on a genetic level. The chances of that happening again to anyone, let alone someone they know, are astronomical.”
“They should be punished for what they did.”
“Maybe. But John said no. Therapy and help, but that’s all. And you always listen to the victim, Jo. Always.Besides, they know we’ll be watching them anyway, in case something pushes them over that edge in the future.”
“But they tried to take away who he was. We both know how that feels!”
“Yes, we do. And I bet it still bothers you that I just let Crystal go with a slap on the wrist, too.” The little girl reached out and touched her on the arm. “Come on, girl. What’s really going on in your head?”
Stark said nothing, and Chrissy sighed. “Okay, truth time. I already know what’s wrong. You know I’m your friend. I love you, and you know I’d do anything for you. That’s why I’m going to tell you something I know you don’t want to hear, because you need to hear it.”
“You’re upset because John and I got the chance to say no, and took it. But you never had the chance to stop yourself when you broke free, and you wish you did, with all your heart.”
Jo looked confused, and Chrissy took her hand.
“It was easy for John and for me to step back, because you rescued us. We had learned firsthand how power could corrupt good people. After all, it corrupted the people we loved, and made them angry and cruel. When I finally had the chance to hurt Crystal, I couldn’t do it. If I had, I might have wound up as nasty as she was, but I saw the danger and I backed off. And if I used my power to hurt her, I would have stopped being me. I would have redefined myself as the kind of person who used power the way Crystal did. I think John feels the same way.”
“But when you were set free by the anger, it twisted you. You had to hate those women to win your freedom, but the hatred made you kill, and then it made you harsh. Your punishments were justified, but you enjoyed the pain you inflicted. Now you’re free, but you still hate the ones who changed you, even though they’re dead and gone. Because they made you into something you never wanted to be, and I’m not talking about the body you’re in.”
Chrissy took a deep breath. “The fact is, Joseph Stark never killed anyone. He never wanted to, and he never would. But the first thing Jo Stark did after she broke free of the programming was kill everyone responsible for hurting her. That one night changed how you see yourself as a person, and it still haunts you today. You need to get past what those women did to you, but you can’t, because they turned you into a killer for that one night, and a monster for years afterward. You can’t accept it, but you have to.”
She stood up and hugged the older woman tight, and felt Jo’s whole body trembling.
“To move forward, you need to figure out how to forgive the ones who kidnapped you,” she whispered, “so you can finally forgive yourself for all the horrible things you did while you were ruled by anger and hate – including killing them.”
“If I knew, I’d tell you.” Chrissy gave her another hug, and whispered. “But after all you'v been through, if there’s anyone who can find a way … it’s you.”
(NOTE: You may notice the rescue that brings the Stark Initiative back to the States bears s striking similarity to the drama unfolding in a story currently being posted on BCTS and FM.
Although there are similar elements, rest assured that, as usual with Stark, I am not hijacking someone else's story. I was inspired to create this rescue by the events depicted in Call you mommy, are you serious honey? by Princess Panty-boy, but the characters and conclusion depicted here are all my own, and have nothing to do with the other story still in progress — other than it being an inspiration for a Stark intervention.
We now return you to your regularly scheduled reading! *smile* — Randalynn)
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