The Mask

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Synopsis:

Jack Rhodes is a research scientist working on a cure for cancer, a disease he now has. His only option is to use the virus on himself. The Mask is a story I wrote in 2004 and is quite popular. We all wear masks to protect ourselves from the world and it is the Mask Virus and a small town called Indian mask that shows Jack a true life.

Story:

Part 1 The Mask Virus

‘Goodnight, Professor Rhodes.’

‘Goodnight Lois,’ I replied without looking up from the monitor screen as the last lab assistant finally left. I was always the last civilian to leave the complex; I guess the others had families to go home to, and I didn’t. I have been married to my work ever since I left medical school.

Watching Lois through the glass as she walked down the corridor, I shook my head. Women had always been a mystery to me, a mystery I didn’t bother to unravel. It wasn’t that I was a misogynist, I admired many a female scientist. I just couldn’t understand their thinking or their preoccupation, so I steered clear of any relationship.

Honestly, it also helped that I had a low libido and never possessed the sexual drive than many of my male colleagues had, a drive that had led them into disastrous relationships, acrimonious divorces and then mid-life crises. If I saw another fifty-year-old male in a red sports car, leering at women young enough to be their daughters, I’d puke.

Let’s face it, the statistics for marriage and long-term relationships are not great and I don’t understand why there is this romantic notion of a relationship that lasts forever. The bottom line is, if I had taken the time to engage in a relationship, I wouldn’t be where I am now, head of this research complex and receiving buckets of money from the Pentagon. Of course, there were a few times when I felt a twinge of regret at not having a family, but those times were few and I knew it was for the better. I was much too selfish to be a parent of any description and I thoroughly enjoyed the research projects I had worked on over the years. That was enough for me.

Currently, the research complex I led was focused on virus warfare, and the manufacturing of a discrete virus that would completely immobilise the enemy. General Buchanan had joked that the perfect virus should be able to be used on civilian populations as well, but none of my team found that particularly funny.

For me, the all important quest was for the cure of cancer. It was always something that remained at the back of my mind, but recently I had developed a new urgency to find a cure, as I had diagnosed the cancerous disease that had grown within me.
Determined that the disease I had fought against for all of my life would not defeat me, I had worked on the research in secret, completing the work that had taken me twenty-five years of part-time focus to compile, and now I was ready to test it.

I called it the Mask Virus, although, strictly speaking, it was not specifically a virus.

It attacked cancerous cells by using the genetic codes within the patient’s body to build and replace the ‘bad’ cells with healthy ones. The virus applied a ‘mask’ to the cancerous cells, isolating them and then finally eliminating them while rapidly replacing them with new cells that had been created from the optimal ‘healthy’ genetic codes. Any old cells that did not merge satisfactorily with the new cells were also replaced.

It should be tested for ten years or so before release but I didn’t have ten years; in fact, I believed I had, at the most, ten hours before the cancer within my body reached the point of no return and the virus would not be able to apply the mask. I had to inject myself tonight!

I left the complete research notes on my desk, along with the last will and testament of Jack Rhodes, and a detailed letter explaining what I had done. If I died, future scientists would be able to work through it, rectify my mistake, and defeat cancer. It would be a posthumous victory, but a victory nevertheless.

Slowly, I lay down on the small examination table in my office. This was it, I thought, this could be the end of Jack Rhodes, or the beginning.

I tightened the rubber strap around my arm, pumped a fist to bring up the vein and gave myself the first of three injections. The injections had to be fifteen minutes apart, a device against accidental infection, and I lay back on the table, waiting.

Waiting was something I was good at. I had learned it at an early age as I waited for meals and for foster homes when I was at the orphanage. The meals always came, but I never found a foster home and when I finally walked free of the orphanage, I vowed that I would never depend on anybody for anything. I was on my own, I told myself I liked it and that was the way it was going to be.

The second injection slid in, and I felt a slight burning in my arm so I quickly wrote a small observation note for those who would come later.

Then it was time for the last injection, and without hesitation, I gave it. Within seconds, I felt a strange feeling sweep through my stomach, and I tried to write another note but my fingers wouldn’t work properly. My head felt incredibly heavy, and I reluctantly let it sink to the small pillow, staring up at the glaring tungsten lights.

This is it, I thought, this is…

Part 2 Recovery and the Plan to Act

I was in an unreal world, floating in someone else’s dreams, swimming to the surface through an inky blackness, swimming to the light.

The light seared my eyes when I opened them, so I quickly shut them again. A man’s voice spoke softly and confidently close to my ear.

‘Relax Jack; please don’t attempt to talk or to move. You are in a hospital and you’re completely safe.’

A glass straw was gently pushed through my lips and I felt a liquid dribble into my mouth.

‘Try to swallow,’ the voice said and I did. ‘We’ve dimmed the lights, so you may try to open your eyes again if you wish.’

Slowly, I opened my eyes but everything was blurred, a row of indistinct shapes in white and a long room. After shutting and opening my eyes a few times, the room began to swim into focus. The indistinct shapes were, I saw, a row of people in white lab coats, all smiling at me with excited looks on their faces. To my right, I saw military personnel, mostly top brass.

Some had their arms folded but all were watching me intently. To the left was a television camera and I realised I was being filmed.

The man’s voice spoke again.

‘Ladies and gentlemen, you can see the patient is awake.’ Applause rippled around the room, but he snapped, ‘We haven’t got time for that.’

‘It’s a breakthrough, Professor,’ and, for a moment I thought the voice from the group of watchers was talking to me, but the first voice answered.

‘Yes, it is, but the patient comes before congratulations. Please leave, and only the psychologists and psychiatrists remain.’

I watched them file from the room. They stared at me as they left and one of the men waved. I realized it was Bob Jones, a colleague who had worked with me on many projects.

A woman in a white coat appeared at the end of the bed, and a man in a suit and a Van Dyke beard moved slightly to the left while a third man in a white coat and a shaven head stood between them. It was he who spoke in that soft, confident voice.

‘Professor Rhodes, I’m Professor Henry Kruger. Welcome back. On my left is Doctor Brenda Peters and on my left Doctor William Murphy. I’m sure you have many questions and all of them will be answered soon. What I suggest is that I give you a few basic facts. Please nod if you understand.’

I nodded and opened my mouth to speak but Professor Kruger quickly put his hand up.

‘Please don’t attempt to speak yet, Jack.’

There was something about his tone that made me close my mouth and I waited.

‘I have read your notes many times and I must compliment you, Jack, on your outstanding work. Let me explain what has occurred. You injected yourself with what is now known as the Rhodes Virus, or the Mask, and it worked completely as you predicted but the results were, shall we say, unusual.’

I opened my mouth again but he raised his hand to stop me.

‘The virus masked the cancerous cells as you predicted and then sought to find within your body the healthiest genetic code. It then grew cells based on that code and then altered existing cells to form a healthy being. This process, by the way, took over seven months. You have been in a comatose state for that period while your body changed. It was a remarkable process, a process that had the entire scientific community at this complex completely and utterly enthralled.’

Seven months, I can’t believe it!

He paused, glanced at the others, and then continued.

‘We understand you didn’t know your mother. The healthiest code in your body was based on an ancestor; we initially assumed your mother, and further investigation later confirmed that.’ He paused and darted glances at the other two before continuing. ‘Your body was altered, completely altered, to physically resemble your mother’s code,’ he emphasised.

They stared at me with serious expressions, waiting while that sank in.

It took a few moments and I opened my mouth and this time, Professor Kruger didn’t try to stop me.

‘Are you trying to tell me I’m fe…’ I stopped, my voice sounded extremely strange to my ears and then it hit me. It was a woman’s voice!

‘Please don’t exert yourself, Jack,’ Brenda Peters said quickly as I tried to move. ‘We must take it one step at a time.’

‘I’m a woman?’ I had to ask, hoping that I had misunderstood them, but the strange voice that rang in my ears confirmed my first guess.

‘Yes, you are completely female, Jack. Apparently, the optimal genetic code was your mother at age twenty three.’
I blinked at that.

‘I’m twenty-three?’ I asked and even though my voice was strange to my ears, I heard the strain and fear in it.

‘Yes,’ Henry Kruger soothed. ‘We’re going to give you a sedative so you’ll rest for a while…’

‘No! Please don’t,’ I added, forcing my voice lower in tone, and they stopped. ‘I need to know the answers.’ They looked at each other, seeking confirmation. ‘I’m a scientist, Henry,’ I added, ‘I need to know.’

Professor Kruger nodded and smiled gently.

‘Of course, I think we’ll leave you with Brenda.’

They left and Brenda Peters came closer, a concerned look upon her face.

‘You must be the psychologist,’ I said. That voice, my mind silently screamed, it’s mine?

‘I’m afraid I am,’ she said with a smile as she sat next to me.

‘What is your specialty?’

It was small talk while my mind cantered along at extraordinary speed. I was a woman, I was my own worst nightmare?

‘Trauma counseling. Apparently the Pentagon thinks that being changed to a female is on the same level as murder, terrorist victims or hostages.’

I can understand that, I wanted to scream, can’t you? Why me? Why me!

I managed a weak smile.

‘Can I see?’

Brenda nodded and produced a hand mirror.

I stared at the reflection of a young woman with dark hair and dark eyes with a slight almond shape.

‘My mother was Asian?’

‘Of Asian descent,’ Brenda said softly. ‘The Pentagon threw a lot of resources into investigating your parents.’

‘Is she alive?’

Brenda sadly shook her head. ‘No, she died in a car accident and you were delivered at the accident.’

She paused while that sank in. I had found my mother and lost her in one cruel precise moment.

‘Do you want to see the rest of you?’

I shook my head and dropped the hand mirror onto the bed.

‘I’m a doctor, I know what the female body looks like,’ I said bitterly.

Belinda shrugged. ‘For the record, your body is completely healthy. The cancerous cells have been eliminated and it appears the changes to your body have finished. All bodily functions are normal.’

‘I assume I was monitored during the process?’ Brenda nodded. ‘Can I see the tapes and the results of the tests?’

‘No, I’m afraid they’re classified above your security clearance.’

‘I have a high clearance.’

‘Not any more.’

I was astounded, and the completely surreal feeling brought on by the sound of my new voice and the image in the mirror remained. ‘But…’

‘General Buchanan has moved everything, including you, to a new facility and a lot has changed while you were in the coma. I think,’ she added when I opened my mouth to protest, ‘that you just assimilate everything the best you can. You and I will talk every day, okay?’

Resigned, I nodded and Brenda smiled.

‘Good. Now, the physiotherapists will come in now and help you from the bed. They’ve exercised you as much as they could while you were asleep.’ Brenda leaned forward, her eyes locked onto mind. ‘Co-operate, Jack,’ she whispered quickly and then said, ‘the exercises are good for you. Shall I ask them to come in?’

Something about her tone made me wary. I guessed then, that the room was monitored, probably bugged with cameras and microphones. It suddenly hit me that this discovery was a momentous one, one the Pentagon would wish to control at all costs.

They don’t need you, my mind silently warned me, you could just be eliminated.

‘Yes,’ I said, my voice, a strangers voice ringing in my ears, ‘you’re right, send them in.’

The physiotherapists were jovial and enthusiastic women who helped me from the bed and began to help me become aware of my new body, and how I should do simple things like walk. Well, it should be simple, but it wasn’t and it took a while before I could move easily.

For two days I did nothing but exercise, walk and talk with Brenda. I listened carefully and made no comments but I felt as if I was wearing a mask, that I was peering through the eyeholes of some extreme mask at the world I knew.

It’s ironic, I chuckled bitterly to myself, I’m wearing a mask conceived by a virus I called the Mask.

‘I believe your mind will adapt over time and I think you should assist that process as much as possible.’

‘If you say so,’ I said softly but inside my mind screamed, no way! I must find a way back; I know I can correct this error! I just need the facilities, that’s all and I’ll be Jack Rhodes, male, again!

I avoided mirrors; I could not reconcile myself to the idea that the thin, dark haired woman in the mirror was me. Brenda had tried to convince me that the ‘new me’ was very attractive, long legs, c-cup breasts and a face with high cheekbones and full lips, but I couldn’t see it. The fact is, I didn’t want to see it.

Brenda and the nurses helped me with underwear and I felt awkward at first but soon accepted it. But I became increasingly annoyed that I had to wear a bra, even though I wore only a sports bra. The breasts were the most annoying things about this body, constantly moving and reminding me of their presence, and that they were uncontrollable without a bra. I ignored any attempts to get me to wear make-up or to style my hair. As for clothing, I always wore a tee shirt, jeans and sneakers. They were women’s clothes but I felt a little more comfortable with them.

I hated this strange new body I was saddled with. It was awkward and the hair was annoying. Life had been so simple as a male. Short hair, a quick shower and that was it!

During the third week, General Buchanan and his entourage burst into the room, followed by Brenda and Henry. I was seated at the desk, dressed in jeans and tee shirt and laboriously practicing writing with a pen. There were days when I felt as if I was back in school.

Buchanan stared at me. ‘Is it really Rhodes?’

‘Yes, General,’ Kruger said.

‘Amazing.’ The General walked closer. ‘Jack?’

‘Good morning, General.’ I answered.

He blinked, and then smiled bleakly at me. ‘I don’t believe it,’ he muttered.

‘General,’ I began, ‘why has my security clearance changed? And when can I get out of here?’

Buchanan smiled coldly; it was a smile I suddenly didn’t like. ‘You have no clearance as you are no longer Jack Rhodes.’

‘But…’

‘I don’t see Professor Jack Rhodes in here,’ Buchanan cut me short. ‘Do you?’ he asked his companions and they all shook their heads. ‘We have no way of knowing what your intentions are,’ he said to me. ‘As for getting out of here, I’m afraid you are a highly classified project and we need tests to ensure you don’t spread the virus.’

‘General,’ Kruger interrupted, ‘we have completed those tests. The virus is only transferred through injections.’

‘No matter,’ General Buchanan dismissed Kruger’s argument. ‘This is a potential weapon and it stays here until I decide. I’m going to require a great deal of convincing to allow it to go free.’

I resented being referred to as ‘it’ and was about to snap at the General when Brenda gave me a warning look and spoke. ‘I am compiling my recommendations on that, General…’

‘Good, I will read them when you submit them.’

‘No, I’m afraid my orders,’ she said with a tight smile, ‘are that my recommendations go directly to the White House.’

He glared at her and then tried to smile. ‘Of course, but through me.’

‘I will certainly send you a copy, General.’

He stormed out. Kruger grinned ruefully at me and followed the military entourage from the room.

Brenda turned and smiled. ‘I think we should get you dressed and go for a walk in the grounds.’

I opened my mouth, and she slightly nodded towards the corner where I supposed the bugs were, and I got the message. ‘That sounds wonderful, Brenda,’ I said with a smile.

We walked silently through the corridor, and Brenda signed me through the guard’s checkpoints, until we were in a small courtyard with a high wall around it, a small square of lawn and young birch trees.

Brenda sat on a stone bench and I sat besides her, listening as she spoke in a low voice, staring at the wall. ‘The camera is behind us so please listen to me and internalize what I’m saying before reacting. Buchanan wants to keep you here forever, or something worse, so the secret of the Mask Virus does not leak.’

Brenda suddenly stood and began pacing up and down and I guessed she was now performing for the camera.

‘I believe, that in time, you will begin to think and act naturally as a female. There are signs of it now, but I have no idea how long the process will take. My recommendations are that you remain here for tests for at least eight months, possibly a year and then providing that it is obvious you are no longer attached to the old personality and capable of living completely as a woman, you should be released back into the world to build a new life.’

She looked at me anxiously, and I turned slightly so the camera could see my face.

Instantly, I knew what I had to do. I had to convince everyone that Jack Rhodes had vanished! If I was to ever get out of here, and be free to rectify this horrible mistake, I had to convince everyone I was happy as a woman. ‘That sounds perfectly reasonable,’ I said with a smile. ‘General Buchanan appears to be a fair man.’ Brenda blinked at that; we both knew he was a complete bastard. ‘I will need help to learn, though.’

‘All of that will be provided,’ Brenda said with a smile. ‘I think it’s the best way forward, Jacquie,’ she added nervously, watching me for my reaction.

‘Jacquie,’ I said slowly and smiled, ‘I like it. I’ve always liked Jacqueline as a name.’

No, I didn’t, I’d had no thoughts about female names whatsoever, but if I had to act, I silently fumed, I would deserve an Oscar at the end of this! Anything, to get out of here, and back to where I could do research and figure out how to change back! I knew the problem was making sure the virus would not to select a female code; it would be difficult but I had confidence I would be able to find the solution.

‘Good,’ Brenda said with a sigh of relief. ‘We can begin. Is there anything else?’

‘Yes,’ I smiled.

I had already figured out that females smile a lot. I had to accumulate mannerisms to help me convince the Pentagon that I was not only accepting of being female, but also happy about it.

‘Just one thing, I would like a refresher course on medicine so I can qualify as a G.P. I would like to be a doctor when I begin to build a life.’

Brenda nodded thoughtfully.

‘I see no problems with that, although with your age we’ll have to adjust the records to show you began to study medicine at an early age, a child prodigy,’ she added with a laugh. ‘It’s a good idea; in fact it’s keeping the Rhodes skills alive, isn’t it? It’s also helping the community, Jacquie.’

I nodded but I was thinking otherwise. I couldn’t care less about the community but, as a medical practitioner, I would be able to begin the research more easily, especially if I was working in one of the large teaching hospitals.

As we walked back, I kept my eyes on the military and medical personnel that passed us in the hall, particularly paying attention to the females. If I was to get out of here quickly, I reasoned, I had to do my own research on females based entirely on observation so I could acquire habits and skills.

I smiled and Brenda smiled back.

Jack Rhodes was on his way out of here and a moron like Buchanan will not be able to stop me!

Part 3 And the Oscar Goes To…

Brenda and the nurses had filled my wardrobe with female clothes in the first week but I had studiously avoided dresses and skirts, restricting myself to the jeans and tee shirts. The next morning, I stared at the dresses hanging in the closet and told myself I had to wear dresses every day from now on.

I had always been conscious of the hidden cameras and had quickly dressed in the bathroom, hoping there was at least some privacy there. It wasn’t that I was modest; I still didn’t believe this body was mine, but I didn’t want to give some perverse thrill to the military voyeurs.

There was no doubt Brenda and Kristine, the nurse, were surprised to see me in a blue dress. ‘That looks lovely,’ Brenda said slowly.

‘I just felt I wanted to get out of pants,’ I explained with what I hoped was a rueful smile. ‘I don’t think it looks nice, though.’

‘Yes it does,’ Kristine said quickly, ‘but I think you should wear the belt around the waist.’

‘And these shoes,’ Brenda said after rummaging in the bottom of the closet.

I was satisfied then with the image, it was acceptable, and I made a mental note to think more carefully about my future selection of clothes. ‘What about my hair?’ I hesitantly flicked the long dark hair that rested on my shoulders. How I longed for a simple buzz cut like I used to have.

‘It’s beautiful hair and so thick,’ Kristine said with what I thought was an envious tone, but then quickly dismissed that idea. Why would she be envious of my hair?

‘We can arrange for a hairdresser if you want,’ Brenda said, watching me carefully.

I forced myself to break into a big smile. ‘Would you? That would be wonderful. Thank you.’

She continued to study me for a moment and then nodded. ‘Tomorrow then, and would you like to learn about make-up?’

Again I smiled. ‘Yes, please, and anything else you think I should know.’

A routine was established and, surprisingly, the weeks and then the months passed quickly. I would wake in the morning, dress, apply my make-up and style my hair before meeting Brenda, Kristine, and Sue Collins, a doctor, for breakfast. I was sure they were watching me every step of the way and that was okay as I was carefully studying them and circumspectly including small actions I’d noticed into my own behaviour.

After breakfast, I would spend an hour completing tests for the scientists and often Professor Kruger would drop in to chat about every day things and was obviously careful not to reveal anything about the Rhodes Virus. I didn’t ask and, in fact, outwardly appeared a little bored with the whole process while secretly filing as much as I could away in my mind.

Tutorials commenced on behaviours, health and hygiene, fashion and relationships and I listened avidly, absorbing as much as I could to assist me in fine-tuning my cover. I protested when they suggested cooking classes.

‘What for?’

‘You will need to eat, you know,’ Kristine pointed out, ‘and, from what I understand, Professor Rhodes couldn’t boil water.’
I saw Kristine and Brenda looking at me and I suspected they were testing me. How were cooking classes testing me? I wondered, but decided to go along.

‘You’re right, I’ll have to eat, so why not learn?’ I said, smiling brightly. The funny thing was I came to enjoy the classes and liked cooking. Each recipe was a different challenge, a puzzle that I needed to solve, and it was fascinating. The great chefs, I reasoned, are men, why not me?

I spent most of my waking hours with females and I actually began to find it quite pleasant. The conversations were always varied and wide ranging and I learned so much just by taking part.

After lunch, I spent the afternoon and early evening on the medical refresher course and it was a relief to focus on something so clearly black and white, and something I knew so well.

It was clear in my mind that I would not ever become completely female as I remembered everything from my medical background. Brenda had explained that there was no reason that knowledge and experience would vanish with the change, just that now I would apply a female perspective to that same knowledge and experience. I pretended to agree with her, but I thought the fact that I retained my medical skills was evidence I would internally remain a man.

Although I was becoming quite comfortable living behind the mask (as I called it), there were things I was clearly uncomfortable with, including the mood swings and the annoying trait of breaking into tears at the slightest thing. The fact that I once cried at a happy ending of a stupid movie was particularly annoying but I managed to mask that reaction when Brenda looked at me.

As part of the medical course, I worked in the base hospital in the emergency room, first acting as an intern and then after a few months as a doctor. I loved it, working the long hours, dressed in the scrubs and working with a dedicated team. Most of the cases were injuries but there were a few infections, blood disorders, ulcers, heart problems and even births.

I was now accepted by everyone as a female and treated as such by everyone, except by Buchanan. He was my toughest audience.
Buchanan watched my progress with a cynical eye and it wasn’t until ten months had passed that I knew he finally accepted me as a woman and someone removed from Jack Rhodes.

Brenda and I were in the canteen giggling at Kristine’s description of her date the night before when Buchanan suddenly appeared at our table. I thought he appeared a little nervous.

‘I hope I’m not interrupting, ladies?’

‘Of course not,’ I smiled and his eyes dropped to my chest for a second. I was wearing a new dress that Kristine had bought - it was cinched at the waist, had a low neckline and came to just above the knee. I thought it looked pretty but now I released why he was nervous: he found me attractive, even sexy! I smiled to myself; it gave me an edge, and something I could use to get out of the complex more quickly. I pushed the fact that I was flirting with a man quickly to the back of my mind before I was totally repulsed.

Brenda and Kristine exchanged fleeting smiles. Buchanan didn’t notice, but I did and gave them a quick frown. ‘I thought I would just let you know, Jacquie, that we’ve completed your documentation and it will be available next week.’ His eyes dropped to my chest again and I smiled sweetly at him.

‘What does that mean, General?’ I asked innocently. His eyes went down and up again.

‘You will have a birth certificate, driver’s licence and medical registration that will allow you to practice as a G.P. anywhere you choose.’ He coughed and said apologetically, ‘Of course, we cannot approve a passport as yet.’

‘I’ve no plans to go anywhere, General.’ I quickly stood up and pecked his cheek. ‘Thank you, you’ve been very sweet.’ He blushed furiously, mumbled something and wandered off.

‘Well,’ Brenda said with a smile as I sat down, ‘I think you’ve joined the club?’

‘Club? What club?’

‘Don’t go all innocent, Jacquie,’ Kristine laughed, ‘it might work on men, but not on us.’

‘I have no idea what you mean,’ I said, winking, and we broke into laughter.

I lay in my bed that night feeling quite pleased with myself as my plan was working perfectly. Everyone thought I was a complete woman with no desire to be Jack Rhodes. It was so easy to fool everyone, I even fooled myself every now and again. Maybe, I thought, I should have become an actor as I’ve moved into the role of a woman so easily.

It was a month later that I realised that Buchanan was a cunning soul and didn’t completely trust the transformation. Bob Jones, who knew me from my time as Jack, visited me. I had seen him around the base but had ignored him even though he had attempted to catch my eye.

‘Hi there, Jack,’ he said breezily as he entered. ‘I need another blood sample.’

‘Of course,’ I said smiling, extending my arm. ‘I prefer Jacquie though.’

‘Sure,’ he said non-committally as he prepared to take the sample.

‘I think you guys must have a huge vat of my blood by now,’ I laughed and he glanced at me.

‘Jack,’ he said in a hoarse whisper, ‘I have a way to get you out of here.’

I acted surprised. ‘What are you talking about?’

‘A way to escape,’ he urged.

I laughed. ‘I’m afraid I don’t understand the joke, Bob,’ I said, taking great pains to read the name tag on his lab coat.
He jabbed my finger suddenly and it hurt, really hurt. ‘Ow,’ I said, shook my hand when he released it and a solitary tear trickled down my cheek. ‘That hurt,’ I murmured, sucking my injured finger, suddenly realising it had been intentional on Bob’s part, hoping to provoke a natural ‘Jack Rhodes’ reaction of anger.

Instead, it had provoked a ‘Jacquie Rhodes’ reaction.

‘I’m sorry,’ he said quickly, seeing the tear. ‘I’m really sorry, Jacquie, it was an accident,’ he added as he quickly packed up.

‘That’s okay, Bob,’ I smiled and pecked his cheek. ‘You would think I’d be used to needles by now.’

He left with a strange look on his face, fingers touching his cheek, and I thought I had passed the final test.

I was correct and the next day, I attended a meeting with Buchanan, Brenda, Kruger and Phillips. ‘We think you’re ready to leave, Jacquie,’ Kruger said with a smile. ‘How do you feel?’

‘Frightened,’ I said, knowing that what was they expected and, to tell the truth, I was a little afraid.

‘That’s to be expected,’ Murphy said and everyone nodded.

They handed me a small folder with my documents. ‘It’s all in there including your bank accounts. You’ve got a substantial amount as part of the compensation package the government has awarded you.’

I nodded.

‘We expect you to keep in touch with Doctor Peters once a week,’ Buchanan said.

‘I would want to anyway,’ I smiled and Brenda smiled back, reached out and squeezed my hand.

‘We want to know where you are,’ Buchanan added. ‘Don’t make us come looking for you,’ he warned.

‘The clothes and everything, including the doctor’s bag and medical supplies are all yours, you’re free to go,’ Murphy said quickly and everyone smiled.

‘I have to go straight away?’ I said in a small voice and I felt my eyes fill. Great touch, I told myself, but I wondered whom I was fooling. Suddenly, the idea that I was free was more than a little frightening.

‘No, of course not,’ Kruger said quickly. ‘When you’re ready.’

It took about a week before I had the courage to spread my wings.

Brenda, Kristine and I went shopping in the nearby town and I bought some more clothes: shorts, halter-tops, sandals, sunglasses and jeans. I also bought a car. I looked longingly at the large off-road cars but followed Brenda and Kristine to the compact wagons. ‘Very practical for a doctor,’ Brenda pointed out.

‘The seats go forward a long way, which is great,’ Kristine volunteered as she tried them out.

With the car now in the name of Jacqueline Rhodes, M.D., I cautiously followed Kristine and Brenda back to the complex. Driving in my female body was a new experience and I drove quite slowly back to the complex until I became used to it. I was on my way, I told myself, but, strangely, I felt quite sad to leave Brenda and Kristine behind.

Part 4 On the Road Again

The farewell the next day was tearful. I tried to tell myself this was what I had worked for over the past year, but it didn’t make it any better.

The base hospital team gave me a blue cap with M.D. on it and we all hugged. They were great guys and I was going to miss working with them.

Brenda, Kristine and I hugged each other, and I was crying freely when I finally drove away. I had Brenda’s cell phone number programmed into mine and both Kristine and Brenda had made me promise to come see them again.

However, I knew I would probably never see them again. When I had changed back to Jack, they wouldn’t understand or even know me. That thought made me burst into tears once again and through gritted teeth, I cursed the hormones within me. I was looking forward to being a man again, I told myself, it would take time to do my research, but I will achieve my goal so I can return to my safe, stable and predictable life.

I didn’t know where I was going and just drove South down the highway, planning to end up in Atlanta and start looking for work at the teaching hospitals. I stayed the night in a large motel and decided to have my first drink for a long time in the bar. Out of habit, I changed into a dress, did my hair and face and walked in. The woman behind the bar smiled and I ordered a drink.

‘Put the lady’s drink on my tab,’ a heavy man on a stool at the bar called, smiling at me.

‘That’s very nice,’ I smiled, ‘but I couldn’t.’ Before he could open his mouth, I quickly paid the woman and sipped the drink through the straw. I almost spluttered but managed to contain it. Jack had always drunk whisky, but this was terrible!
‘Don’t like it?’ the woman asked with a smile.

I grinned foolishly. ‘A friend suggested it, but it’s a bit harsh.’

‘Let me swap it for you,’ she said as she whisked the drink away.

Moments later she was back with a cocktail glass with a green liquid in it, a slice of lemon on the side. I pulled open my purse and looked at her but she waved it away. ‘No charge, I don’t get much call for cocktails here, so it’s a pleasure. Tell me what you think.’

She moved away to serve another customer and I cautiously sipped the cocktail through the straw. ‘What do you think?’

‘It’s delicious,’ I smiled, and it really was.

I suddenly noticed that the bar was now crowded with men who had moved from the tables to the stools. All of them were smiling at me and I sighed inwardly. Brenda had warned me about how attractive I was to men, and I had thought she was exaggerating but, apparently, she hadn’t. Another curse I had to learn to live with!

A big man pushed through and stood looking down at me, his beer belly almost touching me.

‘Hi there, little lady. What brings you down here?’

‘I’m just travelling through,’ I said, looking around for a way out of the bar and back to my room.

‘Are you in sales?’

‘Medicine,’ I said, turning away and getting off the stool.

‘Pharmaceutical sales?’ he boomed.

‘No,’ I said, peeved, ‘I’m actually a doctor. And you,’ I said pointing at his flushed cheeks, ‘should get your doctor to test your blood pressure.’

There was small ripple of laughter and I escaped, leaving my half finished cocktail on the bar.

I was fuming when I returned to my room. This is ridiculous, I swore, I can’t even go for a drink on my own and my tastebuds are shot! I ordered room service and watched a movie on the television. The truth was after being surrounded with people for such a long time, I was feeling incredibly vulnerable and alone, maybe even lonely. What in the hell is happening to me?
Be calm,
I told myself, once you begin work on changing back, you’ll be fine. With that thought, I snapped the light off and slept fitfully in my first night of freedom.

The next morning I rummaged through my clothes and decided on shorts, a white sleeveless top, sneakers and half socks. I whisked my hair into a ponytail and threaded it through the hole in the back of the M.D. cap the guys had given me. I told myself that I’d have my hair cut short soon and be back in trousers permanently. The thought that I wouldn’t be able to style my hair if it was cut really short popped into my mind and I quickly pushed it out again.

It was beginning to heat up and I drove for most of the morning. Somehow, I had driven off the highway and was now travelling on smaller and smaller roads. The map was useless, I couldn’t figure out where I was, and decided to keep driving until I found a town.

The country flattened and the dusty road I was driving down was suddenly parallel to a large river. Pulling over at a crossroads I saw a sign that pointed to a town called Indian Mask and it was only twenty miles further on. Suddenly, I relaxed, threw the stupid map into the back seat and realised just how worried I had been at being lost.

Grinning, I said, ‘Silly woman,’ to myself and reached for the radio button. Wait a minute, I immediately thought, what did I call myself? You can stop acting now, I told myself, there’s no one who knows you here.

The radio station was playing oldies mixed with country music and I sang softly to myself as I drove along, enjoying the peaceful countryside, the green fields, willows hanging by the water and a few horses running free in their fenced lots.
The road curved and I was later thankful I was driving slowly when I turned the curve. A pickup was on its side across the road. A boat trailer connected to it was at twisted angle, the wooden boat splintered and dangling from it.

The accident must have occurred minutes before because I saw a man groggily waving at me with both arms, warning me to stop. Even from that distance, I could see a trickle of blood on his forehead and his nose looked bloody.

Parking off the road, I grabbed my medical bag and jumped out, rushing over to the man.

‘My daughter’s hurt,’ he cried out to me as I ran closer. ‘We have to get help, she’s hurt bad.’

‘Okay, okay,’ I soothed, quickly looking him over. He had a gash on his forehead, a broken nose and cut lip, and his face was pale. ‘I’m a doctor, where is she?’

‘Doctor?’ He looked me up and down.

‘Do you want to see my license, or do you want me to see your daughter?’ I snapped.

She was in the pick-up and I guessed she had a broken arm and it looked like a deep cut on her left leg.

‘Hello, honey,’ I said softly as I clambered in, ‘what’s your name?’ I guessed she was about eight or nine and was dressed in shorts and tee shirt.

‘Lou,’ she said, white faced as she stared at me.

‘Is that short for Louise?’ I asked as I closely examined her leg. It was a long cut, but no real muscle damage, and she’d be okay after stitches.

‘Yes,’ she murmured, watching me as I wrapped her leg quickly. ‘Are you a doctor?’

‘Yes, and you’re going to be okay, Lou.’ I brushed her hair from her eyes. ‘I’m going to strap your arm to your chest so we can move you. It might hurt a little so I want you to be brave, okay?’

‘Okay,’ she said in a low voice. ‘What’s your name?’

‘Jacquie,’ I said, preparing the bandages, conscious her father was watching through the window. A least he didn’t pepper me with questions. ‘It’s short for Jacqueline.’

Lou smiled and began to close her eyes.

‘No, Lou,’ I said quickly, ‘don’t close your eyes, honey. Look at me, sweetheart,’ I ordered, worried about internal injuries, and she opened her eyes again. ‘Now, here we go,’ I said softly and I worked quickly. She grunted in pain and I saw her eyes sparkle with tears but I strapped her arm successfully.

Leaning down, I kissed her forehead. ‘You are such a brave girl, Lou. I’m going to call you tough Lou from now on.’ She weakly smiled at that and I ran my hands over her, checking for any other injuries.

Her father asked a question at last. ‘Is she okay?’

I nodded and turned back to Lou. ‘You keep your eyes open while I check your Dad, okay?’

‘Okay, Jacquie,’ she said and I crawled out of the car and quickly checked his eyes and the cuts.

‘Anything that really hurts?’ I asked.

‘Everything,’ he said ruefully and I smiled.

‘I think you’ll live but you’ll need stitches. Can you drive my car?’ He nodded and I decided to risk it. ‘We need to get Lou in the back seat and I’ll stay with her while you drive. You know the way I guess, I’ll just get lost. Is there a hospital here?’

‘There’s a small surgery at Indian Mask but the…’

‘That’ll do,’ I said briskly.

Lou was tough again when we moved her and soon her father was driving like a maniac down the dusty road.

‘I can see how you had an accident,’ I said. ‘Does your Daddy always drive this fast?’ I said loudly. He heard me and slowed down a little.
‘It was a cow, Jacquie,’ Lou said. ‘A cow ran in front of us and Daddy tried not to hit it.’

I kept her talking and soon we were driving down a sealed street that soon became the main street of the small town of Indian Mask. Small being the operative word although it was really pretty, the sort of town that you saw in old fashioned movies.

We drove past the courthouse, the churches, the stores and the gas station until we came to a big rambling house with a picket fence. The sign that stood in the middle of the lawn said ‘Doctor William Johnson’.

‘Bring her in,’ I said to the father, ‘and I’ll brief Doctor Johnson.’

‘But…’ he said, but I briskly walked up onto the porch and through the screen door.

The front door led to what I guessed was a waiting room, even though it was deserted. The reception desk was deserted so I rang the bell.

‘Can I help you?’ A large black woman with wire spectacles appeared, looking at me in a puzzled way.

‘There’s been an accident and a young girl has a broken arm and a cut leg. Is the doctor here?’

Lou was brought in by her father and said, glancing at the black woman, ‘I tried to tell her there isn’t a doctor here.’

‘There isn’t a doctor?’ I looked at her, puzzled and she shrugged.

‘The nearest one is sixty five miles away.’

‘But the sign?’

‘Doctor Johnson passed on three months ago,’ the woman said gently, ‘we just haven’t gotten around to taking the sign down.’

Lou suddenly said, ‘It hurts, Jacquie.’

‘I know, sweetheart,’ I said softly. ‘Is there a surgery here?’ I asked the woman. ‘I’m a doctor.’

She looked at me in surprise. ‘Yes, nothing has been moved, the town’s kept it ready for a new doctor as soon as we find him.’

I sighed, took my cap off and started winding my hair into a bun.

‘Can I use the surgery to set her arm?’

She studied me.

‘Are you sure you’re a doctor?’

‘She’s pretty good, Eleanor,’ Lou’s father pleaded, ‘Lou’s in pain here.’

‘Ok,’ Eleanor agreed at last, ‘it’s through there.’

I washed up and I was surprised to see Eleanor in a scrub smock, ready to assist. She watched me keenly as I set the arm and began applying the cast. I casually told her to finish up the cast, apply a sling while I stitched the leg. It was all local anesthetic and Lou grimaced a little but was great, I kept telling her so and making jokes as I worked. She giggled at some things, laughed at others and I saw even Eleanor cracked a smile.

‘There you go, angel,’ I said with a smile. ‘I’d better check your Dad, the brave cow protector.’ She giggled again and I asked Eleanor, ‘Can you finish the bandaging?’

She smiled. ‘Of course, Doctor.’

Lou’s father asked immediately, ‘Is she alright?’

‘She’s fine. Just let me work on you and you can see her.’

‘Thank God,’ he said and I smiled as I sat him down. His hair was dark and curly, his face was unshaven and he was lean and muscular.

‘So you’re Jacquie?’ he asked as I cleaned the cut and I nodded. ‘I’m Scott Carson. Thanks for everything you’ve done. Ow,’ he suddenly grimaced.

‘Nearly finished, though I can’t do much more for the nose,’ I said after fixing a strip over the bridge to keep it straight.

He shrugged. ‘It’s been broken before.’

‘Stand up and undo your shirt,’ I said. His chest was muscular but not hairy, just a few tufts of hair with a thin trail from his navel heading south. There were no broken ribs and everything seemed okay. ‘Everything seems fine. You can go see her now.’

I washed up and was brushing my hair out when Eleanor poked her head around the corner.

‘Cup of coffee, doctor?’

‘I’m dying for a cup,’ I said, rolling my eyes and she laughed.

After all the tests I could run gave them a clean bill of health apart form the obvious injuries, Scott and Lou left. I waved goodbye and sat on the porch, steaming mug of coffee in my hand.

‘You did good work in there, doctor,’ Eleanor said, sitting beside me. ‘I’m Eleanor,’ she said, flashing a grin.

‘Jacquie.’ I sipped the coffee. ‘This is a beautiful town, so peaceful.’

‘We think so. Are you on vacation?’

‘Kind of, but I got lost. I thought I could read the map but I must have taken a wrong turn somewhere.’

She laughed. ‘I think Scott and Lou will thank the Lord you were lost.’

A tall thin man hurried through the gate and up the path. ‘Here’s trouble,’ Eleanor whispered with a wink.

‘Hi, Eleanor,’ he said, eyes on me. ‘And you must be the doctor? I’m the Mayor, Ron Tomlinson.’

‘Jacqueline Rhodes. It obviously doesn’t take long for word to get around.’

‘You better believe it,’ Eleanor said.

‘Are you staying long in Indian Mask, Doctor Rhodes?’

I was suddenly conscious I was wearing shorts and the Mayor’s eyes kept drifting all over me.

‘Probably just tonight if I can find a motel. There is a motel, isn’t there?’

‘Of course, but why don’t you stay here tonight, you’re most welcome.’ Ron said. ‘The surgery and the house is owned by the city and is vacant until we find a doctor. As I said, you’d be most welcome, and it’s our way of thanking you.’

‘Well, I don’t know…’

‘Why not Jacquie?’ Eleanor said with a smile. ‘It’s clean and comfortable and it’s not being used.’

I shrugged; it was probably better than a motel. ‘Okay, why not?’

‘Great!’ Ron beamed.

‘I’ll show you where everything is,’ Eleanor said and stood up. Ron took that as his cue and walked off whistling.

‘It’ll be nice to have someone here again,’ Eleanor said as she showed me the bedroom, the kitchen and the bathroom. ‘Now, will you be cooking tonight?’

I looked around the big kitchen. ‘Probably not.’

‘Then it’s the diner, you can’t miss it, and it’s on the main street.’

‘Isn’t this the main street?

‘Yep, that’s why you can’t miss it.’ We laughed. ‘I’ll come by in the morning.’

After a long relaxing soak in the big bathtub, I dressed in jeans, a casual sleeveless top and sandals, did my face and, with my hair loose and my handbag over my shoulder, strolled down the street, smelling the jasmine in the air.

A woman was watering her garden as I walked past, a ginger cat on the picket fence watching the stream of clear water from the hose.

‘Good evening, Doctor,’ she called and I blinked in surprise. This is a small town, I told myself, and word gets around.

‘Hi,’ I called, ‘it’s a beautiful evening,’ I added, just for something to say.

‘It is. Welcome to Indian Mask. I’m Rhoda Simpson, my husband runs the gas station.’ She turned the hose off and drew closer. ‘Doctor, I know you’re just passing through but Jim has this cut that’s become infected but he won’t take time off to go over to the County. He’s a stubborn thing, you know what men are like, but I’m worried.’

I smiled. ‘Send him by tomorrow morning Mrs. Simpson, first thing, and I’ll look at it before I leave.’

The diner was crowded, I could hear the hum of conversation from the street, but it died immediately I walked through the door, the bell jangling loudly in the suddenly silent room.

Ron Tomlinson rushed forward. ‘Doctor Rhodes,’ he greeted me enthusiastically, ‘welcome. Let me introduce you.’ He took me by the arm and began introducing me to people until I was hopelessly confused.

‘Are you really a doctor?’ A big man in a sweat stained uniform asked and it was plain he was the sheriff.

‘Are you really the sheriff?’ I countered and everyone laughed.

‘Yes I am,’ he said, producing his wallet, ‘here are my credentials.’ I read the identity card, Sheriff John Hopkins.

I sighed, rummaged in my handbag for my purse and found my registration and license. ‘Here’s mine.’

He read it aloud. ‘Doctor Jacqueline Rhodes, guess you’re a doctor,’ he said with a lopsided grin handing it back.

‘Good, otherwise you’d arrest me for illegally setting broken arms?’

‘It’s just you look pretty young.’

‘Young and pretty,’ someone called out and there were a few chuckles.

‘Keep quiet, Donny,’ another voice called, ‘young Scott saw her first.’

More laughter and a thin woman rushed over, pushing herself in front of the sheriff. ‘I’m Alice, Doctor. This is my place. Ignore them and come and have something to eat.’ She led me over to a table with red-checkered tablecloth. ‘We can cook steak anyway you like it or, if you prefer something light, we have some fresh fish just caught this afternoon. I could grill a piece for you?’

‘Thanks Alice, that sounds perfect.’

I looked around the room as the steady conversation returned. It was nice, really nice and comfortable with the steady aromas leaking from the kitchen, laughter and joking and, once in a while, the tinkle of glasses.

It was strange but I felt at home and so relaxed. After all that time at the complex, pretending to be someone I wasn’t, it was a pleasure to relax and be to be me.

They left me alone, although I could feel their eyes on me every now and again, but they didn’t intrude. Alice chatted to me a little bit and Ron came over at the end of the meal and asked if he could stop by the next day to discuss a proposition.
I guessed he was going to try to talk me into staying and told him it was a waste of his time, but he insisted.

‘Okay,’ I agreed, ‘but I’m leaving tomorrow.’

That night, I called Brenda and told her where I was and what had happened.

She listened carefully, asking a question occasionally and when I finished, she asked, ‘Is Scott cute?’

Cute, was he cute, I wondered, was he?

‘Maybe but he’s married. His daughter is a great kid, though.’

‘Hmmm,’ Brenda said. ‘Call me soon, we all miss you.’

‘I miss you too,’ I said and it wasn’t a lie.

Part 5 Indian Mask

I woke up to the smell of coffee and eggs cooking. Remembering I was seeing the guy from the gas station before I began driving again, I decided against shorts, even though they would be more comfortable in the car, and dressed in the same jeans I wore the night before with a dark blue top and sneakers.

I was halfway through my hair and my face before I realized what I was doing. Shrugging, I told myself I might as well continue, what was the harm?

Eleanor was cooking in the kitchen when I walked in.

‘Good morning,’ I greeted her. ‘You didn’t have to do that.’

‘I don’t mind. I used to cook breakfast for Doc Johnson, so it’s kind of nice doing it again.’

‘Okay,’ I smiled, ‘you talked me into it. Mrs. Simpson asked me to see her husband before I go,’ I said after swallowing a mouthful of scrambled eggs.

‘I know,’ she said with a sly grin, ‘he’s in the waiting room.’

‘Already?’

‘Jim’s nervous about going to doctors, he hates it, so Rhoda must have seriously threatened him to make him come in,’ she said with a wink. ‘I think he’s been told go see the doc or miss out for a long time, if you know what I mean.’

I choked on my scrambled eggs and laughed. ‘I see.’

I finished, had a cup of coffee and glanced around the door into the waiting room and froze, the room was full of people! ‘What’s going on?’ I whispered to Eleanor, pushing her back into the kitchen. ‘What do these people want?’

‘They want to see a doctor,’ she said.

‘Is this some sort of trick, Eleanor? Is this Ron’s idea?’

‘Jacquie,’ Eleanor said seriously, hand on my shoulder while she looked deep into my eyes, ‘Indian Mask hasn’t had a doctor for over five months and word got around that you were seeing Jim so…’

‘People thought they might come around as well?’

She nodded. ‘Jacquie, are you in a hurry to get somewhere? I mean, if you weren’t, you could at least see the urgent ones before you go.’

Part of me wanted to say, no, I’m out of here, look after yourselves, sister! On the other hand, I remembered the smiles at the diner, the feeling of relaxation and the look of hope on the faces of the people in the waiting room.
I laughed softly, surrendering. ‘And I suppose they’re all urgent?’

‘Could be,’ Eleanor said with a grin.

It was strange but I didn’t want to disappoint Eleanor and what did it matter if I delayed my trip for a while? Where was I going, anyway? I shook my head. ‘You going to stick around?’

‘I wouldn’t miss this for the world, a young feisty female doctor in this town! Besides, somebody has to update the files, collect the fees. Here, doctor,’ she said, handing me a file, ‘your first patient file.’

Grinning, I walked out into the waiting room and the murmured conversation stopped as everyone looked at me expectantly.

‘Good morning, I’m Jacquie Rhodes and I guess I’ll be seeing you all before I go.’ They broke into smiles, and I looked at the patient’s file. ‘Jim Simpson?’

A big man got up and walked slowly across the floor towards me and I stuck my hand out.

‘Hi Jim. Don’t worry, I don’t bite,’ I said as I led him away, ‘Much!’ and I winked to the other waiting patients. They were chuckling as I shut the door.

The doctor’s surgery was a comfortable room with a big old fashioned desk, bay window with light curtains, bookshelves, a fire place and, of course the examination area.

‘Now, Doc,’ he began.

‘Call me Jacquie, Jim,’ I said, ‘where’s this cut Rhoda is worried about?’

Sheepishly he pointed to his leg. It was a long gash and severely infected so I had to clean it thoroughly before I stitched. He grimaced and then pulled his pants back up.

‘Thanks, Jacquie,’ he said swinging off the examination table and buckling his belt.

‘Step on those scales, Jim,’ I said, pointing at them.

‘What for?’

‘What do you think?’ I said with a smile. ‘I want your weight. I see from this file you haven’t been here for three years.’

‘Well, if I ain’t been sick …’

‘Have you heard of preventative maintenance? Don’t you tell people to have their motor cars serviced regularly?’

‘Yeah,’ he said warily.

‘Pretty important to do that, is it?’

He nodded.

‘It’s more important to check yourself out regularly, Jim. Now, tell me your weight.’

At the end of the basic examination I wrote a prescription out and gave it to him.

‘This is for the leg and this,’ I gave him a sealed envelope, ‘is for Rhoda.’

He was puzzled. ‘What is this?’

‘Never you mind, and I’m going to ask Rhoda if she got it and if it was opened, okay?’

He shrugged as if to say, women! ‘Okay, doc,’ he said resigned. ‘Thanks again.’

I smiled and walked out to the waiting room and to my surprise, the number of people had increased, there were even people seated on the porch. It was going to be a busy morning.

Steadily, I worked through the patients and had no trouble; even the most cantankerous males seemed to accept me although they looked at me with suspicion until I proved I knew what I was talking about.

Mid-morning, Eleanor came in between patients with a coffee and smiled as she put it on the desk. ‘You okay, Jacquie?’

‘Sure,’ I said, ‘don’t tell Ron, but I’m kind of enjoying it.’

Eleanor laughed and then told me I had some visitors. Scott and Lou were standing by the screen door and Lou had a big bunch of flowers in her hand, her other arm still in the sling.

‘What’s this?’ I asked, squatting down so I was level with her eyes.

‘These are for you,’ she said formally, pushing the flowers into my hand, ‘to say thank you for helping us.’

I was conscious that everyone in the waiting room could hear and were all watching. ‘My pleasure,’ I murmured, ‘how’s the arm?’

‘Itchy,’ she complained, and I smiled.

‘You’ll have to put up with that for a while, I’m afraid. Should be easy for someone as tough as you.’

‘Sign my arm, Jacquie,’ Lou said with a grin and I noticed that Scott had already written something on the cast.

‘Sure,’ I said and wrote my name and drew a little heart next to it. For a moment, a thought flashed within me, asking why I did that, but I shook my head, ignoring it.

Lou surprised me then by suddenly kissing my cheek and hugging me. When she let me go she stood back next to her father, so I stood and smiled at him.

‘We just wanted to stop by and say thanks,’ he quickly said, twisting his cap in his hands. ‘We’d better get going. Thanks again.’

‘No problem,’ I said, watching them go until Eleanor gently pushed a file under my arm.

‘Okay,’ I said, reading it, ‘Mary-Jane Brown?’

The morning continued with a steady stream of patients until Eleanor stood in the waiting room and informed everyone that, ‘The doctor is going to have a break for lunch, I suggest you do the same.’

We sat at the kitchen table and ate the sandwiches Eleanor had made. ‘It seems to be going okay,’ I said, reaching for the glass of iced lemonade.

‘Are you kidding?’

‘What?’ I asked, alarmed. ‘Is there a problem?’

‘No,’ Eleanor laughed, ‘you’re a big hit. It’s already around town how you wrote a note to Rhoda to change Jim’s diet. She’s tickled pink about it.’

‘It’s his blood pressure…’

She nodded. ‘Doc Johnson tried to get him to change and Jim always said he would but never did. The fact that you sent a note to Rhoda has pleased the ladies of the town no end.’ Eleanor grinned and then said slyly, ‘Lou’s a bright young thing, isn’t she?’ I nodded agreement and sat back feeling full and relaxed. ‘Pity about her mother, though.’

She had my interest and knew it. ‘Her mother?’ I asked at last.

‘It’s a sad story,’ she said as she cleared the table.

‘Come on Eleanor,’ I said in exasperation when she didn’t say anymore. ‘Why is it sad?’

‘Her mother, Betty, ran off when Lou was just four. Betty was always a wild thing, we often wondered what Scott saw in her, but that’s the way it was. They were real young when they married and it was because they had to. I think Scott was only nineteen when Louise was born. One day, Betty just took off, left a note and was gone. She sent postcards for a while, the last one was from England or somewhere.’

‘Poor Lou,’ I said softly.

‘Scott took it pretty hard, he hasn’t been near a woman since, just devotes himself to Lou and those fancy boats he builds. Scott’s mother helped but she was taken by cancer last year and now it’s just Scott, his father, and Lou.’

I nodded, lost in thought and finally stood up, stretching. ‘Do you think I’ll get through all the patients this afternoon?’

‘I don’t think so, more have called wanting to know if they can get in to see you. I’ve told them I’d let them know.’

I stared out at the peaceful town and watched the people walking down the leafy street towards the surgery. ‘Guess I’d better stay tomorrow as well,’ I said before I knew it. ‘Book them in for tomorrow.’ When I turned back, Eleanor had a big grin on her face.

The truth was I loved what I was doing. This was real medicine, being part of a small community and helping real people. A country doctor has to be all things, not just dispense pills, but also advice, lifestyle changes and a multitude of other things. It was a challenge, but so rewarding, and just one day doing it had lit me up inside like someone had just turned a light on. I loved it and suddenly the thought of working in a big hospital made my stomach turn.

It was at six that evening when I finally finished and I sat in the kitchen while Eleanor cleared up the coffee cups.

‘I told Ron you’d be finished by now so I expect he’s coming around.’ The screen door banged and she rolled her eyes. ‘Speak of the devil.’

Ron poked his head through and smiled. ‘Evening Doctor, Eleanor.’ He sat down and pulled out a folder and brochures. ‘I thought I’d take a minute to tell you about Indian Mask, the history, what the town’s plans are and what we can offer a young doctor…’

‘Don’t bother, Ron,’ I said and his face fell. ‘You can tell me later.’

‘Later?’ he said hopefully and Eleanor turned from the sink to look at me, brow furrowed.

‘I’ll stay here for three months.’ His face broke into a huge smile as I continued, ‘While you look for a doctor. You are looking, aren’t you?’

‘Of course we are, we’re looking all the time.’

‘Well you’d better keep looking, I’ll just stay here for three months.’

‘What if we don’t find one in three months?’

‘Then you’re back to where you are now because I’ll be gone.’ Will you go, I asked myself, will you really?

‘Okay, thanks Doc.’

‘Ron, will you call me Jacquie? Please?’

‘Sure. Let me tell you about the benefits…’

‘No,’ I said waving a hand, ‘just draw up a fair contract for the three months.’

‘But, don’t you want to know the money? It isn’t much,’ he added apologetically.

‘Tell me later, I didn’t study medicine for the money. Do I get to stay here?’

Ron beamed as he stood up, eager to rush out, I guessed, to tell everyone the news. ‘Of course, Jacquie, it’s all yours while you stay. Eleanor knows how everything works.’

The screen door banged after him and Eleanor hugged me and kissed my cheek.

‘You’re a good person, Jacquie, we’re going to love having you around.’

I called Brenda that night and told her what I had done and she chuckled softly. ‘Do I get to visit?’

‘I hope so,’ I said. ‘Come when you can, I’d love to see you. Bring Kristine.’

‘I think we’ll let you settle in first.’ Brenda paused and then she asked quietly, ‘Are you happy?’

‘I think so,’ I answered softly, ‘I think so.’

Part 6 Country Doctor

Once I had moved all my clothes in and Eleanor had stocked the pantry, that rambling old house felt like home, especially after I cleaned the house and moved some plants in. The town made me very welcome and when I went for my morning run before breakfast, I was constantly waving back to people along the whole route.

The county newspaper carried the announcement that I was practicing in Indian Mask and one evening while I was watering the azaleas, I noticed someone had changed the sign in front of the house and my name, freshly painted, stood out. I smiled to myself when I saw it. It felt good and I laughed softly when I realised it had taken them four weeks to change it.

I didn’t have to cook much as the people kept inviting me to their homes for dinner. At first I was reluctant to go as I enjoyed cooking, but cooking for one is no fun. I soon found myself looking forward to each occasion where I ate with a different family.

There were times when I wrestled with what I was doing and why, when I knew I wanted to change back to a male. I do, don’t I?

I argued to myself that the community needed me and it was only for three months, in fact I had less than two months to go. I rationalized that I was building an employment history that would enable me to acquire a position at a hospital after the three months. There were times when I even believed it.

The truth was, I loved being a part of the small community and I enjoyed connecting with the people, people who were becoming increasingly important to me. It also helped that I was important to them and it was the first time in my life that I was significant, truly significant, to anyone on a personal level.

Brenda guessed exactly that and asked me if Indian Mask felt like it was becoming home to me.

‘I guess it is,’ I said slowly into the telephone.

‘I can’t wait to see it,’ she said and we made plans for her to visit. I called her often and I missed her, so I was excited that she was finally coming down after so long.

I developed a routine. On Tuesdays and Thursdays, I would drive into the country to visit those patients that couldn’t get into town. They were so grateful to see me that I was embarrassed, and they pressed eggs, butter, preserves, vegetables and fruit on me as I left.

When I returned, I would pile the produce on the kitchen table and tell Eleanor to take what she needed or distribute to any needy folk. She would shake her head as she went through the haul. ‘Doc Johnson never got this much stuff,’ Eleanor said with a smile.

‘They all think I’m skinny,’ I muttered, pouring some of Eleanor’s lemonade into a tumbler.

‘Well, you could use a few more pounds,’ she said with a sly wink, ducking out the door as I threatened her with a tomato.

One Tuesday, I was driving down by the river when the car swerved and bumped along, telling me I had a flat. Dejectedly, I stared at the rear flat wheel. How, I thought miserably, am I going to be able to lift the spare down from the back? For the first time in a while, I wished I had my old male strength back.

I heard the sound of a car approaching and looked up. Suddenly I felt very vulnerable and wondered if I should get into the car and lock the doors when, with relief, I recognized the pick-up as it pulled up.

‘Hi there, Jacquie,’ Scott called and I smiled at him. You’re glad to see him, I told myself, because he can change the wheel, nothing more. Then why did I keep smiling at him? ‘Got a problem?’

I nervously brushed my hair back with my fingers and wondered what I looked like. I wore jeans and comfortable clothes when I was visiting the farms and knew I didn’t look that attractive. Do you care, I asked myself, why would you care what you look like?

‘Flat,’ I said, ‘I can change it but I can’t lift the spare down.’

He climbed out of the pick-up and smiled down at me.

‘I’ll have a look.’ Scott poked at the flat with a dusty boot and squatted down to look at it, then removed a battered tool case from his car. ‘Won’t take a minute,’ he said with a smile.

I watched the muscles in his arms bulge as he effortlessly pulled the spare down and rolled it around. As he worked, I found myself watching with intensity that I found disturbing. Get a hold on yourself, girl, I told myself and cleared my throat.

‘Thanks for this, Scott.’

‘No problem,’ he said, tightening the wheel nuts and then putting the flat wheel into the back of my wagon. ‘All done.’
He wiped his hands and seemed to be nervous so I smiled, waiting. ‘My place is just up the road if you want to wash up or something,’ he said, picking his tools up.

‘Could I use your phone?’ I said, ‘I have to call Eleanor.’ It was a weak excuse, but the coverage for cellular phones wasn’t great around there, and for some reason I wanted to see where he lived.

He suddenly smiled. ‘Okay, just follow me.’

As I drove behind him, I wondered what I was doing. Eleanor didn’t expect me back; I should have just thanked him and driven back into town.

The house was down a dirt road, chickens in the side yard and azaleas in the front. To one side was a large shed with big double doors that were open and I could see a half built boat inside.

Lou came running out, a big smile on her face. ‘Jacquie!’ she cried, and I bent down to hug her.

‘How’s tough Lou?’ I asked and she grinned.

Scott seemed a little nervous as he led the way into the big house. ‘It’s not cleaned up, ’ he apologized. ‘It’s a little messy.’

‘That’s okay,’ I smiled and walked in.

‘The phone’s over there,’ he said, pointing at the kitchen. I nodded and dialed the number, noticing the sink had dirty dishes in it.

‘Hi Eleanor. I had a flat.’

‘You okay?’

‘Yep, Scott came by and fixed it for me.’

‘Did he?’ I thought I detected something in her voice. ‘Where are you?’

‘At his house, so I could use the phone,’ I added quickly.

‘Of course… say,’ Eleanor said and I sensed she was smiling, ‘did you know they were coming in on Friday to get the plaster off? You could do it now, save them the trip.’

‘You’re right, I will. See you tomorrow.’

‘Sure. Enjoy yourself,’ and I did hear her laugh softly as she hung up.

I turned around to see them both looking at me. ‘I didn’t know you were coming in on Friday? I could take the plaster off now, if you want?’

“Yippee!’ Lou screamed and I laughed.

‘I’ll take that as a yes.’

‘Would you like a coffee or water or something?’ Scott asked.

‘Water would be great.’

The screen door slammed and an older man who I guessed was Scott’s father, walked in and stopped when he saw me.
‘Dad,’ Scott said quickly, ‘this is the new doctor.’

He grinned and walked over, offering his hand. ‘Ben Carson,’ he said. ‘I’ve heard a lot about you.’

‘Jacquie Rhodes. All good, I hope?’

‘Yep, all good.’

He appraised me with his eyes and I felt awkward so I said to Lou, ‘Let’s get that plaster off.’

‘Come into my room, Jacquie,’ she said, taking my hand and I followed her in, my medical bag in the other hand. As a country doctor, I carried everything I could, ready for any emergency and fully stocked so people wouldn’t have to travel into town.
After I took the plaster off and we cleaned up. Lou showed me her drawings, her schoolwork and some photographs. When we walked back out, Scott had a pitcher of water and tumblers on the table. I noticed the dirty dishes had gone from the sink and I wondered if he had shoved them in a cupboard somewhere.

‘Look, Daddy,’ Lou said, proudly showing off her arm. The telephone rang and Lou ran to it. It was one of her friends and she sat on the floor talking and I smiled.

‘I said it was a little messy,’ Scott apologized again, pouring water into the tumblers.

‘It feels like a real home,’ I said. ‘It’s nice.’

He smiled gratefully and my stomach turned over once or twice. What’s going on?

I sipped the water and thought desperately for something to say. ‘I saw a boat when I drove in, is that where you build them?’

‘Yep, would you like to see?’

‘I’d love to.’

Ben was working on the boat when we walked in. The sweet smell of the wood claimed my nostrils and I shut my eyes as I inhaled, savoring it.

When I opened my eyes, they were both looking at me, concerned.

‘Sorry,’ I laughed self-consciously. ‘I just love the smell.’

Ben laughed. ‘I think we get used to it and forget. It’s a sweet smell.’

I ran my fingers down the smooth hull, feeling its shape and the texture. ‘This is beautiful,’ I said softly, ‘a work of art.’

They both looked at each other and then smiled back at me. ‘You know boats?’ Scott asked.

‘Heavens, no,’ I laughed. ‘It just looks fantastic.’

They proudly showed me over the boat and then Scott and I walked down the levee banks to the river, past the boat ramp and stood under the magnolia tree, watching the water.

‘This is very beautiful,’ I said, trying to fill the silence.

‘I like it, it’s home, I guess.’

‘Have you always lived here?’

‘I’m the fourth generation,’ he said. ‘We’ve always been here.’

‘You must be attached to this place, you’re fortunate.’

He smiled shyly at me, scratched his head, and just nodded. I almost shook my head in frustration; a conversation with him was like pulling teeth.

Back in the house, I looked around at the comfortable room, the newspapers on the floor next to the easy chair, and I wondered if Ben had been reading it and dropped it when he fell asleep. The house was very masculine and I could see a thin film of dust on the coffee table, television and pictures. They probably didn’t clean much, probably didn’t even see the dust.

‘Well,’ I said, looking around as Ben suddenly appeared at the door, ‘I’d better get…’

‘Would you like to stay for supper?’ Scott asked quickly, the words coming in a rush, and I was surprised to see his face was bright red.

‘Please, Jacquie?’ Lou begged and I smiled.

‘Well,’ I smiled, ‘okay but…’ and they looked at me, ‘I’ll cook. To pay you back for fixing my wheel,’ I added quickly.
‘Okay,’ Scott said quickly and I felt that both Scott and Ben were relieved at that. ‘Uh…we’ll go work on the boat,’ Scott said, hovering at the door.

‘Okay, I’ll call you when it’s ready.’

‘Okay,’ they said, looking at each other, and quickly vanishing back to the boat shed.

‘Can I help?’ Lou asked as I started inspecting the kitchen.

‘Have you done your homework?’ I asked without thinking.

‘Almost. I’ll do it later, I promise. Let me help.’

She seemed so eager and I smiled. ‘Okay, let’s wash our hands and start. You’ll have to show me where everything is.’
They had plenty of fresh eggs and I sent Lou out to my car for the tomatoes and peppers Mrs Henderson had given me that afternoon and we made a big omelette with a salad.

Lou ran out to tell them it was almost ready and I watched Scott and Ben through the kitchen window as they hurried to wash up.

They came in, hair wet and slicked back, all washed and shining, staring at the set table with the tablecloth. The kitchen was also shining as I found the dirty plates shoved into a cupboard next to the stove and Lou and I had washed them, joking and talking as we did.

Scott and Ben were open mouthed and I smiled. ‘It’s just an omelette,’ I said, ‘nothing special.’

‘It smells great,’ Ben said, grabbing two beers from the freezer.

‘Would you like a drink, Jacquie?’ Scott asked as his father gave him a beer. ‘There’s some white wine.’

‘That sounds lovely,’ I said, tossing the salad and he rushed to open the bottle and placed a wineglass on the table.

‘Can I have some, Jacquie? Please?’ Lou pleaded. ‘This is a party, isn’t it?’

I mixed the dressing. ‘Just that much,’ I showed her the portion with my finger and thumb, ‘and put water in the rest of the glass.’ She squealed and ran off and I suddenly realised what I had done. I looked up at Scott. ‘Scott,’ I said quickly, ‘I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have said…’

He was grinning. ‘That’s okay, Jacquie,’ he said and I wondered why my name sounded so good all of a sudden when he said it. ‘You’re the doctor.’

I laughed. ‘Guess I am. Okay, supper’s ready.’

I put the omelette and the bowl of salad on the table and they stared at it. ‘Is anything wrong?’ I asked worried. ‘Oh my God, are you allergic to eggs?’

They laughed. ‘No,’ Ben said with a huge grin, ‘we haven’t seen anything like this in a while, that’s all. It looks great.’

Relieved I sat down and then said, ‘Music, we have to have music.’

Lou jumped up and put a disc in the player and soon soft country music was dancing on the magnolia laden breeze that sneaked in.

‘This is delicious,’ Scott murmured, mouth full and I smiled proudly.

We ate in silence and it drove me crazy so I asked Lou, ‘How was school?’

Off she went, talking about the teachers and her friends, the ride on the bus and everything in her day. I got involved, asking her all sorts of things, until I realised that Scott and Ben were watching us.

I looked up.

‘Sorry,’ Scott smiled, ‘we’re not used to having female company. It’s nice.’

I smiled, flushing. ‘It’s nice to be here.’

‘I’m female, Dad,’ Lou pointed out and I laughed.

‘Yes, you are.’

‘It’s two against two now,’ she said, wagging her finger at them and we all laughed.

Ben insisted on washing up and he dragged Lou to help, making it easier, I suspected, for Scott to talk to me.
We stood on the back porch watching the distant shape of the river cling to the land, the air heavy with the perfume of jasmine and magnolias. There were wind chimes hanging from the porch and I guessed that Scott’s mother or ex-wife had hung them.

‘Thank you,’ he said quietly. ‘Tonight has been special.’

I was surprised that he was saying so much. ‘Oh, that’s okay…’

“Jacquie,’ he said, almost as if he didn’t hear what I said, ‘I’m not much with words, especially with women. I get tongue tied and I make a mess of it but I wanted to say… wanted to thank you…’

‘Scott,’ I said softly and he turned his face to me, his bright blue eyes wide and that cute half smile of his where the upper lip turned up a little, ‘I had a great time. It’s been ages since I cooked and you guys are an easy audience,’ I said with a laugh. ‘I could have served anything and you would have loved it. I had a really great time,’ I added and my heart started pounding. He’s going to kiss you, my mind screamed, look out, a guy is going to kiss you!

He didn’t, he smiled shyly and nodded. ‘It’s been fun for both of us then, that’s good.’ And I was vaguely disappointed.

I kissed Lou goodbye and was surprised when Ben hugged me. ‘Thanks, Jacquie,’ he murmured. ‘It’s been good to have a female influence around here again. I wish Sonia had been alive to see this. You would have liked her.’

‘I’m sure I would have,’ I said.

‘She was like you. Always insisted on music while we ate and we always had to sit down for supper. Thank you, it took me back.’

Scott walked me to my car. ‘Thanks again,’ I said, ‘for fixing the flat.’

‘Thank you for tonight, it was great.’ He shuffled in the dirt and then smiled. ‘I’ll see you around?’

‘Sure,’ I said, inwardly fuming. What does he mean, see me around! I drove off angry and then, remembering the night, their eyes when I placed the meal down, the fun with Lou and the tender goodbye from Ben, I had happy tears in my eyes as I drove down the main street of Indian Mask.

Brenda listened intently when I called her. ‘How do you feel about him?’

‘I don’t know,’ I wailed. ‘I’m confused.’

‘He sounds cute to me,’ she said and I knew she was smiling, ‘especially the way you describe his eyes.’

‘How’s everything?’ Eleanor asked a few weeks later as she poured coffee for me when I came back from the shower after my run.

‘Fine. You?’

‘Oh, I’m just peachy keen.’

I looked up; I knew her pretty well by now and could sense something. ‘What’s up?’

She put the pan down and looked down. ‘Carl told me he passed blood. It’s been happening for a while and the fool’s just told me.’

I immediately stood and hugged her. ‘Get him in to see me,’ I said.

‘Do you think I haven’t tried?’ she said stridently and I saw the tears forming.

‘I’m sorry,’ I said softly, ‘of course you’ve tried. Where is he?’

Eleanor looked at me puzzled. ‘Down at the store, working?’

‘Time I went to the store.’

She looked at me with hope. ‘Jacquie…’

‘I’m going, Eleanor, and you can’t stop me.’

Tears were in her eyes when she hugged me. ‘Thank you,’ she whispered in my ear.

‘Carl McIvor,’ I called out as I walked into the store and I could see people looking at me.

‘Hi, Doc,’ Carl said as he came forward, an anxious smile on his face.

‘Carl, if you won’t come to the doctor, I’ll have to come to you.’

His smile began to fade, conscious of everyone looking. ‘Now, look, Doc…’

‘No,’ I snapped, ‘you look! Eleanor is worried sick and so are you, if you would admit it! I’m going to examine you and you are going to let me. It’s here in the store, or at the surgery. What do you say?’

There were smiles on the faces of the people watching and Carl reluctantly nodded. ‘At the surgery.’

‘Good,’ I said sweetly, offering my arm, ‘then you’ll walk with me now?’

‘But…’

‘Or here?’

‘Guess I’ll walk with you, Doc,’ he said grumpily and I started him down the street. I know it was unorthodox and I could be penalised for my approach but aren’t people more important than rules?

It was chronic haemorrhoids and, although painful, it was a huge relief for both Carl and Eleanor.

Everyone, according to Eleanor, was talking about how I went down to the store and fronted him. Some were saying it was like a gunfight and I laughed at that. The women began to threaten their menfolk that if they wouldn’t go for a check up, they would ask me to come down to their work. Suddenly, I had a lot of male patients.

It was Friday, and I walked out to the waiting room to call in my last patient, Mrs Jacobson, when I saw Scott leaning against the wall, looking like he was waiting to fight a wild tiger.

‘Scott?’

‘Oh, hi, Jacquie,’ he said, shuffling, and I noticed Mrs Jacobson was grinning.

‘Do you want to go in, Mrs Jacobson?’ I asked pointedly but she just grinned.

‘I’ll wait here until you’re ready, Doctor.’

I glanced at Scott. ‘I’ll see you now, Mrs Jacobson. Will you wait?’ I asked Scott and he nodded, wiping his forehead.
Mrs Jacobson didn’t like it, but she followed me in. All the time I listened to her, I wondered what Scott was doing out there and if he would still be there when I came out.

Finally, I finished and showed her out. Scott was still there, sweating and smiling weakly.

‘Scott? Is everything okay?’ I asked, worried and Eleanor walked passed with a wink and then disappeared out the back.

‘Jacquie,’ he mumbled, ‘I’m not much good at this…’

‘Scott,’ I said firmly, really concerned now, ‘will you just say it? I’m really worried.’ Was it Lou, I worried, was she okay?

He took a deep breath and then said, ‘Jacquie, the country club has a dance the last Saturday night of the month, it’s tomorrow, and I was thinking, I was hoping, we could go or something, I know I should’ve asked you sooner but, I don’t know, I couldn’t…’ he finished lamely and his words struck right through me.

He’s asking you for a date! I looked up at him, saw him clearly, those bright blue eyes, that strange half grin he makes when he’s nervous, and those strong hands — oh! Those strong hands!

‘That sounds nice,’ I said with a smile. His face caved into huge relief.

‘Really? You want to come?’

‘Yes,’ I said, surprised at myself. ‘Yes, I do.’

‘Will I pick you up?’

‘Yes,’ I said suddenly, wondering where it came from. ‘Yes, what time?’

‘Seven thirty?’

‘I’ll be ready.’

His face broke into an incredible smile, and I wanted to laugh with him, to enjoy the moment, but didn’t think it was appropriate.

‘See you then,’ he said and I laughed when I saw him punch the air before he climbed into his pick-up.

‘I’m going on a date,’ I told Brenda. I had immediately telephoned her. ‘I’m petrified.’

‘You’ll have fun, Jacquie, it’s just a date.’

‘I suppose so,’ I said doubtfully.

‘What are you going to wear?’ Eleanor asked the next morning.

‘What…’

‘It’s all over town.’ She explained patiently. “He took ages to pluck up his courage, apparently Ben drove him in to make him ask you. I think it’s nice that he’s so nervous.’

‘So do I,’ I said softly and Eleanor grinned.

‘I know. So, what are you going to wear?’

‘I have no idea. Will you help me?’

‘I thought you would never ask,’ she said with glee and I laughed.

The doorbell rang and I started down the stairs, conscious of the short black dress I was wearing. ‘What are you doing?’ Eleanor hissed.

‘Answering the door?’

‘Will you wait here until I tell you?’ Eleanor shook her head. ‘Honestly, I don’t know what they teach girls up North.’
I heard her open the door, talk to Scott and show him into the sitting room.

Eleanor came up the stairs, smiled as she held me at arm’s length. ‘Okay,’ she said, ‘he’s waiting downstairs like nervous cat.’

‘Like me,’ I admitted.

Eleanor looked at me keenly. ‘You’ve never done this, have you?’ I dumbly shook my head. ‘I guess with all the hard work at medical school you never had the opportunity.’ She smiled and hugged me. ‘Just enjoy yourself, he’s a nice guy and he thinks the world of you.’

‘He does?’ I asked softly.

‘Oh yes,’ she smiled. ‘And you can tell that, can’t you?’

I nodded and hugged her. ‘Thanks Eleanor, thanks for everything.’

‘No,’ she said softly, squeezing me tightly against her, ‘thank you. We are so glad you were lost that day you drove into Indian Mask, believe me.’

I walked into the sitting room and Scott’s jaw dropped. ‘Wow,’ he managed to say.

‘Hello,’ I said sweetly, ‘sorry to keep you waiting.’

‘It was worth it,’ he said, flushing, and I looked at him.

‘Such a charming man.’ I murmured, taking his arm as we walked to the car.

Everyone turned to look at us as we walked into the country club. Ron rushed over spouting some vague rubbish and I smiled, looking around, conscious of the fact I was on a guy’s arm, and I liked it.

Scott led me to a table and we sat down while he nervously looked over the menu. ‘It’s been a while since I’ve been here,’ he said. ‘I think the steaks are good.’

Lisa, the waitress, was smiling when she arrived at the table and I had the feeling that everyone was talking about us. ‘Good evening Jacquie, Scott,’ Lisa said. ‘I can recommend the fish of the day and the steaks.’

‘The fish sounds wonderful,’ I said, handing her the menu and Scott ordered a steak.

‘Drinks?’ Lisa asked and Scott looked at me.

‘Could I have a glass of white wine?’

‘Of course, Scott, what about you?’

‘Beer thanks, Lisa.’

She smiled again and left. Scott looked around, fingers drumming nervously on the tablecloth. Every now and again, he would try to loosen his collar or fiddled with his tie, a tie that looked so old it was probably coming back into fashion.

Lisa brought the drinks and Scott almost dived on his. I looked around the restaurant and out the window that overlooked the golf course. ‘This is nice,’ I said, trying to start conversation. He nodded and sipped his beer so I sipped the wine. ‘That’s nice,’ I said putting the glass down and he nodded again. I smiled but I was seething with frustration. ‘How’s Lou?’

‘Good.’

I waited but he didn’t say anything else.

‘And Ben’s okay?’

He nodded and that was it.

Running out of patience, I leaned forward, looked him in the eye and said, ‘Scott, I’m not dangerous, I’m just a woman and not an alligator, I don’t bite! I’m as nervous as you as I don’t date that much. Please, can we forget about this date junk and just have a good time? For starters, can we have a conversation? It’s a little strange having a conversation with myself.’

Scott stared at me open mouthed and then smiled, a gentle easy smile that I watched form on the edges of his mouth and then invade his lips. ‘Okay.’ I raised an eyebrow and he quickly added, ‘I’d like that.’

‘Good,’ I smiled, sipping my wine, ‘why don’t you tell me about that boat you’re building?’

And away he went, and the more he spoke, the more he relaxed, and soon we were laughing as he described how the first boat he ever built sank like a stone.

‘How old were you?’

‘Fourteen. Dad laughed and laughed.’

‘He’s a nice man, I like him.’

Scott smiled at me. ‘He likes you. He made me ask you out.’

‘I’m glad he did,’ I said softly.

‘So am I.’

Lisa returned with the food and we continued to talk. The band started playing as Lisa cleared the table and couples began to move onto the floor to dance.

‘Would you like to dance?’ Scott asked.

I grimaced. ‘I’m not very good,’ I admitted. Not very good? I silently screamed. You’ve never danced, especially not with a man!

‘That’s okay,’ he said with a laugh, ‘I’m terrible.’

‘Okay, I’m up for it if you are.’

He took my hand and led me to the dance floor. The other couples dancing past smiled warmly at us as we slowly began to dance. Scott’s arms around me felt nice and I smelled his cologne, a musky masculine smell.

‘You’re doing great,’ he said softly, his lips brushing my hair as he spoke.

‘Thanks,’ I murmured, ‘you make it easy for me.’ Do you realise, my pesky silent voice asked, that you’re in high heels and dancing with a man? And you like it?

We returned to the table after a few dances and more people smiled at us as Scott led me through the tables from the dance floor. Some couples came up to our table, made polite conversation and the women always complimented me on the dress.

‘Very pretty,’ Rhoda Simpson said, looking at Scott, ‘don’t you think so, Scott?’

‘I think she’s beautiful,’ he said, obviously without thinking and then turned bright red.

Rhoda giggled and dragged her husband back onto the dance floor.

Scott insisted on walking me to my door and I wondered how many people were peeking from behind their curtains, watching us. I smiled at the thought and realised I didn’t care. ‘I had a wonderful time.’

‘You did?’ He said it with such relief that I laughed.

‘Yes, truly, and you can take that awful tie off now.’

He grinned and quickly removed it, stuffing it in his back pocket. ‘It’s the only one I’ve got.’

‘I would never have guessed,’ I said, raising an eyebrow, and he laughed again.

‘I like you, Jacquie,’ he said suddenly, ‘I know you’re a doctor and all, and I just build boats…’

‘But such beautiful boats,’ I smiled up at him. Look out, he’s going to kiss you!

‘But could we… I don’t know… do something some other time… I mean…’

‘Yes,’ I whispered, ‘I would love that.’ Hurry up, kiss me!

‘Really?’

‘Call me.’ His face hesitantly moved closer, his eyes blinked uncertainly, and for a moment I thought he was going to pull away so I slipped my arm on his shoulder and moved in, eyes closed.

He took the hint and kissed me. His lips were so warm and tender and that first kiss simply took my breath away.
Scott whistled softly as he held me, bright blue eyes staring down at me.

‘Wow,’ he murmured.

‘You can say that again,’ I said shakily.

‘Wow,’ he repeated, grinning and I laughed as I fumbled for my key.

‘Goodnight Scott.’

‘Goodnight Jacquie.’

Part 7 Brenda’s Visit

Brenda arrived the next day, planning on staying three days. We walked around the town and I introduced her to everyone who came up to us.

‘You’re really popular,’ Brenda said with a smile.

‘I suppose I’m the only doctor so…’

‘No,’ she said with a smile, ‘they really like you. Eleanor dotes on you.’

‘She is very nice.’

‘So, when do I meet Scott?’ Brenda asked with a teasing tone.

‘I don’t know,’ I said flushing. I had told her that he had kissed me and after she had quizzed me, I admitted I had been a more than willing accomplice.

We sat on a bench in the park, watching some children dancing around the bandstand and a young boy playing catch with his father. ‘This is a beautiful town,’ Brenda said. ‘I can see why you like it.’

I nodded dumbly. ‘Yes,’ I whispered.

Brenda looked closely at me. ‘It’s a bit of a shock, isn’t it?’

‘What?’

‘Realizing you actually enjoy being a woman.’ I was startled and she smiled. ‘I knew you were pretending back at the complex, Jacquie,’ she said quietly. ‘Don’t ask me how but I just knew. You were very good, but something wasn’t just right.’

‘Oh,’ I said in a small voice. ‘Why didn’t you stop me from leaving?’

She shrugged. ‘I hoped you would find yourself and I didn’t like the idea of Buchanan holding you prisoner. Now,’ she said smiling at me, ‘I can see the difference. You and the old Jacquie are like chalk and cheese. Surely you see that?’ I nodded. ‘And you like it, right?’

‘Yes,’ I whispered, ‘I like it.’

‘Good,’ Brenda said and hugged me. ‘Come on,’ she said pulling me to my feet. ‘Show me where we can get a coffee, Doc.’

I managed to laugh and we walked arm and arm to the diner.

‘Alice,’ I said with a smile, ‘this is Brenda, we’ve been best friends since I was born.’

Brenda smiled at me and then turned to Alice. ‘Please to meet you, Alice, Jacquie tells me you have great coffee.’

We were chatting over coffee when the door opened and Scott and Ben walked in. He saw me and grinned that grin. I smiled back and Brenda looked over, saw him, and smiled at me. ‘Is that him?’ she whispered.

‘Yes,’ I said happily. ‘He’s coming over.’ They both came over and stood by the table. ‘Scott, Ben, this is my friend Brenda Peters. Brenda, Scott and Ben Carson.’

‘Nice to meet you, Brenda,’ Ben said with a smile. ‘We heard Jacquie had a friend staying. Do you like the town?’

‘I love it,’ Brenda said.

‘Do you want to join us?’ I asked and Scott sat down quickly and Ben grinned.

‘Don’t mind if we do.’ They ordered coffee and donuts and we chatted casually. I was conscious of Scott looking at me and I flushed when I remembered his kiss.

‘When are you leaving, Brenda?’ Ben asked. Thank God someone was talking!

‘Unfortunately, tomorrow.’

‘Are you a doctor as well?’ Brenda nodded and I was glad she didn’t go into details. ‘Did you two meet in med school?’

‘Something like that,’ Brenda said, smiling into her coffee cup.

‘Well, you come back and next time we’ll take you out on the river.’

‘It’s a deal,’ Brenda grinned.

Brenda and I walked slowly back to the surgery.

‘He’s very cute,’ Brenda said at last. ‘If I didn’t know better, I’d say you two were head over heels with each other.’

‘What! Don’t be stupid!’

‘I could be wrong,’ Brenda said with that annoying smile she gets when she thinks she’s right. ‘Lucky Ben and I were there, otherwise you two would have just sat there staring into each other’s eyes.’

I stopped and shakily put a hand to my forehead. My stomach was churning and I felt my eyes begin to fill.

‘Brenda,’ I whisper, ‘what’s wrong with me? What’s going on?’

She was immediately concerned and hugged me. ‘Nothing’s wrong with you, Jacquie,’ she murmured, ‘it’s alright, I hope it’s perfect for you. I think you’re falling in love. You’ve never been in love, have you?’

Dumbly, I shook my head.

'Well, you’re in for the ride of your life,’ Brenda smiled.

We walked slowly towards the surgery and I took a deep breath to steady myself and smiled weakly. ‘I hope I don’t fall off,’ I murmured and Brenda giggled.

Susan Munroe’s little boy cut his leg in a bicycle accident and she brought him. ‘Is it serious, Jacquie?’ Susan asked anxiously. She was eight months pregnant and was moving awkwardly.

‘I’m sure it looks worse than it is. How did you do this, Tommy?’ I asked as I began to clean the wound.

‘I wasn’t looking where I was going, I guess,’ he mumbled.

‘Watching pretty girls, more like it,’ I said with a wink at Susan.

Tommy blushed. ‘Girls? No way!’

‘Sure,’ I said, smiling at Susan. ‘This is fine, should be right as rain in no time at all.’

She sighed with relief. ‘Thank heaven. Thanks, Jacquie.’

‘How are you feeling?’

Susan rolled her eyes. ‘Oh, you know, I just wish she’d get here.’

‘My first baby in Indian Mask,’ I smiled

Brenda and Eleanor were seated at the kitchen table when I walked in and I could tell they had been talking about me. ‘I feel my ears burning,’ I said as I poured some coffee.

‘Eleanor was just telling me about Scott,’ Brenda said, smiling.

Eleanor got up and bustled over to the sink.

‘Don’t look at me like that, Jacquie,’ she said. ‘Brenda mentioned she met Ben and Scott, so I gave her some details, that’s all.’

‘Is that right?’ I looked suspiciously at Brenda, who smiled innocently.

The next morning we loaded Brenda’s bags into her car. ‘Brenda,’ I began after Eleanor had said goodbye and walked back inside, ‘I was pretending back at the complex, but I was fooling myself most of all.’

‘I know, Jacquie, but it doesn’t matter.’

‘I wasn’t pretending about being your friend,’ I said and hugged her. ‘You know that, don’t you?’

‘Of course and, Jacquie,’ she said seriously, ‘you’re not a patient to me, you’re my friend, okay?’

I nodded and we embraced for the final time. ‘Come back, please,’ I said, ‘when you get a chance.’

‘I’ll come back for the wedding,’ she said cheekily, and I couldn’t help but grin and waved goodbye.

Part 8 Decisions

Scott did call, and he asked if I’d like to go for a drive in the country on Saturday.

‘I’d love to, I’ll make a picnic.’

‘Okay,’ he said. ‘Lou and I swim in a fresh stream we know, so bring your swimsuit.’

The only swimsuit I had was a dark blue one-piece I had used to swim laps in the complex pool. I was self conscious in it then, and I wondered how I would get the nerve to wear it in front of Scott.

I borrowed a cane picnic basket from Eleanor and worked Friday night to make a picnic of cold chicken, salads, breads and fruit. I even baked a pie. Eleanor supplied a few bottles of her homemade lemonade and I put them into the refrigerator until Saturday morning.

After trying on several different outfits, I decided on a white cotton sleeveless shirt and a denim skirt over my swimsuit with comfortable sandals. I tossed a straw hat in the car and loaded the basket. My calls were redirected to the county hospital, so I was free for the day.

As I drove out to Scott’s house, I tried to reconcile the feelings I had with my life and what I had thought was my goal. It was unspoken, even to myself, but I didn’t want to leave Indian Mask and I certainly did not wish to be a man again. Again! That word reverberated within me, as I had extreme difficulty remembering what it was like to be a man.

‘Hi, Jacquie,’ Ben said as he walked over to my car.

‘How are you, Ben?’

‘Fit and dangerous,’ he winked and I laughed. ‘I’m heading off to talk to some potential customers, try to sell some boats, enjoy the day.’

‘You’re not coming with us?’

He stopped, smiled slowly, and I saw where Scott’s smile came from. ‘No, but thanks for asking, Jacquie.’ He winked. ‘If I’m not there, Scott might just have to talk, hey?’

I grinned. ‘You think?’

‘I hope so,’ he said seriously and I watched him drive away, wondering, until Lou ran out.

‘Hi, Jacquie, Dad’s coming.’

‘Good,’ I smiled. Scott walked out, that slow sensual walk that I found fascinating and of which, I knew, he had no idea of the impact. Dressed in an open necked shirt, tight faded jeans and sneakers, he looked so rugged I wanted to squeeze him tight, just feel him.

‘Hi,’ I said and he stopped, his eyes traveling up and down me and I felt good, smiled a little more and moved a little bit.

‘Hi there,’ he murmured, eyes roaming over me still, taking me in.

‘Lou,’ I said brightly, ‘help me with the picnic.’

We brought the picnic basket over to Scott’s pick-up. ‘How much food is in that?’

‘You’ll have to wait,’ I said with a wink and we clambered into the pick-up, Lou between us as we drove.

Lou put the radio on and soon Lou and I were singing along with an old Dolly Parton song, Scott watching us with a half-smile.

‘What?’ I said to him when the song ended.

He smiled and shook his head, one arm resting on the doorframe. ‘Nothing. I guess I’m just enjoying it, that’s all.’

The stream was high up and ice cold but crystal clear, river rocks piled high and lazy birds circling high above us.

‘I’m going in,’ shouted Lou, tearing her shorts and tee shirt off, running into the clear water in her swimsuit. ‘Come on, Jacquie!’

I glanced at Scott and shrugged, pulling my top off and stepping out of my skirt. I waved at Lou, splashing in the water but I could feel his eyes on me. God help me, I posed a little while I pretended to watch Lou, let him look a little, and then smiled shyly at him before running into the stream.

Scott was pulling his clothes off in a hurry as Lou and I splashed each other, giggling like mad, and he arrived panting and smiling in swim shorts. I looked him up and down, smiling, and he smiled back.

Lou and I dived in, the water cold and sharp and I came up shaking my hair as Scott’s arms encircled me. His skin was so hot against mine and I moved against him. Suddenly, I felt his hardness and instead of being appalled, I smiled, pleased with myself.

We swam and played games for an hour or so and then walked out of the water. I held Lou’s hand in one hand and Scott’s in the other.

‘Let’s eat,’ I announced and Lou clapped her hands. Soon we had the blanket spread, the plates and the food arranged, and were settled back comfortably.

‘This is great,’ Scott murmured, chewing on a chicken leg, and I smiled.

‘Apple pie?’ I asked Lou and she nodded, eyes wide.

Later, we were leaning back, comfortable and full, and a little tired. Maybe relaxed was a better description. Lou had finally given up swimming and was lying on the blanket, her head in my lap and her feet across her father’s legs.
I didn’t know it was possible to experience happiness like this.

‘Is she asleep?’ Scott asked softly and I looked down, my fingers in Lou’s hair.

‘I think so.’

‘She just wears herself out.’

‘All that energy has to go sooner or later. She’s a great kid, Scott, but I guess you know that.’

‘She likes you a lot.’ I opened my mouth but he surprised me and kept talking. ‘I like you a lot,’ he said simply and he took my hand, just swallowed mine in his big fist and squeezed gently.

‘That’s good,’ I murmured, falling into those blue eyes, ‘because I like you.’

He leaned over and kissed me, and it was just like the kiss goodnight, it sent shivers of hot vibrations through me. I sighed and rested my head on his shoulder. Life couldn’t be better than this.

The three months were almost up and I wondered what I was going to do. I hadn’t spoken to Ron and I had no idea if the council had found another doctor or not. Did I want to leave, I asked myself, did I want to go work at a hospital? I no longer was interested in the research; I had lost all interest in becoming male. In fact, the idea of being male was now incredibly alien to me.

I found Ron in the diner drinking coffee with Sheriff Hopkins and sat down at their table. They both greeted me and I cut straight to the chase. ‘Have you found a doctor, Ron?’

He glanced at John and suddenly seemed nervous. ‘We’ve been looking, Jacquie, honestly.’

‘We have,’ John chimed in. ‘We even interviewed a guy last month but he didn’t measure up.’

‘Measure up to what?’ I asked, puzzled.

‘To you,’ John said sheepishly. ‘We’ve been comparing them to you.’

‘Oh,’ I said, blushing. ‘I see.’

‘Could you see your way clear to stay another month?’ Ron asked anxiously and I shook my head.

‘No,’ I said slowly, ‘I don’t think a month’s possible.’

‘Oh,’ John said regretfully, ‘we understand. It’s been great having you here and we’re going to miss you…’

‘More like twelve months,’ I said and they gaped at me in surprise and I laughed. ‘You win, Ron, you got me to love this town.’

‘Just the town?’ John shrewdly asked but I ignored him.

‘Let’s make a proper contract if you’ll have me.’

‘Have you?’ Ron said grinning widely, ‘you’re kidding, right?’

I told Eleanor and she danced me around the reception area, hugging and kissing me.

‘Ron wants to keep it a secret until the council approves it,’ I warned.

‘A secret,’ she said scornfully, ‘in this town?’

The next evening I was finishing up when I heard the telephone ring. Eleanor came in. ‘Get your bag, there’s a problem at the school gymnasium.’

I hurried out to the car and was surprised to see Eleanor right behind me. ‘You might need help,’ she said defensively and I shrugged. I should have suspected something right there and then but I was too focused on getting to the gym, wondering how many were hurt, and if Lou one of them?

I pulled up, flung open the car door and ran up the steps to the big double doors of the gymnasium, Eleanor panting behind me.

Pushing the doors open, the gym exploded into light and I saw it was filled with grinning people who chanted ‘Surprise! Surprise!’

I looked around and saw the big banner, draped over the stage. ‘Welcome, Doctor Jacquie’. Ron stepped forward, smiling. ‘Sorry to fool you, Jacquie,’ he said as everyone grew quiet, ‘but we wanted to celebrate your decision to stay with us, and to officially welcome you.’

‘Oh,’ I said, looking around and recognizing mostly everyone. Even the children were there, hanging from the seats at the far end of the gym. ‘I don’t know what to say,’ I murmured just as I saw Scott and Lou standing by one of the side doors.
I knew tears were trickling down my face, and Eleanor smiled and hugged me, followed by Rhoda, Alice and a host of others.
A cake was cut, drinks passed around and Ron ceremoniously presented me with the contract.

Scott and Lou came up to me. ‘Congratulations,’ he said with his slow smile.

‘I’m afraid you have to put up with me for another year,’ I said brightly, wiping my eyes with a tissue.

‘I’m glad,’ Lou said happily.

‘So am I,’ Scott said and I looked up at him and smiled.

Then, in front of everyone, he put his arms around me and kissed me.

There were murmurs in the crowd and I heard Lou say delightedly, ‘Yahoo!’

But I didn’t care. I was too busy kissing him back.

Part 9 Ten Years On

‘Scott, I don’t really want to go to the country club.’

Even though I was dressed, I was still trying to get out of another function. We seemed to be going to so many lately now that Scott was Mayor. Of course, I supported him but I was seven months pregnant and this pregnancy was not as easy as the others. All I wanted to do was collapse on the sofa and read.

Scott smiled and gently kissed me. ‘We have to, honey, you know we do. Lou’s gone on ahead and Dad’s taking the boys. We’ll just make an appearance and then go, okay?’

‘Promise?’

‘We’ll go home when you want to, okay?’

I waddled out to the car, slid in, and Scott backed the car down the drive. We lived in town in a large rambling house that I loved. The boat business had suddenly exploded and the old house by the river was now the office for the boatyard, which now employed thirty-five people.

Ben had retired and we insisted he live with us. It was great having him around, and good for Sam and Matt as he was always there when they came home from school.

‘There’s a lot of cars here,’ I said as we drove into the country club parking lot. ‘What’s this function again, honey?’

‘Council business,’ Scott said, ‘I told you.’ He opened the door for me and took my arm. ‘Before we go inside,’ he said with a smile, ‘I want you to know I love you.’

‘I love you, sweetie,’ I said, and we kissed.

The country club was quiet and I wondered where the people from all those cars were. Scott steered me into the restaurant and suddenly the room was alive with people, jumping and calling out, ‘Surprise! Surprise!’

‘Oh, no,’ I groaned, burying my face in Scott’s shoulder, ‘not again!’

He gently turned me around and I saw the banner. ‘Congratulations Doctor Jacquie, Ten Years in Indian Mask’

I waggled my finger at him. ‘You horrible man,’ I said and he grinned. ‘You could have told me.’

‘I’m the Mayor, honey, I had to keep it a secret.’

Scott led me to a long table and I was surprised to see Brenda and her husband Bob seated at it, along with Ben, Lou and my two sons, Sam and Matt with Eleanor and Carl.

‘Congratulations,’ Brenda said, kissing my cheek as she embraced me. ‘Who’d have thought, huh?’

‘Yeah,’ I said wryly, ‘who would have?’

Scott helped me into my chair and then he walked over to the microphone.

Ben leaned over with a wink. ‘Remember the good old days, Jacquie, when Scott wouldn’t say anything? Now we can’t shut him up.’ Sam and Matt giggled at that and I had to smile.

Lou leaned over and held my hand. ‘You okay, Mom?’

I nodded and rummaged in my bag for tissues. I had a feeling I was going to need them.

‘Ladies and gentlemen,’ Scott began, ‘I’m not going to talk for long…’

‘That’d be a change!’ John Hopkins called out and everyone laughed.

‘That’ll be enough out of you, John Hopkins, or I’m going to have to get the new sheriff to lock you up.’ Everyone laughed and John grinned. He had been retired for three years and the replacement, as everyone knew, was his son-in-law. ‘Seriously, folks, we’re here to celebrate Jacquie’s ten years of unswerving dedication to our community.’ I flinched at ‘unswerving’ but everyone applauded. ‘And we’re going to get everyone to reminisce, so I’ll hand over to our MC for tonight, Louise Carson.’

Lou winked and took a radio microphone from one of the staff and stood in the center of the room.

‘I remember when I first met Mom. I was lying in a smashed car with a broken arm and bleeding all over the place. I was eight and very scared when suddenly this calm face appeared and began to put things right. For a minute, I thought I had died and she was an angel.’

I groaned at that and buried my head in my hands while people laughed.

‘Let’s get some more memories. Eleanor,’ Lou said, holding the portable microphone to Eleanor, ‘do you remember when you first met Doctor Carson?’

‘I sure do. This feisty young woman came in with you and your dad after the accident and told me she was a doctor.’

‘You didn’t believe her, did you?’

‘No, she didn’t look old enough but she soon proved she was a doctor and a good one. She’s also a dear friend to me and I think she’s wonderful.’

I tried to smile back at Eleanor but the tears began to roll down my cheeks as Lou moved around the audience, getting comments. Scott sat beside me and hugged me. ‘I’ll get you for this,’ I muttered.

‘Promise?’ He smiled and I poked him in the ribs.

‘Ron,’ Lou said, ‘you convinced Mom to stay?’

‘Me? No, I think she fell in love…’ he paused and there were a few giggles, ‘with the town!’ Everyone laughed. ‘And she’s done everything she can to increase the population of Indian Mask.’

Everyone roared at that and I smiled to myself. Little do they know, I thought, patting my stomach.

‘Do you remember an incident, Susan?’ Lou asked, moving on.

‘Tommy had an asthma attack late at night. I was on my own and I called Jacquie. She arrived in less than ten minutes, still in her nightdress and slippers, just an old overcoat and slippers on, and she was pregnant with Sam at the time. Jacquie was so calm and she stayed with us for hours until everything was under control. I’ll never forget the relief I felt when her car pulled up. Thanks, Jacquie.’

It went on. Rhoda, Jim, Carl, even Ben had a little something to say. ‘I couldn’t imagine Indian Mask without her,’ he said simply and sat down to wild applause.

Lou took the microphone back and I was surprised to see her eyes were filling.

‘I’m lucky because I’ve lived with her for so long and learned so much. I tried to think of her qualities that I could list but I decided on just one. She loves. That’s it,’ she smiled through her tears. ‘She loves her family, she loves you people and she never asks for anything in return, she just gives and gives. Thanks, Mom, from all of us. Now it’s your turn.’
I managed to stand and Lou grinned. ‘Be careful of my little sister, Mom.’

I took the microphone and she kissed my cheek.

‘I love you, Mom.’ She meant to say it quietly but the microphone picked it up.

‘I love you, honey,’ I said and everyone was smiling. ‘Well,’ I said looking around at my friends and family, ‘I really don’t know what to say. You have given me so much, I feel I’m the luckiest woman in the world.’

Brenda grinned at me and I smiled at her.

‘I have news for you, Louise,’ I said and Lou groaned and rolled her eyes.

‘I know I’m in trouble when she calls me Louise!’

Everyone laughed.

‘It’s not your little sister in here,’ I said, smiling as I patted my belly, ‘it’s your little sisters!’

Lou exclaimed excitedly, ‘Twins? I don’t believe it!’

‘Neither do I,’ groaned Scott.

‘See what I mean? She’s a one woman population explosion.’ Ron called out and the laughter continued.

I looked around the room. Everyone was getting older, myself included, but life was wonderful.

‘Thank you,’ I said quietly, ‘thank you for everything.’

I handed the microphone back and everyone stood to applaud.

I leaned down to softly kiss Scott. ‘I’m ready to go home now,’ I murmured.

He smiled. ‘You have to wait for the cake.’

‘Okay,’ I said softly, ‘I love you.’

That grin of his that I loved so much crept up and ambushed his face.

‘I love you,’ he said simply. ‘Everyone loves you.’

Notes:

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joannebarbarella's picture

Thank You So Much, AlisonZ

For pointing me at this story through your blog.

I enjoyed it not just for the epiphany of the doctor, but for the beautifully portrayed town and it's authentic inhabitants.I wonder where I was when it was first posted here? Still, much better late than never,

Joanne

Just Really Moving

This story always brings tears to my eyes so I always have to wipe as I read. And I've read it at least once a year too! Shame I can't give it a kudo every time then you'd have way more. I have purchased some of your other works and all of your stories have touched me. They entertain as few others do. I would be poorer without your works.
Thank you.

Very nice. Well plotted and

Very nice. Well plotted and well written. Since I'm fairly new to BC, I try to sample the older pieces as I have time. Glad I tried this one.

- vessica b

The Mask

You've done it again, Carmenica; reduced me to tears at the end of this lovely story. I've read some of the downloads from Lulu Press and was delighted to find this on Big Closet. I am, as always, a glutton for a romantic tale with a happy ending and they don't come much better than this.

Thank you so much.

Susie Heywood

The Mask

I encouraged Carmenica to bring this story over to BC. It's such a great story with a warm and loving ending. Unfortunatelu the formating gremlins have attacked it. But trust me, its well worth the read!

Hugs!
Karen J.

Change is inevitable, except from vending machines

Karen J.

* * *

Ever accidentally throw something away and then later realize you actually needed it?

I did that with my life.

Formatting

Think I fixed it! Fingers & toes crossed.

Looking Good!

Thanks, hon! Now everybody will be able to enjoy this fine story. Sound like a cheerleader, don't I! I know what I like, and this one is at the top of the stack.

Hugs!
Karen J.

Change is inevitable, except from vending machines

Karen J.

* * *

Ever accidentally throw something away and then later realize you actually needed it?

I did that with my life.

A Sweet Story

I have liked your work since getting sucked into Elizabeth Grey.

A charming story with the subject finding our what he/she really wanted in life was not what he/she thought is was.

"Better" was a nice read too.

John in Wauwatosa

Jezzi Stewart's picture

Scrooge, with a

virus replacing Marley and a town, a man, and a little girl replacing the three spirits ... and it didn't even happen on Christmas :-)

"All the world really is a stage, darlings, so strut your stuff, have fun, and give the public a good show!" Miss Jezzi Belle at the end of each show

BE a lady!

Carmenica

Carmenica,

I first read your story several years ago, at least I think it was several years ago, and I can't tell you were I read it, if it was here or at fictionmania.

During that time, I never really gave comments on stories, I was more a lurker, and just enjoyed the writings. Since that period, I realized that I wanted to complement authors on thier writings, and I felt bad it has taken this long. It's the least that I can do for all of the hard work you have put in on your writing. since I have read several of your works and enjoyed everyone of them.

I just want to say, you are a wonderful writer and to keep up the good work. I enjoyed this story then, and I enjoyed rereading this story now. It is still a touching story.

Hugs
Joni

I'm wondering...

...what happened with the "bad" general ?

Hugs,

Kimby

Wonderful story!

I avoided it because of the title but after reading it, the title makes wonderful sense for a great story! I've read it twice now! This will be a favorite.
I'll now hunt for other work by you! Thanks for posting such a warm yarn!

Maria

I had the same reaction, Maria

When I first saw this story over on Stardust. But one day I took a look and I was hooked. I bet I read it at least a half-dozen times in a week. This is one of my all-time favorites!

Hugs!
Karen J.

Change is inevitable, except from vending machines

Karen J.

* * *

Ever accidentally throw something away and then later realize you actually needed it?

I did that with my life.

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