Is Late Better than Never?

Is Late Better than Never?
by Lily Rasputin

Chapter One

It was a bad time to be driving. Darkness, rain, despair, and self-loathing are a really bad combination on their own, but when being behind the wheel of a moving auto is thrown in, it’s downright dangerous. I knew it as surely as I knew my life had just taken two painful torpedoes to the starboard side and was sinking fast.

I knew … I just didn’t care.

“I didn’t sign up for this, Mike. I married a man and expected that I would stay married to that same man for the rest of my life.”

Kelly’s angry voice played on a loop in my head as I navigated the murky, water-logged streets with a modicum of situational awareness. The world flying by outside the partially fogged windshield was currently far less real to me than the constant mental rerun of the heated conversation from an hour ago.

“I guess I should have noticed it earlier. The sneaking around. The guilty expressions. So, maybe that’s on me for not confronting you before now. But you need to decide what it is you want to do here. If this is what you want, what you truly want, then we’re done. I’m not going to be a party to your … delusions.”

A spray of water from a standing puddle in the overloaded gutter splashed across the windshield, momentarily turning the already distorted street into an invisible black ribbon. I gripped the steering wheel tighter, fighting against the tears brimming in my eyes.

Keeping my shameful secret from my wife of sixteen years hadn’t been an easy task. No matter how much I denied myself and tried to fight the feelings in my soul, I knew that, eventually, I would make a mistake. Then she’d know the truth about me.

I might have the physical form of a man, but I knew I was actually a woman in my brain and my heart.

Still, how could I have confided in her? I hadn’t even been honest with myself for most of my life. Despite knowing who I was deep down, I’d spent a lifetime denying the reality of that truth.

The blaring of a horn next to my car jerked my thoughts back to the moment and I eased back into my own lane. The rain coming down in buckets prevented me from being able to see the make or model of the other car as it passed me, but I could almost feel the glare the driver sent my way.

“What am I going to do?” I asked aloud, my voice sounding hollow and weak. “My marriage is over. Hell, my whole life is over.”

I tried to tell myself that I could just put my true self back into the box I’d forced her to hide in for most of my life. She would go away, and I could have my old life back. I could survive doing it again. After all, I really didn’t need to be her to be happy, right?

“I need a way to fix this,” I mumbled aloud.

“Guess this is your lucky day then,” an unknown voice from the passenger side said.

I let out a completely embarrassing scream and reflexively jerked the steering wheel sharply to the left. A wave of sickening vertigo slammed through me as I felt the back end of the car lift and turn as it began to hydroplane. Still screaming, I tried to turn the car back in the opposite direction.

Only, the wheel in my hands refused to turn. A moment later, I realized that the windshield wipers had ceased their rapid back and forth motion and were frozen in place halfway through their arc. The whole sensation of being in motion, and of motion outside the vehicle ceased.

“There, that should do it,” the voice said again.

Tearing my attention away from the seemingly still-life world outside of the car, I turned to see a not unattractive woman sitting in the seat that had been empty less than a second ago.

She had long, glossy black hair that fell down past her shoulders in little waves, the dusky tan skin of someone whose ancestors might have been Arabic, generous curves poured into a leopard print cocktail dress, and a strikingly gorgeous face beset with eyes that were solid red.

“What the hell?” I said, staring at the mysterious woman. “Who the hell are you? What’s going on?” I wasn’t sure which part was freaking me out the most. The fact that some strange, obviously not human woman had just appeared out of thin air next to me, or the fact that time seemed to have stopped outside of my car.

The woman smiled, showing teeth that were perfectly straight and blindingly white. “Let’s start with the easiest stuff first, okay? I am Namira and I’m here to fulfill your wish.”

I blinked. “Do what? What wish?”

Her smile widened. “The wish to be a girl. That is what you wished for.”

I blinked some more. “My wish to be a girl? What wish?” Not that I didn’t want to be a female. The very thought made something inside of me sing with potential joy. I was just at a loss as to how this Namira being knew that part of me existed.

Shaking my head, I pointed out the window at the world on pause. “What is going on? Did you just stop time out there?”

She laughed and shook her head. “No. The world out there is still turning and going. This is,” she gestured at the confines of the car and then to the two of us, “is a sliver of a second. We’re currently experiencing everything about a thousand times faster than normal.”

I turned away from her to press my face against the glass of my door’s window. The rain was motionless, coating my view in a sheet of water as solid as if it were ice. Turning back to the woman, I held up my hands. “This has to be a dream or something.”

“I can assure you this is real. However, even I cannot exist between moments indefinitely. So, let’s get this transaction completed.”

“What transaction? My wish that you mentioned?”

She nodded. “Yes. That’s why I’m here.”

“What the hell are you?” I asked, though I pretty much already knew the answer. Or thought I did.

“I’m a Djinn. Wish granting is sort of what we do.”

“You’re a genie?”

She sighed. “I really don’t like that word, Michael. It’s like me calling you a ‘humie’ or something. It’s insulting.”

Not wanting to upset the creature who could obviously pull us out of the flow of time, even if only temporarily, I nodded. “Duly noted. Djinn, then. Sorry.” I sighed and looked at her. “You said ‘wish’. Singular. I don’t get three?”

“No. Everyone only gets one. The whole legend around three wishes was actually a misunderstanding. A set of identical triplets who lived thousands of years ago each got one wish and the story got corrupted.” She shrugged and then flashed me a smile. “Now, shall I go ahead and do it?”

“Wait!” I held up my hands again. “Maybe I don’t want my wish to be that I’m female. I can think of something else.” Like maybe making Kelly forget all about finding out I’m transgender. That might be a better wish to make.

Namira shook her head and frowned. “Sorry, no takebacks. A wish is a wish. Once made, the bargain is struck.” She looked at me with those crimson eyes for a second or two and then sighed almost sympathetically. “Tell you what. I’ll let you make a few minor adjustments to the details. But only because I’m feeling generous and entertained.”

“But I didn’t even make a wish,” I protested. Sure, I might have a burning desire to be female. But a desire wasn’t actually a wish, was it?

“Yes, you did. You said the incantation and performed the ritual. Deal is sealed.”

I shook my head. “What ritual? When?”

“January 22, 1993.”

My mouth dropped open. While the exact date didn’t ring a bell, the year did. And with that came the memory I’d all but forgotten.

My friend Jesse had given me the weird coin as a belated Christmas present. He was my best friend and the only one with whom I’d shared my identity struggles. When the holiday break was over and we were back on campus, he came to my dorm and handed me the small gift box.

“I hope you aren’t mad, Mike, but when I saw my Maw-Maw, she knew right away something was bothering me. I told her about you, and how I was worried you might do something bad because of what you were dealing with.”

Jesse’s Maw-Maw, who was his father’s grandmother, was a little old lady from a tiny town in Bosnia. Jesse had often shared with me some of the wild stories that she’d told him. Tales about magic and spirits and all manner of supernatural things. He said that she’d been the “wise woman” of her village before the Nazis invaded. She’d fled from her home and eventually made her way to the US.

“She gave me this to give to you,” he’d said, pointing at the box.

I opened the lid to see an oddly shaped silver coin inside. When I removed it from the box, I was surprised to find it was much heavier than I’d expected and warm to the touch. One side was polished smooth, but the other had a bunch of strange symbols carved across the face of it.

“She said that you can use it at midnight on the next new moon. Hold it in your left hand, place it next to your heart, and say your wish aloud. Then count to three and put the coin under your pillow. If the spirit that owns the coin is agreeable, it will come and take the coin while you are sleeping and grant your wish.”

Of course, I thought it was all bullshit at the time. However, as the date of the new moon approached, and my dysphoria kept flaring up, I decided to take a chance on what I was sure was a ridiculous notion. I performed the ritual as instructed, put the coin under my pillow, and went to sleep. The next morning, the coin was gone, but I was in a body that was still painfully male.

I confronted Jesse and accused him of sneaking into my room to swipe the coin in order to have a good laugh at my expense. Our argument got more and more heated as he denied what I claimed, and I continued to rail at him for betraying a confidence I’d shared.

Our friendship died that day. The last thing he said to me before walking out of my room was, “I guess you didn’t really want it bad enough to make it happen.”

His words stung me so badly that I’d taken my thoughts about my true sense of self and locked them away deep inside me for decades. Now, as the memories of Jesse and the coin came back, I found myself growing furious again.

Only this time, my ire was directed at the creature sitting across from me, smiling like the proverbial cat that ate the canary.

“That was thirty years ago! Thirty … fucking … years!”

She shrugged so nonchalantly that it could be considered textbook. “I was in the middle of a massive backlog when you made your wish,” she explained, not sounding the least bit put out by my obvious anger toward her. “Now I’m here to complete the deal.”

“But I don’t want it now!” I raised my voice even higher, hoping it would compensate for the fact that I actually still wanted it. In my heart of hearts.

“No. Takebacks,” Namira reminded me. “Now, do you have any addendums you want to add before I wrap this up and move on to my next client?”

A cold sweat broke out on my brow. This was actually going to happen. I was going to get turned into a woman by a red-eyed genie with a shitty sense of timing. That is, if this wasn’t all some random hallucination brought on by panic and stress.

I was actually going to become the female I knew I should have been from birth.

“Uh…” Think, Mike! “Uh, if I’m no longer going to be a guy, I want my wife, Kelly, to be okay with it.” Wait, what about everyone else? My kids? My job? “Scratch that, not just Kelly. I want everyone to be perfectly okay about it. Like it’s no big deal at all.”

Namira shrugged, almost disinterestedly. “Okay. Anything else?”

I tried to think, but I could feel somewhere deep inside that time was fighting to reassert its normal flow on me. The sensation of urgency made it hard to plan out my caveats properly. What if Kelly wasn’t upset about the change, but still didn’t want me around? After all, she’d more than made it clear that she wasn’t the least bit interested in being married to a woman. Could my wish make her bi?

I tossed that thought aside. I couldn’t use my wish to change her like that. I cared far too much to do that to her. However, the fear of getting divorced and not being around Sheila and Devon caused my heart to hammer painfully in my chest. I couldn’t lose them just to satisfy my own needs.

“Yeah. I want to remain an important part of Sheila and Devon's lives. I want to be there to help Kelly raise them and see them grow up.”

Another carefree shrug. “Done. Is that it?”

I opened my mouth to ask if I could add more when I noticed the slightest twitch of movement from the formerly stilled wipers. Time, it seemed, was not going to be deterred any longer.

“Yeah. That’s all.”

The Djinn smiled. “Awesome! Well, here we go. Hope your new life is everything you wished it to be!” She rubbed her hands together gleefully and then shot me an apologetic look. “Oh, by the way, totally sorry in advance.”

My eyes shot back at her. “What? Sorry for what?” Suddenly, every twisted tale I’d ever heard or read about trickster genies and their manipulation of wishes came rushing back to the forefront, making me terrified that I’d not been thorough enough in listing my terms.

“For that,” she said, pointing over my shoulder.

I spun around in my seat just as the car resumed its journey mid-hydroplane. A pair of blinding bright lights directly pointed at me filled my vision. A heartbeat later, I heard the screeching wail of a truck’s horn as the circles of light expanded in size.

A moment after that, I felt the jarring impact of the collision, then … nothing at all.

………………………………………………………………………………………………..

A knocking from somewhere outside of my pounding head dragged me back to consciousness.

It ceased after a few seconds, allowing me to begin drifting back down into the peace and quiet. Then, it started back up again. Louder this time.

“Come on, Maddie! Get up already!”

This time I did force myself into alertness. Mainly because I had no idea whose voice that was, nor did I know anyone named Maddie. Shoving away the thick blanket wrapped around me like a heavy cocoon, I blinked at the brightness of my surroundings, fully illuminated by the sunlight streaming in through the open window blinds.

Lights! The crash!

I leapt out of bed, banging my hip on the corner of the nightstand hard enough to elicit a cry of pain from my mouth and send everything on top of it sliding around.

“Ow! Dammit!”

I froze in an instant. That had not been my normal voice I had heard in my ears.

Immediately, I grabbed at myself as I glanced down, already suspecting what I would find. A pair of firm, yet pliant breasts lurked beneath the oversized T-shirt draped across my torso. The legs poking out of the bottom of the shirt were slender, with just the barest hint of muscle tone, and ended in a pair of dainty feet sporting purple-painted toes.

“Oh shit,” I whispered in a soft alto tone. “I’m a woman.”

I tore my attention away from my transformed body to look at the room around me. It was much smaller than the master bedroom I’d had the pleasure of waking up in for the past ten years. The bed was a small twin with a comforter and pillows in a pastel rainbow pattern. A desk holding several thick books and an open laptop sat against the wall underneath the single window. The tree visible through the slats was green and leafy.

The room had two doors, a narrow one across from the bed and another other on the adjoining wall opposite the window. The smaller of the two was slightly open, and the light currently burning inside revealed that it was a modest-sized closet.

The walls had several posters, most of which were framed. Two of them I recognized. Van Gogh’s Starry Night occupied a spot over the headboard of the bed while Monet’s Water Lilies hung on the wall next to the larger door. In addition, there were two posters featuring a singer I peripherally knew from Sheila’s playlist that she had subjected me to every time we ran an errand. There was also a small blue and gold pennant tacked over the closet door that featured the image of a Greek warrior and the words “Go Spartans!” beneath.

Spartans. The mascot of the local university. This wasn’t a room in mine and Kelly’s house. This was a … dorm room.

I glanced down at myself again, then sprinted the ten steps to the closet door. As expected, when I pulled it open I discovered a full-length mirror affixed to the inside of it. As well as an extremely young girl staring back at me with an expression of panic and horror.

The girl’s hair was a mousy brown mess of curls that was piled on top of her head in a fountain and held in place with a bright pink scrunchie. Her eyes were a vibrant shade of green, like polished emerald. Her lips were thin and her nose slender with a bit of an upturned tip. She wasn’t ugly or unattractive, but she also wouldn’t ever be mistaken for a model.

The front of the gray T-shirt wasn’t as tented as I had imagined it to be when I was staring at my new chest from above. It was enough, however, to slightly distort the blue lettering across the front that read, “Spartan Pride”. Her legs were a bit thicker than my initial assessment, and longer. The top of her head came almost to the top of the mirror.

“I’m young again,” I whispered. Then I shook my head and slowly turned away from my reflection to examine the room around me again. “I’m back in college.”

The door rattled again with a series of quick, hard knocks that made me jump in surprise, and that same female voice called out through the wood.

“Get up and unlock the door, Maddie. I need that sweater. I’m gonna be late for work!”

With a racing pulse and an overwhelming feeling of trepidation, I walked over to the door and twisted the knob, popping open the lock. Before I could actually open the thing, however, it burst open wide and an attractive blonde in a pair of dark red leggings and a black lace bra rushed into the room.

“Sorry, babes,” she said as she hurried past me to a basket of laundry I hadn’t noticed sitting near the desk. Bending over, flashing a rather nice-looking rear my way, she began to paw through the clothing. “I’m sorry I didn’t answer your texts last night. Jake and I were … occupied.”

The giggle that came along with the salacious glance she looked over her shoulder with told me exactly what had occupied them.

“Uh, no problem,” I said. “It happens.”

She nodded and returned to her apparel hunt. “Did you ever hear back about if you got the job or not?”

Job? Shit. I didn’t even know who I was, much less what I was supposed to do for employment. The décor and my appearance led me to assume I was still in college. What if I wasn’t?

“Uh, not yet. I’m still hopeful.” Yeah, I'm hopeful that I’ll eventually get some answers.

The blonde eventually rose back into a standing position with a black cardigan in her grip. When she turned back to face me, I caught myself staring at the impressive swell of her breasts, barely constrained by the bra. I was both enamored of them and not-so-subtly jealous that they were much bigger than mine.

“You’ll get it. You’re too freaking perfect not to.” She held up the sweater. “This is okay, right?” she asked. Either she didn’t notice that I was ogling her chest or didn’t care. “I promise not to get anything on it.”

I nodded, pulling my gaze back up to her face. Like the new me, she was pretty rather than beautiful. With an aquiline nose and blue-green eyes that seemed a touch too small for her face.

“Sure. Take it. Uh, I trust you.”

She smiled and moved closer, grabbing me in a quick hug that pressed her generous chest against mine for a moment. Then she stepped back and looked me in the eyes, the smile falling into something more like concern.

“Are you sure you’re okay? If you need me to, I can call out of work, and we can veg on the couch with a quart of ice cream. You can vent and cry on my shoulder as much as you want.”

Since I had no idea what I was supposed to be upset about, and I really needed the alone time to figure out exactly what sort of situation Namira had placed me in, it was more than easy enough to flash a smile and shake my head.

“I’m good,” I said, patting her on the shoulder. “You go to work, and we can, uh, girls’ night it this evening.”

She gave me a confused look as she began to slip into the sweater. “I thought you were having dinner with your folks tonight. It is Tuesday after all.”

My folks? Wait, this body has a family? I was suddenly filled with the fear that my wish had resulted in something far more complex than simply turning me into a coed with a busty blonde roommate.

“Uh, I’m not really feeling up to seeing them tonight. I’m sure they’ll understand.”

It would be an understatement to say the look I received was a dubious one. “Oh. Okay. Well, if you’re here after my slave shift is over, we’ll get Mario’s and stuff ourselves with junk and talk shit about Becki. I’ll have eight whole hours of boredom to come up with a slew of new names to call her. Okay?”

I nodded, wondering who “Becki” was and what she’d done to earn the nameless blonde’s ire. “Sounds like a date.”

She laughed and leaned in again to place a completely friendly and chaste kiss on my cheek. “If only I swung that way, babes. Later!”

Then she bounced back out of the room like a whirlwind of energy. About ten seconds later, I heard another door slam shut, and silence descended all around.

“What the fuck is going on?”

I went over to the desk and found a beige purse sitting on the chair. Taking it back to the bed, I unzipped it and pulled out a matching wallet. The leather flap holding it closed was monogrammed with three letters in flowing gold script. MCM.

“Well, I already know the first M is for Maddie. But is it Madison or Madeline?”

“Open it and find out,” a familiar voice suggested from the doorway.

My head snapped around to see Namira leaning against the frame, a saucy grin on her face. The leopard print party dress from before had been replaced with a blue bikini top and a white waist wrap that showcased her lithe, copper-skinned form.

“What have you done?” I asked, dropping the wallet onto the bed as I shot to my feet.

She gave me a frowning pout and pushed off the doorframe to saunter into the room, moving to the bed where she took up a lazy pose that exposed a lot of shapely thigh. “What did I do? I granted your wish, silly girl. What I don’t understand is why you seem so put out about it.”

“Put out? Seriously?” My new voice went up a few octaves and nearly derailed my oncoming tirade. “This is not what I wished for. I mean, yeah I expected to be turned female. As in a female version of my old self.” I pointed at the mirror and at the girl reflected within it. “I didn’t want to be jammed into the life of a total stranger. Much less one that’s so … young.”

Namira rolled her eyes. At least, I think she rolled them. Since they were completely solid red orbs devoid of pupils, it was hard to be sure. “You performed the ritual when you were nineteen. Ergo, your wish was tied to the desire to be a nineteen-year-old female.” She shrugged one shoulder. “I don’t make the rules, sweetie.”

“Maybe not, but you seem to be able to manipulate them.” Not that I was positive that was the truth. Apparently there were a lot of incorrect conjectures when it came to the rules of wish granting. Such as decades-long delays.

Sighing, Namira shook her head. “Complain, complain, complain. Look, what you claim you wanted is not feasible or efficient.” She hopped up from the bed to stand next to me as she gestured at my reflection.

I say “my” reflection because apparently Djinn, like vampires, didn’t have one.

“This was the easiest, most logical way of giving you what you wished for. You should be happy about it. You know, it could have been a much worse life to inherit.”

I whirled around and opened my mouth to protest more, but a simple wave of her hand sent my jaw clacking shut hard enough to rattle my new (to me) teeth in their sockets. The look on her face instantly went from amused and playful to stern and serious.

“I know what you expected to happen, Michael. You thought you’d still be you, only changed biologically to female. One day Michael, the next day Michelle. Or something.” She held up a single finger. “However, that would have created more than a few problems. Not the least of which is the incredible medical sensation you would become. You know, since you would be the only male in history that spontaneously changed genders.”

She shook her head disapprovingly, as if annoyed at having to explain the obvious, and held up a second finger. “Or maybe you thought I’d reach back down the hallway of time and change it so that you were female from birth. Giving you a completely different life than the one you actually lived.” Her lips pursed and released a soft whistle. “Do you know how utterly disruptive that would be to the space-time continuum? Oh, and it wouldn’t fulfill the additional parameters of your wish. You know, the part about being around to raise the children.”

A third finger joined the other two. “Or maybe you thought I’d just magic up a female body for you to inhabit. Something custom made that you could just slip into and wear like a tailored suit. Of course, then you’d also want some official identification to go with it. Because you can’t do anything in this century as a virtual nobody. That would require fabricating a whole fictional life from scratch, along with manipulating the complicated levers of bureaucracy so the new you would have legitimacy.”

Namira giggled and lightly booped the end of my nose with those three digits before sauntering back to the bed. She flopped down and shrugged nonchalantly.

“Sorry, girly. I’m a Djinn. Not a goddess.”

I found my jaw workable again, but wisely took a deep breath before speaking in a much more reserved tone. She might not be a goddess, as she claimed, but I could tell that pissing her off might result in more than just being magically silenced.

“Still, this doesn’t fulfill the agreement.”

“Sure, it does. You wanted everyone to be okay with you being female. Well, guess what, cutie? Now everyone is. No one will even bat an eye at the fact that you aren’t the least bit masculine.”

I pointed a finger at her. “That was only part of the stipulations I added. I was also supposed to be a part of my family’s life, remember? I wanted to be there to help Kelly raise the kids.”

The grin that spread across the Djinn’s face would have sent a shark fleeing in terror. She leaned over the side of the bed and came back up clutching a cell phone wrapped in a black case featuring a rainbow flag. Holding it in the open palm of her hand, she tapped on the screen with a bright blue fingernail.

The device powered on, and I heard the sound of a phone ringing come from the speakers. On the third one, a sharp clicking sound was followed by a robotic female voice. “You have … one … new message.”

A second later, another click led to a different voice coming from the speaker. A voice I knew as well as I knew my own. Well, my old voice, that is.

“Madeline? This is Kelly Johnston. I just wanted to call and let you know that you got the job. Can you come by sometime this afternoon between three and four o’clock? We just need to finalize some of the paperwork and the details of your schedule. Call me back and let me know if that works for you. Bye.”

The call disconnected, and Namira tossed the phone onto the messy bed and gave me a mischievous smile..

“Congratulations, Maddie! You’re the Johnston family’s new nanny.”

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