Seasons of Change - Book 13 - Part 1 of 2 - Jessica's Story

Seasons of Change - Book 13
Tales of the Season - Jessica's Story
Part 1 of 2

by Brandy DeWinter
with infinite help from Tigger

Copyright © 2002,2013 Brandy DeWinter
All Rights Reserved.

A story of Aunt Jane Thompson's Girls School for Boys - from the inside.
This is a first person account by Jesse Shepherd, one of Jane's bad boys who needs special discipline,

of the petticoat variety!

 


 
Image Credits: Jessica's Story logo created by Brandy DeWinter, Divider from photobucket.com. ~Sephrena.

Author's Note: This story was written with a lot of advice, insight, and assistance from Tigger. It is his creation as much as it is mine. ~Brandy.

Legalities: Archiving and reposting of this story *unchanged* is permitted provided that: 1) You must have contacted the author(s), Brandy DeWinter or Tigger, and have asked permission first and received said permission to host this particular work. 2) No fee be charged, either directly or indirectly (this includes so-called "adult checks") or any form of barter or monetary transfers in order to access viewing this work *and* (3) PROVIDED that this disclaimer, all author notes, legalities and attribution to the original author are contained unchanged within the work. 4) The author(s) of this work, Brandy DeWinter & Tigger, must be provided free account access at all times the work is hosted in order to modify or remove this work at either's sole discretion.

This work is the copyrighted material of the respective authors.

Based on the characters and situations presented in "Seasons of Change" by Joel Lawrence, Copyright 1989. ~Brandy.
 


 
Forward:

Some time ago Joel Lawrence wrote a story about a woman who teaches bad boys to become good men - by first turning them into well-mannered young women. That story was called "Seasons of Change." The woman was Jane Thompson, and the rest, as they say, was history. Unfortunately, it was not primarily the history of Joel Lawrence's writing. He seems to have disappeared from the cyberworld. "Seasons of Change" was incomplete (by his own admission), and certainly the setting was not fully explored. It was not only a shame to have no more to enjoy from Joel Lawrence's talent, but also a sort of nagging itch because the story needed to be finished.

Along came Tigger. Since no one within the community knew how to reach Joel Lawrence, Tigger wrote not one, but two endings to Joel Lawrence's original story, each interesting and as excellently written as the original. Then he wrote more stories in that setting, developing and expanding the characters well beyond Joel Lawrence's original creation. Other writers have explored that setting, too, creating a mini-universe of "Tales of the Seasons". As is often the case with different writers, the stories are sometimes in conflict with each other and there is no single, integrated timeline into which all the tales neatly fit. Still, the core elements of the setting, Jane Thompson and her 'petticoat discipline' methods, are common.

The original "Seasons of Change" story is about the internal struggles of Michael, the protagonist, as much as it is about the physical elements of dressing and acting as a girl. In fact, the core premise of the story is that an undesirable behavior needs to be changed. Feminization is a means to that end, not an end in itself. If the protagonist does not learn to 'behave' in a civilized way, then the skills in cosmetics or walking in heels have no value. As such, the stories in this setting needed to focus on that internal growth, and there is an expectation that eventually the student will revert to an 'ordinary' masculine role.

Some time after Tigger wrote his first ending to "Seasons of Change", he and I began a correspondence on a variety of topics. In the course of that, he flattered me by allowing me to read advanced versions of some of his stories, and even solicited comments and advice on them. My opinions are like grains of sand on a beach; there are a lot of them, they tend to gum up fine machinery, and they're not worth much. Nonetheless, he received them by the ton, and even sometimes found a nugget or two of insight within the grit (or so he claimed).

In the course of that, we were discussing the motivation of one of his characters (yet another boy trapped in Aunt Jane's lacey spiderweb). The style set forth by Joel Lawrence in the original, and followed by the others who wrote in the setting, is third person. That is a very useful point of view in several ways. It allows the writer, in authorial voice, to explain things that would not be clear to the protagonist. A young, teen-age boy suddenly inserted into the feminine world of Seasons Manor would not know a lot of things about that environment, and the environment itself is deliberately confusing to him as Jane Thompson manipulates him into seeing the benefits of civilized behavior. To define the purpose and structure to the program, the writer needs to be able to access Jane's point of view as well as speak in authorial voice. However, by now, fans of that setting know most of the essential elements, and a new story could build on that background. I started imagining what it would be like from 'the inside', from the student's perspective; specifically, a first person account of an angry, chip-on-his-shoulder kid (in my story, Jesse Shepherd) who gets sent to Jane's. It would be different, and at the very least, it would be a challenge.

A further challenge, at least for me, would be to write of a teen-age character. I know it's not apparent from 'my pictures' (not photographs at all, of course, just fantasy sketches), but it's been just a while since I was a teen-ager. Further, as I was always a model student and dutiful child, I have no personal insight into troubled teens. (Trust me. Would I lie?) Not only would overt elements like dialog need to reflect a less sophisticated, more colloquial style, but in the first person point of view, even thoughts and reactions would need to show that same level of youthful . . . (ahem) energy. Not being smart enough to resist challenges like those, I started thinking through my fingers a little.

Tigger was continuing to develop his own story ("Season of Terror") in parallel, and while the two projects were in some ways mutually supportive (sharing some characters), my story would not have come into being without his help and insight - sometimes even at the cost of his own story progression. In fact, at a point when I had not written even a third of my story, he provided a segment that became the focus for all the remainder.

The result was Jessica's story. It's as much Tigger's creation as mine, and we both hope you enjoy it.

Brandy Dewinter - February 2002
 
 
 

Jessica's Story

 

Wiry.

I hated that word. Why couldn't it have been 'sinewy' instead? Sinewy is cool. Sinews are supple and tough. And at least they're part of something alive, not cold and hard and never-living like wires.

Oh, and sinews don't have any fat either. So there, just as applicable to me as 'wiry'. Besides, I'm more of a 'snake'. That would be way cool. And appropriate too, since snakes are all offense. I mean, think about it. A snake can't throw up an arm to block an attack, or 'run' away, or anything. It survives by attacking first. That's me. I'm too damn small to duke it out with some knuckle-dragging gorilla anyway, and too damn smart, too. Like I should just wait for some doofus to rearrange my nose before I retaliate? Again? I tried that. Once. Stupid doctor actually had to shorten the damn thing to 'fix' it and now I have this dorky little nose that turns up on the end. You can imagine what that looks like, and it did NOT make my life any easier.

So now, if some lumbering mouth-breather is coming after me - or even thinking about it - I make sure he pays the price. And the only sure way to do that is make him pay it before he gets in his first shot. Like I said, I'm not stupid and I know that those big assholes can park me in the middle of next week if they get even one shot. They've done that, too. So I have to make sure they pay the price first. And I do. After a few demonstrations, the hulks started leaving me alone. That's when I started hearing the, "Stay away from Jesse. He's got a hair trigger, and he's wiry."

I learned the hard way that my damn hand is too fragile to use as a hammer on the rockheads who would come after me, so I pick softer targets and a harder club. Specifically, joints. Two in particular: the knee, and the crotch. Even the hardest rockhead will go down if you get either one of those places. And they're both conveniently located within the reach of my foot. Two problems solved at once.

Unfortunately, that involves some risk, too. Hence my situation. I was in jail for defending myself against an asshole who hit me first. Well, actually I was in court, not the lockup, but it's the same thing. This old lady judge with an unpronounceable name — hell, I couldn't even read it on the little name plaque, Ruth Whatsomethinski - was acting all pompous and pretending to be objective. She had her mind made up before we even entered the room, though, you could tell.

"Mr. Shepherd," - that would be me - "would you care to explain yourself?"

"Dorkbrain hit me. I hit him back. He should'n'a started it."

"There seems to be some dispute about that," the Judge said. "According to the other witnesses, you hit Mr. Wilson without provocation."

"Yeah, well, I'm not surprised they stick up for Mr. Geekhead. He's such a doofus they probably all feel sorry for him. But he DID hit me first."

"On what basis do you claim that he struck you?" she asked. Like I said, all calm and rational-sounding, like she was fair. Yeah, right.

"On the basis of the bruise on my shoulder," I snapped.

"And how did Mr. Wilson strike you on your shoulder?"

"Hard," I said, smirking. "That's why there was a bruise."

My guardian, the court-appointed one, looked like he felt guilty. Well, he was an asshole, but he hadn't ever hit me so I didn't know what he had to feel guilty about. My lawyer, the court-appointed one (notice the trend?), looked like he was about to say something but the Judge raised her hand and just kept grinding on.

"With what part of his body did Mr. Wilson strike you?"

Oh well, I knew that was what she was getting at, of course. Too bad she was such a frigid bitch. No fun baiting someone who just sits there like a lump. "With his shoulder," I said. "With all the weight of his pudgy body behind it. It slammed me back into the lockers."

"What did you do then?"

"Defended myself, like I said," I answered. Then before the so-called adults could go through another round of looking at each other, I answered the question I knew she wanted. But I'd made the point - again - that it was self-defense. Besides, it had been a good move. "I whacked his knee and he went down. End of fight."

Judge Bitchy wasn't satisfied with that explanation, though. "What reason do you think Mr. Wilson might have had for striking you?"

"Because he's a clumsy doofus who doesn't watch where he's going," I blurted out. Then I wished I could have had those words back because I realized I'd just put my foot in it, big time.

"Oh," she said quietly, "you think it was accidental on his part?"

I looked at the lawyer, who didn't seem like he cared what happened to me - like THAT was any surprise. I shrugged and offered an excuse I knew was lame even as I said it. "He shoulda watched where he was going."

The Judge sat back in her chair, paused for a moment, then looked at the juvie prosecutor. "Mr. Handel, any further arguments?"

"No, your Honor. As has already been established in testimony, Mr. Wilson was jostled against the defendant in the normal interaction of an over-crowded school. The defendant's reaction was completely disproportionate."

"Mr. Gordon?" she said, looking at 'my' lawyer. As if.

"Your Honor, as has been established, my client has suffered physical injury in prior encounters which were demonstrably not of his instigation. If he has over-reacted this time, it is understandable. He had cause to feel threatened."

Hey, that was a pretty good argument. Maybe she'd let me off after all.

That happy thought - like most happy thoughts in my life - ended before it had a chance to take root. The look in the Judge's eyes said she was not buying it, though there was a sort of 'more in sadness than in anger' thing that I thought I might be able to take advantage of, even if she found me guilty of something.

She paused for another long moment, staring at me. I met her gaze head on. Regardless of what she decided to do to me, I was not going out like a crybaby. I'd made my choice, and I'd face the consequences.

"The defendant will rise," she intoned pompously. My lawyer and my guardian stood with me, like that helped or something. I wondered if they'd serve part of my time at juvie hall for me. Yeah, right, and tomorrow I'd wake up 6'2" tall, with a stacked blonde in bed beside me.

"Mr. Shepherd, the court finds you guilty of assault on Mr. Wilson. In light of the medical report that he is expected to recover fully from the damage to his knee, we will drop the 'with intent to commit great bodily harm' part of that. However, I am reluctant to send you back into a public school situation where your tendency toward violence can place others at risk."

She paused again, with a troubled look in her eyes that worried me more than honest disdain. She was about to do something she thought would be good for me. God save me from well-meaning adults.

"However," she continued, "I am equally reluctant to place you in a conventional juvenile facility. Your small stature and, ah, delicate features have no doubt made you the target of predators before. Sending you where such people are concentrated, and for perhaps the three years until you reach statutory adulthood at eighteen years of age, serves neither your interests nor those of society."

She looked directly at me again, staring like she was looking inside me to see if there were things hidden there that I did not want revealed. Well, no surprise, there were some. For the first time, I felt uncomfortable enough to look down. It was only for a moment and I looked her right in the eye again after that, but she knew and I knew that she had won that one.

At least she was still talking to me. I mean, directly to me as though whatever she was dreaming up would be my decision to accept or reject, not my so-called guardian's, nor the lawyer's.

"Mr. Shepherd, I have an alternative for you."

Uh, oh, here it comes.

"I know of a private school that might accept you as a student. I have discussed the matter with the woman who runs the school."

I *knew* she had her mind made up before this farce of a trial.

"She is willing, but *only* if you give me, and her, your solemn promise to abide by the rules of her school. She is a very disciplined woman, and can perhaps instill in you some of the discipline you will need if you are to learn to function in society."

"What, like some sort of boot camp, but the instructor is a woman?" I asked incredulously.

"Close enough," the Judge said. "In fact, it would be closer to a traditional English boarding school than boot camp."

"Uh, oh, nothing doing," I said, shaking my head. "I read about those places. Some bitch comes after me with a whipping cane and I'm not responsible for what happens next."

"There would not be any corporal punishment," the Judge assured me. "Her methods are indeed strict, but no one will strike you except in their own defense. If you can make the same claim, then you should have nothing to fear. You will, however, be expected to dress, act, and speak politely. To achieve your cooperation - beyond whatever commitment is embedded in giving your word, the breaking of which will return you for more conventional sentencing - she will have the normal authority in loco parentis to discipline you with such non-physical punishments as she deems appropriate."

"Send me to bed without supper?" I snorted. "Feed me on gruel? Hell, the food at the home is bad enough I duke it out with the cat three days a week for *her* slop - and I have to stand in line for the privilege."

The 'home' was the 'Elizabeth James Home'; the county orphanage, housed in an old mansion donated instead of paying taxes by the descendants of the original money in the area. It wasn't as bad as 'Oliver Twist', really. We never starved or anything, but the suffocating condescension was, well, suffocating. Like it was our fault we were orphans, and broke, and didn't have any other relatives 'good' enough (meaning rich enough) to take us off the county's hands. What did they want me to do, push for the return of Prohibition so drunks wouldn't kill only parts of families? Sober drivers could do the job properly, right? And save the state from the task of taking care of the leftovers?

I interrupted my internal tirade and said, "Not that it matters. I don't have the money for some fancy boarding school, and it's clear the home ain't gonna shell out for it."

My guardian flinched at that comment, but he shrugged and looked at the Judge without real apology.

The Judge's eyes seemed to share something with my guardian, sympathy or understanding of some sort - adults against us again, as usual, then she looked back at me.

"Financial arrangements will be made. Well, Mr. Shepherd, I am waiting. Will you give me your word of honor to attend Ms. Thompson's school and obey her as your court-appointed guardian, or would you prefer the State School in Jonesboro?"

"Uh, gee, let me see," I said. "Go to reform school and be some badass brother's bitch, or go to this bitch's school and be her little boytoy. Some choice."

"Nonetheless, it is the choice you are offered," she said unbendingly.

"Yeah, well, I won't be anybody's bitch, and that means either I'll end up in the hospital, or someone else will if I go to the reform school. I'll take what's behind door number 2."

"Very well, so ordered," she said, slamming her gavel. "Mr. Gordon, make arrangements for transportation and for the necessary documentation. My clerk will give you the particulars."

As we turned to go, the Judge called after me one last time. "Oh, Mr. Shepherd, a word to the wise. I'd suggest you think carefully about your language once you reach Ms. Thompson's. She does not consider washing a student's mouth out with soap to be physical punishment, and neither do I."

So that's how I ended up on a train, for God's sake, traveling to some middle-of-nowhere place in Vermont or Maine or something. Iceland, near enough. A place so far from the center of the universe that they still had to travel on *trains*! Next thing you know I'll be, like, touching Republicans or something. It was a damn long train ride, too. I think we stopped every ten minutes - for twenty minutes at a time.

Time to come clean with a secret, I guess. Even though I truly do believe in an active defense - nobody messes with me for free - I don't particularly *like* to be a hardass all the time. I mean, it's necessary, but if I had my druthers, I'd be reading Shakespeare or Marcus Aurelius, not fighting. If I *really* had my druthers, I'd have been able to let the grups know how much I enjoyed the field trips to the museums we sometimes visited. But it is NOT a good idea to be gushing over how intense 'Guernica' makes you feel when people already think you've got violent tendencies, even if you felt the same sort of wonder about Monet. 'Tough' guys don't get all excited by blurry fields of flowers, and teens do not go anywhere *near* 'Guernica' by choice. I had enough problems without showing an appreciation for fine art, for chrissake.

One day I found out the library had art reprint books. Then I was as happy as . . . well, as close to happy as I got any more. I could study the books on my own, without needing to go to the museums. So I kept that as my own little secret, and used what little privacy I had to look at art, or read philosophy, or honest-to-God classic literature. I even found the Bible interesting, despite the best efforts of the teachers at the home to turn reading it into work. Maybe that's because my mother had really loved that old book.

Anyway, there I was on a train with a one-way ticket to someplace else, just like putting a bum on a bus - except the bus would probably have been quicker. Old Judge Ruth had made it seem like a special favor to let me travel by myself. I suppose the alternative was a Federal marshal or something since I was being transported across state lines. I was, of course, giddy with anticipation at the chance to meet this Thompson woman who was now gonna own my skinny butt until I either learned to crook my little finger in the proper way, or I survived to reach age 18.

As I was a lot more organized than my grades indicated (another hard-won lesson learned - don't stand out academically or the jealous jocks would take it out on you), I had my downloaded-for-free-off-the-Internet copy of Mac's 'The Prince' packed away before the train screeched to a stop at my station; Kingston, Rhode Island, if it matters. When I stepped down from the car I saw my new owner, obvious despite the lack of any prior description.

When I grow up, I wanna be rich. Really, really rich; old money that comes from a pile taller than Everest, and in big bills. Like the woman I saw standing on the station platform. Even a no-taste grunge like me could see that her dark power-suit was not off the rack - and she still had the curves to do the tailoring justice. Think Joan Crawford, but with less of a smile. Auburn hair with just a few gray accents instead of witch-black, but you get the picture. I had this feeling that her shoes cost more than the sum total of all the clothes I'd ever had in my entire post-parents life.

And apparently it was catching. Standing next to the rich bitch was this really tall girl, nearly six feet even aside from her modish heels. And she was wearing - I kid you not - little white gloves and a hat with a veil, and a pink suit tailored a little less carefully than the older broad's, but then I'm sure she was still a growing girl so I made allowances. Made me mad all over again that the home hadn't let me wear my combat boots. I figured with these two, I needed that as an initial condition so that I could work a compromise and end up in the Doc's I was actually wearing (well, fake ones, but they looked like Doc Marten's). As it was, I had given up half my negotiating position before I even started.

"Jesse Shepherd?" the woman asked. Like, who'd have dared be anyone else?

"Yeah," I said, nodding. Are you supposed to offer to shake hands with someone wearing gloves? I decided it was safer just to pick up my bags. It was obvious who was gonna be the coolie labor in this group.

Then she drew her dark glove off with a sharp, snapping notion and held out her hand. "I am Ms. Jane Thompson."

I dropped my bag and shook her hand, almost like real people do. Then she looked at her companion and said, "And this is Miss Penny McQueen."

Penny did not take of her own little white glove, afraid I'd get cooties on her hand or something. I took a better look at her and decided she musta been old money, too. A young Joan Crawford-to-be, complete with rich, dark hair. She had that lean, elegant look that you pictured riding in the back of the carriage while the peasants touched their caps. She'd obviously marry someone just as rich in an arranged business merger. Romance not required.

Oh, hell, maybe I was just jealous of all that obvious class. I mean, she wasn't any competition for Britney Spears, but she was good-looking in a sterile sort of way, and I'm sure there was some nice rich preppy for her somewhere. They'd probably have a dozen kids and live happily - and richly - ever after.

But it was clear that I was one of those peasants who were expected to tip their caps to her. She offered just the ends of her white-gloved fingers to my hand, and I resisted the urge to slap it away. An insult is not the same as a physical attack, at least not if there isn't anyone around to take it as a sign of weakness. I touched her fingers briefly with my own and picked my bag up again.

It came to me that there might be a chance to gain a little momentum in this new arrangement. I had the feeling the Thompson bitch was going to be on my case 24/7, and that meant I was going to have to modify my dumb-on-the-outside-smart-on-the-inside role. With no real privacy, I was either going to have to let them know I was brighter than my grades suggested, or else give up my real books until, well, forever. So okay, I'd see if I could surprise her a little.

"Lay on, MacDuff, and curst be he - or in this case she - who first cries, 'Hold, enough!'"

The first stage of that didn't get much of a rise out of her. She went into an immediate lecture mode. "That quote does not refer to MacDuff leading MacBeth somewhere. It is in fact a battle cry, and the 'Lay on' refers to the blows they are about to exchange."

Then I *did* score a point, when I simply said, "I know."

But I had to admit, she scored a point or two of her own when she merely lifted a carefully shaped brow at my comment - I swear she could have given lessons to the real Joan Crawford. But what really got my attention was the way the corners of her eyes showed a smile of genuine amusement. There was so freaking much confidence in that little smile that I almost went into full defense mode.

She didn't say anything, though. Turning on her own stylish heel, she led the way through the small station to a waiting car. That got her another cool point, because it was a great car. Audi A8, Quattro, with all the bells and whistles, $65K, plus or minus not enough to matter. It was the most beautiful car I'd ever seen in real life.

"It is just a vehicle, Mr. Shepherd," she said mockingly. I was to learn that she saw EVERYthing, including my momentary amazement.

"Yeah," I replied, trying to get back some rapidly vanishing cool by seeming nonchalant about it. Not that it helped, but it's all I had to work with.

Then I just quit trying for a while, to be cool that is. First off, she drove that fine car like it was meant to be driven. She didn't really speed, staying as close to the limits as the rest of the gentry who shared the road, but she powered through the curves and used all the muscle of that big V-8 on the hills. Definitely not what I expected from the old lady, and I was impressed.

Then we reached her house. At that moment, I decided there were more differences between rich people and poor people than just that the rich had more money. There was a sense of . . . eternity about that place, as though it had always been there, and always would be there. Mountains may wear down and the stars burn out, but that mansion would endure. I was WAY out of my league here.

The coolie (guess who) got the bags out of the trunk and Penny led me up the stairs. There was one similarity to the room I had been staying in. This place was as big as the dorm that had held 30 of us male orphans. Oops, two similarities, there was an attached bathroom - and what I could see of it through the open door looked about as big as the one back in the dorm, too. Right then, I'd have taken the dorm.

"I can't stay here," I announced.

Penny frowned, but it was obviously artificial. Laughter was lurking on her lips in a smirk I'd have liked an excuse to wipe away. She didn't give me one though, not enough of a one anyway.

"What is the problem?" she asked in a polite tone - not bothering to hide the smirk.

"I'd go into diabetic shock if I had to stay here," I claimed. "It's so sickeningly sweet I'm feeling nauseous just standing in the doorway."

I was not exaggerating. The basic color of the room was bad enough, a pale violet that just missed being pink, but the accents were all white, including little lace curtain things around the bed both at the bottom and the frilly canopy, around the windows, hell, even the little chair in front of the mirrored chest had a frilly little fringe. It raised my blood sugar twenty points just to look at it.

"Besides," I continued, trying to find something that might work with the tall bitchette, "this furniture is all so spindly that I'll probably break it if I walk by too close, let alone sit in it."

"See that you don't," the Thompson woman said from the doorway. "This room will be yours for the duration of your stay here. You may leave your bags by the bed. Luncheon is ready."

'Luncheon?' Have you ever heard anybody really say that? Well, why should I be surprised? Dali would have loved this surreal room. Also any girl under the age of 12. I wondered where the stuffed teddy bears - spotlessly white and very plush, of course - had been hidden.

Still, I was hungry and even table scraps from 'luncheon' would be better than I'd had on that interminable train ride. So I dropped my bags by the bed, then sidled toward the inner door. "Um, if you don't mind, I'll be just a minute."

"I DO mind," she said sharply. "However, if you have enough skills in the English language to frame that as a request, I may consider granting it."

"What is this, Jeopardy? I'll take 'Piss break for 5,' Alex," I replied, snorting.

Penny jerked like she'd been slapped, and the smirk disappeared from her face. Unfortunately, it was replaced by a look of horror that I didn't find any more appealing, especially since it was obvious she was afraid for *me*. Hell, I didn't even like the bitchette, and I didn't think she liked me any better. What could be so bad that she wouldn't want it inflicted on someone she hated?

I found out. For an old lady, that Thompson woman was *fast*. One moment I was sliding toward the bathroom, my eyes - as I said - foolishly watching the younger woman, and the next my ear was being yanked down the hallway. Since I was rather fond of that ear - you could say I was attached to it in fact - I was on MY way down the hallway as well. I felt like the cartoon character whose head bounces on each step as he's drug down them, because while my chin wasn't hitting the steps, each time she stepped down one she yanked my ear lower, then when I stepped down it got yanked back up, each time accompanied by a startled, "OW!"

Then my poor ear got yanked backwards as she abruptly stopped while my momentum tried to keep me moving forward. Still pinching it with a strength I had to respect, she pulled me around until I was standing by a hard wooden chair tucked under a huge, heavy, table. Spread on the snowy tablecloth were about 20 plates and goblets and things - at each of three places.

The pressure on my ear was released as quickly as it had appeared, but before I could take advantage of my new-found freedom to do something appropriate, the woman was out of reach. I had this feeling that old Judge Bitchy wouldn't accept self-defense as a plea if I hit this woman in the back, so I just stood there and dreamed of what I would do when I could manufacture a chance.

"Sit, please," she said, her voice so calm and detached it was as if my recent ear-yanking had happened to someone in a different time zone.

Our 'luncheon' arrived when another older woman came from the kitchen through a swinging door as cliche as the rest of the old asylum I had been incarcerated into. She spread a bunch of food around and we began to work our way through all that crockery. "Mr. Shepherd," Ms. Thompson informed me, "this is Marie. She is my assistant, and my friend."

Marie said, "Pleased to meet you, Mr. Shepherd."

"Yeah, sure, me too." I replied. For some reason that triggered another look of distress on Penny's too-regular features. Even though I hadn't done anything wrong, I ducked almost by reflex. Then, of course, it turned out I HAD done something wrong even though I didn't know it - a situation that would become very, very common.

"*MR.* Shepherd," Ms. Thompson said tightly. "Marie is an adult, and you will treat her with respect. Do you want to try that again?"

"What?" I asked. I really didn't know. I mean, what more did she want? I didn't even know this other woman, yet I had politely given her the benefit of the doubt - which I thought was a pretty big concession considering what had happened to me so far - and said I was glad to meet her, too.

Ms. Thompson's gleaming nails - somehow I just knew they were the perfect length and color for a professional woman - drummed on the table for a long moment. Well, tough titty. I wasn't going to apologize for something I didn't even know I'd done. Instead, I just sat there warily, watching her in case she started to reach for me again.

The moment was broken by Penny, of all people. "Ms. Jane, perhaps, um, Mr. Shepherd just doesn't know any better."

"I find that hard to believe," Ms. Thompson sniffed, "even in this benighted time."

Penny spoke directly to me, after a brief glance at Ms. Thompson to get permission. "Mr. Shepherd, as Miss Marie is an adult, you should address her as 'Miss Marie,' and it would be proper to return her greeting more completely than just saying, 'sure, me too.'"

"You gotta be sh. . . ," I started, then remembered about the soap mouthwash that I just *knew* old lady Thompson would love to use on me. "Ah, that is, that would seem to be, um, sorta wasteful. I mean, *Miss* Marie certainly knows her name, and, um, doesn't what I said make it clear I'm, um, happy to meet her, too?"

Drumming fingers again. Finally, Ms. Thompson sighed and looked at Penny. "I fear you are right, Penny. While it was clear from the first moment we saw him that he is uncouth, obnoxious, and . . " Here she looked at me like I was something the cat left on the carpet. " . . . sloppy, it would appear that his lack of manners and rudeness are likely the result of poor - make that non-existent - training. I suppose one must make allowances."

She sighed again and finally looked directly at me. "Well, Mr. Shepherd, it seems that you have ruined this meal. Perhaps we should adjourn to my study and discuss your situation in private."

I looked down at all the food I hadn't managed to eat yet, but at least the raw edge was off my hunger, so I stood and followed her away from the table.

When we got to her office, I got all rude again. This time it wasn't my fault. Or, well I suppose it was my fault, but it wasn't deliberate. Her office was a palace! It was big enough to play handball in there - hell, it was big enough to play a pretty good game of football in there, but what really made it awesome were all the books lining the walls. As soon as I stepped into the room, those books drew my attention like a magnet and I found myself with my nose pressed to the titles frantically trying to figure out her filing system so I could search for my favorites.

"*MR.* Shepherd, if you are *quite* ready, I will thank you to sit over here."

"Oh, sorry," I said sadly as I turned away. For some damn reason that started her fingers drumming again. I sat down in the indicated chair - one of the most uncomfortable chairs I have ever seen, by the way - and waited for her to start hammering on me. I figured it was coming, and the fact I didn't have a clue why didn't change a damn thing. I've been in that particular situation way too often to count.

"Mr. Shepherd," she began, "are you actually *trying* to be sent back to the State School? If so, and your trip up here was just a ploy to delay your just sentence, I can assure you it will not have turned out to be a good idea."

"Uh, no, of course not," I said. "Look, um, Ms. Thompson, I'm not gonna claim to be some high-society type like Penny, but I'm not really trying to cause trouble. I don't know what's got your, um, what's caused you to be so upset, but it's not, I mean, I'm not, like, trying to make you mad."

"It may very well be that you do cause me to become mad," she replied, "in addition to your demonstrated ability to make me become angry."

She paused for a moment, then looked at me so directly that I almost turned around because I was sure she was seeing something through my head. "Mr. Shepherd," she asked, "why are you here?"

"Huh?" Dumb question. Hell, she'd just answered it herself. Apparently she expected something more from me, though, because all my own question earned was more nail drumming.

Sighing, I tried again. "Well, um, I thought you knew. I mean, didn't you just say that you knew it's this or reform school?"

"Is avoiding that institution the only reason you're here?"

"Um, well, I mean, you got a great place here, and now that I've seen it I wouldn't mind staying if we can do something about that sugar-coated room, but, well, yeah. I guess so. I thought it would be better than being some bast . . um, somebody's, ah, cellmate."

"So there was no other possible way to avoid that institution, other than coming here?"

"Not that I know of." Geez, what was her problem? This was, like, the fourth time we'd been over that point.

She stood up and walked over to a window that looked out on about a thousand acres of lawns and gardens and stuff. She didn't look back at me, but somehow I got the impression she was comparing what she saw out the window with her memory of what she would see if she turned around - that would be me - and much preferred what was outside. Nonetheless, after a while she did turn around and speak directly to me.

"Mr. Shepherd, you are here because of your own bad behavior. The easiest way to stay out of that State School would have been to stay out of trouble in the first place. You are here because you attacked an innocent boy. You are here because you are rude, ill-mannered, selfish, and violent. You are here, in short, because you are a living example of all that is *worst* in a man."

"Hey, he was askin' for it," I said, getting my own dander up a bit. "Look, if you don't want me here, then just say the word. I can handle reform school. I don't need you."

"Oh, no, Mr. Shepherd, you most certainly DO need me. The question is, can you convince me it's worth my time and trouble to demonstrate that to you?"

I was about to answer, but she held up her hand and continued. "There is one thing in what you said that is critical. I can indeed 'say the word' and send you back. That decision will be based on one thing, and one thing only."

She sat down again and crossed her hands on the top of the desk. Looking at me with those crystal-etching eyes, she asked, "Mr. Shepherd, just what is *your* word worth?"

That pissed me off. Nobody, but NOBODY questioned my word. Ms. Rich Bitch might have more money than God, but nobody owned my word but me. That was one of the few things my dad had been able to teach me before . . . well, before. I started to tell her off for being so damn smug and superior, but . . . but those eyes didn't leave me any room to maneuver, no place to touch her own pride. This was not about her ability to keep a promise, and she wouldn't let that become the topic. It was about me.

Okay, then, Ms. Bitch, let's let this BE about me. "I have NEVER given ANYone just cause to doubt my word," I ground out through teeth that didn't quite chip edges. "That judge, hell all you grups, might think you know what's my life is like, but you're wrong. Everything I have said is true. Everything I have done was necessary for my own protection, and even then I was straight up and open about it. I fight hard and effectively, and I make it clear that's what people can expect."

"I'm not talking about your combat prowess, Mr. Shepherd, but about your word of honor. Is that topic so difficult for you to grasp?"

That shot me up out of my chair, and it's a good thing her desk was so wide, or, I'd'a got into a lot more trouble. Before I could get started around it, I saw that same damn freaking confidence look in her eyes and it stopped me. I didn't know why she felt so confident, and not knowing was a good reason to be careful.

She didn't say anything while I stood there, fists clenched, breathing hard. She just smiled that arrogant, confident smile. After a very long moment, her eyes pointed to the chair, and I sat down again.

"Well, Mr. Shepherd," she said after another long moment, "you demonstrate at least a rudimentary intelligence. However, you have still not given me reason to believe that you are worth my time."

"Fine," I snapped. "Send me back."

"I may," she said calmly, more threat in those quiet words than any amount of shouting, "but we have not yet determined if we have a basis for going forward. I ask you again, how good is your word of honor?"

"It's good," I said.

"From whose perspective?" she asked.

"What d'you mean?"

"You implied that you remain true to your own view of right and wrong, but that adults may not share that same view. That must be very convenient. If there is no external standard to judge the value of your promise, then how can one tell if it has meaning?"

"Look, my word is good. If you don't believe me, then why ask me?"

Ms. Thompson actually smiled at that. "A good point, Mr. Shepherd, and one that in fact inclines me to believe you. Now, let me ask you this: Do you believe you gave your word to Judge Ruth that you would obey me while you are at my school?"

"Yeah, I guess so."

"Do you intend to keep your word?"

"Yes, dammit, I already said so."

That took any trace of smile out of her eyes, but all she did was lean back in her chair. We stared at each other for another long time, then she spoke. "Mr. Shepherd, you will not be profane in my house again. On your honor."

Shit. I couldn't accept that. I mean, even if I tried, something was bound to slip out. "I'm sorry, Ms. Thompson, but I can't promise that. I can try, but some habits don't break just because you want them to."

"Quite," she said, surprising me by agreeing. "Indeed, that is the core of your problem. You have learned bad habits. I have two responsibilities here. One is to help you unlearn those bad habits and learn positive behaviors instead. The second is to help you learn conventional academic skills so that you are prepared for later schooling. The second is by far the easier."

I just shrugged. She'd already made it clear she thought I crawled out from under a rock somewhere, but I suppose she was saying that she thought I was smart enough to learn the regular school stuff. On that, we could agree.

"If I offer to help you with your behavior problems, will you give me your best effort? Your best, honest effort?"

"Yeah, I guess so."

"Not good enough, Mr. Shepherd. I want an unambiguous commitment."

"Okay, sure. As long as I'm here, I'll do whatever you say as best I can," I said. I was about to add in some weasel words anyway, about if it's legal, and not dangerous, and all that sort of stuff, just to show I wasn't stupid enough to write a totally blank check, but the 'as best I can' covered that well enough anyway.

"On your word of honor?" she pushed, again, all the time pushing.

"Yes, on my word of honor," I said.

Ms. Thompson nodded and leaned forward in her chair. She pushed a button on her desk, then actually smiled again. "In honor of our agreement, I think we should have a small toast."

Just then Marie came into the room with two mismatched goblets. I was a little surprised at that, since everything in the house was so perfect, but one definitely had a reddish tint to the rim, and the other was bluish.

"What is this?" I asked cautiously.

"Just some sherry. It's very mild," Marie assured me as she handed me one of the glasses.

"I'm sorry, but I don't drink," I said, putting it back on the tray.

"It is only a small glass of wine," Ms. Thompson confirmed. "Consider it the first of your lessons in manners. Confirming an important agreement with a toast is the polite way to bring a negotiation to a close, making it clear that both parties agree to the decision."

"I'm sorry," I repeated, raising my voice a little. "But I don't drink. If you must know, my parents were killed by a drunken driver, and I vowed on their graves that I would *never* drink. If this is a deal-breaker, then so be it."

Ms. Thompson twirled her own goblet in her hands for a moment, then nodded. She looked at Marie and said, "Very well. Marie, would you find some juice or something for our new student?"

The other woman stepped through the doorway again, returning a few minutes later with another goblet, this time filled with what looked like apple juice.

"Mr. Shepherd, to your promise to do your best to comply with my program for you," she said, raising her glass.

I raised mine as well, not sure if I should clink them or just lift it. When she took a sip of her wine, I figured the gesture was enough, and took a sip of my juice. It had a funny taste, but maybe they'd had it for a while. I didn't know if apple juice was a common thing for New England or not. In any event, I drank it down and placed my goblet on the tray next to Ms. Thompson's.

"Mr. Shepherd," she said, then interrupted herself, "or I suppose now that you are officially one of my students, it would not be too informal to call you Jesse. Jesse, I have given you a great deal of latitude in this our first day together. Let me make one thing clear. If there are any other 'deal breaker' points lurking in your sense of honor, you had better lay them on the table right now. After this, I will consider any such claim to be nothing more than breaking your word."

"Um, okay," I said, stifling a yawn. "Oh, sorry. Well, the judge said there wasn't gonna be any, like, spanking or anything, right?"

"I do not believe in corporal punishment, at least not for young adults," she declared.

"Okay, then," I said, yawning again. "I can't think of anything else."

"Very well, Jesse, we shall consider that topic closed. As it appears you are fatigued from your train trip, perhaps you would like to take a nap until dinner."

"Thanks," I said. "I must be more tired than I thought. Maybe I can even fall asleep in that cotton candy museum you call my room."

"Quite," she said, glancing at the door. Recognizing my cue, I left. By the time I got to the top of the stairs, I was holding one eye at a time open, because both together were too heavy. I made it to the bed, but just barely.

When I woke up I went through the standard groggy confusion. New bed, new room, where am I? Been there, done that, survived. Part of my confusion was that I was still sleepy. However, I had to address a problem that could not be put off any longer. Heading for 'the little room' I had to snicker when I remembered how huge the place was, then laugh again when I saw that the necessary was in fact semi-concealed in a little alcove within the room behind swinging saloon doors.

I had no sooner started taking care of business when the outer door to the bathroom opened and someone came bustling in.

"Hey, lady, a little privacy in here!"

"Oh, don't mind me," she said. Yeah, right. Maybe it wouldn't bother her if I slapped her silly, if I just told her not to mind it. Under the swinging doors I could see her feet move over to the bathtub and start the water.

"When you're done, just slip into the bath here. It'll make you feel much better. And put your clothes outside the door so I can take care of them."

"Look, lady," I said from within my semi-hidden alcove, "I don't appreciate women coming in while I'm, uh, well, while I'm in here. And I don't take baths, I take showers, and my clothes are fine. Just leave me alone."

"Jesse - you don't mind if I call you Jesse, do you? - I think it would be better if you called me 'Marie.' Oh, if Miss Jane is around, that should be 'Miss Marie' of course, but just between us I don't really mind if you just call me Marie," she chattered. Geez, this lady was, like, *old*. I mean, she had to be at least 50, worse than the Thompson woman herself, and she was chattering like some teen-age airhead.

"The bath will make you feel better after your trip. I put some medicinal salts in there for you. And I'll find you some, ah, more appropriate clothes, so don't worry about that. Now, get a move on. Don't let the tub overfill."

With that she bustled out as briskly as she had entered, leaving me to 'get a move on.' When I stepped out of the alcove my eyes confirmed what my nose had warned me about: the 'medicinal salts' had caused the tub to foam up in a bubble bath, thick with perfumey scent.

"Screw this shit," I said, turning off the water. I did need to get cleaned up, but I wasn't getting in that mess. I'd smell of the perfume for a week.

Just then I heard a knock on the door, followed so quickly by Ms. Thompson herself that the knock provided no useful warning. Her frown made it clear that I had done something wrong yet again.

"Why are you still dawdling? Did Marie not make it clear you were expected to bathe?"

"In this?" I snorted. "Get real. I'll take a shower, but no baths. Most especially no freakin' bubble baths!"

"You WILL take a bath, right this minute, in the tub that has been prepared for you," she ordered implacably. "If you insist on behaving like a child, I will treat you as a child, and I have bathed reluctant children before."

Showtime. I set myself for the fight, remembering she was faster than I might expect. So far, she hadn't really threatened me - well, not with anything worse than a bath - so I figured I'd have to break my self-imposed rule and let her have the first shot. We were about the same size. She had me by a couple of inches, though not much in weight, so I should be able to handle her even if she did get the first hit.

Then Marie stepped into the room, and despite her earlier airhead manner, she looked very serious. It was clear that she was gonna back up the Thompson woman. That didn't really worry me, because I figured I could take a couple of old women. But I realized I'd have to get serious to do it. And the inevitable result of that would be deep, smelly shit for me, regardless of what happened to them.

The Thompson woman had that absolute confidence look in her eyes again, plus a mocking smile. "Over a bath, Jesse?"

Shit. She was right. It wasn't worth it. I had a feeling we'd have this out yet, but I wasn't going to explain to the dudes in reform school that I'd been sent there because I refused to take a freakin' bath.

"Okay, fine. Get out. I'll take the damn bath."

She nodded, turning to go. On her way out, she said, "Put your clothes outside the door as you were told."

"My clothes are fine," I snarled.

"Put your clothes outside the door as you were told," she repeated with a tone so perfect it sounded like a recording. "If you don't, Marie will retrieve them for you. If you want to bathe in private, your clothes - all of them, shoes and underwear included - will be outside that door within 60 seconds."

She didn't even turn back to see whether I intended to comply. She sailed out of the room as grandly as she had entered, serenely confident. Right then, I set myself the goal of breaking that confidence somehow, sometime, some way. It made giving in a little easier to see my current situation as only a temporary retreat.

I didn't really care about the damn clothes that much anyway. They were all orphanage hand-me-downs. Hell, if she took them off and burned them it would mean I'd get better since they couldn't get any worse. Not in this household anyway. I figured I'd seen the last of blue jeans and a t-shirt for a good while, but I could manage fancier clothes if I had to. In a moment of horror I had this vision of being required to wear a freakin' necktie, and that moment didn't go away because I knew it was inevitable. Shit, damn, spit.

The bath itself wasn't that bad, except for the stupid smell. There might even have been something medicinal in the stuff, because I did feel some aches and pains let up after I'd soaked for a while. I'd had to help with enough babies at the home to recognize the scent of baby powder, and something flowery that wasn't roses though, and it wasn't a smell I wanted to linger around me. At least my hair was short enough I didn't really need shampoo and I hoped that would mean the fragrance wouldn't hang on, like, forever.

"Time to get moving," Marie's voice called from outside the door. "I've set a robe out for you, and Ms. Jane wants to see you in her study immediately."

Yeah, right, like I cared what Miss High-and-Mighty wanted. But the damn bath was getting cold - another reason to prefer showers - so I got out and dried myself off on the thickest, softest towel I'd ever seen. If that bitch would only be reasonable, staying there could be okay. Not that there was any chance of that.

Wrapping the towel around my waist, I poked my head out the door to see if Marie were still hanging around. She wasn't, so I stepped out. There was indeed a robe draped on the bed.

"No. Freakin'. Way," I declared to the world at large. For a lady that seemed to have her shit together pretty well, apparently Ms. Thompson wasn't prepared for a male student. The robe that flowed so elegantly across the frilly bedspread was pink spun sugar. I half expected it to be sticky like real cotton candy if I touched it. Not that I was gonna do that.

After my surprise passed, I decided that was actually good news. It meant that they hadn't gotten into my stuff. I didn't have a robe - not even a men's robe - but I had a pair of sweat pants that would do and apparently they hadn't found them. If the robe was acceptable, then taking the time to get out my other pair of jeans and get dressed for real wasn't necessary, so I could just grab my sweat pants.

However, when I stepped around the bed to where I had left my bags, they were gone. A quick check of the furniture and closet showed lots of things left over from what was presumably the previous occupant - all frills and foo-foo, of course - but none of my things.

None of my things. Not even my books.

I grabbed the bedspread off the bed, then decided it was too frilly for my taste, and stripped the blanket instead. Wrapped in the blanket and the towel, I headed for the study. Apparently the door to my room was as solid and enduring as the rest of that mausoleum, because it didn't come off the hinges when I opened it.

Neither did the door to the study. It did, however, make a nicely-loud introduction to my words when it banged off the wall.

"Goddamn it, give 'em BACK!"

Ms. Thompson rose from her seat and raised her voice for the first time since I'd met her. "How DARE you come in here shouting at me! Losing your quite-inadequate clothes is NO excuse for such boorish . . "

"I don't give a rat's ass about the fuckin' CLOTHES!" I shouted, getting right in her face. "You give me back my books! You had no right to take my books!"

"Your books?" she said, actually giving a little ground. For some reason, her retreat didn't make me want to advance. Maybe it was the honest surprise I heard in her voice, the first time I'd seen her confidence waver. Instead, I ended up explaining.

"The clothes belong to the county, but the books are mine. You have to give them back."

To my horror, I heard my voice change to a pleading, begging tone. Then the unthinkable occurred. I felt my eyes start to burn with tears. "The Bible was my mother's," I choked out through a throat too tight for volume. "And the notebook is . . . you just had no right . . . no right."

"Sit down," she commanded, and I did it. I don't know why. Her tone of voice was close enough to the standard adult 'because I say so' bullshit that always made me want to do the opposite, but . . . I just couldn't stop my damn eyes from leaking, and I could feel my nose filling up, and I . . . just did what she said.

I suppose Ms. Thompson pushed her little buzzer or something, because Marie came into the room. "Please bring Jesse's things. Not the clothes, just the books," Ms. Thompson ordered.

It was obvious I wasn't going to get my bags themselves back, so I had to let out something I'd wanted to stay hidden. "And my scout knife," I asked, hearing that begging tone again but unable to stop it. "My dad gave it to me."

I sensed more than saw Ms. Thompson nod. After that, nothing was said for several minutes. I spent the time trying to get my eyes under control. Of course, before I could manage that my nose was overflowing and I had to wipe it on the blanket. The second time I got to that point, Ms. Thompson just handed me a kleenex. Then Marie was back, piling my books on the desk in front of Ms. Thompson instead of in front of me, but at least they were close, and so was my scout knife.

It really was Mom's Bible, I could tell from the burned place on the cover. If I ever decided to actually believe what was in that book, a part of the reason would be that the Bible made it through the fire when the car was wrecked. Like a mini-miracle or something. That, and the knife I'd had in my pocket were the only things that remained through six years and three orphan homes. The other things looked right, too; printed out pages that looked like my copy of 'The Prince', and a spiral notebook bound with a rubber band.

Ms. Thompson started to take off the rubber band.

"That's private," I said, the strength I should have put into those words ruined by a damn sniffle.

"A diary, like a teen-age girl would keep?" she asked.

"No." It wasn't, not really. But it was private.

She looked at me like she expected more explanation, but I guess I'd run down on my blubbering and I was able to keep my mouth shut.

"I'm surprised they let you keep a knife," she said, picking it up next.

"They didn't know," I admitted. "I never took it to school, and the rest of the time I kept it hidden."

She looked at it thoughtfully. "I'm not sure I can permit you to have a dangerous weapon."

God I hated to beg. But it was mine, dammit! And I knew I wouldn't get it back by demanding it. "My dad said things like knives are just tools; inanimate objects. They're not good or bad, safe or dangerous, except as people make them so. I've never, ever threatened anyone with it. I promise."

"Yes, well, we have discussed your word of honor, haven't we?" she asked quietly. I'm not sure what she wanted me to say to that - maybe nothing - so I just stayed quiet.

"A somewhat eclectic collection, I must say," she observed. "Machiavelli complete with some rather interesting notations in the margins, the Word of God, plus a mysterious notebook that is 'private' but not a diary." She set the knife down next to the rest of the pile and shoved it all over the desk toward me.

"Jesse, I apologize for taking these things. You are correct, I had no right to do that. But I must insist you return to your room, put on the robe that was laid out for you, and come back so that we can discuss what will be expected of you."

"That was a girl's robe. I'll just put on my sweats and be right back," I promised, rising and gathering my things.

"That is not what I said," she reminded me.

"You mean you really want me to put on that thing?" I asked in shock.

"I mean I really want you to do as you're told," she said. "And what I told you to do was put on that robe. It is a perfectly good robe and certainly preferable to dirty 'sweats' which are in any event not available to you now."

"Hell, in that case I'll just use the blanket. It's just as good," I said, moving to sit back down.

"It is NOT 'just as good,'" she said, raising her voice just enough to add real tone to it for the first time in several minutes. I could see her stifle something else she wanted to say. That was actually a surprise. I mean, she was clearly a control freak and I didn't see her as being indecisive on anything. I did get the nailtip drumroll again, though.

The worst thing was, she probably thought she was doing me a freakin' favor. The things she wanted me to do would be considered luxuries - for a girl. A scented bubble bath, a fancy and no doubt expensive robe; hell, a girl would think she'd died and gone to heaven. It was clear Ms. Thompson had no clue how to handle boys, for all that the flashes of steel she'd shown made it likely she was hell on wheels with girls.

Well, life's a bitch and then you die. I shrugged my shoulders and stood up again. "It's stupid, unnecessary, and probably illegal in the Bible belt, but the freakin' clothes I wear don't freakin' matter."

With that as an exit line, I went back to my room and got the damn robe. I put my books in one of the nightstands, hoping the witch wouldn't use them as some sort of ring through my nose - stealing them again every time she got her own nose bent outta shape. Then I thought I was gonna have to use the blanket again anyway, since I almost couldn't figure out how to put the stupid robe on. It wasn't a simple lap-over robe with a belt tie. There were buttons that closed the front all the way to the floor - which wasn't too bad once I figured out which side went in front - but when it got up to the waist it went into this tricky little double layer thing leaving this really freaky heart-shaped lace section covering the upper buttons. White lace heart over flowing pink shine. Gag. Insulin, I need insulin.

No underwear, either. Like I said, she obviously wasn't ready to deal with boys. Good thing that Penny bitch was such a bitch. I had to admit I'd have been really uncomfortable if a girl I thought was hot saw me in that thing. Come to think of it, I hadn't seen Penny since lunch. Thank God for small favors.

When I got back down to the study, the door was closed. Not being totally clueless, I figured this was a test, so I knocked on it instead of just barging in.

"Enter."

"Doofus Third Class Shepherd, reporting as ordered, ma'am!" I barked out as I hit a brace in front of the desk.

"Sit down," she ordered, ignoring my little display. I'm not even sure she saw it, for a shame, because she was looking out the window at her gardens again, now dim in the fading dusk.

"What do you want out of life?" she asked suddenly, not even turning from the outside view.

"Huh?"

"In polite company," she lectured to the window, "one does not converse in grunts."

"What? Oh, um, sorry."

After that nothing happened for, oh, a while. Minutes are a long time in that sort of situation, so it might not have been that long, but I felt like we were there forever, doing nothing. Then it hit me. She'd asked a damn question and I hadn't answered.

"Oh, um, sh.., um, shoot, I'm just tryin' to make it through one day at a time. I guess I never thought that far ahead."

"Just so," she said, turning to face me at last. Then she started in on me. "You're a mess, Jesse Shepherd. You're rude in ways that go beyond simple ignorance of good manners. You're selfish. You don't listen. Most of all, you don't keep your promises."

"Hey, I do, too. I'm here, ain't I, wearing this freakin' robe?"

"Only after yet another confrontation. Is that truly the 'best' you can comply with my direction? What about your promise to avoid profanity? There have not been two complete sentences you've spoken since I've known you without at least some inappropriate language. If you are truly 'sorry' as you so blithely claim, then why do you persist in such abominable behavior?"

Before I could reply she answered her own question, leaning on the desk to loom over me. "Because you have been brought up in a situation that glorifies all that is worst in man, while suppressing all that is virtuous. Even your so-noble claim to be a man of your word is proved false over and over again. I am becoming convinced that you are unrecoverable, and that I might as well let you become the plaything of some animal in what passes for juvenile confinement."

Yeah, well, maybe she was right. Sure, I'd forgotten to watch my language a couple of times, and I'd resisted some of her stupid rules. But I didn't figure that was the real reason she was shipping me off. She'd gotten her jollies by making me dress up in the stupid robe, and now she was tired of playing with me. Story of my life - condensed version. Well, I'd been thrown out of better places than this. Not more expensive, mind you, but definitely better. I shrugged my shoulders and started to stand up.

"Sit down, Mr. Shepherd!" she snapped. Damn, just like there was a string on my butt, it got planted right back in that chair just from the force of her voice.

"There is a way to find out," she said. "I am familiar with a training method more commonly used in England than in the United States, but of proven effectiveness. It will require you to exercise careful control over every mannerism you portray - leading to self-control even as you learn proper manners and deportment. It is particularly focused on control of loud, boorish, childishly-male behavior. Is your given word enough to lead you to attempt such a program, or are you more interested in a life of reform school followed by jail, followed by God knows what? I ask you again, what do you want out of life?"

What's behind door number 3? I mean, if those were my only two choices . . . shit or more shit. "Yeah, like there's really any alternative anyway. I'll get to be 18, my butt will hit the streets, and you'll be hammerin' the next fool to come your way. I mean, I haven't even lived in the same state for long enough to establish residency for in-state tuition yet, let alone get enough money to pay for college."

She waved her hand over the money issue like someone who had never really been hungry in her life - which was no doubt true, but it showed she just didn't understand *real* life at all. Then she whacked me right between the eyes with a promise I had NOT seen coming. "Jesse, if you complete my program, to the best of your ability and to my standards, I will pay for four years at the college of your choice - more than that if you have a valid need for an advanced degree in your chosen career field. This is not about your excuses. It is about YOU. It is about your behavior, and whether you are truly willing to become a civilized human being."

"College?" I repeated in a daze. "Geez, for a chance at a good college, I'll stand on my head for three years."

"It won't be that easy," she said, fighting a smile I could see lurking in her eyes. Then I remembered I was wearing a girl's robe, and no underwear. Standing on my head would NOT be a good idea right then. I started to snicker, too, but a suddenly hard look in her eyes cut my mirth off sharp.

"Seriously, the program I have in mind will be very difficult. Especially so for you. I make no promises that you CAN succeed, only that if you do, you will be a fine young man who will have no trouble fitting into to the polite society your formal education will allow you to enter."

"Just what IS this program you're talking about? I'm a lot smarter than my grades indicate, I promise you."

"I have never doubted that," she assured me. Sitting down and crossing her hands on her desk, she said, "It is called 'petticoat discipline,' and it will require that you look, dress, and act like a respectable young lady for the duration of your stay with me."

I laughed at her. "You gotta be sh. . . , I mean, you can't be serious."

"I assure you, I am quite serious."

"Yeah, well, you're quite crazy, too. I'm outta here," I declared, standing up.

"As you wish," she said quietly. "I told you before that the single most important factor in whether you stayed or left was whether your word of honor meant anything. As it apparently does not, it would perhaps be best if you left."

"Hey, that's not fair!"

"Isn't it? I believe I asked you if there were any restrictions in your promise to abide by my rules beyond the no-alcohol and no corporal punishment provisions. You assured me that there were not. Yet at every challenge, you refuse to obey. I submit to you that you are a liar and a man without honor, and hardly one to judge what is and is not fair. Good night, Mr. Shepherd. We will arrange transportation in the morning."

"God damn it, that is NOT fair!" I repeated. "You've been running these off-the-wall things at me from the time I arrived. I'll do anything reasonable, and you know it."

"No, I do NOT know it," she said adamantly. "Speaking without obscene language is hardly unreasonable, yet even your specific promise on that is apparently unimportant to you. On what basis do you claim that what I require is less fair, less reasonable, or less honorable than you deserve?"

"It's . . ." Shit. I'd be damned if I was gonna let this bitch make ME seem like the one who was wrong, but I could just hear her talking to her buddy the Judge, and it was clear she could make me sound like the prime asshole from hell.

Then it came to me. Nobody was as perfect as she claimed to be. I could put up with anything for a couple of days, and then when I caught her in some real fuck-up of her own, I'd have her. I figured the old lady Judge would at least have to talk to me again, and I could use that as a way to prove I'd really tried. On that basis, I could swing some other alternative. Door number 3, here I come.

"Okay, fine," I said. "I'll play your silly game."

"It is not a game," she replied.

"Yeah, whatever. Just tell me what you want me to do."

She looked at me for a long moment, using that laser-beam trick to bore right through my skull again. This time I was ready for her though, and just blandly returned her stare.

"Very well," she said at last. "If you return to your room, Miss Marie will help you get dressed."

I nodded and stood to leave. As I got to the door, she said, "I warn you, *Miss* Shepherd, that you are on probation. I will be watching your every move, and if you do not give me your best effort, you will find yourself on the way out of town, dressed however you happen to be dressed at the time, so fast you will not know what hit you."

Yeah, bitch, well, you're on probation, too. We'll see who catches who at this little game of yours.

I didn't say it out loud, of course. I was learning.

An hour later I was back outside her office. I had knocked, and received a preemptory 'wait out there' call from inside. That was fine with me. In my head, I recognized the inevitability of someone else seeing me, but in my gut I hoped I could somehow put it off until, oh, Ragnarok or something. That would definitely have been more desirable.

That distinction between head and gut was more than trivial. Above the neck I was still me, light brown hair cut so short you'd have to take my word for the color, ordinary sort of guy's face except for the freakin' too-cute nose. Just me. But below the neck . . . my good 'friend' Marie had decked me out in clothes even girls would have hated. And that was just the sickly-sweet icing on an already-ruined cake. It had started out with an order to shave all the hair from my body. 'Miss' Marie informed me it was a good thing 'Miss' Jane wasn't there to hear what I said at that, or I'd have been dining on soap sandwiches for a week. Then she offered to help me if I found it so challenging.

She had found some underwear for me. With all the frills on the clothes I had seen in my room, I expected something out of Victoria's Secret. No such luck - and the irony of what I had come to consider luck did NOT escape me. Instead, I was offered industrial-strength briefs that left no room for, um, discordant contours. The bra to complete the set wasn't a surprise, unfortunately. Then it got even worse when she strapped this honest-to-God, medieval torture instrument around my waist, all the time telling me I was 'lucky' because I was so slim that all I really needed it for was posture control.

Which brings me back to the hyperglycemic confection that showed on the outside. I was privileged to be modeling the very latest in fashions - if you were 10 years old and it was 1954. I guess the old bitch took the 'petticoat' part of petticoat discipline literally. I was, of course, lectured in the names of each of the 'gifts' I was granted, and so learned what a petticoat was, and how it was used to lift the skirt - yeah, I had one of those, too. Pink, like THAT was any surprise, with little white polka dots and puffy little sleeves and . . . . I better stop before I hurl again.

Then my life got worse - incredible as that may seem.

"Jesse, is that you?" I heard. Guess who. Right first time. Penny, the one person who was anywhere near my age, and of course a girl. I found out it didn't matter that I thought she was a bitch-in-training who I wouldn't have pissed on if she was on fire. She was a girl, and she saw me wearing girl clothes. Shit. Why couldn't you find a good apocalypse when you needed one?

"I was afraid of this," she said, sighing. *She* was afraid?

When I forced myself to look at her, I realized she was wearing the same type of clothes that I was, right down to the silly little-girl patent leather shoes.

"Goodness," she continued, "you must have really made her angry. I only got the crinkly pettis when I was really bad."

Maybe if I ignored her, she'd go away. Worth a try, anyway.

"Ah, Jesse, if you'd like some advice . . . "

Dum de dum. Nobody here but us shit-swimmers. Interesting painting on that wall over there, the one I can see without looking at her.

Penny slid gracefully onto the bench I was sitting on, doing something tricky with her own outfit that ended up with it looking much neater than mine. Like I cared. I only noticed because I had to slide down a bit to give her room.

"Look, Jesse," she persisted, "it's clear that they want me to help you, since Marie made me dress the same way. I figured it was something I'd done, but now that I see you it's not likely to be me they're after. I can help you make it easier, if you'll let me."

"Easier? Yeah, right," I said, finally deciding she wasn't going to take any hints. "Look, *Miss* Head-bitch in there is not interested in making my life easy, so why should you be?"

"Well, for one thing: Been there, done that," she replied.

"Huh?"

"Why do you think *I* am one of her students?" she asked.

"Why do you think *I* would give a shit?" I replied.

She sighed and said, "You really do have a filthy mouth, you know? Didn't she give you her lecture on that yet?"

"Like I care," I said. "But yes, three or four times at last count."

"I don't understand," she said, frowning. "When I got that one, I had to promise to clean up my language."

"Yeah, so?"

"You mean you promised not to talk dirty, and you're still doing it?"

"Look, I said I'd go along with that bitch's bullshit, because the alternative is even worse, " I said, thinking 'at least for now.' "But that doesn't mean I have to like it, nor that she can control every freakin' second of my life. I'll do what she says when she's around, but the rest of the time, I'm bein' myself."

Somehow, she managed to sit further away from me without really moving. Putting that Joan Crawford Junior sneer on her so-elegant face, she said, "So, your promises only apply while someone has their eye on you. I'll have to remember that about you."

"Get off my freakin' case, bitch," I snarled. "I don't need this from you, too!"

"Like hell you don't," she snapped back. "You're even worse than I was, and a liar to boot. At least when *I* came here, my word meant something."

"Last warning," I said, standing up. "You shut your freakin' mouth, or I'll shut it for you."

"Liar, liar, *panties* on fire," she sniffed, the childish words *way* out of place coming from that high-society, rich-bitch face.

"Girls," we heard from within the study. "I will thank you to be quiet while I am on the phone."

"I'm very sorry, Aunt Jane," Penny called back, just loudly enough to be heard inside. She nudged me, too, but I decided Ms. Thompson was smart enough to recognize my response in my silence.

"Look, um, Jesse, let me try this again," Penny said quietly. "Aunt Jane selects clothes for us based on how we behave. If she thinks we're acting like civilized adults, she lets us wear fashionable clothes . . . "

"Oh, my. How will I stand the joy?" I interrupted.

Penny just plowed on, "and, well, other privileges that I probably ought not to tell you about yet. But if we behave childishly, she makes us dress like, well, like this."

"So why are you stuck in this sh . . . in these clothes?"

"I expect it's so I can help you, like I said," she replied. "Look, let me show you something," she continued, standing up. "If you just plop down on the seat, your pettis get wrinkled. But if you sit like a lady, gently sweeping them under you and staying to the front of the seat, with your back straight, they lay nicely. See?"

"Like I care," I snorted.

"Well, suit yourself, " she replied, "but if you ever want to get OUT of those clothes, you . . . well, do what you think is best."

"Yeah, right, like there's any frea . . . any way that she's gonna be fair about this."

"Actually, I think you'll find that Aunt Jane is scrupulously fair, if you give her a chance," Penny insisted. "But part of that is that she makes the rules. It's just that they apply to her as much as to you, so she really is fair. See?"

"No, I don't see. Specifically, I don't see ol' 'High-Society' in there wearing men's clothes, so it's not fair to require me to wear girl's clothes."

"Actually, Aunt Jane *does* wear jeans sometimes, and pants are really men's clothes. It's just that she wears them at the proper time, and in the proper place, and for the proper purpose. Right now, your purpose is to learn civilized, polite behavior. Since she's already acting maturely, and in a civilized way, she's wearing the clothes that go with that. You can too, if you just act right."

"Oh, yeah, like *that* is a big incentive. Graduate from little-girl clothes to big-girl clothes. I can hardly wait."

"You'd be surprised," Penny said softly. "I, ah, would you mind telling me why you're here?"

"Because I didn't run fast enough, and they caught me."

"No, really. Everyone who comes to Aunt Jane's has a reason. It might help if you just, um, accepted it."

"Oh, I've accepted it all right. The world really *is* out to get me. But I'm going to get them first - every last freakin' one of them if I need to."

Penny's eyes got this funny soft look in them, and she looked away. After a moment, she looked back. "Oh, Jesse, I was *so* much like you when I came here."

For some reason, a laugh lit up her eyes for just a heartbeat, but she moved on. "Sit down here with me again, and I'll tell you a story."

I started to sit normally, but at her warning glance I decided I might as well give her silly little slide thing a try. I had a feeling Ms. Thompson would require it anyway, so the practice wouldn't hurt. Penny smiled in appreciation, but then she looked so sad even *I* wanted to help her somehow.

"When I came here, I was just like you," she repeated. "I was rude, selfish, and ill-mannered. I was proud of it. Nobody told *me* what to do. I also had a dirty mouth, just like you."

"Will you get off the language thing?" I snapped. "It's just words. 'Sticks and stones and all that shit. Maybe I should keep it clean even when she's not around, but it's just not that big a deal."

"Oh yes it is," Penny whispered. Now her eyes were filling with tears, and despite my best attempts to overcome it, somewhere I had picked up the notion that it was a bad thing to make a girl cry. I didn't know what to do about it, though.

"There was this girl, you see?" she continued, voice just barely audible. "I used to pick on her. I don't think I ever touched her physically. If so, it was only casually like getting bumped in a hallway or something. But I used to rip pieces off of her with my words, every time we met. 'There's little Janey, wearing her mother's shoes. Or did they belong to her grandmother?' 'Don't worry Janey, you won't have to die a virgin. Get some guy drunk enough, and maybe put a bag over your head, and you could still get lucky.' I knew her family didn't have any money, and, well, she wasn't very attractive, but . . . Anyway, after I started in on her, other kids did, too."

She looked up at me, pain in her eyes that went a lot deeper than mere tears. I had to lean closer to hear the rest. "She killed herself."

"Oh, wow," I whispered back. I put my arm around her shoulders, feeling the faint quivers of sobs she was trying to stifle. Somehow, her head found its way onto my shoulder, and her words drifted up from the folds of my dress.

"I tried to kill myself, too, after that," she said. "And, um, other things. I screwed up, like I screwed up just about everything back then. That's how I ended up here."

I felt her take a deep breath. Then she sat up and wiped at her eyes. "Oh, da . . um, goodness. My face is a mess. I'll have to go clean up."

"Wait," I pleaded. "What happened after that? I mean, what did Ms. Thompson do?"

"She showed me that I could be a good person, even if I had done bad things before. It wasn't easy. Not for her and certainly not for me, but I think I can live with who I am, now."

"So, you're, um, ready to leave?"

"Maybe," she replied. "But I think part of what she wants to see is whether I can truly help someone who needs it, even if it's not going to benefit me directly. I think that's why I'm wearing the same clothes you are."

She shrugged and said, "It's risky to assume you know what's going on in Aunt Jane's mind, but I expect part of what she expects is that we will start to see what needs to be done without being told."

"Yeah," I said, thinking a bit myself.

Standing, Penny said, "Well, I better go clean up. After you meet with Aunt Jane, we'll have supper."

"Is she really your aunt?" I asked, standing myself. For some reason I was reluctant to have her leave just then.

"No," she said. "I just, I don't know, started calling her that. She never told me not to."

That sort of ran that topic down, and we stood there looking at each other for a while. Penny looked up the stairs and turned once again to leave.

"Um, Penny? I, uh, beat up a kid who didn't really deserve it. He wasn't the first one."

"Oh," she said quietly. No judgment, just acknowledgment of my words. Then she asked, "How bad?"

"He'll recover, I guess. I coulda wrecked his knee, but it'll be okay."

"Then I guess you're not as bad as I was," she said. She dredged up a weak little smile and said, "So there's hope for you yet."

"Yeah, sure," I replied. I wasn't going to argue with her right then. That was the first time I'd ever had a girl cry on my shoulder, and even though I still thought Penny was way too high-society to be a real friend . . . it was nice to have felt needed, even for just a minute.

"Miss Shepherd, please come in now," I heard Ms. Thompson's voice call. Penny gave me a little grimace of sympathy, and then waved as she moved off. I went back into the lion's den for another lecture.

"My word, look at the state of your petticoats," she started in on me as soon as I was in the room. "You really *are* sloppy, aren't you?" Then she brought out the real teeth and claws. Frankly, my mind was more on what Penny had said than on Ms. Thompson's lecture. About all I picked up out of it was that slovenliness would not be tolerated, that proper posture was the foundation for a proper appearance. (That part stuck because at one point I started a running count of how many times she said 'posture' in one minute. Unfortunately she caught me watching the clock and that caused a tirade that corrupted the data.)

"So, the deportment of a civilized person is boring to you, is it?" she asked - rhetorically, of course. She didn't even pause long enough to take a breath before starting in again. "Well, we'll just have to see if we can keep your interest up, won't we?"

Oh, freakin' joy.

I had graduated. Words do not exist to express my happiness at that accomplishment. At least, not words that were usable in Ms. Thompson's chamber of horrors. After sleeping, such as it was, in a flannel nightgown that first night, I had been offered another flounces-and-ruffles outfit to wear to breakfast. I was still trying to decide if I owed Penny a debt of gratitude or a swift pop in the chops, because Ms. Thompson had been impressed enough with the way I managed to sit without wrinkling my petticoat that she decided I had earned a chance at some other styles.

Each of which required starting over from the skin out, of course. Each of which added some carefully explained bit of sophistication. Or at least of apparent age. I was no longer dressed as a ten-year old. Which was a good thing, because I no longer had the body of a ten-year old, either. Each new corset (not all of which were truly 'corsets', I found out - some were 'merry widows', or 'basques', or yadda, yadda) was tighter than the last when *Miss* Marie finished with it. That was actually the least of my 'improvements', though. Along about the third outfit, padding had started to appear. I guess I had expected the bras to get some filler, but padded panties? What's up with that?

In any event, by lunchtime I had a body that was apparently 'all growed up' in all the right - that is, *wrong* places. Progress had not been as rapid as that timeline might suggest. True, it had only taken from breakfast until lunch, but that can be a very long time.

The thump of the book hitting the floor - the one I had been trying to carry on my cue-ball head - triggered THE voice yet again. "*Miss* Shepherd, I refuse to believe you are so clumsy as your lack of grace suggests. Do you have some aversion to eating the midday meal while the sun is still up?"

My stomach answered for me, audible across the room. That earned me an eye roll, a sigh, and not one damn bit of sympathy. According to the clock I was carefully not watching, it was already after 2:00. Ms. Thompson had made it clear I was to demonstrate competence in dressing and moving in the clothes typical of 'proper young ladies' before we ate. I was, among my other faults, very slow however, and we were way behind schedule.

"Perhaps we should, ahem, 'tailor' your program a little, to aid you in your specific, ah, problem areas," she mused, quite proud of her own little joke. "Go back to your room and tell Miss Marie that I think we might dispense with your petticoats this time." (Note: I did not say that I *agreed* with her definition of clothes for 'proper young ladies,' at least not for the last two or three generations.) "A tailored skirt might teach you to walk with a more lady-like glide. A bit of heel would assist in that as well. You have twenty minutes."

"Yes, Ms. Thompson," I said softly as I turned and 'glided' toward the door. Not a good glide, apparently, but the best I could do. Part of the reason we were behind schedule was that I had tried to argue with her earlier. Didn't do a damn bit of good, unless you consider that the lectures which followed had been good for me. I didn't. But it was obvious we weren't going to eat until I had met whatever standard the old witch required, and my many faults did not include being stupid.

As soon as the door to the study was closed, I sprinted for the stairs as fast as my slick dress shoes would allow. "No petticoats," I gasped out when I got to Marie. At least that was one good thing about progress. Not that progress was the word I would use, even within my newly restricted vocabulary. "Tailored skirt. Heels. Twenty, um, now eighteen minutes."

"Very well," Marie said, nodding. "You strip down and I'll get you something suitable."

By this time, the thought of being nearly naked in front of a woman had become a minor irritation, so I was straining to reach awkward buttons almost before she gave the order.

"Don't tell Miss Jane," Marie's voice called from the huge closet, "but you can leave the same panties on this time. Take off your bra and pantyhose, though."

'Panties.' 'My' bra and pantyhose. Big piles of smelly freakin' shit. Right then, I'd'a kissed that horseturd Wilson instead of whackin' the bastard, if I coulda done it over again.

Marie brought out a slim wool skirt and a lacy white blouse, plus for the first time a jacket. I reached for the blouse, but Marie stopped me. "Not yet, dear. You still need the appropriate lingerie."

'Lingerie.' Slimy, stinkin', knee-deep shitballs. Not the least of which was that I should have known it was coming.

Marie wrapped me in a merry widow and laced it until I had spots before my eyes. While I was trying to remember how to breathe without using my nowhere-to-move diaphragm, she slipped some slithery plastic shapes in the cups of the thing, and that distracted me enough I didn't realize I had graduated to yet another level of joy - or circle of Hell.

"Here, dear, slip these on while I get the shoes," she said.

'These' were stockings, not the pantyhose I'd been wearing so far. There were some straps that were obviously intended to hook to the corset (yeah, I know, 'merry widow' - not that there was a freakin' damn thing 'merry' about it, and I knew the straps were called 'garters', too). By the time I had things sorted out, Marie was tapping her toe.

"Here, let me help," she said finally. It is a sign of how far I had fallen that I was actually glad for her assistance. Later, when I had the time, I was gonna remember that moment and find something large to blow up.

The blouse buttoned up the back, of course. The skirt was a dark blue and knee-length. The jacket matched, and I realized it was part of a women's power suit. Forgive me, Penny, for all the things I thought about you. The heels were nothing special, actually. Not too tall, not too pointed. If I'd'a seen a women wearing them, they wouldn't have caught my eye at all. Which made my inability to walk in the damn things all the more frustrating.

"Point your toes, dear," Marie advised, "and keep your steps in a line, as though you were walking a tightrope."

"And hurry," she reminded me.

Oh, God, 17 minutes down already, and I sure as Hell couldn't run in that outfit. I couldn't even take a real goddamn step in that tight goddamn skirt. And I was NOT gonna think about the funny way the garter straps holding the stockings felt when I moved.

Even so, I had to stop when I saw my image in the mirror at the head of the stairs. If I'd'a seen that image as a picture, I'd'a taken any bet you wanna make that it was faked. The body was that of a young woman - trimly professional, making her place in the world. The head was me, and no more belonged on that body than a moosehead on a cat. What was really, really scary was that it was the head that seemed out of place. Not the clothes, not the curves, not . . . any of the things Ms. Thompson had required. Dear God, and I had been worried about wearing a necktie!

By the time I got to the study I was way late, but for the first time Ms. Thompson seemed not to notice. Instead, she just touched the button on her desk. In moments, we were sitting down to 'lunch', somehow less formal than before. Or maybe I was just zoned out so far that it didn't feel the same.

"Miss Shepherd, Penny just paid you a compliment," I heard.

"Hmm, oh, sorry, I wasn't paying attention."

"Obviously," Ms. Thompson snapped. "Nonetheless, proper manners require that you acknowledge compliments, and return them graciously. Penny, try again."

"I said, 'You look nice, Jesse,'" Penny repeated.

"I look stupid," I blurted out, but surprised myself when my hand went to my buzz-cut hair instead of to my outfit.

"*Miss* Shepherd, that is *not* an appropriate response," barked Ms. Thompson.

I took a deep breath, and looked straight at her. "I am sorry, Ms. Thompson, but I believe it is. I do not look nice. I *do* look stupid."

Then I got angry and went on. "How many times today, Ms. Thompson, have you corrected me when I made a mistake? You did not permit an error to go unchallenged, and so I assumed it was inappropriate for me, also. Is that not correct?"

"So, Miss Shepherd," she began, and why was there a gleam of triumph in her eyes? "You think it is a fact beyond dispute that your current appearance is, as you said, 'stupid?' I think we can accommodate your judgment."

To quote a cultural icon, 'D'oh!' I had played right into her hands. I shoulda known I wasn't gonna get ahead of her. I wondered just how bad I was gonna get hammered, but like Wile E. Coyote over the canyon, I knew it was just a matter of time.

I found out soon enough. She stood and said, "Marie, today I will help Penny clean up this wonderful meal that she has prepared. If Jesse thinks she looks . . . incongruous, perhaps you can help her with that."

"Yes, Miss Jane," Marie replied, then started to move toward the door. "Come along, Jesse, we have a lot of work to do."

Me and my big, fat, freakin' mouth.

Six hours later we sat down for a much-delayed evening meal. I no longer looked 'stupid'. This was bad news. Very, very bad news.

I wore the same power suit I had worn at 'luncheon'. That was Ms. Thompson's not-at-all-subtle way of rubbing my nose in the rest of the changes. That is not to say I had worn that suit all through the afternoon and evening. Quite the contrary, but we had come full circle in clothes even as we had made irrevocable changes in other areas.

Specifically, my face and hair. Or perhaps I should say my face and 'the' hair, since hardly any of it was really mine. As soon as Marie and I had gotten back to my room after lunch, she sat me down at the little ruffled chair in front of the dresser with the mirror - a vanity, I had been informed - and pulled out a thick mop that even I recognized as a medium-brown, medium-long wig.

"Don't even bother," Marie had told me curtly before I could even frame a comment. "You are not so stupid that you didn't see this coming, and by now you know that arguing just wastes time. You have at least as many changes to get through before supper, and I for one do not want to be eating it at midnight."

The wig was, of course, just the start. After no-shit *gluing* the freakin' thing on my head, she immediately pinned it up out of the way and started in on my face. The eyebrows I had once had disappeared hair by plucked-out-and-screaming-in-agony-as-they-died hair until all that was left were thin arches that made me look as surprised as I felt.

And I was surprised, because for the first pass, that's essentially all that was done. I was back in the cotton candy pink dress, only this time I had pigtails that looked exactly as stupid as that word implies. I went back to visit Ms. Thompson, curtsied oh-so-cutely, and was allowed the great privilege of getting out of that freakin' outfit.

Then Marie surprised me again, by undoing the pigtails and pulling my new hair back into a high, bouncy ponytail. Once again, that was the extent of 'new' changes. I was offered a pair of white tights and a multi-colored leotard, with the no-doubt-very-stylish headband, wristband, and leg-warmer accessories, and then once again reported to Ms. Thompson, who approved the new outfit with barely a glance.

I was reflecting on the total uselessness of these exercises - which was true, of course, but it was made manifest when even the Head Warden didn't seem to care - when another reflection presented itself to me. That mirror in the hallway caught my eye, and I - oh shit, it's hard even to remember this - I literally peed my pants, um, panties at the image.

It was a freakin', no-question, terminally cute teen-age girl. Really cute. The ponytail that seemed like a strange animal crawling on my shoulders bounced in the mirror with cheerful energy. The curves revealed by the stretchy exercise clothes hinted at developing womanhood, just right for the clean, fresh-scrubbed face and wide, alert eyes. If I'd'a seen that girl on the street, shit, I was about to say I wouldn't have given her a second glance but that's not true. I'd'a turned around and followed that babe-ette.

And it was *me*. I never doubted it for a heartbeat. I wasn't some mirror trick, or window looking at someone else, it was *me*! What was suddenly called into doubt was a buncha things I'd taken for granted. Things that were very important to me. So much so that I unconsciously reached to feel for what had been hidden so carefully by my 'lingerie'. That's when I felt the wet spot and realized what I'd done.

"Oh, shit! Goddam it! This is too fuckin' much!"

Then I felt the tears start. Goddam, little kid tears. Little crybaby tears that burned my eyes and started to fill my nose and - shit, made me feel like I really *should* be wearing a freakin' diaper. I ran into my room and past Marie so fast she couldn't stop me. In the bathroom, I knew I couldn't lock the door, but I could at least hide in the little alcove and pretend to be, ah, taking care of business. Which was true, actually. My bowels felt loose enough that they might just add to the damage. Thank God that didn't happen, but I still needed to strip out of that stinkin' outfit and had started to rinse it out in the sink when Marie knocked on the door.

"Jesse, are you okay?"

"NO! Don't come in. Please!"

"Jesse, I can help."

"No! Please, Miss Marie, don't come in. Not right now."

Begging so abjectly nearly cost me another round of distress, this time pukin' up whatever was left of my lunch, but it did have the saving grace of working. I heard Marie pick up the phone in the other room and report my humiliation to Ms. Thompson, but it didn't matter. I just scrubbed and scrubbed at the stained spots on my clothes, too blinded by tears to tell if it was doing any good, but unable to stop.

I didn't have a watch and there wasn't a clock in the bathroom, so I wasn't sure how long Marie left me in there. After a while she knocked quietly on the door, and opened it. I whirled around to demand - hell, to beg for - some privacy, but aall I saw was the door closing again. On a countertop near the door were some new clothes, a whole outfit, as near as I could tell, including a skirt and blouse. I realized I couldn't hide in there, naked, forever so I took advantage of the unwanted but necessary gift. By now, I could handle the things she'd left since she took it easy on my waistline and only included a stretchy waist nipper I could fasten myself. In a few minutes I was stepping back into my bedroom. I tried to avoid Marie's eyes, but it didn't really work.

"Come over here, child," she said gently. "You're late for your next review by Miss Jane."

Can't have that, can we? Like I cared.

Of course, I did care. The monster waiting downstairs could make my life Hell - by absolutely irrefutable demonstration. It's just that the difference between one Hell and another was becoming rather academic. I was fucked, big time, and it wouldn't matter if I were given a get out of jail free card that very instant. What I had seen in the mirror would haunt me.

What had already happened to me took any real risk out of the anything Marie could do, so I passively let her lead me over to the vanity again. She stared in on another lecture, but I tuned her out and just let her do her thing. My hair was brushed out of the ponytail to be caught up in little clip things - I guess I did listen at least a little, or else I heard it somewhere else, because I knew they were called 'barrettes' - and then she started in on my face. The bouncy babe-ette of tights and headband became a prim young lady ready for her English Lit class, complete with a copy of Chaucer to hold protectively in front of her bosom. If I hadn't been there the whole time, I would have said my face was still fresh-scrubbed clean based on the way it looked, but it was better than before - or worse. This vision was out of my league, and I'd have been so tongue-tied if I saw her that I'd have run away instead of following her around.

"Go on, dear, and show Jane," Marie ordered softly. I let her urge me to my feet and I walked slowly down the hallway. A priest and warden should have accompanied me, because I was clearly on my last walk in this mortal life. The fox in the mirror was someone else. Jesse was dead. Long live his(?) successor.

My knock on the study door triggered an immediate invitation to enter. Then things got even worse, impossible as that may seem, when the first thing Ms. Thompson did was compliment me.

"The shy, demure look is very good, Jesse," she said, "and I'm pleased to see that you are still standing upright except for your head. You need not bow it quite so dramatically, but I am inclined to give you credit for the attempt."

My eyes started burning again, and a sniffle I just couldn't contain slipped out. Thankfully, Ms. Thompson took that moment to look out the window again. At least, I think she did. I heard her move over that way. I wasn't about to look up and let her see me crying.

Her lecture mode voice was as pedantic as ever, but it was more distant than before, and not just because she was standing further from me. It didn't seem as though she were taunting me with her knowledge like I wasn't smart enough to absorb it unless she drilled it into me. Instead, she was just laying out information for me to receive, and it was up to me to accept it.

God help me I did. For some reason I was listening.

"Jesse, part of fitting in to the more refined layers of society is just that - to fit in. Those who feel they have the ability - and therefore the right and the duty - to exercise significant control in the world justify that self-assignment by demonstrating first the ability to control themselves. This is shown by manners, by neat grooming, and by appropriate style selections."

Now she turned from the window and walked around the desk to stand in front of me. She lifted my chin and made me look directly at her. "And by control of their emotions," she continued. She dropped my chin and stepped back. "Yet appearance cannot become an end in itself, or there is no room left for controlling greater things. So, one who fits within the true centers of power has the knowledge to select appropriate styles, the ability to wear them, and the skill to sustain them even during times of stress when there is little time for 'primping'. For a woman, that includes makeup and hair care as well as the clothes themselves."

Now she stepped back around her desk and sat down. "You will learn these things, Jesse. You will practice them until you can pick an outfit appropriate for the activity to be undertaken, and add appropriate accessories, makeup, and hairstyle. You will learn to do so quickly and efficiently, so that you can sustain that appearance even without as much time as you might want to work on your presentation. Now, go and change into the next outfit."

I had never spoken a word in that visit. Which was a good thing, as the vista she had laid out before me was so horrifying that I could not have spoken if I wanted to. At least I managed to get out of the room before I sniffled again.

The rest of that afternoon was a gradually building nightmare, a juggernaut of inevitability as whatever I had once been was buried beneath more and more strident femininity. My school girl outfit was replaced by a brightly colored dress appropriate for a spring parade at church, complete with the little white gloves and hat that had looked so old-fashioned on Penny when I first saw her at the train station. That outfit was followed by an honest-to-God slinky nightclubbing dress that I was sure none of Ms. Thompson's students would ever actually be allowed to wear in public. As in the morning changes, each style required entirely new clothes from the skin out, now including makeup and hairstyle changes as well. By the time I got to the nosebleed heels and dramatic eyes of the clubbing outfit, I was doing a lot of the work myself - and hating that I could do it so well. The woman - no longer a girl - who I saw in the mirror that time did not make me pee my panties. The reaction I felt was very different, and even more uncomfortable.

The return to the power suit outfit was almost a relief. Hell, it was definitely a relief, and the irony of that still gnawed at me. For the second time that day I saw Penny, once again at the much-delayed meal. A simple soup and salad was all that my churning stomach could have handled anyway, so I was glad her culinary talents were more limited than those Marie had previously demonstrated. I ate in silence. I'm not sure I had spoken more than two or three words since, well, since I had realized what had happened to me. But this time I was listening enough to hear Penny's comment. Shocked as I was, I had nonetheless been expecting it.

"You look very nice, Jesse," Penny said casually.

"Thank you, Penny," I said quietly. "I have gained a new appreciation for how nice you look as well."

"So, you no longer feel you look stupid?" Ms. Thompson asked, completing the humiliation.

"No, ma'am," I whispered. It was much, much worse than merely 'stupid'.

To say that I was dreading the next day would only be appropriate because more . . . colorful language was forbidden to me. It actually didn't start out too badly, though. I was back in the schoolgirl outfit, wearing the modest heels more as a reminder to move carefully than as any further challenge. After breakfast, Ms. Thompson stood and nodded to Penny and Marie, who began to clear the table.

"Come with me, Jesse," she ordered, and led me from the room. In the day and a half that I'd been incarcerated in this dungeon, I hadn't had more than a moment to myself except in my bedroom in the dark of night - behind a door that I had discovered locked from the outside. If I had the emotional energy left to worry about that, I'd have wondered what would happen in the event of a fire. However, in my case merely being burned to death would have been a blessing, so I hadn't complained.

In any event, this was the closest thing to a tour of the big old manor that I'd been given. Ms. Thompson pointed out a glass-walled conservatory (did anyone really *use* that word anymore?) and a stiffly formal parlor. There was a contrastingly modern computer room with a panoply of scanners and printers and wall of software manuals. And there was an art studio, complete with splattered paint on the floors and a potter's wheel, next door to a dance studio with a mirror wall and one of those bar things.

None of that mattered though, once we reached our destination. Ms. Thompson had an honest-to-God *library*, with five times as many books as were in her study. They were organized; too, with little labels on the shelves for History, Philosophy, and an area I would once have killed to have access to, Fine Art. I almost forgot my situation for a moment, and started toward the shelves.

"Now, Jesse," Ms. Thompson began, turning to look at me and halting me in my tracks. "We need to evaluate your academic standing. You will not be permitted the silliness of working below your abilities, but I will not challenge you beyond your abilities."

Yeah, right. That's why I had been so stressed out I peed my pants. No challenge there.

"We will begin by discussing Machiavelli, since you seem to have an interest in his work. In twenty-five words or less, summarize his philosophy."

I looked around for some paper to write on, but Ms. Thompson noticed and immediately interrupted my visual search.

"You don't need to write it out. You will be expected to speak cogently and extemporaneously, on a wide range of topics. This topic will do well for evaluating that."

"Yes, ma'am," I said, thinking furiously. Frankly, I thought ol' Mac had been given a bad rap by history. His philosophy was pragmatic, but sound. Those who characterized it simply as, 'the end justifies the means' left out some vital aspects.

"Um, well, he, um . . ," I began.

"Do not stammer," she interrupted me. "And do not grunt. You have already wasted four words with no semantic comment at all. In addition, *Miss* Shepherd, you will lift your voice, speaking lightly and with enthusiasm. Try again. Twenty-one words."

Yeah, well, up yours bitch! Not that I said it, of course. All the fire I knew was in my eyes did was to cause that smirk of absolute self-confidence to show in hers. I knew that this was yet another battle, yet another test where will was more important than the surface topic. Only this time we were moving into *my* arena. I knew this, unlike the freakin' rules of manners and shit.

"Machiavelli believed that critical outcomes justified whatever means were essential to achieve them . . . . *but* an essential end for a Prince was that his people respected him. They would not respect an arbitrary, capricious, or undependable Prince. Thus, those qualities were unacceptable in a Prince." And yes, I did bear down on 'arbitrary' and 'capricious', looking directly at my tormentor when I did so.

"Can you not count, Miss Shepherd?" she sneered. "Missing a simple math problem by a factor of almost two is hardly an acceptable standard. Try again, and as I said, I expect your voice to be light, airy, and cheerful."

"Machiavelli believed," I snarled, "that the ends justified the means, but that not all ends were justified."

"One presumes you feel you had a very large breakfast," she said quietly, almost whispering in my ear with silky menace, "because if that's the best you can do with your voice, it will be a *very* long time until lunch."

Ms. Thompson stepped back and pulled a book at random from the shelves. Placing it on my head, she walked to the other side of the room. "Walk here, gracefully and with good posture, and continue by telling me which Amendment in the Bill of Rights is most important, and why."

And so it went. It took me a while to recognize that she did not challenge my answers, only the manner in which I delivered them. Yet her questions forced me to reach for insight, not just facts, and as she came back with later challenges derived from my *own* answers, it was clear she was virtually recording every response in her unbelievable memory. I completely lost track of time until we were interrupted.

"Miss Jane," Penny said, moving to stand in the opened doorway, "I'm finished with my morning's assignment. I wondered if I might take a walk in the garden before lunch."

Ms. Thompson glanced at the clock and then nodded. "Take Miss Shepherd with you. Quiz her on the Botany of the plants there and report to me on her standard of knowledge."

"Yes, ma'am," Penny replied, sighing.

Well, tough shit. If it got me out of the dragon lady's clutches for a while then I'd take advantage of the opportunity without a shred of guilt. I nodded with careful politeness to my so-called benefactor. . . factrix . . . whatever, and walked from the room with the flowing glide I had been practicing. No sense getting called back at that point. Once we were out of sight, though, I slumped down and leaned against the wall.

"Holy shit," I sighed. "The only things that hurt worse than my freakin' feet are my freakin' head and freakin' back."

"Jesse," Penny snapped, the first time I'd seen her really angry. The bitch-ette had apparently learned more than haughty manners from the Iron Mistress. The fire in her eyes - along with that really dark hair - made her a shoo-in for the Joan Crawford witch-of-the-month contest. "I'm telling you right now, " she continued, "if you don't clean up your filthy mouth, *I* will see that you wash it out with soap."

"Yeah, you and what army?" I snarled.

"Listen, shrimp," she hissed, "I can do the job as well as it needs to be done, all by myself. I don't *like* nasty language. If your promise means nothing, then be assured that *my* promise does, and I won't permit that in my presence."

"Fine, bi . . . Penny. Head out for the garden on your own. I'll find something else to do."

"Not an option, Jesse," she sighed. "And believe me, I'd do that if I could. The physics test I had this morning fried my mind for the next week. But Miss Jane said I had to quiz you on the plants in the garden."

"I'll make it easy on you," I replied, still looking up at her. "I don't know anything about Botany. Zero. Nada. End of report."

"I'm sorry, Jesse," she said tiredly, and that part I believed, "but that's not good enough either. If that's the case, then it's obviously time you started to learn something. Let's go."

I was getting tired of being nagged at by stubborn women. Really, really tired of it. Why in hell would any guy ever in the history of the whole damn world *ever* get married twice? These shrews had made getting stuck with a woman a definite non-starter before I even tried it once! But I was too freakin' tired to argue any more, even by just being stubborn. I stood and moved to follow her with reluctance matched only by her own.

Another idea did strike me as we made our way down the hall. "Hey, Botany is like a college-level course, right? I'm just, like, ready to start high school. I don't need to know that stuff."

"Goodness, Jesse," Penny said, laughing, "are you just now catching on that Miss Jane's standards are just a *bit* higher than your typical public school? If you survive the next few years, you won't have any trouble at any college you choose to attend."

"If I survive," I muttered, but it was loud enough for Penny to hear. She just laughed. And I carefully, very carefully, remembered why I was in this madhouse in the first place. As a result, I didn't kill her for laughing at me.

At least it was a nice day. Penny started out in easy stages, explaining the higher order classifications of plants into grasses, flowers, and things before wrapping her tongue around some of the fancy Latin nomenclature. I remembered little of the basic stuff and made every available effort to forget the Latin even before I heard it.

Then we stepped around the corner of some sort of hedge thing, and a quiet, raspy voice said, "Hello, Miss Penny."

"Oh, hello Tom," Penny replied, speaking to an old guy who was squatted over some flowers.

Then he looked at me. Me, wearing a skirt. With 'cute' little barrettes in my hair, and makeup on my face. Shitshitshit. Great big gobs of . . .

I started to turn and run, but Penny had captured my arm with a grip that made me decide she might just be able to make good on her threat about soap. Smiling cheerfully she said, "Oh, Tom, let me introduce you to . . . . Jessica. She's a new student with Miss Jane."

"Pleased to meet you, Miss Jessica," he said, standing and politely tipping his scruffy old gimme cap at me.

"Tom is the gardener here," Penny said. "If you need help with plants, he's your man."

Not MY man, lady. I'm outta here. But I still couldn't get free of her arm, which was pinching my elbow in a way that made that stupid nerve bundle in there tingle most dangerously. Just a little more pressure and I was gonna regret it, a lot. I looked at her to get her to stop and she was doing funny things with her eyebrows - lifting them toward the old guy like she was trying to send me a message.

Oh, shit, all the sudden I got it. She wanted me to *say* something to the guy, who was still standing there looking at me expectantly.

"Pleased to meet you, too," I whispered, "Mister, um, . . . . ?"

"Just 'Tom' is fine, Miss Jessica," he said, touching the brim of his hat again. "Are you enjoying your stay here so far?"

Conversation? He expected freaking' conversation while I was standing there in a freakin' dress? Like Hell. But a bit more pressure from Penny on my elbow and I knew running wasn't yet on the agenda.

"It's been, um, different," I said softly. "Not what I expected."

He smiled, and said, "I expect you'll do fine. All Miss Jane's girls do just fine, after they get a chance to settle in a little."

God help me if I ever 'settled' into this asylum like I belonged here or something. That actually triggered a smile I didn't expect, as I realized that if I ever *felt* like I belonged in this asylum, it would mean I really *did* belong in one. My unintended response seemed to be a signal or something, because the smile brought an answering smile from Tom, and he shuffled a bit and looked back at his work.

Penny apparently decided I'd suffered enough, and the pressure on my arm eased just enough to take away the tingle. She still held me captive as we moved off, letting go only after we had turned another corner and were out of sight.

"Geez, girl, don't you know anything?" she sneered. "If you have a secret to hide, the first rule is don't *look* like you have a secret to hide. If you'd have just turned and run from Old Tom, he'd have *known* something was wrong."

"Something *is* wrong," I said. "This is wrong. I don't belong here. I don't belong in these clothes."

"You look like you do," she sighed. "You've been here two days, and you already look prettier than I ever will."

"That is NOT good news," I snapped.

"It ought to be," she replied. "Look, I don't know what Miss Jane has in mind for you, but if she intends that you dress like a girl, then it's a lot better being a pretty one."

She paused, then giggled, "A lot safer, too. Wait till you get out in public. If you don't pass, oh, goodness that will be a problem."

"In public?!" I squeaked.

"I'd count on it, if I were you," she warned. "Miss Jane's graduates are refined, and move comfortably among the upper crusts of society. I'll bet you get plenty of opportunities to try out your social skills - or at least the ones you're going to learn. I know I did."

"Oh my god," I gasped. I started shaking, and I had this really, really bad feeling I better find the powder room really quickly.

Penny had led us back to the house by then, and I made a mad dash for the closest bathroom. I made it, barely, but by the time I'd finished throwing up my toenails, my face, hair, and clothes were a mess anyway. At least no one was around when I finally got to the point where I could chance leaving the downstairs powder room. I snuck out of there and back up to my room to wash out my blouse and brush my teeth. Before I had found something else to wear, I heard a knock.

"Jessica?" It was Marie's voice. Apparently my good 'friend' Penny had told them of the morning's disaster. "Jessica, dear, is it okay if I come in?"

Like I had any real choice. I already found out the door locked from the outside so she could come in any time she wanted. Still, I tried. "No, please, Miss Marie. Leave me alone."

"Jessica," she said again. What was it, points for every time she could say that freakin' name? "I really can help," she promised.

God help me, another stubborn woman. I was too trashed to argue with her either, so I just grabbed a towel to hide the fact I wasn't wearing a top - like that mattered when Marie had seen me in a whole lot less the day before - and pulled the door open.

She had a tray with a sandwich and some soup on it. For a wonder, it didn't make me heave again. Not that there was anything in my stomach if I *had* tossed it. I just stepped back and tried not to look at the food.

"Believe it or not," Marie said, setting the food on the edge of the vanity, "a little food will help settle your stomach. I'll just leave this here for now."

She smiled a cheery smile and walked into my closet. "Let me just find something else for you to wear while I clean up that other blouse."

Gee, thanks. I can't wait to get dressed in *more* girly clothes.

What she found for me was actually not too bad, like it mattered when I was still wearing a skirt, and low heels, and whatever was left of makeup on my face. That was apparently the next order of business, because after helping me into a knit shirt not too different from what a guy might wear, except for buttoning on the wrong side, she pulled me to the vanity and started to work her magic on repairs. As always, new makeup beyond a quick touchup - and I was definitely beyond that - required that all the old was stripped completely away before starting over. By the time she had my face and hair back in order, I realized I had been nibbling on the fruit she brought, and was really considering the sandwich.

Marie finished with her fussing and moved to the door. "Miss Jane expects you back in her study to review your math skills this afternoon," she advised me. "When you're finished with lunch, you'll need to get a move on. I don't expect we'll be eating an early supper in any event, and time marches on."

And so it did. The afternoon session was another nightmare of questions and criticism, always forcing me to move, talk, and act like a girl even as she picked my brain on a host of topics of which math was only the most prominent. I was so tired when she finally let us break for supper that I didn't even complain when everyone called me Jessica all evening. It was apparently my turn to help clean up, assisted by Marie, and by the time I was finished I was weaving on my feet. Only newly learned habits got me ready for bed - face scrubbed, hair brushed, and wearing a nightgown that was too comfortable for words. Don't ask me how I made it to the bed itself. I'm sure I was asleep while I was still six feet away.

"I'm quite disappointed, Jessica."

Neither the words nor the tone of voice were particularly unusual, but in this particular case, I truly had no idea what I'd done. Or not done, as was the case at least as often.

"Excuse me, Miss Jane?" I said, standing from the computer. I'd started calling her that as a sort of reflex since everyone else in the household did - that or Aunt Jane, and I for sure wasn't ready to claim any kinship with the cast-iron bi . . .

At least I knew it wasn't unauthorized browsing. I'd gotten caught at that exactly once. Once out of exactly once I'd tried it, supporting my earlier expectation that I'd be under constant observation in Frau Oberfuhrer's household. I'd been avidly exploring a computer free of all the nanny blocks - only to find out that a hovering parental figure was more effective than any electronic watchdog ever invented. Damn that woman could move quietly when it suited her purpose. Of course, I had been fairly, um, involved in what I was looking at.

"If you enjoy wallowing in filth," she'd said, "I can provide you that opportunity." For the next two days I'd had to clean the stables. Before that, I didn't even know the place *had* stables, and for just a second I wondered how she'd managed to get them set up so fast, just to mess with me. Then I stepped inside the place and realized these were *not* newly built. Not surprisingly, Miss Jane had decided I should get into the spirit of the activity by wearing the proper clothes, too. Long, wool, prairie woman dress, petticoats (again), corset (of course), and bonnet. Geez, I had figured Rhode Island would be cold, or at least cool, even in August. I flat *baked* in that freakin' heavy dress, to the point I figured I smelled as bad as the shit I was shoveling. After two days of that, I was convinced it wasn't worth the risk to use the computer 'inappropriately'.

But that didn't mean she couldn't find something else to pick at me about, as she had demonstrated any number of times over the week and a half I'd been her prisoner. Usually she found something that wasn't really my fault. I mean, how was I supposed to know that baking powder and baking soda were different? At least she hadn't made me eat the stupid biscuits myself. Like I cared about baking anything anyway. Still, it was not surprising that every time I heard that unctuous more-in-sorrow-than-in-anger voice, I cringed.

"Your hair is simply inadequate," she said. "We've got an old rag mop with more life than that. And the way it hangs in your face makes you look . . . unkempt."

Boy, now *there* was a major slam! 'Unkempt.' Oh, how would I ever live it down?

Not by mouthing off. That much I had certainly learned. So I let part of my mind wander off into pleasant fantasies involving optimal methods for beating the livin' shit out of pretentious old biddies and put a plastic expression of remorse on my 'unkempt' face.

"I'm sorry, Miss Jane," I said. "I've been so busy working on this essay you required of me that I haven't had time to use that curling wand thingy on my hair since breakfast."

Oops, shit. That blew it. 'Thingy.' I was gonna catch it for using such an uncivilized and inexact term. Bet she was gonna use those very words. Being 'uncivilized' or 'inexact' was right up there with being 'unkempt.'

"I *do* hope, Jessica, that you are not using such inexact (Bingo!) words in your essay. I'm sure that Sir Isaac Newton was more precise in his formulations than that."

"Yes, ma'am, I mean, no ma'am, I mean . . . " Damn, that woman had the ability to tie me in knots just any freakin' time she wanted to. And every freakin' time she did, that look of smug confidence danced in her eyes. God, I'd like to find a way to wipe that look off her face — preferably with something heavy.

"Regardless," she continued, "we have already discussed the requirement to keep your appearance smart and attractive, even when time is limited."

Now *that* was something I couldn't argue with. We'd discussed the damn topic, all right. Over and over again. I could remember when I'd change my freakin' clothes once a week whether I needed to or not. In this madhouse, I ended up changing half a dozen damn times every damn day. All with 'time' very much 'limited.'

"However," she said, "there are things that can be done to make that task easier, and perhaps it is only fair for those techniques to be available to you."

Uh, oh. The stench of something rotten was heavy in the air. Whenever she made it sound like she was doing me a favor, I was headed for deep smelly shit.

"A pretty girl like you deserves pretty hair," she observed, lifting one of the strands that hung by my face. "Perhaps some lighter highlights, perhaps . . . well, we'll let the experts decide."

Oh, yeah, like *that* made me feel better. 'Pretty' was NOT on my list of desirable attributes. Of course, the old witch knew that. And she knew that I knew that she knew, which is why she said it. Never a wound that wasn't worth pouring a little salt in, right?

"I, um, if you say so, ma'am," I said. "But I can't get the wig off by myself." Lord knows I'd *tried*. "Do you, or, um, does Miss Marie have some sort of solvent I could use?"

"Whatever are you talking about?" she asked with artificial wonder. I could see the truth lurking in her eyes even as she spoke, though.

"You can't, I mean, I can't go out looking like this," I said. "If you want to do something to this wig, then fine, take it and get something done. But I'm not going anywhere."

"Of course you are," she said grandly. "It's not good for a young woman to be cooped up all the time inside. It's a pretty day outside, and I'm sure you'll enjoy some time off from your studies."

My throat had totally stopped up, and it took me a long moment to get it loose enough to choke out an ultimately useless denial. "I can't. I . . . nobody can see me like this."

"Why, Jessica, you know that's not true. I've seen you. Miss Marie has seen you. Penny has seen you. I understand even old Tom has seen you. Whatever is your problem?"

"But, I mean, you know about me already. You *made* me do this. People on the outside wouldn't, I mean, they might think I, like, wanted this or something. That is *so* not fair!"

"What is unfair about a young woman wanting to look nice?" she asked. "It's rather charming, actually. So few girls pay proper attention to grooming nowadays."

"Because I'm NOT a frea . . . . not a 'young woman'," I said, struggling hard to keep my voice from dropping back into my normal tones — or rising into a screech.

"But they won't know that, will they?" she asked, silky menace in her tones. "Unless you let them know by behaving like the nasty, undisciplined boy you were when you came here. It will be up to you to keep yourself from becoming a spectacle."

There was a challenge in her eyes that dared me to refuse to go along. I knew she already had some 'punishment' in mind. She always did. And, after the stable incident, I couldn't begin to imagine what it might be, except that it would undoubtedly be worse than doing what she wanted. This was all *so* unfair. Shit, even if I had, um, over-reacted a little a few times, I'd had provocation. The lawyer had pointed that out. Nothing I'd done gave her the right to . . . to hold me up for public ridicule like some damn Puritan or something.

But I had no freakin' clue what to do to get out of it. I was still looking for her to make some blatant, no-excuses, get-me-out-of-jail mistake that I could use even with that man-hating Judge Ruth. But other than making me wear girl's clothes — which Judge Bitchy would no doubt find highly amusing — she hadn't done anything these dinosaurs would consider improper. I wore clean clothes, ate good, wholesome food, helped with chores, studied my schoolwork.

Hey, maybe that was the answer! If I got out in public, I mean, not like on TV or anything, but sort of public, maybe she'd make some sort of mistake. Things in the real world couldn't possibly be as controlled as they were in the old mansion. If I did it right, I could avoid getting exposed as a boy in girl's clothes. Then, with public evidence of her mistreating me, I could, well, escape or something. I could cut off my hair even if the base of the stupid wig stayed glued on, and I could, like, steal some clothes, and once I was back to looking like a boy, I could go to the cops. Local cops, who could talk to witnesses who weren't in the old bitch's pocket and maybe I'd never even end up back in Judge Ruth's court at all. On the other hand, if I just ran away — after I changed back to looking like a guy, of course — then it would be my word against hers, and no doubt Marie and Penny would back her up. Okay, so I'd go along with her, but just as soon as she made one freakin' mistake of the sort that witnesses would say was unjustified, then I'd be on my way outta the asylum.

All that thought took only a heartbeat. I still wasn't looking forward to going out dressed in girl's clothes, but it might be a price that would pay dividends later. After all, it wouldn't be the first time I'd been laughed at, and I didn't figure even Miss Jane would let someone pound on me for it. Of course, in the meantime I'd have to look like I was playing her stupid game or she'd figure out what was going on. The old bitch was sharp, that much I'd give her. But nobody's perfect. Once we got a few more players in the game, her control would slip and that would be my opportunity.

"What do you want me to do?" I asked softly, trying to portray total surrender.

"Go tell Miss Marie to provide you with a suitable purse, and I think Penny will enjoy the day out, too, so tell her to come along. I'll make the other arrangements." She didn't gloat — quite — but there was a lot of satisfaction in her tone when she replied.

Well, eat me, bitch! We'll see who laughs last. All I said though, was, "Yes, ma'am." I was worried about those 'other arrangements', but there wasn't much I could do besides go along, at least for a while.

About an hour later, we were walking into the 'Marisha Chalet'. Why they felt justified in calling an old dump that never saw a mountain in its life a 'chalet', I'll never know, but I don't suppose they felt obligated to abide by my opinion. The dump was clean, of course. I couldn't imagine Miss Jane going anywhere, ah, 'unkempt', but it smelled nasty with all sorts of chemicals that made my eyes water. Like I said, a dump.

I was sporting a newly assigned purse over my shoulder, which was not the highlight of my life. I hadn't exactly been afraid to look inside. I mean, I knew there wouldn't be any snakes or whatever in there, but what I might find would undoubtedly be just as bad. My familiarity with what girls carried in their purses was extremely limited, but one time a girl at school had dumped hers, and some of what I saw in there was, well, I mean girls have, um, special needs, y'know, and I didn't even want to know if 'my' purse had some of those sorts of things in there. And I'm not talking about makeup and tissues.

My one attempted stall tactic had not worked at all. I had been wearing a simple cotton skirt that day, and a polo shirt in a steel-blue color that Marie swore matched my eyes. I couldn't see it, really, because I'd always thought they looked more gray than blue, but whatever. Of course, I had on pantyhose and low heels. I figured Miss Jane would require that I wear a nicer outfit, a blouse at least, so I had offered to go change. But she surprised me when she refused. It was obvious it had not been a spur-of-the-moment decision to go to town when I found Penny dressed much like I was. Not exactly the same - that would be too obvious - but denim skirt and knit top, only hers was dark wine-red and had a fake turtleneck collar. I had to admit, that dark red looked really good next to her black hair. In any event, I didn't manage to waste any time changing clothes, so we were out the door and into some town called Kingston as quickly as Miss Jane could toss that cool Audi around the curves.

When we walked through the door to the salon, there were a couple of older women — thirties at least — hanging around the receptionist's station. One of them, dark-haired and slender, smiled and held out her arms to Penny.

"Penny, dear, it has been entirely too long."

"Nice to see you, too, Caro," Penny replied. They hugged like long-lost sisters or something, then the woman looked expectantly at Miss Jane.

"Carolyn, this is my new student Jessica. As you can see, she needs some serious help with her hair, and I think she should get a makeover, too."

Carolyn, or Caro, nodded and looked over at the other woman, a, ahem, 'zoftig' blonde with a sort of, I don't know, predatory gleam in her eyes.

"Sandy, do you mind?" she asked casually.

"Not at all," the blonde — apparently 'Sandy' - replied. She looked at Jane, got some sort of approval, and then looked at me. I was beginning to wonder if anyone was going to pay attention to me at all — not that I was hoping for that, you understand. But I was getting irritated at being treated like part of the furniture or something.

Some manners must have returned to Miss Jane, too, because she turned to me as well and said, "Jessica, this is Sandy. She'll be taking care of you today. Now, you be good and do what she says."

Yes, mommy. I didn't say it, but that patronizing tone did *not* reduce my irritation. Just as I was turning away to follow Sandy, I caught another glance between the two of them, and I realized it was all another of the Iron Bitch's little ploys to keep me off balance. I should have known it immediately, since her manners were always perfect unless it was for a purpose. Then I really felt like a sucker as I realized I'd actually picked up enough on manners to realize I'd been treated rudely in the first place. Some of that shit was rubbing off on me, and it felt just as repulsive as the real stuff — with which I was *way* too familiar after my time in the stables.

One thing that was definitely not repulsive was the tush on the woman I was following. She was older and all, but not all women fall apart at 30, by demonstration. Her curves were displayed very nicely in tight black jeans, making it clear to me why my own panties were padded. That woman definitely did *not* look like a boy from behind. Her cream-colored knit top fit, ah, closely, too, thank you very much. When I first saw her, I had carefully not noticed that the front of that top was scooped out a long ways, revealing that there was plenty of woman on that side of her as well.

She led me back to a workstation cubicle that was high enough I couldn't see the people on either side. That meant they couldn't see me, either, thank God, so at least I was spared that. But the cubicle was short enough that Sandy could talk to the women in the next area. She proceeded to do that, ignoring me as completely as if Miss Jane had indeed just sent my wig in without a live body under it. The smells got worse as she surrounded strands of 'my' hair in bits of paper and then wrapped it on little twig things. Then she squirted really nasty-smelling stuff on it and wrapped it in a bag. That was apparently only stage one, because I was stuffed under a hair dryer, given a magazine of absolutely zero interest, and ignored again.

Just about the time my brain was fully fried, she was back. Yanking the little stick things out woulda pulled any real hair out by the roots, but no such luck with the thing attached to my head. It hurt about like getting real hair pulled, but I didn't see any falling to the floor.

Part of that was because I wasn’t looking at the floor. Sandy was moving all around me as she worked, and I was acutely aware that her top was really soft, and really thin. Confession time, I guess. Despite being a red-blooded American teen-ager, I'd never actually been with a girl. Hell, I'd never even kissed one, let alone felt one up. I mean, babes do not exactly line up to throw themselves at scrawny orphans without a dime to their name. So when I felt this Sandy's tits rubbing on my arm, I noticed. I hope to tell you I noticed. I noticed that they were not at all what I expected. The way they felt, I mean. Sandy's tits were really soft, squishy soft, but resilient, too. They sort of . . . squirmed on my arm when they rubbed on it. I was trying like hell not to be obvious, but Geez, . . . I could see the little bump of the freakin' nipple! And I could feel it, too, when she moved just right. And when she leaned over me from the front, she practically stuck my nose down the scooped out part of her top, and I could see not only lots of cleavage, but most of her damn bra!

"Okay, sweetie, before I comb that out, lets take a look at your face," she said suddenly. I jerked, guilty because of what I actually *had* been taking a look at.

When I raised my eyes to meet hers, she was smirking with that nasty little predatory smile. She looked quickly to both sides to make sure we were alone, then whispered, "I *do* like your nose job. When are you gonna get your boobs done?"

"What?" I gasped, drawn by her tone into a whisper voice as well.

"It's obvious you've had some work done on that cute-as-a-button nose," she said. "And I figured a sweet little sissy boy like you just couldn't wait to get boobs of his own."

"What?" I repeated, my voice squeaking up into a range I didn't have to fake. "What did you say?"

"Oh, please," she sneered. "It's obvious you're a boy who wants to be a girl."

"No, I'm . . . "

"Don't even try," she interrupted me. "I'm an expert. You're not the first little sissy boy I've worked on, even if you are about the prettiest. Not that Jane . . . "

She interrupted herself, then looked sharply at me. "Jane doesn’t know, does she?"

"Know what?" I asked breathlessly.

"Know that you really like this stuff," she said. "I'll bet Jane thinks she's punishing you by letting you dress like a girl."

"She is, I mean, I don't . . . "

"I told you about trying to lie to me," she hissed. "Don't try to tell me you don't get turned on by this. I'll bet if I slipped my hand up under that snug little skirt, I'd find your little tool is ready to burst right out of your panties."

"It is not, I mean, that's not . . ." Shit! I *was* aroused. But it was because she was rubbing her tits on my arm, and the way she looked and all, not because I *liked* wearing the clothes!

"Shall we find out, sissy boy?" she said, reaching for the hem of my skirt.

"No!" I hissed desperately.

"Tell me your little thing is not hard right now," she challenged. Then before I could say anything — not that I woulda known what to say anyway — she said, "Ha! Don't bother. I can see on your face that I'm right."

She leaned back and looked toward the front of the salon. "Let's go tell Jane the truth, shall we?" she said. "Let's tell her that you're a little sissy boy who really loves his pretty face and pretty hair and pretty clothes, shall we?"

"No!" I whispered, hearing the begging in my voice but unable to stop it. "I'm not . . . "

"Listen, pretty boy," she hissed, getting right back into my face. "You're not getting away with a lie. Now, either you admit to me that you're aroused under all your finery, or we go find Jane right now."

"I . . . am."

"I'm going to do you a favor," she said, as though my forced confession deserved some sort of reward. "I'm going to make you look absolutely fabulous." She laughed her vicious little laugh and said, "After all, it would be a shame to waste that gorgeous nose job. And then you're going to ask Jane for permission to join my makeup class."

"M. . makeup class?"

"You heard me. Several of the girls in town get together with me on Wednesday afternoons to practice makeup techniques. You're going to be one of us, one of my models, in fact. Aren't you thrilled?"

"Model? No, I couldn't . . . "

"Your choice, sissy, but if you don't, I'll tell Jane right now that you get all aroused by the thought of being in a beauty salon, becoming as pretty as you can be."

"No, you can't . . . "

"Just watch me," she snarled, turning to go.

I caught her arm and said, "No. Please don't do that."

She looked at my hand on her arm and glared, "You got two seconds, pretty boy. Either take your hand off my arm and agree to be my model, or lose it at about the wrist, after which I tell Jane your little secret."

"I'll . . . do what you want," I said softly. "But I'm not . . . not really . . ."

"Yeah, right," she snapped. "Tell it to your little toy, not me. I'm not the one all hard and eager."

She moved back in front of me and said, "Okay, since you'll be back for my class, I'll just do a simple daytime look for now. Pay attention, because I assure you, there *will* be a test later when all the girls are here."

She wove a freakin' spell of sorcery around my face and hair, transforming what I had already been forced to admit was a cute appearance into something that was no-shit awesome. I hated every freakin' trick, every delicate touch, but I couldn't deny her artistry, nor the effectiveness of her techniques. I lost track of time, but eventually she stepped back and I could really see what she'd done.

In the mirror was a goddam fox! I mean, I'd seen prettier girls, even in real life. The face in the mirror wasn't some impossible robobabe from TV. But I sure as shit hadn't seen very damn many who were prettier, and if I'd'a been told even a single freakin' one of them had been a boy under the magic, I'd'a kicked some serious butt for the insult that somebody would think I was stupid enough to believe it.

Sandy had made my eyes look freakin' huge, yet so natural I only knew it was artificial because I'd seen it being done. The only place where I was obviously wearing makeup was on my lips, which looked so full and pouty that I wondered if I was having a freakin' allergic reaction to something she'd smeared on them. Needless to say, the damn hair that had been the reason — or excuse - for all this shit no longer looked lifeless and limp. Thank God it wasn't wrapped up in tight little Shirley Temple curls. In fact, like the makeup, in some ways it was hard to tell anything had been done to my hair, yet it seemed to have five times as much volume and the color was a warm honey-blonde that was freakin' spooky, since I swore it wasn't much different than before, but it was, like, molten gold.

"Okay, pretty boy, let's go," she ordered. I didn't see much choice but to follow the bleached-blonde bitch, but she paused to hiss in my ear as we headed for the front. "Remember, sissy, when we get up there, you ask Jane for permission to attend my makeup class, and you ask real sweetly. If you don't, I'm going to pull your skirt up and show everyone in the place what you've got hiding in there. And tell them how much it turns you on to be here, dressed like that."

I felt my damn eyes filling up again, and I wasn't sure I could even speak, but she noticed that, too. "And don't you dare cry, sissy boy, or I'll guarantee the whole town knows about you — and your desires."

Somehow I choked back my tears by the time we got to where Jane was waiting. She and the other women oohed and ahhed about how cute I looked, like *that* helped any damn thing. Sandy let it run for a while, but at the first break in the chattering I felt her hand on the back hem of my skirt, slowly starting to lift it.

"Miss Jane," I blurted, startled by the touch of her hand on my leg — and knowing I was having another reaction as well to the teasing caress. "Miss, um, Sandy said she's got a, um, makeup class, and I was wondering if I could, um, go to it?"

"Why Jessica," Miss Jane said, "I'm surprised you want to do that, but I must say I'm pleased. Of course you can attend Sandy's class, if it means so much to you."

Yeah, like having a freakin' leg amputated. It would certainly have a lot of meaning in my life — none of it good. I noticed Penny was frowning, and then she stepped forward.

"Miss Jane, may I attend this class, too?"

"You don't need to come, Penny," Sandy said quickly. "You're quite good at doing your own makeup."

"If you don't mind, please," Penny said politely. "I would appreciate the refresher. Since Jessica is going to be attending anyway, it won't be much bother for me to come too, will it?"

"No, of course not," Miss Jane said briskly. "We'll see you tomorrow afternoon, Sandy, and thank you for generously offering to let my students attend your class."

That was apparently a signal or something, because the chatter transformed into good-byes. "Come along, girls," Miss Jane said, looking at us after a no-doubt exactly proper amount of time for politeness. "We've just got time to get home for supper."

Which was true, I suppose. Not that I could eat anything. In a truly perverse way I guess things were improving, because I managed to get all the way to my own bathroom and out of my clothes before hurling into the toilet anything I'd even thought of eating since I'd arrived at Miss Jane's house of horrors.

If someone had told me that I'd rather stay 'in school' with a demanding teacher than spend the afternoon with a bunch of pretty high school girls, I'd'a laughed in his face. If they told me I'd be gratefully wearing a pink satin blouse, I'd'a . . . well, I'd'a done the sort of thing that got me into that mess in the first place. But I *was* grateful to be wearing a blouse, pink satin or not, because it was almost like a real shirt rather than the overly-frilly confections that Miss Jane normaally demanded. Even fully buttoned the damn thing was still open *way* too low for my peace of mind though, almost to where it would show parts of me that weren't really me, if you get what I mean.

Of course, Miss Jane thought she was doing me a favor. I had been 'allowed' to choose my own clothes this morning, from candidates that ranged from bad to really, really awful. Miss Jane was adamant that one wore 'outfits' not just clothes thrown together at random. But, like, what sort of choice is it when the options are a powder blue miniskirt, or a way-too-fragile white knit that wouldn't stay clean for as long as it took to get out the door? I picked the mini, of course. I knew it wasn't really all that short by high school babe-ette standards, but that didn't make me any less conscious of the breeze that swirled about my, ah, legs. I had learned enough to realize the implications of my choices, though. If I had worn the longer knit, even aside from the impossibility of keeping it clean, I'd'a been wearing heels and something a lot more fragile for a top as well. 'Little Miss Priss', for sure, and not at all compatible with what I expected the other, um, the girls to be wearing. At least with the pastel miniskirt I could wear flats and a regular sort of blouse - even if it was pink.

When I saw Penny, though, I figured something was up. She was also wearing a miniskirt, but hers was white leather instead of my blue gabardine, and she had on a white off-the-shoulder peasant's blouse that showed a lot of skin. Not that ones first impression was of her shoulders. Damn that girl had a lot of leg. But I didn't understand why she was wearing something so, like, noticeable. That white outfit made her dark hair look *way* dramatic, and with all those legs, well, she was bound to draw attention. Not that I, y'know, cared, except that if something looked like good news, there was probably a hook in it.

I cautiously started looking for the trap. "You look, um, really good," I told her.

"Thank you," she replied politely, tugging at her own inadequate hem. "You look really nice, too."

"Oh, thanks," I said. "Um, Penny, why are you, y'know, doing this?"

"Doing wha. . . ?" she started, the smiled a sad little smile that didn't look very happy at all. "I'm sorry, that was unfair. We both know you're smart enough to figure out that we're not in for an especially pleasant day."

"No, sh . . , um, no kidding. And you don't have to do this, so . . . why?"

"Because Sandy is a caustic, cruel, hateful . . ." She interrupted herself again, visibly forcing herself to regain control, even to the classic deep-breath-and-let-it-out-slowly trick. Resuming as though she was just then answering my question, she said, "Because Sandy can be . . . stressful to those who are not . . . used to her style. I am. At least as much as one can be, I suppose, and I figured you could use the reinforcements."

"Yeah, right, like she could possibly be any worse than Miss Jane," I said, snorting.

"Oh, yeah," she breathed out slowly, painful memories lurking in her eyes. Then she squared her shoulders and said, "Besides, once Sandy gets done lecturing on our faults and what to do about them, she'll expect us to practice on each other. If I'm your partner, then there is less chance some other girl will notice, um, . . . things you don't want her to know."

Now *that* was a compelling argument. I didn't know what hold Miss Jane had on Penny, beyond the suicide-watch thing that looked to be pretty much over. But if she wanted to help me keep a secret I for sure did not want out, then I wasn't going to argue.

Marie had some shopping to do, so she drove us into town. When we entered the salon, the other woman - Caro, I think her name was - directed us to a room in the back. There we found Sandy and half a dozen really hot teen-age girls, and the fact I fit in with them was *not* a happy thought.

"Good," Sandy announced, "now that you're here we can get started. Let's see, Penny, you already know the basics, so why don't you sit over there and we'll start with your friend?"

Oh, goody for me. Penny shrugged and touched my arm lightly as a sort of, like, gesture of togetherness or something, and though I felt really isolated right then I appreciated the thought. Sandy directed me to a stool, way too high to sit on in that little skirt, but I tugged it down as best I could and resigned myself to the inevitable.

Sandy started in lecture mode, posing me like some store dummy with tugs on my shoulders and a lift and twist of my head until my damn neck felt stretched out by several inches. "Okay, class, this is Jessica. Now, what would we consider her best feature?"

"Her eyes," someone said, a strawberry blonde with surprisingly dark eyes herself. That got a chorus of agreement.

"Good choice," Sandy said. "Blue-gray eyes like . . . hers can seem to take on a variety of colors. So, what color should we use for her eyeshadow?"

"Brown-to-gold," suggested Penny, and I was surprised because I didn't think she'd play along with the game.

Then I found out she was indeed playing the game, but on my side. "Oh, pooh, Penny, you're no fun," Sandy pouted. "You've already been through this."

"Why not use blue, or gray?" asked another blonde, this one with blue eyes - and a lot of blue eyeshadow.

"In some cases, you could do that," Sandy said, "if you really wanted to bring out a particular color tone, but in general it would tend to reduce the impact of her own eyes."

She stood back and looked at me critically. "And what would we consider her *least* attractive feature?" she asked, then interrupted any answer with another comment. "Aside from a certain . . . lack of development, of course. She is indeed a *little* girl, I'm afraid."

Afraid, hell. She enjoyed it. The bitch was laughing at me, and for a fault that wasn't any damn fault at all. I was about to call her on it, not that I had any damn idea on how to get her to back off without revealing something I still wanted to hide. But my response was itself interrupted by another suggestion from Penny.

"It's probably her lips," Penny said.

Sandy sighed, and frowned at the tall girl. "You're right," she admitted. "Well, let's get started."

The first step was to clean off everything that was on my face, of course. Even I knew that. In face, there was a little scramble around the sinks as the whole class stripped off what had no doubt been collective hours of work. I heard a bunch of shouted names in rapid-fire introductions, and immediately forgot them all. The class divided up after that, using each other as easels to try out what Sandy was demonstrating on me. Penny was the odd girl out, and believe me, I'd have gladly traded places with her.

I had already been through a lot of what Sandy was doing, but that didn't mean I remembered much of it - like I wanted to anyway. She had started out with a basic approach that could be used during the daytime, but also provided the foundation for a more glamorous look for evening. Or so she said. I wasn't feeling particularly glamorous. What I was feeling was again driven more by the close proximity of her own . . . development, which had been rubbing on my arm again. She wasn't, like, gross or anything, but she definitely wasn't a 'little' girl, either.

"Why, Jessica, you're blushing so much I can't tell if we have your cheeks right or not. Now, why could that be?"

I sure as hell couldn't tell her the truth on that, so I just tried to duck my head. That didn't work because her hand caught my chin and pulled it right back up. She wagged a finger in my face and said, "Have you been thinking naughty thoughts? I'll bet you're thinking of how much your boyfriend is going to like your new look, right?"

Boyfriend?! She *knew* that wasn't true. Or . . . maybe she thought it *was* true! She said she thought I *liked* all this sh. . . stuff. I blurted out a denial so quickly I didn't have time to think of what she might say next.

"I don't have a boyfriend!"

"A pretty girl like you, and no boyfriend? Why, that's not fair! What do you say, girls, should we fix Jessica up with someone?"

The blonde with the too-blue eyeshadow, or at least the girl who *had* been wearing too much blue, piped up with a, "My brother will be ungrounded in a week or so, and his old girlfriend broke up with him because . . . well, they broke up. He's available."

"There, you see, Jessica? All you have to do is ask your friends when you need help."

Some friends. This was starting to get past irritating and into . . . well, into bad things. My stomach was churning again. And I didn't figure my cheeks were any less hot now than before she made an issue of pointing them out. From the inside, they certainly felt like they were burning just as brightly.

Sandy leaned forward to whisper in my ear, "So, tell me, pretty Jessica, does the thought of a boyfriend make your little tool hard? Hmmm? If I were to flip your skirt up, what would we see?'

Oh, God, I was gonna hurl!

"Miss Sandy?" Penny's voice broke in. "Could you show me that trick to bring out cheekbones again?"

"Huh? What?" Sandy said, startled. She looked back over her shoulder and said, "Oh, Penny, you don't need any help there. Your cheekbones are fine."

"Well, um," Penny stammered, "after we, uh, finish here, I might, um, be able to help Jessica a little, maybe."

"Oh very well," Sandy said grumpily. Then her eyes lit with that predatory gleam again, and she said, "Why don't you change places with Jessica? You can be my model for a while, if you're so interested."

Penny nodded, that sad smile on her face again. God help me but I didn't really care. All I wanted was to get away from that woman before I *did* blow chunks all over both of us. We switched places, and Sandy called the group to attention again.

"All right, class, we're going to look at Penny now."

The other, that is, the, um, girls settled into their seats - most looking comical with partially completed makeovers, some of which didn't match right to left on their own faces - and Sandy started in on my sole schoolmate. "What would we say is her best feature?"

"Her cheekbones," someone called, a girl with way too much, way too sable hair. Her name started with a 'B', I thought, but I didn't remember. She continued, "She's got killer cheekbones. I wish my face were that striking."

"Very good. And her worst feature?"

You know, just asking that question was . . . cruel. I mean, we all have features that are not as desirable as others, but to hold them up for such brutal inspection was . . . harsh. I had felt like sh. . . felt bad when it was me in the spotlight, but it wasn't much better to see Penny up there.

"Come on, class, if you're going to fix what's wrong, you have to be able to see it."

"Maybe her, um, nose?" the strawberry blonde offered diffidently.

"Yes," Sandy replied. "I think so, too." Then she smirked and said, "Aside from her own lack of . . . development that is. Goodness, I'm beginning to think Ms. Thompson doesn't feed you girls enough out there. In any event, since Penny hasn't had a nose job, like Jessica, we'll have to do the best we can with . . . "

She was interrupted by a buzz from the room. "Jessica had a nose job? . . . Geez, I wish my parents would let *me* have some work done. . . . *You* need it. . . I do *not*!"

The last triggered a crystal waterfall of giggles as each girl pointed out what the *other* girls needed in the way of improvements. There were three silent voices. Sandy, who was amused but largely indifferent. Me, who was trying to find someplace to hide. And Penny, who looked shocked, but I couldn't really figure out the reason. I knew it wasn't because of some embarrassment about the shape of her nose, though. It wasn't that kind of shock.

Finally the sable-haired girl looked at me suspiciously and said, "Did you *really* have a nose job?"

I ducked my head, but I suppose that was answer enough. She continued, "But why? You're really cute. I can't believe you needed anything like that."

"It, um, got broken and had to be, um, . . . fixed.

"How?"

"I suppose you could say it was an accident, right?" Penny interjected.

"Um, yes, something like that," I agreed, thankfully.

"Well, it turned out wonderfully," Sandy said, regaining control. "It's too bad Penny didn't run into the same door. Now, for her . . . "

Sandy ruthlessly pointed out the flaws in Penny's face, flaws that I was just beginning to be able to see. It was surprising, really, but Penny wasn't all that cute. She had a lean elegance that Sandy maximized, but I guess I wouldn't have put her among the typical cheerleader crowd. Yet I remember being impressed with her looks when I first saw her. Now that she was sort of, like, exposed, she seemed barely average.

"Oh, my, look at the time," Sandy said, interrupting her lecture. "Girls, you just have time to clean off the practice things and get ready to go. Next time, we'll focus on Jessica again, and get her ready for her big date."

Not on a bet, lady. But I caught a warning glance from Penny and didn't say anything. Sandy actually helped her finish up her face, and I hadn't done anything after I escaped from her clutches, so we were the first ones to be ready to go. We slipped out of the back room as quietly as we could, finding Marie's wagon idling at the curb.

"You look nice, girls," Marie said as we slid into the car.

"Thank you, Marie," Penny said automatically. I was still distracted from the funny things that had been going on at the end of the class and it took a nudge from Penny to get my mind back in the present.

"Oh, yes, thank you Miss Marie," I said.

"Don't tell Miss Jane," Marie said confidentially, "but what do you say we go get an ice cream cone before we head back to the house?"

Penny nodded, again being polite more than showing real interest. Even that was more than I could manage. My stomach was still roiling and I was afraid the ride in the car might be a problem. But Marie's cheerfulness didn't leave any room for debate, and we soon found ourselves walking into a little treats parlor.

"Try the frozen yogurt instead of ice cream, if your stomach is upset," whispered Penny in my ear. I smiled thanks at her, and took her suggestion. It helped, and by the time we were ready to get back in the car I was feeling normal. Well, as normal as I ever felt, considering that I was wearing a skirt, and a bra, and had long hair swirling about my shoulders.

We were, ahem, 'privileged' to dress for dinner that evening, and it was no surprise there wasn't enough time to get ready. Call me paranoid, but I had a feeling Marie had been told to keep us away until we *would* be rushed. What really chapped my . . . um, bothered me was how Marie could hover while I got ready - tightening my freakin' corset even further than usual - then still manage to arrange a formal meal at the same time. Miss Jane, on the other hand, had clearly been born elegant and needed no special preparation. As we entered the dining room, long skirts swirling around our legs (and was that better or worse than a miniskirt?), I actually had to snicker at an image that came to me. Imagine Miss Jane needing to do something *casual*, and being as stressed out at dressing down as I was at dressing up. Ha! It'd serve the bi. . . woman right.

"My, Jessica, you seem to be in good spirits this evening," Miss Jane observed.

"Ah, yes, ma'am, I guess so."

"Would you care to share what you find so amusing?" she challenged.

No. Well, yeah, actually, but the price for poking fun at Miss Jane would be more than I wanted to pay. Not that refusal was really an option either, though. Think fast! "It's that, um, I think I might, ah, enjoy the meal. My stomach was a bit upset earlier, but thanks to Penny, I'm feeling better now."

"Indeed? Well, then thank you, Penny, for doing your part to make this meal a pleasant one."

"It was nothing, Aunt Jane," Penny claimed modestly. Her words tweaked my conscience a little. The bit about the yogurt might have been no big deal, but she had helped me avoid the worst of Sandy's torture - by taking it on herself. In my heart,, I had to admit I had been very close to losing it when Penny had intervened.

Despite my resurrected appetite, the meal was not as pleasant as Miss Jane's comment declared. The food was excellent, but have you ever tried to eat when your middle is squeezed so tight you can't breathe, in a corset so stiff you couldn't relax even if it were permitted, all the while carrying on an in-depth, fast-paced conversation on current events? No opinion, certainly no political opinion, at Miss Jane's table was ever wrong. But the converse of that was that no opinion was ever automatically right, either. Faulty or poorly expressed logic was ruthlessly vivisected, all the while accompanied by smiles, by light-hearted, airy tones of voice, and by graceful though demurely restrained gestures. (Those are exact quotes, by the way, otherwise I wouldn't know a gracefully demure gesture if it bit me in the . . . ahem.) I swear, that woman could use a raised eyebrow like a rapier, not saying a bleeping word but making me feel like I should voluntarily resign from the gene pool. I was flat exhausted by the time the meal was over - mentally and physically.

Finally, she placed her napkin carefully beside her plate and said, "Well, that was stimulating. However, today's excursion has probably put you girls behind in your homework. I suggest we let Marie clear the table tonight - you don't mind, do you Marie? - and you can get in an hour or two of studying before bedtime."

"Yes, ma'am," we replied, rising like good little marionettes. Nodding politely to Marie, we escaped to our rooms.

It was an escape in more ways than one, thanks again to my one-and-only schoolmate. I had stripped out of that fragile dress and the killer heels before the door was completely closed, but getting out of that bleeping corset was not something I could manage on my own. I'd tried. Believe me, I'd tried. Sighing as much as I was able, I put on my robe, grimacing once again at the cotton-candy sweetness of the thing, and tried to get into my studies. But it was not working out. It had been a hel . . . been a memorable day - not pleasant memories, but memorable - and I was having a hard time concentrating. Finally, I decided I needed to do something else, something to relax, and there was no doubt in my mind what would be most relaxing. The question was: how did I go about it?

Well, there were three options. One was out of the question. One was, ah, highly questionable. And the third was . . . possible. At least, it might be after what had happened that day.

I slid my feet into my mule slippers and walked the few paces down the hall. Knocking on the door, I held what little breath I had, wondering what reception I'd get.

"Just a minute, please," Penny called from inside her room. In not much more than that, she was opening the door and inviting me in. "Jessica! I'm surprised to see you, but you're welcome."

"Um, thanks. I hate to bother you but . . . "

"Would you like a little help with that?" she asked, pointing at my nipped-in waist.

"Girl, you are a lifesaver!" I agreed.

"Been there, needed it done," she said diffidently.

I fumbled with the buttons on my robe, then dropped it so that she could reach the laces I couldn't reach myself. It as only then that I realized I was standing there in my underwear with a young lady. A very attractive young lady.

"Oh, um, I, uh, we shouldn't . . . "

"Don't be silly," she said. "I promise you, I will not drag you kicking and screaming to the bed, just because I see you in your scanties. Though I must say, they look a lot better on you than they ever would on me."

"That is not, like, good news," I said, still blushing and trying to keep myself turned so she couldn't, y'know, see anything.

"Why not?" she asked, tugging on the complicated knot that Marie always tied. "You're cute. You should try to look your best."

"Yes, Miss Jane," I replied.

"I'm not Jane," she said quickly, sharply.

"Not a bad imitation," I persisted. "You both have that air of . . . supreme competence. Poise, I think it's called, not that I would know from personal experience."

Just then the laces gave and I took my first deep breath in, like, days. Or at least since that morning. Actually, Marie never tied the corsets all that tight, though I complained every chance I got. But the da . . . darn things were so frea . . . very stiff that I still couldn't take a deep breath when I was laced down.

"Is there anything else?'" asked Penny, flatly. It was obvious she wasn't really curious. Something was tweaking at me again about her tone of voice, but I couldn't quite figure it out.

Something more significant was bothering me though, so I turned around and looked closely at her, forgetting for the moment my own appearance. I could still see the faults that Sandy had pointed out so unrelentingly, but I could also confirm my first impression that Penny was a nice-looking girl. Then I blushed again, worse than ever, as I sort of, like, absorbed the whole thing. There I was in my underwear- Hell, in *girl's* underwear - with a girl. A girl who knew I was really a guy dressed in girl's clothes.

I stepped back and fumbled with my robe again. Fastening up that pink sugar confection was never so welcome. Penny looked amused in a distant sort of way, but she just waited patiently until I managed to get myself together again.

"Penny, please, can we talk for just a minute?"

She shrugged, and pointed at the seating area in her own huge bedroom. I used the time while we took those few steps to compartmentalize a little, burying my own . . . situation in the issue of Penny's strange appearance - or maybe that should be my strange perceptions of her appearance.

Penny's attractiveness - and part of me was *still* insisting on sending me signals about being nearly undressed in a girl's bedroom, which made denial of her attraction pretty stupid - wasn't because of her features, really. She really was only average there, with eyes that were kinda small and too much nose, and . . . . other things. But she *was* attractive, and the reason was because of a regal dignity that made her . . . serene. It was poise, mixed with sophistication, and an almost inhuman self-control that lifted her onto a pedestal that she carried with her. It made her distant, but a challenge at the same time, a prize to strive toward. And it wasn't dependent on conventional prettiness at all. She truly was the grand lady in the carriage, junior version, but the rest of that image in my mind was that she was all alone in that carriage.

That . . . loneliness reminded me of another issue, the real issue. "Why did you go to Sandy's with me today?"

"I told you," she said. "I'm used to her little games and figured I could handle them better than you."

"Why bother?"

She almost flinched at that. I mean, she did flinch, I guess, but it was more a . . . settling, as though she had sagged in her seat for a moment, then stiffened again.

"Why not?" she asked quietly, not looking at me.

"Because you ended up in an embarrassing situation, and you knew you would, and you don't owe me a da . . . darn thing."

"No," she said, very softly, not much more than a whisper, "I don't suppose I really do owe you much."

There had been a faint but unmistakable emphasis on 'you', meaning me, in that. So who *did* she owe enough that she'd take on ridicule intended for someone else?

"What does Jane have over you?"

"What?"

"What sort of leverage does Jane have on you, that would make you do things that you know you're going to hate?"

She smiled sardonically and looked at the pink robe I was wearing.

"Oh, give me a break," I snapped. "This is not about me. You told me you were here because you'd tried to commit suicide. And you used bad language. Well, I don't see you as stupid enough to kill yourself, not anymore at least, and your language is as good as Jane's. So, why are you putting up with this sort of . . . stuff anymore?"

"Better me than you," she said quietly.

"Why?!" I said, raising my voice as I became more irritated. "That's no damn answer at all."

Then, before she could answer, I made another all-the-sudden-obvious leap of insight. "You're doing some sort of stupid penance thing, aren't you? You're taking on other people's problems as a way to 'make up' for what you did to that other girl, right? What was her name?"

"Jane," she whispered, burying her head in her hands. "Janey Miller."

"Get real," I snapped. "And get over it! Geez, I can't believe you're still freaked out about that."

I got up and started pacing about the room. "Shit, Penny, I figured Jane had some sort of hammer on you, and I've been feeling sympathetic, and grateful that you're helping me anyway, and shit. You're just wallowing in self-pity. I hate martyrs, at least the ones who're so damn proud of themselves for being so selfless. God, you are a messed up bitch, aren't you?"

Penny stood now and looked down on me, some complex mix of anger and guilt and surprise mangling the elegant attractiveness and showing the plain girl underneath. "Shut up. You've got no right . . . "

"Like Hell, I don't! Get down off your cross, lady, somebody needs the wood!"

She gasped, and stepped back like I'd struck her. That bothered me. A lot. I'd done too damn much of that - hitting someone. It calmed me down.

"Look, Penny, I'm not trying to say that teasing someone is a good thing, but Hell, it's not like you held her down and forced her to take the pills, or threw her off the ledge, or whatever she did."

"But I did," she whispered, holding her head in her hands again. Silent sobs heaved at her shoulders. "I might was well have poured those pills into her. It was my fault she did."

"Bullshit!" I snapped - not angry now, but playing for effect. "By that logic, it's *her* fault you tried to kill yourself. After all, if she hadn't offed *her*self, you wouldn't have tried to do *your*self, right?"

I wouldn't let her answer, but I lowered my own tone and reached out to wrap my arms around her waist. "Penny, you can't blame yourself for the actions of others - not when they do something stupid. Nor can you excuse doing stupid things yourself, just because of what someone else did. I nearly crippled a guy because he bumped into me in a crowded hallway. That's a lot worse that anything you've done."

"But, she *killed* herself," whispered Penny into my hair.

"Yes," I replied gently. "She did. But it wasn't your fault - not enough that you have to keep killing yourself inside because of it."

"Look at me, Penny," I commanded - softly.

She lifted her head and I said, "My nose is 'cute' because my real nose got smashed by an asshole who outweighed me by 50 pounds. Why do you think he hit me in the first place? It's because I'm short, and scrawny, and, Hell I looked too damn much like a girl even *before* my nose got rearranged. He was laughing at me about it, calling me a queer who wouldn't ever have a girlfriend because she'd be too jealous of how pretty I was, but just right for a boyfriend. I started swinging and woke up in the hospital. Do you think I never got called names after that, now that I *really* had a girl's nose? Believe me, I've had words hurt me, and they do. But sticks and stones really *are* worse. Dealing with insults is just part of life - not a fun part, for damn sure - but not a reason to kill yourself."

I hugged her again, and said, "And not a reason to be a martyr. Life's tough enough when you take care of yourself. You don't have to take on everyone else's problems, too."

"But . . . what I did was wrong," she insisted.

"Yes, it was," I agreed. "Are you going to do it again?"

"No!"

"Can your own suffering bring her back?"

"No."

"Then go out and make the world a better place, not by taking on other people's suffering, but by removing the *cause* of the suffering, like, by helping me hang Sandy up by her supercilious sneer."

She sniffled, but I could see something different in her eyes, different even from her normal poise. I pushed my advantage. "Or by creating a little cause for happiness in the world. For Christ's sake, have *fun* while you do it! I guarantee you, that *nothing* makes the world a better place like a pretty girl's smile."

I guess I'd finally reached the right button or something, because at that she snickered and stepped up straight. "Oh, Jessica," she said, smiling maybe the first *real* smile I ever remembered on her face, "if you only knew."

"Knew what?"

"Oh, um, nothing," she claimed, but I could see a laugh still twinkling in her eyes. This time she reached to hug me, and while I didn't complain, it was still . . . weird enough that it wasn't really comfortable, y'know? I mean, feeling a taller person's arms around me, strong arms, too, was . . . weird. Anyway, I just, like, stood there and after a second she stepped back.

"Do you need any more help with your clothes?" she asked.

"Oh, uh, no thanks. I can handle it from here. Thanks for your help, though."

"Thanks for *your* help, Jessica," she replied.

"Yeah, well, makes us even," I said dismissively.

"No," she disagreed. Then a twinkle lit her eyes again as she said, "But what *will* make us even is when I don't tell Aunt Jane about all the naughty words you used tonight."

"Oh, sh . . . sugar," I gasped. "Oh, my, you wouldn't. . . "

"No, not for tonight," she promised. "But if you ever talk that way to me again, I won't need Jane's help to wash your mouth out with soap. I told you that already."

"Yes, ma'am," I said obediently.

She grinned and while she was patient, I got the idea it was time to go. As we reached the door, she leaned down to kiss me on the cheek. "Thank you, Jessica. Seriously. You've given me some things to think about."

"De nada, Stretch," I replied.

I stepped through the door and she closed it behind me, but I was too distracted to get back to my studies. My first kiss from a girl - first time a girl had willingly kissed me, that is. And it was on the frea . . . cheek, and from someone entirely too da . . darn close to being a sister. Major. Heartfelt. Sigh.

I went back to my desk, but I couldn't really get into Marco Polo's trade routes to China. I was not so clueless that I didn't realize about half of what I had said to Penny applied to me as well. It's a lot easier to lecture someone else on how screwed up they are than to take the same advice yourself. In Penny's case though, her problems started when she caused trouble. If she caused happiness instead, well, that sounded like a solution. What was I going to do, though? Turning the other cheek works just fine if you're tall, and rich, and look, y'know, normal. Like Penny. But if you're short, and poor, and look like a girl even though you're a boy, people are not going to leave you alone just because you smile pretty. Just the opposite. I knew that for a fact. Been there. Got a new nose to prove it. What could *I* use to replace 'having a hair trigger', and being 'wiry?' I knew I needed something if I were ever going to escape Miss Jane's satin prison, but I sure as sh. . . sugar needed some sort of clue on what it could be.

"Am I boring you, Jessica?" asked Miss Jane.

Uh, oh. I'd been caught. Miss Jane was lecturing on art, and with all due respect to her amazingly broad range of knowledge, in this area I had passed her a couple of years before. She wasn't a bad lecturer, though she preferred a combination of directed self study and Socratic questioning. The former allowed me to take a break when I started feeling somnolent, while the latter was anything but sedentary. In this case though, she'd apparently felt a need to cover classic definitions of chiaroscuro and vanishing point perspective explicitly. I had hoped my stifled yawn might get by unnoticed. No such luck with Miss Jane.

"I'm sorry, ma'am," I said. "I meant no disrespect. It's just that I've, uh, been through some of this before."

"Indeed? It was not noted on your transcript."

"Well, it was sort of . . . independent study."

"Very well, perhaps we need to test your knowledge before proceeding. Prepare a 2,000-word essay on the use of perspective in Gothic art, beginning with . . ."

My and my freakin' mouth. I swear, artists couldn't even *think* before the Renaissance. At least, not what passed for painters. They obviously couldn't *see* anything, either. The short version of her essay was that they didn't even use perspective in Gothic art, any more than in ancient Egyptian art. It's like they never bothered to try and make what they painted look like what they saw. Even without the formalism of constructive geometry, they should have been able to see that a man standing beside a horse wasn't as tall as the man *on* the bleeping horse. Yet it wasn't until the Renaissance that they started trying to show that in any way you could tell. So, of course I get an assignment to write about the very worst period of all. Well, maybe that's not fair. I'm sure there were worse. Cave paintings, maybe.

I wrote it, though, as directed. If she'd have picked a later period, I could have copied a lot more than 2,000 words from my journal, that spiral notebook I'd had in my things when I arrived. Not that I wanted to copy it, at least, not all of it. That wasn't just a record of facts, like the use of perspective by, oh, Da Vinci or someone else really good. It was primarily a record of how the art made me feel. Personal things. Anger or despair. Happiness that didn't have to have a cause beyond the painting itself. Majesty and awe. The Renaissance artists were the first who could really create those emotions for me, within their better-than-photographs realism. Then came the Impressionists and emotions became the primary treasure. Stepping back in time, and more importantly, in creativity, to the Gothic period was like, well, asking a Grand Prix driver to write an essay on mules. Yeah, they were transportation, but who cared? Not that I put that into the essay. If I dumped the load of . . . processed equine feed . . . on the Gothic 'artists' that they deserved, I'd get a lecture of a different sort and assignments I didn't need. So she got her 2,000 words, but my heart wasn't really in it.

By the time I was done with that little chore, it was time for lunch. Not 'luncheon' by the way. Marie, being Marie, would usually have something hot and always have something delicious, but we didn't have to wade through 14 plates and 27 utensils. Most of the time, anyway. I was running late, as usual, but I had learned that was no excuse for looking, ahem, 'unkempt', so I took a minute to run a brush through my hair and freshen my lipstick, making me even later. This time though, that turned out not to be a major problem.

When I slid to a stop at the door to the dining room — one did *not* enter running, of course — my own entrance was lost in a shriek of feminine laughter coming from the kitchen itself. Half a second later, the door flew open before a fast-moving, dripping-wet Penny.

"Come back here, you . . . Ooh! I shall get you for this!" shouted Marie from the kitchen.

"You already did, I think," a giggling Penny said from behind the safety of the now-closed door. "But it was worth . . . oops!"

"I knew it," Marie said, pulling the swinging door her way so fast that Penny almost fell back into the kitchen.

Miss Jane's sharp tones cut through the din. "Ladies, just *what* is going on here?!"

I expected Penny to melt into the floor at those tones. She turned dutifully to face our stern taskmistress, but the humor dancing in her eyes betrayed no repentance at all. Unfortunately for Miss Jane, her own eyes were dancing with laughter and took any real threat away from that well-practiced voice. Marie's decorum was marred by an apparent inability to stand still. She was interspersing twitches and patting at her clothes with glares at Penny, though once again the dark looks were robbed of threat by the incipient giggle she was obviously trying to stifle.

"Penny," Miss Jane said, "I asked you a question."

"Well, um, you see, it was sort of, um, an accident," claimed the tall girl.

Miss Jane was not mollified by the clearly inadequate explanation. "I believe we have discussed the benefits of clarity in communications, including the lack of same which results from the inclusion of grunts and meaningless verbal pauses. Would you care to try again?"

"Yes, ma'am," Penny replied contritely. At least, her words and tone were contrite. Her eyes were still telling a different story. "I was filling the glasses with ice, getting ready for lunch. There was a little ice left over, and so I . . . "

"So the little, ah, the tall minx tossed the residual ice down the front of my dress!" Marie announced, interrupting.

"It was an accident!" Penny claimed again. "I was aiming at the sink, and I just, um, missed."

For just an instant, I thought Miss Jane was going to blow her top. Her face got very red, and she didn't say a thing. I was looking for something heavy to hide behind, all the while trying to keep my own face absolutely expressionless. Not the easiest thing I'd ever had to do, for sure. I couldn't decide whether I ought to be shocked or fall down laughing, but I knew either option would cause Miss Jane to remember I was in the room, something I was trying diligently to avoid. When she spoke though, it was clear that controlling anger was not the problem she was facing.

Taking a deep breath and visibly calming herself, I could still hear a snicker in her voice as she said to Penny, "And I suppose it was equally, ah, accidental that you are dripping wet?"

"No," Marie answered for the dark-haired student. "*That* was deliberate. I was cleaning vegetables when the icestorm hit, and I sprayed her with the water."

"I . . . see," declared Miss Jane. I swear, I saw her shoulders quiver like she was holding something in, but her voice was as carefully precise as ever. She pulled one of her patented non sequiturs, and asked, "What was to be our menu for lunch, today?"

Marie replied, "Just BLTs except for Jessica who prefers ham, and a tossed salad."

"Very well. As that fare will not be materially degraded by a short delay, I believe there will be time for Penny to change from her current . . . attire." The sneer in her voice was still not working, mostly because of the laugh crinkles at the corners of her eyes. "She seems to prefer to act as a child, today. Perhaps her petticoats and pinafore, and mary janes would be appropriate, with pigtails and, I think, freckles."

Penny sighed, and nodded, but her eyes lit up with fresh laughter when Jane continued. "It has been some time since she has, ahem, exhibited such an attitude. Marie, as she may have forgotten the, ah, nuances of such an outfit, and since propriety seems in short supply this — I see it is afternoon already - perhaps it would be helpful if you were to demonstrate the proper presentation."

"Me, in a pinafore?" Marie asked incredulously.

"And pigtails," Penny crowed.

"And freckles," Miss Jane confirmed.

"You wouldn't . . . " declared Marie. Her response was a silently-arched eyebrow, daring Marie to continue that statement. " . . . wouldn't care to, ah, finish lunch preparations while we are changing?"

"Of course," Miss Jane agreed magnanimously. Of course there was a catch, but it was a lot less than I'd been fearing. "Jessica and I will take care of that while you — both of you — change."

The two not-very-chastened brunettes nodded and took their leave. Miss Jane gathered me up with her eyes and led me into the kitchen. Other than some water on the floor, things still showed the compulsive neatness of Marie's normal habit and it did not take long to finish what they had started — the decorous parts anyway. Miss Jane went about her tasks in virtual silence, speaking when appropriate to give orders, but not supporting idle conversation. She was distracted by something more than the mini-altercation we had witnessed, and for some reason I felt that *I*, not Penny, was the reason for her distraction.

Distraction was a mild word for my thoughts when I saw our two table companions. A six-foot tall, ten-year-old girl is not something one sees every day, but that is the appearance presented by a still giggling Penny. And that was the milder of the two surprises. Marie looked much the same, despite the seemingly-permanent laugh lines above her apple-red cheeks, but I flat lost if when she spoke.

"We'uh, weady to eat now, Mith Jane," she declared in a perfect little-girl simper. Then she curtsied sweetly and poked her thumb into her mouth.

Penny, of course, copied the curtsy and tasted her own thumb, provoking a stifled snicker even from Miss Jane when she took it back out of her mouth and frowned at the offending digit. "Too sweet," she declared profoundly.

"Jessica," Miss Jane ordered graciously, "please pass Miss Penny the salt."

"Yes, ma'am," I choked out past my own clenched laughter, and passed her the nearest shaker despite the fact there was already one close to Penny.

"Thank you, Jessica, but I fear that won't quite be enough," Penny observed. "In this outfit — what was it you once said? — my blood sugar has raised at least twenty points. I'll just have to eat a more balanced meal."

"Just so," Miss Jane agreed.

Well, the meal was indeed balanced — precariously so between the strained dignity of Miss Jane on one end, and the lisping simper of Marie on the other. I had never been so grateful to Miss Jane before, because she had insisted we eat tiny bites and take tiny sips and if I hadn't formed that habit, I'd have had tea squirting out my nose half a dozen times. Penny was no better, taking long pauses in her own meal to gaze out the windows to the garden, jaw working as she clearly bit her tongue into silence.

Despite the unusual circumstances of the meal itself, the strangest part of lunch that day came at the conclusion of it. When she had finally had enough, Miss Jane folded her napkin with formal precision, and stood. "Marie, Penny, perhaps you would clean up today. I need to talk with Jessica in my study."

I hadn't expected that. It had been the silliest, most cheerful lunch in the - what was it? - three months I'd been in Miss Jane's tender care. In all that time, I'd had a number of occasions to be called into the study. None of them were pleasant memories. It hardly seemed fair to hammer me for something after what Penny had done, with Marie fully involved. For that matter, I didn't even know *what* I'd done to rate another session in her study. Miss Jane wasn't giving away any clues, though. She pointed at the absurdly uncomfortable chair in front of her desk and I sat in a casually careful way. If that sounds like a contradiction, well, I had thought so, too, when she first drilled it into me. Now I could sweep my skirt by reflex and keep it from wrinkling.

Miss Jane was wearing her serious face. If I had harbored any hopes that this meeting wouldn't be too bad, they went right out the bright windows into her gardens. Then she really got my attention by asking, "Jessica, why are you here?"

"Excuse me, Miss Jane?"

"Why are you here, Jessica?" she repeated patiently.

"I, um, well I have a problem with . . judgment, and I sometimes, um, see attacks where there isn't really any harmful intent." Like, this is news? We'd been through this. I thought we were past rubbing my nose in it.

"Do you?" she asked, lifting an eyebrow in a way that said I was missing something.

"Excuse me?" I repeated, feeling like an idiot, but what was she after?

Then she made it even worse by asking, "Why is Penny here?"

It started to irritate me. I mean, I'd been the target of her Socratic technique enough times that I knew the rules. And one of them was that we both knew what the hel . . . what we were supposed to be talking about. This questions-from-left-field business was stupid.

"I'm sorry, Miss Jane, but this is not making any sense to me. What have I done wrong?"

"Nothing, which is the point," she said. Like that helped anything. And the smile she showed at my discomfort was pouring fuel on the fire. Then she took pity on me and started making sense.

"Each of my students comes with behavior problems. At some point, their behavior starts to improve. Then it's time to see if they've overcome their basic issues."

Uh, oh. Another test of some sort. BOHICA.

"Penny's problem," Miss Jane continued, "was that she felt she had done something so terrible that she had to be miserable for the rest of her life as punishment. She seems to have turned the corner on that. Now she has a better perspective on life, and on the challenges we all face. Frankly, she's probably ready to leave, or soon will be. So, I ask you again, why are you here?"

"You mean, you're saying I may have fixed my own problems, too?" I asked, thinking about it.

Then she surprised me again, by answering my question. Usually she'd let me stew on that sort of thing myself.

And her answer was itself a surprise. "I don't know," she said. Then she put it back on me anyway. "How would you suggest we find out?"

"You mean, like, let me dress as Jesse again, and, like, go back to a regular school?"

"Would you like that?"

The words to assure her that I would were instantly in my mouth, but for some reason it took a long time to get them past my lips. "Yes, of course."

Did she just sigh? Nah, not Miss Jane. I was just too distracted by her questions - by the whole strange interview, for that matter.

"Do you think that you're ready for that?" she asked next. Tougher question. Unfortunately, the answer was obvious.

"No," I had to admit. "I think, um, I don't think I'd hit that Wilson kid again, in the same circumstances, but . . . "

"But perhaps other circumstances could still be a problem?" she offered.

I nodded. This time, she did let me stew though, just lifting that questioning arch of brow at me.

"I'm not, uh, ready to agree that all this," I began, sweeping my hand over my clothes, "is, like, a, um, good thing. But I do have to agree that I have learned to control myself better. Maybe some sort of, um, compromise?"

"What sort of compromise?" she asked, doing her typical thing to strip away fuzzy statements. Then she offered an answer to her own question. "Would you like to go to a regular school as Jessica?"

"No!" At least there hadn't been any hesitation on that answer.

She smiled, then leaned back in her chair. "Well, we did establish that you would abide by my program until you had demonstrated you met my standards. There is a cart and horse problem here, wouldn't you agree?"

Yeah, right, like a Catch-22. I had to show I could control my, like, anti-social tendencies before I'd be let out of my skirts, but I couldn't show that I could control them until after I was already *out* of my skirts. I mean, the other option, going to school as Jessica, was just not an option at all. There was *way* too much to being a real high school girl for me to carry it off, even if I could get out of phys ed and things.

Miss Jane read my mind - again - and smiled her superior little smile. Obviously, she was way ahead of me in this, leading me to a destination she had planned all along.

"No, you couldn't really go to school as Jessica. At least, not yet. But that is the essence of the issue. You've only been in public in tightly controlled circumstances. I think it's time for you to go out on your own."

"As Jessica?" I gasped.

"Of course," she said, smiling again.

"But, what if . . . ?"

She waited for me to finish, but I didn't know what to say. After a moment she filled the void. "Yes, that is the question, isn't it? What if? What if so many things happen, random things?"

"What do you, um, have in mind?" I whispered.

"Nothing too challenging," she promised. Ha, like I believed *that*! "Nothing millions of young people don't do every day."

"That doesn't, um, narrow things down very much," I observed.

"No, it doesn't," she agreed, laughing. Then she leaned forward again and hit me with it, right between the eyes. "You will go to a mall. There, you will buy a few things, and then you'll be picked up."

By myself? Shit, I'd be killed! I'd been pounded on already for looking too much like a girl, and now? I'd be hammered into a greasy spot before I got ten feet inside the place.

Part of me was clinging to the successes when I'd been out in public already. We'd been to dinner, and to various little shops. But part of me was remembering that I'd been, like, protected by adults, or by Penny who was almost as good with her regal dignity and height. Nobody but nobody was gonna mess with Miss Jane, but even Marie was, y'know, adult enough that kids wouldn't bug us, despite her display at lunchtime. And a *lot* of me was remembering that Sandy had seen right through me, and there was this lady who had a dress shop who . . . well, I had to admit I thought Jane might have tipped her off, but it didn't matter. People would know. And then they'd kill me - howling mobs with pitchforks and torches.

"I couldn't, um, that wouldn't, um wouldn't that be, uh, pretty risky?"

"I'm satisfied that you deserve the chance," Miss Jane said calmly. What, like this is some sort of reward or something? Get real!

I looked down at the lace and ribbons confection I was wearing. While not officially 'punishment' clothes like that little-girl pinafore Penny was currently modeling, I was wearing something that real girls only wore in silly romance novels - written about two generations ago.

Well, she can't kill me more than once, might as well give it a try. "This outfit is hardly . . . contemporary for shopping. Is it really a, um, 'chance' if I look like . . .?"

"I think you look darling," Jane said blandly. "Very proper for a well-brought-up young lady."

Then she smiled again and said, "But I am not so out of touch that I don't realize how few young ladies today meet traditional standards for propriety. Marie has a more, as you say, 'contemporary' outfit for you. I'm sure you will find it suitable. And, of course it's up to you to demonstrate appropriate behaviors"

Suitable? You mean, it's got like, jeans and a t-shirt, and Reebok's, and . . ? *Sure* it does. I was still waiting for the miracles to start. Each morning when I checked, I wasn't suddenly tall, and it was not progress that I woke up each morning in a pretty blonde girl's bed - when I was the girl! So I figured the chances that I'd really have a chance at this . . . test were not worth sh . . spit, 'appropriate' behaviors or not.

"Go to your room and get dressed. By now, Marie has your clothes laid out," she ordered.

I earned a couple of demerits, though I didn't even notice at the time, when I just stood and walked out without even nodding politely. The real 'what if' was draining away all my concentration.

If I really could manage in public, on my own, as Jessica, then what if . . . I just ran away? Is this my long-awaited Door number 3? No reform school, no Miss Jane's, just . . . run away? Only I wouldn't have to run. I could just walk. Casually, naturally, unremarkably. In broad daylight.

Yeah, right. Dressed as Jessica, with no money, and no ID, ah sh . . sugar. I was gonna get hammered anyway. Somebody would see right through me, and then I'd be history. Send my effects to . . . whomever might want them.

Marie was still wearing her petticoats and pigtails when I got to my room, but she had indeed laid out another outfit.

"Ah, Cherie, I see she has told you of your . . . opportunity, n'est-ce pas?"

Her lisp had disappeared, not surprisingly. I was trying to decide if a French accent coming from that little-girl outfit was better or worse. Which was, of course, a dodge because what I was really trying to do was *not* think about what was going to happen. Marie was casually efficient, stripping me out of my current frills and lace and working me into a new set of lingerie as though I were a store dummy. Well, at least the dummy part was right.

The outfit itself wasn't too bad, *way* preppy of course, but that was to be expected. My pink gave way to blue in the form of a pale blue silk blouse under a dark blue shell. The skirt was trimly tailored in a lightweight wool, and actually on the long side of teen fashion, which meant it was still well above my knee. The biggest concerns I had were the shoes, pumps with about twice as much heel as I wanted for a long mall-crawl, though less than I wore most evenings for dinner. It would be a race to see whether the skirt or the shoes were more limiting on my stride — a harmony that was clearly no coincidence at all. No running though, that was for sure. The outfit worked, of course. All the outfits Miss Jane provided were in exquisitely good taste. In this case, it was mostly because the clothes had the perfection look that spoke of way too much money. Rich people can't possibly be cheap, so I was automatically stylish instead. It didn't take a rocket scientist to see Miss Jane's message in this. No excuses. Unlike her typical prissy styles and the teasing that might attract, I was going to look like a million dollars on the hoof. The rest was up to me.

Miss Jane drove us to a mall I'd never seen before, stopping at one of the entrances but not getting out of the car herself. I took a deep breath, looking at all the people scurrying in and out, then reached for the door handle.

"Jessica, don't you think it will be a bit difficult to buy anything without money?"

"What? Oh, um, yeah. I guess."

"A lady does not say, 'yeah', or 'um'," she chided me, but with less bite than usual. She leaned back against her door, regarding me with that looking-beyond-the-surface laser stare. "Jessica, I'm going to trust you."

"Oh?" Like, what am I going to do, slash somebody's throat with the emery board I knew was in my purse? That thought almost made me laugh, in a grim sort of way, at my fears on what my purse had in it the first time I carried one. Now I knew it had all those things, intimately feminine things that I would never, ever need, but that particular issue seemed ludicrously trivial now.

"In the time you've been with us, you've, ah, struggled at times with keeping your word," she decided, "but I have seen that struggle, and I know you try to do the honorable thing."

'The honorable thing?' There was an archaic phrase, meaning, like, kill myself, right? Hara-kiri, or maybe hemlock. Believe me, I'd thought of it. Somehow, the example of Penny, who had tried to do that very thing, had kept me from really considering it. And no, I did *not* believe it was a coincidence that I found out about Penny's past the first real day I was in Miss Jane's household.

"In your purse you'll find a wallet with credit cards to the three main department stores in this mall," she declared. "You know that using them for unauthorized purchases would be tantamount to stealing, and I think you are better than that."

'"Yes, ma'am," I said softly, not sure whether to be praised or insulted. Come to think of it, that had happened a lot, since most of Miss Jane's praise had been for being good at things that were inherently insulting, like walking gracefully in heels.

"I want you to buy some nice perfume for yourself."

I winced. "Perfume?"

She smiled her superior little smile and nodded. "Yes, and it must be appropriate for you as well, something in keeping with your dress and personality."

What if those don't go together? That would be the easy, automatic claim. What really bothered me at her comment though, was that a part of me was afraid they *did* go together, the silk blouse, the tailored skirt, the stylish shoes, and . . . . me. The Jesse that was hadn't become a . . . hadn't developed a chip on his shoulder in one day. It was something I'd learned, not something that was, like, inherent. Was that really me any more? Was the preppy teen I had seen in the mirror more 'me', than the scrappy fighter? The preppy teen *girl*? God help me, but did I want it to be? Right now, faced with entering the mall as the angry orphan Jesse or the preppy, refined Jessica, which did I really want to be . . . . real?

Miss Jane sat up straighter and said, "There is also a small amount of cash. After you make your purchases, you may buy yourself a soda or something light as a snack until I return. Shall we say I will meet you right here in, oh, two hours?"

"Two hours?" I squeaked, gulping.

"Is that not enough time?" she asked solicitously. Yeah, I know. That was just her tone of voice. Of course, I knew she could play that voice like a grandmaster plays chess - always more than what showed on the surface. But she knew I knew that, so I didn't even bother to protest her apparent misunderstanding.

I sighed, and reached for the handle again. As I turned to go she called to me again, "Jessica. I know you can do this."

"Yes, ma'am," I replied, wishing I had her confidence. Ha! Like *that* was unusual.

A long-ago lesson from Penny came to mind, the simple logic as compelling as ever. The surest way to make people wonder what you're hiding, is to look like you're hiding something. So I walked to the entrance with a carefully casual saunter that neither hurried nor dawdled, neither wriggled aggressively nor slithered with false stealth. In short, I walked like I had to walk in those heels and the tight skirt. Behind me, I heard the powerful car drive off and I was well and truly on my own for the first time since I had stepped off the train into Miss Jane's clutches.

The crowd tightened up as we got close to the choke points of the doors, and I slowed my pace. My previous inappropriate reaction to jostling was not tested immediately. I was almost wishing it would be, because a part of me had to know . . . to know what it would be like. I was ready, sort of. I knew I had myself under control enough that I wouldn't attack somebody who happened to bump me, but I . . . I was a girl now, at least on the outside, and what if someone did more than jostle me? What if they, I mean, what if it wasn't just a, um, an accident? What if they were . . . touching me . . . deliberately? Did I have to let them *do* that to me? Or should I, like, head that off before it happened? I started panting despite my need to appear calm and (Ha!) normal, and the swoosh of the automatic door startled me enough that I stopped moving.

"Are you all right, miss?" a voice asked, a man's voice. I looked over reflexively and saw that it was a cop! Sh. . . shoot, not even inside the place and I'm already busted!

"You seem to be a little upset," he continued. "Can I help you with something?"

"No, um, thank you," I managed to squeak out. "I'm just, um, not from around here, and I'm, uh, a little, like, confused."

"About what?" he asked, not unkindly. Well, Jane had tried to tell me that vague responses were unsatisfactory.

"I, ah, haven't been to this mall before," I said quietly, trying to keep the desperation out of my voice.

"Oh, well, that's not such a big deal," he said patronizingly. "I'm sure you'll do fine once you get back into the swing of shopping. All you girls seem to have that ability. It must be in the genes or something."

I winced at his comment. Let's hope not, or I'm toast. I nodded though, and tried to escape. He let me get away, sending one last comment after me.

"If you run into any trouble, don't hesitate to ask for help. I'm Deputy Sheriff Bill Beale, and I'll be wandering the mall myself today, though hopefully I won't be spending as much money as you probably will."

"Yes, sir," I said, stepping through the still-open door.

Inside was semi-familiar territory. Malls are much the same everywhere, which is sort of the point, I guess. Not far from the entrance was a directory, with three large blocks indicating a Nordstrom's, a JC Penney's, and one I didn't recognize that must be local. That reminded me of the credit cards and I looked around for a quiet corner. Inside the little wallet I found the expected cards and a twenty-dollar bill. Well, I wouldn't be able to run far on that largesse, unless Nordstom's was having as special on, like, new Mustang convertibles or something.

Sh . . sugar, I just realized they wouldn't let me use the credit cards without some form of ID! I couldn't believe Miss Jane would have some sort of bulletin out to all the store clerks that some anonymous, um, blonde was authorized to use her cards. Did she forget something that obvious? Yeah, right, like *that* was gonna happen in this lifetime. Flipping the wallet over, I found another pocket and within it a neat little student ID for "Seasons Manor: A Private School for Girls". Complete with typical bar code and magnetic strip. And my picture, of course. That sneaky bi . . . old woman. She, or more often Marie, had been taking pictures of my various attempts at makeup and hairstyles all along. I should have expected those photos would turn up somewhere. God knew where else they were. Like, on the wanted posters she'd probably already had printed in the event I tried to run.

Well, that walled me in pretty good. Um, pretty well. Whatever. Making the next major decision on the logical basis that Nordstrom's was closest, I headed into the store across the little atrium/food court entrance foyer. I had this vague impression that Nordstom's was pricier than Penney's anyway, and God knows I didn't want to save Miss Jane any *money* that day.

I did get one break. The cosmetics department was visible even before I got through the big doorway into Nordstrom's so I didn't have to wander around in there. Da . . darn small break, but I was willing to take what I could get. Then things got really . . . difficult when a truly pretty girl walked up to me.

"Can I help you?" she asked.

Lord save me from green-eyed redheads. With long, smooth, sleek red hair. Long smooth sleek everything, as best I could tell in one glance before I forced myself to look at her eyes. At her eyes. Keep eye contact. Don't look at her . . . ahem. Don't think about the gentle swell, like a lazy ocean, when she breathes. Don't . . .

"Is something wrong?" she asked. "Do you have a headache? Do you want to sit down?"

Headache? Well, now that she mentioned it. Not that my *head* was where the worst ache seemed to be focused.

"I, uh, no, I'm okay," I said thinly. If I'm okay, you're terrific! That's what I wanted to say.

"Um, your eyes look, ah, pained," she said. She noticed *my* eyes, too! How about that?!

"No, um, thank you. I'm fine," I insisted.

She looked worried, but then her features smoothed - very smooth, actually, with alabaster skin that showed a dusting of freckles if you looked closely. Really closely. Don't look down. Forcing myself to stare at her face - tough, tough job - I realized she was a little older, at least 20. Not that I had a problem with older women. Not any more.

She leaned forward to whisper conspiratorially into my ear. "I understand. Sometimes I just, um, deny it, too, when it's my time."

Then she giggled and said, "Not that it helps, much. But spending a little money seems to."

I was still trying to sort out her last comment. And not look down. The second part of that became hopeless when she pointed at her nametag. The one riding those, ah, swells. "Hi, I'm Cheryl," it said, and she said. A raised eyebrow - not in Miss Jane's class, of course, but still enough to pull my gaze back from her . . . nametag - asked a question in return.

"I'm Jessica," I admitted, letting her draw me into her web - willingly.

She grinned a charming little, self-deprecating smile, and said, "Normally I offer to give girls a makeover, but damn, girl, you should be teaching me!"

"There's nothing wrong with the way you look," I said quickly.

"Why, thank you, but I have never seen eyes as, ah, subtle, yet striking as yours. I'm impressed."

Listen, babe, I'd be only too happy to impress my version of subtle on you, if we can just find a quiet place. I was panting again. I knew it. And hated it. Then things got a whole lot worse. I caught a glimpse of myself in the mirror behind her counter. My *Jessica* self. I had forgotten! Freakin', stinkin' shi . . . oh, hell, in the privacy of my own mind I was gonna say it. Shit. Shitshitshit. This was the most gorgeous girl I had ever seen - and she was up close and personal - and *I* looked like a freakin' teen fox myself! Shit!!

"Could I get you a glass of water or something," Cheryl offered putting a gentle arm around me with concern showing again on her perfect brow.

She touched me! Ohmigod, I'm gonna faint! A genuine, living, breathing, green-eyed goddess touched me! "No, thank you. I'm, um, I was just, ah, a little . . . distracted for a second."

She sighed, "God, I hate it when it grabs like that. Don't you?"

Then I finally caught on. 'It.' Helloo?! Stupid?! You know what she's talking about? She's talking about PMS, or the cramps, or whatever it is that girls call it. Bleeding, and . . . things for which my purse was stocked, as were all girls' purses. Oh, God, at the thought of that I almost did get sick, swaying on my uncertain perch.

I grabbed the counter and steadied myself, then forced a no-doubt sickly grin in my face. "Uh, yeah. It, um, sucks. But I'll be okay."

"Brave girl," Cheryl said. "Would you like to just sit for a minute?"

"Um, no, it's okay," I said. Oh, God, how many times had I said that already? She must think I'm a real idiot. Aw, shit, the freakin' best that could come out of this is if she's absolutely convinced I'm a girl. With PMS. Not like there was ever any freakin' chance a goddess like her would have looked at me twice when I was Jesse anyhow, but . . . damn.

"Well, then, can I help you with something?"

"I, ah, was looking for some perfume."

"Oh, great! That should perk you up a little. What would you like?"

"I don't really know," I said.

"Is it for a special occasion?" asked Cheryl with a smile. "A date, maybe?"

Geez, what was it with all these girls? Did the whole world revolve around boys and boyfriends?

The quick shake of my head was probably unnecessary, since I could see the frown my face displayed reflected in that accusatory mirror. Cheryl misinterpreted it, which was *not* a relief.

"Oh, I'm sorry," she said gently. "Well, as cute as you are, you'll find somebody else pretty quickly, I'm sure."

Like *that* was gonna cheer me up. Boy magnet was *not* in my preferred job description.

Thankfully, with a definite goal in sight, Cheryl quickly moved into sales mode. "Let's see, to catch a boy - as hot as you are - how about . . . Poison?"

What, for me to take? Sounds like a *great* idea. Bring it on, Socrates. One hemlock special, and grateful for it.

Then Cheryl earned some real but unstated gratitude when she saved me from embarrassing myself even worse. She brought out this perfume sprayer and squirted a bit on her wrist, then inhaled it like some potent drug. When she held out the sprayer to me I had enough of a clue to offer her my wrist. She sprayed a little on and I sniffed at it, trying to be as delicate as she was.

It was potent stuff. Heavy, in a way that I frankly didn't find appealing. I guess that showed, too, because Cheryl shrugged and put the sprayer down. "I know. It's neat, but it takes somebody pretty, um, bold to wear that stuff. Poison goes with sultry brunettes and elegant evening gowns. I don't suppose you feel like that right now."

"No, not really," I agreed.

Cheryl would not be put off, though. A new light lit up her eyes and she said, "How about 'Tommy Girl'?"

Another squirt later, I had to admit her choice was pretty good. For perfume that is. It was a lot lighter, with a sense of, I don't know, cheerfulness. It was more flowery, more what I guess I expected perfume to be like, and it held associations of sunlight and clean air. I had a feeling Marie had been using something similar on me.

But 'Tommy Girl'? Tommy *Girl*? I just couldn't. It was too . . . girly. I had my pride, y'know. Yeah, right.

"Oh, here's something," she suggested, walking down to another display in the Dior area and came back with a lighter-colored bottle. I had run out of wrists, so she sprayed that on the back of my hand. It was a sort of combination, not as overtly flowery as the Tommy Girl, nor as - was that what they called musky? - as the Poison.

"What is that?"

"It's called 'Dune'," she reported. "I think it would work well for you. It's more, ah, elegant than the Tommy Girl, and just a bit exotic. Like you."

She thinks I'm 'elegant', and 'exotic'? Sh . . . Shoot, if she only knew just how exotic I was . . . I'd be killed, that's what would happen if she knew. She'd scream so loud that cop by the door would hear her. This was *so* not fair. Yeah, and to whom would you like to direct your complaint, the Judge?

"Um, thank you," I said, ducking my head and nodding at the same time for her to package some up for me. She smiled and held the squirter up again.

"If you're gonna get some, then I suppose you deserve a little more of the free sample."

Before I had a chance to agree or disagree, she had sprayed my neck on both sides. The scent rose around me, haunting me with wrongness even as I realized the perfume was somehow . . . right for me as well.

Cheryl had no trouble processing Miss Jane's credit card, though she dutifully checked my ID as well. "Seasons Manor. I don't think I know where that is."

"It's a small private school outside of town," I sort of explained without really telling her anything. Actually, I didn't even know the address, beyond what was on the ID and that was only the name of the place, not like a street number or anything.

Cheryl glanced at how I was dressed and smiled. Well, duh! Of course preppy girls went to small private schools. She handed me my package, the perfume in a bag inside a larger Nordstrom's bag. Mission completed. Move to the exfiltration point. I looked into those green eyes yet again, hoping for one last communion with a goddess.

And found that her eyes were already scanning for the next customer. It wasn't even rude. She caught my glance and smiled with apparently genuine friendship, but she had a job to do and I was no longer part of it. Major. Heartfelt. Suppressed-so-she-wouldn't-see. Sigh.

In another couple of minutes I was back in the main atrium area. Looking at my watch - well, the watch that Miss Jane had issued to me, it was not something I'd have chosen for myself - I saw that I still had over an hour to go. So much for the rampant shopping gene. Or maybe that proved it *was* genetic, since I didn't feel the need to wander through the whole place. Whatever, I'd gotten what I came for, and now I was ready to escape.

The deputy sheriff guy waved from a position near the food court rest rooms - don't even *think* about that - so I knew I wouldn't be able to just, like, loiter by the door for an hour. Once again logic prevailed and I decided I'd get something to drink, and maybe some fries or something. Marie was a great cook, but you'd think a French Canadian would like french fries more. I started my casually direct glide toward the Mickey D's - say what you will about the rest of their stuff, they *do* have good fries - and managed to get my order without any further panic. At least on my part. The doofus behind the counter wasn't watching where he was going and spilled the first order of fries all over the floor. At least I wasn't the only idiot in the mall that day. Despite MacD's normal reputation for efficiency, they didn't seem to have their act together in this particular store. It didn't usually take three guys to wait on me.

And then I was blushing brighter than the guy who dropped the fries when I realized the *Jesse* would still not have had three guys waiting on him. There went my appetite.

I realized I'd made another tactical error when I found my seat. I didn't have anything to read! I was very comfortable with the idea of being alone, if I had something to read. But just sitting there like a mind-numbed idiot was *not* my preferred way to spend time. Geez! Like sitting *anywhere* doing *anything* while I was wearing a skirt and heels wasn't already enough of a problem. I was getting *way* too used to this sh . . stuff.

I pawed through my package to get out the stupid perfume box just to have something to look at, like reading the cereal box at breakfast or something. There was a brochure in there, ostentatiously labeled with the perfume name, "Dune", and I had just managed to get it propped up when my table was bumped.

"Hey, babe, you need me in your life."

Babe? *Babe?!* I'll 'babe' this brainless boob into next week!

The seat across from me was captured by a teen-aged guy who had that 'I own the world - or soon will' look. It wasn't clear *why* he thought that. He was nothing special to look at, average sort of hair and eyes, maybe average size though it was hard to tell for sure as he lounged in the chair. It wasn't because of ostentatious wealth, either - even in the orphanage I'd had better clothes than that. His self-declared superiority was based on pure attitude. Part of that was in his unquestioned assumption of permission to sit with me. He propped his elbows on the table and snatched one of my fries.

"I would definitely have remembered if a shit-hot fox like you had been in here before, so that means you're new and fair game."

"Out of season for you," I said shortly.

"What the fuck is that supposed to mean?"

"What part of it was too difficult for you? It was all monosyllables but one."

"Listen, bitch, don't fuck with me."

"Now on *that* we can agree."

"Huh?"

I thought about a snappy comment, several actually, but in a moment of unaccustomed lucidity I remembered I was indeed wearing a skirt and heels. If I made another smart comment, he was likely to express his displeasure in non-verbal ways - language-challenged as he obviously was - and I was pretty sure that would not be what Miss Jane had in mind. Part of my mind was rapidly evaluating options: Should I just kick the heels off and run, or try to skewer him with the spikes, or maybe even grab one off my foot and use it in my hand? But part of my mind was remembering that was the sort of thing that had gotten me into my present situation and was frantically trying to come up with less-unpleasant options.

A new voice intruded into my tunnel-vision consciousness. "Excuse me, but I noticed you're a fan of 'Dune, too.' Which book do you like best?"

"Book?" I repeated stupidly, turning to see yet another teen-age boy. This one was standing upright, and once again I couldn't tell his size for sure, because from my sitting perspective all I knew was that he seemed quite tall, with glossy dark hair. A good guy for Penny, I realized in a moment of totally ludicrous non-relevance.

"Surely you don't prefer the movies to the books," he said confidently, pointing at the brochure with 'Dune' splashed all over it. The word, I mean, though Lord knows there was still enough of the scent around, too.

"I ,um, this is perfume," I said, shaking my head in a futile attempt to get my mind around this strange interlude.

"Oh, well, my bad," he said easily. "Do you suppose there is any overlap? Like, does this smell like the spice? Melange? You already have really great blue eyes."

Now my head was *really* whirling. "I don't . . ."

My reply was interrupted by the first guy. "Hey, Sand, get lost. We were already talking."

"Were you?" the tall guy, Sand, asked blandly. "What were you talking about?"

"None a' your damn business," the seated guy said.

Sand laughed easily and said, "You're probably right there, Will, but think how boring life would be if we all just minded our own business. Why, you'd still be over there with the GQ crowd, and I wouldn't have noticed the lady likes Dune."

"You do like Dune, don't you? The stories, not just the perfume," he said, turning to me.

"I, uh, yeah, um . . . " Geez, this was stupid! I was tongue-tied at this guy's easy flattery like I, well, cared or something. It was just that I was all ready to fight, and now I'm being . . . I'm receiving a very different kind of attention. I'd rather have had to fight.

But by God I'd survived intimidation by Jane Thompson and no tall, dark, and handsome guy was gonna put me at a disadvantage! For da . . darn sure not with just a smile!

"I liked the books well enough," I said, calling on the poise Miss Jane had demanded of us, "though I only read the first three or four. The movies were . . . disappointing."

"Exactly!" he agreed quickly. "I thought they had great potential, but in the end they just didn't capture the . . . complexity of the original."

"Complexity?" I sniffed. "The books were as needlessly ornate as Baroque architecture. What they had was . . . "

Once again the other guy, 'Will' I guess, interrupted. "Look, Sand, I told you to fuck off. You're not welcome here."

"Gee, that's too bad. Well, I guess I'll be moving on, then," Sand replied. Then he looked at me, offered his hand, and asked, "Would you like to come with me?"

"Where?" I asked in surprise.

"Why, right over here looks like a nice spot," he said, pointing at the next table not three feet away."

Will stood up and said, "I told you to fuck off, Sand. Who asked you to push your way in here?"

"Ah, a valid point," he said, still smiling easily. Then once again he turned to me and said, "I never did get your name."

I found myself blurting, "Jessica," and was even more shocked when I realized I had answered without hesitation.

"And I'm Johnny Sand," he said bowing graciously. "And no, that's not why I like 'Dune.'"

I laughed. It was silly, and I was so tense I was either going to laugh or scream.

"So, it appears that she doesn't mind my company, Will," Johnny said, turning back to the increasingly red-faced guy. "And I think I'll take that as an invitation."

"Okay?" This was directed at me.

"Oh, sure," I said, still smiling.

Will decided to change the point of attack, turning to look at me. "Look, babe, you don't want to waste your time with old 'Pound Sand' here. Come with me and we'll find some real action.'

"But I haven't finished my soda," I observed with wide-eyed innocence.

"Drink up, then," he snapped.

"Actually, I hadn't finished the points I wanted to make on the books, and that might take a while. I wouldn't want to keep you from whatever you considered, ah, 'action.'"

Johnny moved subtly yet unmistakably to a position just a bit closer to me than Will was. "Hey, Will, I have an idea. Why don't you go read - what was it you said, Jessica? - the first three or four Dune books and then *you* can discuss them with us?"

Will scowled and said, ''I ain't leavin' until *she* says so."

I smiled at Johnny, then nodded at Will. "Well, um, Will, I really think you'd enjoy the discussion more if you were familiar with the books, so why don't you go and do as, um, Johnny suggests?"

Will's fists clenched and he was clearly about to say something more, when we were interrupted by the sound of keys dropping on the tile floor just a few feet away.

"Oops, sorry," said the Deputy Beale, squatting to pick them up. "Clumsy." He straightened and asked, "So, what are you guys discussing so intently? Sounds interesting."

"Dune," Johnny said with an easy grin.

"I like it," Beale said. "Lighter than Poison, but distinct."

"I'm lost," Johnny admitted.

"He's talking about the perfume," I said, snickering.

Johnny laughed at himself, unaffectedly, and took a slow, deep breath. "Yes," he observed, "very nice."

Somehow Deputy Beale had managed to move closer to me than Will was also, and turned his shoulder in a little. I was still sitting down, and the shorter guy was mostly looking at their backs, almost like a little kid trying to peer over a fence.

"Ah, shit, first dumb old books, and now *perfume*. You guys are a bunch of pussies." He sneered and walked off, back to a crowd of similarly scruffy compatriots.

I had to snicker again. Little did asshole know but there wasn't a single, well, he was just about as wrong as he could be.

"Goodness," Johnny said blandly. "It seems I'm not as unwelcome as I was. We might not have to move after all, at least, not if you don't mind if I stay."

"No, that would be okay," I said automatically.

"Are you going to be okay, miss?" the deputy asked.

"Yes, sir. I'll be fine," I assured him, while wondering who was going to assure me of that same thing.

Johnny sat down next to me Glancing once over at Will and his friends, who were now moving noisily down the mall, he settled just a bit in his chair and said, "Whew, I'm glad that's over."

"Excuse me?"

"For a little while, I thought he was going to make trouble, but, 'all's well that ends well.' And I, for one, am glad that ended peacefully."

"Yeah, right," I sniffed. "I expect that happens a lot, when somebody's as big as you are."

"Think that's what does it? Not really. I was defending damsels in distress when I wasn't as tall as this table."

"Indeed?" I said, but something in his tone actually did make me believe him.

"Yep. What makes it work is blind cheerfulness. If you are really obviously *not* looking for a fight, then it makes the other guy just as clearly the bad guy. Even a guy with a chip on his shoulder usually needs an excuse to fight. That way he can feel he was the one who was defending himself. That excuse also helps if he gets beat, because then it wasn't his fault since someone else started it. I just don't give them an excuse to move to the violent stage. And so I seldom need to fight. Goodness, I don't remember the last time I did. Certainly it was before I had my last growth spurt."

"So, you just bend over and let someone pick on you?"

He ostentatiously looked under the table, then at the empty tables close to us, then lights danced in his dark eyes and he said, "Seems to me that I'm here and Will is gone. Is that really what you think happened?"

"Well, no, I guess not, but this is, like, a public place, and the deputy was here and all."

"Yep," Johnny agreed. "All part of the plan. I don't go looking for trouble, and if it tries to find me, it's usually going to have to look in a public place with other responsible people around. Works like a charm."

"You make it sound so easy," I said pensively.

"Easy? Look, Jessica, there truly are predators in the world who are out to hurt other people. Sometimes, you do have to defend yourself. But in public places like this . . . well, Will Barker was just strutting to impress a pretty girl, and I can hardly blame him for that. There wasn't any need for a fight," he said, shrugging. Then Johnny grinned again and said, "I won't say I'm glad we had to spend so much time getting him to leave, though. After all, I haven't found out yet what parts of 'Dune' you think are broke."

"That's Baroque, dummy," I said, and so help me God I giggled.

"As in needlessly ornate, I know," he said, lights dancing in his eyes again. "But I've always wanted to use that pun, and you are the first person I ever met who actually said, 'Baroque' and meant it."

"You are a . . .a rakish person," I managed to say, after a moment to stifle what I felt like saying. Puns, yet! I hated puns. Unless I came up with them first, of course.

"'A rakish person,'" he repeated. "A, a Fremen. Well, they always say, 'the best things in life are free.' At least, I presume they say that on Arrakis."

Darn, he got it. Before I could say anything more, the deputy wandered back our way again and interrupted. "I'm sorry, but my watch seems to be on the fritz. Do either of you know what time it is?"

Ohmigod, the time! Miss Jane would be waiting! I started to gather up my things. "Now I'm the one who's sorry," I said. "But my ride is waiting. I have to go."

Johnny stood up, still smiling. "Well, Jessica, it was nice to meet you. Is there a chance I could see you again?"

"I don't think so," I said, and I could hear in my own voice just a hint of sadness.

When I got out to the curb, Miss Jane was waiting. I wasn't very late, but I didn't suppose that would make much difference to her. Well, whatever punishment she had in mind wouldn't make much difference to me, either. I was going to be a million miles away for a while, trying to figure out what that trip to the mall really meant. I was more than a little afraid of what I might find out.

End Part I


 
 
To Be Continued...
 



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