The Dark of the Moon: A Sock in the Mouth

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The Dark of the Moon: A Sock in the Mouth
By Christopher Leeson

Version 07/31/2014

Darrell Rivers used to be a sour boy; none of the good things in life seemed to come his way. All that changed the day that he met Josette Melford. She enchanted him utterly. Unfortunately, it turns out to be more enchantment than Darrell wants to deal with.

****

Josette had a face and even a body like the old time troubadours used to sing about. Wow! That golden cascade, those swinging hips. I kept asking myself, "How can a nobody like me be so lucky?" and "How long can it last?"

I was absolutely crazy about her, and who could blame me? She dressed the way I would have wanted any girlfriend of mine to dress – in mini-dresses and stiletto heels. The one worry I had that kept me from springing into the air and cheering was the fact that I knew that no girl like her could possibly stay interested in somebody like me. Every day was a struggle to keep from awakening from what was a beautiful dream.

I never understood exactly how I had gotten sucked up into paradise. The dream had started in early summer, when I saw her downtown looking gorgeous. With my heart beating like a hammer, I went up and said, "Hi, Josette."

Instead of looking pained and turning away, like every other girl I liked would do, she said, "Darrell. Hi. I was going over to McDonalds. Want to come?"

That really threw me. I hadn't realized that she knew my name. What was going on? Gorgeous girls only acted friendly on the Disney Channel. Though knocked back on my heels, I managed to say "Yeah, sure," or something that meant the same thing. Hell, if she had been a wanted serial killer, I probably would still have said 'yeah.' That's how much I needed -- deep down -- to be seen around town with a girl like her.

We got in line and ordered our meals. I was worried that Josette was playing some sort of practical joke and that I'd be going home heartbroken. Instead, a miracle happened under those Golden Arches. While I sat across from Josette, pretty much speechless, she said, "I've heard that you know everything about Harry Potter -- the books _and_ the movies. That's really cool."

I'm just not used to being talked to that way. Before I knew what I was doing, I'd asked her to go with me to _X-Men, Days of Future Past_. Usually, the females of the species hate the movies I brought up, but instead making an excuse and heading for the exit, Josette said, "Great. I'll pick you up tomorrow, about six-thirty." I guess she'd known that I didn't have a car.

When we finished our chips and burgers, Josette said she had to get back to her shopping. I suspected it was really a brush-off, but from the door she looked back and winked.

I half expected that she wouldn't show up to take me to the theater, but she did. After that first movie, I saw a lot of Josette. Sometimes she made suggestions about where we should go. And they were good places -- like that comic book convention out at the Holiday Inn. She seemed serious about comics and bought an armful of comics that day. Her tastes were super. Instead of rolling her eyes and glancing at her watch every time I brought up a topic of conversation, she'd tune in and ask smart questions, like, "Wasn't it dumb to kill Katherine Pierce? And don't you think it sucked that she seemed to go to hell when she wasn't as bad as most of the heroes?" Whenever I'd asked her out, she'd always say, "Yes."

By that time in my life, I had ceased to hope that any pretty girl even knew the meaning of the word "yes"! We'd only been dating for a week before I was showing her my pulp magazine reprint collection -- at home and in my room. My folks couldn't believe their eyes when I introduced Josette as a friend and then guided her upstairs. After doing so much that for my status with the folks, I would have done anything for her.

Our relationship got better and better. We had so many things to talk about. The rest of the summer was great. Better than great. Then school began, but that was a good thing, too. It gave me the chance to show Josette off around Daniel Kassler High as my girlfriend. People started looking at me as if I were a human being, a winner, instead of the Loser from the Black Lagoon.

Before Josette, I always had to go it alone socially, unless I was with the guys, mostly wargamer buddies and sci-fi fans who couldn't find dates either. In those days, I tried to keep clear of the favorite spots where the couples hooked up, especially the beach.

But now, with my arm around Josette's waist, her in that Rio-style bikini, I had self-respect -- and also the respect of the people who counted most: the jocks and the band guys. When other guys tried to move in on Josette, she always cut them off short. They simply couldn't understand what they were doing wrong. I couldn't either, frankly. Why did a svelte beauty with everything going for her want to hang with me?

If this situation seemed too good to be true, it was.

I've been talking about Josette as if she had appeared like a mirage out of nowhere, but that wasn't exactly true. I remembered seeing her around the school for the last couple years. She hadn't looked at me once in all that time, and I had tried my best not to let her catch me looking at her. What had changed in the universe that day when I'd said hello to her downtown? It was a total mystery, but I wasn't complaining.

After school began, I suggested that we study together sometimes. Josette was always appearing on the honor roll and she didn't need help from a struggling C-student like me, but studying would give us another excuse to be together. Even though she must have guessed my ulterior motives, she went along with the scam. Life was so incredibly good that I could almost forget that there actually _was_ something wrong with our relationship.

And that one thing was humongous.

For whatever reason, sex was out of the equation.

****

Trying to get Josette into bed was like trying to coax a cat into a traveling cage. The only difference was that sometimes you _can_ actually cage a cat without violence. But I could never get Josette to make naughty with me. She was never mean when she said "Uh-uh, no way!" but she absolutely wouldn't put out. Not at all. Zilch.

That hurt. It left me wondering. What was my appeal to a girl like that anyway? If she wasn't hot for my bod, what else did I have going for me? My brain? Not likely. Whatever it was, I wanted in on the secret, so that I could give her enough of it to drive her crazy with passion.

There's an old saying, "Leave well enough alone." But that line was probably coined by some paunchy old nerd who had never gotten close to a babe during his whole life. Even though every ounce of good sense told me to back off, I had it so bad for Josette that I just couldn't act smart. Before I realized it, I was nagging her about getting naked just about every chance I got.

Josette had a will like iron. She somehow got it into her head that the clothes we wore were provoking me, and so started to dress less like a Hollywood goddess. She was showing up in things like plaid shirts, dungarees, and sneakers whenever she knew that we would be getting together. I hated the fashion change, but a body like hers looked good in anything. And I told her exactly that -- every time I got her backed into a corner. Though I never stole a kiss, I never got a knee in the groin either. I did get a kick in the shin every once in a while.

It seemed like the more effort I put into being romantic, the more Josette was driven to distraction. I was beginning to worry that if I kept going for the prize I'd be left back where I started -- alone.

Fortunately, things didn't go that far.

Or should I say, _unfortunately_ things didn't go that far.

* * * *

It was the second week of school, the day before the dark of the moon -- and that detail is important. Josette came over to study, but it looked like she was having trouble concentrating. Deciding to shut the books, I brought out _Third Reich_, the-out-of print Avalon Hill game, to do a few turns. But her mind still seemed to be off in the clouds. After a little while, she took out this small vial, the kind that lets a person jiggle out one drop at a time, like an expensive herbal oil. She handled it very carefully, as if it held hydrochloric acid, and put a couple dabs on a Q-tip.

She held it up to my nose. "I'm thinking of wearing this fragrance to school, Darrell. Take a whiff. What do you think?"

I shrugged. It had a tangy scent, like lavender. "It'll make you smell like a New Age shop," I said. "What you're already wearing is better."

"Are you sure? It's supposed to boost a person's output of serotonin, the happiness hormone. Please, give it a real chance." She started tickling my stubbly upper lip with the damp cotton, right under my nostrils. I liked the sensation and saw no reason to protest.

"I wasn't sure about the bouquet myself at first," she said, "but the more I breathe it in, the better I like it. Is it the same for you?"

Familiarity didn't make the smell any sweeter to me, but I _was_ getting some sort of tingle. I didn't know if the reaction was coming from the scent or from its contact with my skin.

"You'd smell like a cherry orchard wearing anything," I finally told her.

"Like skunk?"

"No, not that extreme. Not even Selena Gomez could pass muster in skunk."

"Well, all right then," she sighed, taking the Q-tip away. She dropped the cotton swab into a sandwich bag, which she then put into a small pocket of her purse. The motion was so careful that it was almost as if she was afraid of touching the oil herself.

"Why don't you just toss it into the wastebasket?" I asked. "Or won't it stand up to a forensic examination?"

"Silly," she replied without explanation.

"You wouldn't poison me," I said. "So, what is it?"

"An aphrodisiac -- a bogus one, I guess," Josette answered, her tone a little forced.

"What do you need that for? I'm about as hot around you as I can stand to be. If you doubt it --"

"You're right, I shouldn't have picked on you for a subject." Then she smiled. "It's just that you're the only person I'd risk experimenting on. Wouldn't it be gross if I'd tried it on any of those grabby guys at school and it worked?"

"That sure would be gross," I agreed. The idea of Josette alone with some turned-on rival was nightmarish. "But, hey, I could be a grabby guy too if you gave me half a chance." She only smiled.

We tried a couple more game turns, but the Mistress of War just didn't seem to be there with me anymore.

"Don't you like _Third Reich_?" I asked. "I know there's a lot of carnage and that turns most girls off."

She grinned. "I'm not like most girls, Darrell. Didn't I eat you alive in _Elric_?"

I grinned. "Yes, you did. Most girls are boring. You're -- unbelievable. Do you know what I like most about you?"

She rolled her eyes. "Yeah. As if you ever stopped staring at them!"

I chuckled. "No, they're Number Two. I like your lousy taste in men."

Josette glanced at me for a second. "Are you taking about yourself? You shouldn't. Darrell, without a friend like you, my life wouldn't amount to much. As an animal species, human beings aren't hard wired to go it solo."

"I can buy that."

"Good. Can I come by again after supper, tomorrow?"

"Sure, but you sound like you're getting ready to leave."

"I guess I am. I'm just not into studying or gaming tonight. Tomorrow's a big day and I've got a lot on my mind."

"What's happening?"

"I'll tell you all about it after school. And, please, whatever you do, be here to meet me and, absolutely, don't go out before I show up. I have to tell you something ultra-important."

"You're making it sound ominous."

"I don't mean to. Let's just say that I'm planning a fantastic weekend for the two of us."

"I can't wait. But can't you give me a hint?"

"Sorry, a hint might spoil everything."

She packed up her things very quickly and then I walked her to the door downstairs. Left alone, I finished my homework solo. At ten, I turned in, hoping for a long dream about Josette Melford, one in which she wasn't vulgarly overdressed.

The only dream I remembered, though, concerned some guy trying to sell me a canoe paddle for the car that my dad had just given me.

* * * *

The next day was school as usual. I got near to Josette only a couple of times, but, to my chagrin, she seemed high-strung and standoffish. The one solid thing she said to me was "Hey! Darrell! Remember, I'm seeing you tonight. Wait for me at home."

I wanted to do that. Tonight, if she was in a good mood, I'd tell her what I'd been thinking about. In a nutshell, if the two of us went to the same university, we could take a kitchenette apartment together near the campus. I could sell it to her at first as a platonic relationship that would help us save money, but once we were living in the same room, I hoped that nature would take its course. The rest of my day was filled with fantasies about the two of us creating a bull market for condom manufacturers.

The entree at dinner that night was good, but by the time I'd emptied my plate, I was feeling sort of "off," and excused myself. Mom noticed my unsteadiness and asked about it. Except for being a little tired and unfocused, there wasn't too much to tell her. "I'll check you out about bedtime," she said.

"I'm not a kid anymore," I reminded her.

"Grown men still get sick. But I promise not to tuck my baby boy in."

"Thanks."

Upstairs, I shed my jeans and hit the mattress like a rock. I didn't register anything more until I felt Loren Melford poking my ribs and saying, "Hey, come out of it, Darrell. We've got some important stuff to talk through."

Loren Melford? That name? Why had that name popped into my mind? I suddenly remembered. He had been my best friend for two years. But where had the guy been lately?

Before I could sort it out, I felt a sock being stuffed into my mouth.

At least it was a clean sock.

"Don't scream, bro," Loren whispered, holding my arms flush to the mattress. "You're going to want to yell your tonsils out, but everything's cool. You'll understand it all in a minute."

I wanted to get rid of the stocking, but my wacko bud was still holding me down and I couldn't reach it. I was normally stronger than he was, but I still felt weak.

"Okay, listen, Darrell. I want you to sit up and take a look at the mirror. Don't be scared, no matter what you see. It's not forever, but if you freak out and start howling, your folks will come up. That'ld be bad. If you told them anything, you'd regret it for the rest of your life."

Mirror? What was I supposed to see? What could be so horrible that I could go nuts at the sight of it? Had I broken out in a pox? Why should I get the pox if I never got the sex?

"If it makes things any easier, just tell yourself that this is a dream. Nothing in a dream can hurt you." He eased his hold. "Okay, sit up, nice and easy."

Bewildered, I pushed myself up. Blinking away the blur, I saw Loren's back reflected in the door mirror, but I also saw someone beyond him -- someone I didn't know from Adam. Or should I say Eve?

She had long, dark, unkempt hair. Her eyes frowned with bewilderment, and she had a sock in her mouth, just like I did. Except for the misplaced stocking, she looked pretty good.

I yanked the sock from between my teeth, and the girl in the mirror did the same.

Loren squeezed my arm. "Remember, no shouting. Trust me."

I still couldn't see myself in the glass, only that girl. She had on some kind of off the shoulder top and a simple pendant necklace. Whoever she was, she looked like the sort of Barbie doll that I'd like to get to know.

But there wasn't supposed to be any girl in my room. Had Loren brought her? And why was she only wearing panties and a top so loose that wouldn't stay up? I didn't object to casual dress, but….

Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Loren take a letter from my nightstand. "It looks like your name is 'Charlayne Rivers' now. Hmmm. I like the sound of it."

"Charlayne? What do you mean my…." Then I realized that my voice sounded 'way wrong. "Charlayne," I repeated. "Charlayne!" It still seemed off. "Fee-fi-fo-fum."

What came out of my pipes had a soft sound, not at all my usual timbre. I reached back and stroked my hair in bemusement, but found more of the stuff than I'd bargained for.

"Easy now, bro; sure, you've got longer hair, but it's no big deal," Loren said. "For your own good, don't say anything above a whisper. If you get excited, I may have to put that sock back into your pie hole."

"What the fuck are you talking about?"

He grinned. "Come on, Darrell, you never liked dirty-mouthed girls. Don't be one yourself."

Girl?

I glanced back at the mirror. That was it! I was dreaming that I was a girl. What I saw was supposed to be my own reflection. Was Loren just a part of the dream, or was this a hallucination? I touched my face. My stubble was gone. Out of the corner of my eye, the girl was touching her face in the same way.

"A dream," I mumbled.

"Sure, it's a dream," said Loren. "No sweat. Listen, I don't have a lot of time. If I don't do my own thing right away, I'll be stuck looking like this till the next dark of the moon. That would be bad; I'll be able to help you a lot more if I'm a girl, too."

Had I heard him right? "Wha...?"

He took a handful of leather bootlaces out of a bag. "When you see what happens to me, you'll probably start yelling bloody murder. So I'm going to have to hogtie and gag you again, just till it's over."

I think I would have fought being tied up a lot harder if I weren't so absolutely sure that I was in Dreamland. To my annoyance, he shoved that damned athletic sock back into my mouth and fixed it in place with a nylon he found somewhere.

Then he stood off.

"All right, good," he said. "Now watch this, but for Christ's sake, don't flip out." He took a little vial from his bag; it looked like the same bottle that Josette had shown me the night before. Taking a Q-tip, he moistened it with oil from the bottle. "The magic oil can be put on a person anytime, but it only comes into effect during the dark of the moon, after sunset," he explained.

"I put the magic oil on your upper lip yesterday. Tonight, the magic changed you, but what I dabbed on myself last month wore off at the same time. I want to be Josette for another month, though. The last time I tried this the new spell took off like a rocket."

With these pretty much meaningless words, Loren intently rubbed the oily Q-tip into the back of his left hand.

Almost at once, Loren seemed to get a little unsteady on his feet. "I'd b-better lay down before I fall down," he stammered. And so he did, onto a pile of laundry. But it didn't look like the same laundry that I usually left in a heap in front of the hamper. It looked like the laundry of some teenaged girl who was about as bad at housekeeping as I was.

For the first time, I eyeballed the room around me. It wasn't my room. The colors, the decorations, the posters, and the clothing, were all wrong. But, when I looked more carefully, I could see that it was structurally unchanged. Someone had redecorated my room into some a teen-girl chaotic mode.

'A dream,' I told myself.

Loren lay moaning, but it was the sound of someone in blissful sleep, not pain. What I saw happen to him over the next minute convinced me, more than ever, that I was hallucinating. It was like watching one of FX morphs that turns one person into another, like they do in TV shows, only this one was drawn out longer. Loren's clothes were changing, too, getting smaller to fit his shrinking build. When he looked up groggily, I saw not Loren, but Josette Melford, now dressed in a shirt and jeans, which wasn't unusual for her.

Josette Melford? She'd entirely slipped out of my mind. Now she was back, and my memories of Loren and Josette were, all of a sudden, jumbled up weirdly.

Then it hit me. Loren and Josette didn't exist separately. By a flash of inspiration, I was now absolutely certain that they were the same person!

"Oh, Jeez," Loren -- or rather -- Josette said. "It really floors a guy, but it gets easier to handle each time."

She got up then, all wobbly, and came over to sit on the edge of the bed. "Darrell, you probably still think that you're not with it. We'd better keep you tied up and gagged until you understand what's what."

Not liking that idea, I grunted a protest.

"This is magic," Josette said. "When it makes people change, other people don't realize it. Like, you couldn't remember Loren Melford before, right? No matter how much the world changes, people will think that it's always been that way. Downstairs, your folks and your brother and sister wouldn't notice anything strange if you came down as Charlayne. You can probably remember me both as Loren and Josette now. That's because you've become a user -- of the oil. It creates some kind of alternate reality, but I don't really understand how it works.

"You're probably wondering why I hexed you. A lot of reasons. Like, I want to hang with you, but all you want to do is to get into my pants. I really like you, Darrell -- Charlayne -- whatever -- and I've been wanting to tell you the truth, but there are rules. You wouldn't like the penalty that comes with breaking the rules of magic."

I shook my head, wanting the gag out of my mouth, but she kept talking.

"Now that you're enchanted, I have to warn you about the taboos. The bottle label says that if you violate a rule, the change becomes permanent. Or, if you're in your boy shape when you do it, you won't be able to change into a girl again, not ever.

"The most important thing is that you can't tell anyone about changing your shape, not unless he's an oil-user himself. The first time I read the directions, I thought the whole business was nuts. But the basic idea seemed awfully sexy. Dab on a little oil and you turn into your favorite sort of girl. I decided to test it first on one of my mom's lab rats. When it didn't seem to hurt it at all, I decided it was a fake. But if it was a fake, I thought it should be safe to experiment on myself, like Dr. Jekyll did.

"The first time I rubbed it on, I didn't really expect anything to happen. Nothing did happen, in fact -- not until the dark of the moon. That's when I suddenly turned into the girl you've been going gaga about. It was scary, but after I calmed down, I realized that I'd be stuck that way for a month and had no choice but to deal with it. I managed not to freak out and avoided violating the 'no-tell' rule,' even with Mom.

"It was really strange to have her talking to me as 'her little girl' as if nothing had happened. Fortunately, school was out; that made social adjustment easier. Even so, I didn't go outside for two days. Then I put on some of the girl clothes in 'Josette's' closet and took a walk to the strip mall. It went okay, so I rode the bus downtown the next day. For the first time, I was able to go into a Victoria's Secret Store and _really_ look around, without having people think I was a pervert."

I grunted again, to let her know I wasn't buying it.

"After I figured out that no one remembered Loren, I started to have even more fun, but it was riskier being a girl than I expected. Boys turn on so easily. Just saying 'hello' is enough to start some of them groping. I had to be very standoffish, until I saw you downtown. If you hadn't talked to me first, I was ready to say hello to you. Things started out all right with us, but pretty soon you started nagging me for sex. I wasn't sure whether I should tough it out or break up with you. I definitely couldn't tell you straight-out who I was, because that would violate the taboo. I'm not planning to stay this way for the rest of my life, naturally. Who wants to slowly change into an old lady?

"But if I called things quit with you, I'd be alone again; what's the fun in that? Then I got to thinking that if I gave you some of the oil, I'd get around the taboo, and be free to explain everything. Okay, that sounds selfish, but don't sweat it. You'll only be a girl for a month. I don't like sharing my oil anyway; I only have enough to last a few years, depending on how often I feel like being a girl.

"You're probably going to be sore at me for roping you into this, but it's going to be a real blast for you. You don't just become a girl, you become the best girl possible! And think about how it's going to be once your month is over! We can go back the way we were, doing fun things together. People will go on thinking that we're sleeping together and they'll turn green with envy!"

I was stunned. It had all been a lie, our whole relationship. Josette had only been role-playing. I'd never actually had the kind of girlfriend that I'd really wanted. I hoped and prayed that what I was hearing and seeing was only a dream. My nutty buddy must have seen the misery in my eyes. Frowning, he stood up. "Come over to the mirror and have a look at yourself."

She half-carried me and, a moment later, had me up against the glass. My sweater was an oversized football jersey made for teen-girls, and, as I've said, I had on a pair of panties. I had gone to bed wearing a different sort of sweater and my skivvies.

"Ouch!" I yelled into the gag. Josette had tweaked my backside.

"You deserve it, you bun duster. You had no business putting me through the groping mill like you did. The pinch should at least tell you that you're wide awake. If you go on thinking that this is a dream, and that you can get away with saying or doing any dumb thing, you might say the wrong words to the wrong person.

"We'll have to get you through school tomorrow without any big slip-ups. You're living in an alternate reality now, so you might find out that you have a different class schedule. We have to hunt up your student info and get things right, so that people won't think you've come down with amnesia. But first, you have to listen to all the saved messages on your cell phone, and read all the personal letters you can find. If Charla has a diary, super-great. That kind of documentation will tell you something about your alter ego's life and what's she's into. Once you squeak through school on Friday, we'll work on making you a more natural-acting girl over the weekend. By the time Monday comes around, you'll be better able to pass for normal."

Pinch or no pinch, I was still in denial.

"I'm going to untie you now, but, remember, you're Charlayne Rivers and nobody else. Look at those snapshots on the wall. They should tell you that you've already lived eighteen years as a girl. People are going to remember you in that life, even if you can't remember anything about it yourself. Before I leave, we'll pick out some clothes for school, something as boy-like as possible, to make the transition less traumatic."

She tugged the gag out of my mouth, but I didn't say anything. Even if there was one chance in a million that this madness was real, being stuck as a girl forever was too much of a risk.

Josette seemed to notice something that surprised her and brushed away the hair on my left temple. "Darrell!" she exclaimed. "You've gotten your pierced ears already! That's precious! Charla must be a real hottie. I can't wait to see what you own for clothes."

"I am not a hottie!" I yelled.
"So what's wrong with being a hottie? If you're going to be a girl, that's the best kind to be." She undid my wrist ties, saying, "Get dressed; we're going downstairs."

I shook my head, not wanting to hear the sound of my own voice. I absolutely did not want to let anyone see me the way I was.

"You can't stay in your room for a month. You'll feel a lot more confident once you realize that your family already knows about Charlayne. After that, we'll talk strategy."

"I can't do it!"

"Believe me, all they'll see is the same daughter and sister that they've been seeing every day for years. That's how it was with me. It's magic, after all." She paused. "You know, Darrell, I've been thinking that there may actually be a lot more of this supernatural stuff going on than anyone knows about."

"More?"

"Yeah. If magic makes people's memories change, how can we really know what the world used to be like, even yesterday?"

"I don't want to think about it," I said. I snatched up a pair of jeans from where my -- Darrell's -- pants should have been. As I wrestled my legs into them, it seemed like they couldn't possibly belong to this new body, so tight were they.

"Your hair's a mess," Josette remarked, now brandishing a rat-tailed comb. I backed away. "Ease up. If you think a comb's bad, wait until you get your first beauty parlor appointment."

"Beauty parlor?"

She put the comb into my hair. "Until you learn to do your own makeup, you'll need professional work or you'll feel ugly when we go into any of the good places. I've been wanted to have a dependable girlfriend to go place with. As Darrell you didn't have enough money to for any super night out. This way, we can be picked up by guys and get lots of freebies."

"I don't think -- ow!"

As she drew it through my snarled hair, I fought with myself not to get violent. I had been in love with this girl, and now all those hopes and dreams were dust. I felt horribly alone again, and I realized that there would be no cure for it. Sure, I now remembered my friendship with Loren, but that was nothing like having a girlfriend like Josette. What fun could it be being Josette's _girlfriend-? I just couldn't accept that everything that I thought we'd was lost forever.

The scary thing was that all this _might_ actually be real. Christ! If it were actually reality, I'd have to live for a month as a girl! _A girl_.

I've already let on how much I liked girls, but it was just _because_ I liked girls that I didn't want to be one myself.

By now, Josette had terminated the comb-torture. Since I was barefoot, I looked around for footwear. There was a pair of female-type sandals at the side of the bed. I fitted them on. My treacherous friend was already holding the door open. "You've got to bite the bullet," she said. "The longer you sit up here scaring yourself with fantasies, the freakier you're going to get. Say as little as possible if someone talks to you. Tell anyone the wrong thing, and you'll have to get used to being female for the rest of your life." She went to my closet and took out a frilly red violet blouse. “Put this on; you don't know how to wear that pajama top right and it'll show too much cleavage to your family.” She went to the door.

She waited for me there and I told her not to turn around while I changed. When I was ready and she opened the door. I felt like a cat whose master was inviting it into a cold and rainy night.

"Look, if this is a only dream, you can get a real a charge out it. The real fun will come at school. With your looks, people will treat you like something more than human."

That didn't encourage me very much, but, after a moment's hesitation, I stepped through into the hall, and Josette slipped in behind me, to keep me on course. My legs felt little rubbery as I descended the stair, so I used the railing for support.

On the wall below, I saw Mom's pictures of all three of us kids. Charlayne's picture was there, not Darrell's. The girl must have visited a beauty salon for that portrait, so much did she look like a starlet. But I was in no mood to stand in place and admire "myself."

The TV was on in the family room. Keegan and Haley were watching _Continuum_. I decided to walk in, make it look like I was checking the listings on top of the set, and then leave. If the kids didn't ask "Who the hell are you?" it would tell me something, though I wasn't sure what my next move should be after that.

I went in and pretended to look at the schedule. "Get out of the way, Charli!" Keegan yelled.

My little brother knew me! He actually knew Charlayne. Her nickname was "Charli." It was like he already had some sort of alternate-world history of me in his head. But I didn't like being yelled at. "The more things change, the more you stay a brat," I replied crabbily.

"Nyaaah!" he said, sticking out his tongue.

"Shhh, you two. I'm trying to hear," hissed our sister Haley.

"Hey, Charla," Josette suggested, "let's say hello to your mom."

Mom and Dad were both in the kitchen, going over the week's receipts, discussing the ledger with glum faces, as they often did. Dad had said that healthcare, taxes, and regulations were killing his business. They gave Josette and me quick, sidelong glances, but registered no surprise. "Having fun, girls?" Mom asked.

"Oh, yeah," I said. "Lot's of fun. How's things?"

Mother looked back down at the papers. "Don't ever grow up, Charli. You won't like it one bit."

"You should think of becoming a tax accountant," Dad added with a painful grin. "This government red tape is getting to be too much for your mom and me to figure out by ourselves."

"Ah, yeah, I guess," I muttered. About then I realized how thirsty I was and went to the refrigerator. The glasses were right where they were supposed to be, even in this new reality. I filled one with orange juice. "Want some, OJ?" I asked.

"I'd appreciate that."

We carried our juices back up to my room. Josette had been right; the trip downstairs had bolstered my confidence. By now I had the presence of mind to take another good look at the place. It was packed with things I'd never seen before. The girl who lived there was into stuffed animal toys. The clothes I found hanging about were nothing like my own ones. Some were sexy, some not so much. And the shoes! There were so many. I was pretty sure I still only had two feet, so what was the deal? They ranged from sensible to the truly demonic. Stiletto heels might catch the eye if a girl was pretty enough, but they looked like they could destroy my feet's entire bone structure.

I held up one of the high-rise monstrosities. "Do these hurt as much as I think they do?"

Josette shrugged. "Not so much; our feet are already used to them. Alternate reality, remember?" She started rooting through a lingerie drawer. "Hey, the really groovy stuff is in here." I stepped in next to her and looked inside; all my tee-shirts, bandanas, and skivvies were gone. What I saw now was a tangle of panties, bras, and filmy garments that looked like girls' pajamas at first, but looking closer, I saw that some of them turned out to be teddies and chemises. I unfolded what looked like the halter-top of a zebra-stripped bikini. The fabric had eye-appeal, but was of a stiff weave, not so soft to the touch. There were matching bottoms. 'Charla wore things like this?' I asked myself. Its scanty cut made the beachwear that grandpa had thought looked so racy on Annette Funicello seem positively dowdy.

"This is slutty stuff," I said.

"You hypocrite!" laughed Josette. "Were you thinking slut I when I wore my bikini to the beach a couple weeks ago?"

"I loved the look on you." I scowled; it seemed perverse to be thinking that way about the girl whom I now knew to be Loren. "Anyway, I didn't notice that you seemed so uncomfortable wearing it."

"How could you notice anything, considering where your eyes were glued? I tell you, if Charla wears a wardrobe like this, I can't wait to meet her!"

"So, now you're turning lesbian on me?" I asked irritably.

"Lesbian? Knowing what I am, can you blame me for liking girls?"

"I still haven't figured out _exactly_ what you are! Where did you get that crazy potion?"

Losing her smirk, Josette went to sit on the edge of the bed. "I'm not sure how it happened. Almost three months ago, this middle-aged woman came up to me at the mall. She said something about me being special, that I had a blue aura, whatever that meant. She said she had something absolutely perfect for blue-aura boys.

"She showed me that bottle. I asked her if she was pushing drugs. What she said was, 'No charge. Boys with blue auras have special dreams. This magic oil will make those dreams come true. But be sure to read the label carefully. If something happens that you don't like, it will be no one's fault but your own.'

"I began to skim the label to find out what she was talking about, but when I looked up just a second later, she was nowhere in sight. It seemed impossible."

"You should have thrown the stuff away. It could have been a deadly poison."

Josette shrugged. "So sue me. I'm a risk-taker. Anyway, I wasn't thinking about sex changes. I thought she might have been talking about lucid dreaming. I was getting interested in that. There are herbs that are supposed to make vivid dreaming easier. Anyway, she didn't look like a random poisoner of teenaged boys."

"What can anyone tell from the way some person looks?"

"Well, you already know it wasn't poison. It's something incredible and it must be worth a fortune. The larger print said that one or two drops should be rubbed into the skin. The rest of the type was too small to make out under the overheads at the mall. I didn't trust the oil, but I was damned curious. Before I was going to let that stuff touch me, I experimented, like I've told you.

"Once at home, I put the label under Mom's stereoscopic viewer and read it. Basically, it said that the treatment would change a boy's reality so that he will awaken into the life of his most desired female counterpart. The effect would begin at the dark of the moon, and then last until the next dark of the moon -- which is a fancy way to refer to the new moon.

"What the label promised was too crazy to be taken seriously. But the test rat still seemed to be thriving a couple days after I'd dosed it and it hadn't changed sex, so I thought I'd try some on my own skin just before bedtime. I wasn't going to use any more than I'd given to the rat.

"But like I said, there were taboos listed. Not to tell anyone is the one hardest one to follow. If I hadn't read the label, I certainly would have blabbed about it to somebody, to you or Mom, most likely. That would have been a bummer."

"But why did the woman let the label warn you? Weird strangers want to do all the dirt they can to people, don't they? If it was just a practical joke using magic, why tip you off?"

"I don't know. Maybe she has another angle. Or maybe she's like that old-time TV series, _The Millionaire_. Only, this old witch goes about looking for boys who want to be girls."

"Loren! You're gay!"

"No, stupid! It's more complex than that."

"Who but a fruitcake would want to do something like this to himself?"

She shrugged. "I've wondered about that. I was more than half convinced that it was a fake, because of the rat test. Maybe I wanted to try it out because I thought it wasn't going to be a physical change, but that it might make you dream about being a beautiful girl. Like, if you admired professional football players, wouldn't you like to sample life on an All-Star team, even if it is only in your head?"

"Trying out a new job isn't like changing sex! Did you always think this way, even when you were acting like a regular guy?"

"I am a reg…" Josette shrugged. "Shut up and listen. There are two more taboos you have to know about. The second is that you don't dare take another treatment before the first one has completely worn off. I had to be painfully careful to wait until I was myself again, even though I was already planning to spend another month as Josette."

"Jeez! A double treatment could happen by accident! What if the stopper got loose and leaked into your pocket? From now on, keep that bottle away from me. What's the last taboo?"

"I can't see either you or me breaking this one."

"What?"

"If you have sex, don't get pregnant."

I let that sink in. "Is that why you were so against sleeping with me?"

"Mainly. Also, it would have felt creepy. You were like a brother. Sex would have felt like incest."

"So, except for incest, you don't think it's so bad having sex with guys?"

"Think about it? How bad can sex be if so many girls are hot to trot? But I kept clear of that; it would have been too big a leap. Even though every new dose I take makes guys look better me, I don't want to give in. And it would be dangerous if I did; I haven't had the nerve to go out and get the pill yet."

"I don't like any of this, Loren. There seems to be a lot of traps set for people using that glop. That strange woman could be a witch spreading this stuff around maliciously. Who knows whether anything on that label is true? Maybe it's meant to trick you into doing exactly the wrong things. And what did she mean about the blue aura?"

Josette frowned prettily. "I don't know. There are lots of books about auras, and they even mention blue ones, but they don't say how they apply to sex."

"Anyone who deals in big secrets has to be up to no good. Otherwise, they'd put in on the market and make a mint. I think you should pour that crap out, and make sure you don't splash a drop on yourself while you're doing it."

"Easy for you to say," she shot back. "Since I've had this bottle I've been living in Never Never Land. I never had so much fun. All the best things in life is out there to enjoy. Even just looking into the mirror is a blast. Do you know why I was experimenting with lucid dreaming? It was so that I could do in my dreams what I'm doing now in the flesh."

"How can you say something like that and still say you're not gay?"

"I didn't want to be just a girl. I want to have incredible adventures. I'd like to be the new James Bond, too. Most people are more complex than they pretend, Darrell. I never told anyone that I wondered about how it would feel to be the hottest girl in school because almost everyone would jump to the wrong conclusion, just like you're doing now. I'm normal; I just got an open mind. I actually never owned any women's clothes before. I never hung out with pretend chicks and I certainly never was one."

I threw up my hands. "How can we keep being friends when you're so weird?"

"It's called honesty, bro. Can't you handle it? I'm still the same person. I've always had these interests. What's your beef? It's not like I ever wanted to go to bed with you. Hell, I'd rather sleep with you the way you are now than the way you were before."

"Is that supposed to reassure me?"

She stood up, folded her arms and turned away. "I wasn't lying about anything. I just didn't want to tell you more than you wanted to know. Don't you have plenty of secret interests that you don't tell even to members of your own family?"

"Sure, but they're guy things, like being on a desert isle with ten beautiful girls, all wanting me to hunt for them. They don't have any choice but to give me some quid pro quo..." I paused with a sigh. "Forget that. We need to figure out why that woman is victimizing you, or maybe a lot of people like you." Then I added, "If she could read your mind, or tell something about you because of your aura, she must know you better than I do. If we're going to figure this out, you'd better own up about what's making you a target."

She turned back to face me. "I _have_ been owning up and you haven't liked it."

"When did you start thinking that you'd like to be a girl, for instance?"

"I wouldn't put it that way, but when I was about six I saw that _Switch_ on HBO. Amanda seemed to be suffering for no reason. All she had to do do was to loosened up a little to have a lot of fun.” Josette paused. “It's no big deal!"

"It's a big deal now. Look at you! And you've gotten me mixed up in all this nuttiness, too."

"Darrell, I either had to get you mixed up in it or dump you. I thought this would hurt you the least."

"You made the wrong choice. I might have jumped off a bridge if Josette dumped me, but people survive emergency care every day. This is just too much!"

"I'm sorry, but you're looking at this all wrong. The more you know about how other people think and feel, the wiser you are. From ancient times, people have been telling stories about people changing sex."

"Mother Goose didn't tell any!"

"No, but Hindu legends are full of it. Greek mythology has some, too. So did Frank Baum, in the _Wizard of Oz_ books."

"I didn't read anything like that."

"It's in _The Land of Oz_."

"I still think it sounds gay."

Her eyes flashed. "It's not gay! It's not even transgenderism. It was just an interesting fantasy. There's some of it in science fiction novels, especially the ones by Chalker. Didn't you ever wonder what the best type of girls were all about, down deep, on the inside?"

I shook my head emphatically.

"I've been checking out YouTube. Japan has lots of films about boys and girls switching bodies."

"Who'd watch that crap"

"Hundreds of millions of people, even in Latin America and Russia. Some of these shows have run over two hundred episodes."

"Christ, I feel like I've lost my best guy friend and best girlfriend on the same day."

Josette sighed. "You haven't lost anything yet. Just open your mind and let a little honesty blow through. See why I never told you who Josette was the first time you saw her? You're freaking out."

"It's like I never really knew you at all."

"Nobody knows anybody, Darrell. Husbands and wives don't understand each other. Parents and children don't either. How much is there about you that don't I know?"

I sat down. "I want to go on hanging with you, Loren, but there can't be any more of this…weird talk. If you can't wean yourself off it, it's going to kill our friendship!"

"You're still stuck on this gay obsession. 'There's more things on heaven and earth, Horatio….' What am I doing that's so awful?"

"Where does the word awful begin with you? You're using sorcery, man. You're creating alternate universes just for kicks. Tell me. Are you one of those people who want … the operation?"

She clutched a handful of her own blond hair. "No, you dolt! I like being a guy. If given the chance, I'd have loved to be an uber-male, one with all the money and all the toys. But no witch ever came up to me with that kind of offer. Things worked out, though; as Josette I'm being treated like somebody who matters. That never happened to me before."

"Guy fun and girl fun. Those are total opposites!"

"No, they're not! Look at it this way, Darrell. Human beings come in two sexes. They're important to each other. It's perfectly natural to wonder about how the other half lives. The Hindus actually believe that no soul can reach Nirvana unless it lives many lives in both sexes."

"What's exactly is this all about, Loren -- Josette? What in hell are you asking me to do for you?"

"I thought I told you. What I want you to do is what you were doing before. I want you to keep me company. There are lots of things I'd like to try as a girl, but I'm too chicken to do them without a buddy to back me up.

"Also, there's something else I' wanted to talk about. I've getting more and more worried."

"About what?"

About what all this is all about?"

"Is that one of those Big Questions? Like, why are we here?"

"No, I mean, did I do the wrong thing? Was that old woman like a fairy godmother, or is this some kind of deal with the Devil? I'm having fun, but is that just the bait for some sort of a trap?"

I sighed. "I'm sure I don't know. There aren't any altruists on the mean streets, Loren. She's after something. And does she only change boys into girls, or is she into even worse things? If some nutcase wanted to be a horse, could she grant that wish, too?"

"You're really setting my mind at ease!"

"I can't sugarcoat your bottle of nitro."

"I suppose, but it's too late to swear off the oil this month. I don't have any choice but to wait it out."

"Me, too, and whose fault is that?"

"Mine! Is that what you want to hear?"

"I want you to grasp the fact that you double-crossed me to the nth degree. Now, what are we going to do about this ridiculous situation?"

Her answer was incredibly anti-climactic.

"I think the most important thing is to get you ready for school. Let's find that class list."

****

We luckily found what we were looking for, in one of Charla's -- my -- school folders. But we also turned up something else while rummaging. A cheerleader's uniform. It belonged to the Daniel Kassler High School team.

"Shit, Charla. You're a D.K. Cheerlion!"

"That's screwy! I'm no athlete!"

She started searching through the stacks of books and leaflets in the drawer of my end table and pulled out a large format hardcover. "Look at this, The Cheerleader's Guide." She paged through it, frowning. "The pictures aren't very hot."

"It doesn't belong to me, then."

"It belongs to the new you. I see a pattern here. The bottle says, '…his most desired female counterpart." Do you get it? It's about a guy's most perfect "better half." Me, I was always a huge fan of _Unhappily Ever After_. I couldn't get enough of Nikki Cox -- the brainy girl who always wore those incredibly short dresses. But you were always obsessing about cheerleaders. I bet that you'd marry a cheerleader if you could. I've read that when we go looking for a mate, we're really trying to fill in a missing piece in the jigsaw puzzle of our own psyche."

"Whatever. But I'm quitting that damned team!"

"Why?"

"I can't do those jumps and kicks. I can't dance. I can't balance myself on top of a pyramid. And me in a Cheerlions outfit?"

"You said you loved that uniform."

"Not to wear it, idiot!"

Josette was smirking again. "Oh, yeah? Look at those pictures. Sexy leotards. Hot shorts!" I scowled; the pictures belonged to the girl who had owned this room, but she had never actually existed.

"Charlayne Rivers must be an athletic type. That makes her totally different from the old you. She's probably had all she needed to be a topnotch cheerleader."

"Why are you so eager to get me into that ridiculous miniskirt?"

"Come off it, Darrell. Male beach trunks show off more skin than that uniform does. Look at the big picture. We've been slouching around the fringes of society all our lives. Now I'm a fox. I'm not exactly turned on by boys, but I _do_ like being treated special. And here you are, one of the elites yourself. Think of it. In high school, being a cheerleader is almost as good as being a Playboy Bunny."

"So, you've got Playboy Bunny fantasies, too?"

I didn't expect that kind of smile. "The real Josette did. You wouldn't believe some of the things I found in her closet at home."

"I've seen your closet. What are you talking about?"

"I hid the good stuff. I didn't know if Mom would approve, and I couldn't afford to give you any worse erotic dreams than those you already had."

"Loren, I want to hang with girls. My head is on straight, so I don't want to be a girl. Never! Ever!"

"Take your smart pills, will you, guy? As a cheerleader you'll be rubbing tushies with the best of the best. You can't get regular sex with them as Charlayne, but you weren't getting any before, so what's the problem? In a month, you're going to know a lot about those chicks, both inside and out, dressed and undressed. Maybe you'll figure out what makes a couple of them tick and be able to finagle them into the sack."

"By wearing an outfit like theirs and jumping around in front of crowds? No, way! I just want to keep out of sight until this month is over."

"Don't throw away the best opportunity you've ever had. You can finally find out what it is that the girls you want themselves want, and next month you can pretend to be that sort of man. Then it will be Score City."

I took another look at myself in the mirror. "I think I'm going too be too sick for school tomorrow. It'll probably last about a month."

But my plan wasn't practical. Malingering would bring the school administration down on me for truancy, and it might even put me into a psychologist's office. If I didn't want any worse hassles to plague my miserable life, I had to go to school and make it appear like nothing was bothering me.

****

Josette didn't normally pick me up mornings, but because I was facing my first day as a girl she thought that I needed some moral support.

"Got your class schedule?" she asked.

"Check! I'm not an moron."

"Just be sure that you don't make the old boy's room-girl's room mistake, like on _Lalola_.

I scowled. _Lalola_ was one of those foreign sex-change comedies that Loren was so well versed in. "Yeah, you warned me about that already."

"And be sure to sit down on the seat. You can't aim and point anymore."

"I had some practice last night," I replied acerbically.

"What are you so grumpy about?"

"You'd be grumpy, too, if you lost your own popular culture collections worth thousands of dollars!"

"Wha --? Oh, yeah. My own stack of _Playboys_ turned into _Cosmopolitan Girl_ crap. Chicks don't have the same tastes as guys. But don't worry. They stuff'll come back after you revert. By the way, does Charlayne have any collections of her own?"

"Sure, miniature dolls, porcelain unicorns, and boy-band CDs."

"Gruesome. I never figured that down deep you were that kind of girl. I had you pegged for…something weirder. The Cheerlion image is so clean-cut."

I realized that she was giving me the up and down.

"Hey, keep your eyes on your driving."

"You look okay," she said. "That loose hair should be easy enough to handle. Just run a comb through it each break. On the weekend, I'll show you some fancier styles."

"I've seen you fussing with your hair a lot. Why bother?"

"Tiffany Malloy didn't just wear short dresses; she was classy in every way. I've found out that nobody can be a babe of any kind unless she works at it."

I couldn't help but smile. "Tiffany was a redhead. You look more like her arch enemy, Sable O'Brian."

Josette tossed off a shrug. "Well, I wouldn't have kicked Kristanna Loken out of bed either. It was nice to see her land starring roles later on."

"Nikki Cox got a couple shows, too."

My companion wrinkled her nose, as if she didn't think much of either one of Miss Cox's later efforts.

"You still like girls then?"

"Yes, I like girls! Maybe not _you_ so much."

I grunted. "Who and what are you anyway? It's like I fell in love with a Halloween costume, not the person inside it."

Josette frowned. "I'm a full person. But you only saw what you wanted to see, even if it wasn't really there. You were bound to figure that out and be disappointed eventually. I think that's why so many marriages hit the rocks."

"With so much going on in your life, how did you finally knuckle down and become a good student?"

"I guess the magic gave me the whole Tiffany Malloy package. She was an A-lister, remember? My mind feels clearer, and my memory is better than it used to be. What I read or hear, I remember. And the secret of good grades is not really about knowing a lot of stuff. You just have latch on to what the book says or what the teachers are feeding you and then throw the same garbage back at them; that makes them think you're a genius."

Just then, Josette turned into a free parking spot, three blocks from the school. We got out and walked swiftly to the entry. I was edgy, even though I was wearing sneakers, a conservative tee shirt, and jeans. Inside, we made for our lockers. The magic hadn't changed my locker assignment; go figure. My nerves were getting the better of me. I clung to the door, my head swimming. In mere minutes it was going to be my doom to attend class as a schoolgirl.

Somehow fought back a faint and reached social studies without falling unconscious onto the terrazzo floor. I took my usual chair.

"Miss Rivers, please let Miss Kassock into her desk, please."

I looked up at Mrs. Krentz blankly. "Where should I be?"

"Over there, in front of Hiu. Are you feeling all right, Charlayne?"

"Sorry."

I kept my head down and just listened to the babble concerning city planning for the next hour. Fortunately, that desk foul-up was the worst thing that happened before the ending bell.

On the way to World History, a girl I barely knew, Beth Muzzleman, came up and said, "That's a new look for you, Charli. Did you lose what little fashion sense you were born with?"

That snarky tone told me that this was no gal pal of mine. I wanted to toss back a double-barreled zinger of some kind, but I couldn't think of anything that would be wounding enough before she turned away down the hall.

After World History came English. I had begun to notice that boys were giving me the eye; they'd probably been doing so all day. At first, I worried that I had made a poor choice in clothing, like Beth had implied, but I soon figured out that they liked what they were seeing. I'd always wanted to be admired, but under these circumstances it was embarrassing.

I met Josette for lunch. The menu was the usual Education Department scandal, so I mostly dined on chocolate milk and peanut butter sandwiches.

"Easy on those gut bombs," my bud warned. "The magic gave you a body worth dying for; don't wreck it by becoming the new Kirstie Alley."

I winced. It was painful to remember how beautiful she had been as Saavik, in _Star Trek II_.

"I know one of the cheerleaders in my Social Studies class," Josette was saying. "She says that practice is being held in the gym, for two hours, three times a week. The first session will be after school next Monday. That will give you some time to psyche yourself up for it."

"I'm not going to wear that uniform!"

"You won't need to bring your outfit to practice, just wear exercise clothes, like they in the movies. That damned smirk of hers came back. "I know you have more than one set of those; I saw them on your wall. Sexy."

"Quick looking at me that way!" I snarled. "I almost wish that you'd start liking guys."

"So, you don't see yourself as a guy? And it's only your first day. Interesting."

"You know what I mean. Now, tell me something useful. What were you saying about practice?"

"You made the tryouts this Wednesday -- in the Twilight Zone, I mean. It's funny to think that Charla was getting her pom-poms certified at the same time that I was putting oil on your upper lip."

"I'll get even with you for that, somehow," I warned. "And forget about practice! I'm not going to cheer-lead!"

"Well, if I were you, I'd definitely go."

"If you were me, you wouldn't be so dumb!"

"Me dumb? You can say that with report cards like yours?"

"Those were Darrell's report cards. Maybe I'm smarter than you are now!"

"Cheerleaders are all jocks. They make it through school on beauty and pep. Then they become waitresses. Josette seems to have been too serious-minded to waste her time doing cartwheels."

There was no civil reply I could make, so I finished my bland lunch in grudging silence.

Homeroom came next, and then Charlayne's elective. As Darrell, I had been taking shop; I've always liked making things. But Charlayne was enrolled in Design I, a fancy name for making clothes. I couldn't think of a more boring pastime. The up-side was that Lyda Imray was in the same class. She was one of the D.K.H. cheerleaders, the one whom I'd most often fantasized about dating. To have a locker next to hers at the gym would be a wish come true. Before Josette, my best daydreams had centered on Lyda.

Following Design, was Trig. After that ordeal, I found Josette waiting by our lockers. She had planned the weekend around teaching me how to get pass for a girl. I hadn't liked the idea, but after living in Charlayne's skin all day I knew that I could use some pointers. Only, I wasn't so sure that Josette knew much of anything useful. I had never supposed that Josette was dumb, but I was open to another opinion about Loren.

I'd been eighteen for three weeks, an adult in our state, and so I didn't need to get Mother's permission to stay out late. But I also wanted to play it cool. Acting too headstrong would make it look like Josette and I were up to something. I thought it smart to phone Mom and tell her that that my gal pal and I were having were having dinner at the Melford's and that Josette would bring me home about 10:00 p.m. Once back at the house, I'd spring the news that I was going to be sleeping over at her place on Saturday night.

Mrs. Milford, by the way, wasn't going to be there. She had an out of town medical conference and wasn't going to be back until after dark on Sunday night, but Mom didn't have to know that.

****

After a snack, Josette was eager to get started with lessons. "First, we need to get you walking right. You're shuffling around like a boy on sore legs. You've got a different hip structure now, supporting a different weight distribution. Girls have developed their own way of walking. I'll show you, but first you'd better put on one of my minidresses."

"The hell I will!"

"I have to see your leg movements, and, anyway, this weekend will be a good chance to get used to female fashion. Would you like to slip into a short skirt for the first time and then go directly to school?"

"What's wrong with what I wore today?"

"Nothing, but we don't know what's going to be coming at you over the next month. Won't it be easier to practice sitting down in a mini here, instead of in front of strangers?"

"What strangers?"

"Think. You'll be changing clothes twice a week in gym class, and three times a week at cheer practice -- unless you cop out."

"Aren't you ever embarrassed, dressing like a bimbo all the time?"

"It was embarrassing at first," she admitted, "but I thought it would be neat to be another Tiffany Malloy, so I got over it."

"I always thought it would be more fun to be Tiffany Malloy's boyfriend."

"You practically were," she reminded me.

"Love without sex isn't really love."

"Genius! Tiffany never put out either, so you weren't missing anything." Jo changed the subject. "There's something you ought to know. We're not exactly as we were. It's like we're thinking with girl versions of our own minds."

"Now you tell me!"

"It's not so bad. A lot of thing that I didn't know I knew came easily after a little practice, as if I'm remembering habits that I'd forgotten."

"Like sitting in a mini? Isn't that super?"

I'd thought that my worst character flaw -- being unable to deny Josette anything -- had ended when she'd outed herself as Loren. But before I knew it, here I was, scowling at myself in the mirror wearing a short blue dress and feeling an unaccustomed coolness above my knees. For some reason, a skirt made me feel more exposed than if I'd just been wearing shorts. It was like standing there in my skivvies. It might have been the sheerness of girls' underpants, which afforded no insulation. Also, I was realizing that if I wasn't careful, randy boys would be checking out anything I let them see.

I felt a tap on my shoulder. "Watch me," said Josette. "Your body will naturally make you walk like a girl if you don't fight it. But it takes time to get into the flow of things.”

Josette put on a pair of stilettos and demonstrated a sexy stroll. “Who taught you to walk that way?" I asked.

"My body did. And your bod already knows how to move like Charlayne Rivers; it's just that your boy-type mind is keeping its foot on the brake." She took off her shoes and handed them to me. "We're about the same size. Now you try it."

I reluctantly put on those crazy pumps, got up, and checked myself in the mirror again. I shuddered at what I saw, and then turned and to take several steps.

Josette shook her head. “You're not being fish or fowl. There's a shortcut. You can get the right walk quickly by using the Marilyn Monroe walk."

“What's that?”

“To some girls a great walk comes naturally. But a lot of them make their hips move in a sexy way by putting one foot ahead of the other as they move. Your hips swing and, with a little practice, no one will notice how you're making it happen.”

“Yeah, they'll be too busy looking at my butt!”

“That's the idea. Girls may be frowning on the outside when they know men are girl-watching, but they're cheering on the inside.”

Josette did a demonstration of the special walk. It looked like taking an highway drunk test, but she did it smoothly. It made me sore to think that Josette had been faking me out even in the way that she crossed a room.

Then Jo had me try it. I had to keep at it for about fifteen minutes.

"You're getting better," she said at last. "Sit down and take a load off your feet."

I plopped onto the sofa and she yelled, "Not that way!"

"What way?"

"You've got no grace, and if were were sitting on the upper bleachers right now, the guys would be looking up your skirt."

I frowned with annoyance. "You said girls want to have guys look at them!"

"You want them thinking angel, not slut." She took a chair of her own. "Here. Watch me. Sit with knees together. It actually makes you look demur, so it's a twofer. You can also cross your legs at the ankles or calves, like this.”

“What about crossing at the thighs, like guys do? I've seen pictures of women doing that.”

“A woman in pants looks masculine that way. In a mini-skirt it's just the opposite; she looks super-hot. But it sends a message that she wants to meet guys, the more the better. I don't think you're ready for that."

She suddenly stood up. "Nikki Cox had a bad habit on the show, always tugging her skirt down, especially when sitting. Like this." Josette demonstrated. While seating herself, she was giving her hem a yank. Seeing a girl do that always put me off somehow.

"Maybe Nikki wasn't comfortable wearing really high hemlines. I don't know why any director let her get away with it in front of the camera. It's a self-conscious tick that tells people that a girl is only 'fake-sexy.' Just take it all in stride, Darrell. Let a miniskirt ride up as far as it wants to. If you absolutely can't look confident, then short skirts are not for you."

She stood up and sat down again. This time when her skirt rode up, she left it alone. But the sight was leaving me unaroused, since I refused to be turned on by someone I knew was Loren. “It's definitely not for me," I said sourly.

"That's up to you. But if you ever want to run with the foxes, you'll have to reorder your thinking."

"Who told _you_ so much?"

"The internet has training videos on everything. Now practice; walk-sit, walk-sit, walk-sit. And remember, girls have to be especially careful when getting in and out of cars. Keep your knees close to each other."

I threw up my hands. "Why do girls want to dress in ways that makes it so easy to embarrass themselves?"

"They want your attention." She corrected herself. "Well, not so much _your_ attention as the attention of guys like Freddie Dumas, the Lions' quarterback."

"Women!"

Once I had performed the sit-down drill enough times to start panting, Josette said, "You're getting it, but you need to relax more. Wait!" She went to the DVD rack. "You should see how an expert walks and sits." She found a disc and put it on. It was Marilyn Monroe in _The Seven Year Itch_.

Josette kept up a running commentary while it played, calling attention to the star's mannerisms. "Actresses keep very straight postures, even when they're sitting. It not only makes them look more attractive, but it allows for an easy airflow. That's what gives their voices such a clear tone."

"Isn't my tone clear enough?" I asked.

"Not when you're curled up like a couch potato. Your lousy posture makes your words waver. And you still talk slowly, like a guy. Girls center their voices up high, not down in their chests. They speak faster than men, using quick bursts and very short pauses."

“Who teaches them to do that?”

“I don't know. It must come naturally.”

After the movie, Josette had me read aloud from a paperback novel, sitting ramrod straight, attempting to make my voice launch from just behind my tonsils. I started to get hoarse after about a half hour.

"Okay," Josette said, "we need to rest your pipes. Let's get some soda."

We took off for the kitchen. I heard Josette behind me saying, "Hmmmm."

"What?" I asked, annoyed.

"Nice hip movement."

"I'm not doing anything special."

"Your body is. Maybe you've got an inner instinct for sexiness."

"This drag is a drag. I'm tempted to beat on you when I get my muscles back."

"If I stay Josette, are you going to beat up a girl?"

"I might make an exception for you."

We popped the tabs on our Pepsis. "This isn't a good idea, what you want me to do," I said. "If I start acting too girly, the boys are going to hit on me."

Josette smiled. "Tell me about it, octopus arms. You're just going to have to learn to say 'no' without being mean about it."

“But all the girls act mean when they say 'no'.”

“They attract a lot of hostility that way. Do it and see where that gets you."

"Where can I get a burka?" I asked sarcastically.

“At an Iran airport, Josette said, shaking her head. "Even if you don't like the attention you attract right away, it's going to feel flattering. It's no fun being ignored, either as a boy or a girl."

"You're talking through your hat! You hung out with me. You didn't go to all kinds of parties and let yourself be pawed by randy guys."

"No, I didn't want that. I needed time to learn how to handle myself in fast-moving social situations. If you notice, hardly any girls go any place solo; they take boyfriends or girl friends to back them up and give them confidence. During the summer, I couldn't make any girlfriends that I could count on. I had a phony life-history as Josette, but it didn't come with any BFF's."

I shook my head and centered my attention on my cola.

"No-no," Josette remarked, "you're holding that pop can like a guy would."

"Now what are you talking about?"

"Turn it in toward your body; show the back of your hand."

"Who decides what are guy moves and what are girl moves?"

“Maybe it was aliens back in the days of the pyrmids.”

****

The next morning, Josette drove over to my house and spent a half hour rummaging through my room for things to take on our overnighter. Mother had already signed off on the visit; she'd always liked Josette, because of her manners and good grades, and wasn't making any waves.

With my pack full of junk, we went back to the Melford place and unpacked for basic training. I learned just how bad this weekend was going to be in the first ten minutes, when she asked me to put on my cheerleading outfit. I balked. "What for?"

"To get used to it. Also, I always wanted to hang out with a cheerleader."

"Well, I'm not one."

"Chicken. Would you mind it less if I dressed up, too? I've got some sexy stuff in an attic trunk."

“A cheerleader outfit?”

“We have a lot of choices.”

I shrugged, mostly curious to see what sort of stuff she was talking about.

Josette went up to the attic and came back down with several costumes. They looked like quality bimbo Halloween outfits from the internet. One still had a Leg Avenue tag on it. I picked out a real honey, a _Star Trek_ crewwoman's uniform. It was blue, representing the Starfleet's science and medical division. It had been most famously worn by Nurse Chapel on the original series, but I liked Josette's figure better. "Did you buy all these?" I asked.

"No. They came with the alternate reality," she said. "They appeared in my closet." I wasn't quite sure that I could believe her.

But a deal was a deal. I stripped into my briefs and over them I slipped Charlayne's spankies -- what non-cheerleaders call "bloomers" or "cheer shorts." The _Bring it On_ movies had informed me that the spankies actually were shorts, not the panties they resembled. I put the athletic bra around my waist and started to hook the hooks.

"No, don't," Josette said. "Girls refuse to do it that way."

"Then how's it done?"

"In the hardest way possible. Reach back and try to get the ends hooked."

I fumbled around for five seconds; the method made no sense. "You're kidding!"

"Come on! Didn't you lean anything from all that soft porn on Home Box Office?"

I gave it another try and succeeded, only to have Josette tell me that I'd gotten the hooks into the wrong eyes. She decided to finish the job herself.

"You're enjoying this too much."

"What's wrong with loving one's work?" She picked up the cheer top and flipped it into my face. "Get it on."

I wriggled into the loathsome thing.

Josette gave me an assessing gaze. "Very pretty. Great midriff."

"You're a knockout, too, Nurse Chapel. Get raped by any ancient androids lately?"

She gave a short laugh. "Get your mind out of the toilet, Charlayne."

Even knowing what I knew about Josette, I just couldn't tear my eyes away from those incredible legs. "On the show, they wore skorts disguised by a flap of tunic,” I reminded her. “That outfit looks like a real minidress."

Josette nodded and lifted a hem. "It's not wholly authentic, but it's sexier."

"Yeah, especially if the wind is blowing. But in the 23rd Century wouldn't women be space-age enough to wear thongs?"

Josette shook her head. "Fashion changes. Clothes in the 60's were a lot sexier than they are now. In fact, what they wore on the original _Star Trek_ was inspired by what was on every street in those days. But time's wasting, chickie. I want to see D.K. High's newest cheer gal doing her stuff."

"I don't know any cheers."

"Christ! You've watched plenty of cheerleader routines, haven't you?"

"Sure, but I don't remember seeing anything except the hemlines."

"You never waste an opportunity to waste an opportunity, Darrell. If you go to practice, how are you going to explain to the coach that you've forgotten everything you knew last week?"

"I haven't the faintest."

"Have you changed you're mind about quitting the team?"

"I wanted to get in at least one good shower with the girls."

"Now that's real team spirit!" Josette exclaimed. "If you stay on the squad, you'll get plenty of showers worth cheering about."

I shook my head. "I'd probably make a better Green Beret than I could a cheerleader."

“Darrell Rivers in Special Forces? I don't think so.”

****

Josette wanted me to learn to put on and take off my clothes in a way that wouldn't attract attention in the locker room. After the indignity of bra practice, there came panty-hose practice. Sharp toenails easily ripped the sheer fabric. "Damn, Charlayne, be careful," Josette complained. "Every pair you ruin is going on your tuition bill at 'Josette's Girl-for-a-Month Training School.' Use the nail clippers before you send yourself to the poorhouse buying hose."

Before we knew it, it was lunch hour. After a meal of hotdogs, it was time for walking practice, but this time Josette insisted that I do it in high-heeled pumps.

"I don't have to wear heels in class or at the gym. What good are they?"

"Haven't you heard the expression, 'Be prepared'?"

I shook my head. "Why did women fight for the vote when they should have been fighting to get free of their shoe styles?"

"High heels makes their legs look super. Death is the price of sin, but pain is the price of vanity."

I knew that Josette navigated her stilettos easily enough, and I didn't want her thinking that she could do anything that I couldn't. It wasn't fair that my buddy had gotten a good scholastic brain, while all that came my way was a spot on the cheer team.

My first session in two-inch heels was uncomfortable enough. Then Josette had me put on three-inchers, shoes taken from my own closet. They had me killed after just five minutes. What is it about girls and their fashions? Was it some kind of sickness in their souls?

"Don't worry," Josette assured me, "pretty soon we'll have you sashaying around on four-inchers. That's the footgear of the goddesses."

"What goddesses?" I grumbled.

"Playboy bunnies -- a once flourishing species now restricted to a tiny protected reserve in Las Vegas."

"Come to think of it, their uniforms must be killers to wear, too. I saw that movie Kirsty Alley made before she took on the proportions of a whale."

"That stuff came from a book by someone who was a feminist big shot back then. Lots of Bunnies have written their memoirs. Most loved their outfits and they loved their jobs.”

Right after the walking lesson, I soaked my feet in a hot Epsom salts. Once the pain had eased up, Josette had me go back to pantyhose practice. I did about a half dozen changes and only ripped the first pair. That was a good score, I supposed.

That ordeal was followed by another session of feminine elocution, which I was sick of that by suppertime. Then we polished off a couple of frozen dinners and watched two movies.

When they were over, Josette went to my overnight bag. "You can't sleep in your uniform." She threw a powder-blue babydoll into my lap. "Slip into your this. It's one of your own."

"You've got to be out of your mind!"

"Come off it. When have you ever been against babydolls? It'll help you feel more like a girl."

"I don't want to feel any more like a girl."

"Try it on anyway! It's like wearing a whisper."

I tossed it to the other end of the couch. "And I thought this cheerleader outfit was bad."

Josette immediately got into her own PJs, a wispy and lilac-colored little thing, as a dare. Sometimes I'm too good a sport, so I relented and put the damned thing on. Surprisingly, once I was curled up under the covers, the pajamas didn't feel bad. They were so smooth and light that it was like sleeping in the nude.

Sunday morning came much too soon. Josette gave me a slap on the bottom. "Up and at 'em. Today the costume of the day is your zebra-striped bikini."

"That's sick. You could get a gold star as a matron in a woman's prison."

“Catch,” she said, throwing me the halter-top.

I caught the thing with a hooking grab. "If you expect me to wear this, what are you going to wear. Let's have a little quid pro quo.”

“What are you talking about?"

"That French maid outfit."

She crinkled her nose. "You're kidding. Shouldn't I be a dominatrix?"

"I'm trying to forget your true nature."

A little while later I was eating breakfast within grabbing distance of the cutest French maid that I'd ever seen. Well, I should say it was the _only_ flesh and blood French maid that I'd ever seen. But knowing that she was really Loren, I just couldn't work up any enthusiasm. Every memory I had of backing her in into corners still made me uncomfortable.

After the eats, Josette shoved a pair of shoes into my face. "Here they are, Playboy-perfect four-inch heels. Give me twenty laps around the living room, soldier, and keep that tush swinging."

To have to go from flats to those monsters in just 24 hours? That seemed inconceivable. My feet were already sore, so these shoes from hell were absolutely fiendish. All my weight pressed down on the balls of my feet and, after a couple minutes, I started to hurt. But Josette wouldn't let me bail out, even though I felt like I was heading for podiatric surgery. While I limped around the room with my expression fixed in a wince, the psycho French maid was humming some dopey song she probably supposed was sexy.

I finally fell down and couldn't get up. If this was what every high school girl had to go through, I thought that I might as well join the marines right after graduation. One month as a girl would probably toughen me up enough to sail through boot camp.

We passed the rest of the morning in a review of the all the mortification that I'd been introduced to the day before. Josette said I was making good progress, but the day was past when her opinions counted for much of anything with me.

Finally, lunchtime arrived. My hostess encouraged me to talk about any subject that I wanted, but to sound like a girl while doing it. Reading out loud was fine, she said, but I needed to ad lib, to think on my feet.

Not really knowing what to say, I asked, "Uhhh. How's my voice?"

"Fair," she said. "Why don't you tell me about your last game of _The Lord of the Rings_?"

This was something I could really sink my teeth into. As Sauron I'd really torn things up near the end. But Josette soon interrupted. "Whenever you stop concentrating, you start chattering like a guy. Don't go on talking if you get short of breath. Girls don't gulp down a slug of air and keep on jabbering. They pause and draw a small breath. But don't think about doing it; that makes you stammer. Internalize. Talk fast, but in short bursts."

She'd been telling me that for two days, but it was much easier said than done. "Why do you suppose women and men are so different?" I finally asked. "It's not like I ever saw Mom telling my sister Haley to start her words up into her throat…or hold her Cool-Aid with the back of her hand showing."

"Nature or nurture?" Josette said. "It's one of those eternal arguments of science."

I shrugged. "Sometimes I've wondered why, if men and women are supposed to complement one another…(I paused)…it's easier for girls to get on with other girls…(I paused again)…and for guys to relate to other guys."

Josette shrugged. "The only place that men and women really complement one another is in bed, if you ask me."

I was tempted to ask her if she had ever slept with a girl. Loren had never boasted about any kind of sex life, so I had assumed that he never had. But if I were wrong, I wouldn't like to leave Josette an opening to ask me the same question. Being a virgin is something too mortifying to talk about.

After lunch, it was time for a new horror: makeup. This was at least something that Josette knew more about than cheerleading.

I'd heard about actors being in the makeup chair for hours. The longer Josette worked on me, explaining everything she did, the worse my mood grew. What was I supposed to be, a plastic doll to be painted? Concealers and foundation. Powders. Blushers and eyebrow fillers. Eyeliners and shadow. Mascara. Phah!

"I'm trying to give you a happy medium," Josette said. Too little makeup and you look like a kid. Too much makes a teen look like a hard old tart. You wouldn't want guys two or three times your age coming on to you."

"No way!"

"Then watch carefully in the mirror."

When she was done, I looked like a totally different person. I also looked damned cute, and that scared me.

But time was flying. Josette had me wash my face and come right back to the vanity -- this time to apply the cosmetics on my own.

It didn't seem like I was learning much, except about hard it is to do a face look right. The French maid at my side kept offering lots of pointers and corrections.

"Before lipstick comes the lip liner, remember?"

"What's lip liner for?" I asked.

"It fixes the shape of your lips, and keeps the stick from running. It helps the color last longer, too. At least that's the theory."

I shook my head. "That song, 'I Enjoy Being a Girl,' had to have been written by a man."

Josette had stopped speaking. Applying the liner required a steady hand. Finally, it was time for the big kahuna. Josette opened a capsule that looked like a golden rifle shell. "This time we'll go all the ultimate. Lipstick."

"No way!"

"It's not as hard to do as the lip liner. But first time through, I'd better do the applying."

That was okay by me. When she was finished, Josette shoved a mirror in front of my face.

"I look like a hooker!"

"No, not that extreme. You look like a party girl. When you finish pretending that you don't like it, go wash your face and then I'll show you how to apply makeup for school."

"Then we'll be done?"

"We'll call quits when you've done the whole routine four or five times. Practice makes perfect."

"Yiiiii!"

****

But all bad things must come to an end. Patience let the world get through the ice ages. While I sat at the kitchen table, munching a sandwich smeared with rosy lipstick, Josette brought up the next bad topic -- a tray of perfumes and scents. "Just a touch here and there, like behind the ear and under the jaw. Too much of this stuff would evacuate a ballroom. Don't slop it on like some guys do with aftershave."

She was wasn't heading for the hills by the time I was finished, so I guessed that I hadn't gone too far wrong.

Then there was hair arrangement. It used up the time we had left before dinner. I learned that some apparently complex hairstyles actually take only a few strategically-placed hairpins. Others that looked reasonably simple turned out to be a bear.

After refreshments, we were both dog-tired, so we watched a movie whose plot gave starlets an excuse to dress in bikinis. I'd seen it before, but this time I was more critical of the actresses' figures. It had dawned on me that I looked as good in my zebra striper as any of those B-movie chicks. I was also catching onto how the girls spoke and moved. Some of them really did use that special step to make their hips swing.

When the credits were rolling, showing the names of lots and lots of Hollywood nobodies there was no time for another DVD and
Josette wasn't sure how soon her mom would be landing. We didn't want her popping in suddenly in and wondering why we were dressed for a Halloween party.

"Before I take you home," Josette said, "I have to get a picture of you in that zebra outfit."

"No!" I almost shouted.

"What's the big deal? You've been wearing it all day."

"If I gave you a picture like that, you'll blackmail for the rest of my life."

"Brainiac! How can I blackmail anybody with a bikini shot? Oh, maybe I'd sell prints to the guys at school, since you look so incredible. But once you change back, every picture of you as a girl will either disappear or become a picture of you as a guy."

"A guy in a bikini?"

"Of course not!"
After some haggling, I finally let Josette take about twenty snapshots. She immediately downloaded them into her laptop and I couldn't have been more impressed. I felt totally detached from the person I was looking at; all I could appreciate was how bodacious she was. Not even Hugh Hefner would have booted someone like that out of the mansion. But, by now, I was almost falling asleep, so Josette and I changed back into regular clothes. I had had one hell of a weekend and wanted to reach home to bed as soon as possible, to get the bad taste of it out of my mouth.

****

I didn't suffer any serious grilling about what Josette and I had been doing all weekend. I guess my mom, in this alternate world, knew that the third degree always mades me cranky. I was a legal adult and pretty much out of the parental control-mode. I just had to be careful not to be so obnoxiously independent that they would be provoked enough to order me to move out. But short of that, a guy has to show the world that he's his own man.

Attending school on Monday was easier than I'd expected, with this caveat: Though I was dressed about the same as on Friday, I was on the receiving end of my first bonafide wolf-whistle. I mean, I think that the whistle was meant for me. I didn't see any other vision of loveliness around. Whoever had let it blow was risking the attention of the PC police, which was about the only thing that kids were still afraid of. These political hall monitors police were a lot meaner than the donut-eaters whose job was to keep a lookout for guns. I glanced over my shoulder but couldn't spot the sneak.

No big deal. I knew how most boys thought. The whistler would have supposed that he was paying me a compliment, and was probably just too shy to say "Hi" to a girl. Should I be flattered or ticked? I just didn't care. All I really wanted was to get my month over with.

Josette caught up with me at the last bell and we walked together to the gym. Maybe she thought that I'd make for the park in panicked flight if left unsupervised. Maybe I would have, except the idea of being up close and personal with so many cheerleaders was a good incentive to buck up and bear it. I had brought along Charla's exercise stuff in a gym bag -- shoes, a sweat tee and light workout pants.

This was my first visit to the girls' locker room; I hadn't had a phys. ed. class yet. A couple mostly-undressed girls were chattering and not paying me any attention. They added a lot to the otherwise no-frills scenery.

My big problem was that I hadn't been Charlayne when the lockers were assigned. I didn't know the number of mine or have a combination. That left me with no choice but to stick my things into an empty, lockless locker. I'd have to tell the coach that I'd had a lapse of memory. Or maybe not, since I expected to wash out during the practice and then be sent home, a disgraced and defrocked cheerleader.

I had tried to crib the squad's guidebook at spare moments over the weekend. There were loads of pictures in it, but not a huge amount of text. I couldn't imagine how the teammates did any of those fancy moves. About all I knew was that there would be an extensive warm-up. I had concentrated on learning those exercises.

Changing my clothes quickly, I went out to the gym floor, feeling out of place. The kids were mostly clustered in small groups. I didn't have any friends around and felt awkward -- but that was par for the course. I heard a whistle a minute later and a homely, middle-aged woman -- Mrs. Cecelia Becker -- strode our way. She was the cheer coach and the best thing I'd heard about her was that she hadn't sent anybody home in a body bag – so far.

Becker ordered us into a line and called for the first warm-up move. Looking around, I saw how it was done, and tried to do the same. I must have looked like a trout flopping on dry land.

"Charli, what's the matter with you?" Mrs. Becker yelled.

"S-Sorry. Something happened this weekend," I yammered.

She came closer. "What happened?"

"My friend Josette and I were practicing -- uh, dance steps -- when I suddenly blacked out. I was really zonked. When I came to, she drove me to the emergency room, but they couldn't tell what had gone wrong. No sign of anything horrible. They suggested stress. I've had partial amnesia since then, but they told me that it's supposed to clear up eventually."

She took me aside and lowered her tone. "What do you mean amnesia?"

"It's awful. Like, when I came in, I -- I couldn't remember my locker number or my combination. I can't seem to remember the routines, either."

Cecelia Becker, by rep, was no motherly type. She eyed me suspiciously. "You'd better remember the routines soon, Rivers. There are twenty other girls who tried out with you, and most of them can at least do the warm-ups."

"I -- I think practice has me stressed out...with the fear of failing. It's like the imp of the perverse -- in that Poe story, you know."

She stood there with arms crossed. "Well, if you're too sick to do the required training, it's fortunately not too late to let someone else bump you."

"Please, Mrs. Becker," I said, "I really want this. I can catch up! I only need a study partner, some experienced cheerleader who knows her stuff. Maybe one of the really good ones. Maybe Lyda Imray. I've always admired her…skill."

The coach's expression stayed hard. "You're expecting a lot. Our people already give a lot of their time to the team. Do you have any friends on the squad?"

"No, I guess not."

She sighed. "I'll ask around. If anyone has time to help you, you'll have until next Friday's session to show me you belong on this squad. If you can't, it's goodbye and good luck."

"Yes, Mrs. Becker. Thank you, Mrs. Becker."

Looking like she'd been sucking a lemon, Mrs. Becker stopped breathing into my face and went out in front of the team. "Charli needed a tutor," she told them, explaining my problem in her own words. The gang eyed me for any outward signs of craziness. My heart sank. Then suddenly a big guy raised his hand. Whoever he was, he was no Lyda Imray.

Becker spoke to the guy quietly for a minute, then brought him over. "This is Niland Hesketh," she said. "He's willing tutor you, providing that you two can work out the scheduling. Unless you can get a spontaneous remission, he's your only hope, Rivers." She went back to her coaching spot and left me alone with my new tutor.
Niland had a lithe but solid build, like a tennis player, and stood a head taller than me at my present stature. His hair was dark blond and the summer had tanned him a solid gold. His evenly chiseled features wouldn't have looked out of place in some classy beer ad. "I'll join you after practice," he said. "Well talk."

The coach let me limp through the warm-ups and then sent me to the bleachers. I sat watching what the others were doing, feeling more and more pessimistic. They trained for almost two hours, and then Niland joined me, his hair wet, beads of sweat on his lips and brow.

For my own part, I must have appeared as out of sorts as I felt, because he asked, "Hey, Charli, are you in pain?"

"Ah, no -- Niland -- it comes and goes. Thanks for the offer. I'll be absolutely dead if I can't get back what that crazy brain aneurysm took away."

He startled. "Brain aneurysm?"

"More like a faint spell," I corrected myself. "I blacked out, and when I came to, I'd had what the doc said was short-term memory loss. They didn't even keep me for observation. I can't recall the squad's routines, the steps, the rhythm. I can't remember any of the cheers. It's creepy -- like I never trained at all."

"That's pretty awful. We were at the same camps the last two summers, so I know that you've been working hard to get on the team."

Charla had been to cheer camp? That would explain some of those wall photos. I took a deep breath. Suddenly I started wondering about Niland's motives. He had noticed me two years ago? What he was remembering had to be false memories. But why would he remember me at all? Was it because Charla was a babe? Was he hot for me? Was I his Lyda Imray? Gross!

"Ah, I can't thank you enough for this chance," I said. "Why -- what made you decide to do it?"

He gave an "oh, shucks" type of smile. "Making the team was important to me, but it always seems to be a life-or-death thing for the girls. Dedication like that should mean something. You know, from tiny sparks, big forest fires come." His voice dropped off. "Uhhh, I think I could have used a better metaphor."

I laughed nervously; if he wasn't a groper, I thought I could like him. "How much time can you give me, Niland? I'm -- I'm in such a bad way that I'm going to need all the attention I can get."

He frowned thoughtfully. "As I see it, tomorrow after school is good. On Wednesday, we'll both have to be back here practicing. Maybe we can work out in the ball yard afterwards. I'm sure I can give you Thursday evening, too."

He was being generous, but that was a lot of time to be alone with a boy whom I hardly knew. I'd have to make sure that Josette came along, so they're be a witness just in case he tried anything sleazy. Those strong-looking hands might soon be all over my body, since a male base has to lift a girl often. Should I trust him? If he got grabby, should I slug him? I couldn't hurt a boy that solid, not unless I kicked him in the nuts. Should I complain to the coach if he pulled something? I didn't want to be a tattletale kind of girl. Anyway, the less I talked to Cecelia Becker, the better.

Maybe I wouldn't have anything to worry about. Maybe he was gay; I hoped so. I suddenly caught myself. Since when had I wanted to hang around with gays? Everything seemed topsy-turvy all of a sudden. Was this Daniel Kassler High School, or was it Wonderland?

He said, "See you tomorrow” and I was so out of sorts by now that I left the school in a daze. I went to my locker and started dressing, remembering too late that I had forgotten to take a shower with the squad!

That evening, Josette helped me pour through the Cheerleaders' Guide, so I wouldn't act like a hopeless dunce when I met with Niland.

* * * *

The next day, I got to shower with the girls of phys. ed. There was hardly a babe among them. I had no equipment to embarrass myself with, but my nipples did get longer and harder from stealing glances. I put my breasts under the cold rain to calm them down, unsure how the girls would react if they saw their excited state; I didn't want to be pegged as a lesbo. I came away with the deep conviction that there are a lot of girls who should keep their clothes on.

About three-thirty, Josette accompanied me to the baseball field and took an observer's post high up on the bleachers, reading my cheer book to fill her time.

Niland had parked his ten-year-old Mazda in the parking lot, and came my way wearing a tee and gym shorts. He had a gym bag in hand and carried a boom box. He set the former on the grass. "We'll start you out with the warm up moves," he said. When he turned the box on, it played a suitable cheerleader score.

"Yeah, good," I said with a nervous grin.

He showed me each exercise before asking me to do it. There were a lot of them: arm circles, wrist circles, waist stretching, and trunk rotation. While I was doing the latter, I realized that the routine must look awfully sexy and I wondered what effect the sight of them might have on Niland.

By the time we were working through leg stretches, ankle points, flexes, and hamstring stretches, I was getting too breathless to worry about what I looked like. When Niland demonstrated a jump-and-split move, I worried that it would leave me a pathetic invalid for the rest of my life. But, amazingly enough, I found that my body could manage the move with only a wince and a few tears. It was like Josette had said -- my body actually _did_ know how to do things that my brain didn't.

"You look like you need a rest," Niland said at last. I could only nod and pant. Did every squad member have to go through this? If so, how did they manage to look so peppy and cute?

Incredibly thirsty, I went to the drinking fountain and guzzled.

"Careful, Charli. To much cold water can give a side ache."

I straightened. "Are we done yet?"

"Do you want to be done?"

"No. I -- I want to do all I can to keep my spot on the team."

He chuckled. "Well, you really have forgotten a lot. Now that we're past the warm-ups, we'll work on the least demanding things. There are plenty of basic cheer positions that aren't too hard. Try this one."

He demonstrated a sidestepping routine that had a lot of arm pointing, while he simultaneously shouted:

"'We're crazy, that's what I said'
'We're crazy, gonna knock 'em dead'
'We're C-R-A-Z-Y, are we so crazy,'
'That's what I said.'
'We're crazy, gonna knock 'em dead'
'We're C-R-A-Z-Y, we're just so crazy!'"

It was my turn. I gave it my best, not wanting Niland to think I was a dumb dork not worth his time. That was what people had always thought about me, and I was sick of it!

"That's not quite it," Niland said.

"What's wrong?"

"You're dancing like a boy, probably from watching me. Do it this way."

He was he was imitating a girl's moves, and it was something to see! What butt action! He absolutely _had_ to be gay.

Niland wrapped up. "Got that? Now you try it."

I did, and it came out better than the first time. Then he called for more exercises, one right after another and sounded a little like Mrs. Becker -- or was he channeling the ghost of some drill sergeant fragged for brutality?

"Swing! Strut! Left hand point left! Right hand, point up, step-step. One-two-three. Move your bottom, left, right! Swing it! Go wild, girl!"

And so on, and on, for more than a half hour. By the end of it, I had to drop to the grass, my breathing coming in hot gasps.

Niland let me lie there for a few minutes. "That should be it for tonight," he said, helping me back to my feet. "Drill on the moves I've reviewed with you as often as you can before we meet again tomorrow. At practice, you'll just have to do the best you can. I don't think Becker'll be a beast about your progress until Friday. I guarantee that when Friday comes, we'll shock her with how good you can be."

"Me, good? I'll never be good."

"You've got potential, Charli."

I smiled. "Uh, thanks." I don't know why I bothered to say what I said next, but it just tumbled out of my mouth: "I'm giving up that kid nickname, Niland. I'm asking people -- my close friends, I mean -- to call me Charla."

"Charla? Yeah, that's pretty."

My mind was on something else. I spoke honestly: "If I have one shot in a million, it'll because you helped me."

He gave that "oh, shucks" face again. "I don't think the odds are nearly that awful, but thanks. What counts high with Mrs. Becker is the Cheerleader Smile. She says that if cheerleader looses her smile, she's no cheerleader -- she's just a 'clown with a frown'. That goes for the guys, too, by the way."

I forced a smile and offered him my hand -- to shake, I mean. "I'll bear that in mind." He gave me a firm squeeze -- on the hand, naturally -- and said, "See you tomorrow." Then Niland walked back to his car and I crossed to the bleachers to rejoin Josette.

"You didn't suck as badly as I thought you would," she said.

I threw up my hands. "So kill me with faint praise, would you?"

"You started looking really hot -- even in a in a girl-type way. Those hip bumps! I can't wait until I see you performing in a miniskirt!

"You've got a septic tank installed where a brain should be! I've got good reasons for doing this."

"Yeah? What?"

"Like, I've been a loser all my life, but I don't think that Charlayne ever behaved like a loser. She had to sweat blood to get on the team; she prepared for years. I don't want to make her a loser before she comes back to her own alternate reality."

"I'm not sure that it works that way. Maybe Charla exists only because you exist."

"Anyway, working out with Niland has given me a super idea."

"Yeah?"

"If I can just learn enough over the next month, I can try out for the team as a cheer guy. I've heard the girls talking. They're short of bases, and that handicaps them when they want to do the super-spectacular lift stuff at competitions. It's hard to recruit boys, so they'd probably take any male who's halfway competent. That way, I can be surrounded by the greatest-looking girls at school for the whole rest of the year. I'll know them all on a first-name basis. And since they'll be depending on me not to drop them on their pretty asses, they'd have to at least try to act nice."

"I don't know if you can count on niceness; they're girls, after all," Josette warned.

"I wonder how many cheer boys score with the cheerleaders after practice. If a lot of them are gay, that would improve the odds for the straight ones."

"Well, watch out. I'm not so sure that Niland's gay. They're something about his movement. It's sort of pantherish. You're new at this girl stuff and kind of vulnerable. A regular girl grows up being taught to watch out for phonies making fancy passes."

"Niland's okay, gay or not. You're messing with my head, just when I was feeling upbeat."

"Upbeat? I almost got worn out just watching you."

"I'm tired but -- he said I had promise!"

"So, you're susceptible to flattery. What about candy and flowers?"

"Can it!"

"Okay, okay. I've got to get you home. You smell like you can use a shower."

* * * *

At Wednesday practice, I was allowed to warm up with the others and do some basics, but Becker didn't push me into the more complex stuff. She knew I'd only embarrass myself and demoralize the rest of the team. That meant that I sometimes had to stand aside while others trained. The high point was the shower afterwards. When I stood there watching the prettiest girls in school splashing each other, I knew I was on to a good thing. I loitered under the spray as long I had attractive company to keep, and then put my sweat-moistened workout clothes back on. I hurried to meet Josette and get to the ball field. We found Niland already there, since he probably hadn't showered as slowly as I had.

This second session was more intense than the first one. I couldn't forget that Friday was a dark cloud hovering very close. We made plans to meet again Thursday.

* * * *

At the workout the next day, I was starting to bring off things that I never would have believed possible. When I managed to get my mind working cooperatively with my already-trained physique, amazing things could happen.

This last session with Niland had reminded me of _Dancing With the Stars_. Celebrities with minimal, or even zero, dance skill were able to learn enough -- and do it quickly enough -- to perform in front of millions. But I'd found out that cheerleader training was hard work. It was the hardest thing that I'd ever tried to do.

So why didn't that put me off more than it did? I had never been a very physical guy. Obviously the real Chala -- if there ever had been such a person -- had a different attitude toward athletics. I wondered if some inner part of her was seeping into my brain, like Josette had warned about. Was that good or bad; should I be scared or relieved? Should I welcome her, or try to push her away? For now though, it seemed positive. Unless I accepted what "the girl inside" had to offer, I could never pull this scam off.

Later, while packing our gear, Niland encouraged me to think that I had come a long way. He suggested that the two of us could keep at our lessons after Friday, until I became the equal of any other first-year teammate.

I agreed immediately. He was giving me so much time and hard work. Was it only team spirit for him, or did he like me personally? I wished that the two of us could have gotten to know one another better over these last few days, but he had been all business. And he had to be, I supposed, because our time was so short and our workload so very heavy.

I suddenly relished the idea of eventually showing up someone like Lyda Imray! She had the bod, but she didn't have the heart. She had been too high and mighty to give Darrell so much as a glance. She didn't care that Charla needed help. I'd have relished letting her know that she wasn't so special after all!

* * * *

The next day, I could hardly pay attention to anything talked about in my classes. After the last bell, I went grimly to the gymnasium and donned my workout clothes. When I emerged onto the gym floor, I felt Mrs. Becker's hot eyes following me. I doubted that she cared whether I could perform or not. What she had on her mind was a winning season and the athletes who could make that season real for her were all interchangeable parts. She wouldn't miss me if I flopped; there were too many others to take my place. That had been the story of my entire life. I wasn't needed, I wasn't special. Whatever I did, there was always someone who could do it better.

Did I have a psychic sign on my back, one that read, "Not worth much"? I didn't think Charla had been like that. What a pity that she wasn't real, someone whom I could have gotten to know.

But whom was I kidding? Charla wouldn't have wanted me any more than Lyda Imray had. Would _I_ have wanted a guy like me, if I were a girl? I didn't think so. What was wrong with me as Darrell?

Becker had us do the warm-up as a team, and then signaled me to come forward. "Okay, Rivers, before the practice begins, you and I have some unfinished business. Niland's told me some good things about your positive attitude in practice. I hope he's right. Show us what you've got."

"I will," I said warily.

She nodded. "Give me three continuous cartwheels, girl."

I launched. Darrell couldn't have done even one cartwheel, but Charla wasn't Darrell. She had been learning cartwheels while Darrell had been eating popcorn in front of the TV. When back on my feet, I saw that Becker was frowning, thoughtful-like. She drew in a slow breath. "Okay, Rivers, new position! Combined move. Forward flip…side roll…back flip…"

Working with Niland, I had discovered that my body could take over if I simply let it, if I got my doubting mind out of the way. While Becker yelled at me, I tried to get more and more into the altered reality, to make myself a part of it. I had to, because Becker had gone totally cheer-Nazi; jumping through the hoops for her wasn't easy and she wasn't making it painless. But I fought to keep on track, to hold on to my momentum and to my timing.

"Next! On you feet! Dance move! Disco! In tune to the music -- give it all you've got!"

And I did. I didn't stop to think, I didn't dare to. My body, my reflexes, had to do all the thinking for me.

"Round off! Forward roll!"

She was demanding this step, then that step. This jump, then that jump, and then I fell into a split that fortunately didn't tear any ligaments. Becker was gunning for me for sure, slamming me with one thing after another. I fought to hold on, like John Wayne in front of a banzai charge; I was fighting not to let Charla down.

Then the Wicked Witch of D.K. High went quiet. From her starting-gate stance, from the intense expression on her face, it didn't seem like she was finished with me yet; she was just planning some new surprise to trip me up.

"Take a breather, Rivers," Becker said. I nodded, then sagged, bracing my hands on my knees and panting. The coach waved to Niland. "Come over here," she called. He came. "Be her base, and we'll see how Charli plays it with a partner…Rivers, ready?"

"Y-Yes, ma'am," I nodded. I didn't know how much energy I had left, but I couldn't let Niland see me fail.

"Position! Cheek to Cheek!" Becker yelled.

Our bodies moved like parts of the same machine. I went up into the air, hoisted into a handstand upon his rock-hard shoulders. We held it for a couple seconds, and then my partner guided me through a smooth dismount.

Gasping, I looked toward the coach. She took in a breath to yell another command. "Next move. Around the World!"

I don't know where my remaining strength was coming from at this point. We did the maneuver demanded, and then the sadist-with-a-whistle called for a Flip Over, followed by a Walk-Up to Shoulder Stand. Adreneline steadied me, and we brought it off.

"All right, all right," Becker shouted from below. "This has been a passable workout, Rivers. Dismount!"

Niland helped me down. I just reeled where I touched the floor; I had nothing left to give. He put his arm around me, to keep me from falling.

The coach came up, as if judging a specimen of livestock at a fair. "Maybe you can be a real cheerleader after all, Rivers. But you still have some catching up to do. To keep your spot, you'll have to get back on par in double-time. No more amnesia. If you've got problems, let medical science deal with them. They're not the business of the athletic department."

"Yes, ma'am," I stammered. I had dodged the bullet, it seemed, and it had been Niland that had made all the difference. I felt as grateful to him as I did to Charla, that determined and dynamic girl who seemed to be alive and thriving at my core.

After my demonstration, I had to follow the cheer team through the regular training period. As tired as I was, I fought through it to the end.

Then there was the shower. I didn't enjoy the view so much as the running water, I was so sore and tired. On the way out of the gym, I caught up to my teammate to thank him.

"Don't mention it," Niland said, in that easy manner of his. "We can train some more next week. You've got amazing potential, Charli -- Charla, I'm sorry. You deserve your day in the sun."

"Thanks. I want to practice with you just as much as we possibly can," I panted. "Say, how…how about if I treat you to something at the soda shop, to celebrate?"

He smiled. "That would be nice, Charla. But my girlfriend gets jealous when I go out with my female teammates."

"Girlfriend?" I echoed. "You never mentioned a girlfriend." I changed my tone quickly. "I guess a guy like you has his pick of all the girls at school."

"No, not exactly my pick, but I was lucky enough to find somebody that I don't want to lose. I've been neglecting her all week, so I have to make up for it and be there for her this weekend. I'll check how my schedule is shaping up and then talk to you outside of social studies class on Monday."

"G-Great!" I said, my voice shaky. "My calendar is pretty much open, I'm sure."

"I'll see you then," he said, and then headed for the locker room.

I kept smiling. But it was that cheerleader smile. That damned _Laugh, Clown, Laugh_ smile.

But I wasn't smiling on the inside. I was leaving the athletic wing deflated. How strange. I'd done something terrific, but had no one to share it with. It felt like I was going away without any prize.

What prize did I want? That was the question. It seemed like I had lived through an entire lifetime in eight days. I felt pride, but part of me still seemed empty. What was missing?

I would have a lot to think about over the weekend.

So far, Josette hadn't said what she wanted us to do together, except to go to lingerie store at the mall. I had to be ready for whatever came at me. It would probably be something crazy.

The End



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