Here it is. Please let me know what you think of the epilogue and the story as a whole!
“It’ll be OK, Kaylee.”
I shook my head and stood firm in the hallway. My eyes downcast, I refused to look at Ava or the nice brown-haired lady who tried to take my hand. Just being in the presence of the teacher, Ava’s special teacher, as the other kids called her, was irreparably damaging, humiliating.
It meant that to everyone else that I was stupid.
I peeked at the two of them, the teacher quietly convening with Ava and then sending her my way. There was nothing she could say or do that would make me go with them.
“How about this one?”
“That one is for babies. I don’t want to read about some mouse detective looking for missing cheese.”
Kathryn kneeled at my bookshelf, scanning the shelves. She plucked another one out, “Sammi’s Great Cupcake Adventure”, but I quickly shot it down with a firm shake of my head. The woman sighed gently. It was the tenth book I had refused. Kathryn wanted to make story time part of the bedtime routine, but I wasn’t making it easy for her. In fact, I was making it impossible.
Kathryn said, “I’m starting to see a pattern here. I get what is happening. Your teacher called and said you refused to go with Miss Drake again. You’re just a little behind the other kids. Miss Drake is going to get you all caught up to them. I know you don’t want a lecture, Kaylee- but I-“
I said firmly. “You’re right. I don’t want a lecture. Just fucking drop it. Please. I’m stupid. The formula made me stupid.” I shivered at the memory of my time at the German private school. The eager hand raising overachievers oozed a near constant condescension. Even when I actually started to apply myself to match them, I could never reach their level. They never said the word, but I knew they saw the American as stupid, and I certainly felt that way. Now, I was below the average first grader. How could I not see myself as anything but a stupid little girl?
Kathryn’s eyes widened slightly as I swore and then a tiny smile appeared as I offered a hurried please. She shook her head gently and said firmly, “You are not stupid. Far from it. You’re way better than Thomas and I with fixing things around the house. You showed me how to tighten the shower so it won’t leak. You fixed the broken dresser. And you basically changed the tire on the car.”
I frowned, “Come on. Those are easy things.”
Kathryn replied, “For you maybe, but Thomas has always struggled with things like that. His dad never showed him how to do those things. You were lucky. So, changing a tire is pretty easy. But the broken dresser? Not really.”
I shrugged, “So, what are you trying to say?”
Kathryn nodded, “It’s just a different kind of intelligence. It may come easy to you, but plenty of people struggle with something you consider easy- effortless. And everything you know about cars. You were right about the brakes. Our mechanic said they were done. He said they wouldn’t have lasted through another storm like that one. So you have some trouble reading and writing, but the serum did that. All I’m trying to say is that, if you call yourself stupid, you are letting the serum win. Because you aren’t. Far from it. I mean we could probably fire our mechanic.”
I giggled, imagining myself in a pair of overalls, tinkering with the family car. “Okay. Okay. I get it.” The girlish laugh came easily and filled my head with warm thoughts.
I said, “But that still doesn’t change- I mean the kids will see me with that teacher, and they’ll think I’m stupid. They don’t know that other stuff. And just because I can talk about cars doesn’t mean they think I’m smart. Mostly weird.”
Kathryn frowned gently, “I hate that double standard.” She brightened considerably a moment later and pulled a book from the very back of the shelf. I saw the cover and slowly shook my head.
Kathryn said, “I know you think you’ll be scared, but it’s obvious these other books aren’t doing it for you. But you can’t let the serum win. We can start with a few pages, even take a break if you need to, but you need to get back on the horse, Kaylee.”
Kathryn slowly eased her way on the bed, book in hand. She kept a careful, tentative distance from me. Almost like an awkward first date where the participants sit on opposite ends of the couch. Was she worried that I would balk at her attempt at closeness?
Kathryn read, “Mr. Sherlock Holmes, who was usually very late in the mornings, save upon those not infrequent occasions when he was up all night, was seated at the breakfast table. I stood upon the hearth-rug and picked up the stick which our visitor had left behind him the night before.”
I had read the Hound of the Baskervilles three times since arriving at the Pattersons. It was also the last book I had attempted to read. As Kathryn held the hardcopy novel, I could see where I had stopped, the page halfway through the book was neatly dog-eared, showing my lack of a bookmark. And the fact that I had never finished my fourth read through.
Mrs. Feinstein, Granny, and I used to alternate, but that wasn’t an option now. I had trouble with books with four pages in each chapter- the Hound wasn’t going to have two readers.
Kathryn said, “We don’t have to read this one.” I said nothing, and she continued. It looked like I was paying attention, but like water droplets on the hide of a grizzly, the words failed to permeate. Kathryn might as well have been speaking a different language.
I said, “I don’t want to. Just forget it.”
Kathryn said, “You’re part of this family now, Kaylee. And Feinstein women simply do not give up.”
I said firmly, “Well I’m not a fucking Feinstein. I’m not going to be a fucking college professor or some teacher. Or anything like that. Don’t tell me I can be anything because we all know that’s bullshit. The- serum has fucked me up. I’m stupid. I’m never going to be anything-“
Kathryn handed me the book, but before I could throw it away, she firmly held my hands. “Try and read the first few words.”
“But don’t you want to do little girl things like you said? Read to me and whatever?”
Kathryn shook her head, “That’s not what you want, sweetie. And there’s plenty more we can do. Believe me.” She gave me a devilish grin and then grew more serious, “I know you want to learn how to read again. And every night, Tho- your daddy and I will help you work through this book. You’ll start to recognize the words. You’ll be able to read again. I know it. But that also means-“
“That I need to go with Miss Drake.”
Kathryn smiled gently and then pointed at a word on the page. She helped me sound it out and then showed me exactly how it all fit together with the syllable pairings. The next time I saw ‘Sherlock’, I recognized the word. It was a small victory, but it was enough. Ten- twenty minutes later, I didn’t want to stop, but of course, Kathryn closed the book.
“Aww. Can’t we keep going?”
Kathryn replied, “Tomorrow we’ll do a few more sentences.”
Sentences. We weren’t doing pages or even paragraphs, or even words. No, it was syllable by syllable, until we had a word, but incredibly- it felt like with each syllable I learned, how it interacted with the other parts of the word. It was like something was unravelling within my mind- cobwebs slowly being cleaned away.
Kathryn slid off the bed and then leaned down and kissed me on the forehead, exactly the same way she had pretty much every night since I had arrived.
“I love you, Kaylee. Good night.”
And then the words, like the giggle before them, poured out without a measure of opposition. It was the torrent, a raging river, but one that had seemingly never been dammed.
“I love you too.”
A butterfly. A car with a racing stripe. A fuzzy unicorn. A happy face.
Ava reached down and pointed at the fuzzy unicorn on the sticker sheet. Ms. Drake gingerly plucked the sticker from the sheet and placed it on Ava’s dress. Did it matter which one I picked? Was I even deserving of one? What if I didn’t get one? Would I have a tantrum for the ages?
Ms. Drake motioned toward me, and I looked down at the sheet. I pulled the car sticker off the sheet, carefully affixing it to my own dress. Anna and Elsa of Frozen fame featured prominently on the garment. It was a tutu dress with a long flowing poofy skirt. On the blouse were the smiling sisters in a pose seen on countless pieces of merchandise.
“Can I trust you girls to walk back to the classroom by yourself?” A nod in unison sent Ava and I into the short corridor that connected Ms. Drake’s reading room to Mrs. Carmichaels’ classroom.
“You are fashion today, Kaylee.”
I blinked slowly, “I’m what?”
Ava smiled, “Fashion. You are totally fashion. Your dress.”
I shrugged, “How come you are being so nice to me? Aren’t you mad because I made fun of you all those times? And you aren’t going to make fun of me for picking the car sticker? I figured that would be something you would do.”
Ava replied, “Nope. My mommy said it was probably because you were like me. That’s why you were so mad. Because you were having trouble reading stuff.” I couldn’t exactly tell her the truth, so that bit of retconning would have to stand. I had previously torn holes in her writing, telling her everything that was wrong with it, but with my recent lapse, maybe she thought I was faking all along?
I nodded, “Oh. Well, anyway I’m sorry for being a dick to you.”
Ava raised a brow, “A what?”
I raised my hands, “No. No. Never mind. Mean. I’m sorry for being mean.”
Ava asked tentatively, “H-How come you never want to play with us? You don’t even play with Conner anymore. You don’t like playing?”
I frowned, “It’s complicated. I-I’m scared.”
Ava actually laughed before blurting out her response, “You’re scared of playing? That’s- I guess that’s why the other kids call you weird. Not me though.”
I sighed, “Why bother defending me? They’ll just make fun of you.”
Ava smiled, “Because we’re friends, silly. We’re in gymnastics, and we’re going to be in the camp this summer. It’s gonna be so fun! Gymnastics and then dance.” I guess I couldn’t have expected a six-year old girl to understand friendship beyond classmates automatically being friends.
I shook my head, “I’m doing karate for three weeks. But I guess gymnastics too though. I’ll see you then.” I sounded about as enthusiastic as someone who just received news they would need a root canal. Gymnastics was awesome, but I wasn’t sure I wanted to spend three whole weeks with Ava glued to my side.
Ava asked, “Aren’t you gonna tell me why you’re afraid of playing? That’s a really silly thing to be scared of.”
I replied while gesturing at the door of the classroom. “Let’s just go inside.”
At recess, I found myself watching again. Ava and her friends were playing a game that looked incredibly fun. Everything they did looked fun, and while I desperately wanted to join them, I found that I couldn’t. For so long, I had fought against the serum and the manner in which it less than subtly pushed me toward children my own age, but now that I actually wanted to join them, to be normal?
So, I sat miserable and bored while the girls in my class played in the snow. They were walking around on all fours, obviously pretending to be animals. I knew why I couldn’t join them, and it had everything to do with fear.
Moments later, I felt a gentle nudge against my leg, followed by a purring noise.
“Please go away, Ava. I don’t want to play.”
“But we’re playing snow kittens. And you look so sad.”
I shook my head, “No. I don’t want to.”
I knew that if I joined that my mind would simply blank, and I would fall into a sort of trance. It happened the moment I laid hands on the Barbie dolls that Jessica had brought, when I touched Emma’s Elsa doll. It hadn’t been that way during the malleable period, when the serum was in its infancy, but it had solidified itself over time.
I desperately wanted to play, but not like that- not becoming someone else. A caricature of a little girl as dictated by the serum. No, I wanted to do it on my own terms.
Ava reached up and gently took my hand. We were both wearing mittens, so the girl quickly adjusted to grip my wrist as she started to gently pull off the glove. I don’t know why I went with her, but I guess falling into a stupor was better than just sitting on a cold bench watching everyone else having fun.
A little girl with green eyes and brown hair sporting a toque with a massive pom-pom said, “I’m the snow queen. And you’re gonna be my snow kitten.” She grinned, “OK?” The girl waved her hands and gently guided me toward the snow-covered ground. The other girls around me started meowing. Ava played with a snowball like a ball of yarn, while another girl pounced on some unseen mouse.
Completely surrounded, I waited for my mind to turn into a childlike putty.
But it never happened.
My imagination took hold, but it wasn’t like before, where I would simply blank out, losing all control. Now, I could picture myself with a little cute tail and pointed ears. I twitched my nose back and forth, pretending that I had whiskers. My coat was black and white with little smatterings of orange. A massive smile appeared on my face as I walked on all fours toward Ava and nudged the snowball with my nose. She grinned and then batted the little ball back to me.
The bell rang, and what used to be a relief, became a massive annoyance. The chime had totally interrupted our play. I trudged back toward the school with the other girls.
Ava sidled up next to me, “So, um, do you want to play next recess too?”
I nodded happily, “Yeah. I do.”
“Uhh. Daddy, that’s not exactly right.”
“Kaylee, I’m sure I have it this time.”
I shook my head, “It’s going to fall down.” I looked at the tent, and the poles that Thomas had interconnected didn’t form the necessary ‘X’ shape. It was definitely going to fall down the second he tried to lift it.
And that is exactly what happened.
Thomas groaned, “Seriously, it’s as bad as IKEA. I want actual instructions, not pictures. This isn’t some oh-men-don’t-read-instructions thing either. I followed the directions. It’s on IKEA. If they included actual written directions it would remove the confusion. Put piece A in piece B. Rotate. Not stupid arrows going in every direction…”
Kathryn grinned, “Are you done? Lunch will be ready and eaten before you get that up. You’re the one who wanted to try and put it up.”
Thomas nodded, “Well if I’m going on that remote forensic dig in August- I need to be able to put up my tent. I need practice.”
I nodded and giggled, “A lot of practice.”
Thomas replied, “OK. A lot of practice. Where is the bathroom by the way?”
I pointed to the trail which had led us to our campsite. “There should be a place over there behind the trees where you can go. Don’t forget to bury it.”
Thomas’ eyes bugged out of his skull, “W-What? There isn’t even a toilet?”
Kathryn laughed, “Calm down. There are porta-potties at the communal shower area.”
Thomas wrinkled his nose and sighed, dragging his feet as he walked away. “There really aren’t any toilets? Like we can’t go to someone’s house and-“
Kathryn grinned, “Kaylee, you’ll have to excuse your dad, but he is about as ‘princess’ as they come with camping. The last time we went, which was probably ten years ago, he paid someone to use their bathroom. Had to walk twice as far to get there too.”
Thomas groaned, “I’m just not the outdoorsy type.” With that, he trudged off toward the porta-potties, Fitzy close behind. Thankfully, however, Fitzy was tied to a post, and he decided to simply bark at the departing Thomas instead of following him. Although knowing the breed, Fitzy would have caught a whiff of something- a flower, a squirrel, and he would have been gone for hours.
Kathryn carefully pulled the skillet off the fire and set it down on a nearby log. “I’m worried about Thomas. He wants to go on that dig so badly, but he’s right. He isn’t- I don’t know how he’ll do it. Two weeks like that.”
I replied, “Well he just needs to get used to it. He needs to camp more. Then he’ll be way more confident. For me, it was moose hunting with my dad. After that two weeks in the deep, deep bush, I basically learned everything I needed to know.” My dad was still my dad. But so was Thomas. It was early July, just a week after I had passed the first grade, and Kathryn suggested a camping trip for the whole family. Initially, Thomas had balked at the idea, giving the excuse of grants (his favourite go-to), but with enough prodding we all managed to convince him that it was a good idea, especially with his upcoming dig.
It hurt me at first that he didn’t want to come. Did he not want to spend time with me? The notion was silly considering we had returned to our routine of throwing the football around in the backyard, but I couldn’t completely banish the thought.
Kathryn said, “We should stop teasing him. That’s probably not helping.” I nodded, and Kathryn asked hesitantly, “A-Are you still interested in hunting?”
The question caught me off guard. I hadn’t really thought about it, considering all my gear was at my mom’s place.
I shrugged, “I’ve only ever gone with my dad. Since he died, I haven’t gone once. Not that I could have really gone in LA, but I don’t know. Why?”
Kathryn replied, “Plenty of people do it around here. It’s just I’ve heard you talk about it enough.”
I raised a brow, “And do you have a problem with it?” Kathryn was skating on the thinnest of ice.
Kathryn said, “I’ve never been. Thomas neither. His dad used to try and bring him, but I expect a lot of the same things happened that are still happening. I’m not trying to judge you or anything like that- just curious. Why do you do it? Shoot and kill animals?”
As much as I liked Kathryn, she could be tremendously sanctimonious. She got into debates with Thomas about politics that sometimes left them both angry. Thomas was in favour of some restrictions on abortion, and Kathryn was not, and then it turned into a full-scale world war. It was obvious no daughter of hers was going to murder defenceless animals.
I said, “OK, you can’t say, well I’m not judging you when you fucking are. And ignorant too. Why did I do it? Because it meant spending time with my dad. It was the same as when we threw a football around or watched Goodfellas. Why do other people do it? I don’t know, and I don’t give a shit as long as they aren’t killing more than what is on their tag.”
Kathryn frowned, “I’m sorry, Kaylee. That was uncalled for. It’s just always bothered me that people still hunt.”
I shrugged, “I get it. But I can also see- you know, I’m your daughter, but I’m still me. I don’t want to be a clone of you. I kind of feel like you push your fucking opinion on me sometimes and expect me to just adopt it. I’m not like a blank slate you can just mold into what you want. Seriously, I get Daniels vibes from you sometimes. That’s not good.”
Kathryn nodded, “You’re right, honey. It’s something I need to work on. I’ve just always been really opinionated.”
Fitzy barked at the returning Thomas. The man looked absolutely defeated.
Kathryn frowned and asked, “Couldn’t go?”
Thomas sighed heavily, “I think I have a phobia or something. I should just forget about the dig. There’s no way I’ll be able to do this for two weeks.”
I shook my head, “You’ll do it. You know why? Because you won’t have a fucking choice. If there’s only a porta-potty or even just a latrine or whatever. You’ll have to do it. It’s in your head. You just overthink things. Like way too much.”
I motioned to our meagre belongings, which included food for tonight and tomorrow morning, “Your head- it’s like it knows it can wait, even overnight. Believe me. I used to deal with this with Greg. He had a phobia about public washrooms. Eventually though, once he got plastered, he did it no problem.” I grinned, “So just bring plenty of Jack with you.”
Thomas smiled, “My daughter the savant. Seriously though, you sell yourself short, Kaylee Bear. I wish you’d stop thinking you’re stupid. Once you get the book smarts down, you’ll be a force to be reckoned with.”
I shook my head, “Let’s talk once I can actually finish a book without taking about a million breaks. We still haven’t finished the Hound.”
Kathryn said, “Just look at what you’ve managed to accomplish though. Your reading has really, really improved. You aren’t even going to be in that special class next year.” It was true. I would miss Ava, but I would see her at recess and competitive gymnastics.
“I’m not really going to be happy until I’m back where I was.”
Thomas smiled, “You’ll get there, Kaylee. You’re as stubborn as a Feinstein.” Kathryn shot Thomas a dirty look, but just maintained his smile. “Your aunt and your mom. They are very strong-minded women. And I mean that in the best possible way.”
Thomas returned to the tent, groaning in frustration as he attempted to fit the poles together. I frowned,
“It’s not gonna work.”
Thomas replied, “Well I married a Feinstein, so something has to rub off on me, right?”
I shook my head, “Sure, but it’s physically impossible. Look, you’ve broken off the little tabs here where the poles fit trying to pull them apart. You can get them in, but they won’t stay.”
Kathryn asked sadly, “So, do we just go home? Nothing is open right now.
I shook my head fervently, “No fucking way. It’s warm enough for us to just sleep in our bags. My dad and I did it when our tent got busted. Oh right. Sorry. Language.” Because I so desperately wanted the approval of my parents, I was doing my best to curb my swearing, but it was a learned habit. No one I was around before said anything about it, so I just always did it. But the look of disappointment on their faces each time I swore in public was enough to push me to stop. Or at least swear less.
Kathryn said in a mock-British accent, “We’ll have a polite, proper Patterson we will.”
Thomas added in an equally poor British accent, “Positively pristine with her pronouncements she’ll be.”
I groaned, “You guys are seriously the weirdest people I’ve ever known. And I used to work in Hollywood.”
Thomas droned, “One-of-us-one-of-us.”
The galaxy of stars.
It was something you didn’t see, wedged together in the comfortable confines of a tent. The three of us simply lay back in our sleeping bags and watched the stars, and while I was pleased to see such an incredible display, it was clear that Thomas was awestruck.
The man stared at the stars that filled the sky like a child. His eyes were full of wonder.
I cuddled up next to him as Fitzy attempted to do the same. The dog had tried to crawl into my sleeping bag initially, but there really wasn’t room. I already felt like a sausage in a casing, and I didn’t want something else in there too.
I asked softly, “See something you like?”
Thomas smiled, “I’ve lived in Twin Falls my entire life, but I guess I’ve never really appreciated it. Like yeah I’ve been to cottages before. This looks like the lightshow at the planetarium in St. Paul honestly.”
My eyes were growing heavy. I did my best to continue listening to him, but his words drifted in and out like gentle waves against the shore.
“And I think you’re right about the trip. I’ll be fine, I just need to-“
“It wasn’t easy with my dad. He expected me to be this-“
“Honey, I think she’s asleep.”
I felt a gentle weight press against my side and then lips on my cheek.
“Good night, Kaylee. I love you. And I-I’m really glad I came.”
“Come on, speed it up.”
“There are cars in front, Kaylee.”
“But I want to see, Ava.”
“You just saw her at gymnastics camp last week.”
I groaned, sitting back in my car seat and sighed dramatically, “I thought I taught you how to drive, Daddy. Seriously. Kids on bikes are passing us. With training wheels.”
Kathryn laughed softly, “We’ll get there, Kaylee. I know you’re in a hurry to get to school, but it’s not a race.”
I said, “It could be. Did you know your car or at least a variation of it has been used in off-road rally racing? It’s like you’ve got a spaceship, but you won’t even leave the planet.”
Thomas said sheepishly, “I got a ticket last week.”
Kathryn said, “Uh huh. Exactly. Plus, it’s dangerous. With road conditions-“
I interrupted Kathryn, “How fast were you going?”
Thomas sighed, “Fast enough.”
Thomas stopped the car in front of Twin Falls Collegiate, and a little girl, who didn’t want to be called little (first day of second grade today bitches), exited the vehicle. The new gaps in her teeth couldn’t mar a smile that was content, but most of all, excited. She was a quintessential preppy of the boat-faring variety with high-knee socks and a pair of black strappy sandals. The dress, which ended just above the knee, was pink and purple with a massive glittery star on the front. This was the Anna phase- with two thick pigtails bouncing gently as the girl walked toward or rather ran toward the school. It was fashion as Ava would say, and I couldn’t wait to show her.
“Hi, sweetie. How was your day?”
“I-It was OK.”
“It doesn’t really sound like it was.”
“Well there’s this boy-“
My mom looked at me with wide eyes, a subdued delight as she practically beamed and then, a sense of growing concern. “Sorry. I’m just. I’m not sure how to react exactly. But I don’t really matter- what about, um. How do you feel about this, honey?” Mom seemed to be seriously channelling dad for all the stammering she was doing.
I nodded, “I’m not sure.”
Mom asked, “Well maybe it would help if you told me about it.”
We sat at our places at the dinner table, my homework- which was always done before anything else sat next to me. I gripped a pencil, fingers with pink-painted nails gripping the instrument near to its breaking point. I shook my head, jostling the multi-coloured butterfly earrings dangling from my ears. Mom put her hand on mine. We both knew what this meant. Whether we were ready to admit it was something else entirely.
“It’s Conner. Sometimes, he’s really stupid. And I hate him. Like when he says I can’t throw, and everyone knows I can throw way better than he can. Like way better. And when we play football he makes fun of me because sometimes I don’t want to play if it’s too muddy.”
“But we are doing this dumb dance at school. I wanted to be in the hip hop group, but I got stuck in the dumb square dancing one. And Conner’s my partner- and sometimes I just really…” I sighed.
“Want to hold his hand.” I hung my head, causing my hair to tumble into my eyes.
Mom gently brushed away the long blond tresses from my eyes and said tentatively, “I mean, it’s perfectly natural- at eleven I was-“
I said sadly, “Sure, but this is different. I’m not normal. Not natural. I’m a science experiment.”
Mom reached over and took me in her arms, “Shh. Shh. Kaylee, nothing could be further from the truth. You are becoming a beautiful young woman, and it is perfectly normal. I think this is-“
I said, “You know it’s the serum that made me like this. It’s not real.”
Mom replied softly while hugging my slim frame. “You’re still you. You still like fast cars and loose women.”
I groaned, “M-ooom.”
Mom smiled, “OK, so maybe not the latter. I think what you have to do is what just feels right. Like when you decided to be our daughter- I mean we gave you the choice. But that is what felt the most natural to you. If this feels right- honest and pure. Then do it. There’s no harm in trying.”
I hugged my mom tightly and said, “OK.”
Mom said, “Speaking of things that are perfectly natural- we’re going to have to take a trip to the mall soon.”
I raised a brow and looked down at my t-shirt, a pink and white tee, which showed only the slightest indentation in the lettering that read TWIN FALLS ELITE GYMNASTICS PROGRAM. “Seriously? Already?”
Mom smiled, “Already.”
“Do you have any idea how much harm could have come to you? What were you thinking, Kaylee? And that boy is five years older than you. He’s in college.”
I shook my head and gently blew some of the stray locks of pink and purple hair from my eyes. “It’s not a big deal. Brad’s a good guy.”
Mom replied, “No. No. He’s not. No good guy would let his girl- whatever you are to him- get drunk at a college party and just leave her there.”
I glared at my mom, “He had an emergency. He was back like three hours later. And I wasn’t that drunk.”
Dad, who had remained silent to this point, said worriedly, “Kaylee Bear, you threw up all over your room- in your hair... You could barely even sit up in bed. I know we can’t stop you from seeing him-“
Mom interjected with a Feinstein-like intensity, “Like hell we can’t. He’s a grown man chasing a fifteen year old girl. Come on, Thomas- aren’t you supposed to have the fire? What would your dad have done in a situation like this?”
Dad sighed heavily, “I know what he did. Ended up in jail. He beat up my sister’s boyfriend half to death. Kathryn, we have to be reasonable here. She’s going to see him. We’ve told her we disapprove, that we are worried for her, but we can’t watch her all the time.”
Mom said, “But- she could have died. Or been hurt or gotten pregnant.” She turned to me with tears in her eyes, “Kaylee, please- stop seeing this boy. He doesn’t care about you.”
I rolled my eyes. “You guys are just clueless. And you’re right. I’ll do what I want. You’re probably just mad because I’m not like fucking Ava. Miss Perfect.”
Mom asked, “What about Conner? Didn’t you say you liked him?”
I scoffed, “Like in seventh grade maybe. Conner is like every boy at school. I’ve seen him like a million times. And he and his friends are so immature.”
Mom sighed and wiped away her tears, “But he’s nice.”
I shook my head, “Nice is boring.”
Brad: u wearing what I got u
Me: not yet but soon
Brad: u will look so fucking hot kayles
Brad: yeah good enough to fuck
I took a deep breath and threw my phone on the bed. Returning to the vanity, I looked at myself in the mirror. The girl looking back at me didn’t look fifteen, not with the deep valley of cleavage formed by the barely-there halter bustier that pushed my boobs up into my chin. Nor the copious amount of makeup, eye shadow and thick eye liner or the cover up used to hide the little freckles at the bridge of my nose. Only my skinny legs clad in an equally barely-there mini-skirt and thong combo were evidence of my age.
I looked like a prostitute.
Is this really what Brad wanted? If I looked like this, would he want to be my boyfriend? Was I ready? I needed condoms. I mean, I wasn’t stupid.
No. What was wrong with me? I knew guys like this. I was a fucking guy like this, but when Conner said he just wanted to be friends- well fuck him. Was I ever as bad as Brad?
Brad was a good guy. Kind and honest. He was mature too. And unlike every guy in Twin Falls, he wasn’t sharing the gene pool. Why couldn’t I stop thinking about the time Conner kissed me in the park last summer?
My insanity was interrupted by a knock at the door. Dad entered and then immediately covered his eyes, “Oh! Kaylee, you can’t be serious about wearing something like that! Or even think that your mother will let you. Can you-“
I smirked and then put on an old hoodie. This covered my boobs, but my legs were still nearly completely exposed. “Dad, you know you can’t stop me.”
My dad sighed heavily, “Your mother is going to expect me to tell her about this.”
I snapped, “So what she sent you in here to spy on me?”
He shook his head, “No. Actually, I wanted to talk about your birthday. It’s in a few weeks, and I was thinking, you’ll be sixteen.”
My mouth dropped and then a massive grin appeared on my face, “Wait, are you telling me, you’re going to buy me a car?!” I practically attacked the man with the force of my hug.
“Yes and no. We’ve been talking about it. I really miss spending time with you, especially since I’ve been gone a lot of the summer on digs. I was hoping we could you know fix up a car. You and me. Mr. Milner- Frank could even help us with the engine. And then it would be your car when you go to college-”
I released the hug, “I don’t do that kind of stuff anymore.”
Dad frowned, “Why?”
I replied, “Because it’s stupid that’s why.”
Dad said, “I know what happened with Conner. His aunt has a mouth the size of Janet Plinkett. Listen, some of the guys he hangs out with are immature. Really immature. But I really don’t think he told you he wanted to be friends because some sexist teenage boys made fun of him because his girlfriend helped him fix his dirt bike. He’s fifteen, and so are you, Kaylee Bear. Relationships just don’t last at this age. But what you had with Conner is way more real than whatever you have with this Brad guy.”
My dad moved toward the door, “Think about it, OK? And for god’s sake, don’t let your mother see you dressed like that. You’ll turn her whole head grey.”
I was left alone to look at myself in the vanity with the wooden flowers. A frown creased my youthful features.
Moments later, I flitted toward my bed and picked up my phone, staring once again at the texts Brad sent me.
Me: see u soon
“I’m really sorry, Dad.”
Dad sighed softly as he navigated the deserted roads. His high beams flashed, illuminating what would have been near pitch blackness even with regular headlights. He said, “You did the right thing calling me, Kaylee. I wish you hadn’t gone in the first place, but I’m glad you came to your senses.”
I shook my head, tears gently falling from my eyes as I zipped up my dad’s long raincoat, covering my exposed- everything. “He didn’t want me. He found out- he found out that I’m fifteen.”
Dad replied awkwardly, “Oh.”
I nodded, “Yeah. Fucking. Oh. I made Brad bring me down to where Conner and his friends hang out. And they fucking told him how old I am.”
Dad said, “Well you know maybe it’s for the best.”
I said, “You don’t get it. I know we don’t talk about this a lot anymore, but there is something seriously wrong with me. I’m upset because I didn’t get to sleep with some asshole. What if the serum has some slut protocol or something?”
Dad actually laughed in response, but he quickly stifled the noise, and while I said nothing, something shifted in the car. My eyes bore into the man’s skull as if attempting to seek out his brain matter.
I shrieked, “How can you fucking laugh about something like this?! It’s making me into someone I don’t want to be!”
Dad said, “You’ve forgotten what it was like to be a teenager. Think about how you were as Ryan at that age, just for a minute. Did you ever do something like this? Did you ever feel like your entire world was falling down because of a girl?”
I mumbled, “Well, I guess. I snuck out a lot to be with Hannah. But I was like really smooth. In control, you know? I really feel like I’m going crazy.”
Even in the dark, I knew Dad was smirking, “Really? Think back to what actually happened.”
I said, “Well maybe that’s a bit of a lie. I guess I made her mad a lot. I used to try and figure out what I was doing wrong, but the more I thought about it, the more confused I was. It drove me crazy.”
Dad said, “So being on the other side, it’s not that much different is it? Teenage boys and girls are certifiably insane. Look, I know I’m poking fun here, but you are pretty impulsive, Kaylee. It’s obvious you were trying to make Conner jealous. You dressed like that so Brad would show interest, but you didn’t really want to-“
Dad squirmed in his seat, “Right. And please, let’s say something else.”
I grinned, “Having intercourse? Boning?”
Dad asked with clear exasperation, “Have you thought about what I said, you know about your birthday?”
I sighed, “You really think me fixing the dirt bike had nothing to do with Conner telling me he just wants to be friends?”
Dad replied, “That’s not exactly what I meant. I’ll be honest with you, Kaylee. It probably played a part, but it wasn’t everything. It’s definitely your age too. You have to ask yourself though who you want to be. Do you want to change who you are for a guy?”
I shook my head, “What do you mean change who I am? It’s just a remnant. Just some stupid stuff that still rattles around in my head for no reason. It’s not me.”
After my words, a silence descended and wasn’t broken until my mom saw how I had dressed to leave the house.
“Happy birthday, Kaylee!”
“Oh Mom, it’s- I love it. I’ll totally wear it every day.”
Mom beamed, “It’s a sweetheart necklace. Literally. Dad gave it to my mom when they started going steady. She was sixteen too. Here.” I leaned forward and pulled my long blonde hair from my neck to allow my mom to attach the necklace.
Dad said, “It looks great, Kaylee. Look at the back though.”
I turned it over and read the inscription, figuring it would say something like, “You are the bees’ knees, Gloria.” Instead, however, it was a simple date. A date from ten years ago.
I had expected my birthday, which we celebrated on the day of my arrival to the Patterson home, which nicely coincided with Kaylee’s birth certificate (likely something McDavid cooked up), but it was a different date entirely.
Mom smiled, “This is the exact date you decided you wanted to be our daughter. For me this is more special- far more significant than the day we brought you home. Because this was your choice. And we couldn’t be happier that you made it.”
I smiled, “C-Cut it out you guys are going to make me cry.”
Dad said, “We’ve got one more surprise for you, Kaylee.” He pointed to the front door. I leapt across the room, slid through the kitchen (almost falling) and then sprinted down the hall where I proceeded to fling open the door.
“Oh. My. God. Is that? Is that what I think it is?”
Dad grinned knowingly, “Yup.”
Sitting on a trailer was a beat-up ‘67 Shelby Mustang with chipping red paint, the pinnacle of American muscle cars. I wasn’t sure if it was a 350 or a 500, but seriously who the fuck cared? I had dreamed about driving a ’67 since…birth? No. My dad had taken me to a car show when I was seven. He had to drag me from the driver’s seat to give the other kids a turn. I was happy with the 96’ I worked on with my dad, which was in many ways a throwback to the sleek ’67, but it wasn’t the same.
I grinned, “How did you know?”
Dad smiled, “Well a little birdie has been telling me for the last ten years that this was her favourite car. Now, it doesn’t run right now, but Frank thinks that if we rebuild the carburetor-“
A sudden dark cloud descended on the happy moment. My shoulders slumped as I looked at the car, realizing that it was going to require a lot of work to even get it road worthy. “I thought we talked about this.”
Dad replied, “We did, Kaylee Bear. But I know who you are. You seem to be forgetting that. Mind you, this is still your choice. If you really don’t want it, we can talk about another car no problem. One that you just have to gas and go. Maybe a nice mid-size sedan?”
I glared at the man and then walked toward the car, although currently it was nothing more than a massive immovable object. Frank waved and then got out of his truck, “Take a look at her. Her drivetrain is in great shape. There’ll be some gaskets to replace. And the radiator too. Gotta get the turn signals working, and your mom said there’s no way you’ll be driving her without air bags. Oh brakes too. Your dad saved her though. Guy wanted her for parts, and he convinced the owner to sell to him saying he wanted it for his daughter who loved Mustangs.”
Other than a fuller and stark white mustache, the man looked like he hadn’t aged a day. I said, “Yeah, looks like a good one.”
Frank said, “That’s the same enthusiasm I expect from your father when we start pulling all the rusted bolts. I know it’s gonna be a boatload of work, but it’s work worth doing, right? It’ll take a while too. They’ll be calling us all grease monkeys by the time we’re finished. But she’ll be a beauty. A show car.”
I sighed lightly, “Great.”
Frank said, “I don’t know why your mom never put you in any pageants, Kaylee. You’re as pretty as any of those girls on the magazines at Dr. Olga’s office.”
Frank continued talking, but I tuned him out. I leaned down to inspect the car, tracing a long fingernail along the white side trim. A hesitant hand brushed away some caked on hardened mud, revealing faded white letters- G.T. 350. My heart jumped. I had always preferred the 350 to the 500. Yes, the 500 had a larger engine, but the 350 was more versatile, allowing almost any type of fuel. They handled better, especially when not just going straight. Of course, these were things I had read in my dad’s car magazines and later on forums, but some of it had to be true.
My mind swirled with thoughts of Conner and his asshole friends- Brad and the failed attempt to make Conner insanely jealous.
“So if she fixes your bike, does that mean you have to suck her dick, Conner?”
The sound of their laughter filled my ears as I continued to inspect the car. The inside was in excellent shape, looking to have all the original upholstery. I wasn’t sure how an air bag would go in the skinny steering wheel, but I assumed there would be a way.
I couldn’t ignore the fact that I felt something for the car. Was it Frank’s stupid and probably made up story about dad saving the car from being scrapped for parts? My dad, the soldier, a man of tremendous logic and practicality, actually believed that his cars talked to him- in a way. He never bought a new car in his life, preferring the write-offs and used lot leftovers and treating them as challenges. It was like that with the ’96 Mustang, the crash victim that had a new lease on life thanks my dad’s expert hands. No, those cars, the forgotten ones, had stories. I doubt they actually spoke a word to him, but somehow, he felt a connection to inanimate hunks of metal.
And the G.T. 350 sitting on the trailer in my front yard, despite not uttering a word, was speaking to me.
“You can ride behind her in the bitch seat when she’s done with your bike.”
I walked over to dad and threw my arms around him. Tears in my eyes, I said, “Fuck them. Let’s do this.”
She weeps over a body lying still on a single stone slab, dress and hair in disarray.
A lone spotlight descends on her as a dagger, unsheathed from her lover’s belt, plunges into her chest.
The auditorium was suddenly bathed in red light- a moment later, curtains and then fervent applause. A young woman face broken in a seemingly endless smile takes a bow. A bespectacled man with a shock of grey hair gives her a bouquet of flowers and the smile, impossibly, grows wider.
“Kayles, you were incredible out there. I mean we read the play in freshman year, but I’m just-“
An impeccably dressed teenage fashionista interrupted, “The whole thing was amazing, but you were just- I really felt it. You know when Juliet finds the bottle of poison. I almost lost it.”
I grinned in a way that made me think I would never stop smiling, “You guys are going to give me such a swelled head that I’m going to float out of here. It was good, though? Was I fashion, Ava?”
Ava groaned, “We were in first grade, Kaylee. First grade.” She brightened, “But yeah, you were fashion as hell.”
Conner nodded slowly. “I still don’t get why you won’t go to an arts school.”
I said, “Because I can do both. We’ve talked about this.”
Conner frowned, “I know.” Ava slowly stepped away, offering a quick wave as I prepared for another fight with Conner.
I shook my head, “No, you don’t get to do this. You don’t get to make me feel bad about leaving. Why should I have to follow you? The science program at Lincoln isn’t as strong, especially the genetics labs.”
Conner looked at his shoes. I said softly, “I’ll be an hour away in St. Paul. We can talk and text. And visit each other. It’s not that far.”
Conner offered a non-committal, “Yeah.”
And with that, I knew it was over. Conner trudged away, but I blew past him into the parking lot. The red G.T.350 was waiting for me, in fact, she was practically screaming my name. I wanted to be three hundred miles away from Conner, tearing down an open stretch of road with the scenery a veritable blur.
The warm July evening cast a gentle breeze which caused my long hair to dance over my shoulders. A summer sun illuminated the parking lot as I scanned the area for my parents. A young woman with raven hair got out of the car next to mine. It was a boxy sedan.
“I could have guessed this was yours.”
My jaw dropped, and it was only the hinge keeping it from tumbling toward the asphalt.
The woman grinned and did a little twirl, “OK. So, I guess technically the first time we met you still stared more.”
“Sure, I could have met you at your place, but that’s no fun. I wanted to see if you’ve still got it. So, I bought a ticket and yeah- you’ve still got it. Not to mention, you turned out really, really nice, Sullivan.”
“A-Ashley?” I still couldn’t close my mouth.
“I’ve been trying to find you for years. W-What are you doing here?”
Ashley nodded, “There wasn’t a ME to find. Mom worked for ten years on it. I guess you’d know her as Tracy. Finally, she reached a breakthrough with the help of someone living here. At the time I didn’t know her, but I guess she was your old social worker, and a few years ago your science teacher.”
“Ms. McDavid. But she’s Mrs. Geist now. Married with kids. She was actually an amazing teacher. She’s one of the reasons I wanted to pursue a science career in the first place. Well that and the serum.”
Ashley said with a grin, “Okay. Okay. Plenty of time for that. I’ve been dying to know, do you hate guys yet?”
I shook my head, “My boyfriend is a fucking tool who wants me to go to his college because he’s afraid to fail at a better one. Yeah. I’m pretty much there.”
Ashley replied in mock astonishment, “Wow. Full circle.”
I nodded, “My dad and Frank are pretty much the only decent guys in town. I’m hoping college is better. Not to mention I’ve pretty much known all of them since elementary school. It’s hard to forget them staring at my boobs like porn basically for all of seventh grade.”
I added, “Oh and Greg. I guess you never met him, but we still keep in touch.”
Ashley put a hand on my shoulder, “It’s just the way it is right now. College is better, but there are still plenty of assholes. I’m seeing a nice guy right now though. I was actually seeing him before I got my memory back.”
I asked, “What was that like? I mean getting your memory back? And you stayed with that guy even if, you know you are different?”
Ashley shook her head, “I still remember growing up as Tracy’s daughter. I remember all the birthdays and everything, and I’ll admit that it was confusing at first having basically conflicting memories, but she was a really good mom. She offered to block off my second childhood, but I told her no.”
“Do- do you know what happened to Ms. Daniels and Dr. Travers?”
Ashley nodded, “Tracy reached out to her once she turned eighteen. She’d been in and out of group homes- she’s definitely had a tough life. Never was adopted. She’s at a community college right now on government funds pretty much. Last I heard from Tracy is she was with some guy and she thought she might be pregnant.”
Ashley took a breath and then sighed gently, “Travers. Travers is gone. Whatever trauma he went through being pricked by so many needles, being regressed to a baby girl. It was all too much. Even without the memory wipe, Tracy said there’s nothing left. She met the family a few months ago with some story, and she says Travers is happy. Her name’s Tamberlyn. She’s starting middle school in the fall.”
Ashley asked, “And what about you? I mean other than guys, which I kind of figured, who is Kaylee Patterson?”
I nodded, “She’s me. I accepted who I am a long time ago. Once I stopped fighting, the crazy panic attacks went away. I still have nightmares about the studio, and it’s hard not be actually be able to talk to anyone other than my parents about it, but I get by.”
Ashley asked hesitantly, “W-What about your mom? Did you ever tell her what happened to you?”
I said, “When I was I think about nine, I was really, really mad at my parents. I can’t even really remember over what exactly, but I e-mailed my birth mom and she drove to Twin Falls thinking she would find Ryan. I told her what happened and everything, and my parents backed it up, but she refused to believe it.”
Ashley frowned and squeezed my shoulder, “I’m so sorry. I’m going to be doing the same thing with my dad in a few weeks. I really hope it goes better.”
I nodded, “It was like. She couldn’t see Ryan inside of Kaylee. I was inconsolable for days, feeling like I was losing who I had been. How could she not believe me? I e-mail her every few months, just to let her know how I am doing. But she never responds. It’s not like she’s senile or anything. She’s barely fifty. I’ve said I was sorry a million times for not calling her before my change. I don’t get it.”
Ashley replied, “She lost your dad and then you. Maybe she just doesn’t know how to cope.”
I said, “I wonder too if maybe she thinks she’s been replaced. But I want her in my life. I want to tell her that I know how she felt every time my dad went away. That I’m sorry for being such an asshole to her.”
Ashley smiled softly and said reassuringly, “Keep trying. You never know what part of your life that you will share that will make her realize what she’s missing.”
Ashley asked, “So this Greg guy? You think you’ll hit it off?”
I laughed loud enough that a few people in the parking lot gave us strange looks.
“You want to go for a drive?”
Ashley smiled, “You know I’m not going to end up in the backseat of that thing, right?”
I rolled my eyes, “Just get in.”
The car roared to life and soon enough it was spitting out gravel along one of the back roads behind the high school.
The Shelby needed no turbo as it tore down the road, just a massive V8 engine.
I turned to look at Ashley. She sat in the passenger seat with a mixture of fear and excitement, her hands gripping the dashboard as I careened around a corner.
Ashley grinned, “OK. Five minutes in the backseat. Shirt on though.”
I scoffed, “Don’t flatter yourself.”
Ashley replied, “So Greg, what’s wrong with him? I thought you said he was a nice guy?”
I said, “Well yeah, he’s nice, but he’s also married. He’s also got kids. I actually went to his wedding. I’d known him before the change. He was kind of my best friend.”
Ashley nodded, “Was it weird?”
I shrugged, “I should have been his best man. I mean I wasn’t the flower girl or anything. There was no way that was happening. Even though I kind of wanted to be. But no one else knew who I was, so I was just a regular guest filling out the groom’s side. Nobody. I should have been the one making the awkward toast to the happy couple and hitting on all the bridesmaids.”
Ashley said, “Not sure I would have wanted to hear that toast. Probably about how you almost banged the bride at some point.”
I smirked, thinking about Eve and how that would never ever would have happened. “Yeah. The night before.”
Ashley asked, “So you’re going to college next year? What are you taking again?”
I took the Shelby into a straightaway and put it into fourth gear, causing Ashley’s body to be enveloped by the passenger seat.
I replied with a grin, “Science major with a focus on genetics.”
Ashley asked, “I’m guessing that has something to do with the serum?”
I nodded, “Everything.”
I asked, “So are we going to see each other again?”
Ashley laughed gently, “I’m not going anywhere, Patterson. I’m going to school in Minneapolis, so I’ll be close enough to you in St. Paul. Besides, someone needs to show you how to navigate the life of a college co-ed. Advice about electives, seminars and mandatory writing classes for freshman year and majors. I’m yours. Guys too. If you want it.”
I smiled, “I might take you up on that.”
I had fought the serum for a solid year after my change. It was a battle of attrition where neither of us gave quarter to the other. The serum, a multi-layered and vicious enemy, chipped away at Ryan Sullivan, leaving Kaylee Patterson in its wake. In time, however, I had realized that the serum was ultimately more than simply the end of my male existence.
I realized in time that it was a gift, an opportunity to live two lives, to see the other side and fully embrace it. Through it, I was given wonderful parents and friends, and while Ryan Sullivan had those things, he never truly appreciated them. Yes, I spent time with my dad, enjoying nearly every moment, but because of that I never really got to know my mom, seeing her only as a weak human being, never really understanding what she was going through each time images of the war flashed on our TV screen.
It had given me a near perfect body. I rarely ever got a pimple, and I never needed braces. My hair was practically golden, and athletics came easily, especially gymnastics (at least until my growing boobs started to hamper my ability). However, the aesthetics and the gift itself paled in comparison to what the serum really represented. It was a cure-all for humanity.
With my choice of major, I would spend my life making Travers’ serum a reality. Certainly, it couldn’t cure mental illness, and while it may have been naïve to believe, especially in response to Travers’ cynicism about population overcrowding and starvation, to me, if the serum could be used to cure debilitating, life-threatening diseases, ones that tore loved ones from family, killed mothers, fathers, sons and daughters, then I had to try.
It would have to be divorced from the regression, and the addictive properties, and instead of benefiting pharmaceutical companies and zealous Hollywood executives, it would be the panacea that Ms. McDavid and Tracy envisaged.
For now though, there was college. There would be plays, parties, maybe gymnastics or something new, and a newly-found Ashley who would guide me through it all.
I couldn’t wait.
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