Homage

Synopsis: This story is different from my other work. It is an homage to a fellow author. As an homage, it is written to emulate his style, structure, and thematics. If you want to know more than that, you’ll have to read the dedication.

Dedication: For me, the internet was a great boon, as I imagine it was for many of the people that read my work. My first foray into it took place when I was still too young to actually be visiting the kind of sites I saw, but that only made me appreciate my access even more. It would be some time before I realized that there was a downside as well, an issue that plagues me to this day.

In spite of its ability to grant instant access to all sorts of stories and people, the internet has a tendency to create shallow and one-sided relationships. One often knows very little about the people that one talks to, if one even talks to them at all, and doesn’t just lurk around them, reading what they have to say. As such, it is possible for those people that one cares about to just vanish. Without close connections, it’s impossible to know what happened to these lost people. They’re just gone, seeming to apparate from existence into nothingness in a instant.

One such person for me was an author named The Professor. I have no idea what happened to him, only that, at some point, he stopped writing. I had never spoken to him, but he’d offered me hours of enjoyment with his work. Then, he was just gone.

Many years after my first forays into the internet, I tried my own hand at writing. At the time, I approached the authors that had been most impactful to me in my early journeys and wrote things specifically for them as a reward for what they had given me. However, by then, many of them were already gone, vanished into the nothingness. The Professor was among those people.

Now, many more years have passed since that day, and I realized something. A man like that isn’t just gone, but forgotten. If someone has come to one of these sites read stories in the last five years, they’ve probably never read a story by The Professor. In fact, anyone since the advent of the smartphone and common internet usage probably hasn’t. That fact bothered me.

Of course, I could’ve just accepted that it is all our fates to one day be forgotten, but I didn’t want to do that. I had the ability to delay it, if not stop it. As such, I decided to write a story in honor of the man to which I had never had the chance to speak. I chose to mimic his style and set it in his most well known setting. I have no idea if that would upset him, but I will say that my intent is entirely to get more people to go read what he left us. If he is upset, and still somewhere in this world to express his displeasure, all he need do is email me at [email protected] and I will have it taken down immediately. Until that happens, allow me to present –

Ovid Auxiliaries: The Defiant
By: Light Clark
Setting created by: The Professor

A bored little sigh slipped from my lips as I looked around at my desk. For all of its appearance as a sleepy little town, I had never considered Ovid to be a dull place to live. Yes, it lacked the glitzy tourist traps and glamorous night life of a big city, but I had never felt like it was lacking without those things. Maybe that was because I was far too busy between my job, husband, and kids.

At the moment, that husband was at his own job. Those kids were at daycare. And my own employment, well, it was in a bit of lull. Given the recent threats to the town, transformations had been put on hold. In fact, for the last few days, the Judge had been doing little judging of any kind while he worked to tighten up security. That had left me with very little to do, and a good hour left until it was time for lunch.

“I suppose there is that little bit of filing that I’ve been putting off,” I reminded myself as I pondered whether I was bored enough to tackle it. That particular job might actually be worse than doing nothing at all.

“And you really should keep putting it off, my dear.”

When I lifted my head at those words, I found a rather unusual sight waiting for me a few feet across the room. It wasn’t just that the woman that spoke was unusually stunning, although she was, a gorgeous woman with fair skin, black hair, and smoldering eyes. No, it was her attire that warranted that adjective, an inappropriate and lewd affair of black and white that looked very much like the male fantasy of a french maid, complete with extremely low neckline, short ruffled skirt and visible garters for the black stockings.

“Diana!” I gasped in surprise at the sight of my friend. I was used to her appearing in all different bodies and clothes, but this one was wild and unexpected even for her.

“Bonjour, Madame Patton,” the goddess greeted as she dipped into a graceful curtsey. “Et elle est Diane Lune, ce jour.”

“Bonjour, yourself,” I replied, still staring at the woman’s outfit. “I can’t believe you’re walking around Ovid like that.”

Straightening up again, Diana smirked at me. “I hadn’t planned to be. This little number is for a costume party in London, but there was a story that I wanted to see first.”

“A story?” I questioned in surprise. “But there haven’t even been any new ones in the last few days.”

“This one’s apparently a bit older,” Diana informed me. “Erika Bryant.”

That name had me furrowing my brow as I tried to place it. There had been a lot of cases over the years, and not all of them were interesting enough to immediately spring to mind with just a name. As such, it took me a moment to sort through my memories for the person in question, but it finally came to me.

“Are you sure?” I asked once I had placed the name. “There was nothing special about her as I recall. No one particularly famous before, came, got changed, tried to get the judge to change her back, but ended up coming around. You know, the usual.”

“So I thought, too,” Diane commented. “That is, until this afternoon.”

Instantly, my curiosity was piqued, forcing me to ask, “What happened this afternoon?”

“I was at March’s talking to Vera about what costume I should wear when this red haired girl walked by and greeted us,” Diane recounted. “There didn’t seem to be any odd about her, just another Ovid teen, but when she greeted us she did so as Venus and Diana.”

My eyes went wide at that little detail. After all, none of the changees were able to refer to the gods by their more deific titles, at least not without permission. There had also been plenty of trouble with infiltrators and the like who often broke such rules, which made this information more than just a bit worrisome.

“Did you tell the Judge?” I asked immediately, concerned that we were about to have another scare in Ovid.

Nodding, Diane replied, “I did, but he just smirked and said not to worry about it and that she had probably just done it to prove that she still could.”

“Still?” I repeated that word, only growing more confused with the story. “But she was changed after that rule came into effect.”

“I know, but that’s what he said,” Diane responded, shrugging helplessly. “Obviously, he’s alright with it, though, which has me wondering what exactly happened with this Erika girl.”

“You and me both, so why don’t we go find out,” I told her. And with that, I drifted off into a familiar trance...

*****

The soft click of the keys on the keyboard matched the appearance of letters on the screen before me. All of them came out in nice neat lines, perfectly ordered to be easy to read and check. In spite of that, a great many people wouldn’t be able to read them, or more precisely, understand what they meant. After all, they may have spelled out english words, but they didn’t do so with english grammar. That was no surprise, since it wasn’t english. It was computer code.

Ever since I’d first learned to write the simplest of programs, I’d always loved coding. It was cathartic in a way nothing else ever was for me. I think it was the control. I could shape every little detail and then once it was done, I could look at the new world that I’d created with all the rules that I’d set for it. Compared to the real world with its fickle whims, that seemed pretty great.

Unfortunately, the real world tended to get in the way of the one built of code. Right in the midst of my rhythm, the phone on my desk buzzed to life, jarring my focus and tugging it back to reality. Turning that way, I leveled a glare at annoyance and offered a huff of frustration before I picked it up.

“Y’ello?” I greeted lazily, tucking the phone between my chin and shoulder so that I could get back to typing the few lines that I needed to finish the section on which I’d been working.

“Yeah, Louis, this is Mitch,” a male voice on the other end, one that belonged to my boss, replied. “I need to see you in my office real quick.”

“I’m kinda in the middle of something right now,” I noted, never a fan of dealing with management. They were too bossy and not productive enough. Things would go a lot smoother if people like that just let me do my work.

“Well, you’ll have to put it on hold, because this can’t wait,” Mitch rejected my excuse. “I need you in here now.”

Rolling my eyes at the command, I considered refusing, but decided that would probably lead to a longer delay than just agreeing. Caring more about getting back to work than anything else at that moment, I just mumbled, “Yes, sir. Be right there.”

A click on the line freed me from the conversation a few moments later, allowing me to drop the receiver back onto the phone. As I did, I let out a weary sigh as my mind worked to memorize what I was in the midst of doing before the interruption. I would have to finish it when I returned.

Once the sigh was done, my hands found the armrests of my chair to shove me up to my feet. The effort prompted a grunt and wince as stiff joints and muscles complained about the exertion. There was even a soft hiss of pain when my knee popped as I stepped around my chair. All of that would’ve been fine without the sudden bout of lightheadedness that hit me a step later. Instantly, my vision was invaded by spots as I swayed unsteadily. Luckily, my chair was close enough to catch myself, but I still stumbled, shaking my head to try to clear my sight.

“You alright, Lou?” Andy, from the cubicle across from mine, asked in concern.

Dizziness starting to fade, I turned toward that voice and nodded. “Yep, just stood up a little too quick.”

“Alright,” the other man acknowledged, shrugging off his moment of worry and turning back to the report he was reading.

Rattling the last few spots from my world, I started off through the maze of cubicles, while muttering about how old I was getting. At forty-two, the aches, the pains, and all the rest were a common occurrence. I didn’t even need to stand up. Just the other day, I’d hurt my shoulder just reaching for my cup of coffee. Sure, I could’ve taken better care of myself and maybe lessened some of those problems, but it had never seemed worth it.

My lack of concern with myself was readily visible to anyone that looked at me. It wasn’t that I was hideous or unhygienic or something. I just really showed my age and disinterest. My clothes were bland office attire of the cheapest variety that I could find. My brown hair unkempt, unstyled, and invaded by plenty of gray. Even my walk showed it, a meandering amble complete with slouched shoulders and lazy pace. No matter how dense an observer was, they could tell that I had no interest in this world.

Lazy as my pace was, it was enough to get me across the floor of my building to the fancy offices that ringed the wall. One such office housed my current boss, Mitch Harding. As bosses went, he was pretty middle of the pack, not too annoying but not great. Really, his problem was that he cared too much. He was one of those people that was going places, and he wanted to make sure he got there as quickly as he could. His clothes were fancy, his appearance perfectly coiffed, and his projects always on time, even if that meant the quality suffered. As someone that didn’t care about the first two and thought quality was far more important than speed, I was never going to get along with him.

My distaste aside, I was still the man’s employee. That was enough to get me to the door to his office. It was even enough to get me to knock. In spite of that fact, though, I resented both actions, wishing I could just go back to my desk, or better yet, had never left it to begin with.

“Come in!”

After taking a moment to sigh one last time, I turned the knob and stepped into Mitch’s office. It was pretty nice, sitting as it did on the fourth floor of the building with a set of large windows to give a view. Given that the place was in the county outside of St. Louis proper, there wasn’t exactly much to the view. It was just a parking lot and across the way another office building.

“Louis! Thanks for coming over!” Mitch greeted me with a warm smile as he rose from his seat behind the desk as I entered. “Why don’t you close the door and come over and have a seat.”

“Alright,” I muttered disinterestedly, shutting the door before walking over to plop into one of the chairs that sat opposite the younger man’s desk. “So what do you need from me, Mr. Harding?”

“First, I really wish you’d call me Mitch. I mean, I know I’m your boss, but I like to think that we’re just colleagues working toward the same goal,” Mitch requested with charm and pep.

Shaking my head, I said, “Sorry, Mr. Harding. Anything else you need.”

“Yeah, I need you to accept that transfer to Chicago that you got offered,” Mitch told me.

Mention of that offer put a scowl on my face. It had first come up a couple of weeks ago, a fancy transfer to the main headquarters complete with pay raise. It was a pretty good deal for just about anyone else, but I had no interest in it.

“Again, sorry, Mr. Harding, but that’s not gonna happen,” I replied. “I like it right here.”

The smile of Mitch’s face faded away at my answer, turning to a more serious expression as he tried, “Look, Louis, I’m not supposed to tell you this, but this branch isn’t going to last. It’s going to be shut down inside the year, and anyone that hasn’t taken a transfer somewhere else is getting laid off. I don’t want to see that happen to you. You’re my best programmer, fast, hardworking, never fooling around or taking a day off. I want you with me in Chicago.”

“I appreciate that, sir, but I don’t want to go,” I reiterated, standing firm in my choice.

“Is it a money thing? I can get the raise upped a little, and obviously we’ll cover the expenses to move,” Mitch pressed on, trying to make the sale. “Maybe we can even do a little more than that. If your wife needs help finding a new job or your–”

“I’m not married,” I cut in coldly, growing angry at how Mitch refused to respect my decision. “And I have no interest in going to some cold, blustery, lake town like Chicago.”

That harsh certainty of my refusal actually made Mitch wince. It wasn’t enough to get him to give up, though. With a shake of his head, he tried once more with, “I know how you feel, Louis, really I do. I didn’t want to get transferred to St. Louis and I’m not looking forward to Chicago either, but it’s never as bad as you think. At least give it a try, come up, spend a year, make some money. If it doesn’t work out, I’ll understand.”

While I had no idea how many more tries Mitch or some other manager would have in them, I knew right then, I was at my limit for saying no. Clenching my jaw, I leveled a hard stare at the man, and said. “Look, Mr. Harding, why don’t I make this simple for you. I quit.”

“Quit?” Mitch repeated the word, looking utterly dumbfounded. “What do you mean you quit?”

“I mean, I’m not waiting around for you to close this branch. I’m done with this job right now,” I spat as I shoved myself from my chair and spun to leave; relieved to find no painful pops or dizzy spells to ruin my exit. “Good day.”

*****

“Jesus, you quit again, Lou?!” Howard, my brother, gasped on the other end of the phone when I told him my news. “What does that make, now, seven jobs this decade?”

“Six,” I corrected stiffly, a bit perturbed by the judgement that I could hear in my brother’s voice. It wasn’t like I wanted to quit jobs. I liked the actual work. It was all the nonsense that seemed to have to come with it that bothered me.

Far off in Dallas, Howard sighed, loudly enough to get picked up by his phone so that I could hear. He was probably shaking his head, too. He did that when he thought I was being obstinate for no good reason.

“Well, what are you going to do, now?” Howard finally asked.

I shrugged at the unseen man. “I don’t know. Find another job, I guess.”

“Are there even any jobs left?” Howard queried.

“I’m a good programmer, so there’s bound to be something,” I assured my sibling. “I’ll start looking after the new year.”

“You may be a good programmer, but your resume is looking worse and worse with everyone of these jobs you quit,” Howard warned. “Plus, business isn’t exactly booming in St. Louis. Why don’t you look for something out in Denver? I may even be able to get you a job where I work.”

Still a touch angry from dealing with my boss, my jaw clenched at the mention of moving, forcing me to fight to keep my voice neutral as I replied with, “You know why not, Howie. I’ve lived here my whole life, and our folks are here.”

“Mom’s not anywhere on this Earth, Lou, not anymore, and Dad … he couldn’t tell you apart from the wall of his room,” Howard countered. “You may have been stuck caring for them because I had a family, but that’s over now. It’s time for you to move on, and the best way to do that is go someplace you can start fresh. Hell, I think Rose has a few friends that might be interested if you’re looking to finally settle down.”

“I’m not, just like I’m not looking to leave St. Louis,” I told my brother in no uncertain terms.

Again, Howard was sighing loudly, probably shaking his head once more. Unlike my boss, he knew better than to keep pushing me. He just conceded by saying, “Alright, Lou, but why don’t you at least come out here for the Holidays? It’s not like you have anything holding you in place right now, and my kids haven’t seen their uncle in years.”

“Fine,” I agreed, not really wanting to go but thinking it a fair compromise. It was true that I hadn’t seen my niece and nephew in a while, or my brother for that matter. “When do you want me, like the twenty-third and out the day after Christmas?”

“What? No! You’re not in a hurry to get anywhere. Just come on out. You can stay ‘til new years if you want,” Howard suggested. “That’s when you wanted to get started on finding a new job anyway.”

My gut reaction was to say no. I didn’t have a good excuse to refuse, though. It wasn’t like sitting around my place alone would be any better either. There was even a chance that I’d actually enjoy myself. Still, a month seemed like a long time …

That was how I ended up on the rural back roads of Oklahoma, killing time in an effort to delay my arrival in Dallas. Just to get that far, I’d hit all sorts of random stops at anything that looked even halfway decent all while driving the most obscure route I could follow on a map. Doing that, I’d already burned off a few days, and I could probably get a few more before I finally made it to my brothers.

The stops had been good for more than just wasting time, too. A long time ago, when Howard and I were still kids, our mother used to drag us on road trips like that. I’d hated them back then, always wishing I could just stay at home with my toys and what friends I’d had, but now, I felt sort of nostalgic about them. It made me feel like a kid again. It made me feel like my mother was there with me. It made me feel like I was actually living in the real world for once.

“Scenery looks nicer now, too,” I remarked as I glanced off the road at the view. When I was a kid, I’d never really cared for the scenery; always found it boring. My memories of Oklahoma’s countryside were especially bleak, painting the picture of some flat barren wasteland. I couldn’t talk about the rest of the state, but the eastern edge seemed alright to me now.

As the countryside rolled by, I reminisced about those long gone days. Back then, it was normal to live off in some fantasy world. Back then, the world was a bright and hopeful place full of possibility. Back then, I’d been alright with my life. Ah, the naivety of childhood.

It was in that moment of contentment that I felt a sudden fluttering in my chest. With it came a dizziness and spots filling my eyes. Shaking my head, I tried to clear my vision as a rush filled my ears. Through that noise, I heard the sound of a car horn blaring. That got my head up and my dark, narrow vision focused on an incoming pickup. Instinct made me jerk the wheel to the right.

The time between my turning the wheel and me hearing the sound of wood snapping was just a blank. That new racket snapped me back to the world, though, forcing me to once again yank my head up. Slamming the breaks, I skidded along the side of the road until the car, finally, lurched to a stop. Once it had, I just sat there, breathing heavily as I stared at the steering wheel that I was clutching so tightly that it made my hands ache.

After a few moments, my breathing started to slow, and the shock of what had happened wore off enough to allow new action. The first thing I did was twist around in my seat, looking back over my shoulder to see what had happened. There was a wooden sign back there that I must’ve clipped because the post was shattered. Seeing that had me looking back to the front, trying to assess damage. There was a dent in the hood on the right side, but the engine sounded like it was running fine. Still, it would probably be best to get it checked out, if there was even a mechanic anywhere nearby that I could visit. Where exactly was I again?

Knock knock came the sound on my window, catching me just before I could grab the map from the passenger’s seat. When I got my gaze up and around, I saw a police officer leaned down by my window. Relief flooded me at the sight, getting me to roll down my window immediately. Police meant a town couldn’t be too far. Plus, I could ask him for directions to a mechanic and what to do about that sign.

“Hello, officer, I’m so glad you're here,” I began. “I guess I’ve been driving a little longer than I should’ve been and ended up losing focus back there.”

“I saw,” the officer, Mercer from the name on his uniform, answered curtly. “License and registration, please.”

“License and ... ?” I started to ask before my stressed out mind recognized the request for what it was. “Oh! Of course, officer,” I agreed readily as I fished in my pocket for my driver’s license. After that, I leaned over to grab the registration from the glovebox before finally handing both items to the officer. “There you go.”

“Good, now, please exit the vehicle,” Officer Mercer instructed.

This new command had me furrowing my brow. “Alright, but I haven’t had anything to drink or anything like that.”

“I know,” Officer Mercer stated matter-of-factly. “However, such reckless driving demands that I impound your vehicle and take you into Ovid to see the Judge.”

“Oh … “ I mumbled not pleased with the news. I’d never experienced it myself, but I knew these small towns had a tendency to trump up charges to rake in some revenue. As such, it might prove very difficult to get my car back if I let the officer do as he said. I couldn’t really argue with it, though. I’d torn up a sign if nothing else, which undoubtedly warranted a substantial fine at the very least, and I didn’t mind paying that if it was reasonable. If it was too bad, though, I could always just get myself a lawyer. “Of course.”

With that said, I got out as asked. Officer Mercer had me switch over to the passenger seat, so he could drive my car into town. I supposed that meant he had a partner with him to take care of his own car, although I didn’t ask. Maybe he would just get someone to go out with him later and get it.

As we drove, Officer Mercer remained perfectly silent. He had an air about him that made me not want to break that silence either, so I kept my mouth shut. Instead of chatting, I let my gaze wander over the scenery as I silently cursed myself for messing up behind the wheel.

The town of Ovid seemed like a nice enough place. It was nestled in a cozy valley, and had the look of something you’d expect from a TV show. The buildings were better maintained and the people more nicely dressed than you’d expect from a little midwestern town. I knew, because I’d been through a bunch of them just on that trip alone, and they usually had a more rundown look, like they were long past their prime.

Perhaps the strangest part of Ovid had nothing to do with the town, but with the people, some them at least. They were odd to look at, at once perfectly normal, and yet strangely … transparent, like they were only half there. After what had happened out on the road, that fact certainly worried me. Clearly, once I was done with the judge, I was going to need to go get checked out by a doctor. My little stunt on the road must’ve rattled something in me that wasn’t supposed to be rattled.

Whatever was wrong with my vision, it didn’t seem to be incapacitating at least. I made it all the way to the courthouse without any trouble. I got up and followed Officer Mercer inside without any more than the usual complaints from age.

“Wait inside. The Judge will be in shortly,” Officer Mercer instructed when he finished escorting me to the courtroom.

Having come that far, I saw no reason to argue now, so I did as I was told and walked inside. The courtroom was as nice as the town within which it sat, well maintained and appointed. It was not, however, very busy. There was just one person inside, a brunette woman that stood by one of the tables. Maybe she was the local DA or something?

The sound of the door closing behind me had the woman looking up to favor me with a professional smile. In spite of recent events, I found myself returning it. That may have had something to do with the fact that she was young and attractive, but in an intelligent manner complete with glasses. That and her tasteful navy suit and low heels projected an air of competence that always looked good on a woman.

"I'm Susan Henderson," she greeted crisply, offering her hand as I approached. "I've been appointed as your Public Defender."

“Louis Cook,” I supplied as I took the offered hand in a lazy shake. “Can’t say I expected a court appointed attorney for a little car trouble. I must be in more trouble than I thought.”

“That will depend on your point of view and your answers to some of my questions,” Susan informed me. “Certainly, you should take this very seriously.”

Nodding in understanding, I replied, “Understood. Go ahead and ask whatever questions you have.”

“Do you have any drugs or other illegal substances in your possession?” Susan asked.

I shook my head immediately, adding, “No, never touch the stuff. Don’t drink either,” for good measure.

The young attorney just nodded and continued on, “Is there anything in your past, crimes, even ones you weren’t convicted of?”

“Well, I wouldn’t say I was a saint, but nothing of note,” I told her. “You know, a few moving violations, an arrest at a protest, that sort of thing. I’ve always paid what dues I owed for them, and I plan to do the same with this, too.”

Strangely, my answer earned a smile from the woman that almost looked relieved as she said, “Good, then I take it that means you have no issue with a guilty plea?”

“If you think that’s best, then no, none at all,” I answered.

“Alright, then that’s what we’ll go with,” Susan confirmed. “Other than that, just be respectful and if the Judge asks you any questions, make sure that you answer truthfully.”

“Can do, ma’am,” I affirmed.

My answer came just in time as a moment later, the world broke into motion. The first thing was that I heard the door open behind me, when I looked back, I saw a woman enter and find a seat in the observer gallery. She was an attractive blonde about the same age as my new attorney, and just as professionally dressed. I wondered if they were friends and had plans once my trial was over. She certainly couldn’t be there to watch whatever quick, boring trial that I was about to undergo.

"All rise!" I suddenly heard, tugging my attention toward the front of the court where Officer Mercer had apparently slipped in to take up the bailiff position. Was that how it usually worked in small towns? "Municipal Court for the City of Ovid is now in session, the Honorable Judge presiding."

On cue, the Judge in question stepped into the courtroom, cutting a rather impressive figure as he did. I suspected that he was probably older than me, but he certainly didn’t look it. His dark hair was still full and only just starting to gray. He moved without any hitch in his step or sluggishness from age. In fact, he stood incredibly straight, moving with more of a formal march than a normal stroll. He was a man that commanded respect, and given what Susan had told me, expected it as well. At the very least, he certainly seemed to deserve a capital J on his title, because, if anyone was the epitome of a judge, it was this guy.

Taking his seat, the Judge grabbed his gavel, gave it a quick wrap, and said, “Court is now in session. Next case is the people versus Louis Cook. How do you plead?”

“Mr. Cook has agreed to plead guilty to the charge of reckless driving, your honor,” Susan declared for me. “Given the apparent lack of malicious intent or priors, I believe some leniency is in order here.”

Nodding to the woman, the Judge raised a hand to beckon me forward. “Approach the bench.”

“Of course, your honor,” I agreed immediately, pushing myself up from my. I had to stifle a bit of a grunt to keep up appearances, but the walk over was easy enough, although, standing there with the Judge looking down at me was a little intimidating.

While I had expected him to pronounce judgement or ask questions, the Judge did neither, or at least, I could not tell if he did. He did speak, but it was in a language that wasn’t english. In fact, it sounded more like latin. Maybe it was some old legal treatise or something. Like with medicine, I knew they used a lot of latin terms in the law. I didn’t have a lot of time to consider it, though, not because he stopped quickly, but because something else pulled my attention away. At first, it was just a faint chill, then a slight tingle that made it feel like my whole body had gone just a touch numb. Maybe it was more than just a touch, because I couldn’t seem to move. I was just sort of stuck there like a propped up toy. At the same time, those unknown words seemed to push down on me, scrunching me into the floor. Inch by inch, my perspective shifted downward as my body shrank in on itself. My clothes seemed to shrink as well, not just matching the speed of my body, but going a little faster so that they were tight rather than the looser fit that I was accustomed to. Something around my chest was especially constrictive.

“-now, I trust that next time, you’ll refuse when your friends try to pressure you into doing something you shouldn’t, won’t you Miss Bryant?” the Judge was suddenly saying, no longer speaking latin.

The chill and numbness fled my body at those words, replaced with an overwhelming confusion. Every detail of my being seemed wrong. I was too short, too slim, wearing the wrong clothes, feeling something swishing along my neck, back, and shoulders, missing something that should be there, and many other things. Even more so, the Judge was acting like he’d been speaking something other than latin before, and he’d done so to someone else – a girl someone judging by the title that he’d used.

All those befuddling thoughts sent my gaze dropping down only to have my eyes immediately go wide. The ground was in fact closer than I remembers, and I was certainly a lot slimmer than my previously aging and paunched self, but that wasn’t what drew my attention. No, my primary focus was on the two small bumps tenting out the front of the nice, brown, knit sweater that I now wore as well as the prim, tan skirt below it and the skinny, little, nylon clad legs that stuck out of the bottom before ending in brown mary-janes. Even as I took all of that in, something new fell into my view, long, shimmering, copper colored strands of hair. Raising my hands, I used one to brush back the soft locks while the other drifted toward other areas.

“Did you hear me, Miss Bryant?” the Judge’s voice interrupted, firm and commanding.

Instantly, my snapped up, tugging my attention from my body to look at the man … no something else, that had done this to me. “Y-Y-Yes, sir,” I stuttered out, bemused and fearful, two emotions that were only amplified by the high, cutesy sound of my voice. “I will, sir.”

The Judge smiled at my answer, a warm fatherly expression. “Then I think I can let you off with just a warning this time. You can go back out to your father, now.”

“Father?” I mumbled in confusion. My father was in St. Louis under the care of a rather nice retirement home. He certainly wasn’t in Ovid, but then, I supposed that I wasn’t exactly myself at the moment. Somehow, I was a red haired girl whose father apparently was waiting outside the courtroom for her.

Having put that much together, I nodded dazedly at the Judge and turned to do as I was told. As I walked, I couldn’t help but marvel at how much bigger the world was, which only left me to wonder how small I was. Fortunately, there was a measuring post along the way, my attorney. While not a tall man, I’d still been a touch taller than her in her heels, but that certainly wasn’t the case anymore. I couldn’t be sure of the exact difference, but it was enough to tell me that I was quite short. That combined with my father waiting and the childish squeak to my voice led me to believe that I was quite young, too. I had breasts, though, so that probably stuck me somewhere in the dreaded tweens. It was all just so … impossible.

Even as my mind wrapped itself around its impossible yet real situation, it walked me right out of the courtroom. Once I was there, I just drifted to a stop, still lost in a haze as I looked around the room. I was supposed to meet my father, but I had no idea what he looked like.

Luckily for me, it proved to be pretty easy to identify my father. For one, he had red hair, although, it was a dark more auburn color than my own and it had a few gray strands in it. For two, he brightened at the sight of me and immediately walked over. For three, he greeted me with a, “So how’d it go with the Judge?”

“Uhm … alright?” I responded uncertainly. “He … he just warned me to not let it happen again.”

“I figured it wouldn’t be anymore than that,” the man, Mr. Bryant I supposed, replied with obvious relief. “After all, kids your age get into trouble now and again. I just hope you learned your lesson, so this doesn’t happen again.”

“I sure did, Daddy,” I answered almost automatically. Even as the words left my lips, I frowned. I hadn’t meant to call the man Daddy. I hadn’t even really intended to answer him at all. As distracted as I was, I’d just let the flow of the conversation take me, and those were the words that popped out. That was weird. Clearly, I needed to focus, otherwise there was no telling how long I would be overwhelmed like this.

“Good, then let’s get you home, so I can get to work,” My, er, Mr. Bryant said as he held out what looked like a coat for me and tipped his head toward the door.

Assuming that the garment must be mine, I took the offered coat and slid it on, but I did that with some trepidation. It wasn’t a grown up’s coat, made of neither wool or leather. It was one of those cheap brightly colored things that kids wore. Apparently, the nice, mature clothes that I’d been dressed in was more of a special occasion outfit than typical attire for the girl that I’d become.

Oddly, that childish coat actually helped order my scattered thoughts. It grounded me in one simple fact, that somehow, I’d been transformed and the Judge was the one that had done it. It didn’t appear to just be a change in my body either. I was some other person, a young girl with a family and presumably other connections as well. How was that possible? Why had it be done? Could it be undone? Those questions had me glancing back over my shoulder at the courtroom. If I wanted answers, the easiest place to get them would be right there.

“Erika, come on,” my d-er Mr. Bryant’s(Why was that so hard to keep straight?) voice cut into my thoughts. “I don’t got all day.”

“But–” I started to protest, but while I’d just learned my new name, I had no idea what I should say. Did this man know what had been done to me? He didn’t seem to, but that didn’t mean he didn’t. If I said no, would he even listen? I was supposedly his daughter, and I was clearly not old enough to be counted as an adult. All the questions made one thing clear, I needed more answers before I faced the … thing that was responsible for my current state. I didn’t even know what exactly that state was. So far, I’d barely managed to piece together my name. That simple fact got me to mumble, “Coming,” as I turned to do as I was told.

My second ride through town was much stranger than the first. A large part of that came from suddenly being a young girl, but that wasn’t all. The other thing that made it strange was that I no longer just ignored those odd transparent people. After what had happened, it was impossible to think that was just the result of some injury or stress. Instead, I suspected that they too were some sort of unknown. What they were was harder to tell, though. The Judge hadn’t been that way, nor had my lawyer or the blonde woman or my father. I didn’t seem to possess that quality either. Were they some kind of magical construct? Could others see them, too?

“Uhm … Dad-dy?” I spoke up, fumbling awkwardly over how to address the man. “Do you see that woman over there?” I asked, point toward one of the transparent people that was walking along the sidewalk.

“What about her?” my, no, Erika’s father inquired, glancing very briefly at the woman in question.

“Does she look strange to you?” I asked.

“Like how?”

Taking that as my answer, I just shook my head and mumbled, “Never mind.”

With a shrug, Erika’s father went back to driving while I returned my attention to my thoughts. So far, I knew that the Judge had transformed me into someone else, a girl named Erika Bryant. He’d done so while speaking latin. The girl I’d become was apparently someone people knew. She even had a family. Had there been an Erika before me? Was that what those odd see through people were for? That would make sense. In fact, the oddly pristine nature of the town sort of made sense, now, too. Someone with power like that could probably create his own little small town paradise. To what purpose? A stepford wives kind of thing? That was certainly a sickening thought, although, I doubted it was a likely one. After all, what good would this scrawny little underaged body be for that? That wasn’t to say that the purpose wasn’t manipulative and revolting, I just doubted that it was something so lewd in nature.

I didn’t get too much thinking done in the car, mostly because the drive wasn’t that long. It took less than ten minutes to get from the courthouse to stopping in front of a house. There, I got let out so that m-Erika’s father could head off to work. I guess he had taken the morning off to deal with my trip to court and had to get back. That wasn’t a problem for me. Since he didn’t seem to know anything, having him around would only be distracting.

The Bryant family had a fairly nice, although, fairly small home. It was nestled in a neighborhood of similar houses, cute little two-stories that looked like they belonged on a fifties sitcom. They were clearly not new, but like all of the town, very well-maintained. The inside proved to be as well, neat, clean, and nicely decorated. It also appeared to be devoid of other family members. I did learn that there were other family members, however. Pictures around the house showed a family of four, all with red hair. The boys, the man I just saw and a boy that looked to be in his mid to late teens, tended toward a darker auburn and the girls, my new self and her mother, had the brighter tones, although the mother’s was starting to darken and gray a little with age. There were other resemblances too between Erika and her mother. They had similar faces, and unusual blue eyes. Figure-wise, though, they couldn’t be further apart. I’d been turned into some rail thin young girl, while my new mother was decidedly vivacious, with a dynamic figure that was apparently getting a little plump over the years. Altogether, they seemed to be a happy family, but I wondered if they still would be now that my imposter self had been shoved into the mix.

Other than pictures, I also found my bedroom. Unlike my body, it was very clear that this was a teenaged girl’s room. There were no toys or dolls. There were posters for bands, many of which my forty-two year old self had never even heard. The item that drew my attention first, however, was the full length mirror that sat in one corner.

Between glances down, the mirrors in the car, and the pictures around the house, I’d managed to piece together a pretty good idea of my new appearance, but stepping front of the mirror was my first chance to see it all at once. As I already knew, I could see that I was skinny and young. My best guess was twelve, but maybe not even quite that old. I was cute, but in a childish sort of way with rounded features and big blue eyes. In addition to the copper hair, I had fair skin, but thankfully, I hadn’t been cursed with a coating of freckles to match the cliché.

Not quite willing to just trust my eyes, I ended up raising my hands as well, tiny and girlish as they were, to give me a second opinion. Running them along my face seemed to create the same topography that I saw in the mirror. Once that was done, though, they drifted lower, ending up cupping my chest. When they did, though, I frowned in confusion, giving a few test squeezes. While I’d never been married, I hadn’t been completely celibate. In my younger days, I’d at least tried to have a relationship, and during the course of that I’d gained some rudimentary understanding regarding the feel of the female form. My new breasts did not have the yield I was expected, even given their small size and what I assumed was a bra wrapped tightly around my chest. They felt more like pillows than flesh.

Curious as to what was going on, I gave up on groping myself, dropping my hands to the hem of my sweater. A quick tug yanked it up over my head with none of the usual aches and strains that such a movement would’ve prompted from my joints earlier that day. With it out of the way, I also had a clear view of my new chest, and with it, the reason for the odd feel. While I did have breasts, they were smaller than they had looked with the sweater over them. In fact, they were just miniscule bumps that weren’t even enough to properly fill the cups of my bra, cups that were fairly thick and cushiony.

“Really? A padded bra?” I questioned, feeling a little embarrassed. Resorting to something like that was just so juvenile, but I supposed juvenile was a good adjective for my bust. I doubted I was even the twelve that I had first guessed. I certainly wasn’t even close to my mother’s size. Mine were still growing, though, so maybe someday I wouldn’t be so–wait what was I thinking?

Shaking my head, I drove the strangely jealous thoughts from my head. Worry replaced them, as I wondered why I’d even had that thought. I mean, yes, it was true that this body was pretty undeveloped, but it wasn’t my body – not really. I was just stuck in it because some strange being had made it that way.

I didn’t have too much time to worry about the odd thoughts before the sound of a door being loudly closed on the first floor of the house echoed up into my room. Suddenly not alone, I immediately grabbed my sweater and tugged it back on. At the same time, I wondered who had arrived, the brother, the mother, or both. I wasn’t sure how much help either would be in my efforts to gather more information, but talking to them couldn’t hurt. With that plan in mind, I turned and walked out of my room.

As luck would have it, I didn’t have far to go to find the new arrival. He was just making it to the top of the steps as I came out of my room. At first, he barely seemed to notice me, just offering a quick glance, a head bob, and a “Hey, Eri,” but even as his attention started to turn away again, he froze and jerked his head back with wide eyes.

“Hey?” I greeted uncertainly, offering a shy wave to the boy that was staring at me. I recognized him from the pictures as what I assumed was my, I mean, Erika’s older brother. He was a fairly good looking boy, probably seventeen, but kind of lanky. He was also completely opaque like Erika’s father had been.

“You're … I mean … uhm … did the Judge do anything … unusual while you were at the courthouse?” the teen asked, starting out shocked but quickly turning evasive.

That sudden shift in reaction from disinterest to stunned was a dead giveaway to me that the teen knew what had happened to me or at least had an idea. The way he was hedging his words was peculiar, though. Was there some rule against discussing it? Maybe it was like some secret rebellion.

Slowly, I nodded and said. “Yeah, he … gave me a whole new perspective on life.”

“You remember!” the teen blurted in response, shattering all the ideas that I’d been starting to build around the weird conversation. “That’s great! I was worried you were going to be like our dad.”

“What do you mean?” I questioned, thoroughly confused.

“Oh right, you’re new here, so I should probably explain,” the teen began. “For starters, if you didn’t know, my name is Martin or Marty, and I’m your brother. You’re Erika or Eri.”

I nodded at the information, glad for anything I could learn. “I’d figured out the latter, but it’s good to know who I’m talking to.”

“Yeah, it can be real confusing right after the change. The Judge just kind of dumps you into your life and lets you figure it out,” Martin remarked.

“You were changed, too?”

“Sure was.”

“Who were you before?”

That question had Martin sucking air through his teeth before he answered. “I should warn you, that’s not considered a polite question around here. Most people want to focus on who they are now, not who they used to be.”

“Oh … well, sorry, you don’t have to tell then,” I apologized awkwardly, supposing that it wasn’t really crucial to know who Martin had once been.

Even as I was ready to give up on that information, Martin waved off my concern and gave me what I’d asked for, “No, it’s alright. It might help you settle into things,” he explained before taking a brief pause to gather himself. “I used to be called Valerie Hanover.”

My eyes widened at that news. “You were swapped too?!”

“Too? Oh …” Martin started to ask before recognition dawned on his face in the form of a smirk. “So you used to be a boy, huh?”

“Yeah.”

“Well, I know it's probably weird for you right now, but trust me, you’ll get used to it,” Martin assured me. “You’ll probably even grow to like it. Most people do. I sure did.”

“You’re not mad about being turned into a boy?”

“Nope.”

“Did you not like being a girl?” I questioned, wondering how anyone could just be okay with something like that.

Shrugging, Martin responded, “I don’t think I’d say that, but I was really vain as a girl; wrapped up in my looks and what they could get for me. My husband was the same with his money. It’s not like we hated each other or our lives or anything. We just never even tried to get to know one another. Outside of the bedroom, we barely interacted. I was there for his money and he kept me for my looks. It took us ending up here, and a gender swap, before we realized we actually liked each other – a lot even, and that it’s a lot better like that.”

Learning of yet another gender change who was presumably happy with it, I only grew more confused. It seemed like such an utterly invasive thing to do to someone, rip away such a defining trait, and yet Martin seemed to be fine with it. If he was telling the truth, his former husband seemed to be alright with it, too. That was … unsettling.

“Did The Judge like … do something to you to make you accept what he’d done?” I queried worriedly.

“That, I don’t know for sure, but I have wondered about it. I’m sure a lot of people do, in fact,” Martin admitted. “After all, I’ve never heard of someone who remembered that didn’t settle in eventually, although, some take longer than others.”

“Not everyone remembers?” I asked.

Shaking his head, Martin told me, “No. Actually, we’re in the minority of the people they change. Something like three fourths are like our dad; just think they’ve always been whoever they’ve become.”

It was at that moment that real fear gripped me. Whoever this Judge was, he could literally rip away everything that a person was, and leave them as nothing but someone else. The very idea of it was chilling.

“Anyway, I’m glad you remember,” Martin continued. “Maybe you’ll be less of an annoying dork than my shade sister was.”

Tugged from my horror by the unfamiliar word, I asked, “Shade?”

“That’s what people like us call those people you can sort of see through,” Martin explained. “They’re like stand ins until real people come and get put in their role.”

“So until this morning, there was one of these shades playing Erika?” I asked.

“Yep,” Martin confirmed with a nod. “Sorry that you got stuck as her by the way. I certainly wouldn’t want to have to be that little runt, not even back when I first changed and thought being a boy was the end of all good things.”

Such loathing for the idea of being Erika actually surprised me. I mean, sure, I wouldn’t have picked a body like this, but it didn’t seem to be a terrible one. Given the way Martin described his initial reaction to being turned into a boy, it should have been preferable to what he got. That led to the following question, “What’s so wrong with her?”

“Oh, uhm, nothing terrible or anything like that,” Martin answered quickly, apparently realizing that what he said wasn’t helpful. “It’s just that, as I said, I was really vain. I was used to being the prettiest and most popular girl around, and Eri, well, she’s an awkward, underdeveloped hanger on that gets pushed around by her prettier friends. It probably would’ve been a fitting punishment to make me her, I’d certainly treated other girls like that in my day, but I’m glad the Judge didn’t go that route. At least being a boy was an unknown, so there was some hope of it ending up alright.”

Hearing those insulting words, I narrowed my eyes at the older boy. How dare he say stuff like that, as if he was some great catch. He was kinda scrawny, too, and he was a lot older than me. Plus–what was I thinking? Why was I angry? Erika wasn’t me. I was just trying to learn about her, and Martin was being very helpful with that.

Shaking my head to clear it, I looked down at my figure and asked, “Am I really that bad for eleven?”

“Eleven?” Martin questioned before bursting into snickering. “Your fourteenth birthday is in May.”

“I’m thirteen?!” I gasped in surprise, finally understanding the problem. By that age, most girls were a good chunk of the way through puberty. They were typically about as tall as they were going to get and already well on the way to becoming women. Yet, there I was tiny in every regard. I supposed that I could be a late bloomer, but that wasn’t very likely, and it wouldn’t make the other kids make fun of me any less. Damn it! There were those unwanted thoughts again.

Martin nodded in confirmation. “Yep.”

“Alright, so I’m older than I thought,” I began, trying to dismiss how that fact made me feel. “What I really want to know is what the point of it all is? Why is the Judge transforming people?”

“That is the question,” Martin replied. “Everyone asks it, and no one ever gets an answer. Even those of us that are close to them, don’t know what their purpose is.”

“Them? There’s more than just the Judge?” I asked, wondering just how many of these things I had to worry about.

“Oh, yeah, there’s a bunch of ‘em, and don’t ask me what they are, because I can’t say,” Martin informed me. “It’s one of the rules. You can’t talk about what they are, and we can only discuss what happened to us in twos. Otherwise, you’ll just start choking on your own tongue if you try.”

If there was news that could make me feel worse in that moment, what Martin had just told me was it. Not only were there numerous mysterious beings capable of changing everything about a person. They even imposed rules on us to keep us from discussing it freely. It was like some authoritarian regime from a dystopian novel. It was a nightmare.

Apparently my distress was easy to see, because Martin immediately added, “Look, I know it sounds bad, but it’s really not. Remember, most people end up really liking it here. After a while, you won’t even notice the rules, because you won’t even care to talk about that stuff. You’ll just want to live your life, and the Judge and his friends don’t really interfere in that.”

“Why would they need to? They already interfered about as much as they possibly could,” I retorted, an angry edge creeping into my childish voice.

That tone earned me a worried look from Martin as he pleaded, “Come on, Eri, just give a chance. It’s nice in Ovid, really, and trying to argue with them about it, well, let’s just say nobody’s ever heard of anyone changing back but there are rumors of people finding themselves in worse spots. I even heard of one guy that supposedly got turned into a baby for causing trouble.”

Honestly, it was a good warning. Trying to go up against an unknown number of seemingly godlike beings was not a plan that was likely to meet with success. It was easy to concede to that fear, to just say to yourself that it would easier and safer to just go along with their demands. Once that happened, though, you ceded control over your life to someone else, letting them dictate to you what you can want and be. I would never accept that.

“I’m not just going to roll over and take this,” I stated firmly. “I’m going back to that courthouse right now to talk to … whatever the hell the Judge really is.”

“That’s not a good idea, Eri,” Martin tried to tell me, but I wasn’t interested. I was already marching right past him, and I didn’t even slow to listen. He tried to call, “Erika!” as well as I went down the stairs, but that wasn’t my name. It was someone else’s name. A few of seconds after that, I had grabbed my coat, gone out the door, and was on my way to talk to the Judge.

*****

“I’d like to see the Judge,” I huffed, feeling a little breathless after my trek back to the courthouse. It might have been less than ten minutes by car, but it was a lot longer by foot, and I hadn’t taken it slow. It was cold out, too, leaving my cheeks rosy and my nose cold and a runny. I certainly wasn’t at my most imposing appearance wise, but given the body that I’d been saddled with, I doubted that there was anything I could actually do to look imposing even at my best.

My request was directed at a woman sitting at the desk, in front of which, I stood. I recognized her from my time in court as the attractive blonde from the gallery. Apparently, she was the Judge’s secretary as well, and according to her nameplate, named Cindy Patton. It didn’t seem like the name of some magical being, but that did little to keep me from suspecting her anyway.

“I know you think that’s a good idea, but–” Cindy started to warn me away with a worried look on her face.

“Just save it. I already got that warning from my new brother, and it doesn’t mean anymore coming from you,” I cut off the woman. “Now, can I see him or not?”

My behavior only deepened the worry on the woman’s faced, but she nodded and answered, “Yes, but not until Monday. He’s out of town until then.”

“Out of town?!” I exclaimed in disbelief. “If he can turn me into this,” I continued gesturing down at myself, “then he can get his ass back here to talk to me about it!”

In spite of my rudeness, the woman favored me with a sympathetic look. “I know how you feel, really, I do, but it’s not a good idea, and even if it was, there’s nothing I can do to expedite it for you. If you really have to see him, you’ll have to wait until Monday.”

Currently, it was Thursday, although, most of that day was gone, so waiting until Monday wasn’t exactly terrible. It was really only three full days. I could handle that, assuming that when the time came, I did actually get to see the Judge.

“This isn’t some kind of runaround, is it?” I questioned suspiciously.

“No, if you have an appointment, the Judge will see you at the specified time,” Cindy assured me.

Nodding, I agreed, “Alright, then Monday it is. As early as possible.”

“Is nine AM early enough?”

“Yes.”

Nodding, Cindy grabbed a pen to make a note of it. As she wrote, she added, “It won’t change anything, you know, you talking to him. Nobody ever changes back, and most of us don’t want to. I certainly don’t.”

That comment caught in my thoughts, piquing my curiosity. “You were changed, too?”

“Sure was.”

“And were you a boy before like me?”

The blonde nodded. “Yes, although, you may be the first person to guess that. Everyone always seems to assume that I’ve always been a girl.”

Looking the woman over, I could see why people might think that. Her attire was professional and feminine. Her makeup was immaculate. There was no sense of unease from her. In fact, her mannerisms and posture seemed perfectly comfortable and womanly. It would be easy to think that she’d just always been the pretty, young, blonde woman that she appeared, and that was what worried me.

“Well, forgive me for ruining your streak. I just guessed because the only other changed person I’ve met was also swapped, so I was thinking that might be all that this Judge does,” I explained myself, not meaning to offend.

“It’s not that uncommon, I’ll admit, but it’s certainly not all that he does,” Cindy told me. “It’s also not that bad. We all learn to get used to, and even enjoy it. I love my life, my husband, and my kids. Trust me, if you give it a chance, you’ll be happy here, too.”

While I was sure that those words were meant to be comforting, I found them rather bone chilling. This place was like a cult. Everyone was too happy. Everyone was trying to get me to just give up and drink the punch. It was creepy.

“Yeah … well … I’ll see you on Monday, then,” I told the blonde, skirting around her comments. It was obvious that there would be no point in trying to argue with her.

Smiling politely, Cindy nodded and said, “I suppose so. Enjoy your weekend.”

“You too,” I mumbled insincerely as I turned to go, trudging back toward the exit. While I may have secured a meeting, I still felt like I’d suffered a defeat. The trek through the December chill was tiring, and now, I was going to have to repeat it. The Judge was going to have his way, at least for a few days. There was no way of knowing what effect those few days might have on me either. I’d already had strange and unwelcome thoughts slipping into my head. Would I even be able to resist whatever Ovid did to people for that long?

For the entire walk back home – to Erika’s home – that worry plagued me. Certainly, I would do my best to resist. It would take vigilance and determination, but I would give both my all. Given the power that the Judge had shown, I wasn’t sure that it was actually even possible to keep myself from succumbing, though. He could make believable facsimiles of people that seemed capable of independent action and thought. Maybe the shade that had been Erika before me would eventually just take me over, subsuming my soul and discarding the rest. If that was going to happen, I doubted that there was anything I could do to stop it.

“How’d it go?!” Martin called out when I entered the Bryant home, stepping out of his room to look down the stairs at me.

Feeling lifeless after the hike and all the worry, I shrugged lazily as I answered, “I have an appointment to talk to the Judge on Monday.”

The fact that had left me so despondent prompted a relieved slouch from Martin. “And you’re going to wait for it?”

“Don’t seem to have a choice,” I grumbled unhappily as I started up the steps.

“Well, then, I should probably let you know that Lisa called for you,” Martin informed me. When that earned a confused look from me, he smirked and added, “She’s been your best friend for years, although, you’re more like her pet these days. Her number should be written down in Mom’s little number book by the phone in the kitchen.”

“And why would I want to talk to one of Erika’s tween friends?” I demanded, in no mood to deal with anything related to the new life in which I’d been stuck.

“First of all, I could understand not wanting to talk to her,” Martin remarked, insulting the absent girl. “However, right now, she’s your friend, and that ‘right now’ might be a lot longer than you think. Plus, she didn’t do anything to you, and if you do get changed back, whoever does end up as Erika didn’t do anything to you either. Besides, It’s not like you have anything better to do while you wait.”

Too tired and frustrated from my day to argue, I just sighed, “Alright, fine, I’ll talk to her, but not for long.”

Martin snickered at that claim. “You don’t have much experience with teenaged girls do you?”

“Ugh, of course,” I groaned, rubbing at my face as I remembered that I wasn’t a forty-two year old man anymore. There was no way I was going to get off the phone in under an hour as a thirteen year old girl. Yet, I still didn’t have anything better to do, and Martin was right, I didn’t exactly want to screw up Erika’s life. I might get stuck with it or the Judge might stick some other poor unsuspecting fellow in it. If I got out of here, though, I swore to at least try to help prevent the latter. Anyone coming here should at least know what was going to happen to them, so they could make an informed choice. If they had that and could trust the Judge to not meddle, a quaint little town like this and a new life to live in it might not be so bad.

Resigned to an excessively long talk on the phone, I trudge back down the stairs and into the kitchen. There, as Martin had said, I found a little phone with a little book laying on top of it with various numbers written inside of it. That gave me the number to my-Erika’s best friend which I immediately dialed.

There were a few rings before a youthful female voice greeted, “Hello?”

“Hey … uhm … Lisa?” I began uncertainly.

“Eri! Oh my God! What happened?! I thought you were supposed to be back from the courthouse hours ago!” Lisa exclaimed with energetic concern. “Did the Judge throw the book at you or something?”

I certainly felt like I’d been hit with a book, a big, heavy, and hard book, but there was no point in talking about that. This Lisa girl might not even know what was going on in Ovid. Hell, she might not even be real. As such, I answered with, “No, nothing like that. He just gave me a warning.”

“Oh … then why were you gone so long?” Lisa asked.

“Uhm … I was … talking to Ms. Jager about being an attorney,” I lied. “I wanted to know if it was anything like how it is on TV. Apparently, it’s not.”

“Ah … well, good,” Lisa replied. “I thought they were going to like, make you do community service or something.”

Community service? What had I even supposedly done? No one had made mention of the actual deed so far. I suppose that meant that I should ask Martin about it, if I ever got off the phone.

“Anyway,” Lisa segued, not seeming to even notice that I wasn’t talking. “Now that your little court thing is out of the way, you should totally come hang out with us tomorrow.”

“Us?” I queried, having no idea who that pronoun entailed. Martin had only told me about the one friend.

“You know, Beth and the boys,” Lisa answered as if that should be obvious, before adopting a more conspiratorial tone. “Don’t freak out, but Rob’s even bringing his buddy Tommy with him. Apparently, Tommy and Ellen broke up which means you might have a chance with him now, but only if you’re there tomorrow. You’ve got to lay claim to him before anyone else moves on him, because there is no way you’ll get him once there’s competition.”

Hearing that string of names and details left me a little overwhelmed with information. I had never heard of a Rob, much less his buddy Tommy. I supposed that Rob was one of the boys, maybe Lisa’s boyfriend. Did thirteen year olds have girlfriends? It seemed so, if Tommy could have broken up with someone named Ellen. I wondered if he was good looking? Funny? Athletic? Wait … what was I thinking about?

“So are you coming or not?” Lisa demanded when I didn’t say anything in response.

Tugged from confusing thoughts, I shook my head and answered, “Huh … oh, uhm … “ I stammered, still a little stuck on the previous thoughts. At the same time, I didn’t want to hang out with a bunch of middle schoolers. I certainly didn’t want to chase after some thirteen year old boy.

On the other end of the line, I heard an exasperated huff, “Ugh, Eri, you’re not going to chicken out are you? It was really hard to set this up for you, you know. It’s not like guys are rushing to go out with you or something. Rob didn’t even want to invite Tommy. I had to convince him. Plus, it’s a chance for the three of us to all go on dates together.”

An odd mix of emotions roiled within me at those words, making me feel angry, self-conscious, and guilty all at once. Maybe I wasn’t the prettiest girl around, but I could get a boy to like me on my own … maybe … if he didn’t find out I was padding my bra. Still, that was no reason for her to talk about me like that! It did sound like she trying to help, though, and–argh! Get out of my head!

“Erika?” Lisa inquired, sounding like she was unsure if I was even still there.

“Sorry, I … uhm … my brother was distracting me,” I lied, trying to push the cloud of emotion away so I could think straight.

“Oh, well, are you coming or not?

Thinking about the invitation was too confusing, and arguing was even worse, so I decided it would probably be best to just go. I needed to know where I was going, first though. I suppose that I’d have to get permission, too. “Where are we meeting?”

“Rusty’s at one.”

I had no idea where or what ‘Rusty’s’ was, but I figured I could ask Martin about it. “Alright, I’ll ask my parents when they get home.”

“Ask your parents?” Lisa questioned incredulously. “Aren’t you still grounded?”

“Oh … right …” I mumbled, having no idea if I was grounded or not. I didn’t even know what I’d done to get in trouble. “Then, I guess I can’t go.”

“God, Eri, you’re such a dork,” Lisa insulted. “Just sneak out. That’s what I’m going to do.”

I was tempted to refuse, but there wasn’t any reason I couldn’t sneak out. I would’ve much rather snuck right out of Ovid, leaving Erika behind me as I did, but slipping out from any punishment sounded pretty good to me at that moment. If nothing else, it had to be better than just sitting in my room stewing while I waited for Monday to come around.

“Alright, I’ll be there,” I finally agreed.

“Great.”

After that, Lisa and I talked for a while longer. Well, Lisa did most of the talking. I was mostly relegated to saying things like, “Yeah,” and, “Mmhmm.” Part of that was me not having any clue what was going on in Erika’s life at the moment. Part of it, I suspected at least, was that that was just how it was between us.

While the manner of the conversation was a bit annoying, it helped fill me in on the life that I was currently forced to live. Beth was the other girl in our little clique at school. Mike was her boyfriend. Apparently, they’d gotten together fairly recently and were really into each other. That was all I got about the names that seemed to matter for the next day, though. The rest was gossip about other kids at school and celebrities, along with talk about clothes, shoes, and music. In spite of the dull nature of the prattle, I was surprised to hear the sound of a car pulling up outside only to check the clock and see an hour and a half had passed by without my noticing. Since I was grounded, I hurriedly ended the call, so that I could rush up to my room and plop onto the bed before anyone could walk in and catch me on the phone. It wasn’t until I got there that I felt a little stupid for acting like such a kid.

My childish status was only further confirmed a minute later when there came a knock on my open door. When I looked up, I saw an older redhaired woman poking her head through the portal to ask, “Hey, sweetie. May I come in?”

“Uhm … sure,” I agreed uncertainly as I sat up and stared at the woman. I recognized her from the photos around the house as my-Erika’s mother, but she looked different in person. It was especially noticeable when she stepped fully into the room. She was one of those sort of transparent people – a shade.

Either unaware of or unconcerned with her status, Erika’s mother stepped through the door with a warm smile on her face. “So, how did it go at the courthouse today?”

“Fine,” I answered neutrally, not wanting to give any indication of how I felt to the construct before me. She could be some sort of spy for the Judge or even an enforcer. If she thought I wasn’t going to play along, she might amp up whatever effect made everyone around here so accepting of having their lives controlled. “The Judge just gave me a warning.”

“That’s good,” My-Mrs. Bryant began as she walked over to sit on the bed next to me. “I hope you intend to follow it, though. He probably won’t be so lenient next time, and if you think getting grounded for a couple of weeks is bad, just wait until you spend that time picking up trash at your school or something like that.”

“Yeah … probably not … “ I muttered, glancing down at what ‘lenient’ looked like – forced into someone else’s life as practically a child. I even had parents to ground me for stuff that I hadn’t even done.

In that way mothers do, Mrs. Bryant somehow picked up on my despondency, giving me a concerned looked as she asked, “Are you alright?”

“Huh?” I mumbled as I looked up again. “Oh … yeah, I’m fine, just … tired, I guess.”

That was a pretty weak lie, and Mrs. Bryant picked up on it instantly, pressing for a more truthful answer with, “The other girls weren’t picking on you again, were they? I know it’s doesn’t really make things any easier right now, sweetie,” she told me as she sild an arm around my shoulder reassuringly. “But I was a late bloomer too. Trust me, you’ll catch up someday, I promise.”

In that moment, everything was weird. Part of me was just confused by the sudden shift in topic. That same part was creeped out by the semi-transparent arm around my shoulder, wanting to pull away from the … thing that pretended to be my mother. There was another part, though, one that found that arm comforting. It felt very attached to the woman that was holding me. It also clung to her words, wishing that they were true, thinking that, if only I would hurry up and grow, that my life would be so much better. Oddly, at the same time, it found those words hollow even as it found them hopefully, doubtful that my mother was even telling me the truth. All together, it was a very befuddling swirl of emotions that left me doing little besides leaning into the embrace slightly as I murmured, “I know.”

That response earned me an affectionate squeeze followed by a quick rub on the shoulder before my mother pulled away. “Good, then keep your chin up. I’m going to go get started on dinner.”

“Alright, mom,” I mumbled, both wanting the moment to end and wishing that it wouldn’t at the same time.

“And, I’ll just pretend that you didn’t ignore the fact that you were grounded and should’ve been in your room by yourself all afternoon,” my mother added with a smirk as she rose from the bed to leave.

To my chagrin, an embarrassed blush burned its way onto my cheeks at that remark. After all that silliness of racing up to my room to not get caught on the phone. My mom had ended up figuring it out anyway. Well, I suppose she more just assumed about why I was upset, although, Lisa had made some comments about my looks, so it wasn’t really that far off. I just had been thinking about a different issue at that moment, an issue that was growing more concerning by the moment. After all, I’d just learned that my-Erika’s mother was a shade, even let her touch me, and rather than recoil, I’d actually appreciated it. Clearly, whatever the Judge had done to my head was more insidious than I’d first assumed. I was going to have to be a lot more careful in the future.

With that resolution firmly ensconced in my head, I flopped back on the bed to wait for dinner and just think. None of my thoughts were particularly useful or enlightening. I just sorted through the day, cataloguing the massive array of information that had been dumped on me. Some of it needed to be committed to memory. Some needed to be discarded as useless. Once that was done, I put together a tentative schedule for my next few days, and then, it was time for dinner.

Dinner in the Bryant home was a fairly traditional affair. The whole family came to eat together for the meal right at six. Once we were gathered, we said grace and dug in, making the typical idle smalltalk that families do at the table. My-Erika’s father talked about his day working as a car salesman. Erika mother talked about her day helping out at one of the shops in town. Apparently, hers was only a part-time job for the holidays to help pay for presents and the like. There was more talk about my time in court, which led to me finally learning what Erika had done to get herself in trouble, although, I had to get some of the details from Martin later. Apparently, she’d tried to take her mother’s car for a joyride, presumably at Lisa’s behest. She didn’t get far, not even down the street, before she plowed through a trash can then a mailbox, before a streetlamp stopped her. Considering the low speed, it wasn’t really much of a rampage, just enough to make a mess and ding up the car a little. It was still enough to land me in my room until Christmas, or at least, until I convinced the Judge to change me back.

After dinner, I talked to Martin a little then was off to my room again. Mr. Bryant and Martin went to watch TV, which I was banned from, while Mrs. Bryant went to her room to read. All told, it was such a quiet and mundane evening, that it was hard for me to believe that I was actually in a magical town with a judge that could turn a grown man into a young girl. It did, however, make it pretty easy to drift off to sleep. That was something at least.

*****

Waking up as Erika was not a confusing experience. I wasn’t disoriented or surprised to find my situation was in fact reality. I remembered what had happened, and I could easily feel that it was still true. It was disappointing, though. I would’ve liked for it to have been just a dream.

My desires aside, the new day found me still in Erika’s body, wearing her PJs and sleeping in her bed. It wasn’t particularly terrible or anything. My body had none of the aches or sluggishness that I was used to having upon rising. I was well rested, even energetic. I took that energy, poured it into my resolved, and got up to face the day.

Getting ready in the morning wasn’t really all that much different as a girl. It still involved relieving myself, showering, and a change of clothes. I had to sit down now for that first one, but otherwise it worked out naturally enough. Showering was embarrassing, largely because I felt both creepy for touching an underaged body and self-conscious for just how underaged it appeared. It also took more time thanks to my long hair and the fact that I noticed a razor and shaving gel in the shower, implying that I was supposed to shave my legs. They seemed fine, and I doubted anyone would see my bare legs but me in the winter, but I did it anyway, almost as if by habit. That was how I picked out clothes as well, actually. Unconcerned with how I looked, I just grabbed whatever, only to discover that I’d picked out a fairly cute combination of a skirt, leggings, and a t-shirt as well as one of the padded bras in the drawer without intending to do so. It was further proof that my body seemed to have a mind of its own, but at least, this time, that mind did little other than make me look nice.

Once I was ready to face the day, I met a different problem. I had nothing to do. My plans with my-Erika’s friends weren’t until later, I couldn’t go see the Judge yet, and Erika was on break from school for Christmas. In my old life, when I had free time, I spent it on my computer, but Erika didn’t own her own computer. A search of the house located a family computer in the den downstairs, but given its age and low quality, I suspected it would be more aggravating than enjoyable to use. As such, I left it alone, finding my way into the living room to plop on the couch in front of the TV and search through daytime programming for anything that might pass the time.

Eventually, I did find something to watch, a cooking show that was apparently doing a dessert episode. It wasn’t particularly entertaining, but the things they made all looked so utterly delicious. That was enough to make it worth a watch, and nearly enough to convince me to get up and try one of the recipes.

“You know, you’re supposed to be grounded,” Martin remarked when he came down a short time later to get something from the kitchen.

Turning from the TV, I leveled an annoyed look at the teen and said, “Yeah, and you’re supposed to be a grown woman. Supposed to doesn’t seem to mean much in Ovid.”

Martin chuckled at that remark. “I guess not, but that’s not going to stop you from getting in trouble if Mom and Dad find out.”

“Well, that’s only going to happen if you tell on me,” I pointed out. “Are you that much of a lame dork, ‘big brother’?”

Smirking, Martin shrugged. “Maybe, if you don’t give me the TV when I decide I want it.”

“You’re welcome to it, whenever you want,” I told him. “It’s not like there’s anything on right now anyway.”

“Huh, You’re better than the old Erika already,” Martin commented as he finished getting a can of soda and walked into the living room with it in hand.

“Don’t get too attached, because I don’t plan to be her for long,” I retorted, annoyed that I had to wait as long as I did. No, it wasn’t just annoying, it was worrisome, frightening even. It had only been a day, but I already felt more … stuck, like I was slowly sinking into a mire. I didn’t like it.

“Well, if you’re planning on going back to being a guy, you should probably not be sitting like that,” Martin commented as he snatched the remote from where I’d left it on the end table and walked over to the far end of the couch to plop down.

Confused by the remark, I looked down at my posture. I was curled up on the couch in a manner that decidedly feminine. I had my upper body propped up against the armrest, but my lower half was laid out on its side, resting hip down on the cushions with my legs curled up underneath me. Men just didn’t sit like that, especially old men with backs that would cramp up just trying to get into that position.

Huffing in annoyance, I shifted about to sit up like I normally would. Of course, that didn’t really work. I was wearing a skirt, so spreading my legs wouldn’t be proper. As such, even sitting upright, I wasn’t exactly to old form. All that effort just earned me another chuckle from Martin.

“It’s not funny,” I hissed, shooting an angry look at the boy.

“Sure it is,” Martin countered. “I mean, you may not think you’re a girl, but you are one now. There’s no reason to get all grumpy over acting like it.”

“That doesn’t make me any happier about this stupid body doing things on its own,” I retorted.

“On it’s own? Oh, you mean the autopilot,” Martin said, nodding understanding. “I guess that was a little weird at first.”

“Autopilot?”

Again Martin nodded before explaining, “Yeah, there’s like a built in auto-pilot for people like us, I guess, so we can get through our day-to-day activities without making fools of ourselves. If you just let yourself go, your body will take care of some things, like walk you to classes you’ve never been too or shave areas you’ve never shaved before. Sarah, my girlfriend, said it would even do her makeup for her.”

“So, it’s just like training wheels, right? It’s not taking over or anything?” I asked.

“Taking over?” Martin repeated, furrowing his brow at that idea. “No, I don’t think so, anyway. The training wheels analogy is probably right. It’s a way to teach you how to live your new life just like training wheels teach you how to ride a bike. After a while, you won’t need it anymore. In fact, I’m not even sure if I still have it or if it just went away once I got used to things here.”

While Martin clearly thought of this ‘autopilot’ as a boon, I had my doubts. It did sound less sinister than I’d been worried that it would be, but not by much. Brainwashing was nearly as bad as outright possession. Eventually, it would train me to be the person the Judge wanted me to be just through force of habit.

With me not responding, Martin let the conversation end, choosing instead to flip through some channels until he landed on something sports related. As a man, I’d never much cared for athletics, respected it sure, but never enjoyed it. Becoming a teenaged girl didn’t seem to change that opinion any, although, I highly doubted that the vain woman that Martin claimed to have been had liked sports, so it seemed like transformations could change things like that, as well. That was just more to worry about, though. I needed a distraction.

“Oh, by the way, do you know what Rusty’s is?” I asked, remembering my plans for later.

Turning his attention back to me, Martin raised an eyebrow, smirked faintly, and asked. “And why would you want to know that, miss still grounded?”

I affected a falsely innocent smile. “No reason.”

“Alright,” Martin replied with a chuckle. “It’s a burger joint in town. Given the nature of Ovid, we don’t exactly have chains here, so we have stuff like Rusty’s. They have pretty good food. In fact, basically all the businesses around here are better than you’d expect for a backwoods little town in Oklahoma. Sarah’s always raving about the selection at March’s, and I certainly have no complaints about how she looks after she shops there.”

I supposed that Martin’s remarks made sense. Given the magical transformations and the shades, Ovid was the kind of place that needed to stay off grid, lest the world try to stop the Judge’s fun. With the power he had, it wasn’t like the town needed outside help anyway. I wouldn’t be surprised if he just created whatever the place needed out of thin air.

“Anything else you need to know?” Martin asked once he was done with explanation.

“How to get there,” I replied.

Martin rolled his eyes. “Remember what we just talked about? You don’t need to ask, just start walking and let the autopilot do the rest.”

The idea of intentionally letting that programming take control was disconcerting to say the least, so I shook my head and said, “I’d rather not rely on that.”

Martin seemed to find that excuse rather silly, but he ended up giving me the directions I needed before turning back to the TV. While I stayed on the other end of the couch, I didn’t really watch the boring show that he’d put it on. Instead, I focused more on my plans later with Lisa. I still had a little time left before I needed to leave for Rusty’s, judging from what Martin had told me of the distance, and that would be the easy part anyway. The more important part was making sure that I got home before my-Erika’s parents. Mrs. Bryant had gotten home just after five the day before, so I probably needed to make sure I was back by four-thirty to avoid trouble.

Once my travel plans were plotted out, I shifted to other musings about the outing. What would we even do at Rusty’s? I assumed eat, but that wouldn’t take too long. Would we go somewhere else after? Did I even have any money? I didn’t even know if I would be expected to pay. If I understood the plan, it was sort of like a date. Should I change? I didn’t have great legs, but forgoing the leggings might help, even if it would make for an awfully cold walk. Maybe I should try a little harder up top, too. A little tissue probably wouldn’t hurt. And maybe–no, I thought forcefully, shaking my head to clear it of the thoughts that had drifted increasingly into tweendom. It wasn’t a date, or at least, not one I cared about going well. All that mattered to me was that it was something to do, something that didn’t involve sitting around the house, bored and anxious. I was just going to go, get something to eat, and spend a little time palling around with Erika’s friends. If it was boring or frustrating or anything else that was bad, I would just come home early.

With a plan decided on, I lounged about with Martin for a little while longer before it was time to get ready to go. Up in my room, I found a purse, complete with a wallet that had a little money in it, enough for lunch anyway. Once I had that, I stopped to take one last look in the mirror before I hurried down the stairs, grabbed my coat and sneakers, and went out into the cold. Just before the door closed behind me, I heard Martin call out, “Have fun!”

Like with the courthouse, Rusty’s was a bit of a hike, but not too far to walk. In fact, thanks to nicer weather that day, it wasn’t bad at all. I didn’t have to deal with my ears burning or my nose running, and my new body’s youth made the walk not a problem either. I would’ve prefered to still be able to drive, but walking would serve as a decent substitute, at least until, I got myself out of Ovid.

I didn’t know if it was Martin’s directions or the autopilot that came with being Erika, but I made it to Rusty’s without any apparent mistakes. It was a pretty typical looking burger place, a modestly sized, well lit building. Outside, there was a large neon sign of a bull with the words, “Rusty’s Best Burgers,” written underneath. That left little doubt in my mind that I’d found the right place unless, somehow, the tiny town needed two such places.

In spite of my certainty, when I walked in, I didn’t see anyone that looked like Lisa. Of course, I’d only had a few pictures that I’d found in my room to go off of to identify the girl, but while there were a few other kids my age, none looked like her. Even so, I spent a few awkward moments looking around the place just to be sure, before I finally checked the time. Apparently, I was a little early as it was still a few minutes until one, so I figured I was the first one there.

Getting a table that would be big enough for six, I ordered a soda and plopped down to wait for the others to arrive. It proved to be quite the wait. At first, I just nursed my drink, but as minutes slipped by, the various smells of delicious food combined with the fact that I hadn’t eaten yet that day to get my stomach rumbling. Once that started, I got a bit fidgety, bouncing my leg as I kept glancing back toward the door wondering how long I was supposed to wait. Should I give Lisa a call? Maybe they weren’t coming? I didn’t remember the number, though, and I couldn't exactly walk all the way back home just to make the call. Plus, the food smelled so good …

About quarter after, hunger defeated my patience, and I ordered some food. A few minutes later, it was plopped down in front of me, and I found out firsthand that Martin hadn’t been lying. If anything, he’d undersold the place. It was quite good, and I was quite hungry, a combination that had me going at my food quite voraciously. My small body’s capacity didn’t match up with its desire, though, filling up quickly, enough that I doubted my ability to even finish the combo meal that I’d ordered.

“Erika!” a slightly nasally, teenaged girl’s voice gasped from nearby as I was in the midst of chomping down on the remnants of my burger.

While the voice wasn’t familiar, my body started at the sound, nearly choking on the bite that I’d been trying to take. One hand shot up to cover my mouth as I coughed as I looked up at the speaker. There were two girls approaching my table, one blonde and the other brunette. I had never met either personally, but I recognized them both from photos. The blonde, a fairly average looking young teen and a shade, was Beth. Obviously, the other girl, and undoubtedly the one that had spoken was Lisa. Unlike Beth she was not a shade, although, I had no way of knowing if she remembered being anyone else. Shade or not, she was quite pretty, but only in a young teen sort of way. Her face was only so-so with a slightly large nose and fairly mousy hair to frame it. Figure wise, though, she was ahead of the curve with a very healthy bust that was larger than many fully grown women and some fairly nice curves to her hips and legs that weren’t typical for girls of that age. It was enough to make Beth look underdeveloped and scrawny in comparison, and she was leaps and bounds ahead of me.

“Why didn’t you wait for us?!” Lisa demanded, coming to a stop next to the table with her hands on her hips. The position allowed her to glare down at me from height that would’ve been at least half a foot taller than me had I been standing. With me sitting, it was an even greater, and more imposing difference.

“I-I … uhm … I did,” I stuttered out awkwardly, legitimately intimidated by the brunette’s aggressive posture. “But you were late, and I was hungry, so I–”

“What are you babbling about, Eri?” Lisa interjected. “You know you’re supposed to just find us a good table and wait. By the way, couldn’t you get one by the window or something?”

I was a little taken aback by the interruption. Lisa had honestly expected me to just sit here and wait for her? That was absurd. She and Beth were over half an hour late! Was that just Erika’s life, some flunky for these two?

“Well, whatever,” Lisa remarked dismissively, seeming to not even care that I hadn’t answered. As she spoke, she just slid into one of the seats with Beth silently following suit. “The boys are going to be here soon, so you had better get rid of all of this. We wouldn’t want them thinking you couldn’t wait for them either.”

“If I just explain things to them, they’ll–” I started to argue.

Rolling her eyes, Lisa sighed, “Are you trying to ruin this, Eri? Do you not want to ever have a boyfriend?”

“What?” I questioned in confusion.

“I mean, look at you, pigging out before he gets here, getting all greasy and smelly,” Lisa critiqued. “Plus, it’s going to make you look impatient and selfish. Guys hate that.”

Hearing those words, my jaw clenched as I looked down bashfully. My hands were greasy, and there was probably some food on my face and in my teeth. It couldn’t be attractive, and it wasn’t like I had a body like Lisa’s to make up for it with.

“Fine, I’ll clean up,” I muttered begrudgingly, sliding out of my seat and reaching for my food so that I could toss it.

“No time,” Lisa cut in, waving me off as she rose as well. “We have to get you to the bathroom, so we can make you presentable. Beth, can you get the waitress to bus the table?”

“Sure thing, Leece,” Beth agreed amicably.

With Beth heeding her command, Lisa grabbed my wrist and just dragged me toward the bathroom, not waiting for any such agreement from me. There, she had me clean off my face and hands while she dug around in her purse. After that, she had me stand stock still in front of her while she applied makeup to my face. I tried to argue, but they were easily silenced by retorts like, “Do you want to look like some dorky little kid?”

“There,” Lisa finally declared after a few minutes of work, grabbing my shoulders to forcibly turn me toward the mirror. Reflected there, I found an image that I found rather odd. I wouldn’t say I looked any older. My features were just too childish for that. What I did appear to be was trying very hard to look older with mascara, lipstick, and everything else gooped onto my face. It felt weird, too, making me want to reach up and poke at it or lick my lips, but while I didn’t know a lot about makeup, I knew enough that playing with it would mess it up and make it look worse. “That’s much better.”

I screwed my face up a little in doubt at Lisa’s claim, and mumbled, “I guess?”

“Trust me, it is,” Lisa assured me. “Tommy’s going to love it, at least, he will if you just sit there, show interest, and try not to talk too much. Got it?”

While I hadn’t planned to do much talking given that I knew very little about teenagers, Erika’s life, or Ovid, being told to just sit there like some bobble headed doll raised my hackles. In fact, I was rapidly started to detest everything that came out of Lisa’s mouth. She was just so bossy, not even listening to me when I spoke. I hated it when people acted like that. Still, I had only come to waste time and not screw things up for any future Erikas, so I forced myself to nod in agreement, and mumble, “Got it.”

Finished with me for the moment, Lisa led the way back out to our table. By then, the waitress had cleared away what was left of my food. It was a bit annoying to have the rest of it wasted, but I’d been forcing myself to finish anyway, so it wasn’t too bad. All that was left at the table was Beth, who perked up at the sight of our approach.

“Sorry for taking so long,” Lisa apologized to Beth as she slipped into her seat. “I had to help Eri with her makeup.”

“Oh, alright,” Beth agreed, turning her attention to me. “It looks good, very mature.”

“See, Eri? I told you,” Lisa remarked smugly.

Resisting the urge to roll my eyes, I nodded and slipped back into my seat as well. Given their ages, these girls probably thought wearing makeup at all was mature. It was like boys that age with facial hair.

As if timed to that thought of facial hair, a boy’s voice called out, “Lisa!” affectionately.

Looking up, I was treated to the sight of three newcomers, this time male ones. Like most boys at that age, they weren’t all that obviously male to look at, though. Only one of them was taller than Lisa, a rail thin, five-eight, beanpole of a shade boy with dirty blonde hair. He wasn’t the one in the lead, though. That was a shorter, brown-haired shade with a thin wispy little mustache on his upper lip. This boy may have been shorter, but he was quite a bit bigger in other regards, sporting a built that was a touch husky, lending him a more solid, masculine physique. At the back of the three was a third boy, brown-haired and the only real one of the bunch. He sat in between the first two in height and build.

“Rob!” Lisa squealed in delight, hopping up to go greet her boyfriend, the mustached one, with a long kiss. That display of affection earned a few oo’s and ah’s from the rest of the friends.

By the time those two broke it up, the tall boy had dropped into a seat next to Beth, offering her a quick peck on the cheek. Once he was done, he greeted her with a, “Hi beautiful,” that had the blonde girl blushing a little. That meant that he was her boyfriend, Mike.

With those two’s names figured out, my attention immediately jumped to the last boy, the one that had to be Tommy. As I noted before, he was kind of in between the others, about as tall as Lisa, which was pretty tall for that age. He didn’t have the slightly pudgy look that came with Rob’s husky build, but had a more lean look that I knew, from having already been through this age, would be a good thing in a few years. He didn’t have a mustache, either, but I still thought he was cute … really cute … like–no, no, no, I growled in my head, trying to chase away the thoughts of a tween girl that was well on her way to smitten. That wasn’t me.

“Hey there,” Tommy greeted pleasantly when he took the empty seat next to me. It was a simple greeting, but it was still enough that I actually felt my heart flutter and then a rush shoot through me, making me suddenly fidgety and nervous.

“H-Hey,” I stuttered out, looking down at my lap as I fought to regain control of my suddenly very wayward self. It was hard to do, though, with every other thought drifting to the cute-no just boy-no just person, sitting next to me. Damn it!

“Tommy, you’ve met Erika before, right?” Lisa asked leadingly, a smile on her face as she finally returned to her seat with her boyfriend next to her.

Nodding, Tommy glanced toward me and responded, “Yeah, we’ve talked a few times, I think. You look nice, by the way.”

If I thought the greeting hit me hard, it was nothing compared to that compliment. I almost thought I was going to pass out the way my heart raced and my thoughts swirled about in my head. Luckily, I settled for flushing red and curling down a little in my seat, as I quietly mumbled back, “Y-You t-too.” Reacting like that only made me feel even more embarrassed. God, what had that damn Judge done to me?!

Smile widening as she watched the exchange, Lisa quickly turned the conversation to other things. What followed was a much more chaotic version of the phone conversation that I’d had the previous day. Most of the talking was done by Rob or Lisa, with Mike frequently interjecting with jokes. The presence of the boys added some different perspectives on the gossip, but it had a more dramatic effect on other topics. There was much less talk of clothes, shopping, and the like. Such topics only came up out of insult for something someone else had worn. Instead, the boys were allowed to speak more on their passions, tending to discuss games and sports while us girls were expected to just sit back and listen.

As nervous as being around Tommy made me, I was almost glad to have people expect so little from me. Tommy seemed to feel similarly, as he didn’t talk all that much. In fact, he didn’t seem to be all that engaged in the chat at all, tending to stare off into the distance as he slouched in his seat. Even once we all ordered food, except me since I’d already eaten, he just sort of picked at it. Altogether, he didn’t look like he was having much fun. As I sat next to him, I wondered what the reason was. Was it because of me? Should I talk more? Did my stuttering bother him? Did he just not want to be there with me at all? He probably would’ve prefered to be with someone pretty and confident like Lisa not some shy scrawny dork like me.

No, I told myself. I may be stuck being scrawny at the moment, but I didn’t have to be shy, no matter what the Judge had done to me to make me feel all flustered by Tommy. It would take some willpower, but I didn’t have to let him dictate to me. I was the one in charge now. I could be assertive if I wanted to be.

Forcing myself to sit up straight, I got my eyes up to actually look at Tommy. After that, it took me another moment to gather my nerve before I reached out to gently tap his arm to get his attention. Just touching the boy nearly sent me right back to curling up bashfully, but I fought that urge, even when he turned to look at me and it got even stronger. Quietly, so as to not interrupt the other’s conversations, I asked, “Is everything alright?”

“Huh? Oh … yeah. Of course,” Tommy answered dismissively, as if saying it would somehow make it so. As he spoke, he pointedly turned back to the others, focusing intently on their conversation in a way that he hadn’t the entire time that he’d been at Rusty’s.

Were I actually the young girl I appeared to be, I probably would’ve just accepted that answer. It might’ve been because I didn’t realize that he was clearly covering for something in an effort to appear tough. It might’ve been because I was too shy and self conscious to keep pushing. Either way, I was not that person, so I pushed my hesitance aside to press on.

“Look, I’m really glad you came,” I began to massage the boy’s ego a little. “But, you don’t look like you’re having fun, and I know you just went through a breakup.“

“That doesn’t bother me any,” Tommy retorted a bit defensively.

I had to resist the urge to roll my eyes at the unnecessary bravado of youth. “I didn’t say it did. I just thought that maybe you’d like some time to yourself to unwind before you jump into something like that again. Lisa and Rob’s scheme to hook us up can wait.”

“Is that why Tommy insisted I had to come here?” Tommy questioned, as typically clueless as most boys his age.

Nodding, I replied. “Yeah, although, I think Lisa was the puppet master pulling his strings.”

“Damn him,” Tommy grumbled in annoyance. “I don’t want to date some little–” It was there that he caught himself, offering me a bashful, “Sorry, I didn’t–”

That aborted comment about me hurt more than I would’ve expected, but I forced myself to smile as I raised a hand to stop him. “It’s alright. I know I’m not much. I just–”

“What are you two whispering about over there?” LIsa asked, continuing the string of interruptions.

Getting caught in the middle of an awkward conversation, Tommy and I both blushed a little, which only made things worse. Tommy took the lead in answering, but all he managed was a stammering, “We were … uhm … just … uhm …”

“Talking about getting out of here, so we could have a little privacy,” I cut in, fighting against embarrassment and shyness to keep myself from stuttering or clamming up.

“Ooo,” the two other girls at the table cooed as the other guys treated the two of us to looks that were a mix of surprise and respect, although, that second emotion seemed to only be directed at Tommy.

The implications of those responses only made things worse. Tommy, probably not wanting his friends to think he was into little girls, opened his mouth to correct the misunderstanding, but I beat him to the punch. “So, here’s some money for our part of the meal,” I said as I grabbed a few bills from my purse to drop them on the table. Once I had, I got up and slipped the purse over my shoulder “Now, if you’ll excuse us.”

“Sure thing,” Lisa squeezed out as she and Beth giggled.

Bemused by what had just transpired, Tommy didn’t follow my lead, staying his seat. There was no way I was going through all of this only to have him ruin it, though. I reached down to grab his wrist and give it a tug as I said, “Come on.” That finally snapped him from his daze enough to at least follow orders and rise. From there, I was able to drag him off toward the door as our friends made a few thinly veiled comments at our backs.

We were outside and a couple dozen paces away before Tommy finally got his brain together enough to react, pulling to a stop. That sent me lurching to a stop as well as there was no way that I could actually drag the much larger teen anywhere that he didn’t want to go. I was just recovering from the sudden stop when Tommy demanded. “Why did you do that?! Now they’re going to think we’re going off to make out or something!”

Annoyed at the idea that making out with me was somehow a bad thing, I spun around to huff, “Would you rather have admitted to everyone that you want nothing to do with me and didn’t even want to be there?!”

That outburst had Tommy reeling back as he apologetically mumbled, “That’s not … I mean …”

This time, I didn’t resist the urge to roll my eyes. “That’s exactly what it was, and I already told you it’s fine, but I don’t want to just sit there with someone that doesn’t want to be there at all! If you’re so worried about what your buddies are going to think, just tell them that you were just leading me on to see how badly I wanted you or that I did something to screw it up or whatever else you want!“

Once again, Tommy appeared to be stunned, although, this time, he seemed to have enough sense to not try to sputter out some response. I suspected that might well have been because he didn’t know how to respond. After all, he was only thirteen. His experience with girls and relationships, hell even life, was pretty limited.

Seeing the boy so befuddled sapped my anger, causing me to slump a little as I adopted a reassuring smile. “Look, I just wanted an excuse, so we could leave, because you clearly weren’t enjoying yourself. I’m sorry Lisa’s plan to help me even dragged you here in the first place, and I’m sorry you and your girlfriend broke up, too.”

“Thanks,” Tommy mumbled, slouching as he looked down at the ground.

For a moment, I just looked at the boy, letting silence hang between us. He just seemed so despondent. It made me want to just reach out and give him a hug. I was the one the had just yelled at him. I should probably do something.

“Uhm … if you want to talk about … whatever, we can go somewhere, just the two of us,” I offered. “I’m not bad at listening.”

“Huh?” Tommy murmured as he looked up before realization dawned and forced himself to man up and shake his head. “Oh … no, I’m fine.”

“Alright, then I’m going to go,” I told him, even as my mind screamed at me to stay. He was cute, and hurting, and I could totally work the friend angle if I-no. I wanted nothing to do with the hormonal tween Erika’s opinions on the matter. “If you change your mind, just give me a call or whatever.”

“Sure thing,” Tommy answered softly.

Nodding at that noncommittal answer, I turned to go, starting the march back to my home. While the hike to Rusty’s hadn’t seemed so bad, the one back home felt incredibly cold and lonely. I trudged the whole way, remembering the time at the restaurant and the brief conversation after. I remember the way Tommy had looked, too, as well as the way that he’d made me feel with just a little compliment. There were even a few wistful sighs, usually my cue to shove the silly pining teenager thoughts from my head to try and refocus on staying myself. It never worked for long, though. Every time, my mind would drift right back to that boy and more wistful sighs. It was so pathetic, and worse, even finally returning home didn’t spare me from it. TV wasn’t enough of a distraction, and when the sound of my mother’s return sent me racing up to my room, I didn’t even have that to divert my attention. For much of the night, all I did was lay on my bed lost in those thoughts.

*****

“I’m not talking about it!” I insisted forcefully.

“Come on! You have to tell me what happened after you left!” Lisa’s voice on the other end of the phone demanded.

“No, so just drop it!” I retorted firmly, holding my ground.

“Fine, but I’m going to find out eventually,” Lisa assured me.

Variants of that exchange had been peppered throughout our conversation when Lisa called me the day after the trip to Rusty’s. All that the other girl wanted to know about was what I had done with Tommy after the two of us had left the burger place. At first, I’d refused to talk just because I didn’t know what story Tommy wanted to tell. I’d learned since then that he was refusing to talk about it as well, which made me all the more staunch in my refusal. It was nobody’s business but Tommy and mine’s what had happened. Of course, the more determinedly I refused the most insistent Lisa was about knowing. Oddly, that just made it even more fun to keep the secret. I liked the idea of denying that bossy, overdeveloped blabbermouth what she wanted.

“No, you won’t,” I responded with confidence and just a hint of taunting.

My answer had the desired effect, prompting a frustrated growl from Lisa. “Argh! Give me something! Did you talk?! Did you kiss him?! Did you screw it up like usual?!”

While my resolved had not been weakening, if it had, the inclusion of that ‘like usual’ would have had me rock solid in my stance once more. The implication that I, I mean Erika, was some kind of chronic bumbler was not going to get me to give up any information, even if it was technically true. I hadn’t gotten anywhere with Tommy. I’d just let him go. God, I should’ve ki-no I shouldn’t have!

Shaking my head to clear away unwanted fantasies, I refocused and said, “Nope! You’re never going to know.”

“Damn!” Lisa cursed in exasperation.

Smirking, I was just about to tease more when I heard the click of someone else picking up the phone, followed by the obnoxious beep of dialing. Grimacing, I pulled the phone away to yell out, “Hey! I’m on the phone!”

“Well then get hang up!” Martin shouted back. “I have to call Sarah.”

“But I’m in the middle of something!”

“Too bad! You’re not even supposed to be using the phone, anyway!”

“Fine! Just give me a minute!” I huffed back one last time before letting out a weary sigh. Getting the phone back up to my ear, I said. “Hey, sorry, Leece, but my brother’s being a jerk, so I have to hang up.”

“Ugh, just tell that asshole to go screw himself,” Lisa commanded.

“Yeah, so he can just march up here and hang it up for me?” I questioned. “Besides, he’s right, I’m supposed to be grounded. I’ll call you once he’s done.”

“Fine,” Lisa grumbled. “But you better be willing to spill the beans by then.”

Giggling, I replied. “Not a chance. Bye.” Before the other girl could say more, I hung up, and called out. “Alright, I’m off!”

“Thanks!” came my brother’s reply.

While Martin may have been grateful, I sure wasn’t. With the phone taken away, I had nothing to do, which meant flopping onto my bed to lay there. It wasn’t until I’d done that, that it finally struck me how I’d just been acting, chatting for hours on the phone, giggling, arguing with my ‘big brother’. It was all so perfectly normal for the teenaged girl that I appeared to be, but most definitely wasn’t.

Sighing, I shook my head and asked the otherwise empty room, “Am I even going to make it to Monday?”

The room didn’t answer, and I wasn’t sure that was a bad thing. I probably wouldn’t have liked the answer anyway. By Monday, I might just be Erika, swooning over boys, hanging with my friends, worrying about why my scrawny little body wasn’t growing. Just those thoughts were enough to get me to tilt my gaze to my chest made existent almost exclusively through padding. There was obvious feelings of doubt and self consciousness from that look, as well as jealously of the more developed girls and desperate hopes that I would be that way some day. If I shoved those away, I’d probably just start pining after Tommy, instead. I was slipping, and the more I did, the less terrible it seemed. After all, I was young again. I had friends and family. I might’ve been scrawny and small, but I wasn’t ugly or anything. I even had someone I liked, not that he was interested, and not that I really wanted to date some teenaged boy. It had just been a long time since any of that.

“No!” I growled, shaking my head to drive away such defeatist thoughts. I wasn’t going to cave to the Judge just because it wasn’t the worst life ever. I wasn’t going to just settle for what he wanted. That wasn’t me. I was going to fight this. Even if I lost everything else, I was going to cling to that single goal. No life, no matter how good or bad, was worth living without choice.

Not wanting to languish and risk the return of self doubt, I scooted off the bed and went downstairs to watch some TV while I waited for the phone. I doubted that there would be anything truly engaging to watch, but it was better than just laying around. However, I never found out whether that was true or not.

Just as my butt hit the cushions, the doorbell rang followed by Martin yelling, “Can you get that, Eri?!”

“Sure thing!” I called back. Sighing, I shoved myself off the couch again and walked over to the front door. When I got there and opened it, though, I was quite surprised by who I found waiting for me on the other side. Just seeing that person was enough to send my heart racing, and my mind whirling off to pathetically hopeful dreams. “Tommy?!”

“Hey,” the boy greeted, raising a hand in a slight wave as he smiled nervously. “Sorry for just uhm … dropping by. I tried to call, but your phone’s been busy for a while.”

“Oh … yeah, I was just talking to Lisa,” I explained, reeling in my emotions before quickly adding. “I didn’t tell her anything about what happened, so you don’t have to worry about that.”

“Thanks, I just … “ Tommy began, but ended up trailing off, looking down at the ground. Clearly, he was struggling to get the words right in his head.

Smiling a little at the proof that the teen was having as much trouble as I was, I tried to help him out a little with time. “Hey, it’s a little cold out. Why don’t you come in. We can talk up in my room.”

“You’re room?!” Tommy blurted before catching himself to cough. “Ahem … I mean … of course.” Even after the effort to clear his throat, his pubescent voice broke a little on the word course.

Making sure not to laugh, I just nodded in confirmation and beckoned him inside. “Alright, then come on in.”

Following that command, Tommy stepped into the house. After that, I led the way up to my room. The entire way, neither of us said anything. Tommy seemed to still be organizing his thoughts, and me well, I was trying to get my heart to stop beating so damn fast. Neither of us seemed to accomplish our tasks along the way, because when we got to our room we just stood there awkwardly.

“So … uhm … this is my room,” I cut into the silence after letting it just hang there for a moment.

Tommy’s only response to those words was an absent nod. He didn’t even lift his head to look around. He just thought for another moment before finally saying, “I … wanted to apologize for yesterday. I said some things ...”

“I told you already, it’s alright,” I assured him.

“No, it’s not,” Tommy insisted, gaining a firm edge to his voice that wasn’t there a moment ago. As he did, he raised his head so that his eyes could look right into mine. My heart skipped a beat at the intensity of that gaze, and my mind could only think about how his orbs were blue just like mine. “Because, I would be lucky to have a girlfriend as cute and caring as you.”

If eye contact made my heart skip, those words nearly killed me. My face was suddenly burning, and my knees actually felt weak. It was hard to even stay standing. I just felt so hot, breathless, and mushy. Still, I kept my feet, but I was sure any more words like that or even a slight breeze would knock me right over.

Apparently, I wasn’t the only one affected by what Tommy said. The boy ended up blushing as well. The intense eye contact vanished as well as he jerked his gaze down and away. Even the firmness in his voice was gone when he spoke again, leaving a stuttered mess, “I-I … uhm … j-just thought ...”

The words were coming so slowly, giving anticipation more than enough time to dig its claws into me and not let go. Was he going to ask me out? This boy? This tall, handsome boy with the deep blue eyes and enough thoughtfulness to come over and apologize for the way he acted? How could that be? How was I supposed to answer? Oh God, what if I messed up? I’d never been asked out before. I had no idea what to do. What if I ended up acting like a total dork and he took it back?”

“... you … uhm … should know that,” Tommy finally finished, rendering my moment of panic completely pointless. In it’s place, there was disappointment, confusion, and worry. Had I done something wrong? Was I still not good enough, in spite of what he’d said? What was I supposed to say? What was I supposed to do? Why didn’t my brain have any damn answers?!

“Oh … thanks …” I ended up mumbling awkwardly, adding absolutely nothing to the conversation. God, I was such a dork.

“Yeah, so …” Tommy joined me in mumbled, rubbing the back of his head with one hand.

As an awkward moment rose up, I silently cursed myself. Do something, stupid! Tell him you like him! Ask him out! Anything but just stand there and let him leave. Don’t you want to go out with him?!

Even as that last string of questioned reverberated through my head, they shook loose the part of me that was Louis. That part cut through the raging storm of emotion with a resounding no. I wasn’t this swooning, inept, little girl. I didn’t care about Tommy. He was just some kid. Still, Erika clearly did care, and it wouldn’t hurt me to at least try to set her up in a better spot than I’d started.

“Anyway, I should probably–” Tommy started to say, undoubtedly about to excuse himself so that he could flee the uncomfortable situation.

“Do you want to go out sometime?” I blurted, cutting the boy off. To my chagrin, I actually blushed at making such a request, and couldn’t even manage to maintain eye contact after. “You know, like, on a date.”

“I, uh, I mean …” Tommy fumbled for something to say.

Forcing my way through my embarrassment, I looked up to smile at the boy. “Look, I don’t want to push you or anything, and I know you just got out of a relationship, but I really like you, and I think you might like me, too. It can just be a movie or something. Maybe after Christmas?”

For a moment, Tommy was just stunned. Then, a smile started to curl up his lips. Finally, he said, “Y-Yeah, that’s sounds great.”

“Great …” I breathed, feeling my thoughts start to float away again in the face of that wonderful answer. He’d said yes. He really had. I’d heard it and everything. I wasn’t dreaming right? I actually had a date?

“I’ll, uhm … I’ll give you a call the day after christmas?” Tommy offered uncertainly.

Lost in rapture, I almost missed those words before I shook myself free and hurriedly answered, “Yeah, that’ll be perfect. I’ll try to make sure the line’s not busy too.”

Tommy chuckled a little at the joke. “Thanks, anyway, I should probably get going …”

“Alright,” I agreed, kind of wanting him gone. Otherwise, I’d was worried that I’d screw things up somehow. “I’ll walk you out.”

After that, I did exactly as I said, walking with Tommy to the door. There, we said an awkward goodbye, complete with awkward waves. He walked away, and I closed the door. I even made it all the way back up to my room, but that was as far as I got before Erika just had to have a moment.

“Yes!” I found myself squealing in delight once I was back in the safety of my room. As I did, I flopped onto my bed, feeling at once as alive as I’d ever been and completely exhausted at the same time. That was the kind of strain that came from controlling all the excitement and anxiety that had come from just that short conversation with Tommy. In the end, though, it had all worked out. I had the date that I-no Erika wanted, in spite of all the raging emotions and hormones that had been trying to cripple me.

Finally relaxing, I let out a heavy sigh as a soft smile spread across my face. “I hope you don’t screw it up after I have my showdown with the Judge,” I told some unknown future Erika that might someday replace me. At the same time, my mind registered a different concern, that my very effort to resist would screw things up, as well as leave me stuck with the results of that failure.

“I just have to keep fighting,” I reminded myself. It didn’t matter what the Judge did. If he tried to leave me as Erika, I’d find a way to hurt him from this body. If he tried to change me into someone else, I’d try again. Eventually, he’d have to see things my way or … well, every fight has its risks.

A knock on the door snapped me from such thoughts, tugging my attention across the room. There, a smirking Martin was poking head into my room. “So, what has you squealing with delight? Something to do with that boy you let in the house?”

While rationally I didn’t feel like I had anything to be embarrassed about, I still felt my cheeks heat up at the teasing tone of my brother’s voice. I even reflexively retorted with a firm, “No!”

Undoubtedly knowing that I was lying, Martin just snickered at my answer. “I told you being Erika would grow on you.”

“Ugh, enough,” I huffed in annoyance.

“Apparently it grew on you really well, too, because there’s no way the old Erika would’ve ever managed to have luck with a boy,” Martin continued right on, playing his role as an older brother to a T. “What’d you do, use your experience as a boy to offer him everything he wants?”

Rolling my eyes, I shoved myself up to a sitting position to glare at the older teen. “I didn’t do anything, Marty, so just leave already!”

“Leave? I can’t do that!” Martin protested. “At least, not until I make sure my little sister’s virtue is safe.”

Growling, I lashed out with a hand to grab one of my pillows from the bed. The awkward position, my weak arm, and a distinct lack of athletic talent kept it from being much of a threat to Martin, though. When I threw it, it went short and wide, smacking into the wall about knee high rather than hitting the teen. While it didn’t strike the boy, it was enough to chase him off, but not enough to keep him from cackling in in amusement as he did.

“Ugh, he’s even worse than Howie was,” I spat in annoyance as Martin’s laughter drifted away. Probably because, this time, I was a little sister instead of a little brother. As the latter, I’d just been a nuisance, often easier to ignore than bother with. As the former, I was a source of amusement.

“Well not for long,” I added as I flopped back onto the bed. Monday was only a couple of days away. They would be easier than the first two days, too. I had a pretty good grasp on Erika’s life, now, and there shouldn’t be any other big events to stir things up. I could just watch some TV, read a book or two, and let the remaining time just pass me by.

“By the way!” Martin called from downstairs, interrupting my efforts to settle down. “I’m off the phone so you can call Lisa and tell her all about your new boyfriend!”

The mocking tone of the teen’s voice was enough to clench my jaw, but the reminder of my aborted phone call with Lisa was welcome. It wasn’t like I planned to tell her what had just happened between Tommy and me. However, it was something to do, and knowing that I had such a good secret to keep would make teasing her with it all the more fun.

“Hello?” Lisa greeted when she picked up my call.

“Hey, sorry it took so long. My brother just finished with the phone,” I replied.

“No prob. Actually, it was a good thing, because I remembered something I forgot to tell you earlier.”

“What?”

“Huh … I can’t quite recall,” Lisa remarked, her facetious tone making it very clear that she could remember. “Maybe if someone told me something important, say what happened yesterday, it might jog my memory.”

Not one to play along with such games, I just smirked and said. “Well, since you can’t remember, I guess we should talk about something else. Weren’t you saying something earlier about a new outfit you were going to try?”

“Ugh! You’re like Fort Knox for secrets!” Lisa huffed on the other end.

The other girl’s frustration just broadened my smirk into a full on grin. “Secrets are meant to be kept, after all.”

There was a heavy sigh from Lisa at that response before she said, “Fine, what I wanted to tell you was that we’re meeting up at Beth’s tonight. Her dad’s still out of town until Monday, and her mom doesn’t care what she does. Dress nice, too, because the boys are coming.”

“The boys are coming?!” I gasped, reacting just a little too strongly to that prospect.

“Why?” Lisa ask coyly. “Is there some reason you don’t want to be around Tommy again or maybe … some reason you do?”

“No, not at all,” I answered, trying to play it cool. It just felt awkward and forced, though. “I was just surprised.”

“Are you sure that’s all?” Lisa pressed, clearly aware that there was something to learn.

“Very sure,” I replied, this time doing a better job of sounding sincere.

There was a suspicious hum from the other girl at that answer. “And yet, it sounds like there’s more.”

“Well there’s not,” I insisted firmly. “I’m not too sure I can make it tonight either. My parents do care what I do, and they're not going to let me just walk out of the house when I’m grounded.”

“Better figure out how to sneak passed them then, because if you’re not coming, I’m going to have invite someone else to pair up with Tommy,” Lisa threatened.

I may have felt really good about how I’d handled things earlier that day, but I wasn’t so confident that the idea of my future date with some other girl for the night didn’t put a black pit of dread in my stomach. It was especially worrisome, because lots of Lisa’s secondary friends were quite pretty, at least compared to me. One look at them, and Tommy might forget all about a scrawny little girl like me. I couldn’t just let that happen, after the all the trouble I’d gone through to get him … for Erika.

“Alright, I’ll figure it out,” I finally agreed.

“Great, be there by nine.”

*****

There’s something about trying to be sneaky that makes a person hyper aware of every little noise they make. I could hear the slight scrape of my shoes on the carpet with every step I snuck down the stairs. I could hear the rustle of my coat. I could hear every breath, like it was some heavy huff. Altogether, it made it very easy to feel on edge, and that made me feel silly. After all, there I was a grown man of forty-two, at least formerly, getting nervous trying to sneak out of the house under the noses of Erika’s parents. It was such an absurd situation that I was tempted to just give up the charade. I knew that parents didn’t have any real power. I could just walk out and there would be little they could do. I could just give up on going out, as well. It wasn’t like I really wanted to do so, or even that I really believed that Tommy would end up with some other girl. I didn’t even care if he did, for myself anyway. Erika would obviously care, but nothing was going to happen. I didn’t need to go. Yet, I kept right on sneaking.

Luckily for me, the Bryant home was fairly well designed for my escape. My-Erika’s parents were in the living room, which couldn’t see the stairs down from the second floor. They could see the front door, but there were other ways out in the kitchen, a room I could get to unseen. I would have to cut through their peripheral vision once I got there, but after that, I would be out. All of that presumed of course that all this racket I was making didn’t alert them. They did have the TV on, but in that moment, I would’ve sworn I was twice as loud as it, at least.

In spite of my fears, I made it down the stairs without issue. I made it through the dining room to the door to the kitchen without issue. There, I paused, gathering myself for the next part of the journey. As I did, I peeked out, looking over at the living room where my parents were fully engrossed in their show. It was the perfect time, so I hunkered low, and snaked out, quickly rounding the corner to duck into the laundry room. Once again, I stopped, heart racing as I waited for what I was sure would be an inevitable yelling from getting caught. It never came, though. From that point, it was just out into the garage, across the way, and then I was suddenly outside.

“Heh, I actually made it,” I remarked with a chuckle. There was a certain exhilaration that came with that fact. In my own childhood, I’d never done anything similar. There had been no need. I’d only had a few friends, ones that weren’t nearly as pushy as Lisa, and they had lived too far away to walk. Having the chance to do something so rebellious was oddly satisfying, even if it had felt silly until the very end.

After taking a moment to relish in my successful escape, I started off down the street in search of Beth’s house. Of the walks that I’d been forced to undertake by my frustrating status as a thirteen year old, that one was the worst. That night was far colder than either day had been, and there was a bit of a wind that made the chill cut through my clothes. Being such a scrawny little thing, I had little resistance to that. By the time I made it to Beth’s house only a few blocks away, my nose was a mess, my ears ached, I was having trouble feeling my fingers, and my teeth were chattering. If I’d felt stupid sneaking out before, I felt even worse as I rang the doorbell and waited there in the cold, desperate for someone hurry up and open the way.

“Thank God!” I gasped in relief when the door finally opened, allowing me to spill into the warmth of the heated home behind. Shuddering one last time, I rubbed my hands together fiercely. “Brr, it’s cold out there.”

Watching my reaction, Beth giggled softly, and said, “I bet. At least you made it, though. Didn’t turn into some kind of popsicle out there.”

“Yeah,” I breathed, recovering enough from the bitter cold to finally straighten up and look at my friend. “Anyone else manage that?”

“So far, just you, but that doesn’t really mean much,” Beth replied, “You know how Leece is. She always shows up late.”

“Right … well, then I have some time to find some tissue, because my nose is a goopy mess right now,” I told her.

Again, the blonde giggled as she raised a hand to point a short way into the house. “There should be some in the bathroom there.”

“Thanks,” I chirped before hurrying off. In the bathroom, I took care of my nose, which took several tissues and blows. Once that was done, I stopped in front of the mirror to check my reflection. When I did, I couldn’t help but cringe. With my cheeks and nose even redder than my hair, I looked more childish than ever, like some adorable little girl just come in from playing in the snow. I really hoped that the boys would take long enough to get there that my face would be cleared up by the time they arrived.

“All cleaned up?” Beth asked when I finally came out of the bathroom.

“Yep, but I’m still warming up,” I replied.

Beth nodded. “Well, there’s a blanket on the couch. Take off your coat and go curl up it. We can watch some TV while we wait for Lisa.”

“Sounds good to me.”

Soon, I was snuggled up under a blanket on the couch, getting all nice and toasty. In front of me, the TV was on, but I wasn’t really paying attention to it. My thoughts were mostly on the front door, thinking that any moment there would be a knock or a ring of the bell to announce the arrival of others. At the same time, I wondered if Beth was as anxious about that as I was. I glanced her way a few times, but the blonde seemed perfectly relaxed. Actually, she tended to look like that most of the time, calm and quiet. It was so different from the Lisa who was always so chatty and boisterous. Actually, because of that fact, I knew almost nothing about Beth. Lisa had mentioned her a few times while we talked, but there hadn’t been much of significance other than apparently her mother didn’t do much parenting.

“So … uhm … excited for tonight?” I asked, figuring it wouldn’t hurt to learn a little more about the other girl. Besides, I really needed a distraction at the moment.

“Huh? Oh … I guess,” Beth answered with an ambivalent shrug.

“I suppose it’s not really much of a big deal for you, huh?” I remarked. “You and Mike have been together for a while.”

Nodding, Beth responded, “Yeah. It should be fun hanging out with everyone anyway, but I think Lisa planned this just because of you and Tommy. She thinks something big happened between you two after you left Rusty’s.”

“I know. She spent the whole afternoon grilling me about it,” I sighed. “You’re not going to pick up where she left off, are you?”

Smiling slightly, Beth shook her head and said, “No, but Lisa probably plans to spend the whole night trying to get it out of you.”

Sighing, I rolled my eyes at the news. “Yeah, well, she’s not getting any more than she already has. What happened is between Tommy and me.”

“I understand,” Beth acknowledged, apparently far more reasonable about such things than Lisa. That or, she just didn’t care as much about gossiping. “Can you at least tell me if it was something bad?”

Considering that request, I hummed thoughtfully for a moment before answering, “Hmm … I wouldn’t say it was bad.”

“Good,” Beth replied, apparently content with not having to worry that something unpleasant had happened to me. That didn’t give me much to work with to try to continue the conversation, though. We ended up just drifting off into silence again as attention shifted back to the TV. I hadn’t really learned much about Beth either, but that was fine. She seemed to care about me-Erika, and that was what mattered in a friend. In a couple of days, I wouldn’t need to know the rest anyway.

Without the conversation to fill it, time passed fairly slowly for me as I waited. Luckily, enough of it did pass that I finished warming up. Hopefully, that meant my face wasn’t so red anymore, and I could at least go back to looking eleven instead of six. Of course, it would’ve been even nicer to look thirteen, but no amount of warmth was going to accomplish that. Time might work, but it would take a lot more than I had to spare that evening, especially once the doorbell rang to announce the next arrival.

While I started at the sound that I had been so anticipating, Beth glanced over to the door almost lazily, maintaining her calm demeanor. In spite of the difference in our reaction, we both rose at about the same time, walking over together. Waiting on the other side of the portal was a bundled up Lisa.

“Whew! Thanks!” Lisa greeted as she, like I had, darted into the warmth of the house. As the warm air hit her, she shuddered with relief. “Ahh … warm …”

“Yeah, you picked a rough night for us to be sneaking out without permission,” I remarked, remembering how it had felt to be out in the cold.

“Poor Eri’s face was so red she could’ve passed for a cherry lollipop,” Beth added lightly, getting my cheeks to flush a bit with embarrassment at the memory.

“Well, I’m probably pretty rosy myself after that hike,” Lisa commented before an undoubtedly runny nose had her sniffle a little. “And speaking of …”

Beth and I turned to point toward the bathroom together, but I was the one that spoke, “Tissues are in the bathroom right there.”

“Thanks alot,” Lisa said before hurrying off to the bathroom like I had.

As the other girl left, Beth and I returned to the couch to wait. It was a little bit before Lisa stepped out of the bathroom, but when she did, she looked completely recovered from the chilly trek. She’d also done her make up and changed, removing her heavy coat and pants to reveal that she’d apparently been wearing a short skirt and a low cut sweater underneath that showed off her well developed figure.

“Ah, much better,” Lisa sighed as she came out into the living room, straightening her garments a little. As she did, she glanced my way and said, “You should probably get ready too, Eri. The boys will be here soon.”

“Get ready?” I repeated as a question, looking down in confusion. I wore a fairly similar outfit to the last time that we hung out, a skirt, leggings, and sweater. Yes, they were more focused on warmth than on showing off, but I thought they looked nice, and it wasn’t like I had a lot to show off.

“Yeah,” Lisa confirmed before giving me a concerned look. “You did bring something to change into, right?”

“No,” I answered with a shake of my head.

Rolling her eyes, Lisa sighed at me, “Eri … I know you don’t have a lot of experience with boys, but you’re not pretty enough to slouch. If you want to ever get a date, you need to put in some effort.”

A few emotions flooded me at those remarks, anger from the other girl’s assumption and self consciousness about my figure. The anger was definitely stronger this time, though. After all, I’d gotten a date all by myself, with the boy that Lisa was trying to get me to work so hard for, in fact. I nearly told her exactly that, wanting to throw it in her face, but I caught myself just before I did. That news was a secret, at least for now, although, I supposed there was no need to keep it a secret. Tommy may have already told his friends about it. I didn’t know. Still, best to talk to him about it first, before just blabbing.

“Well, let me do your makeup at least, so it looks like you put in some effort,” Lisa continued when I didn’t respond.

While I didn’t think makeup helped me much, I did want to look good. A little bit of extra help wouldn’t hurt. As such, I nodded and went off to the bathroom with Lisa like I had at Rusty’s so that she could get to work.

“You know, I really should just teach you how to do this,” Lisa remarked as she worked on my face. “Either that or you should just tell your mom that you’re ready, already. Maybe then she’d show you how, not to mention buy you some of your own.”

“Maybe,” I mumbled, not really sure if I agreed with Lisa. It was hard to be sure. There was a part of me that liked makeup; was even sort of desperate for it as a sign of maturity that puberty wasn’t giving. The other part, the Louis part, knew that I was in fact too young to look good in it. That didn’t even count the fact that I didn’t actually know my-Erika’s mother well enough to know if she’d listen to what I wanted. She seemed fairly supportive, so maybe.

“You should ask once you’re not grounded anymore,” Lisa instructed just before she finished up her work. “And there … all done.”

“Thanks,” I told her without agreeing to her direction.

Lis didn’t seem to care about my lack of answer on that front as, after a quick mirror check, we were both back out in the living room again. To my surprise, when we came out, we found Beth wearing a different outfit than before. Previously, she had been dressed more like myself, fairly conservatively and appropriately for the cold weather. Both principles had been abandoned for her new outfit which consisted of a short skirt and a more revealing top, which showed what cleavage she could. She wasn’t as big as Lisa, but it was a far more respectable display than I could’ve managed. Apparently, she didn’t plan on just letting Lisa show her up in front of her own boyfriend.

“Ooo, looking good, Beth,” LIsa commented as she looked over Beth’s outfit.

“Yeah, you look great,” I added in agreement, even as I felt a bout of jealousy flare up within me. The Louis part of me tried to push it back, but I couldn’t help but wish that I looked like my two friends.

“Thanks,” was all the reply Beth gave.

With the three of us as ready as we were ever going to be, we all sat in the living room, chatting a little while we waited for the boys. To make sure we had time, Lisa had apparently told them to arrive an hour after me. Even with Lisa’s late arrival and the prep work, we had a handful of minutes to just sit there and talk before finally, the doorbell rang once more.

“They’re here!” Lisa blurted, popping up from her seat excitedly. Once she was on her feet, she smoothed out her outfit, clearly wanting to look her best. “You two both ready?”

“Mmhmm,” I hummed, rising as well.

“Yep,” Beth answered as she not only rose but started right toward the door. “So, I should probably go let them in.”

As expected, waiting on the other side of the door were the three boys, looking far less chilled than Lisa and I had. Having not been part of the little joyriding incident, they weren't grounded, so they probably got a ride from a parent. I would’ve been jealous of that fact, but the moment I saw Tommy at the back of the group, my brain turned to mush and all such thoughts just went away. Without them, I was just left there staring like a doofus as Lisa and Beth greeted the boys, exchanging pleasantries as well some quick pecks on the lips between the couples. I kept right on staring as the boys all filed in, went to their girls, and left me standing right there in front of Tommy.

“Hey,” Tommy greeted awkwardly, rubbing at his hair.

“Hey,” I replied shyly, feeling my cheeks heat up as I struggled to not look away.

That greeting proved to be all that we could manage before the couples finished with their own activities, and Lisa took charge once more. First, she herded us all into the living room, where we found seats. Lisa and Rob snuggled up on the lazy boy together. Beth and Mike took the loveseat. That left Tommy and myself to split the couch. We took opposite sides, putting a huge gap between us that we occasionally glanced across furtively at the each other. It felt so juvenile, but I couldn’t think of anything else to do. Should I sit closer? Should I talk? Should we hold hands? I mean, it wasn’t like we were dating yet, we just had plans for a date sometime down the road. I couldn’t talk to Tommy about what that meant either, not with everyone around like that. We couldn’t go off on own either. Who knows what the others would think, and they probably wouldn’t respect our privacy either and just eavesdrop. Awkward glances seemed to be the only option left.

While I couldn’t figure out any other options, I knew that there was a problem with my noncommittal choice to just sit there – Lisa. The other girl had no reason to be shy or awkward. In fact, I doubted if she had ever felt either in her whole life. She did however want to find what had happened between Tommy and me, and just looking at us was enough to know that it was something big. I knew that soon, she’d be grilling the two of us about it, possibly even getting the others involved as well. Rob would almost certainly help, at the very least. I’d keep the secret no matter what, but what about Tommy? What if he didn’t feel the same way about things as I did? What if he was too ashamed of me to admit the truth? That was my biggest worry. After all, he’d all but said as much when he’d first found out that Lisa was trying to set him up with me. He may have said yes when I asked him out, but that didn’t mean he didn’t still feel that same way, and it would kill me to find that out in front of everyone.

Feeling a rising panic, I tried to shove it back down, and shove away Erika’s crazy teen doubts with it. There was no reason to panic. Tommy wouldn’t have come over to talk to me if he didn’t like me. He would’ve just tried calling again later. He wouldn’t have said yes when I asked him out either. Everything was fine. I mean, it would be fine … for Erika. All I had to do was stay calm and weather Lisa’s interrogation like I had on the phone before.

Except, there was no interrogation. Lisa took the lead in the conversation as always, but she made no effort to steer it toward Tommy and me. She talked about other things, had Beth put a movie on in the background, let the guys tell some funny stories. It was all just pretty generic and pleasant teenager stuff. That made me feel all the more silly for worrying, and my forced calm turned into actually relaxation. I even spoke up occasionally in the conversation as did Tommy. I actually started to enjoy myself after a bit, and everyone else seemed to, as well, at least, until the movie ended.

“All done,” Beth declared as she got up to take the movie out and put it away. “Should I put in another?”

“No,” Lisa told her, playing her usual role as leader of the group.

“No more movies, huh? Then, what’s next on the docket?” Mike remarked before glancing over at Lisa and eye as he raised an eyebrow suggestively. “A little game of spin the bottle or maybe … strip poker?” The suggestion earned him snickers from the boys and dirty looks from the girls. Beth even swatted him when she got back to her spot next to him. “Well then what are we going to do?”

“I had an idea for that,” Lisa spoke up with a wry smirk on her face. “I was thinking a little Truth or Dare.”

“Kinda kiddy, don’tcha think?” Mike commented. “Unless we’re going to allow dirty dares.”

Smirk never wavering, Lisa shrugged. “Maybe we will, although, if you boys try to cross the line, well … you might be spending the rest of this long cold winter alone.”

“You’ve got nothing to worry about, baby,” Rob cut in suavely, pulling Lisa close to give her a kiss. “I’d never try anything that might make me risk losing you.”

“I know, sweetheart,” Lisa cooed back, snuggling in close. “In fact, maybe later you and I can do a few dares just–”

Beth coughed to interrupt the flirting. “Ahem … can you two please keep it decent in front of the rest of us?”

“Sorry,” Lisa apologize with a little giggle as she pulled away from her beau. “Anyway, what do you guys say? You in?’

Unsurprisingly, there were murmurs of affirmation from most of the group. I certainly wasn’t one of the ones that did, though, no way. This was Lisa’s plan, trap Tommy and me in a game where we had to reveal what happened. Of course, we could pick dare, but who knew what kind of embarrassments she might try to inflict on us.

“I don’t think that’s a good idea, Leece,” I spoke up in opposition, but I knew as soon as I said it and Lisa gave me a sweet, innocent smile that it wasn’t going to work.

“Why’s that, Eri?” Lisa asked with apparent lack of malice. “The only reason to worry would be if you had some dark secret you’ve been keeping from everyone, but you don’t have any of those, right?’

And there it was, the trap. If I refused now, I would appear to have something terrible that I had been keeping to myself. The entire rest of the night would be devoted to the others heckling me to try to figure it out.

“Right,” I answered.

“Then there’s no reason that we can’t play,” Lisa declared. “I’ll even go first.”

“Alright, truth or dare?” Beth asked the required question.

With those words, the game began. As is the way of such games, it started innocuous enough. The first few turns revealed only minor secrets or required mild tasks. Even Tommy and I managed to escape without much trouble as Lisa bided her time. We both picked dare every time just to be sure, though. As those first few turns passed by, things started to get rowdier. Dirtier, more embarrassing secrets made it to the light of day to the amusement and ridicule of the group. Dares grew more daring as well, including one that I got stuck with to run around the house in the cold without my coat. That nearly made me abandon ship to demand a truth instead, but I held firm. Others did try that tactic a few times, demanding the other option from the one they had picked. It rarely made for any less embarrassment, but it probably would’ve saved me from spending the rest of the round shivering on the couch from how cold I was. It was in the sixth round that finally, the proverbial shit hit the fan.

“Alright, Tommy, you’re turn. Truth or Dare?” Lisa asked after I finished with my most recent dare, before forced to pretend to be a dog and play fetch. Humiliating, yes, but not health endangering and the others had been through things just as bad, so it had been easy.

“Dare,” Tommy answered immediately, sticking to our unspoken agreement to not let Lisa ever get the truth out of us.

“Alright, let’s see …” Lisa hummed, tapping her chin thoughtfully. A moment later, a wicked grin split her lips. “I dare you to french kiss Erika right here in front of everyone.”

“What?!” Tommy and I gasped in unison, both wide-eyed with surprise. When we heard each other speak, we turned those wide eyes on each other, staring in disbelief at what the dare would require us to do.

“Ooo, this should be good,” Mike commented as he and the others watched our reaction.

“Yeah, Tommy, kiss the little girl,” Rob adding, egging things on. His choice of terms for me was especially annoying, making me wince slightly.

“But … I … uhm …” Tommy stammered out in search of a reason to refuse.

Sensing that, Lisa helpfully offered, “Unless you’d rather switch to truth.”

Caught in the trap, Tommy glanced rapidly between Lisa and me, clearly having no idea what to do. He had no way of knowing which option I would be more okay with. Either one could be disastrous, and I certainly felt that way as well. I couldn’t kiss him, not here in front of everyone. I mean, he was just a kid … yeah, and uhm … something like that should really be Erika’s moment. It might even be her first kiss. I shouldn’t take it only to leave in a couple of days. That wouldn’t be right. Besides, I didn’t even want to kiss him, no sir, not at all, not the slightest of bits, uh uh. That left trying to get him to tell the truth, but I had no way to know what that truth would be. Would he just have to unveil our planned date? Would he have to say what he truly thought about me? What if it was bad? Besides, that would be letting Lisa win, a prospect that I despised.

As my mind whirled through all the consequences, Tommy, surprisingly, made his decision. “No, I’ll do it,” he told Lisa before scooting over closer to me. Unconsciously, I leaned back, feeling almost threatened by the forced kiss. Stuck up against the armrest, there was only so far I could go, however. Soon, I was trapped, and Tommy continued to close in, moving in a halting, uncertain manner that revealed his nervousness.

I was nervous, too, so very nervous that my world seemed to shrink down. All I could see was Tommy’s approaching lips. All I could hear was the pounding of my own heart. All I could feel was a strange tingling mix of anticipation and fear. In that shrunken world, time seemed slow, and my mind raced. Would he be a good kisser? Would I? What would it feel like? What would it mean? What would it change? Him? Us? Me? Would there be any Louis left afterward?

“No!” I blurted, shoving my hands out to block Tommy as he tried to lean in. In that last moment, fear had won. I couldn’t do it; couldn’t risk it.

“Come on, Eri. It’s a dare. He has to do it,” Lisa pointed out, intending to force the situation.

“Yeah, but you dared him not me, and I say no,” I retorted, adamant in my decision. “Give him something else.”

“No, he’s gotta do it,” Rob insisted in his girlfriend's place. “Besides, why would you say no to it?”

There was an implication there that Tommy and me kissing would only be an embarrassment to him, but I tried not to focus on it. Instead, I just leveled a hard look at the boy. “Because I don’t want to kiss someone just because his friends forced him to.”

“She has a point,” Beth remarked, surprisingly sticking up for me. “None of the rest of us would accept a dare like that right now.”

“But we’re all in relationships,” Mike noted before giving a his girlfriend a sly look. “Although, if you were interested in a dare to kiss one of the other girls th–”

A smack on the arm from Beth silenced her boyfriend. “Anyway, it’s not fair to treat them differently than the rest of us.”

Surprised by having both of her friends stand up against her, Lisa was almost too shocked to speak. It ended up only taking a moment before she did, though, as anger twisted her face. “That’s the dare, so he has to either do it or take a truth!”

“I guess I’ll take the truth then?” Tommy answered, making it sound like more of a question as he looked at me. When I nodded, he corrected it to, “Yeah, truth me.”

“Fine!” Lisa huffed, partially mollified by getting what she wanted, a chance to ask for truth. “What happened between you and Erika when the rest of us weren’t around?”

“Uhm … well ... “ Tommy mumbled, glancing my way again. I gestured with my hands to encourage. It wasn’t like it was that important of a secret. He could just tell them that we talked a little outside of Rustys and– “... she sorta … asked me out.”

“What?!” came a few gasps of surprise as everyone’s eyes widened, even mine. Why would he tell them that?!

“She really asked you out?!” Mike demanded.

Nodding, Tommy confirmed, “Yeah … uhm … she did.”

“What did you say?!” Rob continued the interrogation.

“Well … I … uhh … I said yes,” Tommy admitted.

“No way!” Mike and Rob blurted in unison, although it was Rob that added, “You’re gonna date the shrimp?!”

“Hey!” I exclaimed at the blatant insult.

“So what if I am?!” Tommy retorted, ignoring me as he stood up to glare at his friend. “She’s cute and sweet, unlike your bitch of a girlfriend, Rob!”

“Guys, I think this has gone–” Beth tried to interject and play mediator but it was too late.

“Why you little shit!” Rob spat, scrambling up from his seat with Lisa. Tommy sprung up as well, and I had enough experience to know a fight was about to happen.

Hopping up from my own seat, I darted between the two boys before Rob got a chance to rush Tommy. “Stop it both of you!”

A moment later, I learned the problem with my plan as Rob easily just shoved my tiny self aside with a grunted, “Outta the way, shrimp!” Luckily, he didn’t shove me hard enough to knock me over. I did stagger off to the side, though, taking a few steps to catch my balance.

Foolish as my plan was, it bought enough time for other people to react. Mike was up and interposed between Tommy and Rob a moment later. Beth started talking people down. Heads were a little too hot to be soothed that easily, however. Lisa and Rob ended up storming off, finding a spot on the far side of the house from which to call his mother for a ride. Back in the living room, the previously friendly atmosphere was gone, replaced by awkwardness. In the end, the four of us followed suit, with Tommy and Mike both calling their parents. A short while later, we’d all left Beth’s house. To my relief, Tommy’s dad gave me a ride with him, dropping me off at my house rather than making me walk. Sneaking in proved easier than sneaking out as my parents had already gone to sleep by then. Before long, I was undressed, washed up, and in bed, thinking about the mess that I’d just left behind and wondering if I was going to get a single second of sleep that night. Eventually, I did, but it wasn’t much.

*****

“I’m here to see the judge,” I panted breathless, sagging with weariness.

That blonde woman, Cindy, looked up at me from her desk with concern. “Are you sure that’s what you want?”

I couldn’t argue against either the concern or the question being valid. I didn’t look like someone that was sure of anything in that moment. I looked like someone that had suffered through a harrowing journey and needed nothing but a break. God, how I needed a break. My eyes had dark circles under them. My hair was a ratty mess pulled back in a tangled ponytail. My clothes were hastily thrown on and unattractive. I looked awful.

The time between my leaving Beth’s and my arrival at the Judge's office had been a true test of my resilience. Every waking moment, and they were almost all waking moments thanks to sleep avoiding me like I was cursed, had been filled with Erika’s thoughts eating away at my own. Her life, the life that I had tried to leave not just intact but improved, was in shambles. Lisa wouldn’t talk to me. Rob and Tommy were still fighting. Beth tried to mediate, but it didn’t work. The effort just made Lisa accuse her of siding with me, further fracturing our group. It had also sparked retribution from the angry girl in the form of betraying secrets. Tommy found out I padded my bra. Mike found out that Beth had kissed another boy while her family was on vacation over Thanksgivings. Being an adult, at least in some distant other life, I might’ve looked past that, but Beth certainly wasn’t going to, not after Mike broke up with her. Who knew if Tommy would stick to his agreement to go out with me. It was all a mess.

At the end of that hell, I had trekked across town yet again to keep my appointment with the Judge. That was a whole different struggle, one that I felt so woefully ill-equipped to handle after all the rest. As I stood there in front of Cindy, I was a tattered remnant of the person that had once been Louis. Sheer willpower was all that even kept me on my feet. No matter what happened, I was not going to just concede to the Judge’s whims. To that, at least, I could cling.

“Yes, I am sure,” I told Cindy with complete certainty.

Unlike my previous visit, the woman didn’t try to argue further, just nodded and said, “Alright then go on in. He’s ready for you.”

“Thank you,” I replied before doing exactly that.

If I was expecting some sort of strange alchemy lab or bizarre wizard’s library, I was very disappointed by the Judge’s office. It looked like an office, a well appointed one, but an office nonetheless. The Judge himself still looked like a human judge, as well, albeit more intimidating than most, especially as his gaze fell upon me.

“Hello again, Miss Bryant,” the Judge greeted with polite pleasantness. “What did you want to discuss with me?”

“You know damn well what I want to discuss with you, so why don’t you just drop the pretense of normalcy,” I spat rudely, too tired and angry for good manners.

The facade of congeniality vanished from the Judge’s face, replaced by a stern scowl. “You should watch your tone, young lady.”

“Why should I?!” I demanded obstinately.

“Because, whether you know exactly what I am or not, you are smart enough to know that I’m not someone to anger,” the Judge warned.

I shrugged off the threat. “I think you’ve already done as much damage as you can to me.”

My words deepened the Judge’s scowl. “I must admit, I’m a little surprised to hear you say that or to even be having this conversation at all.”

“What?! You didn’t think I’d be mad at you taking everything that I was away from me?!” I questioned. “It’s not like this life is some kind of dream come true! I’m the daughter of a car’s salesman, I would never want to be a redhead, and every time my mom tells me I’m a late bloomer I can’t help but feel like she’s lying to try to spare my feelings!”

The Judge shrugged off that rant. “Did you really like the life you had before?” the Judge answered with a question of his own. “Had you ever truly wanted to be that man?”

That was a very good question, one that took the bluster right out of me for a moment. “No, I didn’t, but that doesn’t give you the right–”

“Don’t talk about my right,” the Judge interrupted. “One could say that the very fact that I am capable of it gives me the right. If not that, there are countless other counter arguments that I could make. For instance, did you ever wonder how you ended up in this town to begin with?”

Giving the Judge a suspicious look, I shook my head. “No.”

Grabbing a newspaper from his desk, the Judge handed it to me. “That’s what would’ve happened had I not intervened.”

Taking the offered paper, I looked over the story on the page it was opened to. It was just a short little blip of an article outlining the death of one Louis Cook. There weren’t many details, just that he’d swerved erratically, ending up slamming face first into oncoming traffic, critically injuring the driver of the other vehicle and killing himself.

“That’s not what happened,” I tried to argue, but even in my own thoughts it sounded lame and pointless. “I went off the side of the road … hit a sign …” Trailing off, I looked up at the Judge, feeling quite certain that this paper was my fate. “So, I died … is this hell?”

“No, it’s not hell and you didn’t die, because I saved you,” the Judge corrected.

“Why change me into Erika then?” I queried. “Why not just let me drive off on my merry way?”

“That’s not an answer that I can give yet,” the Judge informed me. “Suffice it to say that there is a purpose, to this town and you being in it. Your life was already forfeit, so I chose to use it toward that purpose.”

Setting the paper on the desk, I nodded solemnly. It was nice to know that it hadn’t just been random malice that had left me in such a predicament. Nice, yes, but not enough to make me really feel better about my fate, nor enough to change my mind.

“It doesn’t matter,” I stated firmly, clinging to my convictions. As I spoke, I met the Judge’s gaze with my one, locking on and never wavering. “I won’t accept what you did.”

“You have no choice. It’s done,” the Judge told me. “You are Erika Bryant now, and you will be for the rest of your life.”

Rankling at those words, I rolled my eyes and huff, “Why?! It’s not like I’ve been doing a good job at it?! I managed to break up my whole group of friends in less than week!”

The Judge smirked. “You presume that such an outcome wasn’t part of my plans for you.”

“Well, that had better be the extent of your plans for her, because if you make me stay in this life, it won’t be a long one, I can promise you that,” I threatened hopelessly. There were just no other cards to play, and I couldn’t just give up.

No immediate answer came from the Judge. He just looked at me, seeming to peer right through me to my very soul. That soul he weighed with his eyes, making me feel as if he knew every last aspect of me, better than I even knew myself.

Gulping, I forced myself to say, “I’m serious.”

“I believe you are,” the Judge answered, before pausing once more. After a moment, he seemed to come to a decision and say, “Very well, if it is what you really want, I’ll put you back right where I plucked you from. Just say the word.”

Stunned by that offer, all I could do was gasp, “Really?”

The Judge nodded in confirmation. “Yes. You’re of no use if you refuse to live.”

Even with that answer, I still couldn’t believe it. I’d expected stiffer opposition. I’d expected tyranny. Yet, the Judge had offered to undo what he’d done, to put me right back in my own life … to die. For the first time since I’d found myself as Erika, I wondered if that was what I really wanted. Had being her been so bad? Certainly, there had been terrible moments, and a constant struggle, but when I was too distracted to fight, surrounded by her friends, there had been good moments too. Those moments had been better than any I’d had for a long time. Even so, could I really accept it?

“And if I don’t want that?”

“Then you stay as you are right now.”

It was an expected answer, but not a welcome one. All I could do was shake my head and sigh, “I don’t want either.”

“Then perhaps you should tell me what you do want,” the Judge stated, sounding a touch frustrated. “I tried to ask earlier, but you were rudely dismissive of the question.”

“I don’t need to know the purpose of this town, but it’s not some sadistic playhouse like I thought, is it?” I asked. “You seem to have some interest in helping people.”

“Correct, it’s nothing like that,” the Judge assured me. “In fact, it’s something very important.”

“And my being here will help?” I inquired.

The Judge nodded. “Yes.”

“Then I want to be asked for my help,” I finally revealed. “And if I give it, I want to be allowed to give it without any of this junk you put in my head. That means no autopilot, none of Erika’s thoughts and feelings bleeding into mine, none of those rules prohibiting what I say and to whom. I want to be free to act as I choose, and if those actions break your rules, I’ll face the consequences. If that won’t work, then you had best stick me back on that road.”

For a moment, the Judge just looked at me, once more seeming to weigh my very being before, finally, he commented, “If I do as you as you ask, you may find it very difficult to live the life you’ve been given.”

“I’ll manage,” I stated confidently.

“You’ll still be different as well,” the Judge noted. “If for no other reason than the very different body chemistry and circumstances.”

“I’m sure I can handle life and my hormones as well as most teenaged girls do,” I joked lightly.

There was just the faintest of pauses before finally, the Judge nodded. “Very well, would you be willing to aid me in my Ovid project, Mr. Cook, by taking the role of Erika Bryant and living her life?”

“I’d be honored,” I agreed, extending a hand to shake on the deal.

Humoring me, the Judge rose and reached out to grab it, giving it a firm shake. As he did, I swore I felt an odd shift, just enough to cause my head to twitch slightly as I blinked to refocus my vision. As I did that, the Judge replied, “Then it’s a pleasure to have you in Ovid. Good luck with your new life, Miss Bryant.”

“Thanks … uhm ...” I responded as the Judge released my hand, allowing me to retract my own, “... you know, I never did figure out who you actually are. Do you have an actual name?”

“Most just call me Judge, but some know me as Jupiter, although, the citizens of Ovid require permission to use that name, usually,” the Judge answered.

Even expecting something grand, my eyes widened just a bit at that name. “Huh … I suppose that makes sense.”

“Most people seem to think so, although, usually because they figure it out on their own,” the Judge remarked, his tone faintly mocking.

“Sorry, but I was too busy worrying that you were going to destroy my very self,” I shot back. “Anyway … I imagine you have more important things to worry about than talking to some little kid like me, so I’ll let you get back to that.”

“I have many important worries, but I always find time to talk to people when they have something to discuss,” the Judge told me.

“Well, at the moment, I don’t,” I responded. “Have a great day.”

“You as well,” the Judge responded. With nothing more to say, I gave a quick nod and turned toward the door all set to leave. “By the way, your mother’s not lying to you.”

With a smirk curling the corner of one lip, I chuckled, glanced back over my shoulder, and remarked, “Well, that’s certainly a relief.”

Stepping out of the Judge’s office was an odd experience for me. It was strangely symbolic, the first real step of my life as Erika – at least, in my eyes. Obviously, I’d been her for several days, but it was a different version of her. Until now, I’d been worried about maintaining her life, so that I could leave it no worse than I entered it, but now, it was my life, and I had to make the most of it.

“I’m sorry it didn’t work out,” Cindy’s voice cut into the moment.

Snapped from my thoughts, I looked over at the blonde and smiled faintly. “You did warn me that would happen.”

“I did, but that doesn’t mean I didn’t want things to work out for you,” Cindy sympathized.

“Yeah, well, either way, I have a life to go live,” I told her. “Thanks for putting up with my demands.”

“No problem,” Cindy assured me. “And, good luck.”

“Thanks.”

After that, it wasn’t long before I was out of the building and off on the hike back home. That took more focus than it usually did, though. Before, I could get lost in thought as I walked, and my feet would just take me home. Now, I had to snap free on occasion to check my location and make sure I followed the right streets to get back. While certainly less convenient, I found a great deal of relief in that fact. It was proof that the Judge had indeed done as I’d asked. Well, it proved at least part of it. I would never be able to know for sure if he was entirely out of my head, but I chose to believe that he was. That was the only way things were going to work.

In between my navigational concerns, I still managed to get a lot of thinking done on that hike. There was a lot to think about. I had friendships to repair, or not if I prefered. Things between Tommy and I were uncertain as well. Did I even want a boyfriend anymore? The thought certainly didn’t hold the same appeal as it once had, and I suspected I might see Tommy in an entirely different light now. I’d agreed to accept the role of Erika, though, and that meant, I had to act like a thirteen year old girl, even if I didn’t mentally feel like one. A girl that age would definitely want a boyfriend, so I needed to sort that mess out as well. She’d want friends her own age, too, although, maybe fixing things with Lisa was a bad idea. That girl was too controlling and tended to make stinging little comments to make me feel inferior. Those weren’t good traits for a friend, but maybe I could still work it out.

“How’d it go?!” Martin called out from the living room when I finally made it home.

“He didn’t change me back!” I yelled back as I went straight up the stairs.

“Told ya!” Martin added unsympathetically, sounding very much like a smug older brother. Still, as older brother’s went, I doubted he’d be any worse than the one that I’d had before, and I would be far better equipped to deal with it this time around. Maybe we could even end up a little closer, although, that probably wasn’t too likely. After all, no seventeen year old boy wanted to hang out with his dorky thirteen year old sister.

Leaving Martin’s taunting remark behind, I got up to my room and went right to the phone. My first call was to Beth. Who picked up promptly with a grumpy sounding, “Hello?”

“Hey, Beth, you have some time to talk right now?” I asked.

“Sure, nothing else to do since that bitch got Mike to dump me.”

The venom in those words prompted a slight wince from me. I was going to have to remember that teenagers felt everything at about a thousand times the intensity of what I was used to from my old life. “Look … I know this feels bad, but I just hope that we’re still friends.”

“What? Of course, we’re still friends!” Beth assured me.

“Good, then how about I come over for a bit, and we can watch some movies, eat ice cream, and whatever else you want,” I suggested.

“Can we shit talk that bitch, Lisa?”

“Sure.”

I could almost hear the other girl smile, “Then that sounds wonderful.”

“Great, I’ll be right over, but I need to do something first,” I told her. “Do you know where Tommy lives?”

“Uhh … yeah, I think he’s over …”

A couple of minutes later, I’d gotten the directions I needed, said goodbye to Beth, and was on my way right back out of the house. This hike was a little different than the last, though. I still had to doublecheck my directions, and I still spent a lot of time thinking, but there was a nervous edge to it all. It wasn’t the kind of overwhelming wave that I undoubtedly would’ve faced before my visit to the Judge, but I was still anxious. I didn’t know how Tommy felt. I didn’t know how I would feel. I did know that he was still a potential boyfriend, though. That made me anxious. The fact that it might not work out made me anxious, too. Apparently, not all of that had been the old Erika in my head.

Nervous energy was not enough to combat a miscalculation on my part, however. I might’ve been young and energetic now, but even youth had its limits. I hadn’t gotten much sleep, and I’d hiked a few miles that day already. By the time I made it to Tommy’s house, I was pooped. After I rang the bell, I just slouched against the wall, sucking in deep breaths, and hoping that the mistake hadn’t made too big of a mess of my face and hair. A girl my age needed to worry about those sorts of things. Unfortunately, I didn’t get a lot of time to rest before the door opened, forcing me to jerk upright again.

“Erika?” Tommy used my name as a question as he looked at me in surprise from the doorway. “What are you doing here?”

“Returning the favor,” I remarked glibly as I straightened up and turned my full attention toward the teen. Like the journey back to my house, I was once again faced with proof that things were different. Yesterday, the very sight of Tommy would’ve had me nervous, tongue-tied, and breathless as my heart raced. That made sense. For his age, he was quite good looking, and as I’d reminded myself earlier, girls my age felt things far more intensely, including silly little teen crushes. Now, though, he just looked so … young. He was just a boy, immature, inexperienced, and awkward. It was so easy to see, from the way that he couldn’t look me in the eye to the way his weight shifted from foot to foot. I’d never even noticed those things before, too lost in my own emotions. Now, though, they left me having to suppress a patronizing smile as my previous anxiousness just vanished.

“Huh?” Tommy mumbled in confusion.

“You came to talk to me last time, remember?” I clarified.

“Oh … right ...” Tommy breathed. “Uhm … w-would you like to come in or–”

Rather than wait for the boy’s stammering, I nodded. “I’d love too, especially if you don’t mind giving me a glass of water while we’re at it.”

“Oh … sure, let’s … uhm … go to the … uhm … kitchen,” Tommy worked his way around to the words before stepping back to beckon me inside.

“Thanks,” I chirped as I stepped through the door he held then led him lead me off to the kitchen. There, he let me take a seat while he went to get a glass from the cupboard. Once he’d filled it with water, he returned to set it in front of me and sit across the table, earning a “Thanks again,” from me before I took a big gulp. Ah … that was much better.

“So … uhm ... “ Tommy began awkwardly as I swallowed. He didn’t seem to know how to start the conversation, though. Either that, or he was too nervous. It was kind of cute really. In fact, I remembered being just as awkward when I was a young boy like him. Actually, I was probably even worse.

Smiling, I decided to help the boy out, “Look, Tommy, I know things have gotten a little weird after everything that happened, but I wanted you to know that I still like you.”

From the way Tommy’s eyes shot wide, I would’ve thought that I’d professed my undying love of something equally extreme. “You … I mean … I … uhm … like you … too, that is.”

Fighting back a giggle, I let my smile brighten a little. “That’s great. Also, I know it doesn’t earn me many points now since Lisa already spilled the beans, but you should probably know the truth. My chest is almost flat enough to be mistaken for a boys. I know, it’s a silly thing to lie about, but that’s just what girls do, make up, shaping under garments, clothing choices, and all that is all just because we want to look good.”

This confession hit Tommy even harder, causing his jaw to drop in shock. “I … that … uh …”

“I hope the truth doesn’t mean that you don't want to go out with my anymore, but I’ll understand if it does,” I continued when the boy failed to formulate a coherent response.

Tommy’s poor overloaded brain took a bit to process all that information, but I didn’t try to push him. A couple of moments later, he got there on his own, finally saying, “Well, I wasn’t exactly into you for the size of your … uhm … you know.”

“That’s great,” I declared, legitimately happy to hear that. I may not think of him as a stud anymore, but Tommy seemed like a good guy, and it wasn’t like I found him entirely unattractive. If I was going to have a boyfriend, and I was probably expected to, then I could certainly do worse. “How about we do a movie on the …”

*****

“Huh … I guess Susan wasn’t the only one to turn down a chance to go back,” I remarked as I came out of the trance. “Assuming the Judge really would’ve changed her back into Louis.”

“You know he would’ve, and yes, there’ve been a few that managed to outsmart or apparently out willpower him,” Diane replied.

“Have any of them actually taken the chance?” I asked.

Smiling mysteriously, Diane just shrugged.

“Fine, don’t tell me,” I huffed in annoyance. “At least we figured out why Erika could call gods by their names. I kind of wish I knew more of how things ended up for her, though. I haven’t really seen her around since then.”

“Well, I suppose that is a curiosity I can sate for you, at least a bit,” Diane remarked. “Vera and I did speak with her for a little while before I left to figure out what was going on. She was there for lingerie. Apparently, she’d outgrown all of her old stuff again, and needed something to really dazzle her boyfriend, who I believe she said was named Tommy. It seems it was going to be a ‘big night’ for those two.”

Chuckling, I responded, “I guess that means she did just fine on her own.”

The End

This story is not canon to the Ovid series in anyway. However, if you liked it or want to learn more about Ovid, I highly recommend you check out the works of The Professor here: http://www.fictionmania.tv/searchdisplay/authordisplay.html?...



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