Tuck Squared - part 1

"Which one of us gets to be the evil one?"
Tuck
SQUARED
Chapter 1

by Rachel Greenham


 
Chapter 1

***

Valerie Tucker strode quickly down the path to where she had parked her bike. The appointment with Sheila had been its usual mixture of tension and boredom, and the inevitable feeling of being graded. Still, she thought, it was overcast but the rain looked like it might actually hold off and she had a full tank of gas, so a good hoon out of the city was definitely on the cards.

It was getting to be a tradition for her, after headshrinking sessions, as a way of unkinking all that tension. “Hoon”, she pronounced, enjoying the sound of it. It was a word she picked up from a British bikers’ newsgroup and it was just right for what she had in mind.

She pushed the ignition, smiling at the eager sound of the engine coming to life, and bent to unlock the disc-lock while the engine warmed up. As she was detaching her helmet from the handlebars she bent and looked at herself briefly in the mirror. Hmm, she thought, time to change the hair maybe. It was black, unrelieved raven-black, since the red stripe on the right side had been dyed out. New year, new hair, she smiled.

Something else caught her eye in the mirror then, and she turned to look directly. Yes, that is Deb’s old car. She was sure of it, despite it being a nondescript older Toyota; you get to know a car like that by its subtle signs after you’ve looked for it in a parking lot a few times. Fancy that. The new owner’s in therapy too?

Maybe it’s the car that’s to blame. It’s cursed… She laughed at the thought, then stopped as she noticed the figure sitting at the wheel, clearly not going anywhere. The engine wasn’t even running; whoever it was, was just sitting there. Looks like it was a bad one as well. There was just something familiar about the occupant’s posture. On an impulse Got to watch those impulses girl, they’ll get you into trouble one day she killed the bike’s engine and wandered over towards the car, waved through the windshield in what she hoped was a friendly, non-scary way, and went to squat by the driver’s door just as the occupant was winding the window down.

“Hey, you okay?”

“Not really,” the girl in the car seemed to be looking at something in her lap. She looked kind of butch, but in a pleasing way, Valerie thought, in her shirt and slicked-back brown hair, shorter than her own. Something was naggingly familiar about her though.

“Bad session, huh?”

“Yeah, you could say that.”

“Yeah,” she sighed, remembering. “Been there, done that. Look, if it means anything, it does help. Eventually.”

“I know that, I just…”

“Yeah, I know.”

“So, uh, you make a habit of approaching loonies in the parking lot?” the girl asked, trying to make a joke of it.

“Nah, not usually.” Valerie grinned. “I know the car,” she admitted. “Used to belong to my girlfriend.”

The girl in the car snapped her head up at that and looked at Valerie directly for the first time. “What?” she demanded. Then, as she looked at Valerie her eyes opened wider still.

Damn, I caught another homophobe, Valerie thought momentarily, then became aware of the girl’s intense scrutiny and looked back. Really looked. The girl had strikingly blue eyes and — Valerie suddenly figured out where she had seen the face before.

Every day.

“Wait a minute,” the girl whispered.

In the mirror.

Every hair on her body stood on end all at once. The air temperature seemed to drop about ten degrees. Out! Out! She caught herself before falling back onto her ass, stood, stepping backwards a few steps. Then she turned and strode quickly back towards her bike.

“Wait!”

She heard the car door behind her open.

“Wait dammit!” Footsteps. She reached the bike and threw her right leg over the seat without slowing down. “By my blood, your blood,” the girl behind her called out. The words froze Valerie’s finger just above the starter button. The girl caught up, positioned herself directly in front of the bike. Not girl, Valerie figured out in a rush. This is how I used to look. Before—

“By my flesh, your flesh,” she whispered the response automatically. Oh my God.

Even I read me wrong, the irrelevant thought barged in, No wonder I had problems.

“By my bone, your bone. Look at me, damn you.”

Valerie looked again at those intense blue eyes. She — he — oh God, looked as scared as Valerie felt. She was waiting, Valerie realized, for the response. “By my life, your life,” she finished.

“Positive authentication,” the other one — Tuck, presumably — breathed. “Oh God.”

“Or something,” Valerie answered, feeling brittle. “This is not possible.”

“I know.”

Silence. They watched each other.

“Hey,” Tuck grinned nervously, “you didn’t pass through any FX sequences this morning did you?”

Valerie caught the joke. “Not that I noticed. You?”

“Nope.”

“How about strange wizened old men in little junk shops you’ve never seen before.”

Tuck shook his head. “Think I’d have noticed. Any strange enchanted mirrors?”

“Nope. Not that I could tell. I don’t have mage sight you know. Been through any cardboard boxes?”

Valerie shook her head. “No — enchanted — doorways or anything?”

“No — um,” Valerie thought about it, “No.”

They both looked back to the door to the clinic. It looked ordinary enough. As they watched some guy came out, went to his car, and drove off, squealing tires. Everything entirely normal.

“Transporter accident maybe?”

“Ooh yeah, the mirror universe,” Valerie agreed. “Which one of us gets to be the evil one?”

“Oh, that would be me. Sorry, I’m still working on the goatee…”

“Ah, but I’m the one dressed in black,” Valerie retorted, grinning.

They tried to laugh. It didn’t quite work.

They watched each other. Valerie didn’t have a next move.

“Hang on,” Tuck said warily, “you’re in Valerie-mode.” Valerie nodded. Perhaps it wasn’t immediately obvious in the bike gear; or perhaps Tuck was just being slow. She had to admit the latter was possible. “You went to see Sheila… She knows?”

Valerie couldn’t help chuckling. “Everyone knows,” she admitted, to Tuck’s nonplussed expression. “And not many of ’em were surprised either,” she added mischievously, knowing what Tuck would think of that.

Everyone?” Tuck practically boggled.

“I transitioned a few months ago,” Valerie explained. “Valerie is my name now,” she grinned. “Valerie Tucker. How’s that sound?”

“Butbutbut…” Tuck slapped himself upside the head to unblock his I/O. “We should talk,” he declared. “Somewhere inside though, I’m freezing.”

Valerie laughed.

***

They had finally decided on the ’50s style diner at Westcross Mall. “I’ll get us a table,” Valerie had said while putting her helmet on, and had then zoomed off through the traffic like it wasn’t there, leaving Tuck to sit in line. He’d had to park miles away from the entrance too, it being the penultimate Saturday before Christmas and hence insane.

He’d already lost his temper a couple of times in the traffic. He never used to do that, not in that blind-rage-from-nowhere way, and he hated that it kept happening. He’d had to pull over and cry it out after the second time. For God’s sake, it’s just traffic, he tried to tell himself. It doesn’t matter that much! It was just the way it always left him feeling so awful.

***

Sure enough, Valerie had secured a table for two in the diner, and even had milkshakes waiting. Chocolate, of course. He felt better already. Not good as such, he still wanted to find a quiet corner to curl up in, but better than before.

So there she sat, on the other side of the table, sucking at a milkshake like nothing was unusual. Her black-dyed hair, longer than his, was cut into an undisguisably feminine style. Her eyebrows had been shaped lightly, he noticed, thinking irrelevantly that it looked nice. It suited her, making her features appear more delicate and expressive. Her ears had been pierced too, though she just had studs in; presumably, Tuck guessed, limited to wearing those by the bike helmet.

She had shed the heavy cordura bike jacket revealing a simple strappy black top. There was no-where really for her bra straps to hide, so they showed, and she seemed unselfconscious about that. She also wore two or three necklaces including, he noticed with a pang, the half-medallion Julia had given him all that time ago. Debbie had the other half.

“No,” she was saying, “I couldn’t do the summer sitting for them in the end. Mom and Dad decided I needed to be sent away to camp instead.”

“Camp? What, a summer camp?”

“Boot camp.”

“You’re kidding!” She shook her head ruefully. “They wouldn’t be so dumb. No way!”

“Way. Just shows you can never tell dunnit?” She grinned and took another suck. Tuck just stared. She could even do that in a manner that seemed more delicate, somehow more refined. “But,” she continued, “That’s not where I ended up, thank Ghu. There was a mix-up at this train station…”

She continued the story, every now and then reaching forward to lift his jaw from the tabletop; in a metaphorical sense, just barely.

***

“Hit-men?” She nodded. “What? Actual…” She nodded again. Tuck felt extremely skeptical about that, and knew it showed.

“Well it turned out that Teresa was really there ’cause she was in hiding, and she’d been sent there by the Witness Protection Program, that one of Jane’s friends was involved in.”

“That sounds like a really dumb idea.”

“Jane didn’t know. She thought it was just a probation case. When she found out she went ballistic at her friend. And believe me, you don’t want to be at ground zero when Jane goes off.”

“So whatcha do?”

“We-ell, Mike had this bizarre idea I might need help or something, so he’d turned up with all the social-work gear…”

***

“Dad promised you a laptop if you’d finish the course?” She nodded. “Ooh, that’s cruel.” She nodded again.

“I got it though,” she sang triumphantly, and twisted to dig it out of her backpack. “Once Dad was convinced I hadn’t gone to the wrong place on purpose, that is. He needed to be persuaded that I still had a moral right to the thing.” She brought it out.

“Oh a Libretto, I nearly got one of those.”

“Whatcha get then?”

“I had to buy mine,” he muttered. “Well, half of it anyway,” and bent to extract it from his own pack. Unlike a Libretto it wasn’t quite light enough to carry around everywhere, but he did anyway. What could you do? You just never knew when it might come in handy.

“Ooh, Stinkpad,” she crowed when she saw it.

“Yeah, but mine hot-charges and trickle-charges batteries,” Tuck retorted. “Can’t do that with a 50.”

“Point,” Valerie conceded. “Whatcha got on it then?”

“Windows,” Tuck preened. “Plus-Pack ’n’ all.” Valerie stared at him for a long, shocked moment, until Tuck couldn’t keep his face straight any longer. “Gotcha!” he cackled.

“Yeah, I deserved that for asking,” Valerie admitted, chuckling too. “I could have meant what distro,” she added, sourly, after it was too late.

They got down to geeking for a while.

***

“You and Debbie broke up?” Valerie looked aghast. “When? Why?”

Tuck sighed. He really didn’t want to talk about it.

“I know you don’t want to talk about it, Tucker, but I need to know. Seriously, please?”

So he told her. He noticed her hand move unconsciously to the medallion several times as he spoke.

“And that was it? A misunderstanding?” Valerie was almost apoplectic. “And you never even talked about it?”

“In case you hadn’t noticed she’s not always the most rational person around, Val,” he retorted. “She left me there,” he reminded her. He could feel himself being drawn into the darkness, jumped at the touch of Valerie’s hand on his. He forced himself back into the now. “It was too easy for her to get me to do stuff.”

“Ah well, we worked on that,” Valerie mentioned, watching Tuck’s eyebrows head north, but Valerie didn’t elaborate. She was thinking. They didn’t look like nice thoughts. “So anyway,” she snapped herself out of it, “you with anyone new?” Tuck felt the blush starting immediately, and of course Valerie saw it. “There is! Come on, who is it? Anyone I’d know?”

He hesitated, then to torture her dragged it out as he sucked his milkshake dry.

“Travis?” he said, mousily.

Travis?!” Loud enough for heads to turn. Tuck almost ducked and covered. She lowered her voice again. “You mean — Travis Travis? Godawful-huge guy?” she waved her hand somewhere over her head to illustrate. “Boy-scout?” Tuck nodded, smugly, while privately thinking there’s not so much to be smug about just now. Travis was being… off lately. Of course he was being too damned nice to say anything, like what it was that was bothering him. Besides, Tuck had a feeling he knew the answer to that one, he just didn’t want to hear it. You’re a coward, Eugene, he kicked himself.

“I don’t believe it.”

“Oh come on Val, you kissed him too!”

She thought about it. “Yeah, OK, I can see it. I guess.” She shook her head, incredulous. “Sheet girl, you not goin’ all het on us now are ya?”

Tuck laughed out loud at the accent before hearing the words properly.

“Het? Are you kidding?” Tuck was still trying to stop laughing. “In case you hadn’t noticed…” he waved down. She waved that away.

“Never mind the biology, Tuck, you know perfectly well that going with Travis is all about the boy-meets-girl thing.”

“Including the sex? Which we’ve had, by the way,” Tuck added almost as a challenge, “quite frequently as it happens.” Well, until recently anyway.

Valerie raised one of her shapely eyebrows. “What, er, up the…” Tuck nodded. The other eyebrow apparently felt lonely and went up to join the first. “He knows then, I presume?” Tuck nodded. “And didn’t beat you to a pulp?” Tuck shook his head.

“He’s a real peach, Val.”

“Oh man, this is weird,” she commented. Which part? Tuck wanted to say. “Did — Doesn’t it — hurt?” she asked, and grinned as he shifted awkwardly in his seat from the memory.

“Kindof,” he admitted, “but it’s nice too, you know?” She looked goggle-eyed at him and he had to repress a giggle. “And, as you so kindly reminded me, he is huge,” he teased her, and was rewarded with seeing her gulp, then thought of something she perhaps needed to know. “It hurt a lot the first time, ’cause I was stupid and didn’t use lube. Remember, if you want to do this, lots and lots of lube. Seriously.”

“Can’t see me wanting to,” she replied with a slight grimace, then shrugged. “Okay, maybe I can,” she smiled, pointing back at Tuck. “Everyone’s kind of expecting me to want SRS after I’ve done the RLT thing anyway…” she stopped at Tuck waving his hands.

“TLA table lookup failure!” he called. Valerie rolled her eyes at him.

“Damn it Tuck, you’re going to have to learn this stuff one day. Makes talking about it not have to take all day for a start.” She sighed. “To put it bluntly, It seems that now I’ve chosen to live as this, I’m supposed to be overjoyed at the prospect of getting a new orifice carved out.” Tuck’s mouth formed a silent ‘Oh’. “Have you noticed how everyone’s so eager to correct our little ‘problem?’”

Tuck nodded. “Yeah, I’d noticed.”

“Well,” she was warming to her theme, “have you ever considered that what’s wrong with our bodies is,” she leaned forward and dropped her voice conspiratorially, “absolutely nothing?”

Valerie leaned back and held Tuck’s gaze a long time.

***

“Refill please,” Valerie told the waitress.

“And you, Miss?”

Tuck just nodded, but it was like he just deflated, Valerie saw, as soon as the waitress’s back was turned. So that’s what I looked like when that happened, she realized suddenly. She put her hand over his. His was trembling, it was clenched so tight, but it made him meet her eyes again, at least.

***

“Oh God, I mean, I spent the whole time at Jane’s counting off the days ’til I’d get out of there, you know? Back to normal.” Tuck coughed meaningfully at that. Valerie rolled her eyes in acknowledgment and sighed. “Well yeah. It started when Mom and Dad wanted to know how the hair happened. And the pierced ears…”

“Lielielie…” Tuck put in.

“I ran out of lies, Tuck.” She looked at him, he seemed confused by that. She dropped her eyes to the table again, remembering that unhappy time. “I tried to get back into the old swing of things, but I couldn’t hack it any more, you know? The constant switching, the hiding, the lying to people, being afraid all the time…” She could feel herself tearing up about it all over again. “Da- darnit — no, damnit” she giggled, incongruously. “And damn that Jane and her manners; sometimes you need to curse properly,” she smiled, wiping at her eyes. Tuck just continued to look confused, patiently waiting for her to continue.

“Well, I was only home, what, a week? But when Mike and I went back to Jane’s to put in that security system we’d agreed on, it was a relief, you know, to just be one thing and not have to worry about it or make decisions about it. Even if she did keep on correcting my manners when I was supposed to be working,” she rolled her eyes at the memory. “I mean, you can only be so delicate and ladylike about laying cable, right?”

“Right.”

“Oh, and remind me to tell you about New York later too,” she grinned. “Well, we did that work, and it came time to go home again and I thought, ‘That’s it. I can’t go back to that switching back and forth again. Time to say goodbye to Valerie, and get my life back to some kind of normal.’” Tuck nodded at that, she saw.

“But?” he prodded.

She sighed. “It seemed OK for a while. Apart from Mom nagging me to do something about my hair. I dunno, it…” She lost herself looking out at the shoppers in the mall; tired faces, harried, worried faces, lit by the ghastly Christmas decorations.

“Why didn’t you?”

“What?”

“Do something about your hair?”

Valerie chuckled dryly. “Good question. I didn’t want to. I guess I just wasn’t ready to let go of it. The fun stuff that was attached to it in my head, if you know what I mean?”

Tuck nodded.

“Besides, it represented an investment.” She grinned. “But I felt emptied out, somehow. Like Valerie had taken everything, and there was nothing left that was just Eugene. Y’know?” She looked back at Tuck; plainly he didn’t know. Or hadn’t figured it out. She sighed again. She thought she was past feeling bad about this. “And I missed the kids terribly. I mean, I hadn’t got a lot of sitting done over the summer, but the odd evening here and there was nice, and that was all over, and the Pack were being Different at me. I mean, they were still friends and all, but — it was Different. I wasn’t one of them any more. Sure they tried, but it was strained. And no more sleepovers of course. Plus it kept happening. You know, ‘good evening ladies,’ when I’m trying to take my girlfriend out on a date.” She saw Tuck nodding at that. “I mean I couldn’t see what I was doing to make them do that, you know? I was trying so hard.”

“Jane trained you too well?”

Valerie shook her head. “I called Shar-Charlie. Turns out when she-er-he got back to California, he didn’t have any trouble at all settling back in as Charlie. He said his ‘big sister’ Joan, or rather John, got back into the guy-thing easily enough too. Then I called Jane and apparently she’s had one kid, like ever, who didn’t go back. Turned out to be TS and Jane’s program didn’t work right on her either.”

“Just like you, then.”

She shook her head again. “Nothing like me, apparently. Or, Jane said, she might have had a better idea what to do with me. But she did say one thing that she’d learned dealing with this Caitlyn: ‘A girl isn’t going to be embarrassed by being made to do girly things.’”

After a moment’s pause they both locked eyes and spoke in unison, “Jill.” Valerie chuckled out loud, but Tuck was frowning, already moving on.

“But I don’t want to be a girl,” Tuck continued. Valerie winced at the whine in his voice when he said that. It was embarrassing to think she had once been that stupid.

“You met Sheila? Jack’s friend Sheila I mean, not Sheila-the-Shrink?”

Tuck nodded. “At the con.”

“Try saying that to her some time. It’s quite — entertaining.” She sighed at Tuck’s quizzical look. “What you want is irrelevant. What you are has to be acknowledged. What you do about it when you’ve finished eating your own bullshit is the question.

“I didn’t want to be a girl either. Nor, for your information, did Sheila, as she explained to me at quite some length.” She let that information start to sink in, remembering how she had been when she heard it. It had been an angle that she simply had not thought of at all. She heard herself sounding irritable as she spoke, knowing it was at her own thickheadedness at the time as much as at Tuck’s, now. She stopped herself before she started ranting properly.

“So you, um,” Tuck struggled, “you decided you’re a girl after all and…” Valerie was shaking her head.

“Sheila said another interesting thing, I thought. ‘Forget the jargon,’ she said, ‘all that matters is doing what you have to do to be yourself. Whatever that is.’ This,” she gestured at herself, “is a closer approximation. I can be me like this, and it doesn’t turn heads. It’s not too weird, as in beat-the-shit-out-of-the-little-faggot weird for example.” She shrugged. “You might have noticed I’m not exactly the same femme little Val from before the summer?”

***

Tuck had noticed. Valerie seemed stronger somehow. Like she could go ten rounds with a batlh’etlh or something. It wasn’t that she was built up or anything, though she was clearly in pretty good shape. He wondered if she worked out; her arms, left free by the strappy top, showed a lot more muscle tone and definition than his. He knew he was well out of shape now. It was more her attitude, her posture, like she belonged. Like a whole, real, person, which was a parsec away from how Tuck felt most of the time. Most of the time he felt like he could just dissolve into the air. Sometimes he found the feeling comforting.

“I looked at what I had to lose each way,” Valerie continued, “and whaddya know? This won. It wasn’t,” she added to Tuck’s doubtful expression, “that easy telling Mom and Dad.” She breathed in, raggedly. Tuck could guess why. He tried to imagine what had finally pushed Valerie to that point. He couldn’t, and he thought she wasn’t telling all of it even so, but there she was. The sky had fallen and there she remained.

She was sitting there almost calmly talking about having gone through the very things he feared more than anything in the world. More than doctors even. “How,” he whispered, “how did they take it?” He reckoned he was Need To Know.

***

She smiled ruefully. “Shocked, and sad mainly I think. They didn’t get mad, I know that’s what you’re thinking.” For a moment she lost herself, back in the living room, seeing the same expression on both their faces, their hands, as if without volition, finding each other. She, feeling like she’d stepped over the cliff and was falling, falling, towards the jagged rocks below. Please say something, she willed at them.

It was Dad who had moved first. He didn’t say anything, but got up. She remembered thinking for one awful moment he was just going to storm out, but instead, wordlessly, he’d gathered her in and held her and then she cried, hard, into his chest. Then she saw her mother, still on the sofa, looking stricken.

“Mom took it worse,” she said, back in the present. “She blames herself. I wish,” she sighed, hugging her elbows. “I wish she wouldn’t,” she finished lamely.

“Brian was a shit about it for a while,” she continued. “Still can be. But then, he took a lot of shit about it, so I can kind of understand it. It’s a horrible age to discover who your real friends are. He’s coming round. I think he’s deciding his new big sister’s cool after all, since I’m teaching him and his friends street skating.” She grinned. “Hey, you’ll never guess: His friends have started calling him Tuck now. That’s really weird, like when they’re round visiting and one of them yells ‘Tuck’ and I’m trying not to jump, you know?” She giggled at Tuck’s expression then, and shrugged. “He number one son now, I guess it’s his privilege or something. Either that or they’re trying to rile me, which is always a possibility, but I dunno,” she shrugged again, “It’s kind of helped me to let go of it, you know?”

***

“Andy Calloway? That rings a bell…” Tuck interrupted. That stopped Valerie in her tracks. She was going to demand how, but he was zoned out. Data retrieval in progress, she realized. Irrelevant and useless information took longer to pull out. “Calloway Investments?” She nodded. “Yeah, there was something on the news this summer. Some accounting scandal or something. Missing records. It hit the news ’cause they had some famous, and I mean famous clients that lost a lot of money through that. The guy tried to blame it on his sysadmin, of course.” Valerie only stared, a chill starting at the back of her neck and on her arms as the little hairs stood up.

“In this case it was the sysadmin,” she replied, only half her mind on the conversation. “The guy was an incompetent jerk; it was all there, he’d just done an filesystem delete on the files.” She sighed. “Competent enough I guess if you can’t find anyone better in time. Tuck,” she changed tack, “there’s something we haven’t done yet. Are you in my world or am I in yours?”

Tuck thought about that. “Easy enough to find out; we find someone we know and see how they react to your hair,” he grinned. Valerie wasn’t in the mood.

“No, quicker than that. We check that story out.” She produced a mobile phone, dumped it onto the table and was already diving back into her laptop case, emerging with a lead.

“Could be we’re in a superposition of both, until we find out,” Tuck observed.

“Let’s collapse that wave then,” Valerie grinned.

Within a few practiced seconds one end of the lead was clipped into the card already in the PCMCIA slot, and the other into the bottom of the phone. A riffle on the keyboard and — nothing. “That’s odd,” she mused, and tried again. Nothing. She unclipped the phone and looked at it. “Can’t register? Huh?”

Tuck shrugged. “Maybe you just can’t get a signal in here. We are in the middle of a mall…”

“Hmm, maybe,” she mused doubtfully. Seems to be finding the network, signal strength is okay, they probably have a repeater in the mall. It’s just not… “You got a phone?” Tuck shook his head. “Got an acoustic coupler for that thing then?” she pointed at the Thinkpad.

“Yeah, sure.”

“Come on then, we’re leaving.” She started packing away her gear.

***

“Shit, there it is.” They were camped out on the floor under one of the payphones, the lead for the acoustic coupler trailing up to the phone handset, dangling by its cable, Tuck’s phonecard in the slot. Valerie had commandeered the Thinkpad and had been grepping the AP feed archives on the home server.

She’d found what she was hoping not to. Calloway Investments had collapsed; a lot of people had lost a lot of money. Because I wasn’t there? Valerie shivered. She had a much worse thought, and got out to do another search, started typing more terms hoping, hoping it would find nothing; or rather, that it would find the bogus story she’d hacked into the feed to get the cartel off Julio’s back…

Her heart sank as the results came back. She selected the most useful-looking one, not wanting to read it. The story told of the gangland execution-style fatal shooting of two teenage boys in a small but wealthy town in New England. From the text it seemed to have been mainly newsworthy for two reasons. Firstly, that sort of thing just didn’t happen in places like that, just outside a midsummer night society ball no less, as opposed to some deprived inner city slum. Secondly, and even more newsworthy, of course, both boys’ bodies had been found wearing ballgowns and make-up. Initial speculation was that the boys had entered into a suicide pact, until it had been discovered that one of them, Julio Castilliano, had been a witness in some narcotics case against a Columbian drugs cartel, and it was generally reckoned to have been a revenge-killing. The other victim, Eugene Wallace, seemed to have no connection to any of that except for having been in the wrong place at the wrong time, or had just paid the price for standing by his friend.

Valerie read on through the follow-up stories. The boys had been in the care of one Jane Thompson; she and a third boy, unnamed for legal reasons, had been taken in for questioning when the FBI joined the investigation, but released without charge. The sleepy New England town had been shaken by the scandal of what had been going on in their midst for years… Valerie could read no more. She logged out in a couple of keystrokes and stood up to pull the coupler off the handset, tapped the hook and started dialing a new number.

Tuck stood up to join her, guarding the laptop and bags with his feet.

“Hello?” Valerie said into the phone after a few moments. “Can I talk to Charlie please?” Pause. “Shar? No, it’s Val. Va… No I’m not a reporter. I just want… Wait…” She held the handset away and stared at it. “He hung up,” she murmured, then looked directly at Tuck. She looked so lost. He moved to hug her, but she twisted out of the way, then sat back down abruptly on the floor by the payphones and dumped her head in her hands.

Tuck knelt beside her, but she was giving off strong don’t touch me waves, squeezing herself up into a ball. Tuck knew that pushing himself into that would be bad — he hated it when other people did that, even Mike — so he sat back on his heels to wait, and busied himself with packing away the laptop and associated paraphenalia.

Valerie did not look any more ready to engage, so Tuck settled down to think. It wasn’t as if he didn’t have enough to think about. The posture helped him to clear and order his thoughts, even as he kept a watch on Valerie. He tried to keep his mind off the impossibility of physics that had brought her here. If he thought too much about that he was going to end up like her and one of them needed to have their head straight right now. She’s here, he told himself. Whether that is impossible is irrelevant. It’s a fact. At least he was home, as far as he could tell.

He was impressed with her. When she had been talking he hadn’t been able to take his eyes off her, this almost-self, so confident, so strong. She had taken the path he had barely allowed himself to think about, and when he had thought of it, it was in the same space as thinking about death, such had been his fears of what would happen. But she had done it, and she was still there, and not only there, it seemed to be working for her, despite the problems she had hinted at. He still had a feeling she wasn’t telling him something about how she’d got to that point. At least she seemed more together than he felt.

The theory had been to ease Valerie out of his life. So much for theory. She was leaving large bloody wounds behind as she went. There was an ache in his chest where he missed the Parker kids. There was a constant tightness in his shoulders where the Pack’s increasing distance took root. There was the literal hunger on Sunday mornings where there should be the accustomed breakfast at the café. There was a pain behind his eyes where he was delaying that talk with Travis as the silence grew between them. And there was that confused, rootless feeling of guilt about Kim and Mike splitting up, and the way that had happened. Logically, he could not see how it could have been his fault, but he felt somehow culpable anyway.

After two shots of testosterone, nearly due for the third, he felt most of the time like he was quietly going out of his mind. And sometimes not that quietly. The feelings of rage he kept getting, and the almost constant feelings of being too wired somehow, too on-edge and off-balance, were driving him nuts. He’d lashed out at friends that didn’t deserve it. The panic attacks weren’t going away either. But whenever he mentioned the rage and panic stuff to Sheila or Dana or anyone they just talked about stabilizing his hormones, which led inevitably to the operation they wanted him to have. To which he was afraid Mom and Dad might agree on his behalf anyway for all that they said it was all his choice. Being a minor sucked.

Then there was the other thing Valerie had said. From the moment Debbie had seen that his breasts were growing everything had been about what a disaster this was, that it was abnormal, wrong and had to be fixed somehow. That he was a defective and a freak.

It was not even as if he could just blame other people; as much of it had come from himself as from others.

Possibly more, he conceded.

Which was odd, when he thought about it, as he knew he was not usually given to confusing “right” with “normal”.

What if there’s nothing actually wrong with me?

“Excuse me sir, are you okay?” The male voice make Tuck jump and his eyes flew open. It was one of the mall security guys.

Valerie was no-where to be seen.

“You can’t stay there,” the security guy was continuing. “Folks need to use the phones.”

“Yeah, okay,” Tuck replied, hurriedly getting to his feet. Shit. Failed awareness roll. “Did you see a girl here as well a moment ago?” He was kicking himself for having closed his eyes to think.

“No, sorry,” the man replied. “Your girlfriend?”

Fuck. “No, er — my sister,” he decided would be simplest. “Looked a lot like me, in bike gear?” The guy’s face was a blank. “She’s upset, I’ve got to find her.” He was already scanning the crowds, but knew he wouldn’t see here there. “Okay, thanks,” he said to the security guy by way of dismissal. “I need to find her…” and ran off, back towards the entrance by which he’d come in, and where her bike was parked.

He hadn’t had his eyes off her for that long, he thought, and it took a while to unlock a bike. When he got to the entrance, however, there was no sign of it, or her.

***

Valerie accelerated up the highway on-ramp heading East. It was going to be a long trip, and she had no idea why she was going or what she would do when she got there. She had to get away, that was obvious. Quite apart from anything else, she dreaded the difficulties should she encounter anyone here she knew, who would be expecting Tuck. Sorry, Tucker, she wished her other-self. It’s better this way. I don’t exist. You just had a daydream or something. The riding started to clear her head.

She wondered if she could just ride forever. Or until she faded out.

***

“It sounds like you had a powerful vision,” Mike was saying, from his recumbent position sprawled across Tuck’s bed. Tuck, sitting at the desk, sighed.

“Thanks, Chakotay, you’re a real help.” Mike was into Native American spirituality again. Tuck really wasn’t in the mood.

“Well, listen to yourself, Tuck!” Mike retorted. “Come on, what’s more likely? You come out of just having had your head shrunk for the week and you meet a version of yourself from a parallel dimension, who then vanishes without trace, or you come out of just having had your head shrunk for the week and you get a… Well, ‘vision’ is the word actually. One that articulates all the doubts you’re having. People have been receiving visions that address their most important questions for thousands of years. It doesn’t have to be supernatural, your subconscious could be doing all of this.”

Tuck looked at his feet. “She was real,” he murmured. “She paid for the milkshakes, for Ghu’s sake; she knew the Oath! How much more real does it have to get?” But even he heard the note of hesitation in his voice as he said it. Was it possible he’d imagined the whole thing?

“Look, either way,” Mike continued, placatingly, “it sounds like she gave you a lot to think about. And none too soon.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?” Tuck snapped, then immediately regretted it. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean that.”

Mike just looked at him.

***

Valerie staggered into the motel room, almost too tired to breathe. The bed, such as it was, looked almost irresistible. If I sit down I’ll lie down, and if I lie down I won’t get up, she thought, unzipping her gear and sliding out of it. Just a few things to do and I can sleep. Some vaguely-remembered superstition about being a lone female in a quiet motel motivated her enough to dig out her door wedges and stuff them under the door.

What next? Oh yes, and quickly I think… She dashed to the bathroom, pausing only to grab the small bag of supplies she’d picked up at the last gas station.

A few minutes later, and down to her panties, she crawled into bed. Too tired to think, her exhausted brain managed, which was rather the point… Shouldn’t ride when so tired though…

***

Please, say something, Tuck willed at his parents. Falling, falling. They sat on the sofa, the same expression frozen on their faces. Through the window he saw the jester-girl with the shining black and red hair skating in the road.

Dad was the one to move first. He didn’t say anything, but got up slowly, his face like stone. Dad? Tuck tried to speak, but his mouth wouldn’t work, and nor would his legs. He watched helplessly as Dad turned his face away and walked outside. Don’t leave me! The door slammed like thunder. The sound of it shook Tuck to his knees. He fell forwards, and just kept falling.

The parade ground was cold. It was really hard trying to march in time with the squad while wearing petticoats and Mary-Janes. A little way off the jester-girl pirouetted, her hair flashing black and red as she spun. Uncle Lanier was up front, bellowing out instructions. Tuck kept tangling and tripping as the petticoats bounced back and forth at the forced pace. Please God, don’t let him notice, he thought. His blonde curls kept blowing into his eyes. The jester-girl unwound from her spin and curved away backwards and around the marching squad. Tuck almost tripped as he watched her. She looked so familiar…

“SQUAD HALT! MISTER TUCKER,” Uncle Lanier’s voice was like thunder. “YOU DO NOT APPEAR TO BE IN REGULATION UNIFORM!” The rest of the squad snickered aloud, leering at him. “CADETS, YOU WILL ASSIST MISTER TUCKER,” Uncle Lanier continued, and strode off towards the mess hall. The jester-girl had stopped right there next to Uncle Lanier to watch, but no-one else seemed to see her. Then she grinned at Tuck and went after Uncle Lanier and overtook him. Then Tuck was being hauled backwards, strong hands around his arms, fingers yanking at his hair. He cried out in relief, seeing Mike was among them.

“Mike! Help me!”

Mike grasped his hand, firmly. “Don’t worry mano. Just hang in there.”

Tuck relaxed then and let the other cadets pull him along. It’s all right. Mike’s got something planned. It went dark as he was pulled into the galley tent, and the gorgeous smell of a huge gumbo on the heat. “A little bit of this, a little bit of that,” murmured a familiar voice in the darkness. “Hello boys. Do you have those offcuts ready for me?”

“Coming right up Aunt Louisa,” Mike replied, and nodded at the cadets holding Tuck’s arms. Hands ripped down the top of Tuck’s little-girl dress and cut his bra away, and he was bent backwards painfully over a work-surface. Mike came forward then with a carving knife and lined it up under his left breast.

***

Bill Tucker came awake fast. He could grasp only the mind-echo of whatever sound had woken him up, but he knew immediately what it was. He could hear Eugene retching in the bathroom.

He turned his head to look at his wife. Sarah’s eyes were open too, he could see in the dim light. She had tear-streaks. “Oh Bill,” she whispered. “We’re losing him.” She drew in a ragged breath. “I can feel it.”

Under the quilt, his hand found hers for a moment, then he pulled himself out of bed.

The bathroom door hung open, spilling light across the landing. He could hear Eugene’s dry heaving. “Eugene?” he called out softly, at the doorway. The effect on his son was dramatic. Eugene jerked away from the toilet bowl, heedless of the thread of spittle still connecting him to it, staring wild-eyed at his father. As Bill tried to move towards him, he cowered away slightly, then as if a switch was thrown got his legs under him and pushed up hard, using a hand against the wall to help lever him up, but only succeeded in clouting his head against the underside of the wash-basin and wobbling back to his knees. Bill moved forwards to help, but this merely seemed to galvanize Eugene back into action. This time he got to his feet fast and, to Bill’s dismay, into a defensive posture. For all that the child was weakened and shivering and wobbling from the head impact he was nevertheless ready to defend himself.

Why does he think I’m a threat?

“Eugene,” he said calmly, “you had a bad dream, okay? It’s over now.” In the space that followed, Eugene’s ragged breathing was the only sound. “It’s over now,” Bill reiterated, keeping up the calm tone, “you’re awake. Come on out of it now, son.”

“Dad…” Eugene croaked, and swallowed with difficulty. Needs a drink, Bill thought.

“Yeah,” he nodded. “I guess that was a bad one?”

“Oh, slightly,” Eugene tried a wry smile. “Oh God…” He started to cry, right there in front of Bill. Bill gathered him in and held him, there, for a long time.

***

“You okay now?”

Eugene shook his head. “Not really, Dad.” Bill held him a while longer. “I’m sorry,” Eugene said after a while. “I’m sorry I’m such a fuckup…”

“You’re not,” was all Bill could think of to say.

“Yeah I am, Dad.” The voice sounded too old, too tired and too bitter to be Bill’s child. He just held on, helplessly.

***

Eugene looked truly wretched, Bill thought, now the combat-readiness had dissipated. Pale, dehydrated, soaked in stale sweat, and the shakes were coming on. Bill moved decisively now, rinsing out the washbasin glass and waiting for the water to come out cold before filling it and handing it back to Eugene. “Take it easy with that,” he warned.

“Yeah Dad, I know.” He tried another smile. “I think it’ll stay down though.” Bill nodded and left him for a moment to dash to the linen closet to get a large warm blanket. While he was about it, he heard the toilet flush, and when he returned Eugene was sitting on its lid, shivering, still clutching the mostly-full glass. He stood, unsteadily, to let Bill wrap the blanket around him, clutched it to himself while he shivered.

“Look, why don’t you come in with us the rest of the night, eh?” Bill asked on a hunch. He suspected everyone might get more sleep that way. In any case, he’d looked in on Eugene’s room while getting the blanket and seen the twisted, sweat-stained sheets there. He expected more resistance, but Eugene just nodded.

“I should change out of this stuff first,” Eugene said. “It’s got all sweaty.”

“Okay,” Bill agreed. “You do that, and come right on in, okay?”

***

Bill looked up at the change in light. Eugene was pausing in the doorway, obviously shy about coming in. “Come on in Eugene,” Sarah invited. “Don’t hover there.”

Eugene shrugged. “This feels dumb,” he said. “Haven’t done this since I was a kid.”

“Oh and you’re such a grown-up now,” Sarah teased. Bill elbowed her. Eugene set his jaw like he might go back to his room even then, but couldn’t keep a straight face as Sarah slapped Bill’s shoulder in retaliation, only to get tickled back in return.

“Eww, gross!” Eugene commented at the spectacle. Bill threw a pillow at him. Eugene caught it and held it like a teddy bear.

“Come on kid,” Bill beckoned. “Promise, not a word to Brian.” Eugene took a few faltering steps into the room and closed the door.

“Dad…” Eugene hesitated, keeping out of reach. “You wouldn’t send me to boot camp, would you?”

“What?” Where did he get that idea from? “No, of course not!”

“What gave you that idea?” Sarah asked.

Eugene shrugged again. “Just had a feeling it’s something you might do. You know, to make a man of me or something?”

Bill sighed. “We discussed it,” he admitted, “earlier in the year. We decided it wouldn’t be a good idea. We’re not about to change our minds.”

“There was a lot we didn’t know back then,” Sarah added. “Even so,” she continued mischievously, poking her husband in the ribs, “your father is not telling you the whole story.”

“Oh Sarah!” Bill whined, in a creditable impression of an fourteen-year-old whose baby photographs were about to be shown round.

“We called your Uncle Lanier to ask his advice on it,” she explained, and he said… tell him Bill, you do it better than me.”

“‘Son,’ he said,” Bill gave his Lanier impression, albeit at considerably lower than normal volume in deference to the hour, “‘you get such half-assed thoughts out of your head this instant. If I get so much as an idea you’re planning to do such a thing to that dear child so help me I’ll whip your ass all the way to Nova Scotia!’” Bill grinned.

“Lanier said that?” Eugene was goggle-eyed.

“Uh-huh. Wasn’t finished either. I had blisters in my ear for weeks I swear. Threatened to come and kidnap you and Brian for safe keeping unless we got our heads on right.” He grinned.

“Wow.”

“Yeah, reckon you dodged a bullet there, son,” Bill grinned. Eugene just looked thoughtful. “Lanier said it wasn’t wrong for everyone, but he couldn’t think of anyone it would be more wrong for than you.”

***

“Oh, you’re already awake.”

“Uh-huh. Shh.”

“What are you doing?” Bill whispered.

“Nothing.” Sarah smiled. “Just watching him sleeping.”

They watched for a while.

“I missed this,” Bill said after a while. Sarah nodded.

“Those times in the hospital; that wasn’t the same.”

“No.”

Bill reached across to catch a tear, as it fell from his wife’s eye.

“I’m not going to lose him, Bill.”

“No, we’re not,” he gently reminded her. She smiled at that, and caught his hand as he started to draw it back, and pulled it back towards her, held it to her chest, her eyes watching him intently. Bill nearly unbalanced until he shifted to compensate. The movement rocked Eugene to and fro a couple of times. “Careful, you’ll wake him,” Bill warned.

Just then Eugene stirred again and rolled over to nuzzle into Sarah’s breasts, unceremoniously displacing Bill’s hand in the process. They both stifled a giggle.

“He still does that then,” Bill remarked acidly, somehow, through a mouth that refused to stop grinning. It was interfering with his ability to feign jealousy.

“He gets it from you, you know,” Sarah accused in return. Bill grinned wickedly.

“Maybe he’s hungry?”

Notes:

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.


 
To Be Continued...



If you liked this post, you can leave a comment and/or a kudos!
Click the Thumbs Up! button below to leave the author a kudos:
up
40 users have voted.

And please, remember to comment, too! Thanks. 
This story is 8538 words long.