Tuck Squared - part 2

"Viewing is by appointment only."
Tuck
SQUARED
Chapter 2

by Rachel Greenham


 
Chapter 2

***

Have to admit, Valerie thought, as she trundled up main street, Westbury has a better class of tacky Christmas decorations. It was cold and gusty and the roads were slick with grey slush, so she picked her way carefully.

Finally she came to the right junction and swerved off and headed out of town.

The gates to the mansion sported a FOR SALE sign, Valerie noted without surprise as she sped through. The house itself stood dark and lonely amidst the unkempt grounds. There were no obvious signs of habitation. She pulled up in the deepening shadow at the bottom of the steps, killed the engine and took her helmet off.

The silence was almost total. Valerie shivered in the cold of the house’s shadow, clawed her fingers through her sweaty hair, and dismounted, leaving the bike on its kickstand. She didn’t bother chaining it up, but skipped quickly up the steps to the main door. Peering in through the window told her only that it was dark. She tried the door, on the offchance, and found it unlocked. She slipped quietly inside.

What am I doing? She asked herself. I could get arrested for this. Still, she crept along to the parlor doorway. She had had to look far for bike boots that allowed her to walk silently, but thanked herself for the effort now.

There was a sound, somewhere. It sounded like a door closing, maybe, in some distant part of the house. Better not be haunted, Valerie thought. She was about to dismiss the thought as irrational when she reminded herself that her own presence was in about the same class of plausibility.

The parlor was brighter, catching the last weak light of day through the French windows. Valerie headed in, following some primeval instinct to seek out light. The books were all gone, presumably they filled the packing crates strewn around the room. She moved through to the windows and saw the swimming pool; it had nothing in it now but a few moldering leaves. She sighed. I should not have…

“Viewing is by appointment only,” came a voice from behind her, nearly causing her heart to hammer through her ribcage.

***

Jane Thompson raised an eyebrow at what the intruder did next. The girl had spun around guiltily and snapped into a properly feminine posture in one fast movement, murmuring “Sorry Jane” as she did so. She had seen that reaction a thousand times before, of course, whenever she had surprised one of her charges at something they thought they should not be doing.

However, she did not recognize this dark-haired girl; for it was certainly a girl, she thought, even through the unflattering bike gear she had on. Her posture was pretty creditable too, given that limitation.

“Do I know you?” she asked the girl.

“No Ms Thompson,” the girl had replied. “I’m sorry, I thought the place was empty.”

“And you thought to ransack the house, I presume,” Jane pressed as she moved to throw the light switch. The girl shook her head, and flinched at the sudden brightening of the room. Jane moved closer to the girl. “Or why are you here?”

“Just to look around, Ms Thompson.”

“Hmm.” She studied the downcast girl in front of her. “No, I don’t recognize you. However, but for that, I would swear that you had been trained at my hand.” She reached out quickly and took the girl’s chin in her hand, turned her head this way and that. The girl had flinched, but not otherwise resisted, which was telling in itself. Her examination had also given Jane the opportunity to check surreptitiously for an adam’s apple, and she had found none. The girl had delicate, open features and my, look at those eyes. I would have remembered you. “Curiouser and curiouser,” she observed, releasing the girl’s chin. “And you called me by my first name too, when you first saw me.” The girl looked down again, demurely. Not to be faulted for her manners, clearly, barring the illegal entry in the first place. “Well, introduce yourself young lady. You have the advantage of me and that’s impolite.”

“My name is Valerie,” the girl replied. “Valerie Tucker.”

The name meant nothing to Jane either. “Well then Valerie Valerie Tucker, what are we to make of you?”

***

“Nothing at all, Jane,” Valerie sighed. “I shouldn’t have come. There’s no use in my being here.” She could feel herself tearing up again.

“Who are you really?” Jane persisted. “You clearly know me.”

Valerie looked out again at the empty pool, but it was invisible behind the reflection of the room. She could see Jane in the reflection, but for a moment could not see herself — her black-clad, black-haired form barely visible in the reflection at all, with the dark bookshelves behind her.

“No-one. I’m no-one at all. I don’t exist.”

“I beg to differ, Valerie Tucker,” Jane’s voice cut in through her melancholy. “You plainly exist. I don’t make it my habit to speak to vacant air.”

Valerie wiped tears from her eyes with the back of her hand. “You wouldn’t believe the truth. No-one would.”

Jane’s hand on her shoulder made Valerie jump in surprise again.

“Try me,” Jane said, sternly.

Oh what the hell? “All right then.” She turned back to Jane, speaking defiantly now. “I’m from an alternate reality and you’re right, I was your student. Here, this summer. By accident. There was a mix-up at the station. My old name, was Eugene Wallace Tucker.” Valerie watched Jane’s reactions. The older woman seemed simply nonplussed. “I was, to put it politely, not a model student, Jane. You needed a little sister for Charlene, and I obviously wasn’t going to be it, so you arranged for Teresa to come as well.” She took a breath. “And at the midsummer ball,” Valerie’s voice caught then. “My friends had found me, and came up for the ball. And we, we saw those hit-men. And we got Teresa out of there and the hit-men crashed when they chased us and she’s still alive,” she was crying openly now. “Teresa’s still alive. I’m sorry Jane. I’m sorry I wasn’t here.”

Jane was visibly taken aback by the outburst. “Teresa?” she said. “Who is Teresa?”

Valerie hiccupped at that, then shook her head. Must’ve been a chaos thing, she thought idly. “You know, Julio?” She sighed, seeing the startled, pained reaction from Jane to that name. “Charlene named her Teresa?”

Jane shook her head. “No, Eugenia named her Julia.”

Eugenia?!” Valerie protested. “No! You couldn’t have!”

Jane arched her eyebrows. “Eugá¨nia,” she repeated more clearly, with a French accent, pronouncing the name with a soft ‘G’ and a short second syllable, “not ‘yoo-jeen-ia’,” imitating Valerie’s pronunciation. “I think Marie suggested it to Charlene first; certainly I had no hand in it. Besides, it’s a perfectly fine name.”

“Jesus, as if the male version isn’t curse enough,” Valerie muttered. “Whatever,” she sighed, “it doesn’t make any difference now. I’d better just go.”

She moved to go past Jane. Jane did not stop her, but followed at a distance as far as the parlor doorway as Valerie headed towards the front door.

A thought occurred to Valerie then, which stopped her in her tracks. She turned back to Jane. “Just one thing though,” she said. “Why did you get Julio here? I mean, if Eugene Wallace was a more normal student, you wouldn’t have needed an alternative little-sister for Charlene…”

Jane sighed. “It was Mrs. Rabelais that called me looking for a place to put the boy, and I took him, against my better judgement as it turned out. It was a favor to a friend.” So that part was going to happen anyway, Valerie thought.

Valerie nodded. “I’m sorry again for disturbing you, Ms Thompson,” she managed to say, and went outside.

***

Jane watched the girl through the front door window. She seemed to be rummaging through her backpack, as if looking for something. It was becoming quite dark now, with thick, heavy clouds closing in overhead.

The girl’s story was, as she herself had admitted, unbelievable; but she did not appear to be lying, as far as Jane was a judge, and in such matters she considered that she was. At worst, she believed her own story, so she could be delusional, but that in itself did not explain how she knew what she knew. The more Jane watched her, the more convinced she was that the girl had been trained by her, even though she had no memory of it herself. It was a paradox, unless you accepted the impossibility of her story. Maybe she invented it because she couldn’t explain it any other way, she wondered, coming to a decision.

Waifs and strays, she told herself as she opened the door and went out onto the cold steps. “Valerie Tucker,” she heard herself call out. The girl looked up, wary. Jane continued down the steps. “Do you have a place to stay tonight?” Valerie didn’t answer immediately. Jane recognized the dilemma; the girl was caught between honesty and pride. That would be a ‘no’ then, she decided. “You look exhausted,” she continued, now having reached the girl. “You must have come a long way to get here.” Valerie nodded at that. “Stay the night,” she said gently. “Have a proper meal, and a good night’s rest, and tomorrow you can think about what you do next. Agreed?”

Valerie nodded again, surprise plainly visible on her face. “Yes, Ms Thompson. And thank-you.”

“You’ve called me Jane before, and you’re clearly used to it; you may as well continue to do so. Now, go put your motorcycle in the garage for the night, it’s unlocked and the weather looks set to be foul tonight, then come inside.”

“Yes, Jane.” She watched as Valerie quickly hoisted her backpack onto her back, kicked the kickstand away and started pushing her motorcycle towards the side of the house where the garage was concealed. Not needing to be told where it is, she noted, no longer surprised.

“Oh, and Valerie,” she called out, feeling slightly mischievous. The girl stopped pushing and turned to face her, “guests in my house are expected to behave and deport themselves at all times with grace and decorum, maintain the highest standards of cleanliness, and to dress in appropriately feminine attire. That,” she indicated Valerie’s current state of dress, “will not do. I trust this will not be a problem young lady?”

Valerie actually grinned. “Not at all, Jane,” she called back. “But I don’t have a change of clothes.”

“I’ll put you in the lilac room,” Jane suggested, with half a mind to test the girl’s claims. “You may avail yourself of whatever you find in there.”

Valerie nodded. “Charlene’s old room,” she confirmed, and went back to pushing the motorcycle.

She passed that test then. Jane sighed. Charlene had indeed been the last occupant, she remembered sadly. The other two student rooms had been searched by the FBI as part of their investigation, and she hadn’t the heart to restore them to readiness after that; there seemed little point.

As she ascended the steps back to the main door, Jane caught herself rubbing at her eyes, holding back tears for her two dead children. Eugenia, petite and sweet-natured, her pretty face mostly to be glimpsed in moments looking over her sketchbook; Julia, graceful and proud and barely-tamed. If she remembered them as perhaps more compliant, more apt to their studies than they had been in life, she forgave herself that small indulgence. She could not have done what she did if she did not see the potential in her charges. Every boy that had ever come to her had been a problem in one way or another; that was the point. She had had no fears that these two would not have eventually overcome themselves, had they had the chance.

Poor Charlene as well. Charlene had just been starting to reap the benefits of the big-sister part of the program, and Jane thought finally she was getting through to the boy-girl’s hard core of rage, when everything had gone to hell and Charlie was taken from her at the most sensitive time of all, and in the most brutal, public manner imaginable. She saw him again as she had last seen him. He had shaven his own head, roughly and in anger; his scalp bore nicks where he had cut too close. It made his eyes look too big for his face. They were reddened from hours of crying, but he was trying to cover it with a show of fury. He had stripped down to his skin and refused to put on anything unless it was to wrap himself in a sheet until Marie brought his own clothes to him. He looked like a torture victim, Jane remembered thinking. The sight had shaken her almost as badly as when she had seen the bodies of the other two earlier in the evening. When she tried to talk to him, he just screamed, and screamed. Marie could at least get words out of him. She wondered if anyone would ever reach that child again.

***

At the store, Mike elected to drive the shopping cart while Tuck darted here and there through the fresh produce section.

“Whatcha doin’ then?” Mike was asking every ten seconds or so, like a bored child on a long trip. “Whatcha doin’ then?”

“Shush. You’ll find out.”

Mike grinned. “’E’s making it up as ’e goes along!”

“Am not!” Tuck stuck his tongue out at him. “Hmm, chicken,” he mused to himself checking out the fresh herbs.

“Now ’e’s having a go at the birds!” Mike chimed in. Tuck hit him.

“If you don’t behave, I won’t take you shopping again,” he warned, like it was any kind of threat.

“Ooh, you could do that gumbo! I know you got the recipe off your aunt…” Mike stopped abruptly as the cart bumped into Tuck, who had frozen in place.

“Do you have any idea,” Tuck covered, having collected himself again, “how long that takes?” Tuck shook his head to clear it. He was not going to let a stupid dream ruin gumbo. Some things just had to take precedence. Odd that Mike should suggest it today though, he thought. “Damn, you’ve lost my train of thought,” he prevaricated.

***

Valerie had blissed out under the hot shower for almost too long. Just in time she’d noticed her fingertips starting to wrinkle, and quickly washed her hair and got out. She wrapped a towel round herself, and another round her hair, and went to rummage in the wardrobes. Sheesh, she thought to herself, I’d forgotten just how ultrafemme Jane’s stuff is. Things had changed, she remembered, after she’d got influence over Jane’s credit card and got Charlene and herself some clothes that Real People (tm) would actually wear.

She found something, presently; something that she knew would please Jane in its femininity without being too offensive to her own eyes. A gorgeous gown in a deep, rich blue velvet. She voluntarily opted for a couple of extra petticoats for their warmth — the house, she had noticed, had a chill to it — and also, she admitted, because the shape it would form would please Jane. Besides, she knew, her own slim hips needed the assist.

Anyway, she admitted with a grin, being overdressed for any occasion was all part of the patented J. Thompson Experience.

***

Jane heard the music as she was coming downstairs. On entering the dining room, she saw Valerie had lifted the dust cover off the keyboard end of the piano and was sitting there, playing something melancholy.

“Hello Jane,” the girl looked up as she entered. “I hope you don’t mind,” she continued, nodding at the piano as she played.

“Not at all, Valerie. You play beautifully.”

Valerie looked up at her again, smiling. “I had a good teacher.” The intense blue of her eyes struck Jane again.

“Well in that case,” Jane observed, leaning over the side of the piano, “watch your fingerwork, you’re a bit sloppy there. Clearly you haven’t been practicing enough.” The girl stopped playing and turned to glare at her, managing to do so without actually moving any of her face. After several seconds she nodded and turned back to the keyboard and resumed playing.

“I can afford a half-hour lesson a week,” she explained, still playing. “I try to get time to practice in the week, but there’s always something coming up. Mostly I practice at night, when I can’t sleep.”

“Doesn’t that wake everyone up?”

“Electronic keyboard,” Valerie grinned, “and headphones. A friend of mine has a real piano. Sometimes I can practice there.”

The girl cleaned up nicely, Jane had to admit. Valerie was wearing her dark hair up, and it suited her. It showed off the graceful curve of her neck and shoulders, and also managed to complement the elegant dress she had chosen to wear. With cleaning and make-up to finish, the scruffy and road-worn biker girl Jane had first seen turned out to be a charming and elegant young woman after all. In fact, quite a beauty, she realized. If still a little rough round the edges. She let herself drift with the music for a while. It was sad, but somehow it suited the moment. And she said her name used to be Eugene. Well. Another one like Caitlyn? She opened her eyes to watch the girl playing. I have a feeling this one’s story is nothing so straightforward as that, she thought to herself. Aloud she said, “I was thinking what to do for dinner…”

“Oh, don’t worry about that Jane,” the girl replied, “I’ve got it all in hand.” At Jane’s raised eyebrow Valerie grinned. “I can cook you know. And I’m told I’m almost as good as Marie.”

***

Tuck and Mike were in the kitchen. Mike was chopping vegetables. Tuck supposed he should be thankful that Mike was actually trying to be useful around the kitchen for once, rather than employing his usual perfect timing in only turning up when the food was about to be served. In truth he was finding it annoying. Mike seemed somehow to have inherited Dad’s ineptitude with cooking implements, through some non-genetic vector.

“Oh give me that,” he said eventually, taking the knife out of Mike’s hand and taking over the cutting before Mike lost a finger. It was just taking too long. “Look, just…” he looked around for something Mike could do. It was already hot in the kitchen and Tuck was feeling flustered as it was. Dinner was going to be late. Just a simple roast, I thought, he sighed, I’m not sure I could manage a boiled egg right now. “Why don’t you grease the oven pans for me,” he managed. “These are almost ready to go in and the oven’s plenty hot.”

Mike shrugged and went to dig out the pans. Tuck continued, making short work of another potato when there was a crash of cookware behind him, making him jump. He bit down on his reaction and carried on. “These ones?” Mike needed his attention again. He glanced round and nodded. Couldn’t he just use his common sense? He really wanted to, no, needed to go upstairs for a bit and…

There was another clatter as Mike dropped the oven trays onto the kitchen table. How can one person make so much noise? “Tuck, how do I do this?” Mike whined. Tuck sighed and went to grab the oil and a handful of paper towels and started on one of the pans. “Look,” Mike said to his back, “I can do it, I just needed to…” Tuck finished the first and started on the second. “Tuck, mano…” Tuck shrugged off Mike’s hand on his shoulder, he was trying to concentrate, to hold himself together. “Tuck, you have to stop this,” Mike said, his hand pulling at Tuck’s arm strongly now, and Tuck lost it.

When he tried to piece it together later Tuck realized how fast it had happened, like a reflex, like a snake striking. At the time it had seemed to happen excruciatingly slowly, yet unstoppably, like a nightmare. He was vaguely aware of screaming something as he spun around, his hand unwinding out towards Mike. Even as he moved he saw the paring knife he had forgotten to put down still in his hand and tried to pull back but there was too much momentum in his arm and just not enough time. Mike leapt backwards fast, and so probably saved his own life, but was still slower than he should have been. He had never expected an attack from that quarter. Not from Tuck. So the knife still just caught his face and opened an inch-long gash just below his left eye, on the cheekbone.

Slow to a complete stop.

Tuck watched as Mike raised a hand to his wound and looked at the blood that had come away on his fingertips. Their eyes met, and Tuck’s heart broke to see the expression on Mike’s face. I have struck my brother, Tuck’s mind was locked in a loop. I have taken my brother’s blood in anger. My life is forfeit. Numbly he was aware of the knife falling away from his hand as he sank to his knees and watched, helpless, as Mike took another step back and strode out of the kitchen. Tuck’s breath caught. For a few moments he actually forgot how to breathe. Then he heard the starting roar of Mike’s car and cried out.

***

Valerie dropped the knife she had been using and gasped out in pain. The knife clattered to the floor, just missing her feet. Her hand felt like… it felt like she imagined dipping it in liquid nitrogen would feel like. She almost expected it to shatter. Now it was shaking uncontrollably. Something’s wrong, she thought suddenly, clearly. Something is terribly wrong.

“Valerie?” Jane called from where she was sitting at the kitchen table. “Are you all right? Did you cut yourself?”

Valerie turned to her, terror passing across her face. This brought Jane to her feet instantly, but Valerie was already moving, bringing her hand under brighter light so they could both look at it. It seemed… unharmed. Jane looked back at Valerie’s face. She seemed to be calming down. “It’s passing,” Valerie whispered.

“What? What on Earth happened?”

“I… I don’t know. Suddenly my hand just…” Valerie flexed her hand, looking at it as if she had just sprouted it. “It’s gone now,” she murmured, perplexed.

“Are you sure?” Jane prodded. Valerie nodded and bent to pick up the fallen knife. She took it to the sink to wash it quickly then went back to where she was chopping. Just as she was about to start, though, her hand started shaking again. It didn’t hurt. It was like she was afraid of using the knife. She willed herself to relax and tried again, but her hand started shaking again.

“Jane,” she said finally. “I’m sorry, I can’t finish these.”

Jane had stayed by her in case of something like this. “You go and sit down for a bit, I’ll do this then.” Valerie nodded, flashed a brief, apologetic smile and went to sit and be calm. The dinner was well in hand so there was little else to do at this stage anyway.

***

“So, what happens now?” Valerie asked. Jane sighed and stretched out more comfortably on the chaise-longue. They were back in the parlor surrounded by boxes, and Jane was feeling just pleasantly stuffed from the excellent meal Valerie had (mostly) prepared. Valerie, across the gaming table they were using to support their drinks, was making herself comfortable on the sofa, having kicked off her sandals and curled her legs up by her side. She had a slight permanent flush to her face. Not used to the red wine, Jane thought. She’s probably drunker than she’ll realize before she stands up. I’ve probably had more than I should as well. I think I’m still lucid though…

“Well,” she said aloud, “The academy is closed, of course. But once the house sale has completed and the settlement from the lawsuits paid, I’ll have enough left over to live in the manner to which I’m accustomed, so don’t worry overmuch on my account.” Valerie had seemed concerned. “As for what I shall do… Naturally, Art tells me I should move in with him at last. Marriages are not usually conducted at such a distance. This is what I am told anyway,” she added with a wry smile. She sighed again. “I don’t know, can you see me as a faculty wife?” Valerie shook her head, slowly and emphatically, grinning.

They sat in silence for a while. It wasn’t a tense or uncomfortable silence. Just companionable. Jane sipped from her wine, noticed the girl echoing her action, not apparently conscious of having done so. She thought perhaps she should be concerned at being so at ease with a girl whom until a few hours previously she had never met, but it just did not feel like that. The truth was, she had been lonely, ever since Marie went back to her family, and the girl was good company.

“I’ve been thinking of England,” Jane continued eventually. “I spent some time with some old friends of mine there after… what happened. Do you know, I could find no-one over there who had ever heard of the ‘English Method’? It appears to have entirely died out. Art said maybe I should reintroduce it, that I may well be the last practitioner.”

Valerie coughed meaningfully. “Erm, you should try a web search,” she replied, stifling a giggle.

“Oh?”

“Oh, um…” Valerie seemed embarrassed. “Just that, er, there seem to be plenty of practitioners, just…” She had fallen silent.

“Just what, Valerie?”

“Er, well, I don’t think anyone else uses it for actual juvenile reform, er, if you see what I mean.”

Slowly, in time with her rising color, Jane did. “Well,” she mastered herself, “That tells me all I need to know about your little internet, doesn’t it.” She nearly harrumphed, but just managed to control herself. Valerie was grinning, the blasted child. “And stop looking so knowing, it’s unbecoming in a young lady.”

“Sorry Jane.” Jane looked away, at the mirrored darkness of the french windows, to spare Valerie the impossible task of actually obeying her.

“It works. Worked,” she amended sadly, and took another sip of her wine.

“I know,” Valerie said gently. “I saw it work, or I’d never have believed it. I mean, it even worked on me, after a fashion.”

“There’s this lovely house,” she was remembering, “an Elizabethan manor, set in the Cotswold hills just about half an hour’s drive from… Cheltenham.” She must be drunk, she realized, if she almost mispronounced it again. It had been impressed upon her by her hosts, politely, yet at some length, how grating it was to hear Americans drawl out the last syllable. She knew, from direct comparison as the town seemed to fill up with her compatriots during the summer months, that she had not been so bad an offender in that regard to begin with. Maybe her hosts had just needed to vent. “And what about you?” she directed at Valerie, back in the present. “What happened to you?” She thought maybe Valerie was drunk enough to tell it now, and hoped she wasn’t too smashed herself to remember or not to ask stupid questions. Or cope, if she accidentally pushed a bad button.

“Oh, you know, being I.S. sucks…”

“I.S.?”

Valerie sighed. “Intersexed. Um, like having both male and female…” she waved vaguely at her body.

“Ah,” Jane thought. “Like a hermaphrodite?”

Valerie closed her eyes and sighed. “Well, that’s what everyone immediately thinks of course, like there aren’t loads of I.S. conditions out there. And then it’s ‘herm’ this and ‘hey hermie’ that and before you know it the label’s stuck…” Jane watched as Valerie thumped her own thigh in frustration. “And these are people who’d never call a black man a nigger, you know? So, anyway, there I was, growing up a normal guy, or so I thought. Okay, I was small for my age; okay, I was undeveloped, and it’s not like I wasn’t already getting the sh… getting grief for that, and then I do finally start developing and it’s the other way. I’m growing breasts. And other stuff. So then, in the middle of this my Mom and Dad think it would be a great idea to send me to a boot camp to make a man of me.” She gave Jane a very old-fashioned look. “And then there was the mix-up and I thought they’d sent me here and you thought I was the other Eugene and, well.” She shrugged. “What my parents didn’t know at the time, and neither did you of course, was that by then I’d been part-timing as Valerie for, like, half a year already. Let’s not even go into why I was doing it. It’s not like I could have given you a straight answer at the time. But suddenly here I was, having to be Valerie twenty-four-seven, thinking my parents had sent me here deliberately, as if they knew or something, or as if they thought it would get it out of my system maybe…” Valerie sighed deeply. “And that’s what you had land on your doorstep.”

***

“Charlene — my Charlene — found a very nice boy in town, and I happen to know they had some fun times together.”

“Charlene? Never!”

“Uh-huh. Can’t honestly say I didn’t have anything to do with it either,” Valerie admitted. “Though in my defense, I didn’t know. Call me little miss unobservant…”

“Even so, Valerie!”

Valerie shrugged. “No harm came of it. Shar just needed to be able to relate normally. All this twenty-four-seven debutante stuff just drove her nuts.”

“And you could be just a normal girl, and show her how to be as well?”

“Yeah, basically. Especially after we got to hit the mall with your credit card,” she grinned at Jane’s horrified expression, “and get some clothes real girls wear, so we didn’t stand out like we were Amish or something.”

“That’s — fascinating,” Jane admitted. Valerie recognized that scheming look.

***

Valerie shrugged. Things were definitely getting a bit fuzzy round the edges. She frowned in concentration. “No more bullshit,” she replied. “Tha’s what I got from you, pardonmyfrench. Couldn’t bullshit myself any more. You, you, you.” She refocused. “Crutches, you know, that er, er, that we use to hold up who we think we are. You take ’em away and we gotta stand anyway. Th’real person gotta stand. Am I making sense at all?”

“You’re mixing metaphors, dear,” Jane murmured hazily.

“’S awright, I suck at English anyway.” She tried to sit upright. “I’m drunk,” she said, carefully.

“So’m I,” Jane sounded happy, Valerie thought. Dreamy.

“But I thought, I thought I was immune,” Valerie continued. “I thought I was immune. Not’s if wearing girl clothes wuz gonna faze me, y’know? Was jus’ a game. But I get home an’, an’, I din’ wanna bullshit any more y’know? Cudn’ do it.” She drained the last of her glass and looked at it like it had betrayed her. “Got any more of this stuff?” she asked.

Jane raised the bottle. Empty. Carefully she put it down again, reached under the chaise-longue and brought up both an untouched bottle and a smug look. Valerie grinned. “Thusly I demonstrate the advantage of forward planning,” Jane enunciated as Valerie giggled and passed her the corkscrew.

“You sure it’s a good idea Jane?”

“Frankly my dear,” Jane declaimed, “I don’t give a damn!”

“For tomorrow,” Valerie acted back, badly, “is another day. An’ it’s gonna hurt.” POP! Went the cork. Valerie shrugged and moved to hand her glass forwards for replenishment. As she did so her bottom slid off the front of the sofa and she landed hard on the floor. She sat for a moment, puzzled. “Ow?” she said eventually, then saw Jane, across from her, pointing and laughing out loud. “Hey,” she protested, “it’s not funny.”

Jane tried to still her laughter. “Yes it is,” she managed, eventually.

“No, it’s not,” Valerie retorted, pouting. “S’pose it is,” she admitted with a small giggle. “Just I get enough people laughing at me back home.” She sighed, and held out her glass. Jane filled it.

“Who laughs at you?” Jane asked, serious now.

“Oh,” she shrugged, deciding to settle on the floor where she had come to rest. “You know. People. School.” Jane nodded.

“Did your parents consider moving to another city? Or at least so you could go to a different school where no-one would know?”

Valerie shook her head emphatically. It made her dizzy, so she stopped. “Would mean moving away from Mike. Can’t do that.”

“Who’s Mike? Your boyfriend?” Valerie looked at her for a long moment, amazed, then burst out into a fit of giggles. “It was a fair question!” Jane protested.

“No, Not my boyfriend.” She took a sip of the wine. “We’re brothers. Blood brothers. Brother’n’sister anyway. Whatever.” She sighed. “I miss him,” she told her glass. “He’d know what to do.”

“It’s just growing up, Valerie,” Jane tried to explain. “People change. They move apart, find new friends…” Valerie shook her head, more gently this time.

“Not us.” Into the silence, “not us.” She took another sip. “My coun’ coun’ er… Other-me. The one from this world. Didn’t come here. God he’s so full of shit. I mean, um, I don’t mean that in a bad way. Just he’s… He’s still trying to keep everyone happy, what he thinks’ll make people happy. Will make ’em like him more. It’s pathetic!” She surprised herself by the sudden surge of revulsion. “It must be driving him insane. No, it is. You can see it in his eyes.” She shook her head again. “He’s so afraid, Jane, he won’t even look at what he’s afraid of. He’s afraid he’ll lose Mike. He’s so afraid of it he’ll live a lie the rest of his life to avoid it. He doesn’t see. He doesn’t see, if he loses himself, if he won’t be himself, he’ll lose Mike for sure. There can only be truth between us. Only truth. Or we die. He’ll die.”

Valerie noticed as she spoke that she had pulled her knees up to her chest and was digging her nails into her shins. She stopped herself as soon as she saw she was doing it, before she put a run in the stockings she was wearing. We’re in the witching hour, she realized suddenly. And I’m too drunk to pay proper attention. She took in a few deep breaths, as if that would help her become sober. Instead she felt slightly sick.

“This place is fading,” Jane said into the long silence. “It’s dying. If I don’t get out, so will I, but I’ve just not been able to bring myself to do it. Those poor children, how could I leave them alone here?”

She was unable to continue. Valerie got to her knees and shuffled round to the side of the chaise-longue to take Jane’s hand and pull her back out of her mourning reverie. “Oh listen to me babbling,” Jane scolded herself, rubbing at her eyes with her spare hand, “like some sentimental old woman. Anyone would think the house is haunted.” She laughed nervously, glancing up into the shadows near the ceiling.

“Is it?”

“Of course not, don’t be silly. There’s no such thing as ghosts.” She sighed. “It’s just that being alone here sometimes…” She trailed off.

“There’s no such thing as dimension leaping either,” Valerie reminded her. “What happened?” She asked gently. “I read the news reports, that’s all.”

“At the midsummer ball,” Jane started. “Oh Valerie it was horrible. I should never have taken Julia to it; it was too soon really, but Eugenia insisted, and promised they’d stay together the whole time.

“Those two were inseparable,” she smiled in remembrance. “I could not have wished for a stronger bond, they did everything together. In fact their being so close tended to leave Charlene somewhat isolated, but I can’t say she didn’t at least partially bring that upon herself.”

“Yeah,” Valerie agreed. “She could be a bit…”

“Sharp?”

“I was going to say psychotic. At first.”

“She was getting beyond that anger she had — rather than just thinking she was hiding it from me. I’m sure of it.”

“Anyway…” Valerie prodded.

“Anyway. It was a lovely evening. All three of them were gorgeous and impeccable of course, but Eugenia was the belle of the ball. There was no question of it. She was so beautiful, and I made her leave that damned sketchbook of hers behind for once so she couldn’t hide behind that all evening. All the young men wanted to dance with her, but she wouldn’t, unless I was there, or Charlene, to look after Julia. Even then she would always come straight back and they’d go off into a huddle like any pair of schoolgirls might. You say Eugene Wallace went to the camp in your place?” Jane asked suddenly, distracted.

“Gene, yeah. I only met him that one time, at that ball. That’s when we figured out what had happened.”

“How did he seem to you?”

Valerie shrugged. “Nice enough guy I guess. Bewildered if anything.” She laughed. “A’cours, some of that might have been because I pounced on him at that dance, he was there for good behavior or something, and I made him come over and meet all my girl friends, and Mike, and you come to think of it… and I think you almost threw up when you saw his I.D.”

Jane was silent for a short while. “I suddenly realized I’d lost track of them,” she continued eventually. “I couldn’t find them anywhere. I told myself not to worry, that they had probably just gone to the restroom, but — I don’t know. Something felt wrong. They’d been gone too long. And then — then there was a commotion by the door…” Jane had frozen in that moment of dread. Valerie took her hand up again and squeezed. “The music stopped,” Jane continued haltingly. “Someone was yelling for someone to call the police.” Jane froze again. “I knew,” she whispered at last. “I just knew something terrible had happened. I couldn’t reach them. Everyone was crowding round, I couldn’t reach them.” She swallowed. “Bob and his cadets took charge, until the police arrived. Then I could see them.

“They looked…” Jane’s face was filled with the moment. “They looked like they were just sleeping. They looked so peaceful. Eugenia was on Julia’s shoulder just so, like they were sleeping, as if Julia might wake up any moment and ask what all the fuss was about. But the blood — there was a slick of blood — in the police lights…”

Jane could say no more. She forced herself to take a breath, angrily rubbing at her eyes.

Valerie felt a sudden adrenaline-surge of anger. She bit down on it for Jane’s sake. “Jane,” Valerie said again softly, still holding Jane’s other hand, “who are you being strong for?” Jane blinked at her, uncomprehending. Valerie tried a tack that had worked before. “Jane. There’s no-one else here. No-one else will see you.”

A single tear slipped the blockade, fell down Jane’s cheek. “I am not accustomed to indulge in emotional outbur…” she began, trying to keep her voice straight, but her throat blocked up.

“You’ve been holding this in half a year?” Valerie asked.

“You sound like Dia — Art,” she corrected herself. “He kept saying I had to allow myself to grieve or somesuch nonsense. He didn’t seem to understand. The FBI — the press — the lawsuits…” Jane got out. “I couldn’t let myself go — I had to…”

“He was right though.”

“Oh rubbish, I’ve been grieving for them every single day!”

“No you haven’t,” Valerie insisted. “You haven’t allowed yourself to, have you.”

Jane looked at her long in the silence. “I was not invited to the funerals,” she said quietly. “It was made clear to me my presence would not be welcome.”

“Oh Jane.” Valerie clambered up to sit with her on the chaise-longue. Gently, but firmly, she took the older woman’s shoulders and pulled her into an embrace.

“What are you doing?” Jane protested, but she did not pull away.

“Shh,” Valerie admonished her. “You need to do this.” Jane’s shoulders were so tense, Valerie realized.

“Do what?” Jane demanded. And yet, she did not resist, she did not pull away.

“You’re all…” Val tried to explain with a wringing of her hands, “you’re all knotted up inside. Can’t you feel it?” She squeezed at Jane’s hardened shoulders again to demonstrate. “You have to let go.”

“Let go? Let go of what exactly?” She sounded irritable. “Good Lord, the last thing I need is to hear platitudes from a — a child. What is this modern obsession with emoting all over the place.” Valerie ignored her words and held on. “How can someone forget how to cry?” Jane whispered eventually.

In answer Valerie got up and walked behind the chaise-longue, directing Jane to sit up properly. She began to massage Jane’s neck. “What…?” Jane began, but Valerie shushed her and worked on. “Where did you learn to do this?” Jane asked after a while.

“That’s not important,” Valerie answered, and worked on. Jane was more tense than anyone to whom she had yet given a massage, and she really had to work at it.

“Nnnnghyah!” Jane exclaimed suddenly after a long while, by far the least refined noise Valerie had ever heard her make, just as there was a loud CRACK from the tendon under Valerie’s hand. “Oh God! Are you sure you know what you’re doing?”

“Yes,” Valerie replied. Jane was already sitting straighter, more naturally upright rather than forced ramrod-straightness. Now she rocked gently and easily in time with Valerie’s kneading of her neck and shoulders, and breathed more easily.

“Oh God,” Jane was saying. “I hadn’t realized…”

“Shush.”

“Oh God…” Nearly there, thought Valerie, continuing to work, her hands tiring now, just keeping up the rhythm, to soothe and to relax. Jane sighed deeply and her breath caught. Drawing it out, Valerie thought to herself, Drawing out the poison now.

“Let them go now,” Valerie commanded.

With a final “Oh,” almost as of surprise, the tears came.

***

Valerie held Jane for a long while as the older woman wept at last. Even now, Jane’s tears came with hardly a sound, as if she still feared to be discovered, but her body quaked and shivered with her silent cries, and the flood, once started, would not be stopped. Valerie rocked her gently as she wept, and looked up over Jane’s shoulder at the shadows in the corners of the room. They were, she decided, only shadows.

***

“Why you?” Jane asked suddenly, once she had enough control of her voice to complete a sentence. She did not let go of Valerie. “Why are you the one to reach me? Why not Art? Why not Kenneth, or Darryl or — anyone else? Why not Art?”

Valerie had no answer for her, so just held her.

“It doesn’t make sense,” Jane was continuing. “I wasn’t abandoned here, left to myself, in case you thought otherwise. There was a — a stream of visitors; and I know they came wanting to help, but all I wanted was for them to leave me alone. I wanted that. I wanted to be alone.”

“With them,” Valerie completed. Jane nodded into her shoulder.

“Art could see it of course. He could see what was going on, and so could I. It just — knowing that didn’t seem to make a difference. I couldn’t help it. I couldn’t stop. Art couldn’t reach me. Why couldn’t he reach me? Why could you?”

Valerie shrugged. “Perhaps you just had to be ready,” she hazarded.

Jane sighed deeply. “‘If it be now, ’tis not to come; if it be not to come, it will be now; if it be not now, yet it will come. The readiness is all.’” Finally she extricated herself from Valerie’s embrace and leaned back. She watched Valerie, simply watched her, for a long time, even after Valerie blushed and looked down from that gaze. Yet their hands remained linked. “You knew them,” Jane said softly. “No-one who tried to help me knew them.”

“Didn’t Kenneth come to visit, earlier in the summer?” Valerie wondered. Jane shook her head. “Odd. He did, when I was here.”

“No-one. Except Marie, and she had left already. She went back to her family in France. There was no-one else to remember them as I did.”

I never knew Ge — Eugenia,” Valerie replied. “And I don't know how different the others would have been.”

“It’s enough.” Jane sighed. “You know, you look a little like her.”

“Who? Eugenia?”

Jane nodded. “Just a little.”

“Enough to pick me out on a railway station?” Valerie grinned.

***

“You must go back,” Jane said quietly.

“What?”

“It sounds to me like your counterpart needs your help. You must go back and help.”

Valerie looked at her, desperately. “I can’t go back there, Jane! What if I’m seen by someone I know?”

“Valerie,” Jane put an edge into her voice. “I chose to take your story at face value, and I have never seen you before today. Do you not think your friends would do the same? They will know you; they would have to accept you.”

“You don’t read much science fiction, do you?” Valerie asked rhetorically.

“What does…”

“All kinds of possible repercussions, depending on which model, or models, of the multiverse is-are correct, and I don’t want to be experimenting on my own existence!”

Jane thought for several moments, then said, “Well, you met me; did that seem to do anything?”

“I really don’t want to freak them out. I think it’s best that I just get clear of there.”

“Valerie,” Jane repeated. “Taking your story at face value — have you considered it possible that your presence here is not an accident?”

“Whaddya mean?”

“I beg your pardon? Where did you learn to speak like that?”

“Ol’ Brooklyn,” Valerie snapped back in a perfect accent, and grinned. “I’m sorry Jane,” she then relented, “could you please elucidate?” she asked as sweetly as she could, proud of herself for managing to pronounce the word after so much wine. It had taken some effort of concentration.

“Hmm.” Jane’s approval was grudging. “What I mean is that perhaps you did not merely slip between dimensions at random. Perhaps you were brought. For a purpose.”

Valerie frowned at that. “You mean someone or something’s fu — messing with me.”

“It also holds out the possibility that if you fulfil that purpose, you may be sent home.”

“And you think helping my — the other me is it?”

“It’s a place to start.”

Valerie sighed, exasperated. “You don’t think that if I was brought here, that they’d have left some kind of message to tell me what I was supposed to do? I don’t like this,” she complained. “I don’t like being treated like some kind of-of-of meat puppet or something. I have my own life!”

“Not a puppet,” Jane replied. “Not controlled. Maybe — maybe set at a crossroads and unleashed. A roll of the dice.”

“I don’t understand.”

“Well, perhaps that’s for the best,” Jane grinned. Valerie scowled at her in return. “Go back,” Jane instructed her. “Your counterpart needs you, just as I needed you.”

“And if I do, and supposing I can be of any use, and I’m still stuck here?”

“You worry about that then, but if it’ll help you worry less, you’ll always be welcome to come back here afterwards. You will always have a home here.”

“Here?”

“If your story is true,” Jane replied, “and I do not find myself doubting it any more, then you are homeless, are you not?” Valerie nodded. She hadn’t seen it that way before. “Worse than that,” Jane continued, “you lack any valid identification, or official identity of any kind, am I correct?” Valerie could only nod again. “I may be able to do something about that as well. I’m owed a few favors,” she added darkly.

“Jane, you don’t have to do this!” Valerie protested.

“I want to,” Jane responded. “It feels right. It’s quite possibly the first time I’ve felt right about something for months.” She reached out and took up Valerie’s hand again. “I know you think yourself all grown up, dear, but you are still a child really. It’s not fair for you to be alone in the world.”

“Life isn’t fair, Jane. I could manage.”

“I’m sure you could, but you shouldn’t have to. Sometimes we get a chance to make life a little fairer, don’t we? I could probably arrange to formally adopt you. You’d have security then.”

“Jane…” Valerie was almost rendered speechless. It was a huge offer Jane was making. “Look, it’s way late,” Valerie observed. “I don’t think either of us are thinking straight any more. I’m really tired, and you must be too. It’s not like you to be so rash, Jane.”

Jane gave her a ‘don’t you dare patronize me’ look, but Valerie did not back down. “Yes,” Jane admitted eventually, “I suppose I am being rash.”

“I mean, you really don’t know me very well,” Valerie continued. “I mean, this is me on best behavior, right? This is me-the-Thompson-Academy-graduate. There’s no way I’d be able to keep this up if it was for good. Even if I wanted to.” She grinned, just wide and wild enough to make Jane flinch. “I’m loud, I’m geeky, I make strange friends you probably wouldn’t approve of, we get up to stuff you’re gonna approve of even less, I spend way too much time with my head inside a computer — sometimes literally,” and sometimes not one that entirely belongs to me, she admitted privately, “or up to my shoulders in bike parts and motor oil.” Jane shrugged. “Look, when I was here in the summer, it was a battle of wills between us almost the whole time.”

“But you benefited by it, did you not?” Jane countered. “You grew by it?”

“Yeah, I also knew I was getting out, and all I had to do was hang in there and I’d be getting a laptop out of it.”

“I wouldn’t expect you to behave like one of my students,” Jane protested.

“Ah, but could you help it?” Valerie grinned. “Especially when you start up the Academy again, wherever you do that.”

“I have no such plans.”

Valerie looked at her. “You will,” she said simply, and grinned again.

Notes:

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To Be Continued...



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