Tuck Squared - part 6

"That's not a foregone conclusion."
Tuck
SQUARED
Chapter 6

by Rachel Greenham


 
Chapter 6

***

“Mike,” Sarah was saying, “does your mother know you’ve got your ears pierced?”

“Um, not yet Miz Tucker,” Mike had wondered how long it would take her to notice. Not long at all, as it turned out. He’d only got as far as saying they’d already eaten and Tuck wouldn’t need dinner, before she committed to cooking too much.

“She’s not going to be happy — Eugene!” she exclaimed, interrupting herself. “Eugene’s got them done too. Hasn’t he.”

Mike could only nod.

“What on Earth were you thinking? You two haven’t joined a gang or something have you?”

Mike could laugh at that. “No, Miz Tucker. Nothing like that. It — you had to be there. It was just the right moment. It was done at a proper place,” he added hurriedly. “Sterile equipment and all that.”

“Yes, well, that would be just like you two.” Mike wasn’t sure if that was a compliment, but he thought so, so he grinned. “I don’t know what Bill’s going to say when he sees this.”

“Miz Tucker,” Mike took a breath. “Tuck — Eugene has something to tell you and Mister Tucker tonight. If I can make a suggestion? Pierced ears aren’t real important right now.”

She looked at him for a long time. “Are you two lovers?” she asked suddenly. Mike was so taken aback by the question he didn’t have anything to say. “Because if so,” she was continuing quickly, “we just want you to know it’s okay.”

Mike gulped. “It is?” was all he managed. Tuck’s Mom was nodding.

“We’ve already talked about the possibility. We’ve seen how close you two have always been, and it’s only natural for children your age to want to experiment, and even if it’s more than that, I can think of no-one else I’d rather trust my son with.”

Mike was simply flabbergasted. He actually sat down heavily on one of the kitchen chairs while he tried to process this new information. His brain was so fully occupied on a rapid reappraisal of Tuck’s parents that he almost forgot to deny it.

He remembered eventually.

“We’re not lovers, Miz Tucker. It’s not that, I promise you.” How many other people think this? He wondered suddenly, then discarded it as an irrelevancy until later. “I’m not even gay,” he added. Too late he realized from her expression that he’d just given away more than he’d intended. “Um, I mean…” What’s gay and what’s straight where Tuck’s concerned anyway? That was another thing to think about later, he told himself firmly.

Stop digging, Mike, he almost fancied he heard Tuck’s voice in his head. Please?

The shower started upstairs.

“Um, look,” he tried, seeing the look on her face, “He’s got a lot of things going on at the moment, you know? I don’t know how much he’s going to tell you tonight. Some of it at least, but I don’t know how much. Just — don’t push him, okay? He’s got to get it straight in his own head first. Please, give him time?” He was babbling again, he realized.

“Mike,” she replied gently, sitting down at the table too. “What do you think we’ve been doing all this time?” Mike found himself sighing suddenly with released tension. “I’m sorry I jumped to conclusions though,” she added, smiling. Mike could see how forced it was though. The look in her eyes was of months and months of worrying, and never letting it show when Tuck was around. “I just wish he’d tell us,” she said suddenly. “It really doesn’t matter what it is, it’ll just be such a relief to know.”

Mike nodded. “I’m sorry Miz Tucker.” He imagined what it must be costing her to sit there and not be wringing the answers out of him by main force. “Look, if it helps,” he tried, “he’s surrounded by good good friends, and he’s not being stupid. He knows how to take care of himself and stay safe.” He hoped she got the implication without him having to be more specific about that.

She just sighed. “I’ll go get Bill.” She got up and left the kitchen.

***

Tuck came down the stairs feeling much better. Still nervous as hell, but — better. The shower had helped too. Brian was alone in the living room watching TV, so he tried the kitchen.

Mom and Dad were both in there already, seated at the table; as was Mike. What’s been going on already? He wondered. Mike stood, and they locked eyes for a moment. “Told you they were a conversation-opener,” Mike said flippantly, indicating the studs in his ears.

“Eugene?” Mom queried. “Mike says you have something to tell us.” She indicated the chair Mike had just vacated. Tuck’s mouth went dry, so he went to the fridge first, came back with a cola and sat down. Mike, he noted, took up a position standing behind his right side. Hmm.

He opened the coke and took a short drink. “Okay,” he croaked. Coke perhaps hadn’t been the best choice. Deep breath. He pushed his damp hair back behind his ears, felt the thickness of the braid as he did so. “I want to stop taking those shots.” Best to get it out, simply. It didn’t seem to be what they were expecting. “I think they’re bad for me and I want to stop taking them.” He watched them.

“Are you sure?” Dad said. “I mean, the doctors said you needed some surgery as well before…”

“I don’t think the doctors know what’s best for me Dad.”

“Eugene…” Dad was interrupted by Mom putting her hand on his. Tuck continued.

“The shots — the shots make me feel like crap, okay? They mess with my head. That’s what hormones do, right? Only…” he fought for the words. “It’s not right. They just made me feel bad all the time. And I keep exploding at people. Have you noticed by the way how none of my other friends still come around? Just Mike? And I nearly lost him too, in case you missed what happened on Sunday.”

“They did say,” Dad persisted, “that things wouldn’t settle down until you had that operation they’ve been talking about. Your body’s getting mixed messages at the moment. What if we move that forwards, eh? Get that done as soon as possible?”

Tuck shook his head. “No, Dad. Look, I’m not asking, I’m telling. I’m not taking the shots any more.”

“I don’t think you’re being rational…”

“And you’re not LISTENING!” Tuck slammed the table as he shouted the final word. All the tension was back again in a moment. He was shaking, badly, but Mike’s hand on his shoulder was a hugely calming influence. He sat back, leaning slightly against Mike, and tried to still the shaking of his hands. That horrible post-rage feeling just overpowered him for a few moments. “You see?” he said eventually, his voice still trembling. “I’ve got to get this poison out of my body. Please don’t fight me on this.”

The kitchen door opened. Brian. “What’s going on?” he demanded. Tuck just put his head in his hands. Can this get any worse?

“Brian we’re having a private conversation,” Dad warned him. Brian just swore and stomped out of the room, slamming the door behind him. A few moments later they heard him stomping up the stairs and another loud slam. “I’ll talk to him later,” Dad muttered.

“Dad,” Tuck interrupted. “Don’t — don’t take it out on him.”

Dad thought about it, and nodded.

“Listen,” Tuck pleaded. “I was all right before, you know? I wasn’t ill or anything. I wasn’t hurting. Now I am. And I’m hurting my friends too. Look, I mean, if you do something and it hurts, you stop, right? You don’t do it more.”

“Yes, but Eugene,” Mom argued, “we always knew this was going to be a process, didn’t we? If you want to grow up normally as a young man then…”

“Mom! That’s not…” Tuck interrupted, and immediately stopped himself. I didn’t mean to say that.

“That’s not what, Eugene?”

Tuck ran his fingers through his hair and looked away, unhappy. Can I stop digging now? Or do I just carry on until I come out the other side of the world?

“Eugene?”

Starting tears stung his eyes closed. When he spoke, it was almost a whisper. “That’s not a foregone conclusion.”

***

Valerie had found the piano room in Sabrina’s house right where she’d left it, so the party was starting there, and some of the big cushions from the party room had already been brought down. “I never even knew this was here!” Kathy had complained when she arrived.

“My shame,” Sabrina replied. “My parents got it when I was sure I wanted to be a concert pianist.”

“What happened?”

Sabrina shrugged. “Got as good as I was going to get. And before you ask, no. I haven’t played for years. I’d be as rusty as hell.”

“Still better than me,” Valerie added from the piano, grinning.

“How would you…” Sabrina stopped. “This is gonna get so weird,” she finished.

“You mean it’s not weird yet?” Valerie asked in mock-horror. “I don’t think I can handle weird.”

Still, Valerie mused, she is better than me. Valerie had, after all, only been playing a year, and first started proper lessons a lot more recently than that. She only knew a few pieces and then had to raid the printed music collection Sabrina’s folks had for something easy enough for her to sight-read, or anything familiar.

“So what other dark secrets about us do you know?” Pam had asked. Valerie shrugged.

“I don’t know. I don’t know what you know already.”

The doorbell rang again. As everyone else had already arrived it had to be Val, so she got up and followed Sabrina to the door.

“Oh my God what happened to you?” Sabrina gasped, making Valerie hurry to catch up. Val was practically hanging from Mike’s arm in exhaustion. She looked like she’d done a lot of crying lately. “You look like you’ve been put through the wringer.”

“Hi Sab,” Val waved feebly, and tried to stand unaided. “Hi Val.”

“She has,” Mike answered Sabrina. “So go easy tonight will you?” Mike passed Val across the threshold.

“Don’t worry Mike, we’ll take good care of her.” Val just about fell into Valerie’s arms.

“What happened?” Valerie asked Mike over Val’s shoulder.

“She found herself having to explain more than she’d intended.”

Val chuckled through a sob. “Yeah, you could say that.” Sabrina’s mouth formed a silent ‘Oh’.

“It’s been a really long day,” Mike emphasized to Sabrina. She nodded, understanding.

“Okay Mike. No more excitement. I promise.”

“Oh, Mike, the bags,” Val said suddenly, twisting in Valerie’s embrace. Mike grinned and passed over two identical-looking backpacks, except one looked rather more road-worn. “I guess that one’s yours,” Val said, passing it over to Valerie, “but I packed stuff for both of us in mine anyway.”

“Okay then,” Mike said and turned to go.

“Mike!” Val cried out then and tottered back into Mike’s arms. “Thank you Mike. If you hadn’t been there…”

“I know.” Mike returned the hug. “I’ll see you tomorrow, okay?” Val stood up straighter and nodded. “We’ll do something gentle and sane, right?”

Val giggled. “What’s that?”

“Come on then, we’re cooling Sab’s house down.” Val stood free and smiled and waved as Mike went back to his car.

“You take Val up to the party room,” Sabrina told Valerie. “I’ll go tell the others the party’s moving.”

Valerie nodded and started shepherding her counterpart up the stairs.

***

Val was in a warm fuzzy place. She was curled up on the sofa in the crook of Valerie’s arm, having already changed, with Valerie’s help, into her big full-length nightgown before any of the others had made their way upstairs. She’d brought it because it was big and comforting and not least because it hid her scarred legs. She didn’t want that conversation tonight. Sabrina, having led the rest of the party upstairs, had gone to pull a quilt off a bed and put that over Val, so she wouldn’t catch a chill, she said, and made it clear that it was definitely okay if she wanted to drop off and have a snooze.

Val didn’t actually feel in any danger of falling asleep, but she was happy to lie in Valerie’s embrace and let the conversation wash around her. They weren’t pressing her to tell them what had happened, even though she knew they must be dying to know, and for that she was immensely grateful. Instead they just carried on as normal, which was nice, and let Val catch up on a lot of their goings-on in the last few weeks when she hadn’t seen them much. Sabrina already had some new clothes out, but thankfully Val’s modelling services weren’t required this time. It was nice to not be the centre of attention for once, like a mascot, but just to be there. Included again.

She’d missed this.

Even so, it was strange to see Debbie among them. The last time they’d been at a sleepover together they had been exactly that: Together. Val would have been cuddled up against her, rather than across the room. She seemed relaxed enough though, now happily sparring with Sabrina on some point of fashion.

Besides, Valerie seemed to be substituting for her in the conversation well enough. It was a bit strange at first, to be thinking up responses, but just feeling too whacked out to say anything, when Valerie would say the exact same thing from just behind her anyway. That was fine. That meant she didn’t have to feel guilty for not joining in much.

“Omigod!” Sabrina suddenly exclaimed. “Val, I just realized, you didn’t change to come here, did you?”

“Oh God, I’m sorry Sab, I forgot…”

“No no no, look, I mean, if it took me — me — this long to realize, it’s obviously not an issue, right?”

Val shrugged. “Guess so.” When she’d come out of the shower she’d just thrown on the second new pair of cargo pants she’d bought and an old T-shirt, and only added a baggy old sweater before leaving.

“Well, yeah, I mean, I just opened the door and there was Mike and Val, and that was all there was to it, and I’ve only just realized you hadn’t dressed specifically as Val.”

“Muad-Dib no longer needs the weirding module,” Valerie added unhelpfully. Val poked her, grinning.

“What?” asked Kim.

“Sci-fi joke,” Val replied. “Ignore it. And you,” she jabbed at Valerie again, “should be ashamed, bringing up that travesty of a film in polite company!”

“I know,” Valerie put on a hangdog air, “I feel so soiled. I couldn’t help myself.”

It seemed to wake Jill up though. She had been sitting on a cushion on the floor in front of Val, leaning against the sofa and the quilt, but she twisted round now. “That reminds me, Valerie,” she was asking, “is it true that all the women in the mirror universe are lesbians?”

Valerie grinned, and caught Debbie’s eye. “Yeah, pretty much,” she said, directly to Debbie.

Debbie blushed, right to her ears, and there were three or four gasps of astonishment around the room as the remaining people who hadn’t already figured the situation out, did so.

“I should watch it Debs, or you’ll be ravished in your sleep,” Jill leered at Debbie.

“Ah sadly no,” Valerie interposed, still with that grin that said she was teasing. “Sleepover rules apply: No fanny business.”

That set everyone off laughing. Even Debbie.

***

“No, actually, I guess they were pretty cool about it,” Val was saying. “It’s just — I wasn’t meaning to go that far, you know? I just wanted to tell them about stopping the shots.”

“What happened?” Valerie asked. The Pack had closed around, so most of them were close enough to touch Val in reassurance. The quilt had been mostly pushed aside as the room had warmed up, and Val had moved to the floor cushion, Kathy’s idea, to bring her more into the center, leaning back between Valerie’s legs while Valerie unravelled her braid and brushed out her hair.

“Like Kathy said, they wanted to know why. Giving up that treatment basically means goodbye to any hope of ever being like a real man.” Valerie gave her an extra squeeze. “Before I knew it I’d said something that had to be backed up?” People nodded.

“The operable word is ‘like,’” Debbie added unexpectedly. Val nodded.

“Yeah. I just felt like a fraud. The more I tried, the worse it got and the more people didn’t seem to like me.”

“Don’t you ever worry that you do things too much because you want people to like you?” Valerie asked. “That that’s why you were being torn two ways all the time?”

Val thought about that. “Well, yeah, that too, but that’s not what I meant. I mean — people can tell if you’re faking, you know? And they don’t like it.” More nods.

“You know what that tells you about all the time you’ve spent as Val?” Kathy prodded.

“That I wasn’t faking? Yeah, Kath, I’d figured that one out,” Val gave a rueful grin. “Oh sure, there were details I had to learn; how to walk, how to talk…”

“How to shop,” added Jill playfully. Val reached over quickly and mussed her hair up. “Hey! I’m just jealous, okay?”

“But that’s all details. That’s just ’cause I didn’t get to learn that stuff growing up.”

“It wasn’t hiding the real me, it was letting me out,” Valerie added.

“Yeah. Sort of. Even though I was scared rigid half the time.”

“So you told your folks everything?” Kim asked. Val shook her head.

“Haven’t told them about Val. Have most definitely not told them about Travis.” Val sighed, foreseeing more difficult conversations in the future. “They just know that being a girl is something — something I’m thinking about. I thought that was enough to be getting on with,” she added. Everyone was nodding again.

“They’re going to be able to tell you’ve done it before,” Valerie warned. “It’s harder than you’d think to pretend you don’t know how to walk in heels, trust me on this.”

“Dad was of the opinion I was just scared of the operation they wanted me to have. I mean I was, but it’s more than that. It’s like Val said before. Who’s to say my body’s not fine as it is? I mean it’s my body and it may not be normal, but what’s actually so wrong with it that makes all these doctors want to swarm over me and put it right when I’m not actually ill?”

“You think you might leave things as they are then?” Debbie asked.

Val nodded. “We agreed that I could be left alone as long as that’s what I wanted, unless there’s a clear medical need. That could yet happen; something could still come out of this that needs to be dealt with one way or another. But that’s fair enough, you know? It’s just that as long as I’m healthy it’s none of their damn business, frankly.”

“It’s funny,” Kim was saying. “I kind of assumed you’d want to, you know, go all the way eventually… What about you Valerie?”

Valerie stirred, pausing in the middle of doing Val’s hair up in a French plait. “One thing about telling people you want to be the opposite sex to the one on your birth certificate,” she phrased carefully, “is that suddenly instead of ‘quick, we gotta fix this now’ you get ‘ooh, are you really sure? Let’s take our time about this. You’ve got to live for a year in role and see a psychiatrist regularly and we can’t do this or that ’cause you’re a minor’ and so on and so forth which actually suits me fine, ’cause it gets ’em off my back for a year at least.” She grinned. “So no, I’m okay as I am.”

“You don’t mind being — well — in-between?”

Val shrugged. Valerie shook her head more confidently.

“No,” she said. “It’s fine, really. The only problem is other people, you know?” She resumed plaiting Val’s hair. “My brain’s kind of in-betweeny too, I guess, so I don’t feel bad in myself. It’s just what I was meant to be I guess.” She grinned. “Mah woman like me jus’ de way I is an’ dat’s good’nuff for me. Now Val here has a boyfriend who’s straighter than a laser beam, last I heard anyway, so she might have other considerations to think about.”

Val groaned. “At least I don’t have to tell him it’s me-as-a-guy or not at all. I was dreading that.”

“I don’t know,” Valerie continued, “I might change my mind later. After all, I’m reliably informed having a vagina is nice,” she added mischievously.

“Yeah, they have their moments,” Jill replied. Everyone laughed.

“High maintenance,” someone else muttered.

“It’s just — it’s not without risks, you know? The least of them being, will I have any feeling down there? It’s not minor surgery; there’s gotta be a hundred things that could go wrong. I mean — why take a risk like that, if I’m not being utterly driven to it?”

“But you may change your mind?” Val asked, twisting around to look at her.

Valerie shrugged. “It’s possible. I may have been a little quicker off the starting line than you, Val, but I’m not done figuring myself out yet either. Eyes front, let me just finish this off…”

***

“Oh Val,” Kim said suddenly, “now you’re back to stay I presume?” Val nodded, “Miz Parker has been on at me practically every week asking when you might be well enough to do more sitting for them.” Val raised an eyebrow.

“‘Well enough?’ What did you tell them when I stopped? Not what I asked you to tell them obviously.”

“No, Val, not what you asked me to tell them.”

“Thanks Kim.” Val grinned.

“As far as they’re concerned you just had an illness of a sensitive nature, you know? To stop them asking questions. I was going to say you’d had to go away, but Deb reminded me that Miz Parker knows Travis, so I just kept it simple and vague. Anyway, if you want it, it’s there. I’m managing okay, but the kids still really miss you, and I think they all miss your cooking.” There was laughter all round.

“So do we!” Sabrina added, to heartfelt agreement.

“So do you want it back?”

“Oh God, Kim, Yes!” Val didn’t even have to think about it. Besides, she was broke, especially after the visit to the mall. Valerie knew just how to appeal to her base consumerist side, naturally. It was either this or back to the helldesk in the new year. Or more likely over the Christmas week as it would pay better. “Oh but not if it does you out of a job…”

“I’m okay, Val. It’s you they really want anyway, and there’s other stuff I could be doing. Right Deb?”

Debbie nodded. “D & E can always use more capacity,” she smiled. “In fact, for one, I could use you to organize all the babysitting from now on. There’s getting to be too many things to juggle for me.”

“Never! That’s not possible!” Kathy teased.

“Yes, Kathy, even I am mortal. Kim’s doing a lot of it already. May as well make it formal, then I don’t have to feel guilty about it,” Debbie shrugged, grinning.

“What about you, Valerie?” Kim asked.

“No offence, but I’m still hoping I’m not going to be around that long,” Valerie answered.

“But you should plan in case you are?”

Valerie shrugged. “I have some plans anyway. But if they fall through - could you use a despatch rider? Got my own bike…”

“You’ve got a bike?” Jill came to life. “When did you get a bike?”

“Same day you got yours, Jill,” Valerie grinned. “D & E Express Delivery. How d’you think we could afford the payments?”

“I can’t. ’S why I haven’t got mine yet. That’s so cool!”

And, my bike followed me here,” she sang, “’cause she loves me so much.”

“Cooler! Where is it?”

“Parked round my — Val’s house.”

“Oh you have to take me on it!”

“Fine, but we go get you some gear first. None of my friends are getting on a bike without a helmet at least.”

“Debs?” Kim was saying, waving a hand in front of her face. No response. “Debbie?”

“Shush, Kim,” Val told her, grinning. “She’s thinking.”

***

“Val?”

“Mmm?”

“You awake?”

“Yeah. Am now.”

“Sorry.”

“It’s alright.”

“Anyone else awake?”

“…”

“Don’t think so. Or they’re pretending.”

“Are we cool now? It seemed like it today.”

“Yeah, I think so. I think we’re cool now.”

“I’m glad.”

“Me too.”

“Val?”

“Mmm?”

“I’m sorry.”

“Yeah, I’m sorry too.”

“I shouldn’t have left you there like that.”

“…”

“Val? You okay?”

“Yeah.”

“I didn’t mean to remind you like that. I just — I just needed to say that.”

“No, it’s okay.”

“We really fucked up good, didn’t we?”

“Yeah.”

“I’ve been trying to get my head sorted too.”

“Careful, you’ll lose all that business acumen.”

“I’d choose not hurting people any day.”

“I know.”

“Wanted you to know, that’s all. I’m getting help. I’m trying to get straightened out.”

“Hear you.”

“You really like Travis, don’t you?”

“Yeah. Oh I’m sorry, I know you…”

“Hey, not as if I didn’t practically throw you into his arms.”

“You’re okay with that then?”

“Yeah. Am now. Or anyway it’s none of my damn business. Besides, given the facts, thinking of you as another guy who went gay on me is kind of stupid anyway, don’t you think?”

“Guess so.”

“I mean, what counts as gay or straight with you these days anyway?”

“Buggered if I know, Debs.”

“…”

“I didn’t mean it like that!”

“I know.”

“What was this huge debt Lisa owed him anyway?”

“I don’t know.”

“You don’t think she invented it, do you?”

“…”

“Debbie?”

“Oh God, Val, I never thought of that.”

“Just ’cause I said it doesn’t make it true. I was just wondering.”

“Did Travis say that?”

“We didn’t talk about it.”

“Oh God.”

“I’m sorry. Look, I never said it, okay? It was just a wild thought I had a long time ago. It’s not like it matters any more.”

“Of course it matters.”

“No, it doesn’t, Debbie. Sure, if that had been why we split up it would have mattered. But it wasn’t. And the three of us — you know, even if that was her original plan, I reckon she got over it, don’t you?”

“I guess so.”

“It’s not important.”

“D’you think Valerie and her Debbie are still with their Lisa?”

“I’ve no idea.”

“Just, I’ve never heard her mention Lisa.”

“No, me neither. You’d have to ask her.”

“Hmm. Don’t you think that might seem a little forward?”

“Huh?”

“What do you think of her?”

“Me? I think she’s wonderful.”

“Yeah?”

“Yeah. Like having a much cooler twin sister, I guess.”

“Yeah, I can see that. You’re pretty cool yourself, you know.”

“Am I? I thought I was just a fruitloop.”

“That too. Hey, we wouldn’t fit in with this crowd any other way.”

“Guess not.”

“She’s quite a lot unlike you though, isn’t she? I mean — sometimes she says something or does something and it’s just so you I have to double-take to be sure which one of you it was, but then she’ll do something else and I’m, like, ‘where did that come from?’”

“You noticed it too?”

“She certainly has a way about her.”

“You saying I don’t?”

“You have a different way.”

“You’re digging yourself deeper…”

“No, I think she’s got more confidence, you know? In who she is and all?”

“Yeah, know what you mean.”

“Dunno about you but I find that really sexy.”

“Debbie!”

“Okay it may not be that, but whatever it is, she’s turning me on Val! What am I supposed to do?”

“You’re asking me?”

“What, do you fancy her too?”

“Debbie, she’s my sister!”

“No she isn’t.”

“No, she’s way closer than that.”

“Siamese twins separated at birth?”

“Not at birth. Just a few months ago. Besides, it is sort of like having Amy or Susan around. Only not, at the same time, you know?”

“Guess so.”

“She’s not in that space, Debs.”

“You’re not even curious?”

“Sure I’m curious, she’s sex on a bike, how could I not be curious? We’re just not going there, okay?”

“Okay.”

“Am I sexy like that?”

“Mmmm. Sometimes. When you get this thing going, you know?”

“No, I don’t.”

“Nor do I!”

“Some help you are.”

“Mmmm. Nice to think…”

“Mmm?”

“Somewhere out there. We made it.”

“Yeah.”

“She’ll be missing her.”

“Who?”

“Me. The other me. Will be missing Valerie.”

“A lot of people will.”

“I know how it feels. I wouldn’t wish it on anyone. Is it bad to want her to stay?”

“Oh God I hope not. But we don’t have any idea how this happened. Who’s to say wishing doesn’t play a part?”

“You think that’s possible?”

“If this is possible, anything’s possible.”

“I don’t think wishing is it. If it was, she’d be home already. Their wishing for her to come home is going to be way stronger than ours for her to stay.”

“Suppose so.”

“I guarantee it. If only — I wish we could send a message or something. To tell them she’s okay at least.”

“Yeah.”

“Somehow so they’d believe it. Or at least not hurt any more.”

***

Valerie clicked the heels of the rented red rollerblade boots three times. “There’s no place like home. There’s no place like home. There’s no place like home.”

She opened her eyes, looked at the puzzled faces of the Pack, who’d stopped in the middle of lacing up their own boots and shrugged. “Hey, it was worth a shot.” She put the rented helmet on, adjusted the chinstrap and accelerated away into the rink to do her own warm-up.

“Is there anything she can’t do?” Val moaned. She reckoned her laces were tight enough now.

“Feeling inadequate?” Kathy asked.

“Just wondering what I’ve been doing the last eight months is all.”

“Babysitting,” muttered Kim.

“Huh.”

“I’d have her on ice,” Pam remarked. “Told you we should have gone to the waterpark.”

“Nah, she can do ice too. Besides, don’t like the idea of losing fingers today.”

“Look at her go…”

They watched for a moment. Valerie could certainly move. She looked the part too, Val thought, in her new red skirt, black woolen tights and black form-fitting top she’d bought the previous day, and her hair, longer than Val’s, tied back into a simple ponytail with a red scrunchie. Red-black-red-black, Val mused, wondering what it was reminding her of.

Sabrina’s phone snapped shut. “Okay, Mike’s on his way.”

“Cool, thanks Sab.” Val secured the lightweight helmet and carefully got to her feet, keeping a grip on the handrail. “Come on people, let’s make ourselves look like idiots in the name of interdimensional relations.”

She watched Valerie unwind out of a pirouette in a wide arc around half the rink. I saw that in a dream, she realized suddenly, with a chill of déjá  vu, like something awful was going to happen. The jester-girl. How did I know she skated? Val was frozen for a moment, causing Debbie, who’d got up next, to bump into her on the railing. Val nearly lost her footing, but it pushed the moment away. She must have told me at the diner, she rationalized, as she recovered her wits. Besides, Valerie was coming over fast, a big grin on her face.

***

Val had a sore butt, but she was grinning like a mad thing. This was fun! After three quarters of an hour she wasn’t embarrassing herself too much on wheels either. She could start, and stop, and keep going, and even turn corners (carefully). It was hard work though. She reckoned she’d figured out where Valerie’s extra muscle tone had come from. Been spending too much time in front of computers lately, she chided herself, and watched as Debbie careened out of control straight into Valerie’s arms, again.

“She has to be doing that deliberately,” Pam commented dryly as she spun to a stop by Val. Pam had only crashed out a couple of times; after a few minutes of wobbling she’d adapted to wheels, more or less.

“You think?” Val replied, dripping sarcasm all down her front. She grinned to make it clear she was okay with it. “Valerie’s a big girl, she can defend herself.”

They watched as Valerie set Debbie back on her wheels, but kept hold of Debbie’s left hand, raised it, and with a sort of curtseyed bow, bent to kiss it, then effortlessly reversed away.

“Assuming she wants to,” Pam added. Val’s eyebrows were trying to reach her hairline.

***

Val felt much more confident with Valerie holding her hand as they skated in a pair. She was able to fall into the same rhythm, as if it was being imparted via their linked hands.

“So you like it?”

“Oh yeah! I can’t believe how good you are at this.”

“Well, I’m more into Street, but it’s nice to do the pretty stuff sometimes,” she grinned. “Besides, I wouldn’t trust rented boots on the extreme moves anyway. Aren’t you glad I made you wear those pads?”

“Hey, I wasn’t arguing! I wore pads on the summer hike this year. Was such a success Dad agrees they’re standard equipment now.”

“Cool!”

“No more shredded knees.”

“Amen to that. I was having something of a crisis at the time, so didn’t think of that.”

“No more emotional crises either!

“Second that motion!”

“Talking of which,” Val continued, “You sure you know what you’re doing? With Debbie that is?”

Valerie paused before answering, covered by them turning the corner, which Val still had to think about. Then they were heading back towards the preparation area. Val saw Mike there, waving, presumably having just arrived. She waved back momentarily, then flailed slightly to regain her balance.

“No, not really,” Valerie admitted finally. “Just trying to keep it light and casual, you know? A bit of flirting never hurt anyone.”

Val nodded, not that Valerie could see that as they skated.

“You don’t have a problem with it, do you?” Valerie asked back.

“No. No, I don’t. We seem to be friends now, which is bizarre. We were never just friends before, you know?” Valerie nodded. “I just don’t want you to be hurt, that’s all. Either of you.”

“You sound like Mom,” Valerie teased. There wasn’t time for a riposte, as they closed with the barrier where Mike was standing. Jill, Debbie and Kathy had already congregated there; the others were still doing circuits or something.

“Mike Mikey Mike!” Val called, bumping into the barrier. “Look! I can nearly skate!”

***

Debbie had to leave anyway to do some consults. Some things never change, Val thought, but at least reckoned she and Valerie were probably safe from each other’s predations for the afternoon. Jill had resumed begging Valerie for a ride on her bike, and Kim had some sitting to do. So the sleepover party was ending properly at last. They had gathered around Mike’s car to take their leave.

The sun came out.

“Oh Valerie,” Debbie gasped, “look at your hair!”

“Debbie will you stop flirting for one minute,” Kathy griped. Valerie grinned.

“I’m not. Look!” She turned Valerie around so they could see. “This is dyed black isn’t it Valerie?” she asked for confirmation.

“Yeah, of course.”

Jill shook her head. “Doesn’t look dyed.”

Everyone crowded around. Jill used the back of her hand to lift Valerie’s hair slightly so the low-angled light from the sun could catch it better.

“Oh but that’s beautiful,” Pam breathed. Someone else whistled a long, descending note. Mike. Naturally. No-one hit him.

“What kinda hair dye do you have in your world anyway?” Sabrina asked.

“Whaddya mean? Just regular dye.”

Debbie dove into her purse and produced a mirror. Valerie took it wordlessly, swished her hair around in front of her shoulder, shampoo-commercial-style, and tried to angle herself to catch the light in the mirror.

“Wow!” Presumably she found the angle.

“It didn’t do that before?” Mike queried.

“No, it didn’t.”

“Think it means something?” Val asked.

Mike shrugged. The sun went in, and Valerie’s black hair was merely black again.

***

The bike, and Valerie’s bike gear, had to be picked up from the house, so Valerie and Jill piled into the back seat. “You’re still not getting on her without some gear,” Valerie said sternly. “Mike, can we stop off on the way back?”

“Sure. Where?”

“Bike shop. I’ll direct.”

The car roared into life. “Val,” Mike asked, “d’you need to change before you get home?”

Val groaned.

“Getting old, isn’t it,” Valerie commented from the back seat.

Val turned in her seat so the others could see her. “I dunno, do I?”

“Make-up,” Jill suggested. Valerie nodded. “Apart from that you’ll do I reckon.”

Val dug in her purse for wipes. The make-up had been kind of wrecked by skating anyway.

***

It turned out there was no-one home. Mom was working. Dad had logged out some of the camping gear and taken Brian into the wilderness, the email said, giving co-ordinates and planned route. Expected return tomorrow, before 17:00. Val understood the purpose of it without it having to be explained.

Still, that meant for the time being they could relax. Valerie wandered around the house for a while noticing things, then settled on the sofa and played with the cat. “It’s nice not having to be explained to someone,” she said. Jill was itching to go on the bike, which she’d seen briefly outside, with some moral fervor now she had paid out on the gear, but Valerie was having none of it just yet.

Val went to fix lunch, suspecting that to be the real reason. Skating was hunger-forming, she decided.

“Is it safe in here?” Mike asked, poking his head into the kitchen. Val looked at him, then laughed.

“I’m going to teach you to cook, Mike. Not today though, just sit down where you won’t get in the way.” Mike obeyed. “Men who can cook, and who really know their way around a kitchen are sexy, okay?”

“Really?”

Val looked at him again. “Trust me on this. Hmm,” she added, looking at the last of what was available, then went to the kitchen door. “Look you two,” she called to Valerie and Jill, “why don’t you go out and play with that bike for a while after all. Lunch isn’t going to be for about three quarters of an hour anyway.”

Valerie sneezed and got up, displacing the cat to the floor. Jill practically bounced. Valerie sneezed again. “I think I’m allergic to the fuzzball anyway,” she muttered. “Aren’t you?”

“Yeah, I was,” Val replied. “I got some shots. Losing the cat was not an option Brian was willing to discuss in a civilized manner,” she explained, heading back into the kitchen.

“So, can Travis cook?” Mike asked slyly as Val started pulling things out of the fridge.

Val rolled her eyes. “I wish! His idea of getting dinner is to order take-out.”

“Take-out’s good.”

Val flipped him the finger. “Besides, you never know what they put in that stuff.”

“Lotsa lovely additives.”

“You’re hopeless.”

***

Val heard a motorbike approaching. “Good timing,” she remarked, as it pulled up outside and with a last rev-up, went silent. She was just bringing the salad bowl out when the door opened and Jill came in, carrying her new helmet, and wearing a rosy glow on her cheeks and a stupidly big grin.

“Val, you have got to get one of those!”

“I don’t have to do everything she does you know,” Val retorted, a little more tartly than she’d intended. She didn’t add the mere thought of it terrified her.

“Yeah, but this is cool. At least get her to give you a ride on the back.”

Valerie entered. “You want one then?” she asked Jill, as if there was any question. Jill nodded emphatically.

“Come on you two, out of those things. Lunch is ready now.”

“Yes Mom.”

Val threw an oven mitt at her.

Notes:

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To Be Continued...



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