Tuck Squared - part 7

"You'd use inhibition-lowering drugs on your own children?"
Tuck
SQUARED
Chapter 7

by Rachel Greenham


 
Chapter 7

***

The three of them were standing freezing by Val’s car in the parking lot of the mental health clinic. “That’s where your bike was parked?” Mike asked. Valerie nodded. She’d parked the bike as near as she could remember to where it had been on Saturday. “And you were parked here, Val?” Val nodded. “Okay, just go over what happened in detail, Valerie, from the last moment you’re sure you were in your world.”

“When I left Sheila’s office,” Valerie replied. “Sheila — was definitely my Sheila.”

“You sure?”

“Well, she knew me as Valerie.”

Mike nodded. “Okay. So you came out of her office…”

Valerie nodded. “Came down the stairs and out that door.”

They went over to the main doorway to the building. “Okay, both of you go in, and come out again.” Val and Valerie went through the door together. Mike couldn’t see them well, through the reflections in the glass, but a few moments later they both came out again, looking self-conscious. “And you went to your car, Val, and Valerie?”

“I went to my bike.”

“Okay.”

Val went to her car and got in. Valerie walked over to her bike. Mike followed.

“I was about to put my helmet on,” Valerie said, “and I looked in the bike mirror. At myself,” she added, feeling slightly embarrassed.

“Okay then…”

Valerie bent to look in the mirror. “And then I saw Debbie’s old car, in the mirror.”

“Can you see it there now?”

“Yeah. We’re in the right place.”

They waited a few moments, as if something might happen, then walked back over to Val’s car. Val got out as they approached.

“Maybe it’s something to do with timing,” Val wondered.

“My session overran by a couple of minutes,” Valerie suggested. “When I first saw you, it looked like you’d been sitting there a while.” Val nodded.

So they tried it a few more times, with variations each time. Nothing happened. Mike hadn’t really expected it to.

“It could be timing in the sense that it has to be for your normal appointments?” Mike said. “When you’re expected to be here.”

“What if it’s to do with Sheila?” Val asked. “What if she’s behind it somehow?”

“It’s a thought,” Mike answered. “Shall we ask her?”

Valerie grinned at the thought, but Val shook her head. “I asked at reception. The receptionist wanted to know why we were coming in and out all the time. Sheila’s not back until the weekend anyway.”

“Convenient,” Valerie said.

“Probably means nothing, but we can try again on Saturday I guess.”

“If nothing else works by then,” Valerie finished.

***

“What time is it?” Val asked. Mike looked at his watch.

“Coming up to five.”

They’d been hanging out in Mike’s room most of the afternoon. Mike said he’d wanted to look up some picture of something, but he couldn’t remember what, so he spent most the time sat on his bed flipping through books while Val and Valerie chatted, filling in gaps in their diverged history. It had started with Val asking how come Valerie started skating, which led on to Trish and Pauline and the girls, and thence to the “day school” program Jane started. Val reciprocated with details and news, and more details and more news, about Travis, until Valerie begged for mercy, after which Val switched to the Parker kids and insisted on showing Valerie the picture of Stella’s first (all right, second) step. Of course, this had meant admitting she carried that picture with her. Which led on to admitting to the other pictures also in her bag.

“Should head back,” Val said. “With Dad and Brian away, I think Mom’ll want me home.” Mike nodded.

“What about me?” Valerie asked.

“Stay here tonight?” Mike suggested.

“What would your folks say?” Mike looked doubtful. “Being homeless sucks,” Valerie finished, feeling depressed again. “I should get a room.”

Val reached and clasped Valerie’s hand, and Mike’s, on her other side. Mike in turn took Valerie’s other hand. They were in their place; all three of them, and this time it was Val, supporting and enfolding them all in uncomplicated, inarticulate love.

***

They lay on the floor, heads together, like a three-pointed star.

“When would you give up though?” Val was saying. “I mean, maybe you’ll go back, but maybe it’ll be years from now. When do you say, okay, I need to make a life here?”

“And if I do, and I get too close to people here and I get taken away again?”

“It’d be even worse if you lived your whole life and never let people get close, surely,” Mike answered.

“Would it?”

“I think so,” Val agreed.

Valerie sighed. “It’s been five days. I don’t know. I mean, what’s a reasonable amount of time before giving up on a whole life and everyone you love and who loves you? How long is long enough?”

Val reached sideways and took Valerie’s hand again.

“I mean, if there was just something I knew I should do…”

Valerie was silent for a while, but tightened her grip on Val’s hand. There was a sudden sob in the silence. Val rolled around to lie alongside Valerie and to hold her. That released Valerie’s tension then, and she wept properly.

“Hey, Valerie. Don’t cry. You’re the strong one, remember? You’re the one who’s got it all together, right?” Valerie giggled wetly through her tears. Val shifted so she had Valerie’s head on her lap. “I don’t know what I’d have done without you.”

“I’m scared,” Valerie wept on. “I’m so scared…” it gave out in a gasp.

“I know.”

“I — I don’t have anything. Anything. I don’t…” she sniffed, “I don’t exist. I feel like I could just evaporate away and no-one would ever know I existed. I could just vanish any time — I want to go home.”

“I know, Valerie,” Val tried to reassure her, rocking her, and stroking her hair.

“I have nothing. No-one…”

“You have us.”

Valerie shook her head, in Val’s lap. “No. I’m intruding. I’m intruding. I shouldn’t be here.”

“No, Valerie. Without you, Mike and I — I’d fucked it up, okay? You brought us together again. You saved us both. That makes you one of us, don’t you see? You’re part of us now.” She looked up at Mike then. He nodded. She flickered her eyes down to Valerie’s side. Mike took the hint and moved over so he could hold one of Valerie’s hands. “You’re part of us now. We’re joined. Couldn’t you tell?”

“But…”

“Yes, a very nice butt too. Not too skinny like mine.” That made Valerie laugh again, despite her crying.

***

“Saturday.”

Valerie had stopped crying. It was calm. Quiet.

“Saturday?” Val asked.

Valerie nodded. “Like we said earlier. We go to Sheila like any normal Saturday. We go in the door, we go up to the waiting room, we go into Sheila’s room. We see what happens. There’s a kind of symmetry to it, don’t you think? We go back to where it happened, at the natural time for us to be there again. Maybe I’ll go when we go in the door. Maybe I’ll go when we go in to see Sheila. Maybe if Sheila’s got something to do with it, we can at least learn something. Otherwise, I’d say we could still use a shrink, you know?” She smiled nervously, and sighed. “And if after all that, if we come out of there and I’m still here and we don’t have new information — well, that’s it. I got nothing else to try. After that, I guess I’m here to stay.”

Val nodded, stroking Valerie’s hair.

“Either way I’ll still be gone you know,” Valerie continued. “I can’t stay here. You can’t hide me in your bedrooms forever you know, and anyway that’s not much of a life.”

“You’ll go to this Jane person?”

Valerie nodded. “It makes too much sense to ignore.”

“You trust her that much?” Mike asked.

“Yeah I guess so. You can trust Jane to be Jane, you know? It won’t be boring anyway.” Mike looked doubtful. “You know her, Mike. Rather my Mike does. I think you’d approve.”

“Anyway you’re going to be reachable aren’t you?” Val said. “We’re gonna be in touch?”

“All the time,” Valerie promised.

“And we can visit. And if it does turn out bad we can rescue you,” she smiled.

***

Sarah was kicking back in front of the TV when Val entered, feeling nervous. This was the first time she was seeing her after the scene the night before. Alone this time. No Mike. No Dad. She smiled at Val when she came in though, so she reckoned she wasn’t pissed or anything.

“Hi Mom, you eaten yet?”

“No, not yet,” she grinned. Val knew what that meant. Trapped. Bah.

“I’ll do something if you like?”

“Oh I’d love that. I was thinking of getting a take-out actually.”

“That’s good too,” Val switched gears. “I mean, if you’d rather…”

“No, no, I wouldn’t want to deprive you. I know how much you love to cook.”

“Yeah, but I cooked at lunchtime. Mike and — Jill were around,” Val edited, realizing that was exactly what Valerie had meant. “Oh, and there’s not actually much in the house. We need to shop anyway.”

Sarah thought about it. “Oh all right, you win. Pizza?”

Val hesitated.

“They deliverrrrr,” Sarah prompted. Clearly if there was something to be fetched, Val would be the one to fetch it.

Sometimes New York definitely had its advantages.

“Yeah, pizza. I’m just gonna go change. And a quick shower.”

***

The doorbell rang. Sarah looked at Val meaningfully. Val groaned and went to answer it.

“Oh, hi Valerie!” Val nearly dropped through the floor, knowing Mom was in earshot.

“Uh, you don’t work for Pizza Hut any more?” she asked stupidly. The boxes said Papa John’s clearly enough. Val felt dizzy. Please Mom don’t have heard that.

John shrugged. “Branch opened closer to home. Anyway here y’go. One large The Works, garlic bread, two wedges with garlic dip and a large bottle of Coke.” Sarah had been hungry. Val just wanted the torture to end. She took them and handed over the cash she’d already had ready. “Anyway, how’ve you been? I haven’t seen you at Debbie’s for a while.”

“Uh, fine I guess,” Val lied. Please just go, she beamed.

“I seen you around school,” he carried on, giving Val another near cardiac arrest along with the change he handed her. I told him I went to Red Bluff, she knew; she remembered the stories she had to keep straight. He forgot or something? “You’re part of that role-playing group aren’t you?”

“Uh, yeah.” Oh God…

“Only, um, I was wondering if you guys took new members? I used to play, you know, in Junior High before we moved here, but you know how it is.”

Oh this just gets better!

“Um, I’d have to talk to the guys,” she extemporized.

“That’s great, thanks Valerie.” He grinned again. Val’s knees actually wobbled. “And enjoy your pizza!”

As if. Val shut the door and slowly slowly turned back into the room.

Sarah was looking. She did hear then, Val thought.

Deep breath then. Here we go. “Look, pizza!” she tried cheerfully, bringing it over. “Change too!” She dumped both onto the table and fled out to the kitchen with the Coke, to stow it in the fridge.

“You haven’t just been thinking about it, have you.” Sarah stated, blocking the kitchen doorway. Val started guiltily.

“Uh…”

“Eugene…” Val reckoned maybe she had about eight seconds to live. How fast can I unlock the back door? She wondered quickly, or would it be better to just dive through the window? “What have you been doing?”

What do you think? She thought better of saying. “Uh,” was all she could manage again. “Mom…”

“That boy,” Sarah stated the obvious, “called you ‘Valerie.’” She was just about keeping a lid on herself, Val thought. “I think you have some explaining to do.”

“Mom, uh…”

Now, Eugene.” Sarah advanced into the room. Val backed off from the fridge.

Game over, the realization settled over her. “Okay Mom,” she whispered. “Okay. I’ll tell you.” It was the only thing she could think of to do now. Bizarrely she remembered what she’d told Ricky all that time ago about running away. You can’t run far enough or fast enough.

It seemed to work. Sarah looked at her for a long, long moment, visibly changing gears, then nodded and turned aside to the freezer. She opened the door and pulled out a heavily frosted bottle. “I think I’m going to need this,” she muttered, finding a glass. Val just watched, warily, off-balance from the failure of the sky to fall, as her mother poured a generous shot’s worth of treacly clear fluid into the glass. “You see,” she was saying, to Val’s puzzled expression, “ethanol has a lower freezing point than water, so if you get the freezer settings right, the water freezes out,” she grinned conspiratorially, raising the glass at Val, “leaving concentrated Stoli. Nazdarovye,” she finished, drained the glass in one, and slammed it down on the side while her body processed the shock and sorted itself out so she could breathe again.

Val looked on in astonishment. Her mother, meanwhile, was pouring out another glass. This one she proffered at Val, who took it gingerly. “Go on,” she said, more gently than Val expected. “I figure you’re going to need it too.” Val nodded and following Sarah’s cue, drank the entire contents in one go.

Oh God! All the air left her lungs at once. She’s poisoned me! It would be just like Mom, she was thinking in that moment, to lace the bottle with poison and build up an immunity to it herself, just for an occasion like this. I can’t breathe! Her mother was grinning at her discomfiture, which she thought particularly callous, but the paroxysm passed. Val gasped in a deep breath. A warm rush suffused all the way to her extremities, while her chest still felt as if it contained a furnace. “Wow,” she managed to croak, finally. Sarah chuckled.

“Feel better now?”

Val nodded. “Or something.” Her larynx wasn’t quite functioning yet.

“Ready to talk?” Sarah was screwing the lid back on the bottle prior to returning it to the freezer.

Val nodded, still off-balance. “You’d use inhibition-lowering drugs on your own children then?” she asked boldly.

“Damn straight,” Sarah replied, grabbing the corkscrew and a bottle of wine out of the rack. One of the expensive special-occasion ones, Val noticed, with the high alcohol content. “Get some glasses,” she instructed as she headed for the door, “and bring them through. There’s pizza getting cold out there.” She was gone.

Barely a couple of minutes had passed in the kitchen, Val was surprised to notice. The pizza would not have cooled much in that time. She found the glasses and took a moment to bang her head a couple of times on a cupboard door to settle her neurons. She’s trying to make it easier for me, she realized suddenly, finding a new regard for her mother. She could be being a real bitch about this, and she’s not.

She went out to the living room.

***

“Figuring out where to start?”

Val sighed, nibbled at a potato wedge.

“Well,” Sarah prompted, “What about the name? Where did ‘Valerie’ come from?”

“Oh, uh,” Val gulped. “Debbie liked it.”

“Debbie? How long has this been going on?”

“Uh, a year?” Sarah looked shocked. “No, first time was Halloween last year. For the costume contest at school.”

“It’s been going on all that time?” Val nodded. “That’s before…”

“Yeah.”

***

The pizza was good. The wine was excellent. The conversation was almost entirely one-sided. Val talked, and talked. Her mother listened; more than at any time Val could remember, she listened. Her questions weren’t stupid either, in that ‘I’m going to force you to state the obvious just to humiliate you’ way Val had been fearing.

***

Sarah sat back, looking at Val for a moment. Val blushed under the gaze, and sipped her wine. “I’m just trying to see it,” she said eventually. “When you’re so used to seeing someone a particular way, and you suddenly realize it’s not the way everyone else sees them…”

“I’m kind of in neutral mode at the moment,” Val excused.

“Perhaps you should show me. Let me see you not in neutral mode?”

“Mom…”

“I am trying, Eugene,” she said. “I’m trying really hard, okay?” Val nodded. “I think I need to see this.”

“Okay Mom.”

“Finish your pizza first,” Sarah suggested.

Val shook her head. “I’ve had enough, I’m full.” She found her grin; she’d been wondering where that was. “You’re just afraid I’ll spoil your appetite,” she cracked.

She got a poke in the arm for that one. She reckoned she’d got off lightly.

***

“I guess they’re talking about me right about now,” Val said. “Dad and Brian I mean.”

Sarah nodded, finished her mouthful. “Probably.”

Val sighed.

***

“I guess some of Susan’s clothes would fit you,” Sarah suggested. Val giggled under her breath. “What?”

“I, um, have my own.”

“Huh. Of course you do.” She grinned. “Well, you going to show me?”

The pizza had been demolished.

Val drained her glass. “You gonna give me some more wine?”

Sarah shrugged and topped up the glasses. “Anyway why are you so nervous, if you’ve been doing this so long already?”

“Well duh,” Val replied. “’Cause it’s you, of course. This is the stuff of my nightmares.” She took a large sip. “I keep wondering when you’re gonna set the dogs on me.”

“There are no dogs,” Sarah reminded her gently.

Val took another sip, put her glass down, and got up. “Okay, wait here.”

***

Val came down the stairs. She was surprised to find she wasn’t as nervous as she’d been the previous night. Maybe that was the worst of it, she wondered. This wasn’t actually telling her mother anything she didn’t already know, it was just that she’d be seeing it.

She reached the bottom of the stairs and turned the corner into the living room. She stopped, just inside, hands clasped in front of her.

Sarah stood there in the middle of the room. She’d gasped when Val first came in, and stood there, wide-eyed, her hands covering her mouth and nose as if frozen in the gasp, or as if she was peeking over a cushion at something scary on TV.

Val had tried to guess what mothers like to see their daughters wearing. She’d chosen a comfortable cotton skirt and a scoop-necked top. On a sudden impulse she decided to eschew her forms in favor of one of Valerie’s new bras. Valerie had been right of course; it was a lot more comfortable. Over the whole she threw on a pastel sweater she planned to take off later. It wasn’t cold downstairs, but it gave the right look for first impressions. Opaque tights, to hide her legs, and flats to finish. She went deliberately light on the make-up, and brushed out and arranged her hair nicely, with a light blast of hairspray to keep it there. For jewellery, she just added a single silver necklace. In the mirror she thought she looked like the sort of girl who always got her homework in on time. Just right, she thought, for her mother’s first sight of her.

Seconds passed, feeling like minutes.

“Mom?”

“No it…” She took half a step forwards, managed to remove her hands from her face. “No, you look good. Really — natural. I don’t know what I was expecting.” She couldn’t take her eyes of Val. Val blushed under the attention. “C’mere,” she said, opening her arms. Val flew into them.

***

“You need more closet space,” Sarah remarked, looking at the bags and bags of clothes Val had removed and put on the bed.

“You sure? I mean, I don’t need to fit myself inside it any more, do I?” For that she got a gentle elbowing.

“Don’t tease your old Mom, eh? She’s trying hard you know.”

“I know Mom.”

She looked around the room, as if trying to remember when she was last in here. “My, you’re packed in here, aren’t you.” Val couldn’t repress a giggle. “Look at this place, Eugene!” Val let the name pass, thinking, family’s going to have to be trained not to do that in public. “If you just did something with this room it could be so much nicer in here.” Val was hurt. She’d thought she kept the rat-hole quite nicely these days, thank-you-very-much. She guessed ‘nice’ was a relative term. “I mean,” her mother was continuing, “do you really still need all these computers in here?”

“Yes!” It was a reflex response. Sarah shrugged.

“I don’t know,” Sarah mused, “it just seems so — inefficient.” That was a harsh thing to say to a geek, and Val knew it wasn’t accidental. No-one could live with an á¼bergeek like Bill Tucker, or his young apprentice, without developing some effective countermeasures. Val was about to retort with an explanation of what each one did and why it had to be done that way, when she stopped and looked around her. She counted up the system units, the monitors, the keyboards, reckoned up the power consumption, the loss of space, the noise levels. Sarah twisted the knife. “This has got to be suboptimal.” Val winced. “I don’t know, perhaps a more elegant solution can be found.” My mind is going, she heard the room network cry out, Dave, I can feel it.

“Uh, maybe,” was all she managed to say. Even she had to concede that as a defense of her system architecture choices it sucked.

“And what’s in here?” Sarah continued her rampage, going to pull open another closet.

“Mom! No!” It was too late; the catch was pulled, there was an ominous creak, the doors bulged outwards and several ancient consoles and joysticks and a box of old game cartridges tumbled out to the floor. Sarah skipped back nimbly, so avoiding wounds to her feet. Val was reminded briefly of Captain Kirk under a torrent of tribbles. The door swung back revealing a mass of computer hardware; crates of spare parts, descending like strata in a rock-face down through the ages. Val couldn’t see it, but there was an Altair in there somewhere that she’d scrounged off Dad when she was eight. She could just see the corner of the old Apple II, an extremely rare imported BBC Micro’s red function keys peeked out of a dark place.

“Oh my God,” Sarah whispered. “So this is where they go to die.” Val hung back. “You said you’d got rid of this stuff,” she turned on Val.

“Mom… I couldn’t.”

Sarah sighed and picked up the battered old NES original off the floor where it had fallen. “I can’t believe you still have this,” she muttered, trying without success to stuff it back into the closet.

“I’m gonna fix it!”

When?”

“When I have time!”

Sarah took Val by the shoulders, shaking her slightly. “It’s never going to happen. You have a life now.”

“Bu-bu-bu- Mom!”

“I know dear, sometimes you just have to accept that these things don’t last forever.”

“But they doooo!” Val pouted. “They can!”

Sarah shook her head sadly, just managing to keep a straight face. “I’m sorry, I know it’s upsetting, but you see, there’s this big games arcade in the sky where all the old machines go when they die, and all the unborn children can play with them forever.” She couldn’t manage it any longer; her mouth twitched and she began to giggle. Val lost it about the same time and they both just stood there, leaning against each other laughing for a minute or two.

Val looked at the mass of hardware. Two Mac Classics stared out at her reproachfully, their screens blank. They would never smile again, she knew that really. “Maybe I can find a computer museum that’ll take them,” she wondered. Tipping them into a dumpster was just inconceivable.

***

They were back downstairs. Val had kicked off her flats so she could curl her legs up on the sofa. The sweater had been dumped upstairs. “Valerie Valerie Valerie,” Sarah repeated to herself, while watching her, as if to fix it there. Val found herself blushing under the attention again. She took another large sip from her glass.

“Most people just call me Val.”

Sarah shook her head. “Shouldn’t shorten names. It’s demeaning.”

Val giggled. “Like Bill?”

Sarah rolled her eyes. Val realized suddenly it was exactly the same gesture as she’d seen Valerie make. Therefore she probably did it too. “Your father insisted.” She took a drink. “I lost that one.”

“Like you lost on the guns?” Sarah groaned. “What did you win on, Mom?”

“Aha.” She thought about it. “Personal hygiene.” Val giggled again. “The toilet seat. Clothes in the closet not on the floor.” Val was laughing out loud now. “Getting my sister to teach you how to cook. That was a definite win,” she grinned.

“What?”

“Oh yes. Well you know how useless your father is in the kitchen. I wasn’t going to have that for my sons, dammit.”

“That was your idea?”

“Uh-huh,” she raised a glass to toast herself. Val followed. “Talking of which, it’s probably time Brian learned too.”

“He can cook!”

“The basics, yeah. Hmm. Maybe I’ll send him to Aunt Louisa. Get that gumbo recipe into the family once and for all.”

“Ah. She already gave it me.” Val grinned. “July Fourth.”

“What? The bitch! She wouldn’t tell me!”

Val shrugged, grinning wider.

***

Pop went the cork on the third bottle.

“You’re getting me drunk,” Val accused.

“Uh-huh.” Sarah grinned. “Payback’s a bitch.”

“Oh. Right.” Val grinned back and passed her glass over.

***

“So, Valerie,” it sounded weird coming from her mother’s mouth, surrounded as it was by virtual quote marks, “is there any boy that’s turned your head yet?” Val blushed, deeply. “Ah, there is!”

Val nodded, eventually. “I wasn’t going to tell you about that yet.” She remarked dryly. “I wasn’t going to tell you about any of this yet.”

“I’m glad you have. The last few months have been hell.” She sighed. “I knew something was going on, I just couldn’t put my finger on it. I think I didn’t really want to,” she admitted. “I’m usually smarter than that.”

“I’m sorry.”

“So anyway, what’s his name? Where does he live? What school does he go to? Who do his parents vote for? What’s their credit-rating?” Val was giggling again. “What’s his SAT score?”

“Mom!”

“Nah, you don’t have to tell me. Your father’ll find out later.” She grinned.

“Oh no!”

“Oh yes.” Deadly serious.

Val sighed. “His name’s Travis,” she said eventually, “and he’s really sweet, okay? He’s never done anything to hurt me.”

“Does he know about you?” After a pause Val nodded. “What does he think?”

“Um. He’s okay with it.”

“You sound like you’re not sure.”

You’re starting to sound like Sheila, stop it!”

Sarah nodded. “You’re right. It’s natural for a mother to be worried though, okay?”

Val nodded back. “Anyway Susan checked him out. And Amy. And the Pack. And Mike. He’s just a nice guy, Mom.”

“Have you been to bed with him?”

It took a long time again, but Val nodded. After that length of pause the nod was redundant, she supposed. Sarah sighed. “We’re safe though. We use condoms and everything…”

“Oh Eu-Valerie…” She sighed again. “I’m sure you did, you weren’t brought up to be stupid. It’s just…” A tear dropped. “It’s just that I wish — I wish that it could have been right for you.”

Val reached out to her, then. “It’s okay Mom. Really it is.” Sarah started to cry properly. It was Val’s turn to gather her mother into a hug. “It’s still good,” she whispered into her ear. “It’s nice. And we love each other.”

“It’s just not fair,” Sarah said, “This shouldn’t be happening to you.”

“Who should it be happening to, Mom?”

***

“I’m not in pain, Mom. I’m not sick.

“Perhaps — perhaps this was just how I was meant to be.

“So it makes me different. We’re the Tuckers. Since when was being different a bad thing? It’s not as if I’m not human.

“It only hurt when I was trying to fight it. It felt like — like I was trying to kill or like I was being made to kill.

“I wanted to be like Dad. I just wanted to be like Dad. Guess he can’t have done too badly, eh? Lots of sons want to be anything but like their dads and they end up like them anyway.

“I have to let go of that. I’m letting go of it.

“Someone said — it’s all about doing whatever you have to do to be yourself.

“It doesn’t hurt me.”

***

“Ice cream?” Sarah asked. She still sounded brittle.

“Oh yeah.”

“Go get it then.”

Val stuck her tongue out at her, but went.

***

“Hello cat,” Val greeted the inquisitive one. “Want some ice cream too?”

“Oh look at his nose going,” Sarah laughed. “Go on then, give him some.” Val put a couple of blobs of the melting ice cream into the upturned lid and set it down on the carpet. “But if he tracks chocolate into my carpet I’ll skin him,” Sarah added.

“‘People who declaw their cats and scold their children for damaging their furniture don’t deserve cats, or children, or furniture,’” Val quoted. “Heinlein. I think.”

“Probably. Sounds like him.”

“You read Heinlein?”

“When I was younger,” she admitted. “Don’t worry, you’ll get over it.”

“Ouch.”

They watched while the cat lapped up the ice cream. He finished and came round to investigate Val’s wine glass, but he didn’t like the smell of that, so went to the table and stood up on his hind legs to reach the pizza box.

“Ahht!” Val called. “Leave that alone.” She was being ignored. “FFFSSSHHH!” That made the little fuzzball take notice. He dropped down quickly and faced Val with a guilty look.

“We’re in danger of spoiling him,” Sarah commented.

“Aww. C’mere puss.” Val scratched at the sofa material next to her. The cat just sat there licking his lips, having decided he wasn’t really in trouble.

“Nah. Only got eyes for Brian.”

***

“Do we have to tell Dad yet? About Travis I mean.”

Sarah sighed. “You can’t hide these things forever, you know.”

“I know. But do we have to tell him yet? I should talk to him first. Travis, that is.”

“Warn him?”

Val chuckled. “Something like that. ‘Run away, before it’s too late!’”

“When are you next seeing him?”

“Uh, we don’t have a next date planned, but I could phone and — maybe not tonight,” she finished, noticing the time. “I’ll call him tomorrow.”

“Oh God, the time,” Sarah concurred. “And I’ve got work tomorrow.”

Val decided she liked being on break without a job. “Oh,” she remembered. “I’m starting the babysitting job again, it looks like.”

“Oh damn, we’re losing you for chore duty then?”

Val grinned. “Yep.”

“I suppose they know you as Valerie too,” Sarah said, only a trace of cattiness in her voice.

“Uh, well. They asked for a girl, and Debbie was kinda stuck.” Sarah was shaking her head, smiling. “And then it went really well and they kept asking for me.” Sarah was laughing. “What?”

***

Whodathunkit? Val crash-landed on her bed. Wow. Mom.

What a week I’m having.

She slept. And there were no nightmares.

***

Flashing lights. Phone. “Yup?”

“Hey wake up, it’s your doppelganger.”

“Hi Valerie. What’s up?”

“’M bored. It’s my last day and I wanna have some fun.”

“Mmm. Could help me get this damn MIDI interface running under Linux…”

There was a rude noise from the other end of the line.

“Well whaddya need me for anyway?”

“I got some ideas. Just thought you’d like to join in, that’s all.”

“Oh God I’m tired.”

“Yeah?”

“Mom knows about Val. And Travis.”

“Wheee! Shit girl, when you come out you don’t mess around do you?”

Val laughed. “It’s all your fault, I’m sure of it.”

“How’s it my fault?”

“You’re carrying an improbability field generator or something.”

“Hah. I wish.”

“We ordered pizza. Guess who delivered it.”

“Er…”

“Pizza-face?”

“Oh no.”

“Yeah. And I specifically didn’t use Pizza Hut in case.”

“Oh but he works for Papa John’s now. I coulda told you that.”

“Well let’s just say that got the ball rolling. Like the one in Raiders. Hey! Stop laughing!”

“No Val, it’s good. Really. Do you feel any better?”

“Yeah actually. Kinda cleaned out, you know? Like being able to breathe again.”

“Yeah. It’s a good feeling. So, you coming out to play?”

“I don’t know. I’m kinda weirded out, you know?” Valerie laughed. “Think I just want to hang for the day, but I’ll call you back in a bit once I’m up. Oh, and I gotta phone Trav. I gotta warn him.”

Valerie laughed. “Poor bastard.”

“May have a date tonight. If he’s not busy already.”

“I could bring Debs for a double-date?”

Val spluttered in alarm. “Oh that’s so not a good idea.” She could almost hear Valerie grinning from the other end.

***

“Travis?”

“Hey you.”

“Hey you yourself.”

“What’s up?”

“I want to see you. Tonight.” Did that sound too needy? Or does it count as assertive?

“Tonight? Uh. Aw damn, can’t tonight. Uh. Got the guys coming round, we’re gonna watch the game, drink beer, you know, do the jock thing,” Val grinned at that.

“I’m going to have to sort your priorities out,” she told him. “Anyway, I want to get together ’cause we need to talk about stuff. Not bad stuff,” she added hurriedly, “just developments, you know?” She sighed, still smiling, which was a bit confusing. “We haven’t talked enough lately.”

“Um, yeah, sure.”

“You okay, Trav?” She thought he sounded a bit distracted or something.

“Uh, yeah, I’m fine. You just caught me before going out, that’s all.”

“Oh, I’m sorry.”

“No, it’s okay Val. How about tomorrow night? I’ll page you?”

“Aw no. We’re all off to my Mom’s family in New York state tomorrow. I won’t get to see you until the new year!”

There was a pause. “We’ll do something nice then?” Travis offered eventually.

“I suppose,” Val sighed, all momentum stolen. You could have sounded more upset, she beamed down the phone line.

“I gotta go, Val. You look after yourself, okay? And give Amy a kiss from me,” he added. It made Val feel better.

“Yeah, okay. See you then.”

“Bye.” Click.

Val looked at the handset for a moment. “He gotta go,” she remarked, feeling somehow unsatisfied.

She shrugged it off and got up.

***

“Mom? I thought you had work today?”

Sarah shook her head, while cradling a cup of coffee. “They can do without me today. Who buys houses just before Christmas anyway, right?” There was more coffee in the machine, so Val busied herself pouring another cup. “Aren’t you going out with your friends again?”

“I could use a day off too,” Val grinned weakly, got it back.

“I was thinking, I haven’t bought anyone’s presents yet.”

Val chuckled, spotting the trap, and deliberately setting her foot in it. “Nor have I.” Sarah had that grin on her face.

“Well,” she said, reeling her child in, “I was thinking of going downtown, check out that new Lazarus store, wander around, see the lights, the tree, look at nice things to buy people, you know, things old people like to do…”

“Yes, Mom, I’d love to come,” She knew when she was beaten.

“Would you? Oh, but I was going to get yours too. Now when am I going to be able to do that?”

Val slapped her mother’s shoulder gently, laughing.

“Um,” she said a little later, “who exactly do you want to come with you?”

Sarah smiled. “You of course.” Her smile was radiant, Val suddenly noticed.

“Good answer,” she had to admit.

Notes:

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To Be Continued...



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