Tuck Squared - part 8

"Belief may be a factor."
Tuck
SQUARED
Chapter 8

by Rachel Greenham


 
Chapter 8

***

“Johansson Residence,” answered an English princess of Val’s acquaintance. “Who may I say is calling?”

Val took just a moment. “Ah,” she answered in like manner, “Would you please inform Sir Michael that a dear old friend would like to speak with him.”

“Yes ma’am.” Val almost saw the curtsey through the phone line. “The master is currently occupied with his morning ablutions. Would ma’am like me to interrupt him?”

Val laughed. “No Valerie, that’s okay,” she said, dropping out of the voice. “Best not to walk in on Mike’s private moments, I’ve found.”

“Yeah,” Valerie giggled. “So, whatsup?”

“Ah, Mom’s blown off work, wants to take me downtown for Christmas shopping.”

“Yeah?”

“Yeah, kind of a bonding thing I think. It’s cool though,” she added.

“Cool. You seem to be doing better with her than I did anyway, afterwards.” There was a sigh from the other end of the phone. “Dunno what it is you’re doing, but you’re doing it right I guess.”

“Oh Valerie, I’m sorry.” She really was. “There’s worse things I could be doing, right?”

“Oh sure. For a start you could disappear without a trace.”

“Oh Valerie.” There was silence from the phone. “I’m hugging you.”

“I know.”

More silence.

“Anyway,” Valerie continued eventually, “What’s happening with Travis? You seeing him tonight?”

“No. Said he’s got friends coming round to watch a game or something. Said it was a jock thing,” she added, smiling.

“Game, huh? Figures. Aw, no double-date with Debbie then.”

“Absolutely not! Anyway, how d’you know Debbie’s even free tonight?” Valerie, Val decided, was altogether too good at projecting expressions down a phone line. “You’ve already asked her,” she accused.

“Her cellphone’s got a different number than my Debs. Had to pull it out of Arrakis. You should change your passwords more often.”

“Guilty as charged,” Val admitted. “What’s the damage?”

“Now would I do a thing like that?”

“I’ve no idea.” Val switched to the headset and logged into Arrakis. “Anyway, you’re actually going out with Debbie tonight?”

“Uh-huh.”

“Are you sure you know what you’re doing?”

“Nope. But sometimes you just got to make a leap, you know?” Val nodded. “It doesn’t feel wrong. We’re just going out for a date, okay? I’m not counting on anything beyond that if that’s what you’re wondering.”

“Hey, I’m not judging you.”

“Yeah, I know.”

“Just — you know, what Mike says: Think, okay?”

“Yeah, I know. He’s already been saying it.”

“Well there you go.” She beamed a grin back down the line. “Whatcha doing before that anyway?”

Valerie laughed. “Classified. What you don’t know…”

“I can’t testify to, right. Just don’t get me in trouble? Please?”

“Not a chance.”

***

They were stuck in traffic. “I guess other people had the same idea,” Val offered.

“Still has to be better than the last Saturday before, right?”

“I guess.” At least she didn’t have to drive, so Val just put her head back and relaxed. “Oh,” she remembered. “For God’s sake don’t call me Eugene today, okay?”

Sarah chuckled. “Yeah, I’d figured that out.”

“I know. Just don’t forget, okay? Say it at the wrong time and — bad things could happen.”

“I’ll be careful, Eugene,” she teased.

“I mean it Mom. I could get killed.”

“Don’t you think you’re overreacting?”

“No, Mom, I don’t. Not when there’s been a Klan cross in the square at Christmas for as many years as I can remember.” Since Mike brought it to my attention anyway, Val added to herself.

Sarah drove on for a few moments in silence. “They’re not welcome here,” she said eventually.

“But they are here. And they’re just the visible ones. Some people love to hate, and they’re just looking for a reason. Why give it to them on a plate?”

Sarah was silent again for a while. In that time she reached over and took Val’s hand.

“So what you’re saying,” she continued, “is that as long as you can hide, it’s okay?” Val frowned, wondering what she was getting at. Her mother’s attention was half taken on driving, so she couldn’t read her expression, but she kept hold of Val’s hand, thanks to the gods of power steering and automatic transmission. “Because it’s not written there for all to see, oh, just for instance, like your skin being a different color, and you can be invisible and pretend to be a normal average person, that makes it all right?”

“Mom…”

“Maybe it’s just my generation,” she muttered, “and far be it from me to tell my so — child to take more risks, but you are not ever to be ashamed of yourself for what you are.” Her grip on Val’s hand was actually starting to hurt. “You understand me?”

“Mom you’re hurting…” Her hand was released, suddenly, as if her mother had just realized what she was doing.

“It’s not fair,” Sarah was saying. “What’s happening to you, it’s not fair. Look, I’m not saying you have to be an activist, okay? I’m just saying: Don’t be afraid. You be who you’re going to be, and don’t let fear get in and make you try to be something you’re not. That’s the whole point isn’t it?” Val just sat and watched her mother in awe. “Live in fear, and change who you are just to be safe, and they’ve won. They don’t even need to do anything.”

“Oh Mom…”

“Besides. Anyone hurts you and they’ll have me and your father to deal with.”

Val managed a chuckle. “They’d have to scrape ’em off the pavement.”

“You think they’d find that much?” Sarah replied, deadpan, then ruined it with a sidelong wink. Val thought she was actually relieved.

***

“It’s not here.”

Val felt her mother’s arm close around her shoulders. “There, you see?” Val nodded and leaned slightly against her for a moment. They moved around to the menorah. “We stand against hate.” It was like, Val thought, a voice from a bygone, more idealistic age.

They stood for a little time, while shoppers bustled around them.

“Come on Valerie, let’s get inside before my old bones freeze. We can come back later when the lights are on.”

“You’re not old.”

“Hmph.”

***

“Oh, I’ve got to get that for Susan. It’s perfect…”

***

“Have you thought what to get your father?”

“Ooh, socks I think. And maybe a tie.”

“Oh he’ll appreciate those so much.”

Val grinned. “I got something in mind, but they won’t have it here.”

***

“I was thinking this for Amy?”

“Oh yes. Though I’m not sure Trish would approve, it’s a bit…”

“Sexy?”

“Hmm.”

“Well duh. Amy’s not a little girl any more. She’ll love it, I guarantee. Hang on, I’ll just try it on…”

“Eu — Valerie! You mean here? In the store?”

“Well yeah, Mom. We’re close enough in size, if I can wear it, so can she.”

***

“Whatcha think?”

“Um…”

“Ignore the shoes.” She perched up on the balls of her feet for a few moments to simulate heels.

“No I mean — seeing you dressed like that, that’s all.”

“It’s not that risqué — Oh.” Val blushed slightly and sagged back onto her heels. “I’m sorry.”

“No, it’s all right. I am finding it difficult,” she admitted, “But that’s my problem, not yours. You have enough of your own.”

Val hugged her mother.

“I feared the worst for you. Really. This is a relief compared to those fears. So I’m happy. Okay?” Val nodded. “I’m losing my son,” she continued. “Only I’m not after all, because you’re really just the same as you’ve always been. Only more so, somehow. Brighter. Am I making sense?”

“Uh, sort of.”

“It’s nice to be finally getting to know you. Well besides, I’ve got a whole spare son prepared just in case,” she grinned. Val laughed out loud. She knew it was unladylike, but it had to be done.

***

“You going to change back or do the rest of the store like that?”

Oops. “Well, it is kinda warm in here,” she teased.

***

“Hmm, if you’re that close to Amy in size, you can try on some other stuff for me, thinking about it.”

“Yeah?”

“Yeah, you may as well be useful.”

Val stuck her tongue out at her.

***

“Well?”

“To be honest I don’t think she’d ever wear it, Mom.”

“Why not? It’s lovely.”

“It’s not her. Trust me on this. It’s kind of — what an aunt would get, you know?”

Mom sighed, looking again. “Yes, you’re right. I’m getting staid in my old age.”

“’ang on lads,” Val put on her best Michael Caine voice. “I’ve got an idea.” She disappeared back into the changing room.

***

“Look, why don’t we just split up and meet somewhere at, say four?”

“Cool. Where?”

“The restaurant upstairs? I know I’ll be ready to collapse by then.”

“’Kay. I’ll see you then.”

***

“Okay, let’s recap,” Mom said, once the waitress had taken their order. “I’ve done yours, Susan’s and Brian’s.”

“That’s the spawn taken care of then,” Val grinned, “You’ve done everyone important.”

“Swim my pretty tadpoles, swim!” Mom grinned back. “You do realize of course you’ve just become much easier to buy presents for.”

“Yeah?”

Sarah did not elaborate. “Anyway, done Trish and Amy. Done Lanier and Louisa, not that we’re seeing them til the new year. Haven’t done Bill, don’t know what to get your grandfather…”

“What do you get the man who’s had everyone?”

“Eu-” she stopped herself in time. “Valerie, honestly.” Val grinned. “Anyway, what about you?”

“Done Brian, done Dad, done you. Still thinking about Mike. Done George, Book and Dan though. Done Kelly. Done most of the Pack already, but now Debbie and me are talking again I guess I should get her something.”

“Debbie and I,” Mom corrected automatically. “Well that’s good anyway. What changed?”

“Long story,” Val sighed, wanting to avoid bringing Valerie into the conversation. “Anyway, we’re friends now, I guess, so I’ll get her something. Haven’t done Susan yet.”

“So what were you thinking for Susan?”

Val shook her head. “I have no idea.”

“Okay, well there’s something I happen to know she’d like, but I got her something else I’d already set my heart on for her.” She smiled.

***

The door opened. “Valerie! It’s been ages!”

“Hi Miz Carstairs.”

“Oh come on, you always called me Helen, remember? Debbie said you two had finally made it up, whatever it was. She’s still getting ready. Come inside!”

Valerie waved thanks-and-ok at Mike, waiting in the car, and stepped inside. It was slightly jarring to find that the redecorating work with which she’d helped in the fall was undone. It was still the old décor. “Yes, it’s good to have that cleared up at last,” she said, thinking Okay I just crossed a line. Actually pretending to be Val now. She hoped she could keep things vague enough to not do any damage. What does Helen know of what happened anyway?

“I love what you’ve done with your hair by the way.”

“Er, thanks,” she smiled. “I was thinking of going back to my natural color actually.” Covered for next time she sees Val, hopefully.

“Oh that would be a shame. It suits you.”

“And my own color doesn’t?” she teased.

“I didn’t say that.” Helen grinned to show she knew she was being teased. “Did you want to go on back to see her?”

Valerie shook her head. “That’s okay, I’ll wait and let her make her entrance.”

“Honestly,” Helen chided, “if I didn’t know better I’d say you two were going on a date.”

Valerie raised an eyebrow. “I couldn’t possibly comment, Miz Carstairs.” Hoping you’re not too different from your counterpart, she thought to herself.

Helen had a visible double-take, and blushed for a moment. “Well… Anyway, why don’t you take your coat off and make yourself comfortable? I don’t know how long she’s going to be.”

“Oh, um, thanks.” Valerie slipped her coat off her shoulders and handed it over. She was wearing the dress she’d bought earlier. She was proud of the choice, and had her judgement confirmed as Helen actually whistled.

“Sorry,” Helen apologized. “I spend too much time around cops. You look amazing, Valerie. Really.”

“I tried,” Valerie blushed. She had, too. Jane would be proud of her. A thing of black crushed velvet, off the shoulder and unfussy, set off by the single half-necklace at her throat. She wore her hair up again, knowing it gave her more elegance.

“Where are you two going anyway?”

Valerie grinned. “Debbie doesn’t know yet.” She was feeling especially pleased with herself for getting the tickets at such short notice too, for all that it had necessitated a hair-raising dash across the city on the bike. Shucks. She was a bit peeved at having bought them twice now, having planned to take her Debbie to the same thing, but she hadn’t wanted to miss it. “I’ll let her tell you about it afterwards.”

“Ya sure ya wanna take de brat?” Helen put on her gangster voice, hooking her thumb over her shoulder towards the back rooms. “I’ll go wid’ ya, doll-face…”

“Mom!” Valerie looked up from Helen’s mischievous grin, to see Debbie at the doorway. She was lovely, Valerie thought, in a rich dark green dress she’d never seen before.

They just stared at each other for a few moments.

“Well, girls,” Helen butted in, “what time do you need to be on your way?”

Valerie looked at her watch. “Now, really, to have time to park.” She glanced back at Debbie. “If you’re ready? You look ready,” she added with a grin.

“I’m ready,” Debbie nodded.

“How are you getting there?” Helen asked. “Debbie driving?”

Debbie nodded.

“Okay, what if I drive you two wherever it is?”

“Mom — don’t you have a shift tonight?”

“Nope. Besides, daughter-mine, by the looks of you I don’t think you’re going to be able to keep your eyes on the road.” Debbie actually blushed. Valerie was impressed.

“Mom will you please stop embarrassing me?”

“It’s my job,” she grinned. “I’m serious though. I’ll take you both there.”

“Um, what about getting back?”

“Well, we could get a cab…” Valerie suggested.

“I can pick you up too, I just need to know the time.”

“We were kind of planning to go out to dinner afterwards,” Debbie explained. “We’re not sure what time we’d be back.”

“I told you I’m not taking this dress onto a dance-floor,” Valerie warned.

“I know. I just — we could be pretty late, you know?” She nodded, making a decision. “We’ll get a cab back. I’d love you to take us, Mom.”

“Good. Then there’s time to take some pictures.”

***

Val discovered she was actually feeling at peace. Her feet hurt terribly, even in flats. A day’s intensive shopping will tend to do that. The tree was lit up, of course, as were the fountain lights shifting colors under the water. Skaters turned and wheeled nearby. Somewhere live music was playing. “It’s so Christmassy!” Val exclaimed suddenly. “I think I’m going to explode.”

“I think we lost the santas though,” Sarah laughed.

“And — we got all the presents!”

“It’s done!” They high-fived. They were almost empty-handed; once they got to the car they’d have to drive back to the customer collection point to pick everything up.

“That just leaves the food to take care of, once we get settled in at the other end.” Sarah sighed.

“Oh, yeah, it’s your turn again isn’t it.”

“Actually,” Sarah mused, “we were thinking, this year perhaps you could organize all that.”

“Oh Mom!” Val saw long carefree hours with Amy and her Playstation evaporating before her eyes.

“Well, ya shouldn’a got so good, kid,” Sarah cackled. Val trudged on, disconsolately. “Anyway,” Sarah continued, “you’re not thinking this through. You’ll be in charge of the food.”

Oh yeah. Val brightened, and flashed a deeply evil grin at her mother. Organizing the food at these occasions was traditionally an exercise in delegation, and skimming the fun jobs off the top. In other words, someone else gets to peel and chop and I say who! She walked on, light on her feet now, grinning.

***

This was definitely a more civilized way to arrive, Valerie decided. The city could actually be quite pretty from the back-seat of a Blazer with a gorgeous girl by your side. Then stepping out at your destination and discovering you’re both hot enough to turn heads, oh yes, but playing it cool, girl, playing it cool, oh that is sweet, one bare arm against another, goose-bumps in the cold crossing the sidewalk but not passing up the chance to look this cool, oh no, and not all the goose-bumps were the cold anyway.

The theater was tiny. It barely sat fifty people, Valerie guessed, the audience mostly surrounding a small platform stage so close you could touch it. And Debbie, luminous Debbie, her eyes showing Valerie that she had the same look too.

Not for the first time Valerie wondered if she was doing the right thing. She wondered if this was being unfaithful to her Debbie; the one back home. She guessed so, but on the other hand, she felt, if she was fated never to go home, she wanted one last perfect night with Debbie, even if it wasn’t the right one, to say goodbye. She supposed it was selfish of her, but she’d made no secret of her intentions. Either way she was gone tomorrow.

The lights dipped, the chattering in the audience faded and disappeared. Debbie’s hand found Valerie’s in the darkness. “If music be the food of love, play on.”

***

Dad’s car was parked in the driveway. “Oh God,” Val whispered.

“There’s nothing to worry about,” Sarah tried to reassure her.

“They don’t know about Val,” Val replied.

“I left an email for your father before we left this morning,” Sarah admitted. “And deliberately kept us out long enough that he’d have time to talk to Brian after they got back.”

“Oh God.” She found she was shaking. “After everything that’s happened I’m scared of my kid brother?”

“I know.”

“I just wish I was sure this is what I should be doing,” Val said.

“Well, then you have to find out, don’t you. You can’t find out without trying.”

Val took a deep breath, and another. “I guess that makes sense. So why does it feel so permanent?”

Sarah squeezed her hand, smiling. “Come on, let’s get it over with, eh?”

***

“Reservation for two, name of Valerie Tucker?” Marciano’s was full, even for the late sitting. Valerie was glad she’d booked.

“Yes Miss Tucker, your table’s ready. Would you like to come on through?”

They allowed the maá®tre’d to take their coats and seat them. Valerie realized suddenly it was the same table as… She must have stopped in thought, she realized, when Debbie tapped her arm.

“Hey, you okay?”

“Um, yeah. Just realized, you remember that first date with Travis a year ago?” Before our timelines diverged. Debbie nodded.

“He brought you here?”

“This actual table.”

“You want to move?”

Valerie thought about it. “Nah. I’ve got a much nicer view this time,” she grinned.

“You’re incorrigible.”

“Don’t incorrige me then.”

Debbie was musing. “A year. Wow. That’s a thought: what did you do for Halloween this year?”

“Ah.” Valerie grinned again. “Wouldn’t you like to know.”

“As a matter of fact, yes.”

“Let’s just say I got to wear the sword this time.”

Debbie’s eyes opened wide, but their waiter turned up before she could respond.

“Would you ladies like any drinks while you’re looking at the menu?”

“Ooh yes.” Even watching Shakespeare could be thirst-making. She felt sorry for the actors, if it was anything like singing. “Do you have any smoothies?”

***

Debbie stood up. “No, you’re fine dear,” she said as Valerie automatically started to get up too. “I really do just need to pee,” she admitted, sotto-voce.

Valerie grinned and watched her go.

“Hey, Valerie,” a familiar male voice called. Friendly. She looked up.

“Bobby, hi! You remembered my name at last!”

“Huh?”

“Never mind.” Perhaps it was just coincidence. He had to hit it right sometimes just out of random chance. She hoped Bobby didn’t want to join them. This wasn’t supposed to be that kind of dinner. “You just got here?”

“Nah, we’re just leaving. This is Marie by the way. Marie, this is Valerie. Wow, love the hair. Trav seen that yet?”

Erk. Erk. “No,” she extemporized. “And it’s a surprise, so don’t you say anything either.”

“Sure thing,” he said, chuckling.

Something was nagging at Valerie’s memory. She dug for a while. Oh yes. “Hey, I thought you’d be round at his place tonight, watching the game. Guess you got more important things to attend to, huh?” She smiled at the girl. Marie.

“Game? What game?” Bobby looked startled. “I’m missing a game?”

“I don’t know,” Valerie said. “He just said something about having you guys around to watch a game tonight.”

“I didn’t hear about it,” Bobby said.

Valerie shrugged. “I probably didn’t hear him right. Anyway, where are you guys off to next?”

“Dancing! You wanna join us later?”

“Nah. Got other plans,” she grinned. “See you around anyway.”

“Yeah. Always good to see you.”

They left, thankfully before Debbie returned.

Valerie frowned.

***

“Thank you for a wonderful evening,” Debbie said. They’d arrived at her house, but were still in the back of the cab.

Valerie blushed, then was surprised as Debbie leaned over and kissed her, full on the lips. Never mind the cab driver could see them in the mirror.

Oh it was sweet. Let the meter run.

“Come inside with me?” Debbie asked, after a long while.

“Um,” Valerie hesitated at the last. “Are you sure?”

Debbie held her eyes. “Yes. I’m sure.” She smiled. Valerie hesitated still. Oh she wanted to… “Don’t you go seducing me all evening and then leave me dangling now,” Debbie warned. “I don’t think the neighborhood would survive.” Valerie caught a giggle half-formed. “It’s not like this is a first date you know.”

The trick, she decided, with learning to say no, was learning when to say it.

And when to shut up.

***

“Hey lover.” Sunlight.

Valerie smiled without opening her eyes. “Hey.”

“You need to get up. You’ve got an appointment, right?”

“Mmmm.” For a moment Valerie considered just staying, and letting the chance come and go. Not as if it was really going to work anyway. Only for a moment. “What time is it?”

“There’s time. It’s eight-thirty.”

“Need to get back to Mike’s, pick up my bike and gear.”

“I’ll take you. I want to come and see you off anyway.”

“Assuming I’m going anywhere.”

Debbie cuddled up close. “Wouldn’t it be great if you could come and go at will?”

“I don’t think it works like that,” she sighed.

“You never know. You don’t know how it works.”

“True. Chances are nothing’ll happen at all. We’ve got no reason to believe this will work, except it’s where it started and there’s a kind of symmetry to it. Not very scientific, huh?”

Debbie sighed. “Is it bad for me to want you to stay?”

“I won’t be staying anyway, Debbie, even if I don’t go home. You know that.”

“I wish you would.”

“Who knows, perhaps somewhere out there, I do.”

“Then why not here? Why always somewhere else? Why am I the one who has to lose you twice?”

“Debbie. It can’t work. I’m not real here. I’m just in the way. If I’m going to have a real life I have to go away to do it.”

“I don’t see that!” Debbie protested. “I want you to stay,” she said more calmly.

“I can’t.”

“Stay.”

Valerie shook her head . “No, Debbie.”

“Well fuck you anyway!” Valerie came fully awake fast at the outburst. Here we go then, she thought grimly. The mattress bounced as Debbie stormed off the bed.

“Debbie…” Valerie disentangled herself from the sheets and followed.

“How dare you come here and do this to me?” Debbie railed. “How dare you! I was over you!” With the last she pounded at Valerie’s chest, but Valerie was prepared and blocked her. And again. And a third time, each time Debbie repeating “I was over you,” until the tears came; then Valerie gathered her in and they embraced, standing naked in the early sunlight in the middle of the room.

“I’m sorry,” Valerie whispered. “I shouldn’t — last night was wrong, I shouldn’t…”

“No,” Debbie sniffled. “Last night was beautiful. Last night was beautiful, Valerie, and I’m just trying to ruin it with my poor little sick-girl act. Again.” She separated from Valerie. “You’re better off without me anyway. I hurt everyone in the end, hadn’t you noticed?”

“That’s not true.”

“Yes it is.” She went to grab her bathrobe, absently getting the spare for Valerie and passing it to her. “I’m in therapy, did you know?”

“I’m — not surprised,” Valerie replied carefully, putting the robe on. Now that they’d stopped, the room turned out to be surprisingly cold.

She is too then?”

Valerie nodded.

“Is it helping?”

“Yes.”

“Doesn’t seem to be doing a damn thing for me,” Debbie muttered.

“She says exactly the same thing, half the time.”

Debbie chuckled. “Yeah, sounds about right I guess. Kathy says I’m better than I was anyway.” She moved in to hug Valerie again. Valerie enclosed her. “I’m sorry.”

“There. You wouldn’t have said that six months ago.”

Debbie giggled again. “Anyway, talking of which,” she gathered her competent persona around her again, “we’ve got to get you ready for your appointment.”

***

Valerie started to feel her head clear as she rode. It always had that effect. It had to, or you were dangerous to be on the road. She wished more cagers realized that. The thoughts came now, calmly, clearly, without upset.

Debbie had dropped her off at Mike’s and disappeared again without lingering. “Wait for me,” she’d said though. “Don’t go without me. I’ll be there. I have to do something first.”

That was typical Debbie. She’d stop in the middle of giving birth to close a deal.

Not that she’d have a chance to do that if she stayed with me. “We’ll use a donor,” her Debbie had said to that, all businesslike, like it was obvious. She’d already thought it all through of course. “But that’s years away, lover.”

“Who’d be the father? Anonymous?”

“I was thinking of your brother.”

“What Tu-Brian I mean? God, they’re getting me calling him that now.”

“No, silly. Mike. He’s closer to you than genes. Can you think of anyone’s child you’d rather have?”

Bring me home, Valerie thought, back in the present. She was actually praying, she realized, not knowing who or what to. Bring me home.

***

Valerie leaned and curved into the clinic’s parking lot. Val was already there, getting out of the car as Valerie pulled to a halt.

“Mike’s on his way, behind me,” she explained as soon as she had the helmet off. “So’s Debbie. Says she wants to give me a send-off.” She grinned.

Val looked at her. “You were with her all night?”

Valerie nodded.

“Why am I not surprised?” Val shook her head.

“You okay with it?”

“Yeah, I’m okay.”

“How was yesterday anyway?”

Val smiled. “We had a good day. Got everyone’s presents all at once.”

“She seems to be taking it so much better than mine,” Valerie mused. “What’s your secret?”

Val shrugged. “No idea.” She thought. “Perhaps she got to see more how bad I’d get if I didn’t do it.”

“Yeah maybe. You were such a mess when I came, I was kind of shocked, you know? My God, I can’t believe it’s only been a week. Look at you!”

“It’s you. Like I said, you’ve got an improbability device or something. Stuff happens around you.”

“Not you too?”

“Things were getting kind of…” she stopped to search for a word. “Entropic?” Valerie nodded. “Maybe that’ll change now,” she grinned.

“Mike was going off on one — something about Native American mythology or something.”

“Yeah?”

“I said to can it. I’m not a bloody avatar of anything. I just want to go home.”

“Ah, but you would say that,” Val teased.

“Yep, that’s what he said.” She sighed. “At least my Mike’s in a Wicca phase at the moment. That’s much more restful. Less drumming,” she elucidated, to Val’s puzzled expression. “Incense, candles, you know.”

“Talking of which, here he comes now.” Sounds some distance off, Valerie guessed, turning and not seeing any sign of it.

“That engine’s got to be illegal,” she muttered, looking at her watch. “Where’s Debbie? Anyway, so you’re going to tell Sheila today?”

“Not like I need to be afraid of her telling Mom and Dad now.”

“God, you’re doing it all different from me.”

“Yeah? Well, what are alternate realities for, huh?”

Mike’s car roared sluggishly into the parking lot.

Valerie grinned. “Right. So, when do you transition?”

“I haven’t decided to do that,” Val replied. “Yet, anyway. Dad says I obviously need to try it. Properly, not part-time, to see how it works out.”

“Duh, what do you think RLT is, dummy?”

“Huh?”

Valerie shook her head. “Never mind. Sheila can tell you. Hi Mike.”

“You all ready to go then?”

“Guess so. Just hoping Debbie’s gonna get here in — oof!” She caught Val, flying into a hug.

“I’m really going to miss you,” Val said into her shoulder.

“I’ll miss you too,” she replied, returning the hug. “You know, we’ll feel pretty silly going through all this if nothing happens, won’t we?”

“That’s better than you disappearing without saying goodbye.” Val stood back from the hug. “I’ll take the chance.”

“Besides,” Mike interposed, “Belief may be a factor in this, so think positively. It’s nearly time,” he added.

“Worst case,” Val said, “the look on Sheila’s face when we both walk in is going to be precious.” They matched grins.

Valerie looked one more time to the parking lot entrance for Debbie, and there she was, careening round the last bend, tires actually squealing like television. They danced smartly out of the way as Debbie’s car came to a screeching halt and Debbie practically threw herself out of the door and ran into Valerie’s arms. “I didn’t miss you! Thank God!”

“Only just,” Valerie said. “We were about to go in.”

“Wait! I wanted you to have these,” she fumbled in her handbag and brought out a few photographs. “The developers were messing me about. I had to get evil on them.” She handed them across. Mike and Val crowded round to look.

There were several of Val and Valerie together at the rollerblading rink, and in the car park outside. “I never saw you take those,” Val said.

“I know,” Debbie replied smugly.

Behind them, there were the pictures Helen had taken of Valerie and Debbie before they headed out on their date. “Oh wow,” Val enthused.

“I didn’t have time to make a decent selection, so that’s all of them. That’s all the pictures I managed to get.”

“Don’t we get copies?” Val asked.

“I’ve got the negatives, I can get more prints done. I just wanted Valerie to have hers now, before she goes.”

Valerie had tears in her eyes. She gathered all three of them into a hug.

“I don’t even know if they’ll come through with me if I go,” she said.

“I’m sure they will,” Debbie insisted. “Maybe they’ll help.” They separated after a little while and Valerie stowed the photographs in her cordura jacket’s inside breast pocket. “There, my astronaut,” Debbie finished, zipping up Valerie’s pocket herself, making the others laugh. Debbie blocked up Valerie’s laughter with a long kiss, leaving Val and Mike looking at each other awkwardly.

“I’m okay to go,” Valerie smiled, when they had finished. Belief may be a factor, she told herself. Come on girl, believe it. Believe you’re going home.

“We should go,” Mike told Debbie.

“Why?”

“I think,” he tried to explain, “I think this shouldn’t be watched.”

Val nodded. “Schrá¶edinger. You’d keep the probabilities collapsed if you watch.”

“Assuming that has anything to do with it,” Valerie noted.

“It just might,” Mike said, “so it’s worth not taking that chance. Come on Debbie, let’s get out of here.”

Debbie nodded, and the two of them went to their respective cars. In a minute they were both gone.

“This is it then,” Val said.

“Or not.”

Believe, Mike said.”

“I’m trying to.”

Val took her hand. “Promise me one thing though. If you don’t go home, don’t slip away from me and hide and disappear and make us think that you did, okay?”

“You knew.”

“Of course I knew. Now promise me you won’t do that. Your word on it.” She was being deadly serious, Valerie saw.

She nodded, eventually. “My word,” she agreed. Val smiled.

“Then we’re ready.”

Hand in hand they walked through the doors.

Notes:

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

A sequel, The Taken, has been begun. The prologue and first chapters may be seen at my homepage. They will be posted here when technical issues have been resolved. (Formatting of quoted song lyrics, footnotes and subtitled foreign-language dialogue.)


 



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