Plus-One With A Vengeance : 27 / 29

Plus-One With A Vengeance : 27 / 29

[ An Altered Fates Story ]
by Iolanthe Portmanteaux

 


"Alas! For it is borrowed!"
2 Kings 6:5


 

In this living game of Clue, it was done in the Dining Room, by the Jealous Ex, with the Gravy Boat.

The whole incident, the entire crime scene, as it were, was quickly shut up inside the dining room, and no one was any the wiser.

You see, the immense ballroom, where the newlyweds and their guests continued to celebrate, connected to the dining room by relatively small door in a corner on a very long wall. The angles of visibility from ballroom to dining room were very few and quite steep. There wasn't a clear view into the dining room unless you happened to be standing right in front of it.

For that reason, less than a dozen people witnessed the event, and all of them were now closeted inside. Outside the door, the reception continued unabated, unaware.

The door was locked to prevent casual discovery.

By a long-standing protocol between the mansion and local first responders, a pair of EMTs, a policewoman, and a police detective all presented themselves dressed in "smart casual" — the better to fit with the festive crowd. They didn't arrive in an ambulance and police car, either. The four drove together, in a specially outfitted SUV with dark-tinted windows. No sirens, no lights.

The idea was to not excite curiosity, to appear inconsequential, to hopefully have zero impact on the festivities, while at the same time providing whatever emergency services were needed.

After quickly verifying that I was only dripping with dessert sauce and not blood, and that I'd simply fainted or fallen, the EMTs concentrated their attention on Oswald. He seemed embarrassed by what happened, and insisted he was fine. They cautioned him about concussions. They shined a penlight in his eyes. They asked him questions and made him follow all sorts of finger movements. As soon as he could escape from the ministrations of the EMTs and the questions from the police, he stepped outside into the open air, danced a jig to display his coordination, and returned to the reception by another door.

The police detective handed me his card "in case you change your mind about pressing charges." I assured him that I wouldn't. He smiled, shrugged, and led his cohort out of the building, into their black SUV, and off the property.

Melissa was itching to fetch Max, but I managed to convince her that I didn't need him worrying and fussing — I only needed to clean myself up and change. He'd be of no help with any of that. Reluctantly, she agreed.

The four women treated me as though I were an invalid. They tried to life me bodily off the floor! "I'm fine, guys," I protested. "I'm not hurt at all. Really! I'm just upset about the dress." Tamara rolled her eyes, scoffed, and waved her hand dismissively. "No, seriously," I assured her. "Do you have a cleaner that you recommend? I mean — will this stain even come out?" I opened and closed my mouth a few times, trying to find the right thing to say. At last I blurted out, "Well, anyway — tell me what the dress costs and I'll pay for it."

"Oh, girl!" she replied, laughing. "Clean it? Pay for it? You most certainly will not!" She shook her head. "Clean it," she repeated scornfully. "I'm not going to clean it, and neither are you! I'm gonna put it in a lovely transparent hanging bag and send it off to your friend Amber — along with the bill. She just bought herself that dress." Tamara chortled. "Easiest sale I ever made."

Puzzled, I asked, "Amber? Pay? But what if she doesn't pay? Tamara, listen — it's not a problem. You don't need to do any of that. I'll be glad to p—"

"Hush, girl," Tamara told me. "I don't want to hear any more talk about what you're going to. And I don't want to hear that P word come out your mouth ever again! Amber is going to pay. If she doesn't pay in a timely manner, I'll see her in court. That dress costs enough to make her little act of vandalism a felony." She nodded several times. "Believe me, honey, she may not want to, but she's gonna pay."

Then, for what seemed the first time, she gave a sober assessment of the damage done. "It's too bad, though. It was a lovely dress, even if it wasn't one of my best. I sure as hell hope somebody took a decent photo of you!" After a single tsk! of regret, she said, "Well, now we've got to fit you out with another one! And I know just the one!"

"Oh, Tamara," I responded anxiously, "Not the one with the hot pants and the half hoop-skirt!"

Kitty's eyes and mouth opened wide in disbelief while Melissa said a wordless Whaat?

"There really is such a dress," Kass assured them, chuckling.

"Naw, not that one," Tamara said, "I was thinking of the crimson off-the-shoulder number — you know the one I mean, Kass?" Then as an afterthought, she added, "And bring a hangin' bag for the dirty dress. A long one."

Kass nodded, smiling, and took off in a flash.

Throughout all the hustle-bustle, the catering staff managed to clean the mess on the floor, to replenish the gravy boats with more red-berry sauce, and to set out the rest of the dessert buffet. That done, they were anxious to clear us out of the room. We were holding up the dessert buffet. A few of the more forward guests were knocking on the door.

One of the staff led us to the bride's changing room — the very one Edison intended to drag me to. There, I stood in a bathtub and slipped out of the dress. Tamara handed me a hanger, and the two of us managed to close it inside the hanging bag without making any more of a mess.

At some point when I wasn't looking, Melissa slipped away.

The stained dress was safely in the bag, and I was still standing in the tub, in nothing but my underwear. My stomach and thighs glistened with red stickiness. "Now what?" I asked (of no one in particular). To Tamara I asked, "You wouldn't have any spare underwear in your van, would you?"

Tamara gave a half-rueful grin. "Unfortunately, I don't," she admitted. "You're going to have to be a brave, bra-less commando, hon." She glanced into the outer room at the replacement dress. "Don't worry, though. This dress covers all your girly bits and then some. And... if anybody does happen to get a glimpse of your charms... well, you've got the body to carry it off."

I reddened, then slipped off my sauce-covered underwear. It was a lovely set, nude in color. Max was a huge fan. I dropped the bra and panties into a small trash bag Kass had managed to find. I sighed as I rinsed the sugary mess from my body, thinking This is the first time I've been naked in front of other women. My high-school locker-room experience was limited in that way: I spent it as a boy, among other boys.

In spite of my embarrassment, the other women took my nakedness as entirely natural; I was the only one blushing, the only one looking at the floor.

The dress Kass brought was beautiful. Tamara called the color crimson but I would have called it cherry — it was a deep, shining red, it positively glowed, like a piece of polished fruit. To call it "off the shoulder" was a bit of an understatement, though. The straps, which were about two inches wide, were placed halfway down my upper arm, and exposed so much of my breasts that it could have served as an illustrated definition of the word cleavage. There was no way I could have worn a bra, even if I had one to wear. The skirt belled out and ended just above my knees, and was covered by a thin, flowing chiffon overskirt that added a whole dimension of depth and highlights to the color.

"It's beautiful!" I gasped to Tamara.

"Eh," she scoffed, smiling, "You make it look good. Hang on, though, we've got to pin up a few spots. Don't worry: they're all safety pins. You won't stick yourself, but if Max — or anybody — gives you a hug and you feel a little pop! somewhere, that's one of the safety's gone off. Then you might have to worry." In a few moments she stuck a pin here, a pin there, tightening up the fit and making the dress seem created specifically for me.

In the end, Tamara looked me over critically, then advised me, "Remember you're my advertisement. See if you can get Oswald or Claus to dance you, make you spin, to show off that skirt."

"And those boobs," Kass added with a spicy grin.

 


 

I took Kitty's arm and stepped out of the bride's changing room, then back down a short staircase into the dining room. In the brief time we'd been inside, the dessert buffet had been absolutely ransacked. "The vultures!" Tamara exclaimed. "They left nothing, not even the bones!"

"I didn't know desserts *had* bones," Kass quipped.

My dress got several surprised admiring glances, including a thumbs-up from Nessa herself, and that buoyed me up a bit.

"Here are your two dance partners," Kitty said, laughing, when we arrived at our table. "If they can still stand." Claus and Oswald were leaning on each other like best buddies. From the look of them, they must have been doing shots. (In spite of Oswald's possible concussion!)

Claus looked up at us, red-faced, smiling the self-pleased smile that comes with overconsumption of alcohol — a look shared by Oswald, although Oswald also sported an adventurous lump on his forehead to commemorate Amber beaning him with the apple. I guessed he had a similar lump on the back of his head from his encounter with Edison. I made a serious mental note to caution him about concussions. He'd taken two knocks to the head, and had lost consciousness at least once.

"We're discussing The Great Gatsby," Claus informed us. "Because this fellow here—" he patted Oswald's chest "—reminds me of that character, the owl-eyed man."

"The man with the owl-eyed glasses," Oswald corrected, blinking, owl-like.

"I think in this case, I've gone one better than F. Scott Fitzgerald," Claus told him. "The owl-eyed man scans better."

Kitty, in a bid to change the subject, threw out a question. "Oswald, why did you come with Amber? Do you two have a history?"

Claus, oblivious to Kitty's question, confided to Oswald, "I like you, owl-eyed man, can I tell you that? Listen, do you remember — the owl-eyed man is the only person who came to Gatsby's funeral? The only person. That's a fact."

"It's true," Oswald acknowledged to Claus. Then he turned to Kitty to reply.

"The Great Gatsby is a great novel," Claus declared. "The greatest!"

"Well," Oswald cautioned, "It's a good novel. We can call it a great novel. But the greatest? Let's say it's *one* of the greatest."

"Ah-ah 


 " Claus protested, but Oswald silenced him by saying, "Claus, please: let's not quibble over superlatives."

Claus, struck by the terse wisdom of the phrase, was speechless — at least long enough for Oswald to finally reply to Kitty.

"Kitty, I came with Amber because she is my cousin and my friend. And— and— I confess that I came mainly because I love weddings. Who can resist a good wedding? And in a place like this? It's been absolutely wonderful! Sitting here with all of you... In spite of a few contretemps, and a couple of lumps on my head, it's turned out far better than I expected or imagined."

Max, who suddenly appeared at my elbow, agreed, saying, "It has been a pretty bumpy ride, hasn't it?"

"Max!" I exclaimed.

"They wouldn't let me into that damn room," Max told me. "I tried going around outside, but the staff headed me off. Are you alright? And where on earth did you get that dress! My god, you're even more beautiful than before! Was that some kind of magical sauce Amber hit you with?"

I could see his eyes were practically glued to my chest, where the naked upper halves of my breasts were dancing. "Oh, Max," I laughed. "You're such a dog!"

"What?" he asked, feigning innocence. "I love this dress! It really shows off your charms."

"Both of them, right?" I quipped.

He wiggled his eyebrows in roguish reply.

"And now—" the amplified voice of the best man cut into the general hubbub "— at this point in the evening, the brother of the bride has a few words he'd like to share with us."

"She finally let him speak," Max chuckled.

Robin, smiling, took the microphone in hand and placed himself on the dance floor, facing the head table, in front of the happy couple.

"First of all, let me welcome you to the family, Tag. I don't think I could find a better match for my little sister. I don't think anyone could." [Pause for applause]

"I've put a lot of thought into what I'd like to share with you... of my many memories of Nessa." Robin grinned. Nessa wagged her finger at him, warningly. Robin continued, "I'll start at the very beginning — the first time I ever laid eyes on her. I remember it like yesterday: It was the day my parents brought Nessa home from the hospital, soon after she was born.

"She was a tiny little thing — not much smaller than she is right now—" [pause for laughter]

"I'm kidding, of course. She was a beautiful baby. Such a beautiful baby! Everybody said so. I remember her dark, dark hair and her impossibly long eyelashes. Even as a child I realized I'd never seen a more lovely, more adorable child.

"I looked up at my parents and I said, I've got two questions for you: One, where did you find her? and two, can you bring her back?"

The room burst into laughter, and continued as Nessa jokingly shook her little fist at Robin, who grinning, barked, "What's the return policy?" and shouted over the noise of the crowd, "She's yours now, Tag! She's yours! You can't give her back! You won't even get store credit!"

 


 

Soon after, Tag and Nessa drove off in a BMW convertible. We followed the general exodus to our cars, our footsteps crunching in the driveway. Around us scurried the more scavenger guests making off with the table centerpieces. I leaned into Max, relieved and happy.

"Lorelei?" Kitty called. I heard her hurried footsteps in the gravel behind me. She gently touched my arm and asked, "Hey, Lorelei, listen, you told me that Elliot and his dad are coming back on Wednesday, right? Are they driving up?"

"No, They're flying in early, at Surrebon Airport. I'm going to pick them up."

"Oh, good! Do you think I could invite them for lunch? I know it's sudden, but I'd really love to see them — And you and Max, of course!"

"That's really nice! I'll ask them and let you know — I'm guessing — I mean, I'm sure it'll be fine. I'll give you a call when I've spoken to them."

"Great!" She gave my arm a friendly squeeze and was gone.

 


 

We stayed another night at the hotel. Checkout was at 10 AM; otherwise we'd have slept later. Traffic was light; we got home pretty quickly.

And then... Monday: Max went back to work. I unpacked our bags, did laundry, made dinner.

Tuesday: Max went to work, I packed a little bag, and made dinner.

It was strange, very strange, to look at life without Nessa's wedding looming ahead. It had been the focus of... well, everything for... wow. I guess since Christmas Eve. Five months, just about. Was it really only five months ago that we discovered Amber had gone? Disappeared from Max's house?

From then to now, everything pointed like a big bright arrow toward Nessa's wedding. Now that her wedding had passed, what did our future hold? What would *my* future be?

I'd gone from earning a good living as a professional software developer with a solid set of skills and a good reputation, to... what? Now I'm basically a housewife. Was that all I could look forward to? Would I mind if that was all I had to look forward to? And if not that, what?

These were questions I'd have to figure out.

Now that I'd served my purpose, so to speak, as Max's plus-one, one possibility I had to consider was turning back into Elliot. It would be weird to go back, though. It would be weird as hell, but weird or not, it was a possibility I had to consider.

It wasn't a possibility that I wanted to consider, but I couldn't just think about who I wanted to be right now. Who was I going to be? Where did I see myself in five years, ten years? Who would I be when I grew old? I had to look at the possibilities in the life ahead of me. As Elliot, I could earn a good living. I had friends. My Dad was still alive and healthy. As Lorelei, I had Max. I had some domestic skills. I was making friends. Everything in Lorelei's life was nascent, just beginning. I'd need to build my life. Not quite from scratch, but life as Lorelei came with a disclaimer: SOME ASSEMBLY REQUIRED.

Clearly, though, every indication, all my inclinations, all pointed toward my remaining Lorelei forever. I liked the idea. I liked it a lot. I loved being Lorelei. Max loved my being Lorelei. There were a lot of pros to being Lorelei, and the only con was What will I do with my life?

Even if, God forbid, things didn't work out with Max, I'd still love to be Lorelei.

And I had to admit, the question What will I do with my life? was already a question back when I was Elliot. Thinking about it didn't get me anywhere. And sure, if I were Elliot, I could get a job right away, programming. I could, yeah. But would I want to? Was that a good enough reason for giving up being me?

In any case, the questions and possible decisions would have to wait. The plan for this week was all about telling Dad. That was going to be a trip.

Once Dad knew about Lorelei, I felt pretty sure he'd have some input. In any case, it would be wonderful to have his blessing. It would be nice to be able to talk to him on the phone, as his daughter.

So, to the plan: Tuesday night, Max and I had dinner together. Max did his best to be cheerful and upbeat. I was pretty obvious in feeling very Last-Suppery about it. Max kept trying to start a conversation, but all I could manage was terse responses.

"What time does your Dad's flight get in tomorrow?" he asked.

"Eleven."

"Are you... changing tonight? Or will you do it tomorrow, before you leave for the airport?"

"Tonight. That way, I'll be ready to change back again, any time tomorrow, whenever I need to."

"In any case, you'll definitely change back to Lorelei tomorrow night, right?"

I heaved a big breath. "That's the plan," I responded. "If we need to adjust the schedule, I'll send you a text."

He reached over and took my hand. "However long it takes," he said. "Just be sure you come back to me. Promise?"

"I promise," I assured him. "I'll come back to you." I noticed that his plate was empty. He'd finished his meal, while mine? I'd barely even picked at my dinner.

"Lorelei forever," he said, smiling.

"Yep," I agreed. "Lorelei forever."

I stood and looked at the remnants of our dinner. Out of habit I reached for the plates, to carry them to the kitchen. Max stopped me. "I got this," he told me. "I'll clean up. It'll give me something to do, while you're off..."

"Yeah," I acknowledged. I swallowed hard a couple of times, then walked into his arms, burying my face in his shoulder. I hugged him tight, as though afraid of being carried away from him in a flash flood. He held me, without words, as if he had nothing else on earth to do but stand there and hold me.

"I'm scared," I whispered, unsure of whether he could hear me.

"It's okay," he whispered back. "It'll all work out. Remember: he's your Dad. The same man you've always known. Your Dad loves you. You know this."

"Yeah."

"And *I* love you. I'll be here, waiting, until you come back. And if you need me, all you have to do is whistle."

I could feel him smiling.

"Okay."

""

Max offered to drive me to Vivianne's house, but I insisted on calling a cab. And not an Uber, but an honest-to-God taxi cab. It was my way of formally opening a parenthesis, of boxing off a series of events that I needed to do without Max.

Vivianne's husband, Ken, opened the door. He was, as always, red-faced. I could smell alcohol on his breath, but he seemed more cheery than inebriated. "Not drunk, but having drink taken," as the Irish Garda put it.

Viv quickly led me away to her fitting room, and without any preamble, changed me back into Elliot.

"Hello again," she said after I dressed in my old outfit, my last-Elliot things. "There you are."

Yes, there I was. Elliot Beekman. My suitcase held a few days' worth of clothes for my Elliot self, enough for three or four with my Dad. I also brought a pair of pajamas and my male toiletries (shave cream, razor, hair cream).

Viv showed me to a guest room. "I apologize, but I'm going to leave you on your own tonight. You can watch TV. You can read. If you're hungry, help yourself to whatever you find in the kitchen. There are a few items in Tupperware that you can microwave if you like. They're all labeled."

"I've had dinner, thanks."

"Ken will be home. His room is near the front door, by the stairs, opposite the dining room. I'm sure he'd be happy to have your company. There's probably some sports thing on TV. If you do spend time with him, he's a very good listener, but please — please — do NOT mention the medallion or transformations. He doesn't know anything about the subject, and I intend to keep it that way."

"Understood."

"I'll be back late tonight. You'll see me in the kitchen in the morning. We can have breakfast together, and go over the plan one last time."

She turned, and I thought she'd leave at that point. Instead, she hesitated for a few moments, weighing something in her mind. Then, after a glance at my face, she added, "It's probably a little too late to point this out, except to prepare a nice big I told you so for later, but... Do you remember when you were a little girl? At the mall?"

"Yes, of course."

"And you called out to Kitty."

"Right."

"And you know, you really shouldn't have. We discussed it. In the end, it turned out to not be a big deal, but it was an unnecessary complication that you created all by yourself."

I shrugged helplessly. It seemed more irrelevant than ever, so long after the fact. "Okay," I admitted, "But why bring it up now?"

"I think you've done the same thing again by agreeing to have lunch with Kitty tomorrow."

"Why? What does it matter? What does it hurt? Kitty doesn't know anything."

Viv laughed. "Kitty knows the social fabric that both Elliot and Lorelei live in. For someone who doesn't know anything, Kitty knows a lot."

I sighed helplessly.

"I'm not trying to make you feel anxious or guilty, Elliot. I simply want to point out that, while having lunch at Kitty's doesn't hurt anything — hopefully — what it *does* do, is to compress your timeline. It adds unnecessary pressure. You're going to have to fit some awkward explanations in between picking up your father at the airport and arriving at Kitty's."

Ah. She was right. I'd have to think about that...

Echoing my thoughts, she said, "Tonight, you can prepare. You can think about what you're going to say: What to tell him. How to tell him. Remembering how tight your schedule will be."

"Okay. I'm sorry."

"It's not about being sorry. The only consideration is easing your father into this new reality. It's best to have time. Elbow room, so to speak. You're going to be asking him to swallow some rather unbelievable things."

I sighed. "You're right."

"And then, tomorrow night: you agreed to take your father to that smelly beefhouse, Hoof and How!?"

"Yes."

"So what time will we give him a demonstration of the medallion?"

"If we get to Hoof and How! at seven, we could be here between nine and ten, at the latest. Is that okay?"

"As long as we're done before eleven," she informed me. "I'll be fine. If something changes, call me. As soon as anything changes, call me."

"Alright," I said. I was nervous already. Now she'd gotten me more anxious than before.

Vivianne looked into my face, reading the roil of emotions written there, and smiled. She reached out and touched my hand. "Try to not worry, Elliot." she counseled. "You seem to have a crazy, silly luck, and I have the feeling your lucky streak will continue." She gave my hand an encouraging squeeze.

"Do you really think so?" I asked.

Her grin widened. "No," she said. "Luck? How could I possibly know? Even so, it made you feel better when I said it, didn't it?"

 


 

By eleven o'clock I completely and thoroughly exhausted the possibilities offered by the television. I clicked over 200 channels and three streaming services. I covered the free-with-ads offerings built into the TV itself, then combed through the rentals. Nothing appealed to me. Nothing called out to me. It wasn't the world of entertainment that was at fault; it was me. My whole self was distracted. My complete attention was inwards. I was too consumed by what tomorrow would bring — to say nothing of the days to follow!

I'd already showered at home, but I took another — far longer — shower, to help me unwind. I gave another forty-five minutes to the TV before switching it off in defeat. I turned off the light and tried to sleep.

It was hopeless. I tried lying on my belly, on my back, on one side and the other. Unfortunately, I wasn't tired at all. I couldn't have been more awake if I'd consumed two pots of strong coffee. My brain refused to shut down. It whirred and whirled in fruitless, endless cycles filled with doubts, fears, and indecision. I got up, put on a robe I found hanging in the bathroom, and made my way down to the kitchen. I didn't dare hope that the contents of some Tupperware could comfort me. At least I could go through the motions of eating. A full belly might provide the ballast to pull me down to sleep.

To my surprise, the kitchen light was on. I'd forgotten about Ken, but here he was, in the kitchen, large as life, alone, holding a tea kettle with both hands. He seemed baffled by the thing, turning it over, looking inside, rapping on it experimentally. His gaze lifted. He looked me in the face — I had the image of an archaeologist in the midst of a dig, lost in the examination of an unexpected pottery shard.

"Oh, hullo," he said, in the tone of one who'd been miles away. "I'm Ken. And you're—?"

"Elliot. Elliot Beekman."

"Beekman," he repeated. He set the kettle down on the stove and shook my hand. He held it a moment, repeating, "Beekman, Beekman, Beekman." Then he let go and smiled. "Got it! Beekman: Any relation to Arlo Beekman?"

"Yes, he's my Dad," I replied. "Do you know him?"

"Know? No. I don't *know* him. I know *of* him — knew of him, really. He was a year or two behind Viv and me back in high school, way back in the dark ages, when dinosaurs roamed the earth. Seemed like a smart guy, likable. Sandy hair, wiry build. That sound about right?"

"Yeah, that's my Dad."

"Well, what do you know about that! So, tell me: what is old Arlo up to now? Did he—" Then he stopped himself. "Hold on — Where are my manners? Here I am, interrogating you, while — You're a man with a mission, aren't you! You came down here... looking..." He gave a absent-minded glance at the kettle, as if it might provide a clue. "Can I assume that you're here, now, because you, like me, are having trouble sleeping?" I nodded. He smiled in satisfaction. "You're in luck! I have just the thing! Exactly the thing." He softly rubbed his hands together, held up one finger in the air (to say, "just a moment"), and shuffled over to his bar.

"If it's a sleeping pill," I answered cautiously, "I don't—"

He waved his hand dismissively. "Sleeping pill? Never touch the stuff. I'm talking about a cocktail. More or less guaranteed to do what's needed. Have you ever had a Brandy Alexander?" he asked. "Cognac, Creme de Cacao, Cream — all the ingredients start with a C." He charged a shaker with ice, then poured in each of the ingredients with a surprising amount of focus and attention. He capped off the steel container and shook it loudly.

"Ain't that a sound to raise the dead," he cackled. After what seemed an inordinate amount of shaking, Ken set out two martini glasses and filled them both. The shaker was covered with condensation, nearly frosted. He handed one of the glasses to me. It was a pale pink mixture.

The site gave me a sudden flashback to Christmas Eve, when Max mixed us a pair of Mistletoe Martinis. I smiled at the memory.

"This will help to unwind you," Ken assured me. Then, gesturing toward the kitchen table: "Sit, please sit. We'll sip our treasures and talk about the day."

We sipped our drinks, but we didn't talk about the day. We talked about my father. Viv was right: Ken was a good listener. He seemed to have an inexhaustible supply of idle curiosity — or maybe he enjoyed hearing people talk. In any case, I poured out what I knew of my father. I told Ken about my time at the startup, how my Dad tried to pry me away from it, and how Dad was there to catch me when I was laid off... and finally, how he'd moved to Florida.

It was only in retrospect that I saw I'd done all the talking. At every lapse or pause of mine, Ken was ready with a gentle prompt that set me rolling again. It felt good to unload, to just talk...

In spite of losing myself in my own narrative, I didn't come anywhere near to the topics of medallions and magical transformations, and Ken didn't appear to be aware of their absence. He didn't probe or prompt me to spill the magical beans, so to speak. I guess Vivianne did a good job of keeping him in the dark.

During my recitation, we finished our drinks, and Ken fixed us another two. I apologized for talking his ear off.

Instead of the conventional response (which is to say "not at all!"), Ken said simply, apropos of nothing, "Do you know the greatest achievement of my life?" He paused for rhetorical effect. Then: "It was convincing Vivianne Errison to marry me. Can you imagine?" He gave a small, reflective smile. "And my greatest disappointment?" Another rhetorical pause for effect. Then the response: "Never having any children. It's such a disappointment at this stage in life. I envy your Dad. I do. I really do."

While I sat there, struggling to find something appropriate to say, I turned my head a little quickly and felt the room give a gentle swoop as if I were onboard ship and we'd slipped into a wave. The alcohol had "gone to my legs" as they say. Ken finished his drink and treated me to another non sequitur: "I thought I saw Lorelei arrive earlier. When I heard your footsteps coming down the stairs, I was quite surprised to see you instead of her."

"Yes," I said, feeling both stupid and embarrassed. "She left, but she'll be back tomorrow."

"Lovely," he said. "Such a lovely girl." Another pause. "Are you two related? Is she your sister? There's a striking similarity in your faces." He made a circular gesture with an open hand in front of his own face.

"She's my cousin."

"Ah." He nodded sagely, as if I'd just solved a nagging puzzle, or bestowed a pearl of wisdom. Ken was certainly an odd duck. I did have to wonder how he'd landed a woman as sharp and self-determined as Vivianne.

Ken took a deep breath and looked up at the clock on the wall. He suddenly seemed haggard and old, as though all the alcohol he'd consumed abruptly washed over him, canceling out whatever inner mental gyrations were keeping him awake. He blew his breath out slowly though pursed lips and narrowed his eyes as if the clock had morphed into a strange, indecipherable hieroglyph.

"Dear God," he said. "I feel as though I've missed the train."

"The train?" I asked, bewildered.

He opened his palms and spread his hands, as if releasing a benediction on the world.

"Figure of speech, my boy, figure of speech." He slurred the ch in speech, before unsteadily rising to his feet and leaving the room. I listened for his footfall on the stairs, but instead he went into his room on the first floor.

I picked up my glass so I could finish my drink, and was startled to find that I'd already drank it all. Oh, dear, I thought. I'd better watch out. I don't want to end up like Ken. I put the glasses and the shaker into the sink and took an inner inventory. Ken was right: the Brandy Alexanders *had* "unwound me." My worries and fears were nowhere in sight, and before they had a chance to return, I made my way upstairs to my bed and fell softly and slowly into the world of dreams.

 


 

Dad's plane landed a little early. I caught up with him in baggage claim. We shared a hug. We said our hellos. He seemed... not so much tired, as worn. I put it down to the flight.

I told him, "My car's this way," but he stopped me.

"I have to wait for my bag."

"You checked a bag?" I asked, surprised.

"Is that a problem?" he countered, a trace of amusement playing at the corners of his mouth.

"No, I'm just... I mean... you usually travel light." (Here I pointed at his carry-on.)

"Yeah, usually I do," he agreed as he hefted a good-sized duffel bag from the baggage carousel onto his shoulder. "I'm planning on staying a while."

"Um, okay. Anyway, my car's this way," I repeated, and led the way. Dad's change of plans knocked me for a loop. Earlier he mentioned staying for "three or four days" before heading back to Florida. Normally I'd be happy to see him stay longer, but a key piece of my "Lorelei forever" program depended on the idea that Elliot moved to Florida with his Dad. The longer Dad hung around town, the less likely my moved-to-Florida story would hold water.

Oh, well! I'd have to play the hand I was dealt. Getting Dad on board might take longer than expected.

We walked a few yards in silence. I offered to carry his bag. He shook his head no.

Then, I threw out an early tease: "Dad, have you ever heard of the Medallion of Zulo?" I ventured that much, because if he he'd already heard of it, my explanations could end up being a hell of a lot easier.

He thought for a moment before replying. "No, can't say I have. Is it a new TV show? I don't get all the new channels, you know."

By channels he probably meant streaming services.

"No, it's not a TV series. It's a medallion that transforms people."

"Okay, I'll bite," he said. "What does it transform them into? Wizards? Werewolves? Zombies? Vampires?"

"No, it transforms them into other people."

He walked a few steps, considering the idea. "And then what?" he asked.

"What do you mean, and then what? Then, they're someone else. An old person or a young person, a specific person. It depends on what clothes you touch to the medallion."

"Huh. So is it a kind of fashion show?"

"What? Where do you get that from?"

"Hey, you're the one who brought it up. I'm just trying to show interest. Right now, I'm trying to work out the appeal — you know: why people watch this show. From what you said, it sounds like it's mainly about clothes and how they affect people."

I couldn't see a way to steer the conversation in the right direction, but by now we'd reached my car, so I let it go. I unlocked the car doors and opened the trunk. He stowed his bags.

We sat in the car and fastened our seat belts. but before I started the engine, Dad stopped me by putting his hand on mine. "Listen, Elliot, I know I sprung this visit on you — what? Last Friday? I really don't want to put you out. You've probably got all kinds of things planned..."

"No, Dad. I've cleared my schedule. I just want to spend time with you." Honestly, there was nothing to "clear" — my schedule was already clear.

"Oh, okay. Well, that's great. But, um, anyway, about sleeping arrangements: I don't know how much room you and Max have — You're still staying with Max, right?"

"Uh, yeah, I am. Um..."

Actually, where my Dad and I would be sleeping would depend entirely on who I was on any given day. But Dad continued:

"I don't need to crowd in with you two. I already talked with my friend Sam. He's got a big old empty house, plenty of room, and he'll be happy to put up with me until I figure things out."

"Um... figure what things out, Dad?"

He gave a short bark of a laugh, followed by a quick glance at me and a sigh. "Don't worry," he told me. "It's nothing bad. We can talk about it tonight at Hoof and How! We're having dinner there, right? — my treat. I gotta tell you my plans, but I don't want to get into it now. I'll still stiff from the flight and my head's not in the right place. Let's leave it until then, okay?"

My heart was sinking lower at every moment. My Lorelei forever plans were unraveling and coming apart. But — here we were, at the point Viv warned me about: lunch with Kitty.

"Uh... okay, Dad. Hey, listen: remember Kitty?"

"Kitty? What kind of question is that? How could I forget Kitty? Such a cutie!" He shook his head in admiration. "That girl did a hell of a job helping me sell my house. Of course I remember Kitty!"

"She and her husband Claus invited us over for lunch."

"Today?"

"Yes, now."

"Fine, sounds great. Is she a good cook?"

"Oh, it's not *her* cooking — it's Claus."

"Ah — he's the German boy, isn't he? So what's on the menu? Bratwurst and sauerkraut?"

"Hardly. He's working his way through Julia Child's French Cooking."

"Hmmph," Dad grunted in surprise. "So why aren't we heading over there? Why isn't the car moving? You need to turn that little key to make it go, you know."

"I know, Dad, I know." I took a deep breath and plucked up my courage. "There's just one thing, though... I, uh... I have to ask you a favor."

He looked at me quizzically.

"See, Dad — do you think you can pretend that I've been... down in Florida with you and that the two of us came up on the same flight this morning?"

He gave me a sideways look. His eyes narrowed. "You want me to pretend all that."

"Yes, would you?"

"Pretend," he repeated. "You mean lie."

"Yes," I admitted. "I mean lie. But I have a reason. A big reason. A good reason." I glanced at him. "And I'll tell you after lunch."

"Why can't you tell me now?"

"Because it's complicated."

"Oh, boy," he intoned, almost scornfully. "It's complicated. Is it illegal?"

"Oh, no, not illegal. Absolutely not illegal at all. Just... complicated. I have a good reason, believe me. I swear."

"Okay, fine, but it better be a damn good reason — you're asking me to lie to people I hardly know!"

"And there's another thing—"

"Another pretend?"

"Yes. Do you remember that picture I sent you... of that girl... and you thought she was Lorelei?"

"Yeah?" Now his suspicion was on full. "Who is she really?"

"I'll tell you after lunch," I promised. "but can you pretend that you haven't seen her because our families have been estranged?"

"What the hell, Elliot? We don't see Lorelei because she's dead! She died when she was an infant! What kind of tangled web are you spinning here?"

"Dad — Dad — Can you please trust me on this? Just hold on until after the lunch, and I'll explain everything?"

Dad fell silent. I could see the gears turning in his head, and almost heard the click! when he thought he understood.

"Wait, wait, wait!" he exclaimed, holding up his hand. "That girl in the picture — that was — Oh, my God! Elliot, are you putting on a dress and running around calling yourself Lorelei? Is that what's going on? What the hell, Elliot? What kind of thing is this to spring on me?"

Then he stopped. He covered his face with his hands for a moment and shook his head. Then, a little calmer, after a big breath, he said, "I'm sorry, I didn't mean what I just said just now. The words, the tone... let's just go back and start again. Okay? If you've made a big life choice here—" then he stopped again, and the gears in his head started grinding a second time. This time they stopped with a ding!

"Hang on," he said. "Hang on! You and Max... You... You and Max Errison..." he shook his finger at me, as he'd just caught on. "You two... you're... involved, aren't you?"

"Yes, Dad," I admitted. "But it's a little more complic—"

"Okay, okay," he said. "I'll admit this could take some getting used to on my part, so you'll have to be patient with me, okay? I'm an old guy: I'm a product of a different era. If you and Max — and Max is a great guy! I always liked Max. If you two are... I support you. I'll always love you and get behind whatever you do. Okay? I love you, son. That's the important thing. I love you. Understand?"

He sat in silence, thinking for a bit. Then, the gears in his head turned again and a light switched on over his head. He turned to me and said, "You have a plan, don't you." He didn't ask it as a question. I nodded. "You're going to make a... a... transition. Aren't you." Again I nodded.

"I see."

He thought some more. "So this business about you being in Florida with me, and the uh..." he choked up a little here "... the business about Lorelei — that's all part of your plan. Is that right?"

"Yes, Dad."

I turned on the engine, pulled out of the parking place, and headed toward Claus and Kitty's house. My heart was pounding. We drove in silence at first, Dad digesting his slightly distorted version of what was going on in my life.

Then he came out with it: "I have one question, and I don't mean to offend you, but — here goes: When you... go around in a dress with the uh... the uh—" he made a gesture with both hands in front of his chest to signify breasts suddenly growing there "—the whole getup — do people believe you?"

"Uh— well, you saw that picture I sent you, didn't you?"

"And that was you."

"Yes."

"It was you."

"Yes, it was me."

"But it was photoshopped, right?"

"No, it wasn't photoshopped. It was a straight-on regular photo."

Stunned, he fell back into his seat.

"Holy crap!" he exclaimed, clearly impressed.



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