Plus-One With A Vengeance : 28 / 29

Plus-One With A Vengeance : 28 / 29

[ An Altered Fates Story ]
by Iolanthe Portmanteaux

 


"Go I know not whither and bring back I know not what."
Russian fairy tale


 

We stepped out of the car in front of Kitty and Claus's bungalow. My father put his hands above his head, arms straight, and twisted his body like a piece of taffy. A series of small pops went off like a line of firecrackers as my father worked the kinks out of his spine. "Finally!" he exclaimed in relief. "My legs and back got all jammed up on the plane ride here," he explained. "There's no more legroom on those damn things any more. I've been waiting hours for the moment to crack myself free."

"Take it easy, Dad," I cautioned. "The neighbors might think you're firing a handgun in the street."

He gave a soft grunt and tried a few more twists and turns with his elbows and shoulders to see whether any other explosive knots might give way.

"Laugh while you can," he cautioned. "Once you get old, you start getting stiff in places you didn't know you had."

He stood up straight and tall and stretched one more time, his arms high. He took a deep breath, then let it out as he lowered his arms. He lifted his head and sniffed. "Somebody's having a barbecue," he observed. Then, with an abstracted air, he walked around the back end of my car and stood in the middle of the street, scanning left to right and back again, as if trying to memorize the facades of all the houses on the street. He turned around and did the same thing in the opposite direction.

He cocked his head to listen. "There's an elementary school a few streets over."

"Sounds like it," I agreed.

"And a train," he added, with a smile. There was, in fact, a melancholy hoot, nearly out of earshot. "I love the sound of a train in the distance." He rubbed his hands together with a satisfied expression. "Do you know, Elliot, I've never been to this part of town before," he confessed. "Never! It's surprising, when you consider I grew up here. And I wasn't exactly a homebody."

"I've only been here once before myself," I told him. "And for the same reason: to visit Kitty and Claus." I still didn't understand what Dad was going on about. The neighborhood was nothing to write home about. It wasn't as though we'd discovered a legendary lost city. Sure, neither of us ever set foot here before, but with good reason: there was nothing to bring us here. It was all residential, and — apart from Kitty and Claus — no one we knew lived here. It was a nondescript working-class community on the outskirts of town. There weren't any stores, or even a post office. A small branch of the public library stood on a corner a few streets over, but that was the extent of its attractions.

Even so, Dad nodded, looking pleased.

"Kitty and Claus are only here temporarily," I informed him. "They bought a fixer-upper somewhere near Max's house. This is just a place to stay until the renovations are done on their new place."

I added, apologetically, "It's not the greatest neighborhood."

He glanced at me in surprise. "Oh, no? I wasn't thinking that at all. It doesn't look bad." He grinned. "Sure, it isn't all shiny, cute, and new. These places just need a little TLC: a coat of paint, a little yardwork, some cleanup. You couldn't call these houses fancy, sure, but... look around... talk about fixer-uppers? A lot of these houses are fixer-uppers; starter homes. It's just a different price bracket than where you live." He took another quick look around, then: "Are they buying? or renting?"

"Is *who* buying or renting?"

"Kitty and Claus."

"Renting."

He clicked his tongue. "Pity! They probably could have picked this place up for a song. Do you think?"

"I guess so."

He smiled, walked over to me, and gave me a friendly whack on the arm. For some reason, Dad seemed enormously pleased. In some weird, inexplicable, Dad-like way, this dull, worn-out neighborhood energized him.

Also, I had the feeling that he enjoyed being part of my secret. He was pleased to be part of my conspiracy — even if he had a balled-up, mixed-up version of what was really going on.

Speaking of my conspiracy, it suddenly struck me that I hadn't cautioned him that Kitty and Claus were utterly in the dark. "Dad—" I began, but was interrupted by Kitty opening her front door and calling us in.

"What are you two doing, standing in the middle of the street like that?"

Claus pushed himself into the doorway with her. "Come inside! Come inside! You could get struck by a meteorite, standing there gaping like that!" He laughed at his own joke.

"Oh...," Dad whispered. "I forgot what this kid Claus was like. It's all coming back to me now."

"He's still the same," I whispered back. "But, Dad—" I began again. This time he interrupted me by squeezing my arm and giving a slow wink. He walked on ahead and gave Kitty a warm embrace.

"I hope you don't mind sitting right down at table," Claus apologized, "but the food is ready, and I'm supposedly working."

"Working?" Dad asked.

"Working remotely," Claus explained. "Hopefully no one will be looking for me."

We sat. Kitty filled our wine and water glasses. Claus busied himself briefly in the kitchen, then emerged bearing plates. "Moussaka," he explained. "with tomato salad."

"It smells wonderful, Claus," Dad told him. "And it looks great."

"Claus," I asked. "I thought you were working your way through Julia Child... Isn't moussaka a Greek dish?"

"Yes, it is," he replied. "And yet, it's right there in Mastering the Art of French Cooking. Don't ask me why."

"Did you make this this morning? It looks spectacular!"

"No, I made it last night. Julia points out the dishes that can be prepared ahead of time, and this is one of them. Today, all I had to do was heat it up and fix the salad."

We ate in appreciative silence for a few minutes, until Dad asked Kitty, "Why aren't you working today?"

Kitty laughed. "I only work when there's something to do. Tomorrow, for instance, I have to break down a house. I mean, I have to take away all my props and furniture."

"Interesting," Dad observed. "Do you do that when they close?"

"Just before the closing."

Dad nodded, smiling, pleased to be there. Then he turned to me and asked, "And you, Elliot — why aren't you working today?"

I looked at him in silence for a few beats before replying deadpan, "I flew up from Florida this morning with you, Pops."

"Ah," he said, remembering our deal. Then, covering gracefully, he said, "Senior moment."

Between the four of us, we nearly managed to finish the moussaka. Nearly — but not quite: no one took the last piece; we were all too full. Claus set out a tray of cheeses and bread, along with a bowl of fruit. Kitty observed, "I asked Max and Lorelei to come today as well. Unfortunately they couldn't make it, but now I see we might not have had enough food."

Claus shrugged. "I would have added another dish or two." Then, after taking a slice of bread he asked, "Why couldn't they come? You didn't tell me."

"Max is actually working," Kitty laughed, "He has to show up at the office every day. Lorelei made a quick trip to Omaha."

"Ah, yes, of course," Claus smirked. "To visit the clone factory."

"Claus!" Kitty cautioned. He shrugged. Dad looked puzzled.

Kitty huffed, a little impatiently, and explained, "Claus has this silly joke about a clone factory..."

"—in Omaha," Claus threw in.

"Why Omaha?" Dad asked.

"Because that's where Lorelei is from!"

"See, Claus got this hilarious idea about a clone factory because of the resemblance between Lorelei and Elliot."

Dad shifted in his chair, carefully avoiding glancing in my direction. "So you two have met Lorelei?"

"Met? Yes, of course we've met," Claus responded, "Several times. In fact, I danced with her, right here, in this very house."

Kitty added, "We spent most of Saturday with her and Max at the wedding."

Dad was stunned. After a few moments, knowing he was on perilous ground, he ventured, "So, this... resemblance between Elliot and Lorelei... how much of a resemblance is there?"

"It's mostly in the face," Kitty responded, studying my face as she spoke.

"So... Lorelei doesn't look like Elliot in a dress?" he suggested, on tenterhooks.

Claus nearly spit his water over the table. He managed to not lose a drop, but he choked and gasped for a good half-minute. When he recovered, he was laughing and coughing at the same time.

"Elliot in a dress? Oh, my goodness!" he exclaimed. "No, Elliot in a dress would look like Elliot in a dress! He wouldn't look like Lorelei at all — except in the face, as Kitty mentioned. But even there..." He took a deep breath and began gesturing with his hands to illustrate the smallness he described. "You see, Lorelei has a smaller head, narrower shoulders, smaller feet and hands, more delicate fingers..." Kitty shot him a look, which he completely missed.

"And of course, Lorelei has all the feminine accoutrements, as the French would say," (here he gestured vaguely in front of his chest) "and an hourglass figure—"

"You've done quite a study of Lorelei, haven't you?" Kitty asked, in a dry, dangerous tone.

Claus waved his hand vaguely, "Well, one notices things, that's all."

Kitty, trying to put a lid on it, explained, "There's a family resemblance, that's all."

Deeply puzzled, Dad gave me a perplexed look.

"But you know Lorelei, don't you?" Kitty asked him. "I mean, she's your niece."

"Um, yes, she's my niece," Dad replied, rousing himself. He was clearly a little uncomfortable, but remembering our talk earlier, replied, "But I haven't seen her since she was very small. By small, I mean, just an infant. Our families were estranged, way back then. It's a long story..."

Kitty nodded. She understood from his expression that it wasn't a story he wanted to tell.

Claus gestured with an open hand, palm up, in my direction. "And then there's Darcy."

"Darcy?" Dad repeated, blinking.

Hot holy Jesus! I silently exclaimed.

"She's a slightly more distant cousin, right?" Kitty asked, taking her phone in hand as she spoke.

"Oh..." Dad breathed, unsure how to respond. Studiously, he avoided looking at me. He didn't want to appear to need cover.

"Another product of the Omaha Clone Factory," Claus quipped. Then, catching sight of my father's changed state, he asked, full of concern, "Sir? Mr Beekman, are you feeling alright?"

"I'm... uh... it's... ah... I'm fine..." he protested. "Just a little short of breath. That's all. It'll pass."

"Do you want to move to the couch? Do you need to lie down?" Kitty asked, solicitously.

"No, no, it'll pass, it'll pass," he told them, and shot me a glance like he wanted to throttle me.

"Okay," Kitty conceded. "But let us know if you need anything, okay?" Claus refilled Dad's water glass. Dad took a cautious sip. Kitty fiddled with her phone until she pulled up the photo of Darcy at the mall.

"Look, here she is," Kitty told him, turning the phone in his direction.

"She's a first cousin twice removed, or a second cousin once removed — I can never remember which," I threw in, by way of throwing smoke.

Dad peered at the picture, understanding nothing. He was utterly bewildered; completely out of his depth. His mouth hung open, his brow furrowed. He blinked and blinked.

"So you haven't seen *her*, either?" Kitty asked. He shook his head no.

"I'll send you the photo," Kitty told him.

"How..." he began. She cut him off, quickly responding, "I still have your phone number. From when I staged your house, remember?"

But Dad didn't mean how will you send me the photo? He meant How in the living hell is there a picture of Elliot as a little girl?

He moaned and nodded. He rubbed his face. Then, suddenly jerking to attention, he asked, "Wait a minute — who is this woman in the picture?"

"That's Max's Aunt Vivianne."

Dad was thunderstruck. "Vivianne Errison?" he asked.

"Yes, do you know her?"

He floundered, taken aback bh the one familiar element in an unfamiliar landscape. "A little. Enough to say hello. I knew of her, back in high school." He shook his head. "She was a wild one." He stared at the photo. "My God! She hasn't aged a day!"

Kitty's mouth opened and shut. She frowned. "Wild?" she repeated. "Well, she isn't wild now. I mean, sure, she's imposing and impressive. She's... formidable, I guess you could say. But I can't imagine anyone calling her wild. It's hard to believe."

"Believe it," Dad assured her. "Wild is the operative word. But not the *fun* kind of wild — or — I mean, not only the fun kind. She was also the scary sort of wild."

"Umm," Kitty acknowledged. "That I believe. She's still scary."

"But ah—" Dad seemed even more confused than before. "This... picture... Kitty, how long ago was this taken?"

"A couple weeks ago? Last month?" She showed him the timestamp on her phone.

He blinked in silence for a few moments.

 


 

Once Dad recovered his equilibrium, he deliberately and drastically changed the topic to something far safer — so safe, it bordered on boring and very often crossed the border into Yawnsville. He quizzed Kitty about rents and home prices in various neighborhoods. Claus and I couldn't contribute anything to the topic, but Dad and Kitty were quite animated, interested, and deeply engaged in the subject.

In a whispered aside, Claus explained to me, "Kitty lives for this stuff. She could talk about it for hours, but usually no one shares that interest. I mean, seriously: How can I work up an interest in knowing how much someone I don't know paid for a dumb old house I've never noticed or may never see? The whole subject puts me to sleep, so thank God your father's here! His passion for the subject is like Christmas morning for Kitty."

I nodded. I wanted my Dad to enjoy himself, just as Claus wanted Kitty to unload herself. So, Claus and I quietly enjoyed a side-conversation while Kitty and Dad chatted and exclaimed over recent sales, types of houses, neighborhood profiles, new construction, and the work being done on Kitty and Claus' new place.

Claus only dared to comment on that last topic: "I leave all the choices of design, colors, furniture to Kitty. She has an unerring eye and exquisite taste."

"You're right there," Dad agreed. "She does great work."

Then, Dad and Kitty dove headlong into the subject of which neighborhoods were "up and coming" and under which circumstances it made more sense to rent than to buy.

As long and dishwater-deadly-dull as their discussion tended to be, I was grateful for it. It carried us safely all the way to the end of the meal and out the door without giving my father a heart attack, stroke, or apoplexy.

In fact, he was smiling when we left. He seemed thoughtful, but not agitated, as we walked to my car.

"That was one of the best conversations I've had in a long time!" he declared.

"Was it? Really?" I could have slept like a stone, listening to the pair of them.

"Yes! That Kitty is one sharp number. She's got a head on her..." He rubbed his chin and didn't finish the thought.

Then he turned to look at me. There was a strange expression on his face that I couldn't decipher. He seemed to be working out exactly the right way to say... whatever he was about to say.

In the end, he asked me, "Elliot, do you mind if *I* drive for a bit? I know I haven't been away for very long, but I feel kind of... disconnected... sort of like Rip Van Winkle. I don't mean to sound like an old man, but everything's familiar and it's not — all at the same time. I'd like to just drive around... follow my whims... see where I end up. Do you know what I mean? I want to wander... wander and refresh my memory a little."

"Sure, Dad." I tossed him the keys and climbed into the passenger seat.

He adjusted the driver's seat and the mirrors, then pointing straight ahead asked, "Does this road take us to Town Center?"

"No, you turn right two blocks up."

He scratched his neck. "I can't tell you how odd, almost unsettling, it feels, finding this whole new neighborhood. I mean, I grew up in this town. I thought I knew every inch of it." He glanced around, then said, "I mean... imagine you lived in the same house all your life, and then found out it has a secret sub-basement, or a room hidden behind a bookcase... or — I don't know — a tunnel that leads to God-knows-where." After a glance over the dashboard, he started the car and drove slowly forward. Then he concluded, "See, it's like this: if I didn't know that all this was here, all these houses and streets, what else don't I know?"

"I don't know, Dad," I replied. I felt he was making a big deal out of nothing, but I didn't say so.

What concerned me more was our speed: when I say Dad drove slowly, I mean that he drove at a crawl. I could have traveled on all fours just as quickly. Or almost as quickly; that's how slow it seemed. Dad was clearly lost in thought; as a rule, he drives much faster.

I wasn't sure whether I wanted to interrupt his reverie. Certainly I wanted him to drive safely, and definitely I needed to broach the topic of Lorelei. If not now, then at some point soon, but I couldn't see a way to begin while he was off in the fairyland of his own mind.

While I watched and wondered whether he was fit to drive, he stopped at an intersection, looking straight ahead.

After a few long seconds waiting, I asked, "Dad, are you okay? There's no stop sign here. You can go."

"Huh?" he replied, snapping out of it. "Sorry, lost in thought. I was a hundred miles away." Then, catching sight of the concern on my face, he laughed. "Don't worry, boy! I'm fine to drive. I'm not senile yet." He laughed again.

Naturally, his telling me not to worry had the exact opposite effect.

"I was thinking about Vivianne," he confessed, seeming more aware, and yet still rolling at a snail's pace. "Back in high school, she was the one: the girl that every guy wanted. And I mean every guy. She was the it girl. None of the others even came close. She wasn't just beautiful. And she wasn't just smart. She had this radiance, this confidence, and this..." he shook his head in wonder "...this certainty. It seemed like she arrived on earth already perfect and complete. Like that painting, The Birth of Venus — you know?"

"Oh, Dad," I groaned.

"Wait, wait," he cautioned, holding his open palm up to me, as if pumping the conversational brakes. "Don't judge me: this was years before I met your mother. Years."

I sighed. "It isn't that—" I began, but he bulldozed right over my objection.

"Anyway, those days were long ago. But when I saw that photograph, it all came rushing back to me: all those feelings and memories." He shook his head, incredulous. "And honestly — I swear to God — she hasn't aged a minute."

I wanted to object. I've seen Vivianne, live and up close, and yes, while she was certainly good looking woman — probably better looking than most women her age — no one could possibly mistake her for a high-school girl — or for a goddess who'd floated down from heaven. She definitely aged more than few minutes since Dad had last seen her. But, man! I know my parents loved each other, but I'd never seen my father this way. He was moonstruck — like a high-school kid, overcome with hormones and emotions, idolizing and idealizing a girl... seeing her above-average attractions as divine perfection.

Dad had it bad.

"Did you ever go out with her?" I asked.

He scoffed. "Me? Go out with her? Are you kidding? Me? Viv was way, way, WAY out of my league. Plus, she was two years older than me, which in high school is a huge age gap. She was unattainable already; the age difference put her out of all consideration."

After a brief silence, I asked him, "Why did you call her scary? I mean, she can be *intimidating*, but scary?"

"Oh, I don't know. Thinking back, honestly, there was no good reason. Maybe it was just something people used to say. I don't know." He took a breath. I saw the light of memory on his face. He reviewed the memory. He hesitated, but then he let it out. "Come to think of it, there was always this... rumor... that she was kind of... kinky. But as I say, there was probably nothing to it." He squared his shoulders, took another breath, and then: "It started one Halloween. I was a sophomore, so she would have been a senior. Everybody came to school in costume. So... Vivianne..." again he broke off, overawed by the image that appeared in his visual memory. "She came to school, all in black leather. Tight black leather. Knee-high boots, long black flowing trenchcoat or duster or whatever you call it... but the real kicker was the whip. She actually brought a whip to school."

"Really?"

"Really." He let out a scoffing laugh. "There were a lot of us in the hallway, before homeroom, and somebody wanted to try the whip. But she wouldn't let him touch it. So he dared her to try and make the whip crack." He glanced with a smile in my direction. "She stood there in the middle of the hall, legs wide, and makes this movement with her wrist that laid the whip straight out in front of her on the floor. Then she gives a quick wrist snap, and the whip jumped like a snake, like a rattlesnake strike, and this CRACK! just penetrated everything." He shook his head, smiling. "Everybody froze. This glacial silence fell." He nodded. "Then, out of nowhere, the principal's voice, like a bullhorn: Miss Errison! My office! Now!"

He smiled a little, savoring his memory of that moment. "One of the teachers wanted to send her home... suspend her... whatever, but the principal settled for taking the whip away. He figured that was enough, and he let her stay... all decked out in black... leather." He gave a quick glance at me, with a face like a guilty child saying don't blame me! "After that, you know."

"I don't know. What?"

"Everybody saw her that way. The whip, the crack. The what-do-you-call... the corset. The boots... the boots had high heels, really high. It made her statuesque, like Julie Newmar. God, I wish somebody had taken a picture. I'm sorry, Elliot, but she was hot as hell. Her hair was long and straight, and she wore this blood-red lipstick." His mouth went dry; he had to swallow before speaking again. "That moment defined her image, you know? It was just a costume, but... I mean... that the idea of dressing like that even entered her head..." He took a deep, slow breath and gave the steering wheel a squeeze.

I hesitated a moment, then stated the obvious: "Sounds like you had a huge crush on old Vivianne."

He turned to me, wide eyed. "Oh, yeah. I did. I absolutely did!" He nodded vigorously, then scratched his neck again. "I still dream about her." He confided, and shot me a glance. Then he added, almost apologetic: "After your mother died, I thought a lot about Viv. A lot. Of course, I missed your mother, but she was gone. Even now, she's still way out of my league. Maybe even more so."

"And she's married," I added, a little unkindly.

"Yeah," he acknowledged. "Is she still married to Ken Sapreso?"

"Yes, sure. Why wouldn't she be?"

He shrugged. "I don't understand how or why the two of them got together in the first place. Never, in a thousand years, could I picture them as a couple. I'm surprised they've lasted so long." He sniffed. "I mean, he's just bland... like mashed potatoes without salt or butter. He's like a slice of Wonder Bread."

While I searched for a sarcastic — but not too sarcastic comment on Dad's antipathy toward Ken, Dad switched back to talking about Viv.

"Viv, though — she obviously discovered the fountain of youth, hasn't she? You've seen her up close, haven't you? Tell me, does she look as good — does she look as young in real life as she does in that photo?"

"Yeah, that's how she looks. Like that. She looks good."

"No lines, no wrinkles, no sagging neck? No, um—" he took his right hand off the wheel and wiggled his fingers in my direction. "Do you know what old lady's hands look like? Look: here's an old man's hand. Does Viv have old-lady hands?"

"No, not at all. And no to all the wrinkles and sags and lines. No to all that. Vivianne looks really young. She's very attractive. I always thought she was around the same age as Max's mother."

"Melissa? No, Melissa's at least ten years younger than Viv."

After a short silence, he laughed and asked, "What about Ken? Does he drink from the same fountain of youth as Viv?"

"No, he mainly drinks alcohol. A *lot* of alcohol. He looks older than you, Dad, like ten years older. I was surprised when he told me that you two were in high school together."

"Yeah. Well, drinking will age you. That's why J.Lo doesn't drink."

"J.Lo? You mean Jennifer Lopez?"

"Right — she doesn't smoke or drink. Not even coffee! That's why her skin is so..."

He trailed off. I grinned, waiting to see what adjective he'd choose. Instead, he simply trailed off and stopped.

"I didn't know you were a fan," I teased.

"Gotta keep up," he laughed. "Anyway, there you have two extremes: J.Lo and Ken S. She looks like heaven, while he looks like hell."

"I wouldn't go that far," I protested. "He looks old, not decrepit."

Dad shrugged.

I mused over the conversation I had with Ken last night. Without really meaning to say it out loud, I realized: "I think Ken might be getting a little senile."

Dad frowned. "Drinking will do that, too."

After that, his driving speed picked up and he seemed less distracted. He looked more alert, as though a clean breeze had had blown the cobwebs from his brain. "Now I know where I am," he announced. "We just came up on it from the wrong direction."

He straightened up in his seat and whistled a few bars of a tune I didn't recognize. Then he asked me, "Elliot, do you mind if I drop you at Max's house? I've got this..." (he gestured at his chest, as though something were stuck there) "... this feeling that I brought up with me from Florida, and I want to shake it off. Driving will help me relax. I want to take in the old town, you know? Touch the earth."

"Touch the earth? I don't know that expression."

"I want to reconnect, that's all it means. Do you mind?"

Honestly, I *did* mind, and more than a little. Nothing was going the way I expected. I figured that Dad and I would hunker down together and hash through the Lorelei business. I'd go through the whole story of how I became Lorelei. Then we'd go to Viv's house so he could see it happen. After that, after he got over the inevitable shock, I'd explain my plan to sunset Elliot — to fictitiously move Elliot to Florida, with Dad, so I could remain as Lorelei forever. I knew it was a big lift, and that Dad would find it an unbelievable jolt, but once he got a demonstration from Viv, he'd eventually get on board.

His request to borrow my car was perfectly reasonable, but it threw me for a loop. I didn't expect my father to have any plans of his own or things he wanted to do without me. Between his taking off this afternoon, and our going to Hoof and How! tonight... well, that was the whole day shot. I mean, there'd be just barely enough time to go to Viv's house, but he wouldn't be prepared, and wouldn't be enough time to work through his reactions.

Dad could see that my hesitation was mixed with some kind of regret or dismay, so he pulled over, killed the engine, and turned to face me. "Elliot? Is this alright? Am I screwing up your plans? If you had something different in mind, tell me. If you need your car, I can walk. I just need to... spend a few hours on my own... feel myself in this town, if that makes any sense to you. We'll have plenty of time together in the days ahead. And remember: we've having dinner tonight, right? Just you and me?"

I didn't know what to do. The only thing I could do was agree with him. So I said, "Yeah, right, Dad. Fine, yes. Sure — you can take my car. But can you save tomorrow for me?"

His face brightened immediately. "That's my boy!" He gave me a couple of pats on the shoulder. "Tomorrow, I'm all yours! Today, it's every man for himself!" He laughed at his silly joke and started the engine.

"So... where can I drop you? Is Max's house good?"

Wow. Well, I really didn't want Max to see me as Elliot. But where else could I go? Then I figured, sure: once Dad dropped me off, I didn't need to go inside Max's house. I'd wait for my father to drive off, and then I'd hoof it to the Mall or Town Center or someplace. Or I'd call an Uber.

Dad, whistling cheerily as he drove, and moving at a normal driving speed (thank goodness!), started taking turns a little fast (as always) and driving up... driving away from Max's house... Then it hit me: Dad didn't know where Max and I lived.

In his nostalgic frame of mind, Dad pictured Max's house as the house from long ago: the house that Max grew up in. Dad's inner GPS was set for Paul and Melissa's house. He'd often dropped me off and picked me up there when Max and I were kids, and now, on autopilot, that's where he headed.

So... that made one thing easier. Max wouldn't see me.

"I'll pick you up around 6:30," my father said. "We can go straight to Hoof and How! It's fine if we're a little early. And... we're already ready, right? We don't need to wash our faces or dress up or anything! Is that alright? Does that work for you?" He cackled.

"Yeah, Dad — that'll be fine," I conceded.

I stood in front of Melissa's house and watched my car disappear, tires screeching, around a corner. Oh, Dad!

There I was, discombobulated, disoriented. I felt more than a little stupid, more than a little lost. What else? Dumbfounded, distressed, and dismayed. I was a shipwrecked orphan, left behind by an ebbing tide, in Melissa's driveway.

Okay, I was something else as well: melodramatic. It seemed like the situation called for it, though.

I hope Melissa's home, I prayed, as I trudged up the driveway. What would I do if no one was home? Or worse, what if only Paul was home? He never understood what on earth Lorelei was doing in his house. I'm sure he'd find Elliot's presence even less explicable.

Inevitably, it was Paul who answered the door.

"Hello, Elliot! I haven't seen you in ages! Are you meeting Max here?"

"No, Mr Errison," I said. "I was kind of hoping to talk with Melissa."

"Mr Errison?" he repeated. "Oh, Elliot! 'Mr Errison' is my father." He laughed. "Call me Paul, please. You're old enough now."

"Okay, Paul," I conceded. "Is Melissa here?"

"No, but I expect her back at any moment. Come on in. Would you like something to drink? Coke, beer, water, ..."

"Water's great, thanks."

Opening the fridge, he extracted a glass pitcher. As he filled a glass for each of us, he smiled and asked whether Lorelei was coming.

"Oh, no — she's, uh, out of town at the moment. She had to... take a quick trip to Omaha."

"Omaha? What's in Omaha?"

"Her mother."

He nodded sagely. "Have you ever been? To Omaha?"

"Um, no. We were never much in contact with that... part of the family. Um..."

He waved his hand as if to say it's fine... you don't have to tell me. At the same time, he took the pitcher of water in hand. After refilling his own glass, then hesitated over mine, giving me a quizzical look. "Do you need something stronger than water, Elliot?"

Surprised by the offer, I replied, "No, water's fine. I'm good with water."

"Okay," he said, and poured me a second glass. "It just, uh — if you don't mind my saying so — it seems like something's bugging you."

I heaved a deep breath and glanced nervously around the kitchen. There was no way I could tell him what was really weighing on my mind. He knew nothing about my being Lorelei. He had no idea I that these days were meant to be my last days as Elliot.

Still, he sat down at the kitchen table with me. He wasn't exactly waiting for me to unburden myself. He was giving me the space to unload, if I wanted to do so. His expression was kind, patient, fatherly...

So, feeling that I should offer him a sop, I told him, "My Dad's in town," as though *that* was my issue.

"Oh! I thought he was down in Florida! Didn't he move down there recently? What brings him back so soon?"

"It's not exactly soon," I countered. "He's actually been down there almost eight months. I guess in one way it's soon... but not really."

Paul nodded. "So where is he? Why isn't he with you, or you with him? Is he coming over?"

"Uh, he's driving around. He said he wanted to touch the earth... he said... I don't know."

"Touch the earth?" Paul repeated.

"Yeah, he said he wanted to reconnect..."

"Sounds like your Dad is a little homesick."

"Dad? Homesick? Why would he feel homesick?"

"He grew up here, didn't he?"

"Yeah, but— he was driving funny, like, way too slow. He's distracted."

"Sounds like your Dad has something going on. Do you think he might be wanting to move back?"

"Move back? Move back here? Why would he do that?"

"Well, he might not actually do that, but maybe he's toying with the idea. Florida's a new experience for him."

"But he loves it down there!"

"He might want to take one last long look back before committing to life down there."

"I don't know." I remained unconvinced.

"In any case, sounds like something's on his mind. Maybe you two could have dinner, let him talk it out."

Thanks for telling me to do what I'm already going to do! I silently, sarcastically replied. It was off-putting. I didn't appreciate the unsolicited advice. And from Max's dad, of all people! What did he know?

Aloud, all I said was, "Good idea. I'll do that."

Paul turned his attention from me to his phone. After a bout of painfully slow typing, he sent off a text message. "I'm just letting Melissa know you're here," he said. I opened my mouth. I wanted to shout NOOOO, but couldn't. The text had already gone.

A moment later, my phone buzzed.

"Oh...," I moaned, dismayed. "It's Melissa."

"Is that bad?" Paul asked. "You said you were looking for her."

"No," I confessed. I wasn't really looking for her — it's just that Dad dropped me here. "It's... complicated. Confusing."

He laughed. "Say no more. Complicated and confusing are two of Melissa's specialities." He gestured at my phone, as if to say, Have at it.


Melissa: ??? I got a text from Paul. Says ELLIOT is there ???
Melissa: Are you being Elliot now?
Me: At the moment. It's just temporary.
Melissa: But why? Did you and Max fight?
Me: No, of course not.
Melissa: I thought you LOVED being Lorelei!
Me: I do!
Melissa: Then WHY??? Are you having second thoughts?
Me: No!
Melissa: Hmm...
Melissa: OH NO OH NO
Melissa: DID THE SPELL WEAR OFF?
Me: No!
Melissa: I thought it was permanent! I'm so upset!
Me: It *is* permanent. Viv changed me back last night.
Melissa: Why? Is she punishing you?
Me: OMG. NO. No, it's fine. It's my goodbye-Elliot plan.
Melissa: ???
Melissa: What does that mean?
Me: I am at your house — can we talk when you get here?
Melissa: I am here
Me: What does that mean? Where is here?
Melissa: I am outside, in the driveway
 

I growled in frustration.

"Oh good," Paul said, laughing lightly. "So it's not just me, then."

"She's been outside all this time," I explained. "Can you excuse me?" I stood up.

"You know, she can come inside," he quipped. "It's her house, too."

I nodded and pushed through the front door. Melissa stood there, next to her car, typing furiously. She stopped, looked up and saw me, and asked, in a voice loaded with frantic intensity, "Oh my God, Elliot! What's wrong? Why are you YOU?"

After looking around to be sure no one was listening, I replied, "My Dad is in town."

"And so?"

"I couldn't pick him up at the airport as Lorelei."

She huffed in frustration. "Are you going to be switching back and forth every time he comes and goes?"

"No, I'm going to tell him. I'm going to get him on board."

"And how is that going?" she demanded fiercely. "I don't see your Dad — is he inside?"

"No," I admitted, feeling wholly inadequate to the situation.

"Then how are you going to tell him?" she asked, continuing her merciless interrogation.

"I— I— I have a plan."

"And how is that plan going?"

I gestured helplessly.

"Right," she commanded in a decisive tone. "Get in the car. We're going to Viv's house, right now. We need to straighten this out before you get stuck that way!"

"But—"

"Elliot! Get in the car now! We need to change you back!"

Sheepishly, I climbed into her car. She settled in behind the wheel. Then, after quieting herself a moment, she reached over and touched my arm. "You're a lovely boy, Elliot. This is nothing against you. It's just that Lorelei is a better version of you." She studied my face for a moment, then asked, "You see that too, don't you?"

"Yes."

"Okay, then! Let's go." She screeched out of the driveway, nearly hitting another car, and we were off.



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