Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Arthur/Penny: You start to wonder

I haven't written in this blog in over a month. More worrisome, I haven't written at all, outside of what I do to prepare copy for the nightly telecast, in a few weeks. When Lyn called the other night, as freaked out about what Jessica and Louisa had found out as you might expect her to be, I joked that I was showing solidarity with the striking Writers' Guild of America.

Note one: I'd never worked in film or television in my original life, so Jeremy has not inherited a WGA membership. I'm also not a member of the union as Penny, since news broadcasts are not covered under that agreement. The only issue with writing this would be if we had an eye toward developing it into a television series or movie, and I don't know if we could even if we had a mind to. But I completely support the striking writers.

Note two: If Lyn wants to talk about our post-Pygmalion phone calls, she can. The revelation that her "secret admirer" is probably far more than a typical stalker obviously affects her more directly than any of the rest of us, and I'm not really comfortable speaking to her state of mind based on what we've said over the phone.

Still, as much as Lyn is the most directly affected, we all have to wonder how much we've drawn the attention of Pygmalion. Lyn certainly has. Mark and Vinessa did, although that might just have been targets of opportunity if he already had someone working in the INS. The new Dex maybe turned out useful to him.

I wonder about me, though. I mean, I haven't written. I've had a lot of reasons to be busy - one of the other anchors for the Ten O'Clock Report went on maternity leave, I've been reading up on the San Jose Stealth's players and indoor lacrosse in general. Nell's father had big holiday plans that involved his daughter, for both Thanksgiving and Christmas (I've thankfully begged off New Year's). My phone's been ringing off the hook to do speaking engagements, and those are nice. But I've written as long as I can remember, keeping journals, writing short stories, and then in school and professionally. For me to not do it for so long feels like something even more fundamental than my body has changed.

And when there's something like that, there's a tendency to try to assign responsibility. Is Pygmalion doing this? Does he want to see if I take up Nell's life completely? Does me getting wrapped up in this life mean I'm paying less attention to Lyn, and thus give him freer reign with her? Or is it just a coincidence and I'm assigning myself far too much importance.

Hell if I know. But I'm going to go work on the book some more, just because I can.


Saturday, December 22, 2007

Jessica: So close...

None of us who have been transformed by the Inn really envy others. I mean, not enough for it to be common. We all know just how traumatic it is, so even when someone gets the draw that Louisa did - younger but not a child, in a more comfortable socio-economic position, no sex change - we take it for granted that it hurts for them too. We know it hurts bad, and it's hard for us to conceive of ourselves as lucky until we meet someone who is worse off.

Take Dina, for instance. On the surface, it looks like she got off easy - she even got to keep her family. Look below the surface, and she's in pretty rough shape. What's worse is, she knows it - she's smart enough to see that the past eight years have stunted her natural growth as a person in some ways, and I pity the psychiatrist who has to try to unravel her parental issues down the line almost as much as I pity her for having them.

Ashlyn, Arthur, and Louisa at least got relative independence. I at least got a mother who loved me even after she knew the truth. Dina got something I don't even have words for.

And when I called her the other night, she still acknowledged that she got off easy compared to the original Cahills.

We've been driving with a little extra urgency since Wyoming - we've got an idea that even though we only have a few people left on our list, they need to know about Pygmalion before their lives are fouled up incontrovertibly. It's silly - in most cases Pygmalion has had months or years to do his worst, so what's a couple of days on our part going to matter - but no-one wants to be too late. But unless Pygmalion is in control of whose body changes into what (and the current best theory is that it relies on proximity, rather than the will of any person or thing), there's not much more he could do to the Cahills.

We got to Seattle late at night, and checked into a motel. We dilly-dallied the next morning - I think it took me two hours to eat my pancakes at the diner we found, and even Louisa wasn't as nosy as she usually is when some element of my past comes up. We were within miles of the original Jessica Brooks, and a million strange thoughts were going through my head - would she approve of how I'd lived her life? Would she resent me? Would I find out she wasn't a very nice person? I've been carrying a mental image of Mom's Daughter around in my head, and she was eternally ten years old. Could I even handle her being something else?

Finally, though, we got out of the diner to let them serve lunchtime customers, and headed to the address Louisa had coaxed out of the Wrights. We walked up to the door and knocked.

No-one was home. Pretty much the only thing that could make me more tense.

Made sense; it was a weekday afternoon, so everybody was going to be at school or work except people on months-long cross-country road trips. We made sure the name on the mailbox - "Costello" - matched, and then settled down into the car to wait for someone to show. Louisa, thankfully, kept the "stakeout" jokes to a minimum.

At around four o'clock, one of the people getting off the bus at the end of the road made a turn there. She was an asian girl, seventeen-looking, with her hair in her eyes and wearing ripped jeans underneath a skirt and a Sex Pistols T-shirt. Figuring that no good could come of waiting until the last minute, I jumped out of the car and ran up to talk to her. "Excuse me," I said, a bit taken by her not exactly looking like a Costello, "do you live here?"

"Have all my life," she said. "What do you want? Did I piss you off without knowing it? Did my father?"

"No, not at all. It's just... Uh... Well, I'm Jessica Brooks."

She looked confused for a second, then squinted at me before the realization hit her. "Oh, you mean the new one! Although after eight years, it's not quite "new", is it?"

I agreed it wasn't, and she got out her keys. "This is amazing... I didn't think I'd ever get to meet you, although we've considered heading back East to try every once in a while, but once those assholes who wound up with our lives made it clear that they weren't going to let us try to get our real bodies back by staying in the inn in reverse order, we figured it might hurt too much to see the new us... I'm Phuong Costello, by the way, although I was born a Molly. Who were you?"

"Conrad Mancini... I was a cop in Baltimore. So you're not Mindy or Jessica?"

"Oh, no... We've got stories to share, I guess. And I'll bet you do too, Miss...?"

"Louisa Torrence, although my passport says 'Marie Desjardins'."

"Passport, huh? I know that feeling. But come on in, it's too cold to keep this up out here."

Phuong opened the door, dropping her backpack in the entryway. "I don't remember there being so many books my first time through high school. Do you?" I shook my head, but said I wasn't one for studying that time. "Ah, me neither. Not really now, but you lap your classmates in elementary school while being an asian besides, you wind up on the 'gifted' track. Sounds like a good idea when you're thirty-four-going-on-ten, then you hit junior high and find out how hard those kids work..."

I laughed at that, and we swapped stories about being adults in children's bodies. Our stories were different, of course, although they had points of similarity: It took us a long time to feel like we belonged in a locker room during sports and gym classes, although she had more luck getting her friends to dig her favorite music. It was so amazing to find someone who had had so many experiences close to my own - it was something I'd been missing for most of the past decade - even Dina wasn't this close to my own experience.

We must have talked for an hour and a half straight, and we didn't realize where the time had gone when we heard the door open again. Phuong quickly looked at her watch and then ran to the door. "Honey, come into the living room! You'll never believe who found us!"

She leads a man through the door. He's a big, burly guy, with a bit of an unkempt beard just starting to show some gray. He's wearing a Mariners cap and a grocery store nametag that reads "Carson". He introduces us as Conrad Mancini and her friend Louisa, and mentions that I'm the person who became Jessica. He looks me up and down for a moment and I wonder whether or not I should be uncomfortable. There's the "older man checking out a younger girl" thing, sure, but we're both aware that the inside doesn't necessarily match the outside. He nods, saying that "she" turned out pretty, and I blush a little. Phuong gives him a kiss on the cheek and says she's sorry, we just got caught up talking, but she'd get dinner started. He thanks her and heads to the bathroom.

She suggests we take it to the kitchen where she pulls a package of chicken breasts out of the fridge. "Yeah, I still do the cooking; old habits die hard. You guys are going to stay and have dinner with us, won't you?" I say I'd be glad to, and Louisa nods agreement.

"It's nice to see that you and your husband still get along," Louisa says. Cautiously. "A lot of relationships might not be able to handle the strain."

Phuong stops with her hand on the oven's temperature control, and sighs. "Yeah. Well... You know how I was talking about being on the gifted track because I knew so much more than a nine-year-old usually would? Well, one of the things they teach you in the AP physics courses is that every action has an equal and opposite reaction.

"Carson wasn't my husband. Carson was Mindy."

I stop thinking for a bit there. Nothing is going through my head. I hear Louisa say she's so sorry, and that it's worse than Dylan; I think she may have suspected something like this. She says she's not much of a detective, but while I was comparing notes with Phuong, she was looking around the house, and I think she's a good half-dozen steps ahead of us.

Finally, I'm able to think again, and tell Phuong I'm also so sorry.

"Yeah, me too. People talk about kids having to grow up fast these days, but Mindy... Mindy was so totally unequipped to live Carson's life. He was a lawyer - family law. That's why the Costellos had adopted Phuong - he'd been moved drawing up adoption papers for another family. The partners at his firm were livid when his wife drove him in to work a week late from vacation so that he could say he couldn't do the work any more and was resigning effective immediately. We had to refinance the house and the school loans so the family could get by on one income because I wasn't old enough to work. And Carson... Mindy... felt so bad about it. She thought it was all her fault somehow."

Louisa asks where the dishes are, and Phuong points to a cupboard. Louisa reaches in, pulls out a stack of four plates, and closes the door. I'm not looking terribly smart at this point as I sputter out that that can't be enough if we're staying for dinner. What about Jessica, and Mindy's father.

"There's been a divorce."

I turn around and see Carson Costello (né Mindy Cahill) standing there. I try to see him as someone who's only lived eighteen years, but it's hard. Eight years can bury one's old self pretty deep.

Louisa gestured at the walls. "It is a small house."

Phuong nodded. "It is indeed. Too small for a lot of things. No spare bedroom, for instance, and you couldn't expect Mindy to share a bed with someone who used to be her father. Couldn't expect Barry to share a bed with the nine-year-old girl who used to be his wife. Mindy and Jessica had been best friends, but one suddenly being the parent and the other the child drove a wedge between them." She almost automatically turned to her father/daughter, barely leaving a pause. "It's not your fault, dear. We're just not made to take this."

"If you say so, Mom."

Phuong chuckled at the looks on our faces - it just seemed so incongruous coming out of Carson Costello's mouth. "Yeah, he calls me 'mom' sometimes. It's a joke with the neighbors; they think growing up in Cambodia made me mature beyond my years and treat it like a pet name. We're known to have a weird family dynamic."

"And I thought my mom and I were unique."

Phuong started laughing hysterically. "That's right! When you were talking about you and your mother, I forgot that would have to be Kathleen! Oh, man, I hope you made it easy on her! She was always such a great neighbor and friend."

"Not hardly. I got into fights, and was anti-social, and she only was able to know the truth because I said something horrible when her father died."

"That's nothing," Carson said, giving Phuong an elbow. "Tell them about the time you found my porn stash."

(About a second later, Louisa said something in French that I think translates to "Pardon me, I've just thrown up in my mouth a little.")

Phuong turned beet red, but soldiered on. "You have to understand... Mindy was about twelve but Carson was about thirty-five. Barry tried to find a job where he could work nights so that he could look after Mindy during the day while I took the night shift, but it didn't always work out. We tried to pretend that he wasn't a grown man with his needs, but when he had a day to himself, he could watch R- or X-rated movies, and he is kind of ruggedly handsome. Women notice him, and that energy had to go somewhere... We were just too blind to see it until I was getting the laundry and saw what my little baby had stashed in a closet."

"Oh, they yelled at me good. Dad had to give me 'the talk', which was all kinds of weird."

They were laughing, so I decided to broach a subject that gave me fits. "So, what did you wind up doing... about that stuff?"

"Well, they reminded me that I was technically still a married man, and pointed out that I of all people shouldn't think of women that way. But they also agreed I needed an outlet, because I'd go crazy without it, and I was about to start my job at the supermarket and it wouldn't be right for someone with a kid to look so ignorant about sex."

"But we also told him that just because he looked older didn't mean he was dating before he turned fifteen."

"Right. I could touch myself, but no-one else."

The two of them were laughing, and it had me pretty confused. "How can you...?"

"Comedy equals tragedy plus time. Trust me, we were just as horrified then as you are now."

"Yeah." Carson's laughter stopped kind of abruptly. "I was a real jerk to Jessie. She was going through her own stuff, missing her family, and I was lording the fact that I was a grown-up and she was still just a little kid over her. That's why..." He stopped, tearing up.

Phuong was serious now, too. "That's why Carson has custody of me, as far as the government is concerned, and 'Parker' has custody of 'Dana'. It was easier for everyone that way."

Louisa touched Phuong's hand. "But still not easy, right?"

"Not at all. Don't get me wrong, we still talk - we try to have a vacation together every year, although it's been harder since we all decided to let ourselves be attracted to people. A week is about all we can do anyway, and you add other people and the jealousy gets really ugly. When Barry got the new job, it was a good thing for us to get some distance."

We all got quiet, so Louisa mentioned that she saw Carson's Mariner's hat - did that mean they'd abandoned Red Sox nation. That led to a lot of sports talk - Carson had gotten into sports in a big way to try to fit in with other guys, and there was still enough New Englander left in Phuong for her to be excited about the World Series and Super Bowls. That led to other, lighter topics that kept us up late that night.

We probably would have stayed all night, but Phuong's boyfriend called. She put him on hold, claiming another call. "Sorry, new boyfriend, and aren't newly-besotted teenagers clingy? High school boys haven't changed in the past twenty-five years, that's for sure. It's totally not going to last, and a dumb idea because we're in the same band, but man, he is so cute, and is that stuff about men being at their sexual peak at nineteen true or what?"

I declined to comment, and she smiled wickedly before getting back to her call. Carson said she could be hours, so Louisa and I got our coats, said goodbye, and headed for the door.

Before we left, Phuong held up a finger for us to wait. After she found a scrap of paper, she wrote an address down and handed it to me. "You've been very nice," she said, putting the phone on her shoulder for a moment, "to act so interested in us. But I know why you came here. Give them my best."

I thanked her, and put the piece of paper in my pocket without looking at it. It only stayed there until we reached the car, when I took it out.

And laughed. Harder than I've laughed at anything in a long time. Louisa asked what was so funny.

"I put off going to college in Pasadena for the semester to do this trip. But check this out - Parker and Dana Costello live in Malibu."

Louisa was a little confused until I pulled out the road maps I'd bought six months ago, in preparation for living down there. Then she laughed, too.

What a strange trip this has wound up being. Next stop, Los Angeles. If we drive through the night, we should get there tomorrow morning.


Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Louisa: Road Trip - Everything's Connected

I'd like to say the title of this post refers to some greater truth that Jessica and I have discovered here in the American West, where you can drive for hours without seeing much in the way of human settlement, but I'm afraid it refers to something more - well, not prosaic, but decidedly human. Jessica and I have been going back and forth over whether or not to post about it the past couple of days, figuring it might be wiser just to mail Arthur, Ashlyn, Darren, Jeff, Jaci, and the others privately, but we figure this is better; we know there are other people like us who read this blog and this is worth knowing. The rest of the world should probably know, too, but of course they won't believe it. We barely do.

Dex Langan was part of Arthur and Ashlyn's group. We met the "new" Dex toward the start of our trip, in Washington, and we've been trying to get in contact with the original for a while. We didn't think it would be that difficult; after all, Jessica had found a lead on him/her even before I'd ever gone to that inn.

It took some doing, though. He'd become Kayla Johnson, so we started in her hometown. We found her parents easily enough, but they didn't have much to say. They hadn't heard from their daughter in over a year; it was as if once she'd finished college she decided she didn't have any more use for her family. Jessica asked if she had any friends in town who might still be in contact with her. "Not according to Kayla."

Detective work it was, then. That meant another public library; I joked with Jessica that I was spending more time in these places than I did when I was in my old life, working as a school librarian. She laughed and said it would be a tragedy if these places ever disappeared completely, to be replaced by the internet and e-books and the like. The internet is not very good at being local, for instance, and even the biggest monitor and best user interface can merely approximate how well spreading a bunch of information out in front of oneself can be.

(This, as my old English teacher friends would point out to her students, is what they call foreshadowing.)

We got lucky in that Kayla is a nice photograph and was involved in a bunch of activities in high school. There were plenty of pictures of her in her school's yearbooks, not just "official" club portraits, but candids and collages. Jessica was methodical about seeing who she stood near for both National Honor Society and field hockey, and then flipping through the book to see who she was standing near in the candids.

This was five-year-old information about Kayla, as opposed to Dex, but it gave us some people to talk to. A number had moved away after college, and a couple really weren't that close to her, but we hit the jackpot with her high school boyfriend.

Johnny Farmer had looked nice in his yearbook pictures and had matured into a handsome adult. His family actually did have a farm, and a couple women our apparent age looking for him made him feel good. We decided to go with the reporter story again - only this time, Jessica had printed out some business cards for me. Simple things reading "Marie Desjardins, Freelance Journalist" along with my cell number and email address; Jess said people respect the no-frills approach and being a freelancer means no-one asks why I have a generic Yahoo! address rather than or something. He was a little disappointed that our "story" was about Kayla rather than him, but admitted that there was a story there.

According to him, she had come back home to get her things en route to her new job after being in Maine a couple weeks longer than expected, but everyone noticed how erratically she was acting. She stayed in a hotel rather than her parents' house, she didn't drop in to see old friends. He had run into her by chance, in a bar, and been confused by the way she acted - she had almost never been one to drink enough to get hammered, and while they'd talked amicably enough, she had completely freaked when he made some innocent comment that referenced their prior relationship. She made a big enough scene for them both to spend a night in lock-up, and when her parents were brought in...

Dex had told the truth. All of it. And, of course, it just bounced right off people. Johnny said that she made some comment about it not just being Maine, that this was bigger than anyone thought, and a lot of stuff that didn't make any sense.

There'd been brief talk about having her involuntarily committed, but upon hearing that, she'd started acting, if not normal, then less hostile. After a few days, she left town for her posting with the Forest Service. She didn't write, call, have her mail forwarded, or do anything else. She didn't even come home for the holidays, and don't think that wasn't a sore spot with her family. It was no wonder the Johnsons gave us the deep freeze when we came to talk about Kayla.

Johnny gave us the location of her post, and asked us to mention him to her if she decides to talk to us. We do, and head out again.

December is not the greatest time to try and visit a National Park in a cold-climate state, especially if you're driving an old car like Jessica's without four wheel drive. (Actually, December is not the best time to do anything up north. I can't wait until we reach Pasadena!). We tried to get hold of Dex/Kayla by phone, but neither of us could navigate the voice-mail system. So, when we arrived at the rangers' station, we were just hoping "Kayla Johnson" hadn't been fired or transferred.

We got lucky; she was still there. We did the usual little dance: "Do I know you?" "No, but we have some mutual friends - Arthur Milligan, Jake Matthews, Jeff Miller." She was more wary than most of the people we've talked to, but was willing talk with us. Better than going into town and getting hit on by the cowboys.

She (unlike Ashlyn, I never met Dex as a man, so I have a hard time calling her "him") got really nervous when we started asking if she'd had any contact with people who knew who she really was. When Jessica showed her some of the pictures from her phone, the ones she took in Texas, Dex/Kayla took a real long look. She was weighing what we were showing her, and the fact that we just put it in front of her. "Perhaps I should show you the back room."

We followed her to the back of the little cottage, where there was a bulleting board hanging up, with pictures and photocopies of documents and different-colored pushpins and handwritten notes and strings connecting the pushpins. "Damn," I said, "you've got a wall-of-crazy straight out of the movies." And, of course, instantly felt bad about it.

But she laughed. "Don't I just?" She pointed at a couple of documents which matched names from Stephen Jeffries/Jake Matthews's address book. "But maybe it's not so crazy after all."

The three of us stood in front of the wall, just staring, and then Jessica wrote "J & S Motion Graphics" on a blank card and stuck it into the board. Dex/Kayla nodded, and then started stringing lines between it and the places he already knew about. It wasn't connected directly to the question mark at the center of the board, but there was no doubt that whoever the Feds' mystery man was, he was an investor in J & S. Dex/Kayla started adding more, finally putting Ashlyn's name up, as well as Jean-Michel's and then André Trudeau's.

We stand back and stare at the more complicated pattern, not saying anything for a bit. Jessica was the one who broke the silence.

"You weren't in Maine to investigate microbrews marketing to minors, were you?"

"No." She sat down in a chair and stretched her long legs out. "After 9/11, a lot of federal agencies were ordered to share records more closely - you know, Department of Homeland Security. Internal investigations of people in different branches of the government turned up some common leads; once we knew what to look for, we found a few more. The thing that tied them together was vacations at the Trading Post Inn in Old Orchard Beach, Maine."

So, I asked, is that what the Inn's about? Replacing people in the government?

She shook her head. "I don't think so. There's no pattern, and half the people leave their jobs afterward. I think it's more opportunistic - that someone finds people who have changed and gets their claws into them. And even after... There's stuff that looks like corruption, but no bad acts. Just people not very good at their jobs for no apparent reason. The Special Agent In Charge of the investigation thinks that's evidence of sleepers, but now..."

"It's just people in unfamiliar situations unable to tell anybody else why."

Dex/Kayla nodded at Jessica. "Yeah, at one level - but there's an infrastructure here, doing something. But it's been going on for so long - I managed to find stuff in internal investigations from forty years ago before the new me changed my password. And some of the people who left government service wound up doing stuff that just seemed random - and it wasn't just going back to their original lives; they weren't always good at it at first."

Jessica processed that. "So, what do you think is going on, knowing what we know?"

"I think someone is screwing with us. Not all of us, just whoever he takes an interest in, or maybe the ones who can help him with the ones he's interested in. He's been doing this a long time, so maybe he's been to the inn himself once or twice. Maybe he's not a he, or wasn't to begin with. Maybe he's been alive so long his brain's gotten full and he's gone nuts."

This was starting to seem too big for me, so I tried to concentrate one what I could understand and relate to personally. I pointed to one card. "Ashlyn. Why Ashlyn?"

Dex/Kayla laughed. "You've never been a guy, have you? If you had, you wouldn't ask that question."

I blushed, and Jessica laughed. "Yeah, if I were my old self... Maybe it's just a bit of fun."

"And it fits the profile. Like... There's a guy we were suspicious of in the New York INS office. Maybe he threw the monkey wrench into 'Ginessa''s and 'Nicoleta''s visas, just to see what would happen. There's documents that the guys in DC don't understand - can't understand - but make perfect sense to me. He gets off on that - sticking people into difficult situations and seeing not just what they do, but what they become."

We talked all through the night, leaving the next morning. We're not sure posting this is the right thing to do, but anybody who is in our situation reading this needs to know that Ashlyn's secret admirer appears to be into bigger things as well. Besides, now that he's apparently got someone inside the investigation of his network, he might be twice as dangerous. We don't know who he is, but we've got a name for him.

We're calling him Pygmalion.


Saturday, December 15, 2007

Kat – Perspective

Five years ago, Kat’s life changed, jarringly, and forever. Since then I’ve watched her try to make the most of life without her parents. I thought she was doing okay. I was wrong. How different things would have been, if it’d not been for the changes thrown at us by that cursed inn…


Pete arrived just after noon on Thursday, braving the wintery Iowa weather, so that he could visit the two people that meant the most to him, when he was me - his… my… her… parents, Scott and Rose Green - or more accurately, the site where they were laid to rest.

After he’d checked in to the local motel, he stopped out to let me know he was in town. I get the impression that dad… Trip’s dad (God, this is confusing), is becoming suspicious. I’m not sure I really want to know what he’s thinking, part of me is saying that it’s a normal dad-protecting-his-daughter type of response… and I’m not sure I want to know. I decided not to give him any more time to think about things, Pete and I went “sight-seeing”. Not that there’s much to see around here. Still, it gave us a little time alone to talk.

It was the first time that I realized just how she felt about her life. I hadn’t realized just how distraught she’d become. I’d always seen her with a smile on her face and a seemingly positive attitude. I learned just how adept she was at covering her true feelings with a mask of sunshine. It seems that she never really recovered from the loss of her parents. Her guilt at not being gracious to her “new” family for being there and helping her, caused her to keep her feelings of loss and hopelessness inside. I listened as she told me how difficult it was to find a reason, much less a path, to travel through life. She told me that more often than not, it was Jaci (the original Jaci), dragging her along to whatever or wherever – that kept her alive.

I realized that her choosing me to become her was not only a gift to me, but also her way of giving up on life. She really had had no intention of returning. It was so much like her, to find a way to help someone else before worrying about her own self. She smiled when I mentioned that, and I asked her whether she still felt hopeless and without purpose or direction. It seems that she has found a purpose and happiness in her new life – that her… his new life has given him opportunities that she’d likely never have otherwise. That made me smile. It’s a real shame that I can’t share the details with you, but I made a promise that I wouldn’t.

It was heart-wrenching to see a grown man cry as he laid his soul bare before me. I’ll admit, there were times when I was joining him. For all the trouble that stupid inn has caused… I wouldn’t go back and change a thing, if only for the knowledge that its actions saved the life of someone I really care about. I could have seen my grandmother one last time before she passed if I hadn’t stayed at the inn… but I’d still have lost her… and I’d have lost Kat too.

I guess it really puts a bit of perspective on things.

I’ll try to finish this post after chores.

Thursday, December 06, 2007

Jessica: Road Trip - Old "Friends"

Sometimes, I don't know how Louisa puts up with me. The stated purpose of this trip was to find the original Marie, and I was just along for the ride, giving my advice on how to investigate a case. Lately, though, we've been spending a lot of time digging into my history. It's her own fault; I was doing fine living in the present tense until she made me visit "my" grave in Baltimore. Since then, I've put a lot of energy into trying to find the original Jessica. The trouble is, there are people I have to go through to find them.

Ten-year-old Jessica Brooks wasn't at the Trading Post Inn alone, of course - she had gone there with her best friend, Mindy Cahill, and her parents. They had all been changed into someone else and disappeared - at least as far as I know; I don't remember anyone ever showing up at our door claiming to be the real Jessica. Another group became the Cahills - Dina Wright and her parents.

I hadn't met Dina but had seen her briefly before we changed. She was yelling at her mother, something about how her boyfriend was coming to get her and they were going on their own vacation. She was wearing ripped jeans and a t-shirt with some rapper's face on it, more piercings than I'll ever see the need for, and a shock of blue in her hair. She was seventeen and as a cop, I looked at her and saw future charges of drug possession, DWI, and vandalism. I may have had a thought or two of "good lord, they're going to let her vote in the next election!"

Then everything changed, and suddenly this angry teenager in a ten-year-old's body was the only person I could talk to.

It wasn't for lack of trying. The inn's curse or magic or freaking super-technology kept anyone from believing me until Mom's father died. The Wrights had been my contemporaries but they insisted on treating me like a kid when I was over there. It was bad practice, they said - it might make things difficult if people saw us acting as peers, and Mindy would never properly accept her circumstances if she saw me being given special treatment she wasn't receiving.

I won't misrepresent myself and say I didn't find that a little chilling at the time, but even as I chafed against Mom's attention, I was still looking at it from the adult perspective, and not the kids'. It seemed weird, sure, but I didn't have kids and had learned not to tell others how to raise theirs. Not that I didn't have opinions, and based on what little I'd seen of Dina, her physical and mental maturity levels were now more in sync.

What I'm getting at here, in my roundabout way, is that when "Mindy" was sent to a private school rather than going to public school with me that fall, I could see the logic - if she wasn't going to know anybody anyway, it was probably better that she not know people she wasn't supposed to know, if that makes any sense whatsoever. My "acting" like I didn't know anybody when I started fifth grade got me a reputation as a bitch and the enmity of almost every kid in the class (and my first look at just how vicious elementary school kids could be to each other). It got Mom called to the office regularly because I was getting into fights despite no prior record of bad behavior, and I was worse off than anybody could know. My self-esteem had already taken a huge hit by being turned from a trusted adult male police detective to a powerless little girl, and while on some level I wanted those brats to leave me alone, being shunned was another story altogether.

So, even though I didn't particularly like Dina at first, for a few months she was the very best friend I ever had. We only saw each other on weekends and school vacations - her new school gave her a lot of homework - but we were inseparable during that time. We did little-girl things because that's all we could do: We spent a lot of time riding bikes, complaining about how stupid our parents and the kids in our classes were, writing in diaries and reading each other's entries. Most ten-year-old girls probably don't try to sneak beer from their parents' fridges, but to be fair we only did that once: It made us really sick (for which we cursed the inn all afternoon), and the thought of being grounded and not allowed to see each other if we got caught was absolutely terrifying.

So imagine how it felt to go on my first Christmas trip to see my new grandparents and come back and find my best friend, and the only person who understood me even a little bit, was gone. Mom said the Cahills had moved to Chicago because Mr. Cahill had gotten a new job, but the why didn't really matter to me. Dina was gone, no-one was ever going to call me Conrad again, and I was trapped.

I finally broke down and told Louisa this story after I had tracked down the Cahills. Finding them was hard - businesses don't give out employee information to eighteen-year-old girls who say they're doing a school project, "Mr. Cahill" had changed jobs twice and moved to the suburbs, and private school yearbooks aren't as easy to find in public libraries. I'd almost given up, and almost just drove through Chicago on our way to Hibbing but decided to take one last shot. Louisa was annoyed, and probably had every right to be. She actually apologized after I found an address and told her all this on the way.

She thinks it explains a lot - that even if finding the Wrights/Cahills means I'm able to track something else down, that finding my friend is the most important thing. She also suggested that maybe Dina was the reason I'd never had a real boyfriend - that I'm afraid anyone I love will leave me. I point out that I've got a bunch of other issues going on, and she shrugs it off.

So it's the day before Thanksgiving, we're outside the house, and I'm about ready to wet myself in fear. Louisa rings the doorbell for me and before I've got a chance to run away, it opens.

Dina's there. I know it's her. She's dyed her light brown hair jet black, she's only as tall as I am because of her high heels (she was an inch taller than me eight years ago), and even as I grew my own, I never imagined her with cleavage. Still - I recognize most of the face and a bunch of the attitude. Dina and I never called each other Mindy and Jessica when we were alone, so I blurted her real name out.

Her eyes bugged and I think this is the first time I ever saw her smile. "Connie? Oh my god!" I was about to say something about going by Jessica these days, but she squeezes all the oxygen out of me. Then she's screaming in my ear, although that's just a side-effect of her still holding me while calling to her parents that I was there.

They come walking from another room, and they don't look terribly pleased to see me, but she's already pulling me and Louisa into the house, dragging us upstairs to show us her room.

Dina has dealt with being changed in a different way than I have. I adapted, I forged a relationship with my new mother, I studied hard in school to make the most of my new situation. Dina got into the occult. She'd left no stone unturned - there were pentagrams, Ouija boards, charms, candles, and every book on the subject you might want. Louisa actually stepped back through the doorway when she saw it, asking us to allow an old bayou woman her superstitions.

Dina had the moment of disbelief, then said it was okay, because none of this stuff worked anyway. She'd tried it all, she said, everything she could think of to be herself again, and then again because it pissed her parents off. All it got her was a leg up on everybody else in her comparative religions class at Northwestern.

"I guess that means my folks got the last laugh - I'll probably wind up going for my Ph.D. someday, be a renowned anthropologist. Can you imagine?"

I had to admit, I hadn't seen that coming. Then she asked why I never responded to her letters. I told her I'd never gotten them.


She's back downstairs like a shot, screaming at her parents about not sending her letters, lying to her and saying that I must have accepted my new life and she should to, making her think that the only person who could understand had abandoned her. Normally, I'm pretty good about staying out of family business, but they screwed me up pretty good, too, so I was hot on her heels.

By the time we got down there, Dina was lighting into her folks pretty good, and it only got worse when they called her "Mindy". Watching them go at it, I figured this was roughly the thousandth time they've had this argument, but knowing that they'd deliberately taken every bit of choice out of her hands was more than Dina could handle, and no arguments about how she was doing so much better as Mindy than she had as Dina was going to sway her. She ran out the door and I followed. She got into her car and so did I, just planning to talk, but she started the engine and drove off, leaving Louisa stuck with the parents. Probably a good thing; I certainly wasn't in any frame of mind to ask them the usual questions.

We drove with just the radio blasting for a while, finally pulling up just outside a mall in the suburbs. "This is pathetic. I should be twenty-five years old, and I'm still going to the mall when I want to get away with my parents! I can't even go to a bar! God, Connie, even if you had to adjust to being a girl, you at least know what it's like to be an adult. I feel like I've been seventeen my entire life, and up until a year ago I was always scared that if I screwed up, they'd take me back to that inn and make me ten years old again!"

I told her it didn't work that way, but she rightly pointed out that there's no way she could know that.

"And every time I do something right, whether it be making National Honor Society or getting into college, they're always acting like it's their doing. 'Oh, I guess we did something right this time.' Like my entire life has just been about them, and I can't even be proud of what I accomplished because the last eight years have just been a big ol' do-over for them."

I let her vent. Looking back, I think some of what she said was overwrought, but at the time, and still now, I could really see her point of view. Louisa is kind of lucky, having a second youth, but not having to wait to have a real life again.

We went into the mall and looked around, having a good time in spite of ourselves. After a few hours, Louisa called and asked if there was a spare key in the car; I told her there was and where, and she said she'd meet us back at the hotel. She may never have had kids of her own, but she just assumed Dina was going to spend the night on campus.

She was right. She showed me around, saying she wished she could join us on our trip, but she really did like her classes. After the tour, she dropped me back off at the hotel, where Louisa and I agreed not to talk about it right then.

So that's how I wound up having Thanksgiving dinner in a Chinese restaurant with Louisa and Dina this year, and then spending two hours in the bathroom at a rest stop, talking to my mom on the phone and telling her how thankful I was that she'd respected my maturity after she found out who I was even while making sure that the kid/teen stuff I couldn't control didn't trip me up to bad. I could have been Dina if things had gone just a little different.

I hope it was all for the best. On the plus side, I've got my best friend's email and phone number and promise to keep in touch. And somehow, Louise managed to coax an address for the Cahills in their "new" lives, out in Seattle. I might actually get to meet the original Jessica.

(I haven't told Mom that, yet. I don't want to get her hopes up, especially not knowing who she is, exactly. Besides, if Jessica resurfaces, where does that leave me?)

I just hope we didn't have to destroy a family to do it.


Sunday, December 02, 2007

Kat - Charming

I find it amusing how this afternoon seemed to showcase the stereotypical Sunday male vs. female behavior. It's lonely at home, and I didn't want to mess with getting the woodburner started for a little extra warmth. So I made good on the invitation to visit that "Trip" and "Jadyn" offered the other day.

I've gotta' start referring to them by the names they're going to have now, since I've decided to give up that life for this one. Besides, it will make it less difficult to remember to do so when we're not alone. Got to keep trying harder at embracing my new life... and letting go of that life is just something I guess I wasn't doing well enough.

Anyhow, back to my story.

So, A few of my... Trip's friends stopped by to watch football on his new HDTV. It was sort of a guy's day, I guess. I've never been that interested in sports, so this isn't something that happened when I was Trip. Judging by D... Jadyn's reaction, I take it that it isn't something she's used to either. We'd just had a nice dinner and were getting ready to watch a movie when the guys invited themselves over.

I could tell that Trip and Jadyn weren't exactly thrilled, especially Jadyn. But we all seemed to accept that this is just part of the lives we've decided to live. It didn't take long for Trip to fit in with the guys, and I was surprised that they didn't seem to notice the increased knowledge of and interest in the game that Trip was showing. It almost makes me sad to think that maybe they weren't either good enough friends or smart enough to notice the difference. Who knows, maybe they attributed it to Trip's new fascination with Jadyn.

Jadyn and I stuck around in the kitchen mostly. It was interesting to hear her stories of their past and some of the tough times Dorris and Frank had lived through.
She had some interesting comparisons to life back then, and currently and how people just don't seem to learn from the mistakes of the past. Of course, we also kept the boys fed and hydrated... well if you call beer and whiskey-mixes hydrating.

I have got to find out if Kat had a past with Tom - he seemed to be a little more "familiar" than I was really comfortable with. The other guys had the typical interaction with me... checking me out. I knew that they were trying to imagine me being naked and all wanting for them. Those thoughts still bother me, but there's not a damn thing I can do about it. It just made me feel a bit extra weird since these guys are... or maybe were my friends.

I've tried to imagine myself being with a guy... you know, in a... an intimate way. Although it's never really been successful at exciting me (I'm not sure if that's a good thing or not), I certainly couldn't see myself with any of my friends. Tim's over twice my current age, or he'd probably be an okay guy (still not 'exciting'). The other guys are just... *shudder* ... I don't know... "not my type" is about the best I can come up with.

Jadyn thought that it was pretty funny that my friends seemed interested in me, "If they only knew." she says. I shuddered at the thought that they'd probably still want to bed me. I think she sensed the tension building as I realized what these guys were like when they've been drinking. Jadyn asked me if I thought that my buddies, even after a few drinks, would try to hurt a girl... especially if she was my cousin... and in my house. I had to agree, they're not at all likely to try anything that stupid. With that she passed on a few bits of girl wisdom that I never learned as I became a young woman. Using charm to offset the strengths I used to exaggerate to impress the ladies. She taught me some of the "strengths" I inherited, and to some extent, how to use them. Be nice, look pretty, set limits, and give the guys little slices of happiness once in awhile.

Why hadn't I thought of that. It makes perfect sense. Be charming.

So, I decided to practice a bit on those poor boys. I'm sure that they all probably want to take me "home to mom" now. But they were extra nice and even bothered to thank me. I still wouldn't date any of them, and I'm sure they know that... but still... It felt good... Empowering.

Kat - Pole Kat

Yeah, this stinks!

Twenty years of elegant driving, no major disasters... and now... The first nasty weather of the season, and I go sliding off of the road and straight into a light pole.

I wasn't going that fast, I knew the roads were slick... but I was obviously still going too fast. Fast enough to lose control and hit the pole, but slow enough that the airbags didn't deploy. That's probably a good thing, I hear those things break noses and such. I like my nose just the way it is, thank you.

I think I was more scared than anything when I was sliding off of the road, at first, I was heading right towards the lake. Then suddenly, the tires grabbed and I started to turn... for an instant. If it wasn't for that post, I might be dead right now.

I'm scared to death of drowning, and this really shook me up. Although I knew how to swim when I was Trip, I always sank like a rock. I have no idea if I can swim or not now that I've got this body. I guess I'm going to have to go confront my fear of water and find out... but not too soon.

One thing I love about small towns is the 'goodness' of the people. No injuries, no property damage (other than my car), and no insurance reports needed (liability only - it's a cheap car), equals no police report and no ticket. Of course, I'm sure my being a pretty girl on the verge of tears had nothing to do with it (I wasn't faking-it either).

I think I'm getting better at handling these wild emotions. I didn't cry until after I got home and was alone in my room, then I just broke-down and had a good cry. It did feel good. And now, I'm really thankful that I'm still alive and uninjured... well, other than my pride.

I think I'm more pissed now than anything. I feel like a fool... like I just helped prove the stereotype that "girls can't drive". I most-certainly can drive... very well, in-fact - although, I am still human, and prone to make a mistake or two. Although I've never thought that girls are any less mechanically (or automotively) inclined than guys, I absolutely resent that mentality now that *I* am a girl. Well, all of that and I have to look for another car to drive now. It's cheaper to buy another one, than to fix this one.