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.