Saturday, September 23, 2017

Tyler/Valerie: Backburner

Three days, three calls to Valerie.

"So, this baby deal with Josh..."

"Ugh," she sighed, "You've got to stop calling. Anna's parents are starting to get concerned since our last calls put me in tears." Anna is her host-body. Sometimes I can get so caught up in trying to learn someone's life that I forget they're trying to learn someone else's.

For now, I say, we can text, but there really are some discussions that should be handled more urgently. I pressed for more info.

"Josh made it pretty clear from day 1 he wanted kids ASAP." she texted. "I would be happy to wait but... I doubt he would"

"That's so weird, you rarely hear about guys pressuring women into being parents."

"Don't be judgmental like that. He isn't pressuring me."

"Sorry, didn't mean to."

I added, "Obviously for a variety of reasons I don't think I should get pregnant in your body."

"Me neither. I'm sure you won't understand this as a man but I really do want to go through the whole experience."

She's right, why anyone would prefer taking that on themselves is a bit of a mystery to me, but so are women in general, and I've been one.

"This is the only thing Josh ever really put his foot down about," she said. "We fought off and on for weeks and he wouldn't propose until we agreed. I honestly don't know how you're going to get out of it."

A few options sprang to mind. Asking nicely. Lying. Being honest (about not being ready for kids, not about secretly being a man impersonating his fiancée.) But I had only just the day before convinced him to be celibate in the 3.5 months leading up to his wedding. Kind of a big ask, so I didn't feel ready for the next round.

Some things need to be nipped in the bud and this would seem to qualify, but under the circumstances I'm comfortable letting it go to the backburner. Unlike the sex issue, I'm not constantly going to have to fend it off for the next few months if I don't come up with a blanket solution. It only becomes a problem after the wedding. I still need to get through all that mess.

No more fires started for the rest of the week, so it was "Me-Time." My first real taste of post-Judith life without a crisis to handle. I gave it over to trying to grow accustomed to being Valerie... it had been a few days, but it still felt new.

I did a few loads of laundry, on the premise that I would feel less strange about wearing all these clothes once they were washed, and tired to pick out things I would like... I think Valerie prefers skirts because finding jeans and pants to fit her is hard; the first pair of jeans I put on, I had to keep pulling up because of her odd hip-shape caused them to slip. I also washed my hair and went about learning where things were in the kitchen, what they usually kept in stock, that sort of thing.

I was also due to meet up with Val's best friend and Maid of Honor, Marie, for spin class, and general friendship upkeep. I thought I would be called upon to act apologetic because Val mysteriously abandoned her for over a month, but Marie is a new mom and barely seems to have time for her friend either. That's win-win. Afterwards, we went for smoothies and she pumped me for info about the wedding planning, and I had to be evasive and say I wasn't ready to think about it right now.

PS, spin class... I'm not a fan.

Lastly was catching up with Pete. I've given Pete a password to this blog and it's up to him/her if he wants to talk about Brigette's life, but he's very keen on it, unable to wipe the grin off his pretty face while we chatted over coffee.

"It's just so... fascinating. I wake up in the morning absolutely excited to attack the challenges that await me," he gushed. I rolled my eyes.

We rode the subway, and talked in code, slightly, about what I was dealing with - with Josh, with the wedding, the celibacy vow and the baby promise. He offered a few words of encouragement, but admitted to not being too jealous of my situation. Then I sarcastically said "Really, I would think this is the kind of challenge you would relish." Instead of getting offended, he just let out a loud belly laugh and smiled, "Maybe you're right!"

It was around that time that I noticed the two guys across from us casting glances our way. I tried to ignore it but then I realized the reason. Pete was wearing a rather short dress, and slouched forward, "manspreading" on the subway. I can only imagine how good of a view the guys were getting.

I nudged Pete to correct his posture and he scrambled to do so, again laughing it off with characteristic casualness. "Enjoy the show?" he asked the two guys, who were probably a couple of years younger than our new selves. They seemed too embarrassed to reply and moved away.

I smacked him on the arm. "Okay, you have to be careful who you engage with."

"Oh, come on, they're harmless."

"Maybe, but someday they won't be."

Pete shrugged. "Whatever, that's life. You can let it define you, or you can define it."

Hm. Food for thought, I suppose. Pete has been through this roughly as many times as I have, maybe there's some validity to his outlook, but I'm not sure I share it...

As always, more to come.

-Tyler/Valerie

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Friday, September 22, 2017

Jonah/Krystle: Just Me and My Family

I saw Krystle off on her "gap-year" adventure earlier in the week, driving her down to Boston's Logan Airport, and it was surprisingly emotional for me.  You'd think, after a couple years of what I've been through - the sex change, pregnancy, having Little Moira, and for much of the time living under the same roof as Krystle pretending to be me - just driving someone somewhere wouldn't be such a big deal, but seeing what looks like your own body walking away is kind of a gut-punch.

I thought it was just the sight of it, but when I went to The Changeling so that Moira and Ashlyn could see their namesake, Ashlyn had a different take on it.  She pointed out that, even though I've been living as Krystle for two years now, this is the first time I've really seen the person in my place doing something with my life that's about their own wishes rather than keeping things in place.  Even the guy who got me pregnant wasn't talking about himself or whoever he sold my life to doing something other than living that life as it was.  For Ashlyn, it was just a few months before her old business had changed, so she had to get used to the idea of it early, but it was an easy thing for most of the rest of us to take for granted, especially if we figured on getting back to normal.

It was a short conversation, because soon Moira was there and going nuts over how big the baby was, saying that we'd have to come up with some way off telling the the pale Irish redhead and the nappy-haired black baby apart besides one being called "Little".  She went into full-fledged baby-talk mode soon enough, even while talking about how her boyfriend would absolutely freak at seeing her playing with the baby and saying is been too long since the last visit.

Soon business picked up up and I headed back down the road to see Momma Kamen, Karla, and her kids, who were all pretty excited to see their cousin.  Karla looked pretty good - I guess things are going pretty well for her right now - and she was actually more able to joke with me about single-mom stuff than lord how I was down on her level now over me; as much as the arguments between her and Krystle are wedged in deep, I guess they've weakened over the time she's been dealing with me.  Momma Kamen did pull me aside afterward and ask what my plans were now that my baby-daddy was way out of the picture like this.  I told her that me and "his" parents had become close enough that there wasn't much chance of them abandoning me.  A lifetime of dealing with Karla's and Krystle's messes has apparently left her suspicious on that count, but she wished me the best and told me that, if they ever changed their mind, I'd still have a place with them.

It's something I've given a bit of thought to this week, as we settled in to the new arrangement at home, and Mom and Dad really had to deal with the fact that their son is now a young single mom a little more directly.  It's not like they've been denying it, but they could occasionally kind of lump me and Krystle together, like there was this vague "Jonah&Krystle" thing and they could think of either the apparent eighteen-year-old guy or the apparent twenty-four-year-old girl as whichever one of us is convenient, but now there's just me, and there's no thinking of me as just half their son.

I'm not sure whether it helps or not that I was kind of quick to reassert that.  I moved back into my old room right away, and though Dad kind of shook his head at me filing the top drawer of my bureau with bras and panties, he also helped me assemble a crib so that the spare room where I'd been sleeping with Little Moira could be a full-on nursery.  She's gotten too big and too good at pulling herself up for the Finnish-style baby box she's been sleeping in since birth (I wonder if Mom and Dad will give it more credit now that the person who gave it to me is "Annette" rather than "Benjamin"), but the spare room is pretty small for a bed, a crib, and a changing table, especially if if I wanted to have a spot for my laptop and a chair in there.  Krystle leaving now was kind of good timing.

And I've got a car now!  It's the one Mom and Dad gave to Jonah #2, and this got handed down to Krystle, so it's kind of always technically been "mine", but Krystle got attached to it and since she had a job and I was just looking after the baby, I really haven't had much chance to drive it before taking her to the airport.  It's not new and cool and I suspect I'd like it a lot more if I wasn't always worried from putting the girl in a rear-facing car seat in the back, but I've already signed Moira up for swimming lessons and a couple other things to get us out of the house.

Of course, those cost money, as does gas, and Mom and Dad have already pointed out that even if I were myself again, I'd be too old for an allowance.  So I'm looking for a job, probably waitressing a few nights a week, hoping that Mom and Dad won't be too upset about watching Moira.  They seem kind of open to it now, but, like I said, I kind of worry about them not seeing me as their son and Moira as their granddaughter now that me and Krystle aren't a package deal anymore.

I kind of need that outlet, too.  As much as I love my parents and am starting to find it hard to imagine little Moira not being somewhere nearby, all my friends have started college or don't know they should know me (and would probably have their folks tell them, in a barely-racist way, that they didn't want to spend too much time with the unwed mother five years older than they are), and it can be tough if you're not naturally a me-against-the-world type.

Gotta say, though - it doesn't suck to be sleeping in my own bed and have my parents to myself, even if nothing else is the same.

-Jonah/Krystle

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Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Harmon Keller/Alicia Polawski: The Stewardess's Life

Now that I have been living the life of Alicia Polawski for roughly a month and working at her job for a little more than half that, I can no longer say that every day brings a new indignity in a literal sense; most of them have revealed themselves and it is only a matter of how often they repeat.  That the bleeding will not return for several more weeks makes me grateful, but that it will reoccur at all is maddening.

As much as the physical changes on their own are more than a person should be required to endure - and though Lindsey occasionally reminds me that this event has left me younger and more spry, that seems like a minor compensation for not seeing one's own face in the mirror - it is in some ways the lack of a routine that can be most disruptive.  While Lindsey has a relatively set schedule, Alicia's lack of seniority and the disruption caused by the "leave of absence" means I am left with a schedule that is mostly "on call" days, meaning I can be called upon to fly just about anywhere in the United States almost immediately, with the barest time to prepare myself for presenting the sort of Alicia Polawski the outside world expects to see.

There is, I suppose, a sort of logic to Lindsey's suggestion that I spend the free time I have practicing the feminine arts, as not only is she seldom present when I am must make my self presentable as a young woman in the service industry, but her amusement at situations where she may act maternal toward me is rather difficult to swallow.  There is, I admit, an obvious irony to our situation, but she does occasionally mine it for the very simplest of jokes.

Still, even those are preferable to actually performing Alicia's duties.  It is, firstly, unnerving to have people recognize me as Miss Polawski and strike up conversations that pick up upon some point made months ago.  Though it is in some ways convenient to know that, no matter how differently one may act than the person one might appear to be, there will not come a moment where some other person becomes truly suspicious or distrustful, there must be a constant threat to one's own identity in living another's life.  Should I open up to anybody but Lindsey, I would not be believed, and perhaps that other person would make an argument that my true life is a delusion.  Next to that possibility, the idea that taking birth control and putting on a brassiere every morning might become second nature is almost quaint.

Not that I find it likely that I will be opening up about my situation to anybody aside from Lindsey in the foreseeable future.  The other flight attendants are, I suppose, tolerable enough; though some have occasionally made homes about Alicia finding men no matter where she goes, none seem to have made the connection with her month-long absence.  Most seem to enjoy the work, looking forward to when they can choose their "lines" and trading stories about the place's they visited on their last trips or how great it was to have a whole weekend with their boyfriends (and even the men seem to have boyfriends).  Lindsey would probably get along well with them, but I find myself unable to relate to this group, much less spend time with them on layovers, where I generally stay in my hotel room, trying to keep up to date in my actual field.

This, at least, is better than the actual work, which had its ridiculous moments (honestly, who decides to apply for a new credit card during a plane's descent for the chance to have those miles applied?), but does at least give me some level of respect for the people who do this job that I may not have noticed before.  I have never been afraid of flying, but I do admit to having found myself nervous during takeoff and landing, and there is no room for that in this job.  It's also the case that what little downtime you get us during turbulence, so it is difficult to actually relax.

And the people!  When I can detach myself from the immediate incident, it is interesting how the improper behaviors in first class and economy differ.  The people in economy, I'm finding, generally have issues with each other, and mainly yell at me and the rest of the flight crew for how they perceive I am taking someone else's side.  In some ways, it is fascinating to see how they have mostly been trained to accept a decidedly non-ideal situation and accept whatever someone in authority says, while those in business class, who are far more comfortable, not only complain if service is something less than instantaneous, but are far more likely to find reason to touch me while making their points.  It was a bit of a shock, at first, although I warrant it is to be expected with the uniforms Alicia left for me to wear.  The number of phone numbers and hotel addresses is not exactly shocking, given the same situation.

There certainly have also been a number of people in coach who I suspect wait for me to be walking down an aisle before squeezing past me with an erection on the way to the restroom (and do not get me started on cleaning one of those mid-flight!), and people in the front of the plane who expect me too mediate their ridiculous disputes, but so far, this is how it has worked out.  It is unpleasant enough that I often entertain the fantasy, when a flight takes me toward the East Coast, of boarding a train and heading to Maine, although it would be the mark of a cad to abandon Lindsey in this situation, especially since, if I understand how the "curse" iterates, there would simply be nobody in the identity of Alicia Polawski until the Inn reopens in the spring, and who knows what sort of chaos the true Alicia would cause should that happen?

And I have no doubt she would.  Though other former guests of the Trading Post Inn seem to have formed tight bonds with those with whom they share lives, that has not been the case for me.  The man taking my place seems a decent enough person, willing to make sure that the work I do is forwarded properly, but has already broken several of my long-standing routines and spent more of my salary than is reasonable on hockey tickets and ephemera, and as for the actual Alicia Polawski, she and her mother have become sisters with some sort of hipster cupcake shop in Texas, and she has this far been recalcitrant to give me any details that would let me resolve the sex tape mess.  She even tried to lecture me on not having anything to negotiate with if she gave it up, like I needed some girl barely out of her teens to explain leverage to me!  She apparently still thinks she will get some sort of benefit from this rather than simply antagonizing a potential adversary.

She is also fairly insistent about my maintaining this career, alas, so I must prepare for a trip to Chicago, and from there to Detroit, before making my way back in the other direction. 

-Harmon Keller

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Monday, September 18, 2017

Tyler/Valerie: Three In a Bed

Fake love is weird.

Waking up every morning next to a man who thinks you are the love of his life is strange. And he is a very attentive, interested partner... I was hoping that this would be one of those relationships where the parties are just kind of on auto-pilot after a few years and don't take much notice of each other, but I guess true love, or something like it, does exist.

So when I start wearing less make-up than Valerie did, or I forego her favorite wedges for flats (even though let's face it, I could use the height,) Josh is there to raise an eyebrow. Not in a judgmental way, or an "I'm starting to suspect my fiancée has been replaced by a doppelganger" way, but in a "I'm in love with you and I am aware of these things" kind of way.

The big ones are the ones pertaining to everyday routines. I offered to cook, or do dishes, and he swatted me down: "Are you kidding? This is the best part of my day. You relax. Find us something on Netflix."

He clears the plates, and with a bit of sincerity, I ask, for both myself and Valerie, "What did I do to deserve you?"

"I don't know," he kisses me on top of my head, "But it must have been good because I'm great."

He re-appears in the doorway to the kitchen. "Oh, I remember now - you were just you."

I smirk. Humble, funny, affectionate. Valerie is lucky. So, can I bring myself to see myself as a lucky one?

I don't know. As much as, if you were Val, you wouldn't want somebody "filling in" in your relationship, it has happened, it's out of our control, and we need to do our best. And as much as, if you were me, you wouldn't want to have to pretend to be somebody you're not for too long, I have to think... it could be worse.

I'm not with someone who's argumentative or difficult or annoying. I don't ask a lot of him, but Val must have because he has internalized this need to serve and show off, which is weird, but I guess I want to return him to Val in that shape, so I can't go saying "Hey, just for this next year or so, we should be more like equals, roommates even, and then after I get back from my next trip to Maine you can go back to treating me like a princess. Please don't ask why."

He's actually pretty accepting... I mean, he can clearly tell that something is "up" with his fiancée, I think my blanket excuse that "Oh, I think the wedding prep is making me a bit crazy, just go with it," is... holding, more or less.

There's the physical aspect, of course. There's cuddling, hand-holding, and lots of kissing, which I just have to accept.

It wasn't that long ago that I broke up - or whatever it was - with Kitty. Was I a married lady, or just a person with a live-in partner in a relatively new relationship, or were we picking up where we left off when we were Alan and Greta, or... I mean, it was complicated, and it left me a trifle dazed. I got out of that feeling like I could really use some alone time, and then the Inn deposited me here. The result is not that far off from what I'm "used to" after so much time with Kitty, but very different in those key ways... something I can do, but not necessarily be happy about.

It can still be a bit hard to access, even for pretend purposes, the kind of feelings Val would express on a regular basis. And I mean, I'm still not fully healed from the last time I was in love and totally fucked it up. (Based on what I did to Meghan, do I really deserve to have someone love me for me ever again? A I totally innocent where Kitty is concerned? God only knows.) So there's a bit of a hiccup whenever I have to say, "I love you (too.)"

But it's getting easier.

Remember, more than a month has passed since I met this guy, and aside from taking longer in the bathroom in the morning than any man should, he hasn't shown any serious flaws. Do I think the relationship is perfect? Maybe not, but I can't say I blame him for that. He deserves his partner, and I'm finding it easier every day to be that for him.

I mean, four years ago, when this first happened, being told whom to sleep beside and kiss and spend so much of my waking hours with, would have been nightmare stuff. "You want me to what? Pass." I cast a lot of judgment on Meg for doing pretty much this same stuff with Wade back in the day and proudly told myself I would never.

Now, it comes a lot easier.

And you can forget all the weirdness of him being a guy because I'm not a guy right now and... I mean, maybe for the rest of my life I'll always be stuck somewhere in between. And while I'm still not entirely sure what that means for my true identity, what I really am deep down inside, it's less of a barrier.

That just leaves one.

Flashback: It's night two. I spent all day browsing the want ads for a possible job, put out some resumes, and fed the cat (an orange tabby named Cheddar who loves nuzzling my boobs - who wouldn't?) We had stir fry for dinner. My note, "It was good, but next time you should add mushrooms," is met with a puzzled reminder that I "hate" mushrooms. Whatever, that can change. We are on the couch and I am flipping through Netflix, as described above, trying discreetly to avoid things in the "Watch Again" tab that I haven't seen.

He returns and motions for me to lay my head down against this lap. Remember, it's night two so this is a pretty big test of my resolve. I find a different position, but I can tell he's feeling... frisky... because he's up against me like, well, Cheddar.

I had a couple of glasses of wine with dinner ("A second cup?" he says, Wow, who are you?" Somebody who needs to drink more to forget how badly she's failing at being Valerie, apparently) so I was feeling... okay. I let him kiss me. Let his hands go up and down my sides, feeling the strap of my bra (have I mentioned how sore my shoulders are from having to support these things all the time?) I'm warming up, but still not really into it, and I get taken further out of the moment with his next observation, "Hey, you've usually taken your bra off well before dinner. You going somewhere?"

I blush and push back a little bit. "Oh, um, I guess I forgot about it." (Heh, like I could. Your friendly reminder that the girls are quite overgrown now, and mighty unhappy about their confinement.) "Say, about that, there's something I've been meaning to ask. And if it's a 'no,' that's totally cool, but um... what would you say if we... didn't... do anything... until the wedding? You know... kinda save ourselves?"

He sits up and says nothing. Just blinks. Long pause. Buffering.

Flashback earlier that day: Panicked after night one and the possibilities, I call Valerie.

"So, uh," I say, nervously, "I'm sorry we didn't get to this sooner but... I mean, you're young, in love, and very pretty."

"Thanks," she said, apparently not sensing where I was going.

"What is your and Josh's situation like? I imagine he's... going to want to... get busy."

"Huh?"

"Sex, Valerie. How, uh, do you want to play this?"

"Oh my God," she said, on the brink of tears yet again, "I can't even imagine! You don't want to--"

"No!" I said shortly, "I don't want to. Believe me, I can go without. But... like, how can we be fair to him? I'm going to be here a while."

"I don't know. The idea of sharing him is just... I'd rather die. I'm sorry, I know you didn't ask for this, and you may look like me, but... I can't get past it. It's disgusting."

"Right, right," I said. Now, I've heard a lot of people sort of surrender to the inevitability of this situation, but this is a natural reaction too. This is her fiancé we're talking about. Her man. She's entitled to some say, some jealousy.

"What if I said, let's wait until the wedding? To make it, like, special, or something?"

"But the wedding's in November..." she sighed, "What will you do after that?"

I kind of grumbled, "Well, I'll probably just have to face the music. But it's sort of a compromise."

She kind of grunted in frustration - whomever she has become normally has quite a nice voice, but it definitely capable of some bovine utterances.

"He probably won't go for it. I don't want this to cause trouble in my relationship."

"So... you want me to just have sex with him?"

"No. Maybe. If you have to. But not very often, and don't make it last any longer than it has to."

I rolled my eyes. Sounds like a great deal for me.

"He's out of town two weekends a month for work, I work a lot of weeknights--"

"Worked," I said, "You were fired for skipping shifts. I'll get a new job quick, though."

"Oh, right. Well, our schedules only line up so much, so it's like the planets really have to align for us to both be in the mood."

I looked down at my rack - I found it hard to believe he wouldn't be in the mood more often, but that's neither here nor there.

"Try the 'saving it' thing," she sighed. "That seems like the best option, but I doubt he'll agree."

Later that night: He spent a few moments thinking it over. Felt like five minutes but that's only because thirty seconds can seem like eternity when nobody's speaking. I held my breath. I was this close to saying 'Forget it, I was being silly, let's just do it right now.'

"Okay," he finally said, to my relief.

I raised my eyebrows. "Are... you sure?"

"Yeah," he said, in a way that actually meant 'no,' "If that's what you want. It sounds nice."

I threw my arms around him. "Thank you baby! I love you so much. I promise it will be worth the wait!"

We embraced, and kissed, and everything was great for a moment.

"It's just a shame, because, you know, that other promise."

I hated to break character again, because this seemed like it should be obvious to the real Valerie, but I had to ask. "Which promise was that?"

He looked at me like I was a total crazy idiot for forgetting - but at least a cute one that he couldn't wait to have sex with again. "The promise that you'd flush your birth control pills down the toilet once we got back from our honeymoon."

Um... right.

I guess we'll cross that bridge when we get to it.

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Thursday, September 14, 2017

Tyler/Valerie: Hitting the Ground Running

I felt utterly drained by the time I got to New York. My mind raced. I was set to play-act as fiancée to a man I have never met, Josh Freeman. I spent the day leading up to it just staring into space.

Pete - characteristically as I have learned - was not helpful, looking at it from a rosy viewpoint, because it wasn't happening to him: "I bet you're really up to this challenge. This is advanced stuff. I mean, you've never really had to fake it before... you wrote your own ticket as Judith, and Alan... hell, even when you were Lauren it kind of seemed like you had leeway to do what you wanted. Imagine if this was your first transformation? Do you think he'll want sex? I can't imagine he doesn't. It's at least a little exciting, isn't it? Like, if you could step outside yourself and watch. I bet it'll make for a good blog."

Imagine that for the length a full-day trip down to NYC... we had gone by train and I was really regretting not springing for plane tickets.

I had made contact with Valerie to get her blessing about me living her life. I know none of us has a choice in all this but I wanted to do the honorable thing. I told her about the blog, and said that she could read up on my personal track record and keep tabs on what I was doing with her life. She said that she would look into my past, but that I should keep her up to date on my actions, so reading the blog would not be necessary in the future.

She and Josh had known each other since high school, began dating five years ago, and had been engaged since last summer. They struck me as sickeningly sweet - their text messages to each other littered with hearts and kisses. From everything I could tell, these are two people utterly, passionately in love with each other. When I called to him to apologize for staying in Maine so extra long, and that I would be home soon, he didn't just say "That's okay," but seemed very concerned for my safety and wellbeing - hell, he was downright apologetic, adding how much he looked forward to seeing me, which gave me a knot in my stomach. After years of, as Pete said, "writing my own ticket," I would have to pretend to be in love with someone, devoted to them, that I was the one who knew them best.

After everything I've been through, it seemed scary, but also borderline offensive. That I could just walk in there and take this woman's place, accept all the love that was meant for her.

"Is there any way we can postpone the wedding?" I asked Valerie.

"No," Valerie said sadly. "The hall is booked, the deposits paid, the invites out, the dress..."

I actually a bit about know how tough it is to plan an event like this thanks to my time as Judith, but I thought maybe there would be leeway.

I couldn't help but say, "But you're going to miss..."

"Don't you think I know that??" she snapped at me. "I don't get to walk down that aisle and stand next to the man I love, say my vows, cut the cake... throw the bouquet..." she was crying, I could hear.

"I'll be there, though," she said, composing herself. "Don't worry."

"Of course, of course... we'll say you're a... cousin or a work friend or something."

"Yes, yes," she said, probably tearing up again, "Oh God... I don't know if I can handle it... I just love him so much..."

"Hey, it's gonna be okay," I said, trying to sound as reassuring as possible, hiding the notes of doubt in my voice. "We'll get you through this."

Here we were, in a situation neither of us wanted to be in, trying to navigate it as best we could.

"I really appreciate your help, Tyler," she sniffled at the end of our call. "When this happened, when they told me there would be another person taking my life, I was afraid... I was so scared this was the end of my relationship."

I couldn't make any promises, but I wanted to be the best Valerie I could.

So by the time I got to Brooklyn, standing at the threshold of Val and Josh's apartment, dimly aware of what was waiting for me and the pressure of my new role, I shed all my selfish fears and insecurity, aware that I was doing all this for somebody else. that if I wasn't meant to have love in my life, I would do my best to help others.

The door opens.

A man has just risen from his place on the couch in anticipation, hearing the key in the lock.

I am vaguely aware he is tall, handsome, with good hair, somewhere between rugged and a pretty-boy in looks.

I will myself into Valerie's psyche, try to imagine how these two lovers must feel after going so long without seeing each other.

I must look like a mess in my shorts and tank top - hair in a ratty ponytail, face red and puffy from heat, sweating under my tits.

I drop my bag on the floor. He rushes over and take me in his arms. I let myself be taken instead of doing the sane thing and saying "I'm tired and I just want to go to bed."

He plants a deep, long passionate kiss on my lips, followed by several small ones, then holds me. I feel how small I am more than ever.

A few things are said, "I missed you, I was worried, I love you so much," that sort of thing - as if he could almost sense the kind of bind she's really in.

"It's okay, it's okay, I'm here now."

It was a whirlwind of emotion. But before things got too out of hand, I parted my lips from his.

"Not to wreck the moment, but I haven't eaten a thing."

A place is already set. It's a prime rib roast - a pretty good one, too.

He stares at me all lovey-dovey while I eat. He's obviously curious about where I've been and what really happened but he seems to respect my desire not to go over it.

I'm so hungry I probably make borderline sexual grunts while I eat. He's amused. I must be very cute.

I find it strangely easy to treat this guy like I already know him -- years of practice faking things. I ask him about his week, prepared with a few conversational prompts Val has offered me. He mentions a few names and I want to double back and clarify who did what but I worry that will reveal my secret somehow, so I nod along and make a point to ask Valerie later.

He's clearly very tuned into Val's emotions because he sees I'm worn out and, when I go to clear the plates, he insists I just head to bed. I was hoping to look in the kitchen and memorize where things are but that will have to wait. I do that in the bedroom instead. The bed is covered in pillows and neatly made. A woman definitely lives here.

I like a glass of water before bed - apparently this is weird because Josh asks, "Isn't that just going to make you have to pee?" I drink it anyway and he turns out to be right, as of 2:30 AM.

Strike two: I forego brushing my hair. ("Man, you must really be tired," he says, lying on the bed in his boxers shamelessly. I curse Val for not detailing every single quirk Josh is likely to note.)

Strike three: I was in a t-shirt that came down nearly to my knees, and a pair of shorts. "Won't you be hot?" he asks. And yes, under the comforter, in the stiff air of the apartment, I am, and the fabric is scratchy against my skin.

I'm reluctant to bare it all especially since I just "got" it, but why be modest? We're in the dark and he's seen it on Val. So what if it didn't used to be mine. (That sounds logical, but in practice, you try getting naked with a man you've only just an hour or so ago. It took a lot of hemming and hawing before I finally gave in and slept shirtless.)

I was frazzled - in all my years I've never been interrogated this way. I was halfway towards breaking down out of exhaustion and frustration right there and tried to tell him everything, but I was stopped.

He slipped into bed behind me and wrapped his arms around me.

"It's okay," he said softly. "Tomorrow will be better. I love you."

My heart sank. But I owed it to Valerie to represent.

As warmly as I could, I cooed, "I love you too, good night."

And so it began...

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Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Max: Nothing's quite normal now

After last week, I'm grateful to be back to normal again - male, Chinese-American, just out of college.  It happened relatively quick, in terms of not having to wait around as Elaine for days after having Yang Chen-ai switch up the plan so that I can become myself again ahead of schedule - it happened late Friday night or early Saturday morning, depending on how you count those hours - and I think that was probably by design, with the Wong sisters figuring on a full house on Labor Day weekend as unsuspecting guests try to get the most out of the last holiday before fall.

I did like Chen-ai suggested (which, to be fair, is along the lines of what Jordan's model says) and stuck a chair in exactly the spot Carlotta had been when she changed.  Nothing happened Thursday night other than me giving up at around 4am and having a stiff back when I woke up at noon.  Annette had already caught the train south when I woke up and met Jordan for brunch, saying she had friends and roommates to meet for the first time before class started.  If she was freaked out enough by the whole general situation and wanted as far from Old Orchard as possible, I can't say I blame her.

Friday was pretty boring.  Jordan and I are both city people, and we felt like we'd pretty much exhausted what there was to do in Old Orchard by then.  We played some cards, wasted time on the Internet, and quietly mocked the folks next to us who thought that Lisa's Pizza was top-tier pie (we are New Yorkers under the skin, after all).  Then night came, he went back to his rented apartment, and I went back to the Inn.

Regular visitors talk about a tingle that comes earlier in the evening on nights that the change takes place, and Jordan, who makes computer models to try to predict the changes, has a theory about the change actually sending some sort of wave back in time because it's pushing and pulling information and extra mass out of some alternate dimension and this causing ripples on the t-axis, but I don't know about any of that.  I just know there was some sort of electricity when I walked into the building, although it might be easy to miss if you weren't looking for it.

As 2am approached, I found myself wondering what to wear.  I don't think I've heard any stories about people harmed by wearing chokers or thongs and becoming bigger, but the thought gets in your head, even though being naked starts to feel super inappropriate - like, soon those won't be your curves anymore, so you shouldn't be so causal with them, even if it took you weeks to get to that point.  I wound up in a t-shirt and a new pair of boxers - I wonder how much fresh underwear gets bought in the nearest department store after the Inn does is thing - so when I did change back, I mostly saw my skin tone change rather than really noticing inflation and deflation.  I noticed it when walking to the bathroom to check in the mirror, in that certain parts being non-retractable is proud positive that Apple doesn't design the human body.

It was me.  Carlotta hadn't given me a stupid haircut or let me get fat or left me with a tattoo or anything, although I guess she might have if she'd had the winter and next spring.  I let out a breath I didn't realize I'd been holding; maybe I'd find this experience educational someday, but no sleight to Elaine, I was glad to be myself again.

A noise from the adjoining room made me stop moving for a moment.  It was right next to the wall, and when I closed my eyes and tried to imagine Jordan's floor plan, I wondered if the person on the other side of the wall had become Bingbing or if they had become whoever was in the room, and someone else drew that straw.  That was room 8, so they should have become Brittany and Ethan.

I did take out my phone and send Jordan and Annette selfies.  It felt pretty good that they both responded in a couple of minutes, with Jordan sarcastically saying good, I can go to bed now and Annette sending a couple emojis (I think the wink indicates that the hearts-for-eyes-and-wide-open-mouth was partly in jest) and a request to look her up the next time I'm in Boston.

I officially still had a girlfriend, though, and I figured that whoever wound up with that rule was going to need help like I did, as would everyone else, so I took my bag and the one I recognized as Bingbing's and headed out to the lobby.  Starting around 5am, there were a bunch of freaked-out people, and I did my best to explain what was going on.  Jordan wasn't letting her phone wake her at first, so I was on my own, and it wasn't so bad after a while.  Some folks were angry that I hadn't done anything to warn them, but being myself again made me a bit more intimidating than I was as Elaine, so it didn't get violent.

By about 11am, I'd counted twelve of us, but no Bingbing.  Only room 4 seemed to be unaccounted for, so I walked over and knocked on the door.  "Are you okay in there?  I know what's happened to you is scary, but I've been through it.  Things can get back to normal and I can help."

The door opened as far as the chain would let it, and "Bingbing" looked out.  Her hair was messy, and she had a look I'd never seen on that face when it was Carlotta inside, though it occurred to me that maybe I should have seen her look worried at some point if we'd actually been as close as I thought we were.  Seeing that I was Asian too, she asked what had happened in Cantonese.

I was a little surprised by that, and I guess it showed, and I told her the Inn was cursed, that the guests turned into the last people to stay there, but while the origins were hard to dig up, the effects were fairly predictable, so if you got the timing and positioning right, you could be yourself again, although it generally took about a year because this place filed up pretty well for someplace under a hex.  I took the passport out of the bag and handed it to her, and she closed the door, likely running to the mirror to check that she'd become Bingbing rather than just a new girl - after all, if she was Chinese to start, that wouldn't seem so random.

She came back and opened the door all the way.  "So I'm this Chen Bingbing now.  Why?  I thought I was just getting a job in America, and they told me to do a training thing here while they sorted out my visa.  Did they know?"

I said we'd have to do some research, but I suspected of we traced whoever owned her new employer back a ways, we'd find Yang Chen-ai, and her new job was keeping an eye on me and Jordan.  I told her that story, trying to minimize some of the scarier parts, but she was curling up into a ball by the end anyway.

By then I'd looked around the room and saw that the clothes on the floor were guys', and rolled the suitcase over.  "I'm guessing what's in here will be more comfortable than what you've got.  It looks like you were, uh, taller before."

She admitted that was the case and took the suitcase into the bathroom.  Not sure whether to stay or go, I stood by the door and looked at my phone until she came out wearing a t-shirt, jeans, and sneakers.  She hadn't put a bra on, but it seemed like it would be really inappropriate to offer help with that.  "So," I said, "you want to meet Jordan?  Yuan-wei is supposed to be your best friend, although I guess it might seem silly to keep it up."

"Might as well, especially if you're right about what I'm supposed to do."

So I texted Jordan, found out that Cary had his truck nearby, and decided to meet up there.  On the way, I asked who she really was.

"I...  I don't know if I should say.  You seem nice, and I'm sure your brother will too, but how can I really know?"

I was kind of disappointed, but said it was fair enough.  Jordan was a little less thrilled about not knowing who her supposed best friend was, but figured there was no way too force this information out of her, especially since she already seemed freaked out by how comfortable this girl I kept calling my brother was - elated, even, to still be Yuan-wei.

Jordan yelled "guess who!" when we came to order, introducing me and Bingbing.  To my surprise, Elaine was in the back of the truck as well, reading something on a tablet that I suspect would raise eyebrows if it had been a physical book in the hands of an eleven-year-old, and she jumped out the back to look at me from all angles.  "Don't take this the wrong way, but you gave up being me for this?"

"Like you won't be thinking 'he's hot and knows my body, I should call him' in a couple of weeks."

"Dude, I'm in fifth grade.  That'd get you in so much trouble even if I had the right hormones to care."

Jordan raised an eyebrow.  "You're not changing back?"

"Well, it's not like your wicked stepmother gave me a heads-up on her plan so I could just run away from home before this guy got temporary custody and Mackenzie disappearing again would have the cops sniffing around him.  Instead, I get to re-experience middle school!"

"Ouch.  Although, I guess it will be easy this time."

"The schoolwork, but having ten- and eleven-year-olds try to befriend you as the new girl is weird.  And I think one of the boys already has a crush on me."

We came up with the idea of co-writing a letter to Elaine #4, and sat down at a picnic table to do so.  I'm not sure what Jordan and Bingbing #3 talked about, but by the time we were done they were talking about getting moving, because school was about to start, whether in Boston or New York. 

It seemed weirdly abrupt, but at least we didn't have to really say goodbye until we got to Boston, and we stood kind of awkwardly in North Station until she said that, look, just because she'd been a girl for the years didn't make her a hugger, but...  And then she grabbed me, and I hugged her back, and he said he was glad we could talk without hiding anything now.

"Yeah, I'm just glad to know.  We've got to find a way to make Mom and Dad believe, though."

"I know!  I keep trying to figure out how that's going to work, besides hijacking some other major life event.  Cause that's be fucking weird and selfish, right?"

"Maybe I can tell them I've proposed to her, and then we can be like 'okay, now that you're in the right frame of mind, what I really want to tell you is...'"

It was weird that we were able to laugh at that, although Bingbing said not to even pretend, and why not just do it ourselves without involving her.  We were like, dude, gross, but I have to admit, we gave it some thought.

Jordan offered to buy us plane tickets home, saying if Chen-ai had a problem with that, then they might as well get the argument over spending her allowance out of the way early.  I almost said no, but I figured Bingbing's first exposure to New York didn't have to come via the Chinatown bus.

When we did land, she wasn't exactly thrilled to find out that Carlotta/Bingbing had moved in with me/Giorgia over the summer, or that there was just one bed in the apartment.  Truth be told, I also kind of wanted to throw the mattress out the window when I thought about that - sure, she moved in before the trip to the Inn, but she must have known what she was going to do by then, right?  Gross.

I took the couch that night and we did our own things for the first few days - she's been doing school registration stuff, buying books, all that, while I've been trying to set up job interviews - Carlotta taking the summer after graduation off hadn't really helped my prospects.

The text from Benny-Jordan didn't come until a couple nights ago, and I was kind of nervous when he asked if I wanted to hang out, shoot some hoops, and talk.  I kind of had to.

Meeting up with him at the gym, it seemed almost as absurd to think I'd been fooled into thinking he was the real Jordan as it was to have "Yuan-wei" tell me she was.  He just didn't move like my brother always had, he enjoyed ruining and sweating, and he was friendly toward people the old Jordan would have snapped at.  And the first thing he did was apologize.

"So, like, your brother said I should have tried to get you to dump Bingbing as soon as she found out she wasn't the original, and I said she deserved a chance."

"I wouldn't have listened.  She was too much exactly what I wanted in a girl, and Jordan, well, he could be kind of a jealous dick about girls."

"Ah."

We talked a little more, but that was the main thing he wanted to say.  He didn't really apologize for taking over Jordan's life; he said that as much as he knew it didn't really feel like what he was supposed to do, Jordan did say to take it and how do you just give Kareena up?  And while he had gotten his Cantonese up to "embarrassing" in the last two years, he couldn't imagine landing in the position Jordan and Annette had found.

So that's where things are now.  In a lot of ways, things are kind of back to normal - I'm in my apartment, looking for work, and I've been hanging out with Bingbing more in the last few days, showing her where to get authentic Chinese food in Manhattan, where you can see Chinese movies, that sort of thing.  We met a friend of mine for dinner last night, and it was almost like a date.

But it wasn't, and it seems like there are a lot of things right now that seem the same as they were at the beginning of summer, but which I know aren't true.  My girlfriend's not my girlfriend, my brother's not my brother, there's a hot chick out there who is, a scary lady in Hong Kong who can redirect or lives in crazy ways, and two women whom I've been told I don't have to worry about, but how can I not?  How do I just answer my parents calling about Sunday dinner and act like all that's not out there?

I suppose the every-day stuff will overwhelm it, especially when I'm working and have a real daily routine.  But there's way more at the edges of my life that I didn't know about before.

-Max

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Monday, September 11, 2017

Tyler/Valerie: Feet First

After hoping I would get some leeway to explore my new life and body after transforming, and once again make my own choices in how to live, I was a bit disappointed with what I got.

The good news: Valerie Stewart is young (23 years old), healthy, and in the midst of a cycle of meaningless bill-paying jobs rather than some career I would have to fake my way through or else derail. In fact thanks to her time at the trading post, she was fired from her latest waitress gig, meaning I have/get to rebuild a bit from scratch.

The not good nor bad news: she lives in Brooklyn. I've spent a bit of time in cities, like Memphis and Milwaukee when I was Alan, but I mostly prefer small towns and outta the way places. The city is big and busy and having to confront it in this body - 5-feet even - makes me feel a lot more intimidated and sheepish than I might've a few years ago. It ain't just because scary things lurk in the dark either. I go out on the street in broad daylight and feel swallowed up by huge crowds, almost to the point of panic because mostly people tower over me... I feel like I'm gonna get stepped on.

It's as far from a little trailer outside Mobile as you get, but getting away from that was always what I wanted.

In further neutral news, Pete, or should I say Brigette, is along for the ride. He is annoyingly keen on the whole "be a girl now" thing, but it does amuse me from time to time. I have to indulge his observations about feeling his boobs jiggle when he goes downstairs, without reminding him that that effect is currently a lot worse for me than it is him. He peppers me with questions about outfits and hairstyles and all I can say is do what feels comfortable... I have learned a lot but I've also learned what works for some doesn't suit others. (Good example: I doubt my very basic way of ponytailing Valerie's silky strawberry blonde locks has anything to do with how Brigette might style her African American frizz.) But it's good to have the company of somebody I never slept with or pursued romantically.

The body itself has some pluses and minuses. I have more energy, and less joint pain and fatigue, no more migraines (yet) and slightly more manageable period pain. I'm a better rested, happier person than I've been in a while, even if my back is usually sore, bending over is virtually impossible, and my short little legs means walking long distances really tires me out.

I was initially very displeased with the shape: short, square-hipped and big boobed, with peachy white skin, a cute round face, button nose and pretty blue-green eyes. Honestly I would rather look like an evil hag. I could especially do without the devices attached to my front, which I'm frequently underestimating, dipping them into my dinner, knocking things off shelves, getting elbowed in public places. Dressing them isn't very fun either: it feels like my choices of tops are either something that reveals a deep canyon of cleavage, or something that looks like a frumpy garbage bag. (How much I've changed: 2014-Tyler would have opted for frumpy every day of the week.) Pete has teased me that my instinct is still to dress modestly, like a button-down older lady, Val's wardrobe is very much that of an active, energetic young woman and it has taken me a while to think of myself as looking that way, not like Judith. I'm working on it - not looking at items of Val's wardrobe and thinking "I could never pull this off!" because the person who bought them obviously thought otherwise. It's not as though she dressed in overly revealing clothing: a typical day, now that I've found a good balance, involves a skirt and tights and a button-up blouse that lets the girls breathe, usually with a tank top underneath. It's just a lot more eye-catching and colorful than I'm used to.

As Judith I was very fond of the invisibility effect being a woman nearing 40 has. Her stern looks made it so that I was rarely bothered when I didn't want it. Now lots of people just come up to me, on the subway platform or the coffee shop, if I'm alone or with girlfriends, and assume it's okay to talk to me. Like I said, I'm pretty, but not intimidatingly sexy or anything... I feel like prey. But I've got a secret weapon against that. The Ring.

That's the bad news: A diamond solitaire engagement ring to be exact, found in a special compartment of Valerie's luggage.

I almost cried when I put it on. I have had to be so much for other people - daughter and high schooler for Lauren, mother for Judith, I was just not sure I could handle being a fiancee and - as of November 17th - wife to a total stranger. Naturally it was Pete - longtime blog reader who knows way too much about me - who put it in perspective saying that if I was hoping to be free and single, the odds weren't in my favor. And that for Valerie, she was real lucky to have a responsible, proven guy like me in her shoes. Flattered as I was, I would rather be somewhere else. But I get it, in a weird way I am the right guy for this job. Does that mean I have to love the idea of walking down the aisle? Hell no, but this is the life I lead, with all these twists and turns. I gotta go through all this and hope someday I get a life I can call my own.

I will be back soon to tell y'all more about my time as Valerie so far since I guess I've just gotten to the "good stuff." Just thought I wouldn't overload you yet.

  - Ty, Val

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Wednesday, September 06, 2017

Jordan: Reset Again

Tuesday

As you read from Max, things got a little heated between us a week ago; one of the things I really didn't think about with the Inn, at least for me, since I've turned into single adults both times, is that it reduces family drama a whole ton. I miss Max and my parents, but I'm a little glad not to have certain obligations, or them looking disappointed at me, or all the times Max made fun of my weight as a punk kid.  So not seeing them doesn't make me happy, but there's also things I don't miss, and when you drop into a new life with a clean slate, you don't automatically pick up someone else's issues to compensate.  Like, I didn't know what Yuan-wei's issues with Chen-ai were, but what-the-fuck-ever, I didn't need to make them mine.  Net drama level, lower, even if I missed people. 

So, fighting with him kind of sucked, and sucked more because I'd forgotten what it was like to fight with him for real, not just argue like we have been ever since he got turned into Elaine #3.  And maybe we would have kept fighting if Annette hadn't been there to meet us at the train station, but she was, hugging us both and saying she'd already scouted the Inn, and it was pretty much empty, which was to be expected since Brittany had posted on Monday.  It would have been tough to get hints about what I had in store for me anyway, as Room 7 is hard to see into from either the street or the beach.

She was looking kind of furtive as we walked down the street toward the condo I'd found on AirBNB, saying that it had been fun to not really flirt but still talk to Benny's cousin like they were old friends when she bumped into him on the street earlier that day, and boy, did guys start assuming that meant she wanted to fuck.  She asked if college guys were like that, and I had to tell her that, from relatively recent experience in both sides, they were worse.  She groaned about how she was not ready to jump right into her senior year like she knew what she was doing, either academically or as a girl who isn't even old enough to drink.

The subject changed when we got to the condo I'd rented - "only" two bedrooms but furnished and nice, right near the beach.  If I was going to lose Yuan-wei's trust fund in a matter of days, I figured I'd better get some use out of it until then.  Annette said that if this were a movie, that would be the signal to start a shopping montage, so we took a cab into Portland and did some of that.  I may not have had much reason to do it for myself, but Annette was into getting some new outfits, and even Max admitted that he might as well stock up, because he didn't know when he'd be working.

Wednesday

It was 80 degrees on Wednesday, so I declared a beach day, and Annette agreed, leaving Max out-voted.  Annette was a bit nervous about her swimsuit, but she looked super-cute, and the two of us even managed to cajole Max into one, saying that we should have one day as sexy girls together.  I'd sneaked a red one into a shipping bag the day before, and as he was changing, I told him through the door that it wasn't a big deal - I'd seen him wearing a Speedo at the beach before, so I knew it wasn't the near-nakedness, it was just feeling the bra part do its work, a constant reminder that you've got tits and dudes are judging you based upon them. 

Max reeked of fear more than I did as Deirdre at his 9-man tournament, and you could see it until Annette got the idea to give him dark shades, and then, daaaaaaamn!  He kind of looked badass even before he realized he looked badass, and I think he finally realized that this could be like a Halloween costume, that you can be yourself and this other thing, and maybe use that other thing to bring part of yourself out. 

Anyway, we had fun on the beach, played some volleyball, ate some pizza at lunchtime and fish and chips for dinner.  I actually ate a fucking lot that day, because while I've been pretty lucky to have a good metabolism as Yuan-wei, it's not like I can just shove as much down my throat as I used to and keep it up.  The good news is that, between vanity and changed taste buds, I like grilled fish and vegetarian meals way more than I used to; the bad news is that is not quite enough.  I don't have to actually go out and run to keep fat from selling in the wrong part of my ass just yet, but I kind of figured it would serve Carlotta right if she had a few pounds to work off.

Shit, I spent a few minutes in from of a barbershop, thinking about going in and having them cut it all off, but Max said they'd probably take it out on him.  Wasn't terribly impressed with my idea of getting my hair dyed blue to see whether Carlotta got stuck with it or if the chemicals stayed on my head, either.

Day had to end, though you couldn't tell my brain that; I was up until 4am dicking around on the Internet, trying to finish a book, and other shit until I finally passed out when the sunrise made a mockery of my apparent attempt to keep the next day from coming by not sleeping.

Thursday

It did, though, even if Max and Annette let me sleep until noon.  I didn't spend long writing a letter to go in my luggage - "Fuck you and your sister" seemed to cover it - but still put everything together and started dragging it down the street.  Picked up the key and coupon packet, and felt kind of jelly-legged as I got to the door of the Trading Post, glad Max and Annette were along for support.  We navigated or way to Room 8 and felt pretty fucking stupid praising before we opened the door, as we all knew from experience that there'd be nothing in there but a cheap-ass hotel room.

Wrong again.  Yang Chen-ai was seated on the edge of the bed, wearing an elegant traditional Chinese dress, legs crossed, a tablet right next to her.  I dropped the handle to my suitcase out of shock.

She looked at Max and Annette in turn.  "Ladies, I ask you - is it proper for a girl to go her entire summer break, her last one before graduating University even, without visiting her lonely widowed mother even once?"  Getting no response, she walked up to me, making me look up because she was wearing four-inch heels and I had sneakers.  "And you, you ungrateful daughter!  Did you never learn to talk to your mother when someone is bullying you?"

It would take Max and me a few minutes to figure out how to respond, but Annette's needs were simpler.  "Guys, what is going on?"

Chen-ai turned to Annette and smiled in a less sarcastic fashion, switching to English.  "Still don't speak Cantonese, eh?  Well, I don't blame you - Mandarin is the language of the twenty-first century, isn't it?"  She walked back toward the bed, picked up the tablet, and then turned around.  "That's what Carlotta was counting on, you know - that either Annette or Benjamin would wind up as Yuan-wei, and then by either staying in America despite the police wanting to speak to her or being unable to answer a simple question once she arrived back home, she would look guilty enough for the admittedly circumstantial evidence linking her to my husband's death to look damming.  They certainly didn't plan on the likes of Jordan Chang being able to come to Hong Kong and pass as Yuan-wei well enough to avoid suspicion, no matter how many anonymous tips they sent to the HKPD."

My mouth went dry.  "How did you know?"

The smile want friendly any more.  "Sweetie, haven't you figured it out?  If you're one in a million, it's almost unfathomable that two felons from the streets of New York's Chinatown would just happen to show up directly after a couple of teenagers from Hong Kong unless someone arranged it.  I arranged it."

Max was the first one to react, stepping out in front of me and seemingly ready to attack Chen-ai before Annette and I grabbed him.  "You did this to your own daughter?  What the fuck is wrong with you?"

"Well, that's the question, isn't it?  I came to the Trading Post Inn in the summer of 1994, twenty-three years old and looking to paint lighthouses for a couple of weeks.  Well, you know how that goes; I wind up in Harlem, of all places.  My English isn't great, but I kind of think it might be good for me to be American for a year - you guys are all too young to remember what Hong Kong was like before the handover, but a lot of people were looking for a way out, scared.  I almost think it's fate, even, because the next year, the new Yang Chen-ai says she's having visa problems, but we book things for the next spring.

"That's when I find out I have a daughter, eight months old, who has no idea that I'm not her mother, no instinct saying she should be with someone else.

"I'm not asking for your sympathy here.  The rest of my life is good - Siu-wong has built the business, started cultivating contacts with the mainland, and don't get me wrong, if Yuan-wei was someone else's kid, I'd think she's delightful.  But I didn't have nine months to get used to the idea,  I didn't like how she was first in my husband's heart, and when Siu-wong updated his will to make her his primary beneficiary, saying it's just good estate planning, right around the time she announces that she wants to study in America, and I find out that Carlotta Wong has just gotten out of prison...

"Well, I suppose I should tell you about the Wongs, first.  Not that there's really a lot to tell - Chinese-American father, Italian-American mother, in trouble since they were kids, and they tended to make bigger bad decisions as they got older.  Not many people liked them.  But they hung out with the black girl who was more comfortable speaking Cantonese or Mandarin than English.  They beat the bastard who got turned into that girl's husband half to death when he tried to rape her.  I owe them as much as any of you owe each other.  More, because they helped me without any understanding of why I was so strange.  So when I saw a chance to give them a little of what I had, I took it.  They did far more to earn a comfortable life than Yuan-wei or Bingbing ever did.

"So I truly regret that it had to come to this."

She activated the tablet, jumped to a video app, and handed it to me.  Max and Annette drew in closer, and I hit play.

The image that appeared was the room we were in, lit by just the overhead light, but that was enough to see Max and Bingbing tied and cuffed to metal chairs, gags in their mouths, eyes wide open.  "Max" was already on the floor, trying to make his way to the door, but a chain between the chairs ran under the bed.  They were well and truly fucked, and then the change started happening.

It took a while - we had to fast-forward the recording - but when it was done, they were both Asian-American women about Chen-ai's age, but you could tell they'd lived harder lives.  Carlotta -the one who had been Max - was able to wriggle out of the handcuffs and push the now-loose ropes around her off, pulling her gag out and yelling "Chen-ai You Bitch--!"

She stopped the recording and took her tablet back from me.  "I should have seen it coming, of course.  They were always up to no good, and it's easy to get along when you all have nothing, but when there's something to fight over?  Things get ugly.

"I don't really hold a grudge against them.  But this whole deal, with Max and you and everything, it probably ends with them trying to kill me and inherit everything, and my gratitude for what they did for me only extends so far."

The three of us had inconvenient pulled a little closer together as she told this story.  I tried to stand up a little straighter, but my back want really feeling it.  Annette asked what she wanted from us.

"From you?  Not a thing.  Study hard, stay in school, or don't."  She turned slightly to face Max.  "Same for you.  I figure you'll want to get out of that body, and as you saw, Carlotta was right here--"

She pointed to a spot on the floor.

"--when she changed back.  I suspect you'll want to use your brother's reservation and maybe either drag the bed to this side of the room or just plant a chair there every night.  Unless you'd like to try being Bingbing for a while."

Max shook his head hard, and Chen-ai smiled before looking at me.  "As for you, it's pretty simple.  I want whatever I want, whenever I want it."

I swallowed.  "That's... vague."

She shrugged.  "Well, I'm not sure what the next few years might hold.  I often thought that I would take over Yuan-wei's life right after she graduated from college, but I don't exactly feel old enough to stop being me yet.  But maybe I get sick.  Or maybe I just want you to invest your money a certain way - Siu-wong was right about paying it straight to his daughter rather than allowing it to be taxed twice if it passes through me, especially if my daughter will do what she's told.  But let's start with this:  Get out your phone and send Jacky a text message saying that the last couple weeks were fun, but it also made you realize that the long-distance thing will never work out."

I actually staggered a bit.  "What?  Why?"

"Because your mother knows what's best for you, and it's important that you understand that, and it's important that I know I can count on you."  She walked over to the room's desk and opened up the designer bag that was laying there, taking out a phone and a piece of paper.  "I can get the men who brought my friends to this room here very quickly.  I don't want to - any damage they do to you will show up on the next Yuan-wei, and that's trouble I don't need, but I can probably figure out an explanation.  And I've got this."

After gesturing with and replacing the phone, she held up the paper.  It was heavy, with some gold leaf and embossing, and when I saw what was in bold letters on the top...  "Holy shit!"

"It's not that impressive - just one piece of voting stock for 'Trading Post Inc.'  I have more.  Not nearly enough to be majority shareholder, but having this does bring some privileges, like getting bookings canceled and rearranged at short notice, or even a spare key to surprise your daughter, if you know who to ask."  She changed how she was holding it, using her fingers on the corners to hold it flat.  "Happy birthday, Yuan-wei."

Annette looked from me to her and back as I nervously took the other corners as Chen-ai let go.  "Excuse me, what?"

Chen-ai looked at her, shifting to the outwardly-sweet smile.  "Look at the last three years, girl.  It does me no good to have a daughter actively plotting against me.  And I like this Yuan-wei.  She's smart in certain areas, but not hugely ambitious.  She's practical.  We can work together when need be, and I think we can ignore each other most of the rest of the time.  And while it's important she remember that, while she may have gained her life by chance but has it now because I think she should, it's also important she find it rewarding.

"Now send that text, honey."

I nervously got out the phone.  Max put his hand on my wrist.  "Jordan, don't let her--"

I took the phone with my other hand and started sketching characters.  "Better her than Carlotta and Giorgia.  Besides, is not like I was going to fucking marry the first guy I seriously dated, and I'm probably going to be looking for visual effects jobs in Hollywood this time next year anyway.  Think he's leaving Hong Kong and his family, even for a piece of ass this hot?  Might as well get it fucking over with!"  I held the phone up in front of Chen-ai.  "Good enough?"

She nodded.  "That will do."  I brought the phone back down and tapped send.  "Fuck you, 'mom'."

"I know you're upset now, but trust me, he would not have been right for you.  You're destined for more."  She placed her tablet in her purse and slung it over her shoulder.  "Now, seeing as I'm not in this time zone very often, I think I should fly to Manhattan and do some shopping.  I'd invite you along, but I'm sure you've got a fair amount of back-to-school things you suddenly find you have to do."  She opened the door and waved.  "Have a great year!"

Max interrupted.  "Wait - there's still one thing you haven't said.  Yuan-wei's father--"  He couldn't actually say the words.

"It would hardly make sense for Carlotta killing him to be my plan, would it?  Besides, despite his not realizing he was married to an impostor for two years, I never stopped caring for him any more than I stopped caring for Giorgia and Carlotta.  Really, you shouldn't think too much about this.  That all being a horrible accident makes the most sense."

She smiled and shut the door behind her.

We collapsed on the bed as soon as she was gone.  Staring up at the ceiling, Annette asked if it was weird that she was really happy for us.

"Yeah," I said, "but it will be less weird with alcohol.  Let's get out of this fucking place and let Max buy us some of the good stuff while he still won't get carded."

There was no argument there.

-Jordo/"Missy"/Yuan-wei  (still)

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