Cheap Rent

by Joe Six-Pack


The ad was nestled in amongst much larger, more imposing notices. Any reader would have easily skipped it, and many did. Others ignored it because it had no bold type, no inverted headline, no stars, and a dearth of exclamation points. An ad like this one simply did not make the effort to attract one's attention in this busy, fast-paced world we pride ourselves of. The ad that went the extra mile, with double-sized words that boasted of their obvious virtue were the ones that scored with the masses.

Which is probably why there weren't more that three hundred people who responded to it. Most people would be ecstatic at a small classified ad's response of 300, and indeed the people who placed the ad were quite pleased, but the actual content of the ad by itself would have easily attracted four or fivefold more. If only it had a star or even a solitary bold dot next to it.

Never the less, on this hot late summer day three hundred people had queued up in front of a small suburban house in hopes of being the one to qualify for this undeniably compelling offer. There was even a police car out to monitor the situation, parked under a tree for shade. The neighborhood kids had set up a water stand to sell refreshment, at a reasonable profit, to a hopeful but aggravated mob of young students.

More aggravated than most was Vermin. If one were to look at the amassed crowd, the sea of inexpensively acquired white t-shirts and more affluent pastels would have a small speck in it. Like a single flake of pepper in a glass of milk. That speck, or flake, would be Vermin. Vermin was also older than most of those around him, but they would have singled out the spiked purple mohawk or the multiple studded belts wrapped around his black leather jacket as being the most notable thing about him.

Vermin was a punk rock nightmare. He knew full well he was a walking parody of what punk kids dress like. Indeed you only saw his like in movies or television when they needed to show a dysfunctional family with the self-involved mother, the abusive father and the loose sister. There would then be the punk rock kid. Sullen. Alone. Angry. This is what Vermin always wanted to be.

But in fact, Vermin was a very different kid altogether. He was twenty five years old in age. But his face, visible only when he took the piercings out, made him look almost thirty. The life of hard living on the streets for the past few years had all but sucked the essence of youth out of him, replacing it with cold, calculating adulthood.

Vermin's world was one of sleeping fitfully on long-dead mattresses and flattened cardboard in abandoned buildings or forgotten alleys. The day was spent positioning yourself for the prime panhandling spots for the evening and then spending the night deciding between a bottle or shelter for the night. Maybe he could even scrape enough together for a quick rendezvous with one of the area ladies. The bottle was always the heavy favorite in such contests of will.

As of the last two years though, Vermin had done what seems impossible to most. He turned away from such vices and started to turn his life around. It was a lost cause, of course, he well knew that. Failure was always just around the corner, and he did look forward to the day when he could fall back into the comfortable rut he had just left.

Annoyingly though, things just kept working out for him. Two years ago, he made a stop at the the city agency charged with looking after his ilk. An unusually naive counselor had convinced Vermin that applying for some obscure work training program would be his "ticket" off the streets. Not wanting to seem the sort of person who would refuse a helping hand, he took advantage of the offer. And in a week or two, he'd ditch it and get back to his long-standing experiments with rippled wines. So he thought.

But before he knew what was happening, he had passed intelligence tests, equivalency programs and even had a drivers permit. Now two years later he had his GED and an SAT score somewhere between genius and infinity. Of course he had cheated at every opportunity, as school is far too competitive not to. Despite this colleges were calling him with scholarships and grants.

And today on this well-manicured lawn in front of a pokey little suburban house, in what for all the world looked to him like Disneyland, he was trying to get a room for the Fall term.

Which is what everybody was doing here, waiting impatiently for a room above a garage. Probably a half-converted attic, with a rickety bed and a light bulb hanging from the ceiling. But the price was good: free.

Vermin was always in for a score, and this was a big one. With no rent to pay, he could spend the rest of the term plastered on the finest 40-ouncers money could buy. He'd be back in his old alleyway in three months, sure, but who could pass up this kind of opportunity?

And this time, he wouldn't let that pesky studying get in the way.


***


After what was about three hours, but flew by like eight, Vermin was finally a few spots away from the big interview. He would have left long ago, but the combination of free rent, nothing better to do and an afternoon of "freaking out the norms" kept him there. The twisted, fevered looks he was getting from the cop under the tree was reward enough.

Nothing seemed more certain to him than rejection, so any fun he could get out of this afternoon was going to be his only interest in staying. He had even thought about creating a small riot in this compressed crowd, but it was too hot even for Vermin to work up the energy.

He figured he'd take one step inside the house, and the people inside would immediately thank him for coming and show him the door. He reckoned, and reckoned quite correctly, that the scariest thing they'd see all year was going to be him.

So when he was called in, he was not surprised to see the jolt of shock fly through the expressions of the couple seated there. He had waited for and anticipated that look for some time, and he was very pleased to have been rewarded with a classic. What he was not expecting was the appearance of the couple themselves.

He was easily in his late fifties or sixties, and half as wide was was tall. Bald on the top of his head, and what hair there was had bypassed gray and gone all the way to white. A bushy, nicotine-stained mustache complemented the tanned hue of his thick bifocals. He dressed like he hadn't bought clothes in decades.

She was even older, if such a thing was possible, and was a perfect compliment to her husband. Her thinning white curly hair precariously sat upon her completely round head which featured sagging leathery lips with three or four coats of red stuff on them. Her eyes squinted to the degree which one would doubt their functionality, and they nestled in behind the horned-rim glasses with a chain that disappeared into the folds of her neck. She was in sanitary white from head to toe, with the exception of a tan sweater, thinner than tissue paper, draped around her plump shoulders.

These people were geezers. Why was Vermin even still here?

The Coopers, as it was printed on the white mailbox outside, were agape. Vermin was basking in the open-faced staring that he was getting. For a while. But then it started to get strange.

"Hey," he tactfully remarked to break the tension.

The Coopers snapped out of their collective daze and gathered themselves. One would easily assume it was the stripe of colored, unnaturally shaped hair they were staring at. Or possibly the piercings. Maybe it was the studded belts. It could have been the tattered combat shorts, the worn red leather boots, the gauzy, shredded undershirt or any number of things. But it wasn't. The Coopers had seen a ghost.

"Oh, where are my manners?" Mrs. Cooper said. "Please have a seat, my dear boy. You're here about the room?"

Mrs. Cooper was either totally unaware of the obvious, or being polite. Vermin had to think about it for a moment before he realized they were just being nice. This wasn't his usual scene, and he was totally out of his depth. Therefore, he ignored his instinct to be an ass.

"Yeah, the room." He said.

Mr. Cooper adjusted his glasses to read from an index card. What he said wasn't relevant to repeating here, but it covered the basics of a rental agreement. Vermin nodded in all the right places and at least looked like he was paying attention. Mr. Cooper asked a few questions about nothing important, like family and his age. None and twenty-five seemed to satisfy. In the middle of another dumb question about health, a flash surprised Vermin. Mrs. Cooper was taking a picture.

"Just for our records. I'm so bad with names, but I always remember faces. Please turn to the side." Said Mrs. Cooper. And she took another picture. Vermin was too used to having mug shots taken to notice anything odd about it. It seemed normal to him.

"And your name, son?" Mr. Cooper said, grabbing a pen to mark the Polaroid.

Vermin hadn't said anything offensive for hours and it was starting to get to him. He welcomed the chance to say, proudly, "Vermin."

Mr. Cooper fiddled with his pen for a second before peering over the tops of his glasses at the boy. Realizing a instant too late to avoid a very uncomfortable moment, Vermin continued, "V-E-R-M-I-N"

"Phone?" said Mr. Cooper, unconcerned.

"650-4982. It's the City Youth Center. Ask for Vermin."

"Ah." Mr. Cooper said, with the slightest tone of sarcasm. It was the first real crack in his cool. That made Vermin feel a little more in his element. His element being the art of ticking people off. But just when Vermin figured Mr. Cooper was going to toss the picture away, he was instead warmly thanked.

"I'll call you tomorrow evening to let you know when you can move in." Mr. Cooper said. He appended the statement with a hasty "If we select you." Vermin was then escorted to the door, still under close observation by the Coopers. They seemed happy and relieved for some reason. If Vermin didn't know better, he'd have assumed they already had chosen him to get the room.

And with that, he got back on the bus to town, confused and silent. Once again, things seemed to be working out for him. He was very uncomfortable.


***


He had only the one box, and a duffel bag stuffed with clothes. So the lumbering journey up the weak stairs to his new room was quicker than what everybody assumed. Which left Mr. & Mrs. Cooper and Vermin standing around in the empty room, with little to say.

The room was freshly painted in white, and was a little nicer than what he was expecting, but he wasn't expecting very much. A made bed with it's headboard against the front-facing, lone window was the major piece of furniture. To its' side was a small, beaten chest of drawers and to the other side was a small closet. The roof worked its' way to a point, where a long lighting fixture efficiently illuminated the entire place. And there was a shaggy brown carpet, with bits of sawdust embedded in it. Indeed, it was the room above the garage he had assumed it would be.

Vermin had asked the big question, wondering why the room was being rented for free. The Coopers had mentioned something about getting a tax break for having a "dependent" live-in student, but Vermin wasn't quite sure that it was told with the greatest degree of truth. Even if the real reasons were trouble, Vermin figured rightly that he could handle whatever trouble these two fossils could get into.

Mrs. Cooper broke the lengthy silence with information. "The bathroom is at the bottom of the stairs, next to the laundry room. If you need any towels, please let me know. We have plenty." She smiled for a brief moment. "And please feel free to use the kitchen. But we go to bed a little early around nine, so if you could keep it quiet, we'd greatly appreciate it."

"No prob," said Vermin. Free rent meant he was actually considering being a decent guest. That box of his housed a burgeoning collection of homemade tapes which he had intended to blast loudly over his old player to celebrate his new place. But now, maybe not. He did have headphones.

"Well, uh, Vermeen, we'll leave you alone to get settled in," said Mr. Cooper. He had to gently nudge Mrs. Cooper who was doing more of that staring thing. She moved her body, but not her head, and exited out the door. Mr. Cooper followed behind, but then stopped.

He turned around to face Vermin. Slowly, his eyes dragged up and down Vermin's body. A thin grin came upon his face for an instant, but only for an instant. "Glad to have you here, Vermeen. Make yourself at home." He said it without showing a trace of emotion. And then he gently shut the door behind him.

As the creaky sounds of Mr. Cooper's steps faded, Vermin shivered a bit. That Mr. Cooper was a strange one. Vermin took an extended survey of his new room. It had not changed in the last five minutes. He dropped the duffel at the foot of the bed and crashed. His head was spinning a bit from all the changes in his life today. At least the worst of it was over.


***


An afternoon of waiting on the phone punching the occasional touch-tone button rewarded Vermin with a class schedule that had absolutely no relation to what he wanted to take. His intention to take a minimum load of classes that fulfilled the minimum requirements had now exploded into a heavy load of elective courses that were going to tax his ability to keep up. That the courses were designed to work towards a major of American History was a total mistake. He just wanted to get off the phone and had signed up for anything available.

He hung the phone up and wandered over to the Coopers' fridge. He was going to steal something, but when he opened it, he found a note taped to a shelf reading "Help yourself!" It took the wind out of his sails, but it did put food in his stomach. Unlike most people, Vermin truly valued the simple pleasure of eating. After all, he didn't get to do it that often.

Vermin trudged up the stairs to his room and threw his boots on the floor as he laid down on the bed. He had no real concept of how he was even going to start with this college thing. He'd only been to the campus twice and, even then it just seemed like he was visiting some alien landscape. But he wasn't really concerned, because he always had that career in heavy drinking to fall back on.

Vermin relaxed on his new bed to contemplate exactly what he would do first to tick off the Coopers. It had to be subtle, so that they wouldn't kick him out, but enough of a scare so that they would stop being polite with him. He hated it when people were so phony. He contemplated backing up the toilets or cutting the tires of their car. Maybe he could put a little 'e' in the orange juice. That'd be something to see.

Before he knew it, it was already evening. This bed was just far too comfortable. He fell asleep instantly whenever he was on it. And for not the first time, he had just dozed off for a few hours. He was going to have to stay away from it in the future if he wanted to get any studying done. On further reflection, Vermin decided that maybe it was a good thing.

As he got up, he swung himself over the side of the bed to get into his duffel bag. The movement was slightly miscalculated and wound up with Vermin planting his feet on top of the bag. This unfortunate placement of his supporting limbs caused the lower half of his body to bend in a unusually stork-like position and the top half to bail out of the affair. The result being that Vermin fell over forward putting his shoulder through the flimsy door of the closet.

As he laid stirring in pain on the floor, Vermin heard the quick charge of footsteps from the Coopers as the ran up the stairs. Mrs. Cooper looked like she was about to jump out of her skin, she was so scared. She ran over to the sprawled boy asking if he was hurt or not. Her grasp of the obvious had not loosened. Mr. Cooper considered the condition of the door, which was very definitely now a collection of splinters and scrap lumber.

Vermin pushed Mrs. Cooper away in a violent fit of instinct. He was used to some opportunistic comrade taking the chance of lifting money or a prized trinket from the body of a fallen friend. That's what he would do, after all. But Mr. Cooper immediately stopped Vermin from doing anything harsh. "Calm down there, boy. The Mrs. used to be a nurse, you know." He said.

Vermin immediately recognized his error of etiquette and allowed Mrs. Cooper to do what she could. Which is never quite enough from the perspective of the injured party. But she did let the boy know that nothing was broken or dislocated. Sure enough in a matter of minutes, what seemed like a death blow had reduced itself to blinding pain.

"Gonna need a whole new door, uh-huh." remarked Mr. Cooper.


***


Mrs. Cooper was applying the fourth in a series of ice-packs to Vermin's shoulder as he laid back in his bed. Vermin was more edgy than he was in pain at this point, not used to the mothering he was receiving from the elderly woman. She sensed the boy's uneasiness and tried her best to soothe it with her homespun way of talking. That made Vermin even edgier.

"Is that helping any, dear? There doesn't seem to be any swelling," she said.

"Yeah. It's better, Mrs. Cooper," Vermin returned.

"Please call me Evelyn," Evelyn Cooper said.

"Uh, all right." a confused Vermin replied. He didn't see where this was leading.

"And, pardon me for asking, but it feels sort of silly, calling you... um, Vermin," said Mrs. Cooper. "What's your Christian name?"

"My what?" said Vermin.

"The name on your birth certificate." Mrs. Cooper revised.

"John Doe," he said.

"Oh my." said an embarrassed Mrs. Cooper.

This eventually led to Vermin telling his short and bleak life story. Abandoned at somewhere around three years old, he was made a ward of the state and was raised in foster homes until he was old enough to make trouble. Which is exactly what he did with reckless abandon. He had been in and out of juvenile hall innumerable times, and began moving from state to state to avoid amassing the magic number of offenses in any given place before being given serious jail time. His life had been a wreck, and now here he was.

All of this came out rather easily out of the boy, which surprised him. He wasn't one to talk about himself much. He would have also chosen to remain discreet about his past, as his new benefactors might not be so magnanimous if they knew the whole truth.

But the truth had a surprising effect on Mrs. Cooper, as with every word out of Vermin's mouth, the sadder and more concerned she became. She had even started to pat the poor boy's forehead in sympathy. An act that would have resulted in at least one or two roundhouse punches from Vermin in other circumstances.

When he was done, a real tear was coming from those squinting eyes of Mrs. Cooper. And Vermin was more than hesitant to say anything more. Frankly, the gears in his head had ground to halt. He was deep into uncharted territory, with a weeping grandmother at his bedside. Again patting his forehead, Mrs. Cooper said "Well, this is a new start for you. I hope that we can give you every advantage you never had growing up."

She then promised another ice-pack was on the way as she left the room. Vermin, as was his way, uttered only one thing before falling asleep: "I'm so fucked."


***


The sunlight from the window shined brightly through the thin drapes of Vermin's room. He was up early, and he was feeling peculiar about it. He actually had a bit of energy in him, which he never had associated with rest before. Normally he wasn't up until noon at least, and usually only because someone had kicked him awake. But it was a beautiful September morning, with the leaves starting to turn and a gentle cool breeze wafting through the pruned shrubs and along the tips of trimmed grass lawns. The shadows of dawn were quickly disappearing on the driveways of the houses along the street. He hated it.

Vermin was now just plain pissed off. This wasn't any fun at all. No friends, nowhere to have a good time. Early bedtimes and early mornings. He wasn't going to be able to do this for three months. He almost felt detoxified. Two weeks, tops.

Vermin rummaged through his duffel and exchanged what he had been wearing last week for what he was going to wear this week. The jacket stayed, the communist flag shirt was about right, and the horizontally-striped socks were a good choice too. And the black knee-length cutoffs were a must. And his hair needed a fresh batch of egg whites to keep it nice and stiff. This was going to be his first day on campus, and he wanted to look as obnoxious as possible. With tasteful restraint, though.

Maybe he was just thinking about the pressures of college, or his new surroundings or even just not paying attention. But when he opened his door to leave on this brand new day, he was totally unprepared for the large plank that greeted his face in the most unappealing way.


***


When Vermin was loaded into the ambulance, he was quite sure that something had gone terribly wrong with his plans for the afternoon. And when they ran him into the operating room, that clinched it. It was another three days in the hospital with no visitors before he was discharged.

The enormous bandage wrapped tightly around his face was embarrassing, especially when people see a mohawk attached to it. He tried to look inconspicuous as he approached a bus stop. Still, it was a sight no one in the area could help but snicker at. Few people have sympathy for the damaged punk.

Waiting, he was surprised to see Mrs. Cooper pull up. She waved him into the passenger seat.

"I'm so sorry, dear I meant to be there as they let you out." She seemed to be telling the truth. "But Mr. Cooper feels so sorry about the whole thing. He was going to repair that closet door, and I guess he just assumed you were already gone for the day."

Vermin glanced over the tops of this bandage to let her know he was listening. But wanted to remain quiet.

"Are you going to be all right, dear? I promise that we'll pay all the bills. Oh my goodness. I'm so sorry." She started to break down a bit. Fearing that the car would now veer off into oncoming traffic, Vermin felt obliged to console the woman.

"Eeets ahwite, mrsus gooper. Ah'l be find," Vermin muttered through his temporarily noseless face. That didn't seem to cheer her up much. But enough to avoid a bloody pile up on the highway.

When they came in the front door of the house, Mr. Cooper was nowhere to be found. Maybe he was feeling a little remorseful over the accident. Mrs. Cooper busied herself with fixing a drink for Vermin, insisting that he sit down on the sofa. Vermin wandered into the living room for really the first time. It was deadly dull, the colors in pea greens, wood grains and mustard. He noticed that most of the furniture had probably been purchased back in the fifties, but was still in immaculate condition. It was hopelessly out of date, and seemed sterile to him. Then, out of the corner of his eye, he caught a glimpse of bright color.

Wandering in its' direction, he found a door ajar to a room which contrasted in every way with the rest of the house. It had bright, almost fluorescent pink on the walls and bright white furniture with posters splashed on the walls. Knickknacks and keepsakes strewn about in every available spot. Stepping inside, he was attacked by a barrage of teenage girl decor. It was a strange sight in this old-fashioned house.

"This room is off limits," came the stressed and angry voice from behind him. Mr. Cooper's dark figure seemed to tower above Vermin as he was turned around by a forceful grasp of his neck. "This is not your room. Your room is upstairs."

A surprised and concerned Mrs. Cooper stood behind the scene grasping the promised iced tea. She watched as Mr. Cooper swiftly conveyed Vermin out of the room and up the stairs. They both remained behind but watched the boy as he climbed the stairs to his room. Vermin had done a very bad thing.


***


He awoke, feeling as though he had slept through the year. He correctly assessed it as only fourteen hours, but unsatisfied with that, he slept for another six before getting up. And getting up meant something more along the lines of sitting up in bed. He was not going to get far, feeling as he did. His headache had now annexed most of his sinuses and was starting to make his hair hurt. Or at least that's what it felt like. After swigging down another batch of painkillers, he felt brave enough to feel his face a bit.

It was odd, but he could have sworn that his bandages had changed. These seemed a little tighter. And they were bigger. There was more padding in there, he thought. But he chalked it up to his memory being altered by vast amounts of medication. Further attempts to feel the damage were cut short by waves of paralyzing pain.

He was seriously considering the fact that he was in mortal danger in his new room, being there all of two days and suffering two serious injuries in that time. At this rate, he would be dead by Halloween. Twice over.

A very timid knock came from the door. "Hello?" said the door.

"Yeah" was enough to let the voice enter. "Hi, Evelyn."

"Good morning, John. I brought you some soup." Said Mrs. Cooper.

"Thanks. I guess I am kinda hungry," said John Doe.


***


John woke again to the morning, not nearly as irritated as he had been previously. Now to him, he saw it as another day with slightly less pain than yesterday. He liked the idea of one day living without the torment of this busted nose. The surgeon had told him it would be about a week until he could take the bandages off, and then he'd need to return to get the stitches out and to make sure the nose was straight. They would have to re-break it and set it again if it wasn't healing right. He would occasionally run his fingers along the bridge of what he thought was his nose to make sure it was still straight. By occasionally, read that to mean every thirty seconds or so.

Over on the dresser was a note from Evelyn, letting John know that she had washed all his clothes and put them away for him. She was doing some serious guilt work for him, but John let it happen. Freshly laundered clothes would be kind of a kick. And though John was aware that he was a deep sleeper, he thought for sure he'd wake up if someone was putting his clothes in those creaky drawers only two feet from his head. The medication must be working. He'd have to remember to get more of this stuff.

He absently ran his hand through his hair and realized he hadn't the opportunity to keep up the spikes. And the sides had grown in a bit. It felt like velveteen. Whatever. He'd get back to that when he was on his feet and back at school.

Which was his biggest problem. By the time he could attend classes, three weeks would have passed. He knew he could let the registrar's office know he was sick and he could wait until next tern to enroll, but what would that do to his grants and scholarships? He could see that the rest of his day was going to be spent on the phone.

Picking out his only decent jeans and a big t-shirt, John went down the stairs to get it over with. The phone would be his bitch. Hopefully Mr. Cooper wasn't still angry at him. That would be pretty tough to deal with again. It's hard to stand your ground and look angry when you've got mummy face.


***


John was awakened the next day by a leaf blower. It wasn't unusual in the suburbs, but this was the first time it had happened to him. He jumped up like a shot out of bed, again out of instinct. Looking through the drapes he saw some guy blowing around leaves in the front yard. He wasn't really trying to do anything but blow them onto the neighbor's yard, which seemed like the lazy way out. John liked the guy's style.

He continued to watch for a little while as the blond-haired well-built guy would do about two minutes worth of work and then take a smoke break. He repeated this pattern three times before John finally decided to get on with his day.

A lot of people get in habits and never seem to be able to break them. Like some sort of opiate, the routine one develops over time becomes a drug, controlling your actions and regulating your free will. Many well-educated experts believe more evils have been perpetrated by people unwilling to break their routine than any disease or war ever known. Habits are tough to break.

And as was John's habit, he put on the same sort of clothes he had put on every day for the last ten years. His jeans and his t-shirt, this time his line tank top. His hair neatly combed into place, John slipped on his tennies and went down for breakfast with the Coopers.

One day, he told himself, he'd break out of these nasty habits.

Through a little bit of friendly interrogation, John was able find out who the guy doing yard work was. A high schooler from down the block. His name was Wade, and he was just picking up some money to fix up his car with. He had also been all-state in basketball last year, according to Mr. Cooper. That guy did look the type, thought John. He asked to be excused and he put his dishes in the sink.

Back up in his room, John was annoyed to find that his tape player had konked out. Permanently. It was a vital part of his strategy to kill a whole day stuck inside. Without this, he might have to resort to reading something. He prided himself on being able to avoid that sort of unpleasant duty.

When Evelyn came in with today's laundry, John relayed his difficulty with his player. Mrs. Cooper told him to wait there as she would be right back. Moments later, she returned with a small box with a CD player and a number of CDs in it. It was obvious that the player had come from that girl's room downstairs, by it's pink translucent casing. The CDs were a selection of boy bands from two years ago. Although this gesture was more along the lines of making the problem worse, John thanked Evelyn for her kindness.

"But don't let Mr. Cooper find it, he'd never forgive me for disturbing Amy's room," she said. Amy. So that was her name.

When Mrs. Cooper left, John picked through the CDs. Backstreet Boys, N'Sync, Boys II Men, and a ton of Mariah Carey CDs. Not only old stuff, but bad old stuff. It really didn't do much for him. John didn't really have any particular taste in music, so long as the guitars and screaming vocals were loud enough to obliterate any trace of rhythm or melody.

But he did turn on a Tupac record so that Evelyn would think that he was grateful.


***


John was killing more time by trying to figure out how the hell Evelyn got his bedspread so tightly made. Possibly she had an extra limb she hadn't let on about. How else could you grab the side and tuck and fold at the same time? Freakish stuff, he thought.

Digging in Amy's box for more CDs, John noticed that the bottom of the box seemed to be made out of leather. Despite the innovations made by the corrugated paper board industry in their never-ending quest for excellence, John doubted that cardboard boxes had leather bottoms now days.

Prying at the edge, John discovered that the leather bottom was in fact a book cover, almost exactly the same size as the box. It was the same light brown as the box, so it was pretty simple to figure that Evelyn hadn't noticed it before putting the CDs in there. Pulling it free, he turned it over to discover the gold-leafed lettering that read "Diary."

5/3/98

Dear Diary,

Am I the only one in the world who hates frozen yogurt? How can something that tastes so bad fool so many people? Whatever.

I'm going out for cheerleading. I know. Kill me. But it's really the only opportunity to do anything even vaguely related to dancing. Which is enough, I guess. I'm not really sure, okay? Leave me alone.

I'm worried in the back of my mind that I'll suffer some sort of spontaneous lobotomy, but being blonde and a cheerleader doesn't guarantee I have to be stupid, right?

Like I said, kill me.

When I've married and remarried six times, sold my internet company for billions and I'm living in that villa in Rome, it will make an amusing anecdote. Yeah.

Luvs,

Amy

Typical dumb girl stuff, John thought. He placed the book back in the box and decided to forget about it.


***


It was the best morning yet for John. Today was the day the bandages came off. Since Evelyn was a registered nurse, John let her do it rather than trudge back into the hospital again. After a nice light breakfast of eggs, sausage, bacon, beans and pastries, John was as eager as a puppy dog to get the damn wrappings off. Mrs. Cooper had put on what must have been her nurse's outfit back when she was working. She even had a red cross on her tiny hat thing.

She had John sit down on the toilet in the bathroom as she slowly unwrapped the bandages with special tongs. With very delicate care, she removed them like an expert. One might have thought that she had applied them herself, she did it so well.

And when they were off, John saw the result. A sickening scab went up the bridge of his nose, decorated with five stitches. The ugly yellow and purple bruising extended all the way to his cheeks and down to his lips. And it was still quite swollen. It was a mess. But the nose was straight, and that meant he wasn't going to have it re-set.

"Now, I can remove those stitches as well, dear, would you like that?" Said nurse Evelyn. John readily agreed. As a boy who had withstood multiple piercings, he could easily take the stitch removal. Mrs. Cooper swabbed the nose with alcohol, and something that numbed it a bit. He didn't even feel it. It took the fun out of it for John. In no time at all, he had another smaller bandage applied to his nose, and he was feeling much better.

He thanked Mrs. Cooper, and just couldn't wipe the smile off his face. This meant more to him than he thought it would. Mr. Cooper even seemed pleased with the result, as he was monitoring the proceedings from the bathroom doorway. Mr. Cooper nodded and smiled a broad smile. But when John tried to make eye contact, Mr. Cooper's expression quickly deadened and he briskly walked away.

"Don't let Edgar get to you, dear. He's really just a big teddy bear," insisted Mrs. Cooper. "He's just a little guilty about the accident still. He doesn't know how to apologize."


***


"I don't care who you are, Where you're from, What you did, As long as you love me. Who you are, Where you're from..." said the CD player.

"...Don't care what you did, as long as you love me..." continued John. He took the opportunity between songs to ruminate on why he had ignored these bands in the past. BSB had it goin' on. Was he really so stupid as to have ignored the obvious for so long? Was he out of touch? Before he could work out another theorem on this, up came the next track.

"Everybody, everybody, yeah, Rock your body, yeah! Everybody, everybody, yeah, Rock your body right! Backstreet's back alight!" It was pure drivel, but it made perfect sense to John.

In front of the mirror the Coopers had given him to check his face, John found that his hairbrush was an unusually effective substitute for a microphone, and that those dance steps he saw in the video weren't as hard as they looked. What he also found was something that sent a quick chill through him.

His piercings had healed up, and he could see his face unobscured. The bruises and scars had now faded away over the last few days, and now the scars were a deep pink. It was now obvious the shape his face had taken. And that shape wasn't right. It was very different. Why hadn't he noticed this earlier?

His nose was maybe half as big as it used to be. A nub compared to it's previous size. It seemed to be slightly upturned. His cheeks seemed larger under his eyes, and even his lips seemed a bit puffier than they had been. Whatever that surgeon had done, he got it all wrong. He barely resembled the person he used to be.

Anger welled up inside him. His rage rose and blew up into the rabid animal fury he had felt so often on the street. Then it subsided. John couldn't do anything about this. There was no one to find, no one to hurt. It was beyond his control. He was a victim. He was the one who was being hurt. He was in trouble. Terrible trouble. Panicking, John threw on his sweats and fled in fear.

He scrambled down the stairs and ran from room to room and found Evelyn. She was at her sewing table, darning John's socks when he found her.

"M-m-my f-f-face! L-l-look at m-m-my face! What did they do to my FACE?!"

"Calm down now, dear, calm down, now." Mrs. Cooper pleaded. "Just breathe deeply, dear, and sit down. Tell me all about it." Evelyn tenderly grasped John's hand as she led him to a chair. She didn't let go, because John wouldn't let her.

For a moment John was even more confused when his eyesight suddenly started to fail. A quick swipe at them with his hand revealed them to be something he hadn't done in over a decade. He was tearing up.

"They messed up! They g-g-got my f-f-face all wrong!" John whimpered. "It's all sc-sc-screwed up!" John was out of his wits with panic. He couldn't understand what had happened. It was inconceivable that his face had reshaped itself into this monstrosity.

John fought through the heavy breaths and runny nose he had developed in his current state of hysteria. He should be filled with rage and anger. Instead he was confused. He was afraid.

Slowly, Evelyn calmed the boy down, and threw in generous dosages of hugging as she steered the boy back up to his room. "Just lie down dear, you'll feel better after you rest."

John knew she was right. he always felt better after a rest.


***


Awash in a fever of anguish, John tried to reconcile what had happened. Images flooded his head of the person he used to be. The person he was supposed to be. He couldn't keep then in focus for long. They would appear and vanish.

He believed himself to be in a room full of people he knew. People he had known through his hard luck days. The tough faces, worn and rugged. Tense people, hunched and nervous, slowly milling about.

John entered a room and the door closed behind him. Fighting with the knob, he couldn't budge it. John was trapped. Then after a moment, the door opened by itself. John exited, and found that everyone had changed. People in nice clothes and friendly smiles. They were going about their business, and seemed surprised to see him. They all turned. Startled at first. Then John heard a snicker. Then a man chuckled. And then they all laughed at John. They laughed and laughed.


***


Evelyn was there with a cup of tea for the poor boy when he awoke a short time later. He gratefully accepted the tea and sipped it slowly, allowing it to calm his nerves.

"Now you were worried about your face, dear." Said Evelyn

And another burst of panic swept through John. But this time he steadied himself. "Yes. My face. The surgeons must have done something wrong," he said.

"Look at this, I brought you the pictures I took when you first came to apply for the room. Take a look at them, dear."

John looked at them. It's exactly how he used to look. His old face.

"Now look in my compact mirror, honey," Evelyn continued.

John compared the two. It wasn't as different as he had thought. In fact, now taking a look at the picture and his face side-by-side they seemed identical. His nose might even be cuter now. That was good.

"I... I'm sorry Evelyn. I guess I... I don't know what I was thinking. I honestly can't see the difference now," apologized John. "But I was so sure that something was wrong... I can't... I don't..."

"Here, now," Evelyn interrupted, gently taking John's chin in her hand. "I bet you were worried about those scars. They'll clear up in a month or two, and you'll never even know they were there. But let me show you a trick for right now."

Evelyn flipped to another compartment on her compact and took out a brush. She dabbed it in some gunk and then applied it to John's face.

"Wow! That's great!" said John. The scars were now completely invisible. "Show me that again!"


***


John was standing at the mirror getting the shade exactly right to cover his scar. It would only be a few more weeks and he wouldn't need to worry about it anymore. He had already gone through two of Evelyn's compacts, and was starting his third. If it weren't for this make-up, he'd never get out of this house. But so far, he had only taken two excursions.

One, a trip to the college registrar's office to sign up for the next term. After two full weeks of telephone tag, John had managed to keep possession of the lucrative windfall of money he had gotten as a grant. That is if you count an educational grant as lucrative.

The second was to a department store to get him some new stuff to wear. Slowly but surely, he had misplaced most of his stuff and was now down to a couple of shirts and a pair of shorts. With the some assistance from the educational grant money, he was able to get a nice haul of stuff. He got new boots, some jogging shoes, and some athletic socks. He picked up a dozen or so cheap t-shirts and one or two button-downs for a change up. Adding to that few pairs of jeans in blue and black and he was set. Of course, the weather was getting colder outside, and that meant winter wear.

So, he procured a nice warm puffy blue ski jacket and a ski cap. Adding to that he got a couple more knit hats, because he rightly figured you could never have enough, and then a pair or two of ski pants. And of course, you can't get enough scarves either. Topping it off, he got a pair or two of snow boots, the big puffy kind, in silver.

When John got home he was eager to show off his newfound consumerism. Years of living in the bad part of town had limited his previous shopping experiences to stores of ill repute, and the occasional pharmaceutical spending spree. This was unlike anything he'd done before. And, as such, he wanted to make sure he'd gotten things right. He remembered when he had gotten home from the shopping trip to find the Coopers sitting in the living room as if they were waiting for him to return. He displayed what he had purchased, and was finding that Mr. Cooper seemed almost disappointed in what he had selected. Mrs. Cooper was as supportive as she could be, as was her nature, but even she seemed a bit unimpressed. If not just plain dejected.

But now this morning, as he finished up with his concealer, he returned to leaf through his new apparel yet once again. Maybe in the clear calm light of day, he would discover what the Coopers seemed disgruntled with. There was his new pair of booties, a few pairs of keds and bobby socks. The tank tops and sweatshirts. The jeans and stetretchy leggings in blue and black. Nothing "wrong" with that, he decided.

He had the puffy blue ski jacket, the knit hat, the beret, the thermal leggings, and those cute scarves. And those rad snow boots.

If the Coopers were having a problem with this, it was obvious that they were projecting their disappointments in life onto him. These clothes were fine, and he didn't need to explain himself to anybody. So there.

A steady repetition of sound from outside John's window signaled that what he had gotten up so early for was now beginning. The sound of a shovel ker-chunking into the show followed by a quick swish of that snow being propelled into the air meant that Wade was clearing the driveway outside. John put his new winter stuff on and headed downstairs. He wanted to meet this kid.

It had been a long time since he had actually talked to anybody who was on his side of the closer-to-birth-than-death age barrier. John was actually a little nervous to be trudging out in the six-inch deep snow, knowing there was no real excuse he could think of for going out there and "accidentally" talking to the guy. He was going to look pretty obvious. That is until Mrs. Cooper placed a thermos in John's hand and asked him to bring it out to poor freezing Wade. Excuse covered. Coolness retained.

He tried to look unconcerned with Wade's welfare as he handed over the thermos to Wade, limply offering it and saying: "Mrs. Cooper's idea."

"Hi. Thanks. Wade," Said Wade. "My name's Wade." He redundantly continued.

"Yeah," was John's contribution.

Wade had looked a lot taller from above, John thought. He was actually only eye-high on John. Well, a lot of people were. John was six-two.

"You're the renter, right?" Wade ventured.

"Yeah," John confirmed.

"Cold day," Wade added after a minute or so.

"Doesn't usually snow 'til December." said John.

"Not round here." Wade stated.

"Nope," concluded John.

And after another ten minutes of watching Wade smoke, shovel, and sip, John headed back in with the drained thermos.

He was so relieved to be back in touch with his peers. Conversation like this was going to do a world of good for him.


***


John developed a routine of bringing the thermos out to Wade every morning. It was really the only appointment he had in his life, and he was making it into a bit of a production. He would lay his clothes out in the evening so he'd be ready in the morning. Not letting Mrs. Cooper have all the fun, John had started making the hot chocolate for Wade himself. And he would add a little bit of cinnamon some days, others nutmeg, and even sometimes he snuck a little "bite" into it.

That had led to John chipping in on making breakfast with Mrs. Cooper in the morning. Evelyn was much less lucid at 5 am, and that made for far more interesting conversation. Mr. Cooper had become quite used to the smell of coffee combined with the chatter of the two as he awoke every morning. Even Edgar seemed a little more agreeable in the morning, but that may have had more to do with a table full of food put before him.

Under John's influence, he started to gently steer the Cooper's calorie-loaded breakfast a little more towards fresh fruit and fiber end of the spectrum, but with limited success. It resembled a continental breakfast, in the sense that it could conceivably feed an entire continent. Conversely, John found his own appetite wither over time, so that he was down to just carrying an orange back up to his room after cooking, rather than sitting down with the folks.

Besides, his attempts to try and get on Mr. Cooper's good side were meeting with the most frigid of cold shoulders. After waiting in his room for a while, John would return downstairs to help Evelyn out a little with the housework, while Mr. Cooper was working in the basement. The basement door was always locked, using an oddly modern code-lock keypad thing. She had express instructions not to get near the door. Ever.

It was during one average afternoon that John learned the history of Mr. Cooper from Evelyn. Evidently, he had been a two-star general in the Army only up until a few years ago when he retired. Evelyn wasn't altogether clear with John on what he did in the Army, but John was led to believe it was research-related rather than combat-related.

They had met back in the final days of the Vietnam War, both twenty years old and headed back home on a plane to Hawaii. And before they had left Honolulu for San Francisco, they had married. Only 36 hours after meeting. They had a daughter named Jane, but that's John he could get. This 'Jane' subject was a closed matter. Using his devious nature in the subtlest way, John tried to let Evelyn escape the Jane question by asking her about the equally mysterious Amy question. The ploy worked.

Amy was Jane's daughter and had come to live with them, for undisclosed reasons. And to what must have been total heartbreak, she then ran away about a year ago. But as Evelyn got choked up, she quickly steered the conversation off a cliff, talking about her troubles with lime deposits on the shower head and the unseasonable weather.

Regardless of her cunning subterfuge, John now had a clue as to why they had rented a room for free. They just wanted someone around.


***


Like it had happened every morning for three weeks, John eventually spotted Wade's lumbering figure slowly make its' way down the street, leaving a trail of footsteps in the deep powder behind him. If he had committed a crime before leaving his house, it would have been the world's easiest manhunt.

Wade and John exchanged broad smiles as the thermos ceremony commenced. Poured into a cup, Wade took a sip, and then John. They didn't really need to say anything. They both could feel the hot beverage work it's way through them. The shared grins were due to the fact that the Cooper's 100-year old brandy was escorting the chocolate on its' tour of their bodies.

Strangely, John felt warmer right now than he did for the rest of his day.

After floating back to his room, John peeled off the jacket and crashed back into bed, doing his best to linger in the buzz.


***


John had dozed off yet again. While sleeping, his body held a seminar, broke up into discussion groups and reassembled to draft an urgent demand that it get up and do something. John pulled on his oversized sweatshirt and wriggled into his best jeans. The tight fit unfortunately caused a larger problem, as one of the brass rivets caught on his briefs and proceeded to tear it right off his butt. It was funny at first. But those were his "lucky" ones. And he didn't have a another pair left in his room. Just how had he been losing all these clothes?

For a while, John just went with the "natural" feel, but before long, the harsh denim had started to rub his skin raw. That's what happens when you wash clothes every day, he figured. If you let dirt and oil soak in over a month or so, the material becomes much softer.

But now he had a problem. He knew that he had to put something down there, or it was going to get very uncomfortable. He figured that he must have a pair down in the wash.

In the laundry room, however, there wasn't so much as a handkerchief. The last hope was the sewing room. On wandering over to it, he discovered that the house seemed to be empty. A quick pass by the front window confirmed the absence of the boat-sized Buick Regal that normally stood guard in the driveway.

The sewing room was also bereft of unmentionables, and a dejected John headed back to his hut. Maybe he could find some talc or crisco or something. Then he passed the forbidden room, and John fell victim to his curiosity.

He timidly pressed in on Amy's door, hoping it was shut or locked, and he could proceed on with the great white undie hunt. But instead it readily sprung open, too inviting for John not to proceed. Once more impressed by the blast of color and haphazard placement of items, John wondered what had made her run away. He could figure that living with your grandparents would drive you bonkers, but Evelyn appeared to be in reverence of the girl. If she had left, it wasn't because of Mrs. Cooper.

John noticed the ornamental cone megaphone placed at the foot of the bed with the script "Hogs" on it. A thought that she was some sort of champion hog caller quickly evaporated when he spied the banners of the local high school, bearing the bold text "Templeton High Warthogs" on them. Over at some sort of desk with a mirror, he saw a number of pictures tucked in the frame. He was more interested in the desk actually. If he had one of those, putting that concealer on would sure be easier then standing in front of the mirror in his room. He probably couldn't carry that back to his room, though. So while he was here, John figured he'd pick up some smaller items, a few more of those cool CDs of Amy's. After making his selections, he had a nasty thought.

Underwear. Amy probably had underwear, maybe even something that looked a bit like his briefs. And it's not as if wearing girls' clothes would be wrong. Girls wear men's stuff, he thought. Surely John would be committing no great sin if he were to do the same. It's not like cross dressing was in the bible or anything.

Pondering the question, the startlingly clear sound of a car door slam signaled the return of the Coopers. Making the decision for him was his innate sense of "take the loot and run" as he swept up an armload from Amy's top drawer as he scampered back out of the room. Passing the mirror once again, a picture caught his eye. It was the strangest thing he'd ever seen. It couldn't possibly be what it looked like. But no time to linger now.

As John whisked his way up his stairs, the jingling clatter of keys, the stomping of snow off shoes and the low rumbling of Mr. Cooper's voice were just loud enough to keep them from hearing John's door shut.


***


John flipped through the diary again.

3/21/96

Dear Diary,

I had this dream last night. I was at home in my room when I heard a knock at the front door. I went and answered it. It was Nick from the Backstreet Boys!!!! I couldnt believe it!!!!

You won a contest and Im taking you to dinner he said.

I was like ya right, whos playing a joke on me? I couldn't believe it!!!!

Well that was dumb, John thought. Even he didn't like the Boys enough to dream about them. He flipped to a more recent entry.

1/5/98

Dear Diary,

Well, it's my first day here with Gramms and Gramps. They picked me up at the airport this afternoon, and they've been super nice to me so far. Gramms' been especially nice to me, but if she calls me 'sweetie pie' one more time, I'm going to scream. The room seems okay (I really like the bed), but the house has always creeped me out a little. It's like living inside of an old black & white TV show, you know what I mean?

As usual, it seems like everything's funny to Grandpa. I wish he'd be serious for just a moment, but he can't stop telling me the same tired jokes. He's already told me one twice, and I've only been here twelve hours! I'll have to get him a joke book for his birthday. A new one.

I'll be starting school next week, and I'll be a sophomore at the local high school (they call themselves hogs. I swear to god). It sure beats the tutoring I had back in Tennessee. I miss everything about home right now. Except the child services housing units. It's nice to be in a real person's actual lived-in home. Even if it is "Pleasantville."

It's kinda hard to be here, with all the memories. Every time I've ever been in this house, I've been here with Mom. In the back of my mind, I think to myself where'd Mom go? Is she in the kitchen? But it's just for a moment, and then I remember.

Thats all for today. Got to go to bed early, cuz I know I'm not gonna sleep much tonight.

Luvs,

Amy

John snapped the book shut. He was astonished to find so much in common with the unknown girl. She was even in a state home, like he was for so long. But what was that about "grandpa" Edgar? The guy was about as funny as an infection.

John needed more information about Amy. His appetite had been whet.


***


John waited until late that night. After he was sure that the Coopers were asleep and had been so for at least an hour, John shimmied out of bed and tried as best he could to get down the stairs without too much noise. At the base of the stairs, he snatched a flashlight from the utility closet. He padded across the kitchen to the living room and then down the hall. He felt quite stealthy in his all-black outfit. The silk briefs he now sported under his leggings made him feel even more cat-like in his sneaky grace. Amy's door was still ajar, and he slowly approached the mirror with the pictures. That's why he was taking such a chance tonight. That picture had played on his mind for hours. Looking quite carefully, he studied it with forensic precision.

It was a girl, quite clearly, with a cheerleaders' outfit on. Stitched into the right shoulder was the name "Amy." This was the elusive runaway. What had bothered John, though, was the girl's uncanny familiarity. Not in height or build, but from the neck to the hairline. The body was that of a teenage girl. The big hair kind of looked like a blond Jessica Alba.

In between, it was John's face. John's smiling, happy face on this girl's body. His perky nose, his puffy lips, his blue eyes.

John's trembling fingers let the photo fall gently to the floor. John's knees quickly followed suit. It was impossible for him to breathe. The shock was more than he could handle. That was why he was here. That was why they had selected him for the room. They replaced their grand-daughter with a guy who looked just like her. These people. These people. They were sick.

John got to his feet and stumbled into the hallway. The unfortunate rush of blood from his head and the ensuing dizziness prevented him from avoiding the wall directly in front of him sending a large thump through the house. It was quickly followed by a click and a beam of light coming from under the Cooper's bedroom door.

If they found him here, now, who knows what could happen. If they were as psychotic as he'd assumed they were, they would surely kill him. He broke for the front door and grabbed the handle firmly. It was frigidly cold. He'd get away later. He couldn't escape now. The cold would surely do him in.

He moved as fast as he thought he could without making noise as he ran back to his room. The pulsing of blood through his ears drummed out his ability to hear his steps. If he made it back, there might not be any questions. They might never know that something was wrong.

The bumping around from the Cooper's room exploded into the hallway. And then it got louder as it got closer. Not seeing his way clearly, John stubbed his toe on the first step.

The lights flipped on in the hallway.

John hopped up the next few steps pulling himself with his arms along the handrail as fast as he could.

The kitchen lights flashed to life and there was only one corner separating him from discovery.

With the final burst of energy he could muster, he grasped the end of the rail. He could just see the shine of the brass on his door knob.

"WHAT DO YOU THINK YOU'RE DOING?!" boomed the voice of Mr. Cooper.

The loudness, the anger and the menace in the words caused John to spin around in terror. As the lights flipped on, John's balance gave out on him and he accidentally wedged both his legs under one step, locking them in place. As he fell forward, betraying the design of his knees, he heard the ugliest sound he would ever hear.


***


The chemically-induced sleep had left a film in John's eyes which would just not go away by itself. An attempt to use his hands to rub it away met with the restraint of leather straps.

Over the course of ten minutes, he gradually adjusted to the presence of light. He had never thought it could actually physically hurt as much as it did right now on the back of his retinas. Still, he could only make out fuzzy blobs when he could manage to keep his eyes open for more than two seconds.

It then had hit him, what had happened. He tried to believe that it wasn't real, something that hadn't really occurred. Then he wanted to believe that he had gotten away with his deception.

Then he remembered the crack. The horrible, horrible crack.

His chest started to heave as his breath became labored. His ears started to ring, and he could feel his jaw start to tremble.

What if he were still in the Cooper's house? How could he still be there? If they knew that he had seen the photo, then they knew he was on to the plan. He knew that he had changed over his time there. He thought he had done so of his own free will. John's stomach turned as he recalled the "accident" with the closet. They had somehow changed his face when he had the bandages on. It had all been a plan.

He was dealing with psychotics. And if he were still in their house...

A giant gray blob in front of him moved. It had a smaller pinkish blob on top. God help him if it was...

"You're awake," Mr. Cooper said. "Good."

Mr. Cooper's image moved from a seated position in front to John's side, slowly, silently.

"Do you remember my name?" Edgar Cooper demanded. "What's my full name?"

John couldn't reply.

"MY NAME!"

"Coopr. Edgar. Coopprr." John tried to reply through his nervous, chattering and achy teeth.

"Good, that's just what I wanted to hear."

And John felt a prick in his arm.

"No!" John yelled, desperate to cling to consciousness. Maybe his last moments on earth. "P-p-please! N-n-no! I'll keep quiet! L-l-let m-m-me go..." John tried to thrash himself out of the restraints. His muscles didn't so much as twitch.

As his brain started to dim, his voice fell away into a gurgle.

"P-p-pleeease. God. Pleerrllg...."

"Rrrggglk."


***


"Upsie-daisy!" came the clarion call of the domesticated housewife. "Up and at 'em!" continued Mrs. Cooper.

John yawned himself awake, stretching his arms in the morning sunlight. He ran his fingers along the middle of his forehead to split the long hair that had fallen into his face. He raised himself on his bent arms and waited for Mrs. Cooper to get herself into position.

"Good morning, Evelyn." John chirped back. "What a nice sunrise."

"It'll be spring next week." Mrs. Cooper said, working her way around the room, picking up discarded clothing.

"I can't wait. Winter has just been so long this year." John thoughtfully ventured.

"Hasn't it?" said Mrs. Cooper. "Ready?"

John scooted back on his bed. Evelyn grasped the tension lines attached to pulleys, hung from the suspension scaffold above the bed. The line then wrapped around the pulleys to John's splinted legs, kept in traction.

"Ready." John tried to avert the electric pain he felt every time they did this, but was just as unsuccessful this morning. At least that's what he remembered. Three long months in traction, every day going through this routine. It seemed a high price to pay for such a minor car accident. Wade and John were going to get a bite at Arby's when he swerved on some black ice. Poor Wade had gotten a concussion. But John's legs and pelvis were crushed. After three operations, he was now only a few days away from getting the splints off and beginning physical therapy. At the very least he'd get rid of that awful catheter.

So there was light at the end of the tunnel. He would still have weeks of crutches, but only a few more days and he'd be out of traction. Why, John mused to himself, did he have to have that craving for a french dip?

"Is that right, dear?" Mrs. Cooper asked.

"Fine 'n dandy." John said.


***


It was later that day, after a long visit from Wade, that John had managed to get to his CD player with the help of his broom handle. The pounding beat of "Whoops, I Did it Again" soothed his nerves and helped him to think.

He was remembering back to when he had moved in with the Coopers, way back in the Fall. College seemed like a forgotten dream now, since his money was all but gone, and probably unlikely to return. Missing two terms had convinced the financial aid board not to extend another check.

And he missed the opportunity to do the simple things he had enjoyed before the accident. Like hanging out at the mall, spending a day at the salon, or even just a good shoe sale. He would never take these things for granted again.

In fact it had been so long that John felt his life before the accident was just a dream. At least it seemed that way.

When Aunt Evelyn and Uncle Edgar had let him take the room for the year, he had thought that it would be the most exciting year of his life. But instead, here he was, bedridden for months and alone.

Well, mostly alone. Wade had been there. Thank God for Wade. He made it bearable. He'd stop in after his usual yard work to talk, every day it seemed. In fact, if Wade ever skipped a day, John just had to give him a call. He was becoming really dependent on Wade for all of his information about the outside world. He would have gone nuts if it weren't for him.

John laid back, encasing himself in the comfy warmth of his pillows. How was he going to make it up to him? John would find a way. It was the least he could do.

John tossed his bra and knotted up his hair before letting sleep overtake him, and he felt a tingle start to build deep inside him.


***


John was going down a list. Scribbled at the top was "To Do". There were dozens of items, and he had gotten through most of them. But there were so many things on the list. But he couldn't even read it. The language was like some sort of foreign language. The next item on the list was "Chib rusperlantz (neb ter hew)." He was worried. What was this?

John looked around to find himself in a long hallway. Doors on each side, he tried a few before finding one that would open. Inside, he found a window. Like a bank teller's window. He walked up to it and saw a sign above it. It read "Chib approval." He approached the teller. In between the two, there was a bullet-proof glass partition. But it had no holes or area to speak into. In fact, he couldn't hear the man on the other side. He could see him talking, but there was no sound. Then man seemed angry and exasperated. Then he pointed at the list. John held it to the glass. The man pointed to a slot. It had not been there a second ago. John passed it through the slot.

The man took the sheet and fed it into a machine. It said "XP-2000 translator." That would solve my problem, John thought. Out of it, a new list appeared. The man then passed the list back through the slot.

John took a look at his new, translated list. It read "Kill yourself (do it now)." Every item on the list said the same thing. The teller passed a ice pick through the slot. It hit the hard floor with a loud noise, that echoed. And the echo got louder and louder and louder.


***


The old balance beams the Coopers had bought and placed in the back yard weren't there for any Olympic hopeful. It was for John Doe, as the physical therapy John Doe was undergoing was largely moving from left to right and back again, aided slightly by the beams, using them as handrails.

Two hours a session, three times a day. The fourth week of this routine had rewarded John Doe in the first unassisted trip from one side to another. It was as if the whole body needed to retrain itself after the accident. The distribution of weight had been reshuffled somehow, and John Doe's legs even seemed to work differently. like they were brand new. Now the very mechanism of taking a step was a mental process worthy of champion chess players.

Wade, not missing his cue, clapped and blew a whistle. "Way to go, J.D.!" he added.

Mrs. Cooper gave John Doe a big hug. "I'm so proud!"

John Doe, or J.D., squealed with delight. Wade bent down to place a quick kiss on J.D.'s forehead, and picked her up so they could look each other in the eye. He then swung J.D. around and tossed her in the air. "I knew you could do it, babe."

J.D. was in heaven. She had worked really hard for this. And now, she had the first real proof that she was going to make it. J.D. tugged at her shorts, preserving modesty by putting them back into place after Wade's wirly-go-round ride. In doing so, she had neglected to keep a hand on a rail, and following the law of gravity to the letter, she fell like a load of bricks.

As she got back on her feet, J.D. stood up. With a little help from Wade. It seemed odd to look up at the boy, who was almost six inches taller than her. She remembered it differently, for some reason. But heck, he looked really good from this angle. So good, she planted a quick puck on his chin. The big lug blushed. Was he actually that shy?

J.D. saw the shadowy figure of Uncle Edgar peering from the patio doors. On sight, he moved away. But she could just make out a smile. She was going to win over the old man yet.


***


Jaydee was spending the evening downstairs with Aunt Evelyn, working away at the sewing machine. The two girls had begun an admirable, but foolhardy project of making new drapes for the living room. Jaydee was simply ruining the endeavor with her rusty sewing skills. It had seemed like forever since she had sewn. Of course Aunt Evelyn was a master with needle and thread and could work the Singer like a surgeon with a new knife. Jaydee tried hard to keep up her end of the work, but was mortified to see herself mess up another perfect seam job by Evelyn, as she had done twice again tonight.

Jaydee had taken to staying downstairs most of the day, as with her bad legs, she had to work really hard to get up those stairs. More than a single attempt in a six-hour period was tiring enough. So Jaydee's day became a routine of messing around with Wade in the morning, making breakfast for Edgar, therapy, housework, making lunch for Edgar, therapy, phoning Wade, therapy, sewing, and making dinner for Edgar.

Clever observers might notice the proliferation of events in her day that worked around Uncle Edgar. For such a terrible relationship she had with the man, Jaydee had to spend inordinate amounts of her day in his imposing presence.

Jaydee was doing her very best to try and break down the defenses of the old man, but she was forming the opinion that maybe he just should be left alone. After all, as long as she did exactly what Edgar told her to do and didn't argue, she didn't even so much have to talk to him. Evelyn was like that, silent and respectful, and she seemed happy enough. It seemed like the best strategy to follow.

As the timer went off in the kitchen, Jaydee gratefully dropped her mangled fist full of fabric and headed off to take the roast out of the oven. Jaydee was still hobbling a bit, but was now crutch-free for the third day. As she headed right to the kitchen, Aunt Evelyn headed left down the hall to give Uncle Edgar a shout in the basement that dinner would be on the table in five minutes.

Shortly, Edgar had seated himself in front of the classic middle-American spread of meat, potatoes and the obligatory vegetable. It was his usual fare, and he never seemed to tire of it. Evelyn portioned out his meal and poured him a fresh beer, then returned to the kitchen where Jaydee had already started to cheat by nibbling on some green beans. The two sat down at the small round breakfast table enjoying their version of the evening meal, which was a little lighter and a whole lot smaller than the spread before Edgar. They would idly chat about the sewing, plans for summer, and the weather, trying not to raise their voices. Once and a while they'd have to resort to a "shhh!" if they really got going. They had to keep it quiet, so that they could easily hear Edgar's occasional call for another beer or more meat.

"Beer." called Uncle Edgar.

"Why don't you handle it this time, dear?" said Mrs. Cooper.

"Oh! I don't know. He doesn't... I don't think...." trailed off Jaydee.

"Nonsense. Just go get the glass, pour in a new can, and then return it to him. Just like you've seen me do." Evelyn said.

Jaydee knew that maybe she could endear herself a little more to the old man by helping with the meal. "Okay. Wish me luck."

Jaydee limped into the dining room keeping her eyes low, like Evelyn did. Jaydee was far more nervous than she thought she would be. This was like a sort of performance, and she really felt the need to make as good an impression as she could. Jaydee was intimidated by the large man, who even seated was almost as tall as Jaydee.

She had a modest smile pasted on her face, trying to look pleasant and friendly. Jaydee positioned herself to pick up the mug with the least interference to the uninterrupted flow of food into Edgar's mouth. And without so much as a blink in her direction, she turned around to return to the fridge, her movement stiff and clumsy.

"Freeze." said Edgar. And Jaydee froze. "Stop that limping. You need to walk with more grace. Remember: you are a young lady, poised and delicate. No limping, no hobbling. Elegance and grace at all times. Remember."

Edgar coughed into his napkin.

"Restore." said Edgar.

And Jaydee continued on her way, gliding effortlessly through to doorway to the fridge.

"So far, so good," Jaydee whispered, "I was afraid he was going to say something."

Aunt Evelyn signaled with her hands that she needed to hurry up. "Don't keep him waiting." She said.

Jaydee quickly poured the beer and floated back out to the table with the mug. Her smile now wider at the thought of a completed, successful task.

"Thank you much." said Edgar.

"Welcome!" offered Jaydee as she returned to the safety of the kitchen. The two girls mutually shared a grin and Jaydee let slip a little giggle.

"Shhh!" said Evelyn.


***


Jaydee flipped through Amy's diary again. She had been avoiding this, but there were two questions on her mind. First, she need to know more about Edgar. It took a while, flipping through page after page of incomprehensible tales of who was dating who, but she did find one interesting entry.

8/8/99

Dear Diary

It the world full of freaks, or is it just me? Kerri isn't talking to me anymore, because Val accepted a ring from Justin, who was seeing Jenni. She says that Justin's now in love with Val, and that Val's boyfirend, Kevin, who has a crush on me, is now free to take me out. Kerri has always wanted to go with Kevin, and she thinks I've stolen him. I DONT EVEN LIKE KEVIN!!! He smells like a wet dog.

I'm probably gonna have to get Wade to kiss me in public again, so everyone's reminded of who I'm seeing. If only he wasn't so incredibly shy. Dork.

So I'm trying to get Kerri on the phone, to talk some sense into her stupid tiny brain, when the operator comes on the phone, saying she has an emergency call for General Cooper. First of all, I didn't know operators were allowed to do that (that'd be cool if I could get through like that!). Second, I thought who the hell is General Cooper?

Turns out that it's Grandpa they want, and so he gets the phone and kicks me out of the kitchen. I know he used to do research for the army, but wasn't he retired? I need to talk to Kerri!

He went on and on for hours. Gramms said that he used to be a doctor, and THE expert when it came to "retraining the body and mind." Sounds dull. Can't they call someone else?

So now, I've got to go to school tomorrow and half my friends are gonna act like they don't know me. Great. Stupid army.

Luvs,

Amy

That was all Jaydee could find on Uncle Edgar's past. It wasn't much, and it just made things more confusing. Amy and Wade together? She had good taste. Anyway, Jaydee was much more curious about Jane, The Cooper's daughter and Amy's Mom.

Jaydee found many, many entries on the subject, but one was especially compelling.

3/21/98

Dear Diary,

I was talking to Mom again today. I didn't even realize I was doing it, until Gramms knocked on my door, asking me who my friend was.

It's been eight months, and it still hurts. Even more, as time goes on. I thought it would go away after a while. But it's never going to go away.

When anything ever comes on TV about cancer, I have to turn it off. Whenever I see someone smoking, I get angry. I know people are looking at me wondering 'whats her problem!?' And it's not like I can just explain it every time it happens. I'd go nuts!

I'm stuck with the idea that somebody stole her from me. I blame the disease, I blame the cigarettes. And I get angry. I get really sad. I don't mean to, but it happens anyway.

I thought being here where she grew up would be the worst thing in the world. I'd see her everywhere and I'd never be able to escape the pain. And it's been true.

But tonight, I'm deciding that it's gonna help me. Cuz she's kinda still here. It's her house. Her stuff. And I'm gonna surround myself with it. I'm going to ask Grandpa if I can move out of the garage attic and into her old room. Maybe she's gone, but I never want to forget her. She was everything I've ever wanted to be, and I want to be just like her. I can't run from the memories, so I want to make new ones.

Luvs,

Amy

Jaydee was surprised to know that this was Amy's room, for a while at least. She really admired the girl. Amy really had it together. If only she could have that kind of courage.


***


Jaydee was climbing the walls. If she had to sit here for one more second, she was going to go postal. She found the Cooper's living room the most uncomfortable spot on earth, because it was usually occupied by Mr. Cooper. Which was currently the case.

Mr. Cooper did everything to ignore Jaydee's presence in the room, making the occasional grunting noise and dramatic sweeping turns of the page in his newspaper. He just sat there. No conversation, no occasional glances, nothing.

Then the doorbell rang. Thank you God, Jaydee nearly said aloud. She quickly tried to jump out of her seat to go, when she had to stop dead.

"Sit!" said Mr. Cooper.

She sat.

Mr. Cooper slowly rose, waddled over to the front door and opened it. Wade was on the other side, slightly bewildered as to the delay. Uncle Edgar invited the boy in and Wade tried to impress upon the old man how late they were. The problem is, is that Uncle Edgar is not the sort of person who is easily impressed.

Wade entered a foot or two inside and shot Jaydee a quick "hi." Jaydee returned it with a little wave of her fingers. Before such wanton displays could get out of control, Mr. Cooper stepped in between the two, directly addressing Wade with is dead stare.

"Wade," he stared with. "ten o'clock. Not a second later. I assume you've improved your driving skills?"

Jaydee imagined pain in her legs.

"Yessir," Wade blurted out. He wasn't sure if that was sarcasm. Nobody was.

"Don't want you going downtown. Dangerous at night. No farther than the highway." Said Uncle Edgar. He motioned with his head to Jaydee it was time to go. Jaydee passed within inches of the man, convinced he was about to call the whole thing off. But only after the door had closed behind them, and the car had started and pulled out into the street and was six miles down the road, only then did Jaydee relax.

As Wade turned onto the highway overpass, Jaydee took the opportunity to give Wade a good look. He had dressed in khakis and a black buttoned shirt, two items that had only been a rumor in his wardrobe until tonight. He looked good when you got him cleaned up.

Wade had also taken the opportunity to check Jaydee out, as she had worn a long, bulky coat. As she noticed Wade's attention, she removed the coat revealing her real outfit for the evening. Which was a smaller coat. His only condolence was the short white skirt that exposed a lot of leg.

Jaydee looked at Wade and saw his face give a polite smile. Then she removed the smaller coat. Wade was a lot happier then.

"You're going to catch a cold, you know," he said.

Jaydee blushed a bit. She thought it was a little conservative, actually.

"I wasn't sure you really wanted to do this," Wade said. "I thought maybe the Coopers had forced you into it."

"The Coopers don't force me to do anything," Jaydee countered.

“Yeah. Sure.” Wade said. Something else was going on in his head. Jaydee could tell. “You aren’t in any.. pain, are you?”

“Huh?” Said a confused girl. “You mean the accident?”

“No, no. I mean, just like, everyday. Is everything okay?” Wade continued persuing this mysterious line of questioning.

“Yeah. I’m fine.” Jaydee shrugged.

“The Coopers’ aren’t... you like them okay, you don’t mind doing what they want you to do?” Wade said in the most obtuse way.

“They’re okay. Kinda strange, kinda weird. But they’re okay. but I’m my own person, you know they don’t tell me what to do.” Jaydee took hold of the conversation and one-eightied it back to where she wanted it to go. "Do you do what your mommy and daddy tell you to do?" Jaydee said, trying like hell to lead this guy on.

"If my mommy and daddy knew I was even here, I'd be in deep shit." Wade confessed.

"They don't trust their baby boy?" Jaydee teased.

"Yeah, they trust me." Wade said.

"Uh huh." Jaydee said.

"I can always change that." Wade hastily added.


***


Jaydee lay on her bed, still awash in the electricity of the night. She was still dancing, now more in her head than with her feet. She was moving with the sound, with the beats. It was like a light behind her eyes, in her mind, strobing and pulsating. Her hips swayed to it, her head bounced to it and her heart beat to it. Faster and faster. It couldn't go fast enough.

The sweat from her skin draped her body, the heat radiating out of her. She remembered back in the club when Wade held her hands as they danced. They were both deep into the music. And getting deeper into the moment. When they touched, she could feel the sweat from his hands. Soon, his arms were wrapped around her. They were moving in rhythm, embracing each other as close as they could. The overpowering outpouring of energy from the crowd somehow guided them, moving them closer and closer. The heat was intense.

Jaydee looked up unto the eyes of her dance partner. They were already looking at her. Wade's athletic frame practically encompassed Jaydee's slight, short body. She felt like she was totally enveloped in his world. And she never wanted to leave. She had found someone she liked. Someone she feared. Someone who was now inside of her, part of her.

"You suck at dancing" he said.

Right then and there, Jaydee fell in love.

The music, the lights, the touch, the smell, and the taste of each other was overwhelming, and they both gave into it. Right now, she was still with Wade, if only in spirit. And she knew he was with her.

"Twelve thirty!!" said Uncle Edgar's voice, shattering Jaydee's world.

Like a startled animal, Jaydee flew out of bed and splayed herself against the far wall, in terror.

"We'll talk about this in the morning." He said, slamming the door behind him.


***


Tip.

Jaydee, deep into her nail polish work, ignored the noise.

Tip.

With a grunting noise of exasperation exclusive to teenage girls, Jaydee replaced the top on her bottle. Balancing on her heels, so as not to touch the ground with her wet toes, she stilt-walked over to the window.

Tip. The noise was coming from small bits of gravel being thrown at the glass. Through it, she spied the hunched figure of Wade, using the family car as a shield.

Jaydee tugged at the tiny handles on the window. She made no progress in budging it. She signaled to Wade with hunched shoulders and her hands in the air, to say “sorry.”

Wade made a gesture of disappointment with his clenched fists. Then he had an idea.

He tapped his nose. “Oh crap, charades.” Jaydee said to herself. She wildly shook her head, mouthing the word “no” as plainly as she could.

Wade tugged his ear. With no way out of this, Jaydee sighed. “Sounds like...”

“Horse. Cow. Dog. Dog? Dog!” Jaydee said. One down. “Hula hoop. Hoop? Pants!” Jaydee thought about it for a moment. “Dog pants?” Wade shook his head. It wasn’t working.

He rubbed his chin for a second. He looked around for a minute. He paced across the driveway. He finally stopped, took a deep breath and darted for the front door.

Jaydee heard the front door open. Some running. Closer, closer. she heard the feet pounding on her steps. Twelve times. Then her door flung open.

“I love you, Jaydee,” he said, out of breath. “Is.. Is that okay?”

“Um, er.” Jaydee fumbled out of her mouth.

“What’s going on here!?” They both heard from downstairs. “What in creation!?” It was Edgar.

Wade swiveled his head backwards, then quickly shot a desperate look at Jaydee.

“Fine, yeah. That’s good. That’s fine.” She replied.

Wade chucked something at her head. She dodged it and it struck the back wall. Wade ran back down the stairs, as quickly as he could.

Then he ran back up. “Thank you!” he said. And he ran back down again.

Jaydee watched as he was met down at the base of the stairs by a loud, angry Edgar. He shouted some almost profane things at the boy and grabbed him by the shoulder. He led him back outside the house and down the driveway. As they disappeared from Jaydee’s view though the window, she could still see Edgar gesturing wildly and bellowing things at the boy.

Jaydee picked up the thing that Wade had thrown at her and brought it back to her bed. It opened like a jewelry box. Which is exactly what it was.

Inside, attached to a chain, was a heart-shaped pendant that opened up. Inside was her picture on one side, and Wade’s on the other. Engraved around the edges of the pictures was “together forever.” It was trite and stupid and possibly the trashiest trinket Jaydee could have imagined existed.

She put it right on.


***


After the grounding expired a week later, Aunt Evelyn and Jaydee were out for some summer shopping. Jaydee had just performed a total wardrobe-ectomy by practically replacing her entire closet with the incredible number of items in the impossible number of bags she and Mrs. Cooper were now toting. The financial aid was just sitting around anyway. Time to splurge, Jaydee decided.

Aunt Evelyn, not to anyone's surprise, could not understand the first thing about today's fashions. But fortunately for Jaydee, Evelyn had only kept her comments to saying "You know what you want, dear."

And indeed, Jaydee did. The months inside had given her plenty of time to devour, process and digest the contents of every fashion magazine printed in the Northern hemisphere. Of course, it was all too expensive. And pretty tarty. The fashion industry, she had concluded, was undeniably trying to cut expenses by offering tinier and tinier bits of clothing. But Jaydee had developed her own sense of style, and found it to be a bit on the traditional side. She preferred dresses to tight jeans. Plain blouses made of light and silky material. Skirts of a modest length and broad hemline. Classic high heels of four inches, at the least. She was well aware she looked a bit fuddy-duddy in clothes that were a bit more reserved than the glitzy, skimpy stuff in the shops. But she liked the simple lines and basic cuts of these clothes. And she could still wear a tube top now and then if she really wanted to.

Evelyn had disappeared from view when Jaydee had stopped to browse some change purses, and as she looked around to find her aunt, she saw her emerge from a salon across the way. She waved her niece in.

"They have two spots open. Put your packages down and follow me." Said Evelyn.

"Oh, Evelyn I don't think I have enough..." said a nervous Jaydee.

Evelyn silently exposed her credit card to the girl. Her treat.

Jaydee felt like a princess, fussed over and pampered from the outset. Dressed in the salon-supplied smock, she had given in willingly to the pleasures of a make over. Her eyes closed and humming to herself, she thought to herself that she had been away from this too long.

"What'll it be, miss?" said a woman with combs in her hair. The stylist, Jaydee deduced.

"Um, well, I guess it's been getting so long. Cut it short. Real short and... I dunno. Maybe dye it." said Jaydee. For some reason purple was a color that jumped into her head. "Darker. Like a Dark Ash Brown. You know. Like one of those boyish cuts."

"Good choice. I think that'll look really good on you. You have the right skin for it," said the comb-haired woman. "Marylis" was the name on her tag.

Jaydee's world turned ninety degrees in a dizzying dip of the chair.

"We'll rinse, shampoo and then get to the styling. I'll have Patsy do your wash." Marylis pattered on. "Patsy! You free?" she called.

After a thorough scrub, Patsy had started to knead Jaydee's skull like dough. Which is what her brain was very much turning into as she relaxed.

"Hey, are you related to the Cooper's kid, Amy?" said Patsy, abruptly breaking the mood.

Jaydee stirred a bit. Since she was the Cooper's niece, and Amy was their granddaughter, it followed that she was related. Why hadn't this occurred to her before? "Yes, she's my..." Jaydee did the computations, "cousin."

"Thought so." Patsy said. "You look like you could be sisters. When's she coming back, by the way?"

Jaydee practically jumped from her chair. She opened her eyes fully for the first time since sitting down. "Coming back?" said Jaydee.

"Yeah, I think she's supposed to be coming back for the fourth of July. That's like only ten days away."

Jaydee's head started to spin. Amy was a runaway, wasn't she? Was Patsy in touch with Amy? "I thought she left. For a long time?" Jaydee tried to tactfully phrase it.

"Seems like it. When I first heard that she was gonna spend her junior year studying in South America, I guess that was almost a year ago." Patsy recalled.

A year in South America? Amy was just on a trip? Jaydee was confused and numb. How could such a thing be?

"Boy, your hair is in bad shape." Patsy continued. "Are you using a cream rinse?"

Jaydee was in a different time zone. "What? Uh. Amy. When's she supposed to be back?"

"Patsy, you free?" came the cry from Marylis.

"Gotta go. Nice to meet you.." fished Patsy.

"Jaydee," bit the befuddled girl.

"Good to meet you Jaydee. I'll see you round. Bye now!" Pasty cut the conversation off as she left.

As Jaydee rose to stop her, Marylis pressed Jaydee's head back into the chair. "All right, honey. Time for the main event." she remarked not-so-cleverly.

Jaydee sat back down and let Marylis take over. She had to think about this. Ten minutes later, her head wrapped in foil and mud slathered upon her face, Jaydee had returned to her self-induced stupor with the aid of her headphones. Her music always helped her think.

Thirty minutes had passed as chemicals and blow-dryers had done their bit. Marylis plucked the headphones off Jaydee and spun her around to the mirror.

Her hair was now a champaign blonde, with a series of waves popping straight out of the top of her head and cascading down to rest on her shoulders. It was big hair, just like the magazines said was coming back in style. It reminded her of Jessica Alba's look. Only blonde. And bigger.

"Perfect!" Jaydee said, trying not to sound too enthusiastic. "That's exactly just how I wanted it! Wow! It's so glamorous!"

"That'll look good up or down. It's really versatile." Marylis chipped in.

As Jaydee passed Evelyn on the way to the makeup chair, she meant to ask her something. But now it had slipped her mind.


***


Like a dog faced with a puzzle, Wade's head was slowly turning sideways to figure out what was before him. What it was, was the new Jaydee. Big, beautiful blonde hair framed a face with sharp, defined makeup. The deep blue eyes with long dark lashes and thick, inquiring eyebrows produced a look of innocence with definite allure. The nose, so slight and slender, led you down to her dark red, plump lips. They contrasted with her flawless alabaster skin. Right now, these lips were breaking into a smile brought on by Wade's obvious shock and surprise.

"You're staring at me." Jaydee said in mock embarrassment.

"Yeah." Said wade. "I... I.. mean, its' just... that..." He collected himself in an attempt to accurately sum up the depth of emotion he felt at this moment. "Wow."

"You like?" she added, taking a few steps away to do a full turn in the new dress she was trying on for the first time. It was a spaghetti-strap top, black down to the waist, where it became a white skirt and a black gauze overlay that was split down the center. Her five-inch heel sandals put the nicest curves in her calves. As she spun her hair, the small dangling purse and the gauze all flew outward in the most attractive billowy way. When she stopped spinning to face her observer, a little bit of her hair fell right across her face, slightly cloaking the look of impish desire on her face. This was making it impossible for Wade to remain comfortable in his pants.

Jaydee reversed her direction, passing as close as possible to Wade and never breaking eye contact with him. She strode past, grazing Wade's nose with her hair and perfume. Jaydee displayed a symphony of movement in her body, gently swaying her hips and slightly gyrating her shoulders as her hands skimmed invisible rails at her sides. Wade needed to take a walk.

As she did now when she walked, Jaydee entered the Cooper's living room not by meandering in and milling about, but by picking her spot in the room and striding with purpose to it and posing. She was practically a runway model in her movements, choreographed and practiced. As she reached her "mark" in the Coopers' living room, she placed her hands upon her chest in glee, as giddy as a teenage girl.

"I think he likes it." she said.

Mrs. Cooper took a look up from her sampler in progress to share in the enthusiasm. "Edgar," she said to the man too large to be hidden by the newspaper he was reading, "Doesn't Jaydee look nice?"

Jaydee flashed her "money" smile at her Uncle. She thought for sure she could drag a compliment of the old man this time. He bent down his paper just enough to give Jaydee the full once-over three times.

"Yes. Yes. This is quite good. That's... just about what we were looking for." Edgar said, oddly. "Good work, dear" He said, addressing his wife. "You've done very well."

Jaydee was feeling very awkward. It was as if she wasn't even in the room at all.

"Thanks honey. I really didn't have to do much work at all." said Evelyn. Of course she didn't do any work, Jaydee thought. What did Evelyn have to do with this?

"Immobilize" said Mr. Cooper.


***


Jaydee stumbled out of her pose. She hadn't had enough practice on the heels, she thought. She fell towards the couch before her, bracing for the collision with Uncle Edgar's knees.

But they weren't there. She hit the soft cushions instead. As she righted herself, she noticed that the room was now empty of Aunt Evelyn and Uncle Edgar. A moment ago, they had been there, but now they had vanished. And it was now dark outside. Hours had passed.

What had happened? She was standing there, waiting for Uncle Edgar to say something, and then... nothing. Like she had just winked out. Was it some sort of blackout? Why hadn't the Coopers done anything? Where did they go?

As she took a seat to figure things out, she heard a noise in the deadly silent house. She moved down into the hallway. There were noises coming from the basement door. She tried it, but it was locked like it always was. What was down there, anyway?

Jaydee placed her ear to the door, trying to hear the conversation behind it. Only bits were audible. It sounded like Mr. Cooper was giving some sort of briefing. "Final phase," "Zero hour," "End game," and "preparations to be complete," were some of the phrases she could make out. It then went silent as footsteps came up the stairs.

She didn't know what to do. She thought about running, maybe to her room. But as it became clear she didn't have the time, she returned to her former position. Remaining still as she thought she had been.

Uncle Edgar, Aunt Evelyn and Wade came into the room.

"Why don't you carry our Ames up to her room, Wade," said Edgar.

"Yeah. Sure thing, Mr. Cooper." Wade replied. Why was he here? He picked the "frozen" body of Jaydee up and cradled her in his arms. If she wasn't so scared of the circumstances, she'd remember that she had spent many nights dreaming of this moment.

Edgar moved over to the girl. "Sleep." he said.

Jaydee went with the moment and closed her eyes, letting herself fall limp.

Someone kissed her on the head. Could it have been Edgar?

Wade struggled only slightly as he carried the sleeping beauty up the stairs and placed her on the bed. He gently removed her shoes. Fearing it was going farther, she steeled herself. She couldn’t help but quickly blink to see what was happening. Wade was just there looking at her. Did he see her blink? Then Jaydee heard the voice of Evelyn pipe up from somewhere. "I'll take it from here, you little scamp." She said.

Jaydee felt something on her neck move. Then she heard a clack, then another. On her necklace. Then Wade said “This is the key,” tap, tap, “to our plans.”

“She certainly is, Wade.” Evelyn agreed.

She heard Wade leave. Maybe Evelyn could explain what was going on. She opened her eyes to ask the question. Just as she was about to talk, Jaydee heard Edgar coming up the steps and faked sleep again. Evelyn's back had been turned and hadn't seen anything.

"Now just a minute, there!" Evelyn scolded. "Just a moment, now!" Jaydee heard the door close. Evelyn proceeded to slip the dress off the "limp" body of the young girl and put her new nightie on in its' place.

"It's all right, now. She's decent," Evelyn said, projecting her voice through the door.

The door opened, and the labored heavy steps of Edgar Cooper came closer. Jaydee started to tremble. She wasn't sure why. Something deep inside her was filling her with fear. The steps came to the side of her bed. If he had better eyesight, maybe Mr. Cooper would have picked up on the shaking and trembling Jaydee couldn't control.

Jaydee was calling upon all her willpower not to break down in fear. Moment after moment passed without a noise, without movement. Eyes closed and in total darkness, she could only guess at what was happening. Was he just standing there? What was he going to do? Maybe he was just toying with her, seeing through her act. He'd grab her around the neck, or striker he across the face. Or worse. So much worse.

Jaydee almost shrieked out in terror when she felt his touch. It was the graze of Edgar's finger along her cheek. "Goodnight, princess." he said. Jaydee was sure she had let out an audible gasp. His steps slowly moved away. The lights flicked off and she heard the door shut. She counted the creaks in the steps. Twelve. At the instant she thought it was safe, Jaydee broke down in tears.

She didn't know why, but she was convinced she had come closer to death that she ever thought possible. Something so horrible was happening in this house. And she was in danger.


***


Edgar was sitting at his favorite chair in the living room squinting at his paper. His facial expression made it look as if the paper was printed in Chinese. Still, as he did every day, he would work his way through it. Page by page.

"Dinner!" Called Jaydee.

Edgar began the long sequence of coordinated movements and grunts that eventually wound up with him on his feet. A few moments later all his hard work was undone as he landed in his dining room chair.

It was a big family dinner, and Wade was visiting, so they had all seated themselves at the large dining room table. Jaydee didn't eat in here too often, it was a kind of treat. Was it some sort of holiday? She couldn't remember.

She smiled across the table at Wade, who was as happy as she remembered ever seeing him. He must have been really hungry. Aunt Evelyn returned from the kitchen with the last of the vegetable dishes.

"I think we're ready to start." said Mrs. Cooper. "Would you lead us in grace, honey?"

Jaydee started to recite the prayer. "Bless us, O Lord, for these, Thy gifts, which we are about to receive from Thy bounty. Help us to be mindful of all our blessings, and the needs of those who have less. Amen." When Jaydee opened her eyes again, she found Uncle Edgar standing right next to her.

"Shall we?" he said to everyone else but Jaydee. She was nervous. What was going on?

Edgar took the very large carving knife he had and twirled it a bit in the light, letting a shine sparkle off of it. Jaydee was more than a little scared. Swiftly, and without warning, Edgar ran the knife along the bridge of Jaydee's nose. It opened a deep gash.

"Don't you mind us." He said. The pain hit Jaydee and she tried to grab her bloodied face. She suddenly found her arms were held in place by Wade and Evelyn who had appeared at her sides. Struggling made no difference. Edgar placed himself directly in front of her. They were no longer in the dining room, but in some white, sterile room she had never seen before. Or had she?

Edgar cleaned off his knife with his napkin. He steeled his gaze on Jaydee with a look of total indifference to her plight. She found herself completely nude. He whisked it quickly across her hairline. The pain was terrible.

Jaydee tried to cry out, but found herself unable to make a noise. Edgar then slowly opened up her throat with a cut down her neck. Then he drew the blade under each of her armpits, finally placing the bloodied knife in front of his face as he marveled at it.

"Let me know if you feel any discomfort." Said Edgar. His expression had not changed. He could have been doing his taxes or reading a book with the total lack of expression on his face. His eyes, large and marble-like behind the thick lenses would flick from one side to another as he examined each and every cut.

Jaydee was in so much pain. There was so much blood. Wade and Evelyn just looked on, smiling and nodding at her. Why weren't they helping her? Didn't they understand what was happening?

Edgar sliced a curve along her abdomen. Jaydee watched as her skin separated and exposed the pink muscle and yellow fat in her belly. The insides quickly turned red and filled with blood, spilling out her sides and down her legs.

Edgar bent down to his knees and gashed long cuts on the insides of each of her legs. How had Jaydee stayed awake? She should be dead. The pain, the blood, the cuts. She should be dead. Maybe she was.

Suddenly she found herself alone in the room laid out on a table. A large note board on a wall featured a long checklist. She couldn't read it. Edgar, appearing from thin air, checked off the next-to-last box.

"We're at the end game, son. It's time for the last step." He picked up a long, pencil-thin metal tube. He polished it a little with the tail of his shirt. It was attached to a clear hose that ran along the floor to a vacuum pump along the wall. He flipped the pump on.

He examined the tube in the light and then approached Jaydee. "We need to get rid of one last pesky thing." She couldn't move a muscle. There was nothing she could do as Edgar gently waved the tube in front of her face. It had a sharp tip to it. A very sharp tip.

Edgar grabbed her nose and placed the tip in her nostril. She felt and heard it sucking the air.

"Don't worry, you won't remember much." Edgar said. He thrust the tube up into her head. All the sudden, Jaydee's voice returned to her as she screamed in terror. She felt it stop when it hit bone. Edgar chuckled. "I guess I'll need to use a little bit of elbow grease."

He rolled up his shirt sleeves and gave it one final thrust. Jaydee felt her bone snap and the metal tip strike inside her brain.


***


Jaydee bolted out of her bed. Sweat dripping over every inch of her body, she was shivering. The wild look in her eyes didn't even begin to expose the depths to which she was scared. She checked her face for cuts. Her belly, her neck. They were fine. All fine.

As her hyperventilating gradually died down, she slumped against her bed.

It seemed so real. But she was safe, back in her room. No cuts, no pain, no Edgar. She had dreamt it. An awful, terrible dream.

Jaydee calmed herself, taking deep breaths and repeating to herself: "just a dream, just a dream." And after not too long, she climbed back into bed.

She was really shaken. She knew how unreasonable it was to be so scared of Edgar. He was just a little rough around the edges, that's all. If she really got to know him, she was sure that Uncle Edgar was a decent person. The Coopers had been so nice, letting her move in with them. It was really was her home now. Jaydee knew that if she continued to feel so nervous, that it would eventually show through. She wasn't going to let her stupid subconscious ruin things for her now. For the first time in however long she could remember, she was safe. She was warm. And now knew how much she craved just a little bit of kindness and compassion in her life. She would just have to try harder, because she wasn't sure she could ever give this up.

"Hssss. Crackle." She thought she heard. "A gentle, delicate girl. Carry yourself with dignity and grace."

No, she had really heard that.

"Hssss. Crackle. Remember: You are Amy. Amy is your name. You are Amy. Amy." It was Evelyn. Where was she? Jaydee was alone in the room. She shook her head as she entertained the notion that she had imagined it. The nightmare may not be over yet. She might be still asleep.

"Hssss. Crackle. Remember: You were born December 3rd, 1984. Your mother was Jane. You were born December 3rd, 1984. Your mother was..." and the message repeated. She could swear the voice was coming from inside her head.

She then turned in her bed to find the noise was actually coming from the headboard. Jaydee brought her legs up under her as she bent around to feel the back of the board. And there it was.

A small speaker. Jaydee plucked it from it's taped mounting and brought it into the moonlight to get a good look at it. It was a cheap speaker, with a stringy wire running from it. She got off her bed and looked at the floor. right along the baseboard was the wire, running to the corner. The speaker continued "Remember: You are Amy. Amy is your name. You are Amy..." She didn't want to think about why it was saying that.

The wire ran around the corner and to the door. It disappeared under the floorboards. Jaydee opened her door and carefully, quietly went down the steps and tried to find the wire again. At the base of the steps she found it. It ran along the baseboard and then up to the ceiling. Jaydee followed it along the corner of the ceiling out and into the kitchen, through the living room and down the hall. She stopped cold when she saw it went down the wall and under the door. The door to the basement.

She timidly, quietly approached the imposing, heavily re-enforced door. It was like there was one part of her that wanted to see what was down there and another part that told her to return to her room. That part was very insistent. Return to your room. Return to your room. The message was trying to take her over.

She fought it, and regained her senses. She knew that an answer was beyond that door. The other half of her was begging to go on. It knew something. She wasn't able to figure it out, but something in her head was trying to get her to go through that door. It needed to. It had to. It was the most important thing in the world.

As she traced her finger over the keypad lock, Jaydee suddenly realized that this entire time she had been grasping the locket around her neck. Remembering Wade’s odd phrasing when she was put to bed, she opened the locket. Inside was a tiny scrunched piece of paper.

Scribbled on it was “120384.” The door made a loud clank when she punched the numbers into the keypad.

It was open. Wanting to back away, but to scared to retreat and too scared to stay still, she pushed the door. She had to do this. She bit her lip and prayed as she pushed it the rest of the way. It made a loud scraping, grating noise that would wake the dead, but fortunately it seemed to have had no effect on the sleeping Coopers.

Tiptoeing down the steps, she felt cold metal on her bare feet. It was very different down here. She turned a corner and continued down the stairs to the cold cement floor. She searched for and found a light switch. Flipping it, the fluorescent lights flickered on, illuminating a long hallway. There were two doors on each side of the hall, and the hall led down to double metal swing doors at the very end. She didn't want to think about what those doors looked like. The only object in the place was a chest freezer, the top-loading kind.

Jaydee avoided the prospect by investigating the side rooms first. The first was locked, as was the one on the other side. The third was not.

Inside was darkness, illuminated by hundreds of green, amber and red dots. Jaydee turned on the lights. Underneath this house full of furniture on loan from the fifties, there was a room full of the largest, most sophisticated computers she had ever seen. They lined the walls from ceiling to the floor. On racks, on carts, on tables, under tables and everywhere you could look. There was one with Polaroids of some punk kid taped to it. Another had a CD burner, and an assortment of her favorite CDs next to it.

Five monitors were on the far side, three displaying charts and graphs with indecipherable scientific hieroglyphics. The other two had flying toasters. She hit a nearby keyboard to wake one of the screens. She was greeted by her own face.

It blinked. It looked around. It licked its' lips. "Mary sells sea shells by the sea shore." It said in jagged computer tones. First it said it in Jaydee's own voice. Then it said it again, a little higher. Then again, and even higher. It added a slight southern accent. It kept repeating and repeating. Changing. Ever so slowly. Every time, the voice would change.

Jaydee backed out slowly. She fumbled to find the door behind her and then when she found it, she quickly grabbed it and spun around. She leaned on the door as she slammed it shut. That wasn't what she thought it was. It couldn't be.

Jaydee leaned there for five minutes before she decided what to do next. She wasn't going back in there. She had to move on. She tried the fourth room. It was open. She flicked the lights, and found a room with a table. On it, she recognized some plates and a casserole dish from the Cooper's kitchen. Scattered pens and beer cans let Jaydee know that this was some kind of meeting room. A pad of paper was on one of the chairs.

She had to convince herself that she should read it. If she turned around and left now, maybe this would all go away. Maybe it had nothing to do with her. Maybe this was just some elaborate hobby. She didn't have any answers and she didn't want to find any. With each ticking moment, she was destroying her life. With each step she was heading in a direction she couldn't return.

The pad's title read: "Project A2: Final Stages, June 26-July 2." and below that, "Contact high school, re-enrollment" and "Install Amy identity in subject, erase temporary Jaydee I.D."

No. This wasn't right. She knew this was wrong. It was just nonsense. She continued on reading: "Adjust vocals, establish Tennessee accent" followed by "Calibrate appearance to Amy original. Focus on mannerisms."

One final notation was at the bottom of the pad. "Purchase ticket from Sao Paulo in Amy's name. Arrive July 3."

Jaydee couldn't understand. Impossible. Unthinkable. This was crazy. It was like there was some sort of plan to mold a new "Amy." Who were they doing this to? It wasn't her, Jaydee hadn't noticed any changes. No major ones at least. "Temporary Jaydee I.D.?" It was insane. And why the plane ticket, she wondered. What did Sao Paulo...

Jaydee suddenly remembered the conversation she had in the salon. She had almost forgotten about it. Amy was in South America. She was going to return soon. By the fourth of July.

If she was going to return, why all this? See, Jaydee said to herself, it made no sense. This was all just... Just silly.

There was one last room to check. This would prove it. Whatever was in there would be the end of all this. She wanted to get this over with, and get on with her life.

She stood in front of the doors and thought about what the doors looked like. They looked like the doors to a large kitchen. She had seen these type before. Designed to be opened by bumping into them, rather than using your hands. Of course, she had also seen them on TV. In medical shows. They were like doors to an operating room. But they weren't. Not these doors. No way. Jaydee took a deep breath and went through.

It was all sterile white. There was the table. That table. The one she seen in her dream. Along the walls were various items of medical equipment. All types. Even a vacuum pump.

As she tried to keep herself under control Jaydee fell upon the table. Realizing what it was, she quickly threw herself off of it in horror that she had even touched it. On the floor, she had to think. She tried so hard to think. She needed her wits about her, and she needed them now. Think! Think! Why couldn't she think?

And as she sat there, reclined on the linoleum floor, she saw the chart on the wall. There were pictures. An older version of her, and a boy who looked so much like Jaydee. "John 3 mos." Was written next to it.

John? Who was John? Did she have a brother? Who was this? Why did he look so much like her?

The picture next to it was the same boy with short hair, and grungy clothes. He had a bandage on his nose. "John 1 mos." Was it really the same boy? They looked so different. Who was it?

The next picture was of that punk kid. It's note read "Vermin 1 wk."

Vermin. What a stupid name. So stupid. Such a stupid, dumb name. It was dumb. So dumb. Really really dumb. Vermin. Each time she said it in her mind. It became clearer. Vermin. She knew the name. She had heard it before. Many times. She fought the flood of memory inside of her. She knew why she knew the stupid name. Vermin. Vermin. Vermin. Vermin was John. John, the clean-cut boy in the next picture. John was the girl. She was the girl.

She was Vermin.

The chart on the wall had the big checklist she had seen in her sleep. Rhinoplasty. Cheek implants. Collagen injections. She felt the invisible scar on her nose. Forehead shave. Throat shave. She felt the imaginary cut on her neck. Estrogen sub-dermal implants. She remembered the dream, with the cuts under her arms. Liposuction. Pelvic restructuring. Leg bone shortening. The long-healed bones in her legs hurt. Rib removal. Tummy tuck. Her abdomen hurt. Spinal column adjustment. Breast implants. SRS.

It was impossible. And it was true. She knew it was true. And she cried.

Jaydee knew it was the worst thing to do. She needed to leave. But she had to cry. She couldn't stop it now. She had a home here. She had friends. She had a life. Like the one she had always secretly dreamed about when she was on the streets. God help her, she wanted to be this spoiled, middle-class kid. A future ahead. School to attend. Dances to go to, games to watch, parties, relationships, and love.

"Fuck" she said aloud. "Fuck, fuck, fuck!" she continued. She had fallen in love. She was in love with Wade. She loved Evelyn. She loved this life. Maybe she had been told to do it. But she didn't care. She loved all these people doing this horrible thing to her. To him.

Vermin stood up and tried to let his sobbing work it's way out of his system. How could he love these people. After what they had done to him? Here he was, cut apart and reassembled in the image of a girl. A girl. The sickness in the minds of these people. It was time to get out of here.

Even then Vermin hesitated. He was giving it all up. But there was no choice anymore. As he stepped into the hallway, he heard a loud series of noises. The doors. They had shut, and then locked by remote control. Something, someone had done that. Vermin snapped out of his introspection. This was now a matter of life and death. They wouldn't let him go. There was only one way out. He tested the doors. Locked solid, as he thought. he ran to the stairs and heard the door above scrape open. There was nowhere for him to go. He ran up to the nearest side door and tried with all his might to get it open. He couldn't budge it in his slightly built body. The only thing left was the freezer.

He heard a step in the stairway. And another. Vermin leapt to the freezer and opened the top. Hopefully there was enough room. It was a stupid place to hide, but it was the only thing he could do.

There might be just enough room. It was filled with a huge chunk of ice. Then he took a closer look.

It was her. She. Him. Jaydee. It was Jaydee's face. Jaydee's frozen body. Lifeless and blue. It was Jaydee's frozen figure. Right there in the ice.

No it wasn't.

It was Amy.

This is what happened to her. She wasn't in South America. She hadn't run away. She was here, all along. Stone cold dead.. Lifeless and imprisoned in the ice.

"Immobilize." said Edgar.

Vermin swung around to look at the bastard. "It's not gonna work, you dirty fucker." He stood as tall as he could manage with his tiny frame. "I know everything. And it's over."

"IMMOBILIZE!" shouted Mr. Cooper.

"It's gone, all gone. All your programming is gone." Vermin even found the guts to advance on the old man. "You deserve to die, you fat, fucking, pervert!"

Vermin fought his impulse to strangle him, in favor of escape. He dashed between the old man and the wall, getting on to the steps. Edgar instinctively grabbed Vermin's arm to stop him. Vermin wriggled and wrestled with his arm. "Let go, or I'll kill you! I'll fucking kill you!" Edgar let go, stunned. It was the first sign of emotion Vermin had ever seen from the old man.

Vermin scrambled up the stairs and ran back into the hall.

"Please" he heard from back down the stairway. "Please don't go."

Vermin didn't stop. He paused only briefly to see Mrs. Cooper in her housecoat, stunned and shocked. She was in on it too. Fuck her. Vermin thought to himself. I thought I loved her. "Murderers." He said, with the highest level of contempt in his voice.

Vermin leapt for the front door and found it just as locked as the doors downstairs. Mr. Cooper had arrived, from the basement, blocking any way out except up the stairs.

"Fucking murderers! Fucking goddamn psychos!" He yelled as he headed for his room. He could jimmy open the window and get out that way. It was dangerous, but the only way out.

Inside, he braced his door so Edgar couldn't get in. He went for the window but couldn't convince it to move. All his strength had gone. He felt so weak. Vermin looked for something he could throw through the glass. He grabbed the vanity chair and as he swept it across the room to throw, he struck the light above. At once, the chair flew out the window, the lights sparked and fizzled and Edgar broke in the door.

Vermin saw Edgar and shot for the window. Edgar grabbed him, and Vermin struggled. He kicked Edgar and swore like a sailor. He had to get away.

"Please. Please listen to me..." Said Edgar. Vermin only fought harder. Edgar was completely insane.

"Let me go, let me fucking go!" shouted Vermin.

"I have to explain, I must explain..." insisted Edgar. "There's so much you don't know..."

"You're a killer! You're a psycho!" cried Vermin, "Let me go! LET ME GO!!"

And Edgar did.

Then the sparking light fixture fell from above and struck the vanity table, bursting a can of aerosol hairspray. The flash of orange fire from it lit up the room. All of the sudden, the bed, the walls and the ceiling were on fire.

Vermin tried for the window again. It was filled with jagged glass, and there was fire in between. Vermin wanted to go to the door. Edgar made no effort to get in his way. In fact, Edgar had slumped against the wall. "No. No. Please. I can't lose her again." the man said to himself. Smoke enveloped him.

"She died last year." He heard Edgar say. "She was my princess. My darling little princess." suddenly Edgar had wrapped his arms around Vermin.

"Please. I'm not the crazy man I appear to be, son. I'm just so desperate." Edgar said.

Vermin figured this was his last stand. No way out, and this was his final hour. "You killed her. And you tried to replace her with me!" Vermin escaped Edgar's grasp, losing him again in the smoke.

A sea of fire was climbing up the walls and it reached the ceiling. Flames danced along the roof, spewing out thick, choking, black smoke. Vermin could no longer see far in front of himself and couldn't find the door. The smoke had disoriented him.

He looked around, trying to find any other way out, though he knew there was none. All he could see was smoke.

"It was an aneurysm." Continued Edgar, invisible in the blackness. "One day, she was combing her hair in her room, and she just fell over. Dead." He paused, even though he must have known he had no time left in this world. "Instantly. Gone forever. So young, so lovely. My little princess."

Vermin knew he should try and fight in his last moments of life, but these were the answers he had searched for. He couldn't move until he heard this.

In between the choking and gasping, Edgar went on. "We thought we could help her, I'm a doctor, you know. But it was too late. We never called in the death. I couldn't admit she was really gone. We just told people she was away for a while." Continued Edgar, sounding relieved to tell someone. "If someone found the body, we couldn't answer the questions. So we put her there in the basement."

"What did you do to me?" said Vermin, not at all holding back his anger. "Why the fuck did you do this to me?"

"I wanted her back. God help me, I had to have her back." He emerged from the smoke again, crawling low to get air. "I had to have her back."

"Why me, motherfucker!? Why me!?" Vermin demanded, not yet hearing the answer he wanted to hear.

"You're her brother." said Edgar.

Vermin wasn't going to let the crazy man trick him.

"We knew our daughter Jane had had a child before Amy. We found him. You. We were the ones behind all the assistance you got. We just wanted to help. But when Amy died, we wanted to bring you back to the family."

The walls started to creak and groan as the fire tore apart the structure of the room.

"The scholarships, the grants, it was all us. We brought you back into the family."

"Why do this to me, why not just let me be Vermin?" Vermin choked out.

"Because Vermin would have never let us love him." Edgar said with sorrow. "He was scum. He would have taken the money and run."

It was Vermin's turn to pause.

A shattering crack above let a beam sag. The roof was caving in. Edgar picked himself up off the floor and hurled his body at Vermin. The roof collapsed all around Mr. Cooper, as he used every bit of his strength to stay on his feet. But he was quickly thrown to the floor. Underneath was Vermin. Edgar had provided a shield and protected him from the falling beams.

Vermin was stunned. The old man had sacrificed himself.

Edgar used what life he had left to throw the beams off him and drag himself to the door, oblivious to the flames setting his clothing and skin on fire. He used his huge torso to crash through the door, and grabbed Vermin by the shoulder and practically threw him out of the room.

He heard one last thing from Edgar. "I wanted to be loved again, son. That's all I wanted."

Fire was starting to work it's way down the stairway, and smoke was filling up the slim hall quick. Vermin got to his feet. He turned back to see what had happened in the room. He couldn't see anything. Just fire.

Vermin escaped down the stairs and out the now open front door. The cool grass felt so good when he fell onto it. Vermin coughed and hacked, as a fireman ran up to throw a blanket on him. Vermin stood up and saw Mrs. Cooper there, broken down and crying. She was being held back by another fireman. She was trying to break his grasp, but was too distraught to put up much of a struggle.

The fire truck was still unfurling the hoses. Another crash of the collapsing roof captured Vermin's attention. The flames were incredible, reaching high into the night sky, throwing sparks and burnt embers like confetti into the stars.

Mrs. Cooper said goodbye to her lifelong friend and lover. She knew it was going to end badly. But she had no idea. There was only one person left in her life now. And looking around the yard, she wasn't surprised not to be able to find her. Only a discarded blanket.


***


"John 'Vermin' Doe, Male, Caucasian, aged 26." Said the man seated at the sofa. "He was wanted in several states, ma'am. You should have checked him out a little more thoroughly."

The police detective made more notes on his form. The constant pounding of nails and the grinding of electric saws from up the stairs caused the detective to shout every word.

"Well, I suppose I try to put my faith in people. Sometimes, well, it doesn't work out." Mrs. Cooper said. The noise magically disappearing when she started to talk.

The detective shook his head in a rude display of disappointment, common to civil service employees. "That's your choice, ma'am." He said. "But I would be thankful things weren't even worse."

"I suppose I should be." Evelyn said, adding a faint "tsk-tsk" to her statement.

The gauze-wrapped figure of Mr. Cooper wheeled himself into the room. "So, are we all set?" he said, slightly muffled. He was trying to get this man out of his house.

"Just sign here. It's as a witness to the death of the young man." He handed the metal pad to Mrs. Cooper. She signed it after a quick, pretend, examination of the form.

The front door swung open dramatically. Wade strode in, proudly.

"May I present, the new President-Elect of the Student Council of Templeton High!" He announced loudly. He then broke out in a rendition of "Here Comes the Chief." "Dum dum de dum dum, dum de dum de dum dum..."

Timidly through the door came Amy, resplendent in her varsity cheerleader's outfit. Over it was draped Wade's lettermans' jacket. Her cheeks flushed and wishing she had somewhere to hide, she elbowed Wade to knock it off.

"Ow!" He said, meaning it.

Mrs. Cooper had dropped the pad and was kicking and wailing with joy from her seat.

"Congratulations, princess." said Edgar. "I'm so proud of you."

"Thanks, Gramps." she said, kissing him on an exposed part of his cheek.

Mrs. Cooper minced over to Amy and squeezed her like a near-empty tube of toothpaste. "Ohhhh! I'm so, so happy for you!" She cried.

"Thanks, Gramms," a windless Amy wheezed out.

"Congratulations miss. You're a very special young lady." Said the detective, rising to his feet. He headed towards the door, stopping to talk to the blushing girl. "I'll see you at city hall for the ceremony. Good day, folks." He said as he departed.

Amy was to be awarded a medal for her heroic rescue of her grandfather from the fire last month. Her picture had been splashed all over the local news, and despite her desire to keep a low profile, she was going to have to go dress up and act all humble and surprised at the outpouring of public appreciation. God, she was dreading it.

That wasn't the compete story, of course.

Vermin was there, standing and staring at the fire. As he watched it burn, he could only think about what was now lost. He had seen his future, it was his past. The streets. Alcohol. Loneliness. It was insane, what the Coopers had done to him. But he knew he was on a fast track speeding towards a pathetic life and inconsequential death. He had to do something.

He ran back into the house, and up the stairs to find Edgar. He was there, lifeless, pinned under fiery beams of wood. Vermin took the deepest breath he could, and charged in. It took everything he had, but he had managed to drag the charred shape of Edgar's body out of that room and down the stairs. Physics professors worldwide would be able to draw up hundreds of reasons as to why this was impossible, but it happened anyway.

The fire had raced through most of that side of the house, and destroyed the basement. There, next to an overturned freezer, they found an unrecognizably burnt body. Since the owners of the house were all right and their niece had survived, there was only one person it could be. When the firefighters asked who it was, Vermin verified what they had already assumed. The poor, poor boy.

Vermin asked himself a lot of questions that night, and for the days afterwards. Questions he couldn't bring himself to answer. What answers he had he hid from himself. Many times he wanted to walk away. Run away. He had the bus ticket in his pocket. But he never used it.

It was the question from Edgar that was the toughest, though. He was wrapped from head to toe in gauze and plastic, trying to save what was left of his skin. Through the slit in the head where he could talk, Edgar asked simply, "Why?"

Vermin couldn't reply. He knew the answer, but the words failed him. Even if these people who tried to erase his identity were sick and twisted, he felt for them. After all, Vermin was a pretty sick and twisted person himself. That wasn't the answer, though. Inside he knew why. He wanted family. All along, that's all he ever wanted. And if these were the only conditions in which he was going to get it, so be it.

But Vermin couldn't say it. Because he wasn't really sure. He was scared to admit it. Vermin couldn't admit it. It wasn't in his character. All Vermin could do is slowly, hesitantly, move his hand. It moved in a jittery fashion, sometimes moving forward, sometimes retreating. But eventually, it made it to its' destination. Wrapped around Edgars' bandaged hand.

"I want what you want," was what Vermin said.

She set down the rules, though. No lies, no funny stuff. The basement was gone and not coming back. She was now officially Amy today, tomorrow and forever. No one talks about the switch, or the past. One word and she goes to the police. Anything funny, and she goes to the police. So much as a whisper in her sleep, and she goes to the police. And the Coopers pay for college. A good one. It was the big score.

She sat in her room now, scribbling down in her diary the events of the day. It was a long entry. When she was finished, she placed it back in its' secret spot and bounded on to her bed, ready to go to sleep. Snug under the sheets, she let herself start to drift away. Maybe it was a lie, the life she led now. But it wasn't hurting anyone. In fact, she was making a lot of people very happy. Including herself. She was never going to have the memories of Amy, so it was time to make new ones.

She had found her Mother. Now, she had a family. Grandparents. A boyfriend. School friends. Things to do. People who were happy to see her everyday. People who cared. People who loved her.

She had her good days and bad, but she never had another nightmare again.