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Half-Brother

by Hebe Dotson

 

Matt didn't like it one bit when I called him my half-brother. He thought it was stupid -- after all, he and I had the same father and mother. It suited my juvenile sense of humor, however. When he objected to "half-brother," I always offered to call him my half-sister, but he disliked that even more. I was the only person in the world who knew he liked to wear our sister's clothes. That knowledge gave me the power to inflict my little joke on him -- and, as I always reminded him when he objected, I never called him "half-brother" if there was anyone else within earshot. But, of course, I could…

I'd discovered his secret one day when I'd come home from school early -- on time, really, but I'd been expected to stay late for a soccer match. The other team had had about half of its players come down with some kind of stomach virus that morning and the game had been cancelled, so I'd just gone home when school let out.

Since Dad and Mom both worked, I had my own house key. My siblings' high school let out an hour earlier than my middle school, so I'd expected to find Amanda and Matt at home when I opened the door and walked in. If history was any guide, Mandy would be up in her room on her own private telephone line and Matt would be in the family room playing a video game. Sure enough, I could hear the pathetic moans of dying space aliens coming from the television set as I strolled into the family room.

"Hi, Matt," I said. "The game got cancelled and I…" But it wasn't Matt; it was Amanda. My sister was zapping space aliens? I looked again. It wasn't Amanda -- it was only her clothes. Matt was inside them, with a look of fear and horror on his prettily-painted face.

*****

A couple of years earlier, I'd been looking through an old family photo album, and I'd spotted a picture of two little girls having a make-believe tea party with a gaggle of dolls and stuffed animals. I'd recognized the older girl as Amanda, but I hadn't been able to place the younger one. Was it my cousin Jane, or perhaps my cousin Beth? Knowing that my mother always labeled her photos, I'd looked on the back of this one and found the legend, "Amanda (7) and Paul (3)," in my mother's handwriting.

The younger "girl" was me? I had no memory of this event -- but of course I'd been only three. I took the album to Mom and demanded an explanation.

"That was so funny," she said. "Mandy dressed you in some of her old clothes and sat you down at her little table, with her dolls and tea set. Then she called me to come and see what she'd done. She was so proud -- and you were both so cute that I just had to take a picture."

"Oh, boy," I said. "I hope nobody's seen it."

"Only family," Mom said, "and none of them for a long time."

"How many times did she use me for a doll?" I asked.

"Just that once. After I took the picture, I had a cup of 'tea' with the two of you and then told Mandy it was time to change you back to a boy. Later on, while you were having a nap, I explained to her that she really shouldn't dress you as a girl, and she promised not to do it again."

My sudden flashback to this event was what prompted my first question to Matt. "Did Mandy do this to you?" I asked.

"Uh, no," he croaked.

"Who did, then?"

His ruby lips twitched but no sound emerged. I moved closer. "I did," he whispered.

He was shaking, and I suddenly realized that he was scared half to death. "Hey!" I said. "Calm down. I'm not going to tell anybody." I'd said that? I, Matt's archrival, who was always looking for a way to get a leg up on him? I couldn't believe it.

Matt couldn't believe it either. "You're not?" he said.

I had a second chance and I didn't take it; I don't know why. "No," I said. "This is just between us." Maybe I could think of some advantage later. "Mandy's not home?"

"No; she's got a class play rehearsal this afternoon. She won't be home until five."

"Do you do this often?" I asked.

"No; only when I'm sure I'll be alone -- once or twice a month."

"Ah, yes; it's good to be absolutely sure about these things."

"Well, how was I supposed to know your stupid game would be cancelled?" he said.

"Beats me. How long have you been doing this?"

"About a year. Remember that dumb cartoon we saw, where this kid was in trouble and he tried to escape by disguising himself as his sister?"

"Yeah, I remember. He looked just like her," I said. Funny how two completely different cartoon characters can look exactly alike.

"I thought it was pretty cool," Matt said. "So I wondered if I'd look like Mandy if I got dressed up in her clothes."

"You don't," I said. Matt looked hurt. "You look something like her," I added, "but not exactly."

"I know."

"So you tried it and you look something like her but not exactly. Now you know -- so why do you keep on doing it?"

"Oh, man!" Matt said. "It's so much fun! I just like the way I look, and how the clothes feel, and everything. You should try it, too."

"No, thanks," I said hastily. "I'll take your word for it. Hey, stand up and let me have a good look."

Matt stood up slowly. He looked nervous, but when I looked him over and didn't laugh, the nervousness faded and he began to preen and pose. He was wearing a skirt and blouse, hosiery, and shoes with pointed toes and one-inch heels. His hair was short, but he'd combed it so it looked sort of feminine, and he'd put on lipstick, eye shadow, and earrings. He looked almost pretty.

"Not bad," I said. "Nice boobs." He blushed. "Can I feel them?" I reached for his chest, but he swatted my hand away.

"Not on the first date," he said with a little smirk.

"Be that way," I said. "Hey, I'm gonna check my email. Dibs on the iMac."

"It's all yours. I'll be up in a few minutes, after I zap a few more space aliens."

*****

After Matt finished saving Earth from the space aliens, he and I talked a little more while he changed clothes and cleaned off his makeup. It was obvious that he really enjoyed dressing up. Well, whatever. I think he was still afraid I was going to turn him in to our parents (or, even worse, to Mandy), but I assured him that it was our secret and I'd keep it. "Hey, if that's what you like to do, it's okay with me," I said. "Maybe I'll want you to keep a secret for me someday."

"Like what?"

"I don't know, half-brother" (my first use of that epithet). "I don't have any right now, but when I come home late some night from a date with Britney Spears, I may need you to cover up for me."

"Any time," he said.

A new pattern emerged in our lives after that. I suppose Matt was dressing up whenever he was home alone -- he didn't say and I didn't ask -- but now he began doing it whenever he and I were the only ones there. Sometimes I'd come home to find him already dressed. Other times, he'd just disappear a few minutes after I arrived, reappearing in Amanda's clothes a little later. Then we'd play computer games or do homework or just talk -- about everything and nothing. When it was almost time for Mandy or one of our parents to come home, he'd vanish again for a few minutes before returning as Matt.

One afternoon, the phone rang just as I came in the door, so I picked up the front hall extension. It was Amanda -- she was at her friend Kimberly's, and they'd decided to go to the mall for a couple of hours. She'd be home for dinner. I followed the sound of dying aliens into the family room.

"Hi, half-bro'," I said to the intrepid starship commander.

"Don't call me that," Matt said. "Who called?"

"Mandy. She's going to the mall with Kimberly for a couple of hours."

"Great," he said. He turned off the game, which surprised me because I could see he was very close to winning it. "I'll be back," he said as he started to walk out of the room.

"Are you going to…?"

"Yeah."

"Can I watch?"

He turned and looked at me. "Sure, but I didn't think you'd want to."

"Well, I never did before, but today I do."

I followed him up the stairs and into Mandy's room. He marched boldly, as a seasoned slayer of space aliens should. I walked gingerly behind him, my eyes darting in all directions. My sister was a greater danger than any alien -- even though I knew she was on her way to the mall, her aura was strong enough to terrify me.

Matt knew the territory. His movements were decisive. He went straight to Mandy's dresser, opened a drawer, and took out a bra and a pair of panties. He opened another drawer and extracted a pair of pantyhose. Then he moved on to Mandy's closet. He wasted no time there -- he took a dress on its hanger and picked up a pair of shoes from the pile on the closet floor. With all these things in his hands, he turned and headed for the door. Elapsed time: 30 seconds.

I looked in the closet. There was a bewildering array of stuff there. I wouldn't know what to pick, assuming I wanted to, and I didn't. I ran after Matt. He was crossing the hall, all sensors locked onto our room. "Hey, Matt! How could you make up your mind so fast?"

"I know everything she's got and where she keeps stuff. She's actually organized, and she has places for everything. I already knew what I was going to take -- I planned that out three days ago. Tonight, I'll plan the next time. Close the door."

My half-brother was organized too -- no wasted motion. In a matter of seconds, he was stripped down to his skin. He stepped into Amanda's panties and pulled them up. Then he put on her bra -- I was amazed to see how easily he fastened it behind him. He grabbed an old shoebox from his half of the closet shelf, removed two tan blobs, and stuck them into the bra cups.

"What are those, Matt?"

"Instant boobs. I made them from some old pantyhose I found in Mom's bathroom wastebasket -- I just cut off the feet and filled them with rice, and then tied the ends." As he spoke, he took Mandy's dress from its hanger and dropped it over his head. He put his arms through the sleeves and reached back to pull up the zipper. Mr. Dexterity.

He sat down on the bed, performed a couple of mystic moves with the pantyhose, and maneuvered them carefully up his legs and over his hips. "You have to be careful with these things," he said. "You don't want to get a run in them." He slipped his feet into Mandy's pumps. "Ta-da!" he said as he stood up.

"That's amazing," I said. He looked like a girl with Matt's head.

"Ain't done yet," he said with a grin. Reaching into his shoebox, he removed a lipstick and applied it expertly to his lips, blotting the excess with a tissue.

"You've got your own makeup?" I said.

"Sort of my own -- well, it's mine now. I'm a scavenger -- I keep my eyes on Mom's wastebasket. She throws things out when she gets tired of them, and sometimes there's a lot left. Like this eye shadow." He extracted another tube from his shoebox, removed its cap, and applied it to his eyelids. "This has hardly been used."

Matt picked up his hairbrush and made a few magic passes over his head. I couldn't tell what he did, but when he was done, he wasn't Matt any more -- he was a girl!

"Wow!" I said.

"One more thing," Matt said as he looked into his shoebox. He took out a pair of earrings and clipped them onto his ear lobes. "I watch Mandy's wastebasket, too. She threw out a whole bunch of clip-on earrings after she got her ears pierced."

"I can't believe it," I said. "That was so quick and easy."

"It takes practice," he said, "but I'm getting pretty good at it now."

"I'll say."

"You want to try it?"

"Who, me? No -- no, thanks."

"You sure?"

"Uh…positive," I said. And I was positive…at least, I think I was…though it did seem easy…and sort of fun…

"Okay. Let's play 'Space Zombies' -- you can be Aardriik."

I couldn't believe he'd let me be Aardriik. "Okay." I thundered down the stairs before he changed his mind. He followed sedately behind me.

*****

All of these things happened in September and October of my seventh-grade year. I was twelve, Matt was 14 and a freshman at Boulton Park High School, and Mandy was 16 and a junior. I became the permanent Aardriick, but that was only because Matt had decided he wanted to always be Aalienna, the sexiest space zombie queen ever.

Now it was mid-November and things were changing. Aalienna was getting restless, and the Free Planets were quaking in their orbits. "Man, I wish I could go somewhere," Matt said. "I'm tired of just hanging around the house." He was wearing one of Mandy's prettiest dresses and looking quite scrumptious, even to my eyes. Practice had only improved his makeup skills, and he'd bought himself a nice shoulder-length wig through the Internet.

"Cool it, half-brother," I said. "You're just asking for trouble."

"Stop calling me that," Matt said. "I know it's a dumb idea, but I'd still like to do it. Do you think anyone would guess I'm a guy?"

I looked at him. "I wouldn't."

"Honest?"

"Honest."

"Damn. I really want to do it."

He was serious. I tried to be the voice of reason. "So, where do you want to go? A Bee-Pee High basketball game? Christmas shopping at the mall? New Year's Eve in Times Square?"

"Don't be stupid, Paul. I don't really want to go anywhere crowded or where someone might know me. I just want to go -- you know -- out!"

"Well, you'd have to go somewhere you could walk to, unless you want to ask Mom or Dad or your half-sister for a ride."

"I could take the bus," he said. That was true; the bus to downtown Bee-Pee went right by our house.

"You've been thinking about this, haven't you?"

He smiled sheepishly. "Yeah -- a little."

"Let's see -- you'd have to wait until it got dark, too, unless you want to take a chance on the neighbors seeing you."

"Yeah -- but it gets dark by 5:30 this time of year."

"So where have you thought about going?"

"Uh -- maybe that pizza place on the way into town?"

"The Pizza Heaven?" It was right on the bus route into town, about ten minutes from home.

"Yeah."

"That might work. Good luck!" I said.

"Thanks," he muttered.

*****

Matt's Magic Moment arrived three days later, at four o'clock on a Saturday afternoon. He and I were watching a football game in the family room when Mom walked in. "Boys, there's been a change of plans," she said. "Dad's old college roommate just called from the Millennium Inn out by the Interstate. He and his wife had just checked in when they remembered we live here, so they called to see if we could have dinner with them. They're here for just the one night, so we're going to pick them up at 5:30, and then we'll go to the Old Town Inn for dinner."

Matt and I looked at each other. "Okay, Mom," Matt said.

"You boys will be on your own, I'm afraid. Do you want me to get something out of the freezer, or would you rather order pizza or Chinese?"

"We'll get pizza," Matt said quickly. "Okay, Paul?"

"Sure," I said. "Pizza's fine with me."

"What about Mandy?" Matt asked.

"She has a date with Jerry tonight -- they're eating out and then going to a movie."

"Oh -- okay," Matt said.

"Will you boys be all right on your own? I feel bad about leaving you."

"Hey, Mom -- we're not little kids any more," I said.

"We'll be fine," Matt said. "Have a good time and don't worry about us."

*****

Mom and Dad departed at five on the dot, leaving us twenty-five dollars to cover our pizza order. Jerry arrived at 5:30, and he and Mandy left at 5:35. As soon as we saw Jerry's car pull away from the curb, Matt was off like a rocket, launching himself up the stairs and into Mandy's room. By the time I got to the top of the stairs, he was already going into our room with his hands full of clothing.

He took a little more time to dress than usual, taking extra care with his makeup. When he was done, he was quite fetching in a gray wool skirt and a ribbed long-sleeved pink top, pantyhose, and pumps. His cosmetics were subdued -- pink lipstick that matched his top, just a slight touch of eye shadow, and a little mascara (he'd been working on his mascara technique for a couple of weeks and had it down pretty well).

"You look really nice," I said.

"Thanks," he replied. "You're not going looking like that, are you?"

"I'm not going at all," I said. "This is your party -- just bring me back some of the pizza."

"What do you mean, you're not going? You can't let me down now."

"I never said I was going. This is all your idea."

"Oh, come on!" Matt said. "I can't go out there all by myself."

"Sure you can. You do it all the time."

"Not like this," he said. His lower lip was trembling and he looked as if he were about to cry. "Please, Paul," he said in a quavering voice. "This is something I really want to do, real bad."

I thought for a few seconds. I'd sort of tried to tell him he shouldn't go out at all in girls' clothes. I'd never said I'd help him if he did -- and yet, how could I refuse him? If he got into any trouble, he'd need someone to cover his back, just like Aalienna always had Aardriick.

"Okay, okay," I said. "I'll go with you, but I'm not going to wear a tux to the Pizza Heaven."

"Thanks, Paul. No tux -- but how about wearing your good sweater instead of that cruddy old sweatshirt? And maybe slacks instead of jeans."

"All right, all right!" I said. "Just a minute."

"I'll meet you downstairs," Matt said.

*****

When I came down the stairs five minutes later, Matt was ready to go. He'd appropriated one of Mom's warm jackets, and he had one of her handbags slung over his shoulder. "The bus will be coming any minute," he said.

I got my good jacket from the hall closet.

"Did you bring your wallet?" he asked. When I nodded affirmatively, he gave me the pizza money and twenty dollars more, "just in case."

"Why are you giving me all the money?" I asked.

"The gentleman pays, you know."

"Cripes," I said. "This feels more like a date than a trip to pick up a pizza."

"It is a date -- sort of," he said.

"Great! My first date, and it has to be with my half-sister."

"Just think of it as practice. Have you got your key?"

I felt my pocket. "Yes."

"Let's go, then." We opened the door and stepped out onto the porch. That was when Matt froze up. "Omigawd," he said. "I can't do it. What if someone sees me?"

"Someone will," I said, "You're not invisible. But no one's going to recognize you."

"Are you sure?"

"Positive."

"Look," he said. "You go to the bus stop. When you see the bus coming, wave to me if there's no one around. If you see anyone, we'll wait for the next bus."

"We'll starve to death," I grumbled, but I walked to the bus stop, which was just two doors down the street. When I got there, I could see the bus coming, about two blocks away. There were no human beings in sight, so I waved to Matt and he scurried to join me.

The bus pulled up in front of us. Ever the gentleman, I stood back to let my date go first. But Matt had to wait, as there was a disembarking passenger blocking the entrance -- Mr. Sloane, our next-door neighbor. He looked at us without really seeing us -- a commuter's blank stare.

"Hi, Mr. Sloane," I said without thinking.

He looked at us more carefully, and this time we registered. "Oh, hello, Paul," he said. "Hello, Amanda," he said to the back of Matt's head as my date scrambled quickly onto the bus.

*****

I paid both fares and looked around for my half-brother. There were a handful of passengers near the front of the bus, but he'd gone all the way to the rear. By the time I reached him and sat down beside him, he'd succumbed to a fit of nervous giggles.

"Mr. Sloane!" he said. "Omigawd! And he thought I was Mandy!"

"When all the time it was Mattie."

"Mattie?"

"Short for Matilda. I may have to speak to you in public, and I can't call you Matt."

"That's true," he agreed. "But I don't see myself as a Matilda."

"How do you see yourself?"

"I don't know. Do you have any ideas? Besides Matilda, I mean."

"Well, Matthew backwards is Wehttam, but that's not very good. Matt backwards is Ttam -- how about Tammy?"

"I like that," she said. "Tammy it is." She said? I looked at her. Now that she had a girl's name, she seemed to have acquired full girlness, both in her own mind and in mine.

I looked ahead through the windshield of the bus and saw the big Pizza Heaven sign about three blocks ahead. I stood up. "Come on, Tammy," I said. "We're almost there."

*****

We stood on the sidewalk as the bus rolled off on its way to downtown Boulton Park. The Pizza Heaven was halfway down the block, and we began to walk towards it. I suddenly felt Tammy's hand grasp mine. I tried to shake her loose, but she'd intertwined her fingers with mine -- Aalienna's deadly Grip of Steel.

"What are you doing?" I said in a less-than-friendly way.

Tammy smiled at me. "Don't be grouchy," she said. "I just want to be treated like a date; that's all."

"I've never had a date," I said, "so don't blame me if I do something wrong."

"Just be nice and polite, and act as if you like me. Oh, you should do all the talking, too. I feel a little nervous about my voice."

"It sounds okay to me." I said.

We'd reached the Pizza Heaven. I opened the door and held it for Tammy, and we walked in. The place was fairly crowded but not full, so we were able to get a booth. Tammy slid in first. I started to take a seat across the table from her, but she motioned to me to sit beside her, so I did.

A waiter came by a few minutes later and took our order for sodas, small tossed salads (at Tammy's insistence), and a medium pizza with everything (I'd wanted to order a large pizza, but Tammy said she'd eat only two slices and I could have the rest). The sodas and salads came right away, which was a good thing because it redirected Tammy away from clutching my arm and staring soulfully at me. Her little act nearly killed my appetite, but then the pizza arrived and my appetite returned.

Tammy was nearly as good as her word. She slowly worked her way through two slices while I demolished four. There were two pieces left, and I was about to transfer them to my plate when Tammy asked, somewhat plaintively, if she could have just one more bite. "Sure," I said. She took about a third of the smaller slice and I took the rest.

Then, poised for the kill, I heard a too-familiar voice say, "Hola, Pablo!"

*****

Derek Peterson, one of my seventh-grade classmates, knew exactly two words of Spanish, and I'd just heard them again for the forty-thousandth time. "Hi, Derek," I said without looking up, and then I looked up. Derek was with a girl -- not just a girl, but the girl, the one I'd always hallucinated about having my real first date with -- Fiona Moore, also a classmate. "Hi, Fiona," I said.

"Hi, Paul," she replied.

"Do you guys mind if we share your booth?" Derek asked. "This place is really full now, and they told us we'd have to wait half an hour for a table unless we could find someone willing to share."

"Uh…sure," I said. Then I remembered that I was supposed to be polite. "Uh…this is my friend Tammy. Tammy, this is Fiona and Derek -- they're in my class at school."

Tammy murmured something friendly but unintelligible as Fiona slid into the seat across from her and Derek sat down beside Fiona.

"Where do you go to school, Tammy?" Fiona asked.

Tammy was going to have to speak to someone besides me. "Um…Beaumont Middle School," she said in a soft voice that sounded feminine enough to my ears.

"Way out there?" Derek said. "Wow! How'd you get here -- did Pablo swipe the family car?"

"Her family's friends with my family," I said. "Her folks have gone to the Old Town Inn with my folks, and they told us to go out and grab a pizza." I gave Fiona a look that tried to convey that she was the only one for me and I wouldn't have been caught dead with Tammy if I hadn't been forced into it. Wasted effort. Fiona was looking at Tammy -- sizing up her rival, I hoped. Or perhaps she was impressed by this older woman who was allowed to wear makeup.

"My cousin Josh lives in Beaumont," Fiona said. "He goes to your school. Do you know him? Josh Moore?"

"I don't know -- I think I've heard his name," Tammy said "Which grade is he in?"

"Sixth."

"Oh. I'm in eighth grade, and I don't know many sixth graders." Atta girl, Tammy, I thought -- it's better to be an upper-class snob than to get all tangled up in fabricating a story.

The waiter came by to check on us and took Derek and Fiona's order. He came back a few minutes later with their sodas. Fiona took one sip of hers and said, "Excuse me, Derek -- I have to go powder my nose. Why don't you come with me, Tammy?"

Derek stood up to let Fiona out, and I did the same for Tammy. I looked at her -- she was sort of cowering in her corner of the booth. "Come on, Tammy," Fiona said in a no-nonsense voice. "I want to get back before the pizza comes."

Tammy, yielding to the voice of authority, slid across the seat and stood up. "You forgot your purse," I whispered. She grabbed it and hurried off in Fiona's wake.

"Girls!" Derek said. "I don't know why they can't go to the bathroom alone."

"They want to talk," I said. "They always want to talk."

"About us?"

"Probably."

"Hey, guys," a new voice said. "How did you two dweebs manage to get dates with such foxy girls?"

*****

Derek and I turned together to see Frank LaRosa, one of Matt's classmates, loading dirty dishes from a nearby table into a large plastic bin. He was Matt's friend, but Derek and I had known him for years.

"Just lucky, I guess," I said. "I didn't know you worked here, Frank."

"My uncle owns the place," Frank said. "He asked me to help out, so I work a few hours Fridays and Saturdays, bussing tables and helping in the kitchen. Who's your girlfriend, Derek? She looks familiar."

"Fiona Moore."

"Little Fiona? No kidding! I haven't seen her for a while -- she's looking good, Derek." Derek beamed as if he were directly responsible for Fiona's good looks.

Frank finished clearing the table and pulled a damp sponge out of his plastic bin. "How about your girlfriend, Paul? She looks sort of familiar, too."

"Tammy's not my girlfriend -- just a family friend. She lives out in Beaumont. We got sent here while our parents went to the Old Town Inn."

Frank scrubbed the tabletop and lined up the sugar bowl, the hot peppers dispenser, and the salt and pepper shakers. "My mistake," he said. "I don't know anyone who lives out that way. Well, got to go. Say hi to Matt." He picked up the bin of dirty dishes and strode off towards the kitchen. On his way, he passed our returning "girlfriends" and said something to them. They were all smiles when they got back to the booth. I could see that Tammy had freshened her lipstick -- and she'd shared it with Fiona.

Derek and I stood to let the girls get back to their seats. Their timing was good -- Derek and Fiona's pizza arrived as soon as they were seated. The waiter asked if he could get anything more for Tammy and me. When we said, "No," he dropped our check on the table in front of me and hurried away.

"I think we should be going," Tammy said. "Remember, we're not supposed to be late." Derek looked up from his pizza and winked at me. I'm sure he figured that Tammy was hot to be alone with me.

"I guess so," I said as I stood up to let Tammy out. I took out my wallet, counted out enough money to cover our bill and a tip for the waiter, and left it on the table.

"It was so nice to meet you, Tammy," Fiona said. "I hope you'll come back again soon."

"Thanks," Tammy said. "I enjoyed meeting you and Derek."

Derek grinned and waved. "Goodnight, guys," he said.

I waved back. Tammy took my arm and we strolled off towards the entrance.

*****

"We don't have to go home right now," Tammy said when we were out on the sidewalk. "It's only eight o'clock. Mom and Dad won't be back before ten or eleven. I just wanted to get out of the Pizza Heaven before Frank or Derek or somebody else recognized me."

"How about Mandy?"

"I asked her which movie she was going to and then checked the schedule in the paper. The show started at 7:30 and won't be over until 9:25, and it will take them another half-hour to get home. I figure we'll be okay if we get home by 9:30."

"So what do you want to do now?"

"Let's go over to that little shopping center across the street," Tammy said. "We can just walk around for a few minutes."

"Okay." Tammy gripped my hand again, and we walked across the highway and into the mini-mall. As malls go, it wasn't very exciting, but Tammy spotted Marcella's, a ladies' clothing boutique, and decided she wanted to look in the windows.

"How did you like the ladies' john at Pizza Heaven?" I asked.

Tammy wrinkled up her nose. "It was messy and a little smelly," she said. "But it was an experience!"

"What did Fiona want to talk about?"

"Boys."

"Now why couldn't I have guessed that?" I said. "Derek?"

"No -- her cousin Jason in Beaumont -- Josh's big brother. He's a freshman at Beaumont High. She wanted to tell me about him in case I met him. She talked about you, too."

"Me?"

"Yes -- she likes you. She thinks you're cute."

"She does?"

"Yes, but don't let it go to your head." Tammy pressed her nose against the store window. "Boy, I wish Mandy would buy that skirt. It's so pretty, and it would look great on me."

"Maybe you should bring her here and show it to her. Or you could give it to her for Christmas."

Tammy got a pensive look on her face. "Let's go in," she said.

"Are you kidding?"

"No. I want to find out how much that skirt costs." She disengaged her hand and walked into the store, with me trailing behind.

There were no other customers in the store and only one bored-looking middle-aged lady on duty. When she saw us come in, she put down her magazine and came over to greet us. "Good evening. Can I help you with anything?"

"I just want to find out the price of one of the skirts in your window," Tammy said.

"Of course, dear. Which one?" She led us to the window and Tammy pointed to the skirt she liked. "That's lovely, isn't it?" the clerk said. "It's your color, too, and I think we have it in your size." She looked at the tag. "It's on sale this week, $39.95, marked down from $59.95. Would you like to try it on?"

Tammy's eyes lit up. "Oh, yes! Could I?"

"Certainly, dear. You're a ten?"

"Yes."

"This one's only a six, but I'm sure we have a ten." She went to a display rack and rummaged through it. "Yes, we do," she said. "Come with me; I'll take you to a dressing room." She and Tammy disappeared through a doorway.

I wandered around the boutique, ogling the mannequins and trying to get up enough courage to meander through the lingerie display. The clerk reappeared. "Your friend will be right out," she said. "The skirt is really lovely on her."

With those words, Tammy reappeared too. She twirled around and struck a pose. "Do you like it, Paul?"

"It's very pretty," I said, and that was no lie.

"I'd love to buy it," Tammy said, "but I don't have enough money with me."

"That's no problem, dear," the clerk said. "Could you put down a ten-dollar deposit?"

"Yes."

"Then I can hold it for you, at the sale price, for thirty days. How would that be?"

"That would be wonderful! Thank you!" Tammy said. She looked in her handbag and found a five and five ones. "I'll be back in a few days with the rest of the money."

"Thank you, dear. That will be fine."

While the clerk wrote out a receipt, Tammy returned to the dressing room and changed back into Mandy's gray wool skirt. "We've got to hurry," she said when she came back. "It's getting late." I looked at my watch -- it was 8:45.

*****

We just missed the bus, of course -- we saw it go rolling past the mall entrance just as we came out of Marcella's. There'd be another bus in twenty minutes, but that didn't leave us with much time to spare.

When we looked across the highway at the Pizza Heaven, we wondered if Derek and Fiona were still in there. It wouldn't do for them to find us still in the neighborhood after we'd made a big thing out of getting home early. We decided to walk to the next bus stop, just to avoid possible encounters.

Seeing the Pizza Heaven reminded me of something else I wanted to ask Tammy. "What did Frank LaRosa say to you and Fiona?"

"That was scary," Tammy said. "Fiona and I were talking and I didn't even see Frank until he spoke to us. I looked up and he was looking right at us -- well, maybe more at Fiona -- and I was so scared he'd recognize me, but he didn't."

"So what did he say?"

"He said if we wanted to dump those two losers we were with, he'd be off duty at nine."

"He called us losers?"

"Well, not exactly, but that was the idea."

Tammy's feet were getting sore from walking in heels, so we weren't able to go as fast as we'd thought we could. Even so, we got to the next bus stop about thirty seconds ahead of the bus. We climbed aboard, and I paid our fares and followed Tammy to the back of the bus.

It had been a busy evening, and I zoned out as the bus rolled along. I felt it slow down and stop for a moment before starting up again, but I wasn't really paying much attention to anything until Tammy suddenly threw her arms around me and buried her face in my neck.

"Hey! What the heck are you doing?" I snapped.

"Shhhhhh! Don't say anything -- just look!" Tammy said.

I couldn't see very well (Tammy's head was in the way), but I could make out two girls coming down the aisle. "Omigawd," I whispered. They were Kimberly and Yvonne, Mandy's best friends, and they lived in our neighborhood. "What'll we do?" It would be bad enough if they recognized me -- they'd be on Mandy's case about "Paul and his girlfriend" the next day, and it might be difficult for me to explain. It would be disastrous if they recognized Tammy.

"Put your arms around me and use me to hide your face," Tammy whispered back.

I did as she said, keeping one eye clear to watch Kim and Yvonne. I saw Kim giggle and say something to Yvonne. She looked at us and giggled too before they both slid into an empty seat.

"They just sat down," I whispered. "Four rows ahead."

Tammy relaxed her death grip slightly. "Do you think they recognized us?"

"No. They thought we were pretty funny, but I think that's all."

Tammy relaxed and sat back in her seat. "We probably were pretty funny. Keep an eye on them and grab me again if you see them start to move."

We plotted our strategy. Obviously, we couldn't get off the bus before Kim and Yvonne did. The only question was whether they'd get off at our stop or the one after it. We'd get off one stop after they did.

No one got off at our stop. Just beyond it, I saw Kim's hand go up to pull the signal cord, and Tammy and I went back into our clinch. The bus began to slow, and Yvonne and Kim stood up. They looked at us again, exchanged comments and giggles, and slipped out the exit door when the bus stopped.

As soon as the bus was once again in motion, Tammy pulled the signal cord. The bus went on for several more blocks before letting us out at the next stop. Any hope of riding the inbound bus back to our stop was dashed as it sailed by before we could get across the highway.

"What time is it?" Tammy asked.

I looked at my watch. "9:32."

"Oh, boy! I think it'll be half an hour until the next downtown bus."

"We can walk home in fifteen minutes."

"We could if my feet didn't hurt so much," Tammy said.

There was no alternative. We walked as rapidly as Tammy could manage. As we neared our house, I saw a truly terrifying sight.

Jerry's battered old Ford was parked at the curb.

*****

"Are they in the car?" Tammy asked.

"I can't tell from here."

"What are we going to do now?"

"You're going to wait here," I said. "I'm going to walk by the car. If anyone comes along, hide behind a tree or something. I'll wave to you if the coast is clear."

I crossed the highway and continued walking until I was directly across from Jerry's car. Then I re-crossed the road, looking for signs of life. There weren't any. I put my nose to the window -- there was no one inside. I waved to Tammy and she hurried to me, moving more rapidly than I'd thought she could. When she got to me, I grabbed her hand and pulled her into the back yard, behind the gazebo.

"Where are they?" she whispered.

"Beats me -- probably in the house."

"Oh, boy! Mandy will be in big trouble if Mom and Dad get home before Jerry leaves. They told her she couldn't have a boyfriend in unless one of them was home."

"She's in trouble?" I said. "We're in trouble. We can't get in the house."

Aalienna turned as always to Aardriick, anxiety written on her lovely face. "Oh, yeah. Got any ideas?"

"Maybe. I can go in and scope out the situation and see if you can get in the back door and upstairs without anyone seeing you."

Suddenly we heard the familiar grinding sound of our automatic garage door going up. Headlights swept across the side of our house as a car pulled into the driveway and continued into the garage.

"I don't think that will work," Tammy said.

We waited behind the gazebo in the chilly night air. We saw Dad and Mom go through the breezeway and enter the house through the back door. We saw lights come on. We heard voices raised, and we saw Jerry hurtle through the front door, jump into his car, and disappear into the night. It was almost funny, except…

"That gets everyone in a good mood for us, doesn't it?" Tammy said in a plaintive voice.

"Don't worry, Aalienna. Aardriick has a plan," I said. I explained it to her quickly.

*****

I sauntered through the front door, whistling cheerfully. Dad came storming out of the family room. "Where have you been, young man?" he snarled.

I let a look of what I hoped was bewildered innocence -- or innocent bewilderment -- appear on my face. "Matt and I took the bus to the Pizza Heaven," I said. "We decided to walk home. Why, it's not that late, is it? Is something wrong?"

I could hear Mom's voice in the family room. "If we've told you once, we've told you a hundred times -- no boys in the house unless…"

"Where's your brother?" Dad demanded.

"He's right behind me," I said. "He bumped into one of his buddies a few blocks back. They wanted to talk and I decided to come on home. He said he'd be another ten or fifteen minutes. Is that okay? Can I go to bed now?"

"Sure; go ahead. I'll see you in the morning." Dad went back into the family room and added his voice to Mom's. Poor Mandy…

I hurried upstairs. Several years earlier, Matt and I had developed an alternative transportation system, involving a big plastic bucket and a length of rope. I hoped the rope and bucket were still in our closet, and they were -- way in the back. I stuffed a pair of Matt's sneakers and a pair of his jeans into the bucket, opened the window, and lowered away. After a minute or so, I felt a tug on the rope and pulled the basket back up. It now contained Matt's wig, Mom's handbag, and Mandy's shoes and skirt. I dumped the bucket on Matt's bunk and sent it down again with his jacket and a box of tissues. It returned with Mom's jacket, the box of tissues, and a wad of stained tissues. I hoped he'd done a good job of removing his makeup.

*****

"That was a real blast, wasn't it?" Matt said. "I can't wait to go out again." He was pacing back and forth in the space between our beds.

"I can," I replied. I was in my bed, ready to call it a night, but he was still wound up.

"You enjoyed it, too -- admit it!"

"If you say so, half-brother."

"Let's see -- we've got to pick up that skirt at Marcella's…"

"We? Who's we? Come on -- I want to go to sleep."

"Okay, Paul, okay. But…I really do want to thank you. Honest. You were great. This was the most exciting night of my life, and I really couldn't have done it without you. Thanks."

"You're welcome, Matt. It was…sort of fun, I guess."

"Oh, my gosh!" Matt said. "I just noticed -- man, it's a good thing Dad came out to growl at you instead of Mom."

"What are you talking about?"

Matt grabbed a tissue, rubbed it against my neck, and showed it to me. There was a big pink smear on it. "It must have happened on the bus," he said. "A little souvenir from Tammy."

 

 

 

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2003 by Hebe Dotson. All Rights Reserved. These documents (including, without limitation, all articles, text, images, logos, compilation design) may printed for personal use only. No portion of these documents may be stored electronically, distributed electronically, or otherwise made available without express written consent of the copyright holder.