Bikini Beach: Midnight Swim

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Bikini Beach: Midnight Swim
ElrodW

There are a lot of stories about how the park changes people. This one is different, in that it also includes the park as a major part of the action. This one happens inside the park. Now, at long last, all the readers can get a taste of what the park is like inside.

Vicky Martin and some friends decide, on a lark, to scale the fence and go for a midnight swim in the Bikini Beach water park. The outcome is not quite what they expected.

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Bikini Beach: Midnight Swim

This story is copyright by the author. It is protected by licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

Mark turned away from the ticket booth, his face a mix of disgust and disappointment. Slowly, he trudged across the hot asphalt toward the car. He opened the door, frowning.

"Well?"

Mark Wilson shook his head as he slid into the seat. "No dice. It's way to expensive."

Bill Jennings leaned forward from the back seat. "It can't be that much," he protested. "

Mark turned his head. "You want to give up beer for the next month?"

Bill opened his mouth, then he thought better. "I guess we'll just drive down to the beach."

Hank Larson, behind the wheel, shook his head slowly. "Not me." A shudder coursed through his body. "It's getting to be some pretty rough turf," he said softly, as if speaking a dread secret. "Last weekend, a couple of the Phi Delt's got robbed and knifed, and one Epsilon girl was raped."

Bill cursed under his breath. "Damned gangs!" It was unfortunately true. A couple of rival gangs had laid claim to part of the beach, and their turf war was getting pretty ugly. So far, the police hadn't figured out how to deal with the threat. The most popular public beach was effectively closed.

Hank put the car in gear, easing toward the main road, dejected. Their plans had just evaporated. Now they had to figure out something else to do.

All three of the guys could be easily described as average. Medium height, medium build, average looks. Just three more college guys. The trio were also members of the Beta Sigma fraternity, which was just another average fraternity at another average college. And like so many fraternity men, these three were out looking for some weekend recreation. In particular, on this hot April day, they were looking for somewhere with water and women.

Given the situation at the beach, one of the older fraternity members had recommended Bikini Beach. But that, too, was out of the question. It was getting late in the semester, and funds were getting tight.

"Why don't we just drive up the coast?" Bill finally asked. "There are more public beaches around."

Hank shook his head. "You got gas money?" he asked sarcastically. They all knew the answer.

Mark sighed. "After seeing the ads, I was kind of looking forward to that water park. It looks like a lot of fun." He grinned. "And lots of babes."

Bill got a curious expression on his face, kind of a smug grin. Like he'd just thought of something. "You guys really set on that water park?" he asked.

Hank tilted his head. "We can't afford tickets," he said.

Bill's grin broadened. "I've got an idea."

**********

The pickup pulled off the road into the field, the lights switching off almost immediately. Slowly, it pulled forward toward a small cluster of trees. The brake lights betrayed its position as it came to a halt, then the lights went out, leaving the pickup all but hidden. Only the dim light of the full moon reflecting off the chrome and glass, faint little glints of light against the black silhouette of the clump of trees, themselves faintly outlined against the deep blue sky studded with tiny twinkling jewels.

The dome light blinked on as the doors opened, briefly illuminating the three occupants of the cab and the two others crawling from the pickup bed. Then, with a solid plunk, the doors shut, once again plunging the meadow into near darkness.

Hushed whispers and the rustle of grass being trampled underfoot accompanied the five shadowy figures as they walked toward the looming black wall.

"Holy shit," a voice, Mark's voice, said. "How are we going to get over that?" He stood near the towering privacy fence, seemingly higher in the darkness than its sixteen feet height.

Another voice, this one female. "You didn't say anything about climbing," she complained.

One of the figures took off a backpack. "Not a problem, guys," Bill whispered with a certain smugness. "Not a problem." After a moment's rummaging in the pack, he quickly extracted a strange coil of rope and tubes. He walked over to the fence, gazing upward toward the top. "It might be a little higher than I thought, but we're still okay."

The girl looked at him, puzzled. "What the hell is that?"

Bill's grin was lost in the shadows. "The emergency fire escape ladders from the house." He pointed at the wall. "You guys boost me up, and I'll hook one over the fence. Then we climb up. Just like a ladder." He glanced around. "Come on, guys. Let's do it."

Hank and Mark glanced at each other and shrugged. Hank backed against the wall, cupping his hands. Bill stepped into them, then Mark helped hoist Bill up onto Hank's shoulders.

"Push me higher," Bill said, standing atop Hank's shoulders, his arms reaching upward but still several feet short of the top.

Mark and the other guy, a fraternity brother named Norm, grasped Bill's feet and pushed them upward, stretching their arms as they hoisted the load.

"Still a bit short," Bill hissed from above.

Mark frowned. "That's as high as we can go," he complained.

"Okay, I'm going to try to toss it," Bill finally said. The ground-bound group heard some clinking of the tubes, followed by a loud clattering. At the same time, Bill's weight shifted around violently; Mark and Norm struggled desperately to keep him balanced. They heard Bill curse. "Missed." His weight shifted slightly as he clinked the tubes some more. "Okay, keep me steady."

Another toss, this one more wild than the first. Mark couldn't hold; Bill tumbled to the ground atop Norm. The trio scrambled back to their feet. Bill glanced at the wall. "Woo, hoo!" he nearly shouted. "Got it!"

Indeed, the ladder was hanging from the wall. But it was not so rosy as Bill seemed to think. One hook caught, leaving the ladder dangling awkwardly. And it was nearly four feet above the ground.

Bill slipped on his backpack and grasped the ladder. "Okay, I'll climb up and straighten it up."

Hank looked a bit disgusted. "And how do we get down on the other side? Jump and break our legs?"

The girl spoke up. "Or get out? Hmmm? How do we get out if the ladder is on this side?"

Bill grinned. "Vicky, have I ever let you down?" He ignored her vigorous nods. "I've got another ladder in the backpack." With a grin, he shinnied up the ladder. A few seconds later, the ladder jiggled and straightened. Then another clatter was heard, another ladder dropping down on the far side of the wall. "Okay, we're in!" Bill whispered triumphantly.

Quickly, the remaining four students climbed up the ladder, struggling a bit with the first high step, but within minutes, all four were inside the park, laughing and joking at their adventure.

**********

Something interrupted Anya's dream - a very tenuous feeling. And yet, Anya felt like she could almost touch whatever she was sensing. She bolted upright in bed, her eyes wide. Whatever it was, the feeling was still there — barely. She slid out of bed and padded slowly to the terrace doors. Not really knowing why, she brushed aside the curtain and slid open the patio door.

The summer night was warmer than her air-conditioned condo, but not so warm that it was uncomfortable standing in her silk night shirt. A gentle breeze invigorated her as she stood on the balcony, gazing intently from her eighth-floor perch to the water park next door. Overhead, the moon shone brilliantly, casting its full light on the dark earth — just enough to turn night into an eerie shadowy world.

Anya peered at the park again, her eyes narrowed as if to focus on tiny details in the dim light. She could see nothing, but there was still the sense that something was wrong.

**********

Laughing, Hank leaped as high as he could from the water, turning so that he landed like a broaching whale, sending a cascade of water on Vicky and Norm. They flinched from the water, and as soon as Hank surfaced, they both began to splash him, scooping water with their hands.

Bill swam lazily across the lagoon, doing a relaxed breast stroke. "If I didn't know better," he said with a grin, "I'd swear I was on a tropical island." He let his mind wander. "This is great! The water feels so ... good!"

Norm turned toward him. "Yeah, man. I know what you're talking about. It's like ... it's full of energy or something."

Vicky splashed Norm. "What are you guys talking about? It's just like any other pool." She turned back to Hank. "But it _is_ like a tropical paradise." Her voice sounded romantic, dreamy, as she let herself drift into the artificial world of the park's theme. All around the lagoon, black silhouettes of palm trees stood in faint contrast to the sky. "I bet this place is a dream during the day," she said, her voice filled with admiration for the landscape.

Hank turned away from the splashing. "Yeah, this is great!" he said enthusiastically. "They sure named this place right."

Mark stood abruptly and began to wade out of the water, toward the white sand. "I don't know about you guys, but I'm getting bored. I want some action."

Norm frowned. "What do you expect to do? This place is closed, man."

"Yeah. It's not like they're going to turn everything on for us." Bill added.

Mark shook his head. "The sign shows some kind of paddle boat lagoon."

"I think we walked past it. I think it's over by the ladders," Vicky observed.

"So let's go check it out," Norm said with a grin. The five splashed their way out of the pool, then, still laughing and joking, walked across the white sand to the dark pathway. Though it was the middle of the night, the bright moon gave the group just enough light to walk comfortably on the paths.

Norm stopped at a sign, tracing where he thought they were. Like nearly everything else on the "South Seas Adventure" part of the park, the sign was crafted to look as if it were made from coconut and bamboo. Another small but important detail in how the park created its illusion.

As Norm turned away from the map, he staggered, as if he'd lost his balance. He laughed, more to reassure himself than the others. "Must have lost my footing. Easy to do in the dark." As they continued along the path, Hank, following Norm, frowned. Norm seemed to be staggering a bit as he walked. Staggering — or swaying. Hank shook his head, knowing that he just had to be imagining things.

The paddleboat lagoon was dark and silent, moonlight reflecting off the rippling waters. Norm was the first down the pier, bending over to check out the paddle boats. He straightened, and everyone could see from his shadow that he was disappointed. "No luck," he said. "They're locked down." He stomped back down the pier.

"So now what?" Bill asked, his voice carrying a hint of frustration. He saw that Vicky was staring at him curiously. "What?"

Vicky frowned. "I don't know," she said. She sounded a bit confused. "It's just that you seem, well, shorter."

Bill stared at her in disbelief for a long second, and then threw back his head and laughed. "I told you to take it easy on the beer."

Vicky's frown deepened. It wasn't the beer, she told herself. Something was different.

"Hey, guys," Mark finally chimed in. "I've got an idea."

**********

"I don't know about this," Hank said. He sounded worried. "Sneaking into the park is one thing. But this?"

"Nah," Mark said reassuringly. "Not a problem!" He jiggled the door handle again, and felt the lock release. "Voila!" he said in triumph as the door swung open. "Instant fun."

The two boys stepped into the pitch black of the number two pump house. Almost immediately, Hank let out a yelp as he stubbed his toe against something. "Damn!"

Mark reached behind him and slid the door shut, blocking what little moonlight came inside. He fumbled around the door for a moment. "Ah, here!" he said. With an audible click, a single light bulb snapped to life.

Hank shielded his eyes from the bright bulb. "Turn that thing off!" he cried. "Someone will see it!"

Mark ignored him, turning his attention instead to the row of huge pump motors. He scanned them, and then glanced around the interior walls, past the racks of tools, spare parts, and fittings. His gaze finally came to rest on the breaker box. "Jackpot," he said, more to himself than to Norm. Mark started reading the faint lettering. "Let's see. Lava Run. Pele's Race. Polynesian Plunge. Pipeline. Wild Luau. Outrigger." Six labels, six large switches, six pump motors. He turned to Hank. "Pick ‘em, buddy."

Hank shook his head. He was way past nervous. "Just turn on a couple and let's get out of here."

Mark turned, and snapped four switches. The audible hum of the motors immediately filled the room as they began their task of recirculating hundreds of gallons of water every second, supplying the enormous volumes required by the rides. He stepped back to the door and flipped off the light.

The darkness was sudden and total. Hank shook his head as the two slipped back out into the moonlight. Maybe it was his nerves, or maybe it was the change in light, but he could have sworn that Mark's hair was longer.

**********

Anya sat upright in bed again. This time, the feeling was more real. She closed her eyes, concentrating for a few seconds, and then she turned on her reading lamp. Her fingers danced across the numbers on her telephone even as she lifted the receiver to her ear. She waited for only a second. "Hi, grandmother? It's me." A short pause. "Yes, I woke up, too." Another pause. "Uh huh. I think something's going on over there." A longer pause as she listened intently. "Okay, I'll call Jenny. We'll meet you at the office in, oh, half an hour?" She used her finger to disconnect the call, and quickly began another.

**********

Vicky giggled as she rode the mat down the hill. A thin cushion of water carried the mat, first down steeply, then up over a bump, then down again. Another rise lifted her, and then she began the steep slide down the final section. Finally, after a thrilling few seconds, the track leveled and she began to slow down.

Laughing with delight, she picked up the toboggan-shaped mat and danced across the other lanes, meeting the guys as they, too, carried their mats off Pele's Race.

"Let's do that again," Vicky said eagerly as they began the climb back to the top. The race course was set on the side of a fake mountain — or volcano, as Mark suggested. They hiked up the trail, amid the coconut trees and bamboo, winding back and forth up the steeper parts, until the path cut across the mountain. Overhead, the artificial volcano towered, a black peak cutting into the sky. Vicky found herself wondering once again what this place looked like in broad daylight.

Bill was lagging far behind as they neared the top. The trail split off; they'd explored most of the paths. Outrigger Canoes, they'd discovered, was a two-person raft ride. Unfortunately, it wasn't one of the rides they'd turned on. Next came the Pele's Race that they'd just been down. Vicky and Bill carried their mats to the starting line.

"You go on. I want to try the Lava Run," Norm said cheerfully. "Meet you at the bottom."

"Wait up, I'm coming with you," Hank said to Norm. Bill joined in, and the three headed down the path toward the ride.

Their first trip to the top had revealed that Lava Run was one of the rides Mark had turned on. It was another mat ride, but instead of a straight race course, this one was a slalom ride, weaving a wild ride to the bottom. Or so the guys hoped.

Three lanes. Perfect, Mark thought. He laid his mat down and flopped on it. On either side, Norm and Hank did the same. Mark glanced as Norm pushed off, and then turned to the other side. He saw Hank sliding past him. With haste, Mark shoved himself forward, eager to make up the lost time and try to win.

With a huge splash, Mark and his mat slid into the pool at the bottom. He bubbled to the surface, feeling the water running off his head and down his back, while he tugged his mat out of the steady stream of water coming down the ride. Grinning, he pushed his way through the water to the steps. Hank and Norm were waiting for him. Like all the other rides and pools, the water seemed alive with a peculiar energy that seemed to soothe and relax the boys.

"Go again, or should we try something else?" Hank asked eagerly.

Mark thought. "Let's see what else there is. But let's take these back up. Just in case." They'd already had one trip up the mountain, and then back down, as they discovered they needed mats - and the mats were at the bottom. None of them wanted to repeat the experience.

Hank trudged up the pathway. For a brief second, Mark frowned as he watched Hank walking away. Something seemed a bit odd. But he couldn't quite place his finger on it. Shrugging to himself, he followed his friends.

**********

As they neared the top, Mark decided to try something else, while Norm and Hank settled on repeating the Lava Run. The two heard Vicky and Bill getting ready to ride Pele's Race yet again, and they left Mark at the path that led to their ride.

Mark felt suddenly nervous. He was alone, it was dark, and he was in a strange park. Around him, the sound of water bubbling and splashing seemed to be amplified, until in Mark's imagination, the sound could be heard for miles.

He turned down the path toward the Polynesian Plunge. At the head of the ride, Mark saw a pile of inner-tube type rafts. He dropped the mat and picked up a tube. Around him, he saw shadowy figures of Tiki statues, staring in silent witness to his deeds. In his mind, they were coming to life, staring accusingly at him, closing in around him in their silent indictment of his trespass. Gulping, Mark sat down on the raft and pushed himself hurriedly down the twisting fiberglass channel.

As he bounced and twisted, Mark became slowly aware of strange feelings. His chest seemed a little heavy, and there was a curious tugging as the tube dipped down the ride. And as he slid down the track, something wet flopped around his shoulders and back.

The tube splashed into the catch pool, ending the wild ride. Mark discounted the strange sensations and the earlier nightmarish fears, instead grinning with exhilaration as he slid from the tube. He was momentarily startled by the depth of this pond, which threw him off balance for a moment as he tried to corral his tube. Then, with the tube safely in tow, Mark started sloshing across the pond to the exit steps. And then he froze.

"I hope you enjoyed the ride, Mr. Jennings." A pair of shadowy figures stood directly in his path, blocking his exit. One was shorter and broader than the other, but both were clearly women.

Mark's mind raced. Shit! I got caught! He dropped the tube and spun, hoping to shoulder his way past the women. The shorter woman had other ideas, though. She grabbed his arm with a surprising strength, her fingers biting painfully into his flesh. He twisted and yanked, but couldn't tear free of the woman's iron grasp. Mark resigned himself to his fate. But he could still spare the others. "Busted!" he screamed at the top of his voice, his fraternity's code word for having been caught. And even as the word came out, Mark's eyes widened at the sound echoing in his ears.

**********

Norm heard the scream just as he started down the Lava Run. Behind him, Bill was still carrying his mat. Norm's ears perked up at the sound. It sounded like ‘Busted', which meant trouble. And yet, it didn't sound like any of the guys. Norm's senses went to full alert. Right now, there wasn't anything he could do, at least not until he got to the bottom of this ride.

He splashed into the pool, already scanning the surrounding area for signs of whatever trouble had caused someone to scream the code word. The mat drifted idly on the surface as Norm waded slowly, cautiously, toward the exit, his eyes peering intently into the dimly lit surroundings. Behind him, the gush of water down the twisting chute slowed to a trickle, its loud splash hushing almost immediately. Within moments, all that was left was a faint burbling as the remaining water dripped into the catch pond. The silence was nearly total. To Norm, every step he took made the water swish and splash louder than cannon fire, threatening to betray his location. And yet, standing as he was in the knee-deep water, he was brightly silhouetted, an easy target to spot. His heart racing, Norm splashed quickly to the exit.

Noise. Some people were coming down the main path. Norm held his breath in fear. A beam of light stabbed through the night, falling on the path, illuminating the walkway. Norm ducked behind some shrubs, shrinking as close to the ground as he possibly could. Through tiny gaps in the underbrush, he spotted the light bobbing along. His heart raced as he watched the two walking along — an older stout-looking woman clutching someone by the arm, half dragging him along with her.

And then Norm's eyes widened. He saw the shadowy figure more clearly. It wasn't a guy. It was a girl! Vicky! That was his first thought. The old woman had caught Vicky. But that didn't make any sense. The voice had come from his left, from where Mark had gone. Still, the woman was dragging a girl. There was no mistaking the dim outlines of long hair draping to her shoulders. None but a blind man would mistake the faint curves for anything but breasts.

Norm cowered lower behind the bushes. The light swung his way and seemed to dwell on his hiding place. He held his breath, afraid to move or make even the tiniest sound, his eyes closed lest the whites of his pupils give him away. Finally, the light moved on. He cautiously let out his breath.

Norm rose slowly to a crouch, then, as the sounds faded down the pathway, he stood. Cautiously, he edged toward the path. He peered down the walk after the light. Satisfied that the two were out of sight, Norm began to creep the opposite direction. He figured he'd circle around, and then make a dash for the ladder and freedom.

Ahead of him, a door closed with an audible thunk, sending Norm nearly out of his skin. After a moment, he realized the sound had come from the direction of the pump house. Heart pounding, Norm scooted between some bushes, off the path, even as he heard footsteps slowly approaching. With haste, but still trying desperately to be quiet, Norm threaded his way through the bushes and shrubs, flinching as the branches and leaves scraped painfully against his chest.

On the pathway, a shadowy figure of a lady stopped, her head tilted slightly. Slowly, her head rotated, her ears alert for whatever sounds had made her pause. Norm felt terror grip him as he felt certain that the girl was looking right at him. For an agonizingly long moment, she seemed to stare at him. Then to his relief, she resumed her journey.

**********

"Jenny, check out the pump house," Anya directed to her companion. Her eyes were alert, darting rapidly back and forth along the path, into the landscaping.

The other girl nodded. "Right. Those bastards better not have ruined any of my pumps." She stepped through a small gate, past the sign reading ‘Employees only' - a sign that the intruders had quite obviously ignored.

Anya watched Jenny for a moment, and then looked up the volcano. She seemed to sense something. Her jaw clenched in determination, and she began a quick ascent up the steep path.

**********

Bill's mat fell with a wet flop to the starting pond of the Lava Run. He heard the scream, and now he heard voices. They were far enough away that he couldn't make out much, especially with the gurgling of the water. He backed out of the shallow pool. Facing the direction of the voices, he backed out to the main pathway. Glancing occasionally over his shoulder to avoid straying from the path, he continued to back his way down the path. Someone had been caught. But he wasn't going to be stupid enough to join them from some misguided sense of loyalty. Time to get out of the park.

Something made Bill glance down at the path. He gasped at the wet impressions on the cool concrete, outlines of his feet left as a trail for whoever was following him. Bill felt a surge of panic. He turned and fled across the volcano, his feet slapping the concrete with a faint but distinct pat-pat sound.

He glanced over his shoulder yet again. Behind him, he saw a beam of light stabbing through the darkness, dancing and weaving among the shrubs and trees and path. He was being pursued! Bill turned to flee.

He was at a fork. Two paths led away — the path he knew would take him down to the base of the volcano and the rides they'd been using, and the other path. It took only milliseconds for Bill to make his choice. Someone had been caught — at the base of the volcano. That's where the scream had come from. That's where the voices were. If he went down the left-hand path, he might stumble right into someone and be caught. He turned to the right, beginning a steep zig-zag descent from the mountain. The surrounding foilage and décor of the park changed abruptly; the coconut trees and bamboo vanished, replaced by pine and oak trees. The bamboo fence was no more; an old-fashioned split-rail fence now lined the path. Overhead, unseen to Bill, a sign hung, announcing "Wild River Fun."

**********

Vicky, still lying on the mat at the base of Pele's Race, heard the scream, and turned to Hank. She looked totally baffled — it had seemed to her like a woman's cry.

Hank had risen to his knees when the cry sounded. He froze momentarily, and then turned to Vicky. "Let's get out of here," he whispered insistently. He scrambled to his feet and began to run toward the main path.

Behind him, Vicky was a bit slower to rise. She tripped on her mat and sprawled back down. As she picked herself up again, she saw Hank's shadowy figure disappear into the shadows of the shrubbery.

Vicky felt a bit of panic. The guys were abandoning her. It was a free-for-all, every person for him or herself. It was up to her to escape. She stood again and stepped quickly toward the main path.

She saw a flashlight bobbing, heard voices. She backed quickly into the shadows as the figures walked noisily by, a large stout woman clutching a — Vicky suppressed a gasp — a young woman by the arm. There was no mistaking the silhouette — it was a girl. Vicky frowned, confused. Had someone else decided to use the park after dark?

The figures receded into the distance, around a corner and hidden from view. Vicky stepped out to the path, her neck craning as she peered intently into the shadows. "Hank!" she hissed. "Hank! Where are you?" She glanced around some more. After a few seconds, she decided that he was long gone. Vicky stepped quickly, walking as quietly as she could, and followed the figures down the path. She had to follow them to get to the ladders, to her escape.

She came to a fork in the path. Ahead, to the left, the light bobbed toward what she knew must be the offices and entrance area. To her right, lay the path to freedom, to the ladder. Vicky turned and hastened toward an escape.

The path, Vicky knew, led toward the paddleboat pool. Just before she got there, off to her left, the ladders hung on the wall. But with the adrenaline pumping through her veins, Vicky thought she'd gone further than she actually had. She saw a path to the left, and turned.

Ahead of her, dimly lit and sticking up from a glistening pool of water, the shadow of a fairy-tale castle jutted skyward. For the shortest moment, Vicky stood, entranced, gazing at the almost-magical scene. She imagined, for a brief second, the castle in the daytime, glittering with gold, its brightly colored pennants fluttering in the breeze, herself a princess near her court.

Behind her, Vicky heard footsteps on the path. She spun, the magical moment shattered by the sound. She glimpsed the flashlight behind her. Her heart leaped; she'd taken the wrong path, and now she was trapped. Vicky turned back to the castle, a plan forming in her mind. She stepped through the shallow wading pool, her footsteps leaving ripples flickering in the moonlight. She climbed up into the structure, ducked through a short door, and found herself in a small chamber. Tiny slits of windows peered out over the pond and its surroudings. A few steps led to an opening, a slide down into the pond. Vicky realized that this was part of a kid's play area.

The flashlight drew nearer, its beam splaying against the structure, tiny slivers of light piercing the inner darkness. Vicky held her breath, pressing herself firmly against the wall, fearful of being discovered.

"You might as well come out, Vicky," a woman's voice called to her. "I know you're in there."

Vicky gasped as the woman called her by name. How ... unless someone else had been caught and had squealed. She sank lower. The woman had to be bluffing.

"I'm not bluffing, Vicky," the old woman answered as if she could read Vicky's thoughts. "Please come out before I have to summon the authorities."

Vicky felt herself losing control. She stifled a sob as she realized what would happen if the police got involved. After a little joy-riding incident in high school, she'd ended up on probation. If she kept her nose clean for another year, the record would be wiped. Deferred adjudication, the judge had called it. But now, she was being caught. Trespassing. And probably more. She'd be stuck with a criminal record. Trembling with fear, Vicky slowly walked out of the castle, toward the waiting woman.

**********

Hank eased into the lagoon. They wouldn't think to look for him here, he reasoned. Not with the rides running. Maybe they'd overlook him, and after a while, he could slip quietly out. For a couple of minutes, he crouched in the water, listening as he heard the old woman walk loudly by, then as Vicky followed. The sound of the water lapping at his neck soothed Hank, seeming to reassure him that all would be fine if he would just be patient.

Glittering ripples danced across the surface of the lagoon, surrounding the head that stuck above the water. Hank was letting himself be hypnotized by the tranquil scene, deadened to his precarious situation. He was still stuck in the park, hunted by at least two people, trespassing on private property. Big trouble if he got caught.

As that idea pushed rudely into Hank's train of thought, he suddenly realized just how stupid his ‘hiding place' was. The shadow of his head contrasted sharply with the moonlit ripples. He'd been stupid to try to hide here.

Cautiously, chiding himself as he did so, Hank eased himself toward the shore, staying as low in the water as he possibly could. His ears were alert to any sound, any hint of trouble. He paused at the water's edge, and then made a quick dash across the beach to the shadows of the coconut trees. He glanced over his shoulder, and saw that his footprints were mingled among those of the group's earlier play.

At the same time, peculiar little bits of data, feedback from his body, was filed into the recesses of his brain, saved for when his mind could ponder them. The awkwardness of his little sprint, like his balance was wrong, giving rise to a distinct sway in his motion. The wet locks slapping at his neck and shoulders. The tugging on his pectoral muscles. Hank didn't have time to process any of this strange data. He had escape on his mind.

**********

Bill barely noticed the rustic back-wood theme around him; the split-rail fence lining the walkways, the towering pines, the rustic signs. He scurried along the path, glancing occasionally over his shoulder, his feet slapping on the cool concrete. To his ears, the faint pitter-patter was deafening, betraying his location. The flashlight was still behind him, steadily and inexorably following his tracks. Bill turned, taking a moment to reach up and flick the hair from his face.

The path split. To the left, a wooden bridge crossed a waterway, a wide river-like raft ride obviously designed for a gentle unhurried tour around the area. Across the bridge, Bill couldn't see much through the landscaping.

He turned to the right. More underbrush hid his view. Bill stepped quickly away from the bridge.

He halted in his tracks. A wide white sand area, dotted with beach chairs, surrounded a rectangular pool. Stretched across the middle of the pool was a volleyball net. There was no place to hide in this area. He turned slowly around. A large pavilion, full of picnic tables, gave little cover either.

Bill dashed back toward the bridge, away from the dead-end. He glanced to his left, and saw the light, much closer now.

**********

Anya walked steadily on. Her flashlight danced across the path, more to prevent her tripping on some unseen obstacle than to follow the still-wet footprints on the concrete. A thin smile graced her lips as she pursued the young man.

**********

Norm twirled and turned as he threaded his way through the hut. A long Polynesian-style hut with a thatched roof, it was a pavilion for outdoor events, filled with small low tables on the sand floor.

"Hey, you!"

Norm spun, startled. A woman was staring at him from across the pavilion. He spun and darted between the tables, exiting the hall. His steps carried him between bushes, and he clutched reflexively at his chest as the bushes scraped him. Norm's eyes widened as his arm clamped across his chest.

Still followed by the woman, Norm dashed across the volleyball court, scuffing up the neatly-raked sand. He glanced over his shoulder, and gasped. The woman was following him, and gaining.

Norm turned, dropping his hand, and he plunged through the bushes. A tiny cry of pain slipped through his lips as he stumbled, tripping on a low shrub, sprawling on another hard concrete pathway.

Norm twisted on the ground, trying to get his arms beneath him so as to lever himself back up. He heard the footsteps nearing, and his mind raced in terror. He glanced up over his shoulder.

The young woman reached down and grasped his arm firmly. Norm heard a gasp of surprise escape his lips at the woman's strength, a faint high-pitched sound that surprised him even as the woman pulled him to his feet.

**********

Hank ducked into the brush as the sound approached. From his hidden vantage point, he saw the old woman escorting Vicky back up the path.

When the pair were safely out of sight, Hank paused to listen, then stepped back onto the path. His feet danced along the concrete as he trotted toward the wall, the ladders, and freedom.

Hank ignored the awkwardness of his gait, the swaying feeling he got with every step. Hank ignored the heaviness in his chest, discounting it as being out of breath from his panicked run. He neared the paddleboat lagoon, and turned into the brush.

The feeling of the brush scraping his chest alarmed Hank. It hurt. It really, really hurt, as if every nerve on his chest were alive and hyper-sensitive. But Hank ignored it. The ladder was near. He stumbled again, catching himself at the last moment. The wall drew nearer, looming like an ebony shadow against the night sky.

Hank saw the crushed foilage on the ground, the spot where the group had earlier entered the park. He looked up, scanning the wall for the ladder.

Hank gasped in surprise. The faint, soft, high-pitched cry startled him even as he frantically searched the wall. He felt the wall, prying with his hands, as if his eyes might be deceiving him. But his hands confirmed what his eyes had seen — the ladder was gone. Hank sank to his knees, still staring up at the impossibly high wall. Without the ladder, he was truly trapped.

**********

Without realizing it, Bill passed the Old Swimming Hole. He glanced again and again over his shoulder, watching the bobbing flashlight. His pursuer was still there, still following slowly but doggedly. Bill turned, and saw the shadowy building ahead of him. He leaned against it for a moment to catch his breath; Bill was surprised at how short of breath he was. He wasn't running a race or anything, and he'd kept active in intramural sports. So why did he stand here panting?

After a few seconds, Bill pushed himself off the building. He glanced around. There were three paths he could take. Bill stayed on the center one. Ahead, he could see a low crescent-shaped hill rising up. He hoped he was heading in the general direction of the ladder, but he was no longer certain. In the strange place, in the dim moonlight, being chased, Bill had lost his sense of direction.

The ground sloped up gradually, and Bill felt his legs weakening. He urged himself onward, still climbing, until the path switched to a sharp zig-zag up a steep part of the hill. Above him, pine trees towered, blotting out the moon. Bill paused, glancing back.

From the added height, Bill could see the flashlight still pursuing him. He guessed that whoever carried it was only fifty or sixty yards back. Bill turned, resuming his climb. He took a deep breath, frowning at the strange heaviness of his chest. But there were more serious matters than a little discomfort. He reached the summit.

The path split, to his left and right, along the peak of the hill. Bill felt a twinge of alarm. They hadn't explored this part of the park. Either path could easily dead-end, leaving him trapped by his pursuer. He closed his eyes and mentally flipped a coin. To his left. With his feet slapping softly against the path, he hastened away from his determined foe.

Another branch in the path, this time to the right. Bill didn't even think — he rushed straight ahead. The path seemed to parallel the summit of the hill. The view of the surrounding park would have been spectacular, but for two things. First, it was very dark, and everything was a nearly indistinguishable shade of gray. Second, and more importantly, Bill was being chased and didn't have time to glance around.

Bill turned the last corner, and realized with a sickening feeling that he'd picked a dead end. There was an area for a line, and then a starting pond for a ride. Nothing more. No other ways to go. Bill turned back, to retrace his steps.

The flashlight bobbed a scant twenty yards away, drawing closer with every second. Bill turned back, frantically searching for an escape, any way out. He glanced back. Ten yards. The beam of light caught his face. He turned back to the ride. A channel of fiberglass twisted down the hill, bending and turning. And dry. Bill gave one last glance over his shoulder, then leaped down into the channel. He struggled to keep his balance as he ran, grateful that it wasn't wet.

It was a small puddle. In one area where the channel nearly leveled out, at a seam in the fiberglass sections, a small depression didn't drain completely. Through sheer bad luck, Bill stepped into the wet spot. On the next step, as he tried to negotiate a curve, his bare foot slipped on the fiberglass, shooting from under him.

As his body hurtled through the air, his arms flailing for some handhold, Bill saw the world spinning around him. He saw the long strands of hair flopping in his face, obstructing his vision. He felt the heaviness swaying and jiggling on his chest, a foreign feeling that only now was he paying attention to.

And then he hit. His head smacked heavily against the rim of the channel, and the world went black.

**********

Hank pried himself off his rear. After discovering that the ladder was missing, he sank against the wall, sliding down the concrete barrier until he was sitting on the ground. Despair threatened to overwhelm him. They were trapped in this park, with no way out, and the owner and who knows who else were hunting them. He wanted to cry, and felt ashamed that this situation would bring him to tears. After all, he was a guy, and guys don't cry. At least, that's what he kept telling himself. But still the tears leaked out.

After a few minutes, Hank seemed to regain some composure. He glanced around. If he couldn't get out, then surely there were places he could hide until the park opened. And once that happened, he could easily mingle with the crowd and slip out like a normal customer. Hank's resolve returned.

**********

Bill's eyes opened slowly, and immediately slammed shut again, flinching from the light. His hand lifted slowly to block the beam as he tried to turn away from the bright light. That was a mistake, he quickly learned; pain seemed to explode in his head and neck. Cautiously, Bill opened his eyes again, this time managing to keep them open.

As the pain lessened, Bill's mind slowly began to reassert control. He began to take stock of his situation. His head throbbed, a searing series of pain pulses, mostly on the left side behind his ear. That must be where he'd hit the wall. His left wrist ached, but he experimentally moved it. Just sprained, he determined. No breaks. His hip had a dull ache; he must have landed on it when he fell. Apart from the massive headache, Bill considered himself lucky.

"Are you okay?" The voice was soft, melodious, and genuinely concerned. "You had a nasty fall."

Bill started to nod, then changed his mind abruptly. "I think so," he said carefully. "Mostly my head."

The flashlight beam moved, toward the side of Bill's head. The girl, and it was now obvious that it was a girl, crouched down, carefully examining the point of impact. Her fingers probed tenderly at Bill's head. "Well, somehow you managed to avoid breaking anything," she finally said. "Just a bad bump. No concussion."

The diagnosis sank in, flooding Bill with relief. Then his eyes snapped open. "How..."

The girl smiled. Even in the moonlight, Bill could see her pretty smile. "A little something I learned."

EMT. Some type of paramedic or something. That was the answer to Bill's unfinished question. He let his eyes drift shut again.

"Let's get you up and go to the office. Grandmother is waiting for us."

Bill's eyes opened again. He'd been caught, and now it was time to face the music. With the girl helping, Bill stood slowly to his feet.

The girl was tall; Bill had to look up a bit at her. He frowned. But some of that was obviously because they were standing on a hill. Yeah, that was it. And he was standing lower. Cautiously, Bill stepped forward, guided by the flashlight beam so as to avoid another puddle. His steps were halting, however, not just because he feared another puddle, but also because his hip hurt, and that was really throwing off his sense of balance. With every step, a new pulse of pain reverberated through his head, distracting him from the heavy, bouncy sensation on his chest.

"By the way, I'm Anya," the girl said as they walked. With one hand, she held the flashlight, illuminating their path. With the other, she held Bill's arm tightly.

Bill sighed. Just his luck. If it were any other circumstances, he'd try to get a date with this girl. "I'm ..."

"Bill," the girl finished with a grin. She watched Bill's reaction, the shock on his face as she revealed that she already knew his name. And then she got a really curious smile. "And no, I don't think you'll be in any shape to ask me out for a while."

**********

Hank stood at the intersection for a few seconds, pondering. The path to his left is where he'd come from. And the office was over that way. Which meant the best place to hide was probably the other path. He stepped quickly down the path.

Within a few yards, he came to a bridge. Even in the dim light, he could see the channel on either side of the bridge, an artificial river designed for lazy rafting. For a brief moment, he regretted that he hadn't come during the daytime, when he could really enjoy the park. But they'd made their choice.

Hank saw the flashlight bobbing on the hill ahead of him before he heard any noise. He glanced around, and immediately realized that he had nowhere to run. Hank backed into the bridge, and he spun, startled. He glared at the river. Then, slowly, a grin crept across his face. He scaled the railing of the bridge, then lowered himself carefully into the water. As the flashlight approached, Hank slipped under the bridge, crouching in the waist-deep water to minimize how much he was exposed.

**********
Anya led Bill into the office. The others weren't here; just an old woman sitting behind her desk, a frown on her face as she steepled her fingers before her face. "Sit," she ordered.

Bill knew he had no choice but to obey. He slid into a chair silently.

"There's still one more, Grandmother," Anya said softly.

The old woman didn't look up from glaring at Bill. "He's under the bridge on Old Man River. By the path ..."

Anya smiled. "By the Junior Lifeguard Academy." She grinned broadly. "I thought so." She gave Bill a wink. "We walked right over him." Without another word, she turned and left the office.

The old woman continued to glare at Bill until he was squirming in his chair. "Now what are we going to do with you?" she asked softly, rhetorically. Bill felt a shiver of fear run up his spine.

**********

Hank felt a stab of panic as the flashlight beam swept across the water, just a few feet from his hiding place. His heart pounded with fear of being discovered. The light moved suddenly, its bright beam appearing on the other side of the bridge. Hank suppressed a gasp; he'd been subconsciously backing away from the light, and had nearly left the protection of the bridge. Now that the light had shifted, he found himself nearly exposed. Moving as silently as possible, he moved back to what he hoped was the center of the bridge.

The beam shifted a few more times, back and forth to either side of the bridge, sweeping the still waters over and over. Finally, a girl's voice called out. "Henry," the soft voice spoke, "No, wait. You prefer Hank, don't you. Hank, let's stop this silly game."

Hank gasped softly. How could this girl know his name, let alone where he was? Uncertainty clouded his mind; what could he do?

"Hank," the girl said calmly, "Grandmother is waiting for us. If you don't come now, I'm afraid she'll call the police. Or worse."

Fear of police involvement made up Hank's mind. He slowly slipped out from under the bridge. "Okay," he said in a defeated tone. "I don't have much choice, do I?"

The girl smiled as Hank emerged. "No, you don't." She pointed with her flashlight; Hank saw the path to a shallow area designed for entering and leaving the river. He waded up onto solid ground, feeling unsteady.

As he stood, dripping, next to the tall girl, Hank's curiosity got the better of him. "How did you know where I was? And my name?"

The girl smiled. "Magic," she said nonchalantly.

Hank's jaw dropped open in disbelief for a moment, then he closed it. "Yeah, right!" he snorted.

Anya smiled pleasantly, then turned the flashlight directly at Hank. His eyes tracked the beam of light as it hit his body. He saw — and couldn't stop the scream from escaping his lips.

**********

Anya led Hank into the office building. Four others sat in chairs, three of whom were staring at the floor in embarrassment. Hank recognized Vicky, and immediately dropped his gaze in shame, afraid to meet her gaze. Without looking up, feeling himself flushed, he slid into a chair. Like the others, he lifted his hands to cover himself.

He glanced from the corner of his eye around the room, afraid to make eye contact with anyone. Four girls. Unless you counted him. Vicky he clearly recognized. She was unchanged. She sat in her chair stiffly; something had her very worried. But the others?

Bill held an ice pack against his head. Her head. Long straight locks of brunette hair flowed around the ice pack, down to soft feminine shoulders, some spilling down the front, partially covering the round full breasts on Bill's chest. His — her — waist was narrowed, devoid of the washboard abs that Bill had worked so hard to maintain. Instead there was only soft smooth muscle of a well-toned young woman. Bill's swimsuit had changed, into a woman's bikini bottom, riding high on his wider, more feminine hips. Bill's legs were hairless, smooth, and much more womanly shaped. His features were still recognizably Bill, but much less angular and masculine. Softer, smoother skin, eyes a bit rounder, higher cheekbones, and slightly fuller lips gave the vision of what Bill would have looked like had he been born a girl - as he was now.

Next to Bill, Norm sat quietly, sobbing into his hands. His short dark hair, cut in a pageboy, framed his soft round face. With features as delicate as Norm's had been harsh, he was attractive. Behind his arms, the curve of breasts was unmistakable; his slender arms concealed the size of the new chest features. Unlike Bill, Norm was a bit chubby, a little less slender in stature. Not fat by any means, but large. Pleasingly full-bodied — the kind of body referred to as a renaissance figure. Again, it was hard to tell from how Norm sat, but his waist was clearly wider than Bill's, and his hips and rear definitely so. His curvy legs displayed a little more bulk than the others, but not so much as to be unattractive. Not flabby; just full. Given the total package, Norm was attractive in a girl-next-door way. Norm glanced up, and caught Hank staring at him. He buried his face in his hands again, ashamed of what he'd been turned into.

Across from Bill, Mark stared at the floor, slouched in the chair, with his arms crossed over his waist. Mark's legs splayed open in a very unfeminine way, displaying the pink string bikini which had once been his red swimsuit. It lay flat in his crotch, empty of the manhood with which Mark had entered the park. Just like the rest of the guys. Mark's large breasts rested on his crossed arms, big round soft orbs capped by large brown nipples. His hands, soft and delicate, were turned in an attempt to conceal the long fingernails he now had, yet another sign that his masculinity had been stripped away. A thick wavy mane of auburn hair hung around his face; short wavy bangs concealed his forehead. What could be seen of his face was as feminine as the others; no trace of whiskers remained, and the features were much finer, the skin softer.

Vicky was the only one who sat, apparently unchanged. She alternately stared at the floor, then around the room at the others, her mouth closed solemnly but her eyes wide with shock and disbelief. She knew, in her heart, that these were the guys she'd come to the park with. She recognized their features in the changed faces. But still, she had a hard time accepting that this wasn't some kind of bad dream. She glanced up, and caught Hank looking her way.

Vicky stared at Hank. The last one caught. A boy she'd dated several times, and had slept with more than once. That boy was gone, replaced by the lovely young lady now sitting dejectedly in the office chair. His sandy-blonde hair was still there, only longer and finer. It hung down past his shoulders, straight but for a few waves at the end. The locks parted near the middle of his head, and swung back behind his ears. Hank's eyes had been slightly green; now, they were definitely green, softer, and they seemed larger on his smaller face. Like the others, his skin seemed softer, perhaps because it was devoid of a five-o'clock shadow. His nose was smaller, more dainty, and slightly upturned. Cute. Lips a bit fuller, but not absurdly so. Delicate neck, lacking the male Adam's apple. Vicky's gaze dropped. Nice breasts hung on Hank's chest; not too big, but almost perfect in shape. Perky. Moderate waist and wider, rounder hips. Long slender legs. And like the others, a crotch devoid of a male organ. Behind his bikini bottom, Vicky knew, was a woman's sex. For the briefest of moments, Vicky actually felt jealous of Hank's body.

She glanced around again. All these guys had somehow been turned into girls - somehow.

The door to the inner office opened loudly, and an older woman poked her head into the room. "Come in," she ordered.

Hank, with the other four, stood slowly, still gazing downward, and shuffled after the woman. As the old woman eased her wide torso down into her chair, the five sat down silently, facing across the desk at her. For an agonizingly long few seconds, she stared at them, her features clouded with anger as she drummed her fingers on the desk. Finally she spoke. "What am I going to do with the five of you?" she asked bluntly.

Vicky glanced up. "We didn't mean any harm," she said contritely.

The woman glared at her, causing Vicky to glance back down. "First of all, you need to learn some better manners. How should you address your elders?"

Vicky glanced up again. "I'm sorry, ma'am."

The woman nodded slightly. "Better. Second, you broke into my park. That's trespassing. Then, as if that wasn't bad enough, you turned on my equipment. That makes it criminal trespass."

Vicky started to tremble. With her past ....

The old woman continued. "For a first offense, criminal trespass in this state would usually get you probation and a hefty fine." She let that sink in for a moment, then continued. "And then there's the civil liability for what you've done to my park."

As if on cue, Anya came back in with another girl. The other girl's shirt and denim shorts were stained with grease. The girl had a disgusted look on her face.

"Well, Jenny?" the old woman asked. "How bad is it?"

The young girl shook her head. "Pele's Race is okay. So is Lava Run."

"But..." The old woman sensed hesitation in Jenny's voice.

Jenny frowned, her eyes narrow to slits, a fire burning behind them. She clenched her jaw tightly for a second. "Poly Plunge has some problems. The output flow is way low."

The old woman's expression hardened. "Remember, I hired you because I don't know anything about those contraptions. In plain English, please."

Jenny glanced with malice at the girls seated around the desk. "The way the motor was started, it would have caused a pressure surge through the system. And on Poly, there's a lot of bends in the pipe. Somewhere, probably - and I say probably until I can tear the pump down and inspect it — it got a pressure pulse back through the pipe. Probably damaged the impeller. Maybe the motor, too."

The old woman frowned. "Not good. How long will it be out?"

Jenny closed her eyes for a moment, her lips moving as she mentally figured out what it would take to fix. "A day or two. If. If the motor isn't damaged, and if I can find an impeller anywhere in town." She shook her head. "But that's not the worst of it."

The old woman sighed. "Go on."

Jenny glared at the young ladies again. "Tell me, which one of you little bitches decided to start my pumps?" She felt Anya's arm rest on hers to calm her. Jenny's jaw muscles were visibly tense as she turned back to the old woman. "Outrigger is out of action - for quite a while." She glared at the girls again. "I can't be sure, but I think a pipe split." Jenny shook her head. "The pump seems to be okay, though."

The old woman frowned. "Bad?"

Jenny's angry look left the girls cowering in their chairs. "We got lucky with Poly Plunge. The pipes seem to be okay. But Outrigger?" She shook her head. "Flow through the pump is good. But the water isn't getting to the top of the ride." She watched as the old woman grasped the enormity of the situation. "Yup. We're going to have to dig up the pipe and check it. All of it."

The old woman closed her eyes. The seconds ticked by with painful slowness as she sat rigidly in her chair. Finally, she opened her eyes. "Okay, Jenny. Get me a rough cost estimate." She watched as Jenny glared once again at the girls, and then stormed out of the office.

The old woman turned her attention to the five seated miscreants. "I've half a mind to turn you over to the police." Fire burned within her eyes, an unbelievably angry glare. Even Anya flinched from the sight. "But I won't." She sat back in her chair, her fingers steepled once again. Her fingertips rested on her nose, her hands blocked her mouth. She stared long and hard at the girls. "Do you have anything to say for yourselves?"

Norm looked up slowly. "You changed us into girls!" he whined. "All because we had a little fun?"

The old woman's face lightened, as if she'd just realized what to do. "No, dear. My park changed you into girls." She watched their expressions. "This park was designed for girls. Anyone who uses it gets changed by the magic into a girl while she's here. That way, all my girls can have some privacy." She looked over the new girls. "When you entered the water, the changes started." She got a twinkle in her eye. "Maybe I should just let the four of you go. What do you think about that?"

Norm glanced at his three formerly male friends. "But we're girls!" he wailed. The others echoed his sentiments.

The old woman nodded. "Exactly. That seems to me to be a fitting punishment — leaving you girls for the rest of your lives."

"Please, no!" Bill protested in a wail.

The old woman looked thoughtful for a moment. "You're right. That wouldn't be fair to Vicky, would it. Hmmmm. What can we do?" She glanced at Anya. "I guess I could call the police. You'd probably get probation and a fine."

"And you'd change us back?" Hank asked hopefully.

The old woman shook her head. "But why? I wouldn't want to do that until after your probation was up." She smiled slyly. "I understand that probation for criminal trespass — the kind of charge I'd press — can be five to ten years. Especially since I'm a respected businesswoman and you're just a bunch of college hoodlums."

Bill's eyes widened in shock. In that, he wasn't alone. "Five ... years? We'd be stuck like this for five years?" His soft alto voice threatened to crack under the stress.

Anya sensed where her grandmother was going. "Maybe we can come up with something suitable for all of them, Grandmother." The group's eyes turned hopefully to the younger woman. "Maybe they could work here until they've paid off their debt."

The old woman raised her eyebrows. "Hmm. That might work."

"And you'd change us back?" Mark said, hoping for some mercy.

The old woman looked at the girls, then shook her head. "Not until you're done paying me back." She leaned forward, her arms resting on the desk. She let her eyes wander for a few moments, giving the appearance that she was lost in thought. "Okay, here's the deal I'm willing to offer you. The criminal trespass charge would probably net you each about a five thousand dollar fine. And there's the damage to the pumps, plus lost revenue while those rides are out of commission. I'll know more when Jenny gets me the figures, but I'm guessing it'll be about sixteen or seventeen thousand each. You'll work for me until it's all paid back."

The girls glanced among themselves, awed that they might be given a merciful sentence.

The old woman continued. "I've got some openings in the gift shop and on the janitorial staff. I pay a dollar over minimum the first year. 'll keep two dollars for each hour as payment toward your debt." She smiled. "After all, you're all in college, and need some money for books and tuition." She leaned back. "You can work part time until the semester is over, then full time during the summer."

Mark did some quick calculations. "Sixteen thousand — that'll take years to pay back!" he finally wailed.

The old woman shrugged. "You can always pay me more from your salaries." She sat back again. "Your choice. Take it or leave it. But if you decline my generous offer, I may never be inclined to change you back."

Norm's mouth flapped open a couple of times. "That's blackmail," he finally muttered.

The old woman smiled. "Yes, it is, isn't it. Well?"

The girls glanced among themselves, and then nodded. "I guess we'll take it," they answered glumly. For the boys, the worst part was that they'd be stuck as girls for quite some time.

The old woman smiled. "I thought you would. Okay, here's the way the magic works. Everyone will always think you've always been girls. You," she pointed at Bill, "are named Belinda." She went down the row. "Norma. Marta. Holly. That's what the world thinks. Everyone knows you by those names. No-one, not even your parents, remembers you as boys. So it's no use trying to convince someone otherwise." She let the totality of their change sink in. "I'll see you for work tomorrow." She stood, inviting them to rise as well.

As they started to turn, the old woman thought of something. "Uh, girls," she called. The former boys turned. The old woman pulled some bits of cloth from seemingly nowhere and extended them toward the girls. "Put these on, please. Modesty, you know." The boys took the bikini tops reluctantly, forcing themselves to thank her. With help from Vicky, they were soon dressed. Again, the girls turned.

"Oh, yes. One more thing." The girls turned again. "You are real girls now," the old woman said, sounding a word of caution.

Norma's eyes narrowed. "Which means what?" she asked.

Vicky's eyes widened as she understood. She leaned closer to Norma. "Which means, I'm going to have to teach you a thing or two about the female reproductive system." As the girls' mouths dropped open in shock, Vicky herded them from the old woman's office.

The old woman sat down and watched until the door was closed. She turned to Anya. "Pretty good solution, if I do say so," she said, sounding genuinely impressed. A broad smile crossed her face. "You're learning, my child."

Anya nodded her acknowledgement. "Thanks, Grandmother." She stared at the door where the girls had left. "You want to make a bet on how many of them change back after they're done paying you back?"

The old woman feigned surprise, then smiled. Like Anya, she suspected that after a couple of years, the girls would stay in their new bodies — and new lives — forever.

FIN



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