TG Universes & Series:
Bikini Beach: Pardons and Decisions
The 'girls' from Midnight Swim are still working in the park, and having issues adjusting, when Grandmother makes an unexpected announcement. Their futures are now at stake, and they have some tough decisions to make.
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 intruders, stood slowly, still gazing downward, and shuffled after the woman. As the old woman eased herself down into her chair, the five sat down silently, facing her across the desk. 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 nodded slightly. "You broke into my park. That's trespassing. Then, as if that wasn't bad enough, you turned on and damaged my equipment. That makes it criminal trespass."
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."
The old woman turned her attention to the five seated miscreants. "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. Any male uses it gets changed by the magic into a girl while he’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.
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 smiled. "Okay, here's the way the magic works. You'll be ‘girls’ until you've paid off your debt to me. 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. The girls turned and left the office.
The car pulled up near the gate, but the driver didn’t get out. Instead, he sat, the engine off but the radio on, and he appeared to be waiting. Around him, patrons were slowly working their ways from the park gate out to their waiting vehicles. Given that the sun was low in the west, it was a sure bet that the park would soon be closing, and all the customers were going home. It was natural to suspect that the driver of the car was waiting for someone who was leaving.
The stream of women leaving the park slowed to a trickle, but still the driver waited. Eventually, though, a young lady walked directly toward the car. She was of college age, and quite attractive. She wore a pink T-shirt bearing the logo ‘Bikini Beach’, indicating that she was a staff member of the water park at which the car sat. Her brunette hair danced about her shoulders in a playful and sexy way.
"Hi, Rob," the girl said cheerfully as she opened the passenger door and slid into the seat. "Thanks for picking me up. Melanie is busy, and since my car is in the shop…."
Rob smiled, even though he was puzzled as to exactly why he’d been asked to meet Vicky. After all, she could easily catch a ride with one of the other workers to the dorm. "No problem," he said to try to buy some time to figure out what was going on. "Did you have a good day?" Rob was a self-described nerd, a member of the Nu Rho Delta fraternity at the college, and generally, a very nice guy who happened to be smitten with Vicky. He wasn’t nerdish in appearance; in fact, he seemed quite average — until he started talking about electronics and computers.
Vicky shrugged as she fastened her seatbelt. "It was okay. There were a couple of interesting customers, but overall, it was a normal day."
Rob pulled his car out into the stream of vehicles leaving the park. "Are you working tomorrow, too?"
Vicky smiled. She knew that Rob was interested in her, and his curiosity was practically palpable. "How about we go to the deli for some dinner before you take me back to the dorm." She saw his eyebrows rise with surprise, and she laughed pleasantly. "My treat."
Rob’s puzzlement only grew. "Uh, okay," he mumbled. "The deli it is. I take it you girls like eating there?" He turned down the road toward the delicatessen near the park that had only recently opened.
"Yeah," Vicky said with a smile. "It’s pretty good, and we like having a place to take a lunch break outside the park."
Rob felt awkward as he drove the short distance to the deli. He had many questions that he was dying to ask, but he knew that Vicky didn’t feel the same about him that he did about her. He’d been trying — hard — to control his eagerness.
Through dinner, they made small talk, about the park, school, and so forth, until finally, Rob’s curiosity got the better of him. "Okay," he began hesitantly, "what’s up?"
Vicky frowned. "What do you mean, ‘what’s up’?" She tried to look innocent, but failed.
"Because you’re grinning like a Cheshire cat, that’s why," Rob countered lightly.
"Okay, so there _is_ something on my mind," Vicky admitted. She looked at Rob, and then looked down, as if she was either lost in thought or embarrassed to speak.
When she looked up, he was sitting quietly, waiting patiently for her to speak. Vicky put her hands on his, atop the table. "I know you’ve … been interested in me for quite some time. I also know that you didn’t get scared when you learned my story." She bit her lower lip, as if afraid to continue.
"You’re a very special girl," Rob said, taking another opportunity to compliment Vicky.
"Rob, we've gone out on a few dates," Vicky continued softly, "and I know you’ve wanted to move our relationship to the next stage, to be my boyfriend."
Rob was getting very nervous. "Yes," he confirmed hesitantly. "I was waiting for you."
Vicky nodded. "I wanted to tell you that … I’m ready."
"What?" Rob’s astonishment was visible on his features; he wasn’t sure he’d heard what he thought he’d heard.
Vicky looked down, embarrassed and uncertain. "I … want to go out with you — to be your girlfriend. If you’re still interested." She looked up, hopefully.
Rob’s face lit up with joy. "Of course I’m still interested," he said excitedly. "You don’t know how long I’ve been waiting for this!" Then he looked at her with a curious expression. "What … made you change your mind? Not that I’m objecting, mind you!" he added quickly.
Vicky shrugged. "I guess I’ve learned a few things from my roommate Melanie, and from some of the customers at the park." She sighed. "I think I’ve been a little too obsessed with changing back, and I realized that life is passing me by. I want to start enjoying it, and that includes dating someone that likes me for me."
Almost forty minutes later, Vicky walked into her dorm room. She sighed dreamily as she sat down in her chair. Her roommate, Melanie Keilani Lewis, looked up from her studies. "You seem pretty pleased with yourself," she observed.
"I had a good day at work," Vicky lied.
"Yeah, right!" Mel didn’t believe the fib. She looked at Vicky critically for a moment. "If I didn’t know better, I’d say that you got a pretty fabulous goodnight kiss or something." Mel saw Vicky’s reaction, and realized that she’d guessed correctly. Her jaw dropped. "You didn’t decide to ...?"
"Rob asked me to be his ... girlfriend," Vicky confessed.
"You mean, _you_ told Rob you were ready to be his girlfriend," Mel corrected with a laugh. She _knew_ Rob; until recently, she’d been a member of Rob’s fraternity. She’d changed to Melanie for a Holiday Queen contest, and subsequently decided that life was better as Melanie. "He’s sweet. A bit nerdy at times, but he’s sweet."
"Keep your hands off my fries!" Belinda said as she slapped at Holly's hand. "I didn't have dinner!"
Holly, Marta, and Norma laughed. "We didn't either, remember! It's not our fault you got served first," Marta said with a grin. From the smiles and happy teasing, it was obvious that the girls were very good friends. What was not obvious was that the girls had once been college men.
"Yeah, but you guys got a lunch break," Belinda complained. "I got stuck helping at the party for that obnoxious brat!" Occasionally, Bikini Beach hosted birthday or other celebratory parties — girls only, of course — and when that happened, the staff had extra work. Sometimes, like today, the staff had to work through lunch breaks.
"It couldn’t have been that bad," Holly observed. "I heard that they had a good spread of lunch and snacks."
"They did," Belinda snorted, "but the mom was being an absolute witch about the whole thing. The way she was ordering people around, I didn't _dare_ even sneak a cracker!" She shook her head in disgust. "And then she didn't even leave any tips!" Long straight locks of brunette hair flowed down to her soft feminine shoulders, some spilling down the front and back of her pink staff T-shirt. Belinda would have looked like a well-toned, fit athlete, save for her generous feminine curves. While she was quite pretty, enough that boys might be intimidated, her eyes had a friendly, happy glint to them that made her very approachable.
"What did the Boss say?" Marta asked. "I bet she doesn't get to have a party there again. I bet the Boss won't even let her come back!" Marta, like Belinda, kept herself fit and trim; her hair was wavy auburn, though, and she looked a little more like a girl-next-door.
Belinda shook her head. "She'll be back. She's a lifetime member, and so is her new daughter."
"_New_ daughter? As in ...?" Holly didn't need to complete the sentence; all the girls knew of Bikini Beach's special magic. Holly's sandy-blonde hair was tied back in a ponytail for convenience. It was generally acknowledged that she should have had red hair to go with her sparkling green eyes, so that she looked like a proper Irish lass. She was taller than the others, but nearly perfectly proportioned.
"Apparently, the mother thought her son wasn't ever going to amount to anything, and since she'd always wanted to give a daughter the Bat Mitzvah she never had ...."
Norma scowled. "That's not right!" she snarled. "What gives that mother the right to change her son — permanently?" Norma's figure was fuller than the others, her cheeks a tiny bit chubby, her breasts larger, and her waist less wasp-like. She wasn't fat, but definitely not like a waifish model. Overall, her appearance was pleasant and friendly, although her present expression was definitely unhappy.
"I don't know," Belinda said, shaking her head sadly. She slapped at Marta's hand as the girl tried to steal a fry. "The Boss always has her reasons. Besides, if you want to know the whole story, just ask Anya over there," she nodded in the direction of another table of girls. "It was her doing."
Holly and Norma glanced at the table, where Anya sat with Liz, Jenny, and Melinda. It was their usual Saturday night out with the girls at the Coconut Club. Anya sensed something, because she turned and stared directly at Norma and Holly.
Holly looked back to her own circle of friends, but Norma held Anya's gaze for a moment, glaring defiantly at the magic-using granddaughter of their boss. "It's not right," she announced as she turned back to her table.
Belinda shrugged. "I don't know. Everything always seems to work out for the best," she said philosophically, "so who am I to argue."
Norma opened her mouth to reply, but she shut it again when one of the club's staff showed up at their table with a tray of food.
After the food had been sorted, the girl frowned. "Who gets the chicken sandwich and onion rings?"
Holly laughed. "She's out dancing with her boyfriend. Just put it on the table, and if she doesn't stop to eat, we'll eat it for her."
"No, you won't," Vicky's voice sounded from beside the waitress. "I paid for that, so I'm going to eat it." She slid into a chair and took a sip of her drink as she picked up an onion ring.
"Where's Rob?" Belinda asked as she looked around. "Did he abandon you?"
Before Vicky could reply, Holly laughed, "As if he'd ever do that! They've been seeing so much of each other lately that they might just as well be engaged!"
Vicky shot Holly a disapproving glance. "We're not _that_ serious! We're just in a relationship."
Marta laughed. "I saw that on your Facebook page the other day. So how serious is your relationship?"
"We're just dating, okay?" Vicky scowled. "It's not like I'm moving in with him!"
Norma's frown deepened. "Can we talk about something else? Like how school is going, or how much work sucked today?" It was obvious that Norma wasn't happy about either changes at the park or about how the other girls were adjusting.
A few minutes later, Rob came back, and before he could sit down to join the girls, Vicky stood, took his hand, and led him back to the dance floor.
Holly watched as Vicky left, and then blatantly reached for one of Vicky's onion rings. She saw the look of disbelief from the others. "Well, they're getting cold," Holly said defensively. "And besides, she's so busy dancing with Rob that she'll never notice."
"Excuse me," a male voice sounded behind Holly, "but would you mind if I joined you?"
Holly turned, shocked that the others hadn't noticed the approaching guy. She calmed quickly when she recognized Chuck Olson, one of Greg's fraternity brothers from the NRDs. He was older than most college students, and seemed a lot more mature and less impulsive. "Uh, I guess it's okay. At least until Vicky gets back."
Chuck smiled as he sat down. "I don't think we'll see Vicky and Rob back here for a while. I'd give it at least two slow dances. I'm Chuck. Chuck Olson."
Holly nodded. "I know. You're one of the NRDs, right?"
Chuck shrugged, grinning. "Guilty, as charged."
"Why aren't you with the rest of your fraternity buddies?" Norma asked bluntly. It was obvious that she didn't particularly care to have a guy sitting at the table with her.
"Bert is out on a date with Leslie," Chuck answered easily, ignoring Norma's semi-accusatory tone. "I think Fred's in the lab working late. The others — they're watching 'Big Bang Theory' reruns on the Blu-ray, so they won't be here for a while."
"Are they trying to get ideas?" Belinda asked lightly. "Or maybe, to learn how _not_ to act in social situations?"
Chuck laughed. "They _do_ have a little to learn about social graces," he admitted. He glanced around the table, at Belinda, then Marta, then Norma, and finally Holly. "Actually, I have an ulterior motive for wanting to talk with you," he said in a low tone, as if revealing a conspiracy.
"I was hoping that I could convince one of you ladies that I would be a safe, fun escort for a little dancing." He saw eyebrows rise. "And no more. Just some dancing."
Belinda and Marta smiled. "Come on, Holly," Belinda said, "you were just saying how much you wanted to be dancing."
Holly frowned at Belinda, an expression unseen by Chuck. "You must be mistaken," she said in clipped tones.
"Oh, no," Marta countered, "I distinctly heard you say you were envious of all the dancing that Vicky is doing!" She had a mischievous smile.
"Well, that works perfectly," Chuck said with a smile as he stood. He extended his hand toward Holly to help her up. "We both get our wishes for dancing tonight."
Holly's eyes were shooting daggers at Belinda and Marta. "I suppose a dance or two would be fun." She didn't sound too enthusiastic as Chuck led her to the dance floor.
Norma frowned. "That was mean."
"She wanted to dance, and we all know it," Belinda giggled. "She just needed a little ... encouragement."
"Rob and Vicky are getting pretty serious, don't you think?" Marta asked as she helped herself to one of Vicky's onion rings.
"He's been totally head-over-heels ga-ga over her from the time they met," Norma snorted disapprovingly.
"The rumor is that he risked his life to get the guys who date-raped Vicky," Belinda said in a hushed voice. "Supposedly, he used the park's magic to go undercover to get them."
"That's so sweet!" Marta said. "He really _is_ into her. Does she know?"
Belinda nodded. "Yeah.”
A short time later, Chuck and Holly came back to the table. Rob and Vicky were still dancing, as predicted. Chuck glanced around the table. "Would any of you other ladies like to dance while Holly catches her breath?"
Marta glanced at Belinda, and then smiled coyly. "Actually," she said hesitantly, "I _would_ like to dance some." She saw a flicker of emotion on Belinda's face, a hint of something that she didn't recognize. Marta stood, and then held her hand out toward Belinda. "How about it? Do you want to dance?"
Belinda's eyes widened, and then a smile crept onto her face. "That sounds like fun," she said enthusiastically.
Chuck, Holly, and Norma watched the two walk onto the floor, holding hands like star-struck lovers. "That wasn't quite what I had in mind," Chuck observed dryly.
"You can bet that no guy is going to ask either of them to dance again tonight," Holly laughed.
Holly took a good drink of her Coke, then stood and took Chuck's hand. "Let's dance some more," she said boldly.
Norma sat at the table, stunned. All her friends were out dancing, and she wasn't. Not only that, they seemed to be enjoying being girls. Norma wasn't. She hated what the Boss had done to her, even though she deserved her punishment. She hated watching men and boys be changed into women and girls by the magic of the park. She was generally unhappy.
She paused from her self-pity as she saw a young man approaching her table. For a moment, she felt vulnerable and exposed. He stopped, looking down nervously. "May I join you?" he asked, his voice quavering.
Norma did a quick assessment of the newcomer. He was average — height, weight, looks, build — it all was average. His glasses weren't exactly stylish, but then again, neither were his clothes. "I suppose you're going to ask me to dance?" Norma asked. Too late, she realized that she'd sounded quite sarcastic.
"Actually, no," the young man said, sounding wounded by her tone. "I ... I heard from one of my friends that you're interested in robotics, and I thought that maybe we could talk?"
Norma realized, from his voice, that he was shy, and approaching her had been a very bold move for him. She knew that, if she wanted, she could say a word or two and send him scampering away like a frightened mouse. "I'm planning on doing a control system for an articulated hand robot for my senior project next year," she answered.
The guy's eyes widened appreciatively. "Really? That sounds cool. How many fingers? Will it have force-feedback?" He suddenly realized that some social niceties were in order. "I'm Arnold. I'm studying computer systems, with a focus on robotics," he said proudly.
"Are you one of the NRDs?" Norma asked carefully.
"Yeah," Arnold replied. He looked, and sounded, deflated by her question. The Nu Rho Delta fraternity, or NRDs, weren't exactly in high demand on the social circuit.
"You must really know your computers, then," Norma replied. Her attitude had suddenly shifted, noticeably, from wary to intrigued.
Arnold shrugged as he sat down. "I've been working with computers and robots ever since I can remember. I started with Lego Mindstorms."
Two hours later, the club closed, and Arnold reluctantly left with Chuck. During that time, he and Norma had talked nonstop about computers, robots, and control systems. Not once had they even thought of dancing. The girls all piled into their car, except for Vicky, who was — as usual — going home with Rob.
"You missed the whole point of a dance club," Marta protested to Norma. "You're supposed to dance, not just sit and talk about classes."
Norma frowned. "I was enjoying talking, okay?"
"Why didn't you at least dance once?" Belinda added to the ribbing. "It wouldn't have killed you."
"Would you just leave me alone?" Norma snapped. "I don't like any of this, and I didn't want to dance, okay?"
In the late summer, every day at Bikini Beach was busy, but it was even more so on the weekends. Sunday afternoon seemed like a non-stop flood of patrons, almost overwhelming the staff at all of the food venues and rides. It was only later, after the lunch rush had died down, that Holly got a chance to relax for a brief moment as she worked the lunch counter in the Tiki Hut dining pavilion.
Holly sat down on a barstool behind the counter, content to let another girl handle the few customers that were still ordering while she rested her feet. She leaned back comfortably against a wall. While it wasn't as restful as a break in the employees hut, it was nonetheless a nice rest from standing.
As she sat, Holly watched the customers. She saw one woman walking — awkwardly — back to her group at a table. She was in her mid-thirties, and from her appearance, was a fitness freak. The woman seemed very uncomfortable, even restless, and while the other women were mostly laughing and having a good time, she looked unhappy. A dour pout seemed permanently fixed on her features, and her arms were crossed under her breasts, which, judging from the way she was shifting and fidgeting, was an uncomfortable position.
After a bit, the woman rose and walked to the counter. For some reason, Holly decided to handle this customer herself. She hopped off her chair. "Hi, I'm Holly," she said in a cheery greeting. "How may I help you?"
The woman frowned. "I'm ... I'm not sure."
"Are you enjoying your day at the park?" Holly asked.
The woman's frown deepened. "No," she grumbled.
"Oh? Is there something we can do to improve our service?" Holly asked, ever mindful of the training Grandmother had given all employees on customer service.
"No. You've already done enough."
The statement confirmed what Holly knew. "I take it that you're not enjoying your experience as a woman today?"
The woman's eyes widened in surprise, and her jaw flapped a few times as she tried to overcome her shock. "How ... how did you know?" she sputtered.
Holly smiled. "You'd be surprised. We all know of the park's magic, and from your demeanor and mannerisms, it wasn't too hard to guess."
"My wife and her friends tricked me into a 'ladies day'," the woman said. "I'm ... was ... Jerry Levinson. Now, thanks to the curse of this place, I'm Jeri, spelled with an 'i'!"
"You could think of it as a way to understand more about women, and your wife," Holly suggested. "Or, if you're a Star Trek fan, you could think of this as 'boldly going where no man has gone before.'"
"Very funny," Jeri said sarcastically.
"Did your wife tell you why she brought you here?"
Jeri frowned. "She said that she wanted to spend some time with me — in a non-sexual way. She wanted to have a fun day as friends."
Holly had a revelation. "I bet you used to do a lot of fun things together, didn't you?"
"And I bet she misses that."
"So why'd she have to trick me? Why couldn't she just have asked?" Jeri grumbled.
"Maybe she thought she had, and you weren't listening."
Jeri paused to think about what Holly had said. "You're pretty smart for a young lady," she said.
Holly smiled. "I'm studying psych at ...." Her eyes widened as she realized something. With a derisive snort, she lowered her gaze and shook her head. "Physician, heal thyself," she muttered to herself.
"What?" Jeri asked, confused.
Holly looked up sharply. She hadn't intended to be overheard. "Nothing," she said quickly. "Look, you've got a day in a very good water park. Your wife has included you with her friends for a day of fun and relaxation. If you ask me, you're too busy feeling sorry for yourself to enjoy the day, and to appreciate that your wife wanted to share the day with you."
Jeri started to object, but then she stopped. After a moment's reflection, she nodded, with a slight smile. "Maybe you're right. Maybe I should be thankful that she wants to include me in her day, and I should enjoy myself." She hopped down off her chair. "Thanks. I appreciate your ... perspective."
Holly returned to her chair. "Physician, heal thyself," she said to herself again. She was so lost in thought that she didn't see Anya enter.
"You seem pretty distracted," Anya said to Holly, startling her.
"What? Oh, hi, Anya," Holly said. "Uh, yeah, I guess I was distracted."
"Oh? What's on your mind?"
Holly sighed. "I was just talking to a man whose wife changed him for the day. I encouraged him to not think about the change, but about the fact that his wife wanted to include him, and that he should quit thinking about the change and enjoy the day."
"Your psych classes are paying off, I'd say," Anya said with a smile.
"Yeah, I guess," Holly answered. "And maybe it's time I applied that advice to myself."
Holly chuckled. "Maybe I need to stop fretting about the fact that I changed, and enjoy the good things I've got. Good friends, a good job, I'm succeeding in college. Seems to me, when I think about it, that the change wasn't a terrible curse after all, so much as it was an opportunity — if I only take advantage of it."
"I hate tests," Marta complained as she flipped the page in her notebook. "And Anatomy really sucks. It's all memorization, and I was never good at that."
Belinda smiled. "You've got a pretty good grade for someone who claims she isn't good at memorizing."
Marta stopped, and gazed out the window of the library, where the two were studying. "Have you thought about what you're going to do — after, I mean?"
Belinda shrugged. "I'm just trying to get through my classes, one test at a time. I haven’t really given a lot of thought to what I'm going to do once our debt is paid."
Marta sighed. "Sometimes, I miss the frat, and the parties," she said wistfully. "But then again, if we were doing that all the time, I don't think my grades would be as good. And since I want to go to med school, I need to make sure my grades are _very_ good.
Belinda laughed softly. "I guess I'm not as ambitious as you. I think I'll stop with a nursing degree. Maybe a registered nurse, maybe a physician's assistant."
A frown crossed Marta's features. "But ... what about ... after? Won't that be weird when we pay off our debt and change back?"
"Not really," Belinda explained. "There are a _lot_ of male nurses these days. It’s a lot more common than people think, and especially for PAs, the job market is excellent."
"That means we'll probably have a lot more classes together — you with nursing, and me with pre-med," Marta said with a smile. She seemed quite pleased by the direction things were going.
"That's great," Belinda added enthusiastically. "You're a good study partner. You help me get the most out of my classes."
The booth was always the worst place to work, it seemed. Since most of the patrons were members, they didn't need to stop at the ticket booth. Only those people who wanted guest passes, or who were signing up for memberships, stopped by. Norma was bored with the explanation she had to give — the park was for members only, they didn't sell 'tickets', but they did have some limited number of guest passes.
Adding to that monotony was the angle of the glass with respect to the sun. Despite the tinting at the top, and the overhang to provide shade on the glass, there was always a lot of light and glare coming into the booth, and with the light, a lot of heat. A small air conditioner whirred away in the background, struggling against the heat, to keep the booth bearable. With the ticket and money slots, it was a futile effort at times.
Norma sighed again, but then she perked up. A large, older woman was approaching the booth, with a teenaged boy in tow. The woman was a little plump, and she looked quite upset, probably at the boy, who was displaying all the rebellious attitudes of a teenager. Where the woman was neatly attired, the boy wore torn jeans and a black T-shirt with a rock band's objectionable logo. Her hair was neat; his was straggly and unkempt. She walked with poise; he slouched along, hands in pockets, and a look of disdain on his acne-covered face.
The woman stepped to the window. "I'd like to purchase a pass for my son," she said with certainty.
Norma glanced at the lad again, and then shrugged. "We have one-day, weekend, and week-long passes."
"I need a lifetime pass," the woman said, exasperated. "I talked to the owner this morning, and she assured me that I could get a lifetime pass."
Norma's gut clenched at the thought of selling a lifetime pass. In all her time at Bikini Beach, she hadn't sold a pass for more than a week. A lifetime, though, was a permanent, irrevocable change for the holder, from male to female. "Um," she stammered, uncertain and nervous, "I need to call Grandmother to confirm this. She's the only one who can authorize a lifetime pass."
Before she could pick up the phone, though, Grandmother entered the ticket booth through the rear door. It was spooky, sometimes, how Grandmother and Anya knew that they needed to be someplace before their employees did, and how they appeared at just the right time. "Sell her the pass, Norma," Grandmother said gently but firmly.
"But ... a lifetime pass?" Norma stammered.
"Yes, Norma. A lifetime pass."
"Boss, that’s ... permanent!" Norma objected.
Grandmother put her hand gently on Norma's shoulder. "Sell her the pass."
Norma swallowed, and then started typing the data into the computer. In a few seconds, the machine printed a card, with the boy's name on it. While she was typing, Grandmother left the booth as silently as she'd come.
"Here you are, Mrs. Davis," Norma said with great regret. She processed Mrs. Davis' credit card, then handed the receipt and the lifetime pass to the woman.
There were no other patrons coming to the window, so Norma watched with interest as the boy went through the turnstile and into the men's locker room. A few minutes later, a frightened-looking young lady came out into the main plaza, topless and confused. She looked as attractive as the young man had been unkempt. As expected, Anya appeared quickly and gave the girl a top to her bathing suit. A few words and gestures, and she cast a spell that calmed down the panic-stricken young lady.
The older woman swiped her own membership card and went into the plaza. Once Anya had left, the woman had a few words with the girl. Slowly, a sickening realization dawned on the girl's features as she realized what her mother — and the park's magic — had done to her.
Norma had a sickening feeling in her gut. She felt like she'd been part of an execution squad. Sure, she knew of the park's magic, and she'd sold short-term passes, but they had all expired, turning the customers back to their male selves. This time, though, it was different. She felt like she'd helped to murder a young man, creating a compliant, docile young lady in his place. She didn't know whether she wanted to cry or throw up.
The intercom buzzed. "Norma, can you please come to the office?" Grandmother asked.
Norma sighed, then hung up the "back in 5 minutes" sign and trudged to the office, entering from the park side. "You called, Boss?" she asked unenthusiastically.
"Norma, have a seat," Grandmother said, gesturing to the chairs in front of her desk.
Warily, and wordlessly, Norma sat down.
"I gather that you're a little upset."
"A little upset?" Norma asked, her voice rising in pitch and volume. "I hate this place! I hate what you do to men, unsuspecting men! You trick them into becoming women, and you make us help out, be accomplices!"
Grandmother tried to interrupt. "Now, Norma, there are ...."
"You murder the men! Maybe there are women to take their places, but the part of them that was male, that was masculine, is dead! Having to help makes me feel ... dirty! It feels evil!" Norma ranted.
"I take it you don't approve of selling a lifetime pass," Grandmother said simply, "even though that young man was a very troubled teenager. His parents had tried counseling, medications, and in-patient care. The boy was abusing drugs, he was going to flunk out of school, and he was getting involved with a gang."
"I still don't approve," Norma said, frowning. "I want to quit. I'll borrow money, or work an outside job, but I want to quit. I don't want anything more to do with this place."
"Norma, sometimes it's necessary," Grandmother tried to explain. "Would you rather that I hadn't changed Mitch into Sally? An innocent girl would be dead. Or if I hadn't changed little Jeffrey into little Jenny, he'd be severely mentally handicapped, and the Hansons would probably be divorced by now. Would you prefer that I let those ... tragedies ... happen?"
Norma sat, frowning, and her lips pressed tightly together. She didn't want to admit that Grandmother had a point.
Using her magic sense, Anya had picked up on Norma's mood. She strolled casually into the office. "Hey, Norma," she said pleasantly, "let's go for a walk."
"I don't really want to go ... inside," Norma said, speaking with distaste about the park.
"Okay, let's walk over to the new ice cream shop," Anya modified her offer.
"Okay," Norma said reluctantly. She really was a bit hungry, and after being in the ticket booth for most of the afternoon, ice cream sounded refreshing.
The walk to the shop was in silence; Anya didn't want to start the conversation before they were sitting down. After they got their ice cream, Anya sat at a table with Norma. They were the only patrons in the shop at that moment. "I take it you're not happy right now," Anya began.
"That's an understatement," Norma said bitterly. "Should I be?"
"I don't know," Anya answered noncommittally. "You seemed to be adjusting so well, like you were ...."
"Happy being a girl? Is that it? You want me to be happy being a girl?"
Anya shook her head. "No, we want you to be happy being _you_." She shook her head. "I don't know what happened, but you didn't seem to be having so much ... anger a couple of weeks ago."
"A couple of weeks ago, some asshole decided to get a little grabby," Norma snarled. "I fought off his ... advances, but all _that_ experience did was remind me of what I'm not. Not any more. I'm small, and weak, and I feel helpless. And I hate it!"
"That doesn't explain how you reacted today," Anya said cautiously.
"You don't have to sit and watch, and then help, while your Grandmother steals the lives of unsuspecting men, just like she stole mine!" Norma complained. There was no warmth, no familiarity in how she said 'Grandmother'. She said it almost like it was an accusation.
"You and your friends _did_ break into the park, and cause a lot of damage," Anya reminded her.
"So I'll find a way to pay you two back. Why do you have to keep rubbing my face in it?"
"This is about a lot more than selling passes, isn’t it?" Anya asked, almost certain of the answer. "What's really got you upset?"
"The others — they're acting all girly, and dancing, and stuff. They're acting like a bunch of brainwashed robots, like you and Grandmother sometimes do to guys after they change."
Anya's eyes opened a bit wider. "And that scares you, doesn't it?" She saw Norma's expression of surprise. "You're afraid that _you'll_ get comfortable being a girl, and not want to change back, is that it?"
Norma's jaw dropped open for a moment. "I hate this!" she cried. "I hate being a girl! I hate having guys try to pick me up, or ask me dancing, or on dates. I hate having to help Grandmother change guys into girls, like she did to me."
Anya paused, and closed her eyes for a moment. Norma stared at her, knowing that Anya was using her 'sight', her magic power to see the future, or alternate realities. "You remember Tom Jackson?"
Norma's brow furrowed in confusion. "Yeah, he was in my frat. Big party animal."
"You remember what happened to him?"
Norma nodded slowly. "About a month after we changed, he was in an accident while he was out four-wheeling. He's paralyzed from the waist down after he rolled his truck."
Anya nodded somberly. "And if you four _hadn't_ changed, at least two of you would have been out with Tom, and one of you would be dead, and the other in as bad shape as Tom."
Norma's mouth hung agape. She hadn't expected this kind of answer from Anya. Grandmother — maybe. She was always trying to trick them with her 'vision' of the alternate future. But Anya? She'd never tried it. "I ... I don't believe you!" Norma cried. She rose to her feet and ran from the shop, crying as she ran.
Holly watched the girls swimming at the Olympic pool. She was taking a turn filling in for one of the other staff members, helping Liz teach basic swimming to some younger girls. She had lessons every Saturday during off-season, and twice a week during the summer. Normally, one of the other lifeguards helped Liz, but since Liz was fully certified in water safety, she could allow uncertified girls like Holly to help out.
Eventually, after much splashing, swim practice, and a bit of playing, the girls finished their lessons and crawled from the pool. Holly watched them leave the pool area, and then sat down in one of the lounge chairs for a bit of a breather.
Liz plopped down next to her. "You're good with the girls," she said to Holly.
Holly shrugged, not used to being complimented. "I have a little sister, so I had practice growing up."
Liz laughed. "It shows. The girls love you, and they respond to you so well. You're a natural teacher."
"I just like to help out."
"I talked to Grandmother the other day about you," Liz changed the subject abruptly, or at least, so it seemed.
"Oh? About what?" Holly was afraid that she'd done something wrong.
Liz saw her reaction. "No, it's not like that! You're not in trouble," she chuckled.
"Then what?" Holly was curious now.
"I've noticed that you're a very good swimmer. You're also one of the most personally-responsible workers on staff. You're a good instructor. I asked Grandmother if we could send you to class to get your lifeguard training and certificate."
Holly's mouth dropped open in surprise. "You ... want me to be a lifeguard?" she stammered.
"Yes. You're perfect for the job."
"But ... I've only got a little longer ...." Holly started to protest. She, like her friends, was over halfway done with paying back her debt.
Liz laughed. "Your certificate will change back with you," she said with a smile. "So you really don't have anything to lose. Until you pay off your debt, I get a good lifeguard on my staff."
"I ... don't know what to say!" Holly exclaimed.
"How about, 'yes'?" Liz asked. "Besides, it pays a little better than plain staff."
"Okay," Holly said, still sounding a bit doubtful. "I guess I can do that."
"Atta girl," Liz said, slapping her lightly on the shoulder. "I'll start on the paperwork to get you enrolled in a class. And the park will pay for it, too."
"How about changing to the game?" Norma groused as the Belinda flipped through the channels on her TV. The five girls were sitting in Belinda's dorm room, taking a well-deserved break after a long work day. Norma wanted to watch a pre-season football game.
"Ugh!" Marta snorted. "I don't want to watch a football game!"
"But we always used to watch football on Sunday evenings," Norma protested. "Before ...." She didn't need to complete her sentence; all five knew to what she was referring.
"I'm just not into a football game, either," Holly said. "How about we get a movie?"
"Knowing you guys, it'll probably be some 'chick flick'!" Norma scoffed derisively.
"Actually," Belinda countered, "I'd like to watch 'Spaceballs'."
Vicky rolled her eyes. "Good grief! What's wrong with something nice and sweet?" She mentioned three movie titles.
"Yuck!" Norma said with a scowl. "Maybe you can talk Rob into watching those, but I don't want anything to do with that kind of movie. 'Spaceballs' sounds like fun."
"Do you want to send out for pizza?" Marta asked, now that a movie had been selected.
"Sure," the other girls chimed in.
"Uh, count me out," Vicky replied. "Rob is coming over, and he's taking me out for dinner and a movie."
"Isn't that, like, ten of the last twelve nights you've been out with him?" Holly asked, raising her eyebrows in a suggestive way.
"No!" Vicky said defensively. Then she smiled sheepishly. "It's actually eleven of twelve."
"Sounds like someone's getting pretty serious," Marta said, kidding her.
"He's nice. I like spending time with him," Vicky said defensively. "But we're not getting too serious."
"Not yet," Belinda added with a grin. "Give it time."
Vicky scowled at her. "We are NOT that serious!" she said again, more defensively.
"Whatever," Marta said, smiling.
In short order, the girls had selected pizza toppings, and phoned in the order. Before they could start the movie, Vicky's cell phone rang. As soon as she answered it, the others noticed her demeanor changed completely. She was happy, almost giddy, as she talked to whoever had called her.
"That was Rob, I take it," Holly said as soon as Vicky hung up.
"He's going to meet me outside in five minutes," Vicky reported. Her eyes sparkled with contentment, even bliss, as she prepared to go to dinner with Rob. Her voice had a happy lilt. It was extremely obvious that she seemed to be as smitten with Rob as he was with her.
"Have a good time, but don't stay out too late. You and I are on opening shift tomorrow," Holly cautioned Vicky, "and I don't want to have to drag you there, half-asleep again!"
"Okay, _mother_!" Vicky said with a humorous but sarcastic tone. She grabbed her purse and strode confidently from the room.
"I'm going to my room to watch the football game," Norma said suddenly. She sounded almost angry. "As soon as the pizza gets here," she added.
After Norma had taken her share of the pizza and left, Belinda asked, "What's with her?"
"I don't know," Marta answered, "but she's been moody for the past couple of days."
"She'd be a lot happier if she just decided to 'go with the flow'," Holly said. "I know it got a lot easier for me when I quit fighting it."
"I don't think it's that," Marta cautioned. "I heard Grandmother and Anya talking about her attitude after she had to sell a lifetime pass."
"Wow!" Holly whistled. "I know she's had the toughest time adjusting, and then working the booth and selling passes? No wonder she's a little touchy."
"I heard she’d yelled at Grandmother that she wants to quit," Marta continued. "She's really having a rough time."
"And I suppose the fact that we're doing okay bugs her a lot, too?" Belinda asked.
"Imagine how she feels about Vicky getting serious with Rob," Holly added. "And every time we go out clubbing, she won't dance."
"I wonder if Grandmother knows how hard a time she's having," Marta speculated.
"I'm sure she does," Holly answered. "She knows everything that goes on in and around her park."
Anya sat at a table in the back room of a quaint little shop in the mall. Across the table was her friend Danni, and spread out on the table were sheets and sheets of paper with intricate drawings and writing in a strange language.
Anya stared at one drawing intently. She shook her head, and picked up another one. "This is the spell for the breast forms, right?" she asked.
Danni nodded. "But I don't see it in Vicky's spell," she replied.
Anya frowned. "I don't either. But ... isn't there a hole in the breast form spell?" she asked.
Danni stared at the spell formula, and then nodded. "Yes, I think so." She picked up another piece of paper. "And the corset spell — it's got a similar hole!"
Anya started to say something, but she stopped herself. She grabbed another piece of paper. "This is the wig spell, right?"
Danni nodded. "But ...." Her eyes widened. "Look at this piece," she said, pointing to part of the spell.
"What?" Anya asked cautiously. She was about to ask Danni, but she suddenly saw something. "That fits ... here!" she said, indicating part of the corset spell.
"And this part, fits ... here!" Danni continued, looking at the breast form spell.
Anya's eyes widened. "That means ... the wig spell is like a lock that ties all the pieces together, right?"
Danni grinned. "I think that's it!" She shook her head. "Just like the old coot to make it a puzzle."
From a corner of the shop, a man's voice sang out, "I heard that!"
Anya and Danni laughed. "So ... if the lock isn't present, then what would happen?"
Danni frowned again. "I suppose another spell would ... leak into the breast form and corset spells?" she guessed.
"And all the other pieces." Anya frowned again. "The question is, how would it leak in and mix?"
Danni looked at Vicky's 'trace', a diagrammatic view of the interacting spells that were on her. Her eyes widened suddenly. She grabbed a piece of paper and began to sketch some notes. "Here are the pieces of the breast form spell," she explained as she wrote. "And we can find these components in Vicky's spell, right?"
Anya saw what Danni was getting at. "If you take the main connector out of the breast form spell, and weave in Grandmother's spell ...." She doodled, and she suddenly saw the pattern emerge. "I think we've got it!"
Danni gave Anya a high five. "At least the mechanics of how they interacted," she said.
Anya grinned. "From here, unraveling the pieces should be easy."
"And then what?"
Anya paused. "Then?" She bit her lip. "Then, we try to disentangle the SRU spell components from Grandmother's spell, and if we can do that, then Grandmother's spell would be reversible. It'd fall apart, in fact!"
"And Vicky would be restored to Vic?"
Anya winced. "Yeah. If she still wants to."
Later that evening, Anya entered the office, where Grandmother was working on the daily receipts. Grandmother glanced up immediately. "You're making progress on Vicky's spell?" she asked.
Anya frowned. "Sometimes, I wish you'd let me tell you my surprise before you read my mind! It kind of spoils the effect!"
Grandmother shrugged. "Sorry."
Anya slumped down in a chair. "Danni and I think we've got the spell intermix figured out."
Grandmother frowned. "Why the sad expression?"
Anya sighed heavily. "First of all, we're only about ninety-eight percent certain that we've got it right. If we're slightly wrong, it could be ... harmful to Vicky."
"But that's not the real reason you're hesitant, is it?"
Anya shook her head. "Vicky has really got her life straight now. She's happy, especially dating Rob. They're both really happy."
Grandmother thought for a moment. She was reading Anya's thoughts again. "You _have_ to tell her, dear," she said. "She deserves to know."
"Is it really fair?" Anya asked. "She's happy now, possibly happier than she's ever been in her life. She's got so much going for her now. What if she gives all that up, to try to regain a life that she lost years ago? What if she's not happy if she returns to being Vic?"
Grandmother shook her head sadly. "That's not ours to decide, dear," she said.
"I know," Anya said, looking down at her folded hands. "I wish ... that Danni and I hadn't unraveled the spells." She shook her head. "But I had to work on it — because I promised Vicky that I would. Now look at what's come of that."
"Are you going to tell her, or would you rather I did it?"
Anya took a deep breath, thinking about what this might mean to her friend. "I'll tell her," she said, sadly.
"That's a cute outfit," Belinda squealed with delight, gazing into the store window in the mall. Marta was beside her, and the two were obviously having a good time.
"Yeah," Marta agreed enthusiastically. "I could see you wearing that."
Belinda laughed. "I wish. We don't make enough for this shop." She glanced down the corridor. "Topside is having a sale. That's closer to my budget."
"So ask the Boss for a raise!" Marta giggled.
Belinda's eyes widened. "You've _got_ to be kidding, right?"
"Gotcha!" Marta laughed. "You don't seriously think she'd give us a raise, do you?"
Belinda turned down the mall corridor and started walking. "I'm not going to find out."
"You try first, and if she doesn't bite your head off, I'll give it a try."
Marta stuck her tongue out at Belinda playfully. "How do you know that I haven't already asked for a raise?"
"Because you're just as chicken as I am," Belinda giggled. "Why don't you just admit it?"
Marta turned toward a store. "Ooh, a shoe sale! Come on!" she said enthusiastically, changing the subject abruptly. "I need some new flats for the fall semester. My old pair is almost worn out!"
Half an hour later, after trying on at least fifteen pairs of shoes, Marta and Belinda emerged from the store. Marta was carrying a bag with her old shoes since she was wearing her new pair. Not surprisingly, Belinda also had a new pair of shoes. The two wandered happily toward Topside, to see if there were any blouses or tops on sale.
"I'm a bit hungry. Do you want to stop for lunch?" Marta asked.
"Sure. Salad Express?"
Marta made a show of displaying her figure. "Of course. How else am I going to keep my girlish figure?" she giggled.
"Skip desserts and exercise a lot," Belinda replied with a grin, "like I do."
The two found an unoccupied table to sit and eat. "Are you ready for another semester of biology and anatomy?" Marta asked between bites.
Belinda shrugged. "I don't think we have much of a choice, do we?"
"My mom said it'll go by faster than we think, and we'll be graduates before we know it."
"Yeah, but if you're going to med school, you'll have a lot more years of college and residency ahead of you," Belinda cautioned.
"So I'm a glutton for punishment. It'll be worth it," Marta said. "Look at Dr. Chastity. I really admire what she does. She's good, and she loves being a doctor."
"You're not suggesting ...?" Belinda asked, her eyes narrowed as she frowned.
Marta laughed. "First of all, the position is taken. Second, I'm not sure I want to stay a woman, which I'd have to if I wanted to work at the park." She peered at Marta. "How about you? Have _you_ thought about staying?"
Belinda nearly choked on her salad. "I'd be lying if I said it hasn't crossed my mind, but ... no, I'm going back to my old life."
"I wondered, because you weren't really into the game the other night," Marta pointed out.
"Neither were you," Belinda countered almost immediately.
"Okay, so I'm not as much into macho things since we got changed. I bet you're the same way."
Belinda laughed. "Maybe sometimes. That's what's kind of spooky. If the Boss wanted, she could make us completely comfortable ... this way ... and we wouldn't be any the wiser. She could probably make us want to stay."
"I don't think she would, or she'd have done it already," Marta rebutted. "You know she used to do that a lot."
"Yeah, but thankfully, Anya has gotten her to mellow a lot. Otherwise, I'd hate to think of what we'd be."
Marta's eyes narrowed a tiny bit. "Don't look, but those guys at the next table are checking us out."
Belinda nearly turned, but she stopped herself. When she found a convenient time, she casually glanced around. "So they are," she said. She raised one eyebrow quizzically. "Why are you acting like you're enjoying it?"
"I am _not_ enjoying it," Marta sputtered.
"It certainly looks like you're enjoying it," Belinda laughed. She lowered her voice and leaned a bit closer. "And to be honest, sometimes, I find myself thinking that it's nice to have guys notice me. It makes me feel ... attractive."
Marta's eyes widened in surprise, before she slowly nodded. "I know what you mean," she admitted sheepishly. "Sometimes, it's kind of cool." She grinned. "And if anyone tells you that you're not cute, they're lying or jealous."
Belinda blushed at Belinda's compliment. "Hey, do you want to go to a movie?" she asked, changing the subject.
Marta waggled her eyebrows in a suggestive manner. "Are you asking me out on a date?" she giggled.
Belinda's crimson cheeks glowed all the brighter. "No," she stammered. "It's just ... I figured we could take in a movie instead of shopping the rest of the afternoon." She shrugged. "Norma is kind of ... I don't know ... distant? And with Vicky spending all her time with Rob ...."
Marta laughed. "I was just kidding. And yes, that sounds like fun. Do you want to go to the Mega-Cinema Complex, or to the dollar theater?"
Belinda took out her cell phone. "Why don't you see what's at the dollar theater, and I'll see what's at the Complex."
"Sounds like a plan."
"And it is NOT a date!" Belinda added with emphasis.
Holly was just finishing up with the morning swimming class when Liz came running to her. "Holly," she called urgently.
Holly looked up from where the pre-teen girls were climbing out of the pool. She knew that she could never take her eyes off them, even for just a moment. While she hadn't started her lifeguard training yet, and there were two certified lifeguards on duty at the pool, Holly didn't take any chances. "Yeah?" she answered Liz.
"Grandmother wants you in the office."
Holly's eyes widened. "Oh? What's up?"
Liz shrugged. "She didn't say. But it's probably something to do with the forms for lifeguard. I don't _think_ you're in trouble."
"Okay," Holly answered. If she was in trouble, it was for something that she couldn't remember. "I'll go over as soon as ...."
"She said ASAP. You better get moving, unless you want her to get impatient."
"Uh, no. That's always a bad idea," Holly laughed. She grabbed her towel, and as she walked quickly toward the entrance plaza and office, she used the towel to dry herself, at least a bit.
In another part of the park, Anya walked quickly and deliberately toward the Tiki Hut dining pavilion. Behind her, two employees were scurrying to keep up. Anya didn't have to look; guided by her magic sense, she went right to the counter. "Marta, Norma," she began without any polite greetings, "Grandmother wants you in the office now."
"But ...." Marta started to object.
"Now. Kiki and Laurie will cover for you." She turned to leave, fully expecting Norma and Marta to fall in beside her.
With a shrug and an uneasy glance between them, the two girls strode behind Anya toward the office building.
Vicky scowled as she walked across the pavement. It was her day off, and she didn't want to be at the park. She had been spending the morning planning a picnic with Rob, until she got a phone call telling her that she had to be at the office at eleven sharp. As she neared the building, she noticed Belinda, who was similarly walking toward the office. Vicky frowned. Something was going on. Belinda had the afternoon shift, starting at two. It was unusual for Grandmother to call employees in early.
After swiping their employee passes, the two girls strode purposefully toward the office door, the one that opened into the park. As they neared, they were both startled to see Holly, Marta, and Norma also coming toward the office. Belinda's eyes widened with surprise, but Vicky's narrowed with suspicion.
As soon as they got in the door, they found Grandmother sitting in her casual area, a conversational furniture arrangement. "Please, sit down," she said warmly. "Can I get you anything to drink?"
The girls glanced among themselves, and collectively shook their heads. They sat, while Anya scooted a chair from her desk to sit in.
"I'm sure that, by now, you're all very curious why I called you here," Grandmother said in a neutral tone.
"Uh, yeah," Holly said uneasily. "When Liz sent me, I thought it was about the lifeguard class, but now," she glanced around her compatriots, "I'm not sure. And I'm a little nervous all of a sudden."
The other girls nodded their agreement. Their boss was, after all, a powerful magic user, and they had made her angry before.
Grandmother smiled, a disarmingly pleasant expression. "You're not in trouble. Far from it, in fact."
"Then ... what?" Belinda blurted.
"You girls have all been very hard workers, and very loyal employees. You've done everything on your job description, and you've gone beyond what you _had_ to do because you all take pride in doing everything right. That's extremely commendable, and I want you to know that I'm very pleased with the example you've set for my other employees."
"But?" Holly asked hesitantly.
Grandmother laughed. "But nothing. I wanted to tell you personally how pleased I am with your work, and to let you know that you've all got a bonus coming in your paycheck."
"A bonus?" Marta's mind immediately turned to the outfit she and Belinda had seen in the mall the other day.
Grandmother grinned. "Not like that." She glanced at Anya, who was equally curious. "As of next Friday, your debt to me is paid in full. Your obligations to me and the park are over."
"But ...?" Holly started to say. She was stunned; this was the last thing she'd expected. "By my calculations, I still owe over eight thousand dollars!" she protested. "It wouldn't be fair to you!"
Norma, on the other hand, was nearly dancing in her seat. "Yes!" she shouted over and over as she pumped her fists in the air in celebration of the news.
"Okay, now you need to get back to work," Grandmother said, dampening the reactions. "Vicky, I know you need to run for your picnic with Rob." She stood and unceremoniously walked to her desk, where she plopped down behind her computer.
Slowly, unbelievingly, Holly and Marta walked out of the office, while Norma was practically skipping down the pathway. Before she left, Belinda caught Marta's eye; in the glance they exchanged, there was uncertainty, and perhaps, a bit of unhappiness.
Anya followed Holly. At the point the path split between the Tropical Paradise and the Junior Lifeguard Academy sections of the park, Anya caught up to Holly. "Holly," she called out, catching the girl's attention.
"Yes?" Holly answered, a bit stiffly and formally. Her reaction was different from what Anya had expected.
"Let's go sit down, okay?" She gently held Holly's arm and guided her to the employee's hut. Inside, Anya opened the refrigerator. "Diet soda?" she asked.
Holly shrugged. "I guess," she answered unenthusiastically.
Anya retrieved two sodas, opened them, and handed one to Holly. She gestured toward the overstuffed chairs. "What's on your mind?" she asked as she eased into one of the chairs. "You don't seem ... thrilled with the news, like I would have expected."
Holly sipped her soda, still bearing a shell-shocked expression. "It's not what I expected," she said softly.
"And you're not sure you want this now, right?" Anya asked with confidence.
Holly nodded slowly. "Two months ago, I was like Norma — I couldn't wait to be through with working here. But now ...." She shook her head. "I don't know why, but the thought of not working here, of changing back — it makes me sad. It feels like I'm going to lose something."
"When did you start wondering if you'd change back?" Anya asked.
"I'm not sure," Holly replied sadly. "A few weeks ago, I was working in the Tiki Hut, and there was a guy who'd changed, but was miserable. He missed seeing that his wife had included him in her 'girls' day, and that he could have fun. It got me thinking that I shouldn't be feeling so sorry for myself, but should enjoy things while I have a chance."
"Going out with Chuck a few times added to your confusion, too, I bet," Anya added with a knowing smile.
Holly didn't bother reacting to Anya's knowledge of her secret. "Yeah. He's so darned nice, and fun to be with. On our last date, I had a warm feeling like I'd be safe and happy if I spent the rest of my life with a man like him." She took another gulp from her drink. "And then Liz and Grandmother offered to let me get certified as a lifeguard." She shook her head. "I felt like I belonged."
"How about with your other friends, or your family?"
"It's not better or worse," Holly said. "It's just different. Instead of being a 'chip off the old block', I'm daddy's little girl. It's different with Mom, too. It's like she's closer in some ways, and not in others. Even my little brother is still a pest, but in a different way." She shook her head.
"You don't have to choose right now," Anya told her gently. "You can stay a girl for as long as you want."
"But the others ... won't they think it's weird?"
Anya shook her head. "When they change back, they'll remember their experiences. If you don't change back, I can make it so they don't remember Hank, but always remembered Holly."
"Yeah, you can do that, can't you?" Holly said with a chuckle.
"I'm sorry Grandmother surprised you like that," Anya apologized. "To tell you the truth, I didn't even know she was going to pardon you girls."
Holly shook her head slowly. "I thought I'd be happy when this day came. I didn't think I'd be so ... stunned, and sad."
"What gives?" Anya demanded as she walked into the office.
Grandmother was seated at her desk, looking at some industry catalogs in hope of finding new attractions and features for the park. She looked up at Anya, puzzled. "About what?"
"You know what," Anya said. She sat down in one of the leather chairs opposite Grandmother's desk. "You're letting them off the hook, and they still owe us ... you ... about forty thousand for repairs."
Grandmother smiled sweetly. "Part of those repair costs were going to come due for maintenance soon, regardless of whether they damaged the rides or not," she explained casually. "With the repairs, we're seeing lower electric bills, because Jenny was able to use some of the repair work to get some important upgrades."
"That doesn't add up to forty thousand," Anya countered.
"No, it doesn't," Grandmother admitted. She thought for a moment. "You know that Norma was here to see me a couple of weeks ago?"
"About the lifetime pass? Yeah. She's done nothing but grumble about it."
Grandmother nodded. "She was doing a first-class job. Now, though, she's quickly becoming a disgruntled employee, and her attitude is going to catch on with the staff. In fact, I've already heard some chatter that's not healthy among employees."
"I think I get it," Anya said. "If you keep her, she's going to affect the entire staff. But with the debt, you can't get rid of her."
Grandmother nodded. "She always had the hardest time accepting the change. She did a good job, however, and was a model employee." She shook her head. "That's changed, and she's unhappy, and getting closer and closer to the point of doing something rash and desperate."
"And to be fair to the others, you need to forgive _all_ their debts."
"If I let Norma change back now, she can regain her life as Norm. If I make her wait until the debt is paid, though ...." Grandmother shook her head sadly. "I can't do that to someone."
"I know she didn't like selling that lifetime pass."
Grandmother sighed. "The worse part, though, is that she sees the other girls being happy, accepting the change. Norma — and Norm — have very strong core identities, and she's afraid that if she gives in, even if just a little bit, to being a girl, she'll end up staying a girl. That's why she's gotten unhappier. She's scared."
"So we might lose five good employees," Anya said, her words tinged with sadness. She'd come to really like the girls.
"Either that, or we lose one after she spreads discontent. And she might be driven to something ... unpleasant." Grandmother shook her head. "For Norma's sake, I couldn't let that happen."
Vicky turned at the sound of her name from across the semi-crowded mall. She glanced around, until she saw Anya coming toward her. She smiled and waved, but then she saw something in Anya's expression that made her wary.
"Hi, Vicky," Anya said warmly when she was near her friend. "How are things going?"
Vicky knew something was up just from Anya's demeanor. "What’s up?" she asked, her voice tinged with caution.
Anya tried to laugh. "I can't fool you guys any more, can I?"
"We've known each other for quite some time," Vicky acknowledged. "The more you know a person, the harder it is to hide something."
"True," Anya said, still not divulging anything.
"So what's on your mind?" Vicky reiterated.
Anya grimaced momentarily. "Can we go somewhere ... private ... to talk?"
Vicky's heart raced, and it felt unpleasant. Only the day before, she'd found out that her debt had been forgiven. Now Anya wanted to talk to her privately, and Anya's demeanor let Vicky know that it was a serious discussion. With a start, Vicky's eyes widened and her mouth dropped open. "The spells!" she whispered.
Anya bit her lower lip and nodded. "How about if we take a walk in Dixon Park?" she suggested.
Vicky nodded. "Uh, yeah. I guess." She didn't want to guess what news Anya had. She was terribly afraid that she wasn’t going to like it, or Anya would have been cheerier in giving her the news.
The drive to the park was somber, even funereal in mood. When they started walking, Vicky seemed reticent to talk. Finally, Anya steered them to a picnic table a bit off the walking and running path.
"Okay, what's up?" Vicky asked bluntly.
Anya sighed heavily. She rested her elbow on the table, and her forehead rested in her hand. She closed her eyes, wishing that she didn’t have to tell Vicky. "Um, Danni and I ... figured out the spells.
Vicky sat, stunned, for a few seconds. "Are you sure?" she finally asked.
"Yeah. Danni and I cracked how the two are interacting, and how to pry them apart."
Vicky turned and stared out across the green field and duck pond of the park. For several long moments, she sat wordlessly. Only the dampness on her cheeks betrayed any emotion.
"Vicky?" Anya asked softly when she saw Vicky's tears.
"I ... I was starting to hope that this day would never come," Vicky said as she wiped at her face.
"I know," Anya said sympathetically. "And I really thought about not telling you, especially after you and Rob started dating steadily."
Vicky swallowed — hard. The few tears became a steady stream. "I ... didn't want this," she cried. "Everything was going so well — finally." She turned to Anya, and leaned on her shoulder, sobbing. "Why did you tell me?" she asked. "Why?"
Anya put her arm around her friend. "I promised you that I'd tell you if I figured it out. Your future isn't my decision."
Belinda glanced up from her book and peeked at Marta. She saw that her friend seemed to be highly distracted. Belinda looked back down at the textbook, the one she and Marta were studying as they tried to do a little get-ahead work before the semester started.
"What?" Marta asked, having seen Belinda look up.
Belinda lifted her gaze again. "Nothing," she said. Her voice was flat, devoid of emotion.
Marta sensed something was wrong. "It's just no fun ... since Grandmother gave us the news, is it?"
Belinda closed her eyes and nodded. When she opened them again, she saw that Marta's eyes reflected her own mood. "I was just thinking," she said softly.
"Lots of things. Mostly about how much fun we've been having."
"Yeah, I know," Marta echoed. "You're my best friend."
"And you," Belinda added. "But we weren't best friends before, were we?"
Marta shook her head "No. And somehow, I don't think we would stay best friends after we change back, either."
"That's what I was afraid of," Belinda said sadly. "I feel like that, but I don't understand why."
"We didn't have any common interests, remember? We were just frat brothers.”
"I was just thinking," Belinda started to say, but she stopped abruptly, fearing what she was actually thinking.
"What?" Marta set down her pen and the book. "What were you thinking?"
Belinda tried to laugh, but it was hollow and empty. "I was just thinking that maybe I'd stay, and not change back."
"It'd be weird to have a best friend who's a girl. It would be awkward."
Belinda couldn't stop the next words from her mouth. "I was thinking that we could be more than just friends," she blurted.
Marta's reaction was not quite what Belinda expected. Instead of laughing or ridiculing the idea, she started bawling. "I ... I was thinking the same thing," she said through her tears. "I was already planning it," she added.
Belinda sat, in stunned silence, as she considered her friend's words. The fact that the two of them had the same idea wasn't coincidental. Neither wanted to give up the close relationship that they had. In fact, they both wanted something even closer. Now, they didn't know how to proceed.
For a moment, Vicky forgot about everything and just enjoyed Rob's kiss. He'd met her at a sidewalk café downtown for dinner, and as soon as he'd spotted her sitting and waiting, he walked more quickly and then trotted. As soon as she stood, he swept her into his arms and gave her a very passionate kiss.
Alas, she couldn't help but think of everything else going on in her life. The moment of passion and escape from the problems passed, and she felt Rob's arms sliding down off her back.
"I haven't seen you in a while," Rob said eagerly. He pulled out a chair and sat down opposite Vicky at the little table. If he was aware that the two of them had created a bit of a scene, he didn't give any indication.
"Work's been pretty busy," Vicky lied. "You know — end of summer, everyone getting in the last vacation time before schools start again. A couple of girls have already gone home or back to school, so we're pulling long shifts to try to keep up with the crowds."
"Well, I was sure it wasn't because you were avoiding me," Rob said with a grin.
"Why would I do that?" Vicky answered, half-heartedly. She felt butterflies in her stomach as she thought about how to tell Rob her news.
"Well, the extra hours will help paying back Grandmother or getting some extra spending money for the school year," he joked. He saw the reaction on Vicky's face when he mentioned the debt to Grandmother. "What's up with her?" he asked.
"Um," Vicky began, her voice uncertain, "as of Friday, Grandmother said our debts are paid off."
"Great!" Rob said. "Are you going to keep working there part-time to earn extra money?"
Vicky nodded. "Yeah. It's helpful to have cash."
Rob put his hands on Vicky's atop the table. "I know we've been seeing each other more and more the past few months. I'm glad we've been dating, because it confirms what I always suspected, which is that you're a very special girl."
"Rob," Vicky started to caution him. "There's something I need to tell you."
"You told me about the park," Rob said, smiling. "It's my turn."
Rob looked down for a moment, thinking hard. "I ... I wanted to tell you that I'm madly in love with you," he said. As he spoke, his hand was fumbling in his pocket. "And I wanted to ensure that you stay a very special part of my life." He pulled a small object from his pocket and extended it toward Vicky's hand. "I want to spend the rest of my life with you. Will you marry me?"
Vicky started bawling as she stared at the ring. "Oh, Rob," she cried, "why did you have to ask now?"
"I ... I don't understand," he said, confused.
"Anya ...." She fought her emotions. "The reason I wanted to meet you is to tell you that Anya ... figured out ... the spell." She wiped at her cheeks. She stood suddenly. "I'm sorry, Rob," she cried before turning and fleeing the sidewalk café. Behind her, Rob sat in stunned silence, staring after her long after she'd left him.
"Why all the tears?" Melanie asked Vicky.
Vicky was lying on her bed, face-down in her pillow, crying steadily. She'd been crying from the time Rob had proposed, and still the tears wouldn't stop. "Why now?" she sobbed. "Why did this have to happen now?"
"What?" Melanie asked. She sat on the edge of Vicky's bed, and rubbed her shoulders gently. "What happened?"
"Anya figured out the spell," Vicky said through her tears. "I was going to tell Rob, because he deserves to know."
"Didn't you meet him for dinner?" Mel asked.
Vicky nodded. "Before I could tell him, though, he proposed!" she wailed.
"Oh," Mel said, her mouth hanging agape. "Wow!"
Vicky didn't reply; she just continued crying into her pillow.
"What do you want to do?" Mel asked simply. Vicky was surprised by the simplicity of the question. "What do _you_ want to do?" Mel asked again.
"I ... I don't know," Vicky said. Slowly, she rolled over onto her side, and then, with a little help from Mel, she sat up. Mel put her arm around her friend and roommate, and let Vicky's head rest on her shoulder.
"Do you love Rob?" Mel asked.
"Yes," Vicky replied instantly, with no hesitation in her voice. "He's so sweet, and he's fun to be with. He treats me like I'm a princess."
"Yeah," Mel agreed with a smile. "Everyone knows he's nuts about you. What about changing back — to Vic?"
Vicky closed her eyes and thought for a moment. "I'm ... I'm not sure," she admitted. "I don't know how much of Vic is left in me."
"Probably a lot more than you know," Mel said.
"I don't know if I can go back. I don't know what my life would be like. Part of me really wants to go back, and part of me is afraid." She shook her head. "It's funny. I'm finally getting really comfortable with myself, and everything is going okay, and then I get offered an 'out', to get my old life back."
"But you're not sure you want your old life, is that it?" Mel asked.
Vicky nodded. "I don’t know what I want."
Mel stroked her hand along Vicky's cheek tenderly. "I think you _do_ know. I think you're just afraid to admit it to yourself."
As the park closed Friday evening, Holly walked toward the exit. It had been a long day, and a long week. As she passed by the office, she saw Jenny and Melinda, in very sexy swimwear, sitting at a table in the entrance plaza. She smiled and waved.
"Got plans for the weekend, Holly?" Jenny asked.
"I'm scheduled to work tomorrow, then I've got Sunday off," Holly answered. "How about you guys?"
Melinda smiled and leaned closer to Jenny. "Natty has a sleepover with Megan and her friends, so it's just the two of us tomorrow."
Holly smiled. The affection between the two was plain for all to see. "Have a good weekend, then. I'll see you on Monday. I've got to pop in the office to discuss a couple of things with Grandmother." She turned and walked into the office.
"Did it seem like she had a little extra bounce in her step?" Jenny asked Melinda.
"I was going to ask you the same thing. I wonder what's going on?" Melinda replied.
A few minutes later, Jen and Melinda watched as Marta and Belinda walked into the office. Not long after that, Anya went into the office with Vicky.
"Something's up. I wonder what?" Jen asked.
"We'll find out soon enough," Melinda answered. "Let's see if we can get Natty to hurry up, and then I can take you out to dinner."
"Thanks for meeting me," Vicky said as Rob sat down across the table from her.
Rob looked like his world had been shattered. In a way, it had, when Vicky had told him about the spell. "I'm always happy to see you," he replied. His voice had an edge to it that made it clear that he really _wasn't_ happy.
Vicky put her hand atop Rob's. "I'm sorry I ran out on you like I did. I was pretty ... overwhelmed."
"I can imagine."
"No, you can't," Vicky said sadly. "To have been stuck, to have been told that there's no way to ever go back, to feel despair at losing part of your identity." She shook her head. "And then, just when things were finally settling down, when it seemed like my life was getting back on a track that I liked, to be told that I _could_ go back?"
Rob sat in silence, knowing that he could never understand what Vicky had gone through. He looked down, afraid of what he'd see if he looked in her eyes. He'd lost her, he knew.
"Rob," she said softly, tenderly, "I need to tell you what I've decided."
Rob looked at her, fearing the worst. He'd given his heart and soul to her, and now, he knew, she was going to take away his hopes and dreams.
"You asked me a question."
"You asked me a question," Vicky repeated. "Didn't you?"
Rob nodded mutely, still not quite sure where she was going.
"The answer is yes," she said boldly. "Yes, yes, yes!"
Rob was stunned for a moment, and then his eyes widened. "Do you mean ...?"
"I suppose I should let you do this the right way," Vicky laughed. "If you still have it with you, then I need to let you ask again, so I can answer the right way."
Rob sighed. "I didn't ...." He suddenly felt something warm in his pants pocket. Frowning, he reached in, and his eyes widened in surprise when his fingers touched the small velvet-covered box. He pulled the box from his pocket, opened it, and produced the ring. "I wish I knew how Anya does that," he said with a smile. Once more, he held forth the ring toward Vicky, one hand holding hers atop the table. "Vicky, I would like to spend the rest of my life with you, if you'll have me."
Vicky held up her hand invitingly, and he slipped the ring on her finger. "Yes," she said, this time with tears of happiness. "Yes, absolutely yes!" She stared at the ring for a moment, then stood and wrapped her arms around Rob. "Yes!" she cried again before kissing him passionately.
As soon she broke their kiss, Vicky said, excitedly, "We have to go show Mom! She and Dad are going to be so happy! They really, really like you, you know."
"So what do you want to do, toss a coin?" Marta asked sadly.
"I dunno," Belinda answered, with a glum expression. "Do you think we could try to be lesbians?" she tried to joke.
"Would you get serious?" Marta said angrily.
"I'm joking because I'm not sure what to do," Belinda retorted. "We both want a family, we both want to be close, and both of us want to stay for the other one." She shook her head. "How do we resolve that?"
"Will you regret changing back to Bill if we stay together?" Marta asked bluntly.
Belinda shook her head. "No. Not in the least bit. Not if I'm with you. How about you?"
Marta looked down for a moment. "I think I would," she said. "I'm ... too comfortable like I am. I can't see myself changing back."
Belinda put her hands atop Marta's. "Then it's settled. I'll change back, and you can stay as my girlfriend."
"Or more," Marta said with a wink. "We might need to celebrate a bit." She grinned. "There's something that I've been dying to try, ever since that night, but I've always been afraid. Now," she looked deeply into Belinda's eyes, "I'm not afraid anymore. Not with you, anyway."
For some reason, the band seemed livelier, the dance floor seemed more inviting, and the crowd seemed friendlier. Grandmother, Anya, and Liz sat with two guys and three girls, having some snacks as the music played.
"Too bad Norm didn't come along," Bill said sadly. Bill was sitting beside Marta, who had her hands on his, and was paying rapt attention to him and him alone. When he wasn't interacting with the others, Bill was likewise attentive only to Marta.
Grandmother shook her head sadly. "It was his choice."
"He never was happy, was he?" Holly asked, already knowing the answer.
"I think the final straw was when Norma had to sell a lifetime pass to an errant young man," the old woman said. "She threatened to quit and pay me back some other way, because she hated selling passes so much."
"He wouldn't answer my call or text message inviting him here," Marta chimed in. "I suppose we've lost him as a friend?"
Anya nodded solemnly. "Probably. You guys are all reminders to him of what his 'sentence' was like."
"And I bet he's pretty angry at us for staying, too," Vicky added.
"He's transferring to another college at the semester break. At least that's what one of the guys in the house said," Bill reported. "I can't believe he was that upset at what happened to us. He's ... running away from this place."
"Norma worked her tail off, more than she was required. Even though she hated it, she kept her word and fulfilled her obligation. That's pretty admirable, even if she didn't like what she was doing." Grandmother looked at Bill and Marta. "What's the news with you two?"
Bill smiled. "Since I'm planning to be a nurse, and Marta wants to go to med school, we'll have a lot of classes together."
"And a lot more time together outside of classes, too, I bet," Holly interjected.
Marta blushed, while Bill just smiled. "Marta is more than my best friend," he said proudly and lovingly. "We figured we'd date some more, until I'm ready to graduate, and then we'll see."
"Based on how things look now," Liz said with a grin, "I don't think you'll make it until graduation before you're making ... more personal arrangements!"
Rob rose to his feet and extended his hands toward Vicky. Smiling, she rose and let him escort her to the dance floor.
"She's almost insufferably proud of that ring," Holly observed. "She only shows it off when she's not sleeping or eating or dancing!"
Anya laughed. "She's been through a lot. She deserves her share of happiness for a change."
Marta turned toward Holly. "How about you? What are you going to do now, since you're not changing back?"
Holly smiled pleasantly. "I'm going to keep working at the park after I get my lifeguard certification. And outside of that," she shrugged, "who knows?"
"Maybe a few more dates with Chuck?" Marta suggested. "You've been out with him a few times already, haven't you?"
Holly's cheeks turned red. "Yeah," she muttered.
Anya smiled at her. "There's no need to be ashamed, Holly," she whispered.
"I'm not serious about him," Holly added, defensively. "It's just fun to go out."
Grandmother looked around the table. She raised her glass of soda. "Here's to some of the best employees I've ever had. Thank you for being a part of my park, and of our lives."
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