Bikini Beach: Heroes

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Bikini Beach — Heroes
ElrodW

A veteran, who's considered a hero, is tired and feels broken, because his injuries left him crippled and less than a man. When Anya offers him a pass to Bikini Beach, the hero has to decide if he's better as a broken hero, or a whole woman.

**********


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


Prologue


Sergeant Eduardo Martinez felt weak; the pain in his lower body seared hotter than any fire he'd ever felt. His left leg wasn't responding to his attempts to move; when his right leg moved, it felt like knives were carving into his flesh from his hip to his knee. His vision blurred as he struggled in vain to lift his body.

Around Eduardo, the angry crack of gunfire filled the air, and dust, the ever-present blowing, gritty dust that clogged lungs and weapons alike, mixed with the smoke of a burning truck. As he fought to remain conscious, he heard men — Americans — calling to each other, one screaming desperately into the radio for air support.

Moments before, Eduardo had been riding in his Humvee, escorting a convoy through one of the less-secure areas in Afghanistan, bringing fuel and supplies to a forward base. It all seemed calm, but Eduardo and the men in the convoy knew that looks were often deceiving. These were the circumstances when the soldiers had to be most alert. As if on cue, an improvised explosive device detonated. In an instant, any semblance of tranquility vanished. The IED ripped through a truck, killing the crew and tossing it to one side like a toy. The Humvee in which Eduardo rode was caught in the blast and spun about like a toy.

And then the enemy fire began. The ambush had been carefully planned; once a lead truck had been hit, insurgents with rocket-propelled grenades fired their deadly weapons at the vehicles of the disarrayed convoy. Three trucks and an up-armored Humvee were hit within seconds, and as the troops scrambled to dismount their lightly-armored vehicles and take cover, withering fire from the enemy's rifles and AKs tore into the troops. If not for the personal armor that every soldier was required to wear, the slaughter would have been nearly instantaneous and one-sided. As it was, the ceramic plates deflected and stopped enough bullets for the soldiers to take what cover they could find and return fire.

All the soldiers knew that the two Humvees with crew-served machine guns were prime targets for the insurgents. They could lay down significantly more firepower than the M4 carbines, and to a longer effective range. But one Humvee was burning from an RPG, and Eduardo's vehicle was out of action, a dead soldier at the machine gun, a mortally-wounded driver lying half-in and half-out of the Humvee, and Eduardo lay on the ground, the blast having ripped open the door and tossed him from the vehicle. Enough distance separated Eduardo's Humvee from the other troops that it was perilous to dash from cover to try to get to the vehicle and its machine gun; still, no fewer than four men lay bleeding or dead from having tried.

With pain threatening to steal away his consciousness, Eduardo reached up through the door and pulled mightily. His left leg was useless weight, and the right had barely any strength, so it was through arm-strength alone that Eduardo pulled himself up into the Humvee. So far, the enemy hadn't seen him moving. Once inside, he tugged at the lifeless body of the private who had been manning the gun; he almost retched at the sight of his comrade's face and head mangled by enemy gunfire. It furthered his resolve; Eduardo owed too much to his squad mates to let this happen to them. Ignoring the searing pain of his right leg and groin, Eduardo lurched up to the M240 machine gun.

It was suicide. The position was partially exposed and vulnerable. But Eduardo knew he had to try, or all of the team would end up dead before any help could arrive. He peered through gaps in the thin armor plate, and spied some tell-tale movement. Eduardo aimed the machine gun and pulled the trigger. Nothing happened. Cursing loudly, Eduardo cycled the action, and re-aimed. This time, he was rewarded with a rhythmic, rapid poom-poom-poom as the gun fired. With grim satisfaction, he saw the enemies crumple.

The enemy now knew that the machine gun was manned. The Humvee drew renewed interest; the clang of bullets impacting the armor was unnerving. A hot poker tore through Eduardo's left arm above his elbow. He grimaced at the new pain, and then, as if on a school holiday, scanned the surroundings. There — he saw the shadowy figures atop a nearby roof. He swung the gun, and again fired. More enemies fell to his fire.

Another burst of gunfire, and Eduardo turned the machine gun to a new target. He pulled, and only three bullets fired. He screamed in rage as he realized that the ammo belt was gone, used up. Then, he felt something pushing against him from inside the Humvee. He looked down, and saw another soldier — bleeding and dirty — pushing a belt of ammo up to him. The man had used the distraction of the firing machine gun to dash to help Eduardo. Ignoring the pain in his arm, barely able to stand on one leg, Sergeant Martinez opened the top cover and loaded the new belt.

For five agonizingly-long minutes, reloading the machine gun several times, Eduardo kept suppressing fire against the insurgents, despite another two wounds, until he heard the welcome 'whop-whop-whop' of a Blackhawk helicopter approaching. Most of the remaining insurgents scattered, and the incoming gunfire slowed and then stopped as an escort Apache gunship unleashed its own special brand of hell on the few enemies who had been brave, or foolish, enough to stick around.

Eduardo glanced down at the man handing him ammo, and for the first time, seemed to notice the pain all over his body. As he stared, almost uncomprehending, he saw his uniform pants glistening red with his own blood. Suddenly feeling lightheaded as his adrenaline surge faded, he tried to shift his weight, but his one good leg gave from under him as pain stabbed through him, and with a crack of his helmet against the rim of the top hatch and then a seat, Eduardo collapsed unceremoniously into the Humvee, critically low on blood, with multiple fragment and bullet wounds.

**********

Bikini Beach: Heroes

Anya and Grandmother sat in the front row of the Memorial Day celebration. Grandmother never missed one, and every year, she was sadder to find fewer old warriors, and fewer young people, at the ceremonies. Time was taking the veterans, but apathy was stealing the youth, robbing them of an understanding of the sacrifices made by those who'd given their all for their country.

Today was a little different. The ceremony was in Dixon Park this year, to dedicate a new memorial to the veterans. Anya glanced at the podium, to where an innocent-faced boy of fourteen, wearing a dress Boy Scout uniform, sat among dignitaries. The memorial was his service project, as a gift to the city, and more importantly, to the veterans — both living and dead — to permanently remember their courage and sacrifices. Beside him sat a genuine war hero, a recipient of two Purple Hearts and a Bronze Star for valor.

The presentation was impressive — a formal multi-service color guard, a band, speeches by local politicians, and finally, a ceremonial hand-over of the memorial to the city and to the local veteran's group, to care for and honor the dead. Most impressive, though, was the speech by the hero.

After the ceremony, as the people milled about, Anya went to the hero, while Grandmother went to talk to the young scout. Anya felt obligated to say 'thank you' to the keynote speaker. Unfortunately, many others wanted to meet Sergeant Martinez, get their pictures, and even get a few autographs. Eduardo, in an Army dress uniform, stood for as long as he could, but eventually, excusing himself, he sat down. Every motion he made was stiff, and his face was lined from battling constant pain. Finally, most of the curious were gone.

"That was a nice speech," Anya said to Eduardo.

Eduardo shrugged. "Same speech I give all the time," he answered blandly. He looked over the pretty brunette, trying to ascertain her motives — like he had so many times on his combat tours. One never knew when a civilian might be an enemy in disguise. In his present circumstances, though, the girls weren't a threat, but seemed to be always engaged in some type of hero-worship, and even trying to elevate their status among their cohort by seducing a genuine war hero.

"Are you bored with being a hero?" Anya asked, her eyebrow raised quizzically.

Eduardo glanced at the memorial, picking out the Army symbol from among the service emblems carved into the large granite stone. "It's more than I deserve," he said, his voice sounding thousands of miles away. "They're the heroes." The conversation was unlike any he'd experienced at these types of ceremonies, and his face showed wariness at the unexpected line of discussion.

"You're a hero, too," Anya countered. "You saved dozens of lives."

Eduardo nodded solemnly. "I guess so," he answered softly. "But being a hero doesn't pay the bills."

Anya could tell that there was much troubling the young man. He looked old, like he was in his fifties, even though he was, at most, in his early twenties. "Tell you what," she said with a smile, "how about if you let Grandmother and I treat you to lunch? There's a nice restaurant near our water park, and the food is fabulous." She saw him starting to protest. "Call it our way of saying thank you," she added.

Before Eduardo could protest, Anya said, with her pretty smile, "And I understand your desire to change out of your uniform, so you're not so conspicuous."

Eduardo eyed the girl uneasily as he began to reassess his opinion of her. She'd guessed his objection, and had countered even before he could vocalize it. Combat tours in war zones had made him very leery of unknown situations, and this girl had put him in an unknown situation.

Anya sensed his growing concern. "Don't worry, Sergeant," she said in her most pleasant voice. "We're not the enemy, and we don't want anything. Grandmother and I just want to say thanks, and buy you lunch."

"It seems that you’ve thought of every reason I might say ‘no’," Eduardo said with a shrug. "So I guess I'll say 'yes' instead."

"Good."

"And I usually go by Ed," Eduardo added. "It's less ... formal."

**********

Ed wore a light shirt, which showed off considerable scarring on his arms. Despite the heat and humidity, he wore long pants. His raven hair, close-cropped in a near-military style, and bronze skin, gave him an air of mystery and romance, like a movie-star Latin lover. He sat with the old woman and the girl Anya in the restaurant, and as they talked, he glanced around. There was no way he could have afforded to dine in the Palm Club; it was one of the fanciest and most exclusive restaurants in the city. He felt completely out of place, compared to the businessmen and women in their power suits, trying to impress each other or potential clients. Ed laughed lightly, the first time he had since meeting Anya in the park. "I could get used to living like this."

Anya smiled. "So could I," she said. "But I'm a lot more practical and frugal than Grandmother."

"Who says I'm not frugal?" Grandmother protested. "But I can splurge on a worthwhile occasion."

"I don't get it," Ed said, shaking his head. He didn't understand the situation — sitting with a very pretty brunette and her grandmother in a fancy restaurant.

"We like to reward heroes," Grandmother said simply. "You see, I lost a husband in the war," she added, her voice tinged with sadness at the memories, "so I understand the sacrifices young men — and their families — make when they serve their country."

Ed instantly felt guilty about doubting the sincerity of Grandmother and Anya. The old woman did understand sacrifice, and she appeared to be making a heartfelt gesture of gratitude and support. "Vietnam?" Ed asked simply.

Grandmother smiled sadly and shook her head. "Tarawa, in World War Two."

"You ... can't be _that_ old!" Ed exclaimed, stunned by her words. She looked like she was in her early sixties, not over eighty-five, which she would have had to be if she was a World War Two widow.

"It's not polite to mention age with women," Grandmother said, her eyes twinkling. "If I did talk about it, you'd find that I'm much, much older than that, even."

"Appearances can be deceiving," Anya said with a mischievous smile. "And I'm glad you realize that I'm not some airhead bimbo seeking to gain a moment in the sun by bedding a genuine hero," she added with a grin.

Ed's jaw was nearly on the floor. The young lady was either very good guessers, or she'd read his mind. And her abuela was a complete mystery.

Anya looked at Ed, sympathy in her eyes. He found himself feeling like she was staring at his very soul, the core of his being. It was a most unsettling feeling. "I know you live in constant pain," she said. "Even though it's summer, you won't wear shorts, because you don't want people seeing your scars or your prosthetic leg. And I know that you feel ... inadequate ... because of the other injury."

"Who ... who are you?" Ed asked, fear in his voice. These women frightened him. The girl had read his very feelings, and she knew about the injury he never talked about.

Anya glanced at Grandmother, and then smiled at Ed. "How would you like to take a day of rest, and not feel any pain? A day to feel whole again?"

"That's impossible," Ed said gruffly. "The best surgeons in the Army couldn't give that to me. What makes you think you can?"

"As we said," Grandmother explained patiently, "appearances can be deceiving. You see, we both practice magic."

"Magic? Hmph!" Ed muttered. "There's no such thing."

"Then how do you explain that I've read your mind, many times? How do you explain that Grandmother and I know all about your injuries?"

Ed frowned as he considered her questions. He _thought_ she'd been rather intuitive, but hadn't quite figured out how they did it.

"How do you like being a hero?" Anya changed the subject.

"Huh?"

"How do you like being a hero?"

Ed started to answer, but he paused. He couldn't lie to these two — he was certain that they'd see right through him if he tried. "Uh, I guess it's all I have."

"Is it worth the price?" Anya saw his eyes widen at her question as he pondered what his answer really was. She reached in her purse and pulled out what looked like a credit card. "This is a guest pass to our water park. We'd be honored if you were our guest next weekend, to take a break from your pain."

Grandmother continued the persuasion. "You're not working, if you call selling used cars a job," she added. "You don't have any appearances planned. I promise you, it'll be a relaxing day."

Ed tapped his prosthetic leg, his knuckles making a strange, plasticky thunk on the artificial leg. "You forget — I can't swim. Not any more, anyway. I'm not in shape for frolicking around in a water park."

"But you can rest and relax. That is what you want, isn't it?"

Ed started to speak, and then he paused. "I guess it _is_ what I need."

Later, on the ride back to the park, after they'd dropped off Sergeant Martinez, Grandmother decided to test Anya. "Is he going to come tomorrow?"

Anya had used her magic senses earlier at lunch, just after they'd given him the guest pass. "Yes," she answered simply. "He'll be there. He's too curious about us and the park."

"I saw the same thing when vets came home from my generation's war," Grandmother said sadly. "Being a hero is all he knows now. His girlfriend left him while he was recovering at Walter Reed."

"I know, Grandmother," Anya said impatiently. "She wanted to have children, but he's ... pretty much a eunuch now after what the blast did to his leg and ... parts."

"He's a very wounded soul. Being a hero is all he has left, but even that reminds him bitterly of all his friends and comrades that didn't make it." She shook her head. "It's no wonder that veterans suffer so many suicides."

"He'll be one, won't he?" Anya asked. She didn't need her magic to see what kind of grim future awaited Ed Martinez.

**********

In non-descript clothing, Ed limped across the parking lot. He could have parked in one of the handicapped spots, close to the office, but Anya could tell from across the parking lot that Ed was too proud to admit that he was handicapped, despite his obvious injuries. He winced with pain at every step. Around him, women and girls walked toward the gate; some looked at him with suspicion, some with pity, and some avoided his gaze entirely. He was slowly getting used to such treatment. He ignored them, avoiding their gazes, as he hobbled entrance gate.

Before he got very far, he saw Anya coming from the low, gray office building. She had her perpetual, almost infectious smile. "I'm glad you could make it," she said, wrapping her arms around him in a warm embrace.

"I'm not sure why I'm here," Ed admitted when Anya released the hug. "It just doesn't seem possible for me to have a good time in a water park." He rapped his knuckles on his artificial leg for emphasis.

Anya took his arm and led him toward the gate. "It's very possible."

"I don't understand."

Anya smiled, then at the gate, she instructed, "Swipe your pass when you go through the gate, and then change in the locker room."

"I ... didn't believe this, so I didn't bring swim trunks." Ed admitted sheepishly. "I think you understand why I don't exactly want to wear shorts."

"Yes, Ed, I understand. But you don't need to worry here."

"But ... how can I ...?" He was obviously concerned about his appearance and handicaps. His prosthetic leg would show, as would the massive scarring on his other leg and chest and left arm, and in a swim suit, the flat front of his swim trunks would accentuate his lack of ... manhood.

Anya put her hand gently and reassuringly on his arm. "Trust me. Everything will be okay."

For some reason, Anya had a very soothing, calming effect, and Ed found himself trusting her that things _would_ be okay. With a nod, he turned to the gate, and after swiping his card, he limped to the men's locker room.

After putting on the trunks Anya had provided, Ed turned on the shower and stepped in. He considered, for a moment, how fortunate he was this his prosthetic leg was a model that allowed him to shower without having to remove it. That alone simplified life — if only a bit. The spray was surprisingly warm and relaxing, and he started to forget his troubles. The pain eased, until, for the first time since the firefight, he felt no pain. Amazed, he finally stepped from the shower.

Sergeant Eduardo Martinez knew something was wrong. He hadn't learned to ignore signs and clues while he'd been overseas, and his body was giving him very strange signals. He felt something wet slapping against his shoulders, and his chest felt heavy in a strange way. Most importantly, though, his stride felt like it had before he'd lost his leg. He looked down, and gasped as he watched two bumps on his chest finish inflating into soft, round breasts.

His eyes wide with amazement and alarm, Ed stared for a moment, before turning his attention to his left arm, which was also pain-free. "Wha ...?" he stammered as he saw perfect skin on an arm that had been, moments before, badly scarred and blemished from the explosion and enemy bullets. His arms were finer, less muscular, and ended in dainty, feminine hands with painted fingernails.

Nearly in a state of mental shock, he looked back down, between the womanly bulges on his chest. He wasn't surprised to see the flat front of the swimsuit — having been essentially neutered by the shrapnel of the explosion, he'd become used to looking androgynous. The first thing, though, that caught his eye, was the sexy bikini bottom that had replaced his baggy trunks. The second thing he noticed was that the plastic-looking leg was gone. It looked like — and felt like — real flesh. Ed reeled from the thought that the two women really did use magic, and had somehow cast spells on him to turn him into a woman and make him whole. Unable to grasp the enormity of the changes, he sank back against a locker, and slid down until he was sitting on a bench, all the while staring at the impossible left leg.

He didn't hear the door open, nor did he hear the footsteps entering the locker room. He only became aware of Anya when she sat down beside him. He turned, and gasped. "Dios mio!" he cried as he crossed himself, his eyes wide with fear. "Eres una bruja! Santa Maria, protégéme!" He tried to back away from Anya, terrified of the young lady and the magical power he was certain she'd used on him, but he had already pressed his body into the corner between the wall and the locker, so he couldn't get further away.

Anya smiled. "I'm not a witch," she explained softly. "Well, not a wicked one, anyway." She tried to reassure the young lady cowering in fear. "I promised you a day free from pain, and able to relax and enjoy your day. That's what the park has given you."

"You ... cast some kind of spell and turned me in to a woman!" Ed cried, still unable to fully comprehend what had happened.

Anya nodded, still smiling. "Our water park caters to women. When a man enters, he becomes the woman he'd have been born as," she explained. "In your case, as a woman, you weren't injured in the Army, so you are whole again."

"Why do you do this to me?" he asked haltingly.

"So you can enjoy your day, pain-free and worry-free," Anya explained again. She waved her fingers while reciting some strange-sounding words. His eyes widened even more, and he cowered from her. "Don't worry," she said as she touched him on the forehead. "This will just help keep you from feeling any panic."

Ed calmed instantly at her touch. "Why ... did you do this?" he repeated uneasily.

"Call it a reward for serving your country," Anya said with a smile. "While you have a pass, you're a woman, because the park caters to women. In your case, the magic also healed you, taking away your ... injuries and scars." She stood and took his hands, helping him to his feet. "Come. Take a look at who, and what, you are for today." She led him around the corner, toward the exit door.

Ed stopped mid-stride as he saw his reflection in the mirror. He ... looked like his sister, who was a very beautiful Latina. The woman in the reflection was in her late twenties, trim, of modest height, and had the same wavy black hair as his sister Maria. She was beautiful; easily as attractive as Maria, who had won a few beauty pageants. Ed stared, open-mouthed, until he realized that his chest was uncovered, and he felt like he was gawking at his sister's naked breasts. Reflexively, his arm reached up to cover them.

Anya giggled. "Here," she said, holding out a bikini top that had appeared in her hands. "Put this on."

Without knowing how, he easily tied the top on. "How ...?" he stammered.

"It's part of the magic — to help you feel at ease and be able to do things that most women do. Tell me your name, your full name."

Ed frowned. Her request seemed quite odd. "Elsa Angela Martinez," he replied immediately. As soon as the words registered in his brain, he lifted a hand to cover his mouth, which had dropped open in shock.

"You'll change back to your male self about midnight," Anya said. "That gives you time to enjoy a little time at home, or out in public, before the spell wears off."

"I'm ... not going out in public ... like this!" Ed said sharply.

"But you can have a day of fun, and that’s why we brought you here." She opened the door and led Elsa out into the sun. "I'll give you a tour of the park, and then you can relax, and even play if you want. And your pass is a very special guest pass. If you get hungry, just show the pass to any of the concessions or dining areas, and it'll be our treat."

"I ... don’t' get it," Elsa said, a quizzical look on her face. "Why?"

Anya took her arm and led her into the park. "Because both Grandmother and I have soft spots for veterans and genuine heroes," she explained.

**********

Elsa hadn't played so hard in a very long time. As the sun slowly crept toward the western horizon, she lay on a raft in the Tropical Lagoon, lazing and resting from the activities. She smiled to herself; Anya had been right that a day like this would be refreshing. Anya had introduced her to a couple of very nice young ladies — Lena and Hailey - and they'd spent the day trying every ride they could, maximizing their fun. They'd giggled together when they'd lost their tops on the giant water slides, they'd splashed and body-surfed in the wave pool, they'd floated lazily around Old Man River, and they'd screamed with delight as the tubes carried them down the twisty aqua-blue tube slides. Even though the other two ladies had left, Elsa was stretching her time in the park, trying to take advantage of every second of the peaceful bliss she was enjoying.

"Elsa," Anya called from the shore. "It's closing time."

Startled, Elsa broke out of her reverie and looked to the shore. "Oh," she said apologetically. She glanced around and noticed that there were very few other patrons in the lagoon. "Sorry." She quickly paddled to shore, and pulled the raft up onto the sand. "I guess I was a little distracted."

Anya smiled broadly. "That's what we hoped — that you'd get distracted by having fun and relaxing." She walked with Elsa to the locker rooms. "I'll meet you here once you've changed."

Elsa nodded and nervously went into what had been the men's locker room. When Eduardo had come in, the locker room was empty. Now, it had a half-dozen women and girls changing out of their swimwear into street clothing. Elsa gulped when she noticed that the others were looking at her — some sympathetically, and some critically. She dropped her gaze and stepped to her locker.

She didn't think about what she was doing as she stripped off her bikini, and then stepped into the shower to wash off the chlorine. After wrapping her hair with one towel, she dried herself with another, and then stepped into her panties. Fastening her bra was another almost-automatic act. Then she pulled her dress from the locker, gasping at how sexy and revealing it looked. As she smoothed the fabric after pulling it on, she noticed that a couple of the women were looking at her enviously, as if they were jealous of her, while most of the rest glanced nervously at her. He reasoned that most of these 'women' had been changed, like him, and he could understand the nervous ones. But the one who seemed envious? Did the brujas use magic to make them _that_ female in their thinking? A few more automatic actions had her hair dried and brushed, and without thinking, she put on some lipstick and touched up her makeup. Only when she looked in the mirror after those tasks were complete did Elsa realize the totality of what she'd just done.

Staring back at her was a lovely Latina woman, about twenty-six or twenty-seven. Her hair was long, black, and wavy, dancing sexily about her shoulders. She had the same beautiful bronze skin, and the short red dress clung to her like it had been painted on, emphasizing her curves in a deliciously-sexy way.

Shaking her head in amazement, Elsa stepped back out of the locker room to where Anya was waiting.

"Wow!" Anya exclaimed with a smile. "Look at you!"

"Now what?" Elsa asked nervously, but with a tiny bit of delight in her voice.

"You can do whatever you want," Anya said with a smile. "A few of us girls are going to the Coconut Club for a little dancing," she suggested. "You're welcome to come along if you'd like."

Elsa's eyes widened with fear. "Uh, no thank you," she stammered. "I think I'll just go home and rest."

Anya gave her a knowing smile. "Okay, but if you get bored and want to join us, your pass has my cell number on it."

"Uh, I don't think so," Elsa said quickly. "Being ... like this ... in the park is one thing, because it's all women. But being out in public?" She tried — and failed — to suppress a shudder. "I don't think so."

**********

Elsa looked warily around the Coconut Club as she entered. She felt very self-conscious, thinking that all the men were looking at her. In truth, a large number of them were. In her tight red dress, she looked hot and exotic. She spied Anya sitting at a table with some other girls and a couple of boys, and started threading her way through the crowd, skirting the dance floor, toward their table.

As she walked nervously, two guys asked her to dance. Despite her nerves, she hoped she was civil in the way she'd told them that she wasn't interested. Even if she was uneasy in this setting, there was no point in being rude. When she got to the table, Anya gestured toward a vacant chair. "Isn't someone sitting here?" she asked, a little puzzled.

Anya had an enigmatic smile. "No, I saved this one for you."

Elsa frowned. "You ... knew I'd come, didn't you?" she asked in a half-accusatory tone.

"You used to like dancing, and clubbing. But you haven't since ...." Anya didn't need to explain further. "Even without a little magical help, I figured that you'd be very tempted." She glanced around the table. "Elsa, this is my boyfriend, Greg," she said, indicating the guy on her right who was focused entirely on her. Even without her saying it, Elsa would have guessed that Greg and Anya were an item based on how he was so raptly attentive to her every word and movement. "Jenny, and her partner Melinda. Liz is our head lifeguard. Marta is one of our staff, and a student at the local college, and Bill is her boyfriend." She smiled apologetically. "A couple of the girls couldn't make it tonight, unfortunately."

Elsa had a sudden, horrifying thought. "How many of them ... know?" she whispered to Anya.

Anya smiled pleasantly. "All of them," she answered. "We're a tight little family."

Soon, the company and the atmosphere of the club had Elsa feeling relaxed. It was the first time she'd been out in over three years. Eventually, Greg persuaded her to dance, first with him so she wouldn't feel threatened, and then with one of his friends, who everyone assured Elsa was 'safe'. As midnight approached, Elsa got a warning glance from Anya, so she excused herself. Anya volunteered to walk her to her car.

"You looked like you were having fun," Anya said as they strode across the parking lot.

Elsa thought for a moment. "Yeah," she said with a wistful sigh, "I haven't done that in a long time." She laughed ironically. "I could have never danced like that before today." As she got to her car, she turned to Anya. "Thank you. Thank you for letting me remember what it was like."

"You're very welcome. But I should be thanking _you_ for your service. It's people like you that are the real heroes, mostly because you volunteer to protect the rest of us."

Elsa felt herself getting a little choked up. She wasn't used to being treated like this. "Just doing my job," she said humbly. She gave Anya a quick hug and crawled into her car.

"By the way," Anya said before Elsa could drive off, "you can visit any time you want a ... break."

"Like I'm going to do this again!" Elsa laughed. She put her car in gear and drove off, heading home.

Behind her, Anya smiled. "We'll see," she said to herself. "We'll see."

**********

Anya sensed the presence as Ed hobbled across the pavement. She smiled to herself, rose from her desk, and strode from the office and out to the parking lot. "Hi," she said to Ed as she gave him a quick hug. "I didn't expect to see you here today."

Ed laughed. "Why don't I believe that?"

Anya grinned. "I guess you’ve got me there." She gestured toward the office. "It's a little cooler in the office, and we've got soft drinks and light snacks, if you'd like to sit for a while."

Ed shook his head. "Thank you, but no. I'm on my lunch break, and I wanted to come by to tell you thanks again."

"You're welcome. Remember, your pass is a special gift. You're our guest any time you want to visit for a day of rest."

**********

"Any time" turned out to be the following Sunday. Anya had the day off of work, but she could sense Ed coming to the park. She quickly put her half-eaten breakfast in the fridge and started toward the door. She caught herself, and then shook her head. She wasn't quite dressed for the office, but a quick spell took care of that. And when she realized that she'd never get down the elevator and around to the gate before Ed chickened out and was gone, she invoked yet another spell, and disappeared.

She appeared in the office, startling Grandmother. She smiled to herself — it wasn't often that she surprised the old woman. "Ed is here," she explained simply as she trotted out the door to the parking lot.

Grandmother smiled. "I know." She turned her attention back to her work, signaling that Anya should handle the situation.

As Anya had expected, he was standing near the gate, looking into the park with a mixture of anticipation and fear. She walked quickly to him, greeting him warmly. "Ed," she said as she hugged him, "I'm glad you decided to visit us. Is this a social call, or are you planning to have a day of relaxation?"

His eyes betrayed his uncertainty. "I was ... just going to visit."

Anya smiled pleasantly. "And here I thought that you wanted a day of rest and relaxation in our park." She feigned a pout. "I guess our park isn't that good."

Ed knew what she was doing, but he had a soft spot for pretty girls. "No, it's a great park. I ... enjoyed last weekend. But ...."

Anya took his arm and led him toward the turnstile. "Good. So you'll let us treat you to another day of relaxation?"

"It seems that I don't have a lot of choice, do I?"

"Yes, you do," Anya said with a laugh. "You always have a choice. But I could tell you were sitting on the fence about another change, so I decided to give you a nudge and see which way you fell." She grinned. "Since you're walking with me toward the gate, I'm going to guess that you really don't object to another day in the park."

Ed blushed as he looked down. "I guess not," he muttered. Just before he swiped his card, he looked defiantly at Anya. "I'm not gay or anything," he pronounced firmly.

Anya smiled. "I didn't say you were." She grasped his arm and pulled him closer. "Would it help if you knew that several men change occasionally just for a change of pace, to spend a 'girls day' with their wives or girlfriends, or to get to know what it's like to be a woman, or even just to enjoy the park?" She purposely neglected to mention the fraternity boys who played 'roommate roulette' every weekend to see which one would get to change for a weekend of non-stop sex.

Ed seemed to relax a bit at her revelation. "Thanks," he acknowledged. He swiped his card, and hobbled into the locker room.

As luck would have it, when he emerged from the locker room, he nearly ran over Lena, who was also entering the park. He relaxed even more when he knew that he had a friend with whom he could enjoy the park.

At the end of the day, Anya and Grandmother watched a visibly tired, but very happy, Elsa walked into the locker room. Anya glanced at Grandmother. "Did you, by chance, ask Lena to come today?"

"Who, me?" Grandmother feigned innocence. "What makes you think that I'd do something like that?"

Anya smiled and shook her head. "You _did_ ask Lena."

Grandmother simply shrugged. "Elsa needed someone she knows, so she wouldn't be scared." She sighed heavily. "Ed is a very troubled man, and he needs this chance to feel whole and undamaged."

A few minutes later, the door chime of the office sounded. Grandmother glanced knowingly at Anya, and then pressed a button on her desk. "It's open," she said into the intercom.

The door let a shaft of bright sunlight into the office, momentarily blinding the women as they looked at the door, and more specifically, at the shadowy outline of a figure coming through the door. When the door shut behind her, they could see that it was Elsa.

Grandmother rose from her desk and gave Elsa a hug. "Did you enjoy your day?" she asked.

Elsa nodded. Her face bore a look of contentment. "I have a question, though."

"Yes," Anya answered before Elsa could ask the question. "If you had a longer pass, you'd stay a woman for the whole duration of the pass."

"Why?" Grandmother asked, curious at Elsa's question — and the motives behind it.

Elsa shrugged. "I was just thinking that maybe I could use a little break from ... things." She dug in her purse and pulled out a credit card. "I'd like to buy a pass for a month if I could, please."

Grandmother glanced at Anya, who shrugged. "Okay." She took the credit card, and processed the charge for a one month pass. In only moments, a plastic card was printed, with Elsa's picture on it.

When she took the card, Elsa looked puzzled. "Now what?" she asked.

Anya laughed. "Did you expect a bolt of lightning, or some flash and smoke? We don't work like that. When you took the card, you should have felt a tingling sensation go through your body."

"Yes," Elsa confirmed. "So?"

"That means the magic is bound to you, and your pass is active. It's a little less ... dramatic ... when we extend a pass, since you're already a woman," Grandmother explained.

"Oh."

"Tell me, what do you do for a living?" Anya asked.

Without thinking, Elsa answered, "I teach science in the middle school." Her mouth dropped open at the answer. "Wow! This is ... kind of spooky! I've got memories that I shouldn't have!"

Grandmother nodded. "You have the memories of Elsa Martinez. You were born as Elsa Martinez. You could tell me when and where you went to college, who you work with, and even the names of the children in your classes."

"But ... what about ...?" Elsa was a little too scared to ask.

"You'll remember that, too," Anya answered. "But if you had a lifetime pass, the memories of Ed's life would fade, until they seemed like dreams."

"Oh." Elsa sounded a little disappointed.

"It's only for a month. Enjoy your vacation."

**********

Something tugged at Elsa's mind and caused her to push away the fog of sleep. She glanced at the window, and saw that it was barely light, which meant that it had to be around six in the morning. She frowned; there wasn't anything on the calendar — and just as suddenly, she realized that she _did_ have something on her calendar. Wearily, she pried herself out of bed. After a whole week as Elsa, she still marveled at how easy it was to rise without the pain and the artificial leg. She'd spent the week just enjoying feeling whole — mostly at the sanctuary of the park, since she was very nervous being in public. But now, she had something to attend to. As she was attending to her morning bathroom ritual, which seemed to be happening on autopilot, Elsa remembered that she had to get dressed and get to school, because it was the start of two summer-school sessions. She was teaching a session for those students who had failed in the regular class, and she also remembered arguing for — and winning — permission to teach an advanced science class.

A bit later, she parked her car at the middle school and walked uneasily into the building. Things seemed both familiar and foreign, and it was a most unsettled feeling. The part of her memories that were Ed's screamed about danger, but Elsa's memories and instincts felt at home. It felt peaceful.

Elsa walked into the office. "Good morning," she said to the secretary.

"Good morning, Elsa," the secretary answered warmly. "Before you go to class, Ms. Brown wants to talk to you."

"Oh?" Memories told Elsa that Ms. Brown was the principal, and had fought against the advanced class. She knocked on the open door. "You wanted to talk to me?" she asked hesitantly.

"Yes," Gail Brown answered, looking up from her computer. "We've had two more students withdraw from your advanced science class. I think it's a bad idea, and we should probably cancel it."

Elsa sighed. "You don't believe in those kids," she said softly but firmly. "You don't think they can do it."

Gail shook her head. "Elsa, they're disadvantaged, at-risk kids. What makes you think that they can succeed at something like biology or chemistry? You _know_ that half to two-thirds of them are going to drop out of high school in a few years."

One of her ghostly memories recalled the same conversation earlier. "I know the statistics," she replied. "But I want to help keep them interested. Especially the girls. They deserve every chance we can give them." She shook her head. "I _want_ to try to help them not become a statistic." She frowned. "Did you ever hear of Jaime Escalante? Or the movie 'Stand and Deliver'?"

Gail nodded slowly. "You think you can do that with _these_ kids?"

Elsa shrugged. "We won't know if we don't try. I refuse to give up on them."

Gail Brown sighed and shook her head. "Okay, it's your summer. But I don't think it's going to work."

"Thanks for the vote of confidence," Elsa found herself saying, trying not to sound sarcastic.

**********

Two girls hung back after class, while all the other students filed out, glad their day was over. Writing in her notebook, Elsa sensed their presence more than she saw them. She looked up, and smiled. "Do you have questions about today's class?" she asked.

The two girls exchanged a glance between them. "Um, Ms. Martinez," the first girl stammered, "I ... I don't ...." She clammed up, looking down at the floor.

Elsa searched her 'woman' memories. Slowly, names came into focus for her. Traci Rodriguez, and Rosa Sanchez. Both had been good students at the start of the previous year, but had slowly lost interest in science, and, she suspected, math as well. "Traci, I _know_ you can do this," she said warmly and firmly. "I know you're smart enough. You're part of the reason that I wanted to set up this class."

The girl's eyes widened. "Me? Why?"

"Because you, and Rosa, and all the others — especially you girls — don't think you can succeed, but I know that you can. I believe in you, even though you don't believe in yourselves."

"Succeed — how?" Rosa asked, puzzled.

Elsa smiled. "What do you want to be? A doctor? A scientist? An engineer?" She saw the girls' eyes widen. "You don't believe that you can do that, but I do. The key is to give you the tools and the confidence now, while you're in middle school, to do well in science and math. With those, you _can_ achieve whatever you want."

"But Ms. Martinez," Rosa protested, "no-one in my family has ever been smart enough to go to college!"

"Then you'll be the first, and your family will be very proud of you," Elsa answered. She saw the doubt in the girls' faces. "Give me a chance for a couple of weeks, and I'll prove to you that you can succeed — and not just in my class."

Rosa and Traci exchanged nervous glances again. They were very unsure of themselves.

"Look, I know you don't want to be here. You don't think you can succeed in my class. But please give me a chance. Okay?"

"Okay," Traci replied, her voice timid and uncertain.

"I'm going to tell you a little story," Elsa said to the girls. She drew on Ed's memories, which not surprisingly, mostly matched her 'Elsa' memories. "My parents were migrant farm workers in the Simi Valley in California," she said. "We were poor. No-one expected that any of my friends would ever make it to college. But my mami and papi believed in me, and they helped me believe in myself. Now it's my turn to help you believe in yourselves."

"I guess we can try," Rosa said softly.

As the girls walked out of the classroom, Elsa paused, thinking. Gail Brown had already written off these girls — and many other disadvantaged kids. They weren't capable, or so some believed. It was up to Elsa to prove them wrong.

**********

"Ms. Martinez?" Rosa and Traci asked together.

The sound of her name brought Elsa's mind back into focus. She was sitting in a lounge chair, next to the Tropical Waves pool at Bikini Beach. She turned and looked at the source of the interruption. "Oh, hi, girls," she said warmly. "I'm a bit surprised to see you here!" It was Saturday afternoon, and Elsa was relaxing, recharging herself for an upcoming week of classes.

"We were here, and we noticed you sunning, and, ... um," Rosa stammered, trying to find the right words, "I wanted to say thank you," she finally managed to say. She was looking down at the sandy beach, embarrassed.

"For what?"

"For believing in me," Rosa said. Beside her, Traci nodded in agreement. "You're the first teacher who tried to help me, instead of just getting me passed to the next grade."

"I'm glad I can help," Elsa said. Inside, her heart was nearly bursting with joy at hearing the words from her girls. "I told you that you needed to believe in yourselves first. I take it you're enjoying my class?"

Traci laughed. "You're one of the hardest teachers I've had," she admitted, "but I'm learning a lot. I didn't think science could be that much fun."

"Me either," Rosa added.

"It can be fun, and it can be very rewarding — and you can help people all over the world. Just think — you could be a chemist working to discover new drugs to treat illnesses. You could be an architect, designing grand office buildings, or affordable housing. You could be an engineer, coming up with new ways to treat water or handle sanitation." She smiled. "The world is yours, if you stay interested in science and math, and get a good education."

Rosa and Traci exchanged nervous looks. "I don't know ...." Rosa said, uncertain.

"I do. You are both smart enough. The key is to not listen to other people who say that you can't, and believe that you can." Elsa was startled inside; she sounded just like the young, idealistic teacher that had inspired Ed to not drop out years ago.

Later that night, Elsa sat down, happy with what she was doing. She realized that Traci and Rosa, and many other students, looked up to her, and she was inspiring them to succeed. She felt good inside.

As she relaxed, she browsed through news. She frowned when she saw an article; it was about Ed's old unit in the Army. Intrigued, yet feeling a sense of dread, she opened the article and began to read.

The article was about the Army's summary findings of the inquiry into the convoy ambush over a year earlier — the very same attack that had crippled Ed. As Elsa read the story, her brow furrowed, and then tears began to trickle from the corners of her eyes.

**********

Anya and Grandmother both sensed Elsa's distress when she pulled into the parking lot. Anya gave Grandmother a silent nod, rose, and strode to the office door. She opened it moments before Elsa could push the buzzer button.

Elsa looked like hell. She had no makeup on, and she'd barely combed her hair — only enough to keep it out of her face. Her clothes were casual and rumpled, like she'd pulled on the first things she could find, which had happened to be on the floor. Her eyes were puffy and red from crying — probably most of the night.

"Come in," Anya invited. "Can I get you something to drink?"

Elsa walked slowly into the office, and took a seat on the sofa. "No, thanks," she muttered.

"What's bothering you?" Grandmother asked, rising from behind her desk and moving to sit in one of the chairs beside the sofa.

In answer, Elsa held up a few papers. "This," she said, sounding grief-stricken and accusatory at the same time.

Anya took the papers and quickly glanced through them. Frowning, she handed them to Grandmother.

"You could have told me!" Elsa complained through renewed tears. "They were my squad mates and my friends!" She shook her head. "A year of 'official inquiry' into the attack, because no-one was alive to tell anyone what had happened! I _should_ have been there! I saved some of them!" Elsa wailed. "But since your magic changed history, I wasn't there, and the whole team was killed!"

Grandmother sighed heavily. "I didn't see that ... thread of reality ... when we gave you your pass," she admitted softly.

"It's not worth it!" Elsa complained. "I get to be a whole person, but a lot of my buddies died." She shook her head. "The cost is too high. I was thinking of staying like this, because I enjoy teaching, but not if the price is the lives of my friends."

Anya put her hand on Elsa's arm. "No one can stop the horror of war," she said softly. "Young men die. I can't stop it. Grandmother can't stop it. You can't stop it. You can't save everyone!"

"I could save _some_ of them!"

"And you'd be a crippled hero, both physically and emotionally." Anya's expression was grim. "How many times did you think that you couldn't go on, that you'd never fit in again? How often did you feel overwhelmed to the point of ending it all? How many times did you refuse to go for psychological counseling, because you felt like your grief and inner turmoil was your punishment for _not_ acting sooner and saving more lives?"

Elsa looked down, knowing that these two brujas were right. Ed had refused help, and had felt unrelenting guilt over the ambush and deaths.

"Right now, all Ed has is being a hero. You _like_ being a hero, don't you?" Anya asked, her voice sounding a little accusatory.

Elsa looked up at Anya, staring into her eyes. She wanted to deny what Anya had said, but found she couldn't. Dropping her gaze slightly, she nodded. "I felt like ... I made a difference," she said softly.

"Your pass expires on Saturday night," Grandmother said softly. "You have a few more days to teach your classes, and then you can go back to being Ed, if that's what you want."

**********

Despite the serenity of the park — the trees, and the grass, and the duck pond, Ed felt no peace inside. Children were laughing and playing nearby, but Ed didn't feel any merriment. In his hand, he clutched some paper — an account of the action that had left him wounded, but had saved some of his men. Unlike most times, he wore shorts, showing off, mostly to himself, how damaged he was.

Anya approached silently. Ed sat in a relaxed posture, but it was obvious to anyone who looked that, even sitting, he was in considerable pain. She sat beside him on the park bench. "Nice afternoon," she volunteered.

Ed didn't bother to look at her. "I guess," he answered, half-heartedly at best.

"Is it worth it?" Anya got right to the point.

Ed turned his head toward her. "At least I made a difference!" he said emphatically.

"You know, there's more to life than to being a hero."

"Not to mine, there isn't. At least, not anymore," Ed retorted. "Like you and your abuela said, it's all I have left."

"Lots of people are heroes." Anya heard Ed snort derisively at her comment. "Firefighters, police — they put their lives on the line for people they don't even know."

"They're mostly men," Ed said. "And I'm not much of a man anymore, am I? With my handicaps, I couldn't do either of those. You're right - with the constant pain, I can't do much." The admission came hard to Ed.

"There are other kinds of heroes, too," Anya continued, ignoring his angry outburst. "Tell me, what do you think will happen to Rosa and Traci, and all the other kids, if you don't try to help them?"

"Someone will help them later," Ed said, not sounding quite certain.

"They won't, and you know it." She shook her head. "You were a role model for them, a woman who they could relate to, and who could inspire them to believe in themselves."

Ed shook his head morosely. "I think I was only getting through to a handful of my students, though," he commented bitterly.

"You played baseball in high school, right?" She saw Ed nod, puzzled by the change of direction in the conversation. "How would you feel if you batted .300?" she asked simply.

"That's ... pretty good," he admitted sheepishly.

Anya continued with her line of thought. "How many men did you save? Half? A third?"

Ed stared at the ground. "Twelve out of fifty-two." He looked up sharply at Anya, his eyes defiant. "It would have been worth it if I'd have only saved one!"

Anya put her hand on his arm. "I'm not saying that their lives aren't worth it. Every life is precious, and the lives of the people who serve in the military are very special because of their willingness to sacrifice for all the rest of us."

"I _might_ help some kids, or I _will_ save my buddies," Ed said caustically, trying to simplify the argument.

"You need to factor yourself into the decision," Anya continued. "How many times have you thought that you couldn't go on living with the scars and the pain? How many times have you thought about ending it all?

Ed winced; she knew that he _had_ thought about suicide, both from guilt at the lost men, and inability to adjust to life with his handicaps.

"How much worth is there in saving a child from a life of poverty by inspiring that child to succeed, especially the girls, who don't have many role models in their lives and who aren't expected to go into science or math or engineering?" Anya asked. Ed stared at her a moment, and then looked down. "Elsa was the first teacher who believed in them and made them feel like they could succeed. She was their role model, and their _hero_." She looked at the ripples as the breeze touched the duck pond. "Without her, few of the girls will go into sciences or technology, or math. They'll sell themselves short."

"I could teach now, as I am, and inspire kids," Ed countered.

"No, you couldn't, and you know it. You don't have the college education for it, and even if you did, you're living with too much pain. Constantly having to take pain pills would interfere with the ability to teach," Anya said. "But you have the ability to reach the girls if you're Elsa. Without a good female role model, they don't have any chance."

Ed stared at the ground, a look of distress on his face. "I don't know what to do," he finally muttered. "I can save some of my friends, or I can help some kids," he repeated in a somber voice."

Anya shook her head. "I can't help you with that decision," she said sadly. "You have to make the choice, not me or Grandmother." She looked like she felt every bit of anguish that Ed was feeling. "We didn't mean to put you in this position. We only wanted to give you some rest."

"I ... can't turn my back on my friends!" Ed protested, anguish in his voice.

"Would you have sacrificed yourself for civilians?" Anya asked.

Ed turned sharply toward her. "That's not the point."

"That's exactly the point," Anya countered. "You know you would have. So would your buddies. That's what you signed up for."

"It's not that simple," Ed protested.

"Yes, it is," Anya countered. "Would you sacrifice your life to help a child overcome a life of potential poverty?" She saw him staring, his mouth ajar. "That’s why you signed up, isn’t it?" Exhaling slowly, Ed nodded. "And your buddies? Same thing?"

Ed stared across the field, to where children were playing fetch with their dog. "You're pretty smart for such a young lady."

Anya chuckled. "I have a good tutor."

"Your abuela?"

Anya just repeated sadly. "It's your decision."

**********


Epilogue

Elsa stretched out in the hammock, soaking up the afternoon sun. With two classes every day, she didn't get a lot of time at the park, and she certainly didn’t have the energy for a lot of frolicking. But the park was relaxing and restful — just what she needed to recharge herself before she had to go home and grade papers and prepare for the next day. She sighed — summer school was very hectic, but whenever she saw the looks of delight on her students' faces when they learned or mastered something new, she knew it was worth it. Maybe she couldn't save all the kids, but if she could bat .250, and do so year after year, she knew she'd be making a huge difference. More of a difference than a one-time hero who saved eleven other lives.

Elsa sighed at the sudden memory. "They might not know it," she said to herself, "but twelve damned good men gave their lives to give these kids a chance." She slowly stood from the hammock. "I goddamn better make sure they don't waste it."

She was saving a lot more by giving these so-called disadvantaged, at-risk kids a future, year after year after year. Someday, she started to think that she might even have her own child to teach to succeed, and to inspire. Maybe her daughter would follow in her footsteps, and make a vocation out of inspiring or helping others. As soon as she had the thought, she started to recoil in horror, but Elsa realized that it wasn't such a bad thought after all. She smiled to herself as she began to walk back to the locker room. Time to get busy with school again.

FIN



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