By Ellie Dauber  © 2003

I’m posting this now because that kidnapping of the three women in Cleveland is in the news.

For Bart Kabakjian, being kidnapped by religious fanatics wasn’t bad. His kidnappers had the Medallion of Zulo, and they were grieving over their daughter.

By Ellie Dauber  © 2003

I guess I should start at the beginning.

My name is -- was Bart Kabakjian, but everybody called me "Brick." Partly it was because of my bright red hair -- which I still have, see. Only now, it's glossier and a whole lot longer. Anyway, they also called me "Brick" because I was the best defensive lineman in the Lakeland District High School Conference, the best anybody'd seen in years, and a lot of folks said that I was a shoo-in for All-State, even if I was only five-seven. When I planted myself, nobody, and I mean nobody got by me.

Yeah, I know I don't look much like a defensive lineman now. Besides, Lakeland's not even in this state. Well, there's a long, sad story behind that.

* * * * *

It was a rainy Sunday afternoon, and I was killing time with some buddies in the game arcade at one of the local malls. We'd been there for a couple of hours, when the super sized Coke that I'd drunk with my lunch hit me, and I went to take a whizz.

I was almost to the john, when this guy steps in my way. He was a big guy, maybe six-six, and he looked like he worked out pretty regular. He was in his thirties, with long, dingy brown hair, and he was wearing something like a brown bathrobe over this long white tunic that came down almost to the ground.

Anyway, this guy grabs me by the shoulders and says, "Ishtar, is that you my daughter?"

"Do I look like a daughter?" I asked, shaking him off. I was wearing a muscle shirt and a pair of jeans that showed off my "package" pretty good. Hey, you never know when you're gonna run into some hot babe. I liked to be ready.

So this guy says that his Ishtar had disappeared a few weeks ago, but the signs -- whatever the hell they were -- had said that she'd return in some new form. Since my hair was the same bright red as hers, he figured that I was her. "You're crazy," I said and started walked away.

He followed me -- followed me right into the john. That made me nervous. He could be some kind of fag for all I knew. I could block anybody, but I wasn't much of a brawler. He was a foot taller and much heavier -- and a lot of that looked like muscle. I didn't think that I could take him in any sort of fair fight.

I decided not to fight fair. I'd try and sucker punch him in the gut. Then, when he doubled over, I'd run past him. Mall security was only a couple doors down from the johns.

It was a good idea, but he had a better one. As I turned to punch him, he sprayed something in my face. Everything went black, and I felt myself falling over.

* * * * *

Next thing I knew, I was in a small, dark space getting bounced around, the trunk of somebody's car. There was no way to tell how long I'd been out, where we were, or where we were going.

Then, the spray he'd used and the bouncing got to me. My stomach churned some, and I threw up all over myself. A lot of the puke got onto the floor of the trunk, and I hoped that they'd never get the stink of it out of the car.

They drove maybe another half-hour. My stomach settled down -- I guess it was that spray stuff that got me. The bouncing got worse, though, so I guessed that we were off the main highway, on some back road. When we finally stopped, the driver didn't seem to be in any hurry to let me out. I was cramped, wearing my own puke, and I still had to whizz. Man, did I want out of there.

All of a sudden, I hear voices, the weirdo from the mall and some woman. They sounded excited, but I couldn't really tell what they were saying. I did hear that name, Ishtar, a lot.

One of them popped the lock, and the trunk swung opened. I tried to get out, but my feet were asleep. I'd have fallen, but the guy reached in and picked me up like I didn't weigh anything. He made a face, when he saw the puke all over my shirt, but he just shifted me in his arms and started walking.

The woman was wearing some sort of shapeless, green tunic. She had long, red-brown hair done up in a thick braid that hung down almost to her waist. She wasn't wearing any make-up that I could see, but she had big, dangly bracelets on each wrist and a sort of matching necklace with some kind of weird symbol, a jagged Y between two crescents and a circle above. It wasn't anything I recognized.

She was small, maybe five-three, and kind of pudgy. She shouted, "Ishtar, welcome back, daughter." The guy put me down. I was still shaky, but I could stand -- sort of. The woman gave me a bear hug that almost lifted me off the ground.

I steadied myself and pushed her away. "Look, lady, I told this guy, and I'm telling you, I'm not this Ishtar chick. I'm a Bart, Bart Ka --"

"Don't lie to your mother, girl," the guy yelled. "She's had a hard enough time since you went away."

"I told you, I'm n-- Ow!" He'd grabbed my arm and twisted it behind me.

"This is for your own good, girl." He pushed me down into a sort of squat and "duck-walked" me into their house, a ramshackle old wreck of a place.

Their front room wasn't too bad: a couple of mismatched old couches and some chairs, all facing towards a big, brick fireplace. There were paintings on the walls, creepy-looking landscapes done mostly in oranges and purples. Over the fireplace, there was a picture of the man and woman, looking a bit younger and wearing regular clothes instead of those robes. In between them -- in the picture, I mean -- was a pretty girl, maybe ten or twelve, with hair as bright a red as my own done up in pigtails.

They both saw me looking at the picture. "She remembers; she remembers," the woman said happily.

"Which will make her true return that much easier," the man said. "Go get what we will need." The woman nodded and went into another room. The guy turned and looked at me. "Why don't you get out of those filthy clothes? They stink to high heaven."

It was the first thing he said that I agreed with. My shirt and my jeans both smelled of puke. They were starting to get sticky, too. I peeled on the shirt. "Just drop it in the floor," the guy said. I did. I kicked off my sneakers and started to take off my jeans. Just then, the woman came back in. She was carrying a pile of clothes and stuff. I grabbed my jeans and pulled them back up.

"Modest, isn't she," the woman said. Before I could answer, she handed me this long, dark green tunic. "Put this on, if you must. Then you can remove those pants."

I tossed the thing over my head, putting my arms through the sleeve holes. It was a tight fit, but I got it on. As I pulled it down past my waist, I undid my jeans again. After I got the tunic down to my knees, which was as far as it would go, I shook my hips and felt my jeans slide down my legs. I stepped out of them and kicked them over to where my shirt was.

The woman sniffed. "Oh, Ishtar, it's so good to see you in your own clothes again."

"And soon you will be fully restored to us," the man said. He grabbed my arms and pulled them behind my back. "Now, Lira, now."

The woman put a necklace like her own around my neck. Then she opened a bottle of some weird brown gunk.

"I'm not drinking that!" I yelled.

"Drink," the man said with a laugh. "Drink the sacred oil of Asanth." He laughed again. "Do it, Lira, now."

The woman lifted the bottle and poured it out over my head. The liquid was warm and sticky and smelled really bad. As I felt the stiff dribbling down my face, she put another necklace on me. Then she poured some more of that stuff into my chest.

"Let it begin, oh, Gaia," they both said. "Let the magic restore our daughter to us."

All of a sudden, my body began to tingle like crazy. I felt my hair flow down over my ears, past my shoulders, and on down my back. The tunic began to get looser.

"It's happening," the man said. "Praise Gaia." He let go of my arms.

I looked down at my body. I was a lot thinner. All those muscles I'd spent years working to build up, just sort of smoothed out and faded away. My arms were slender, graceful. My hands were much smaller, my fingers longer. So were my nails; they grew out about a half-inch and looked like they were manicured. "This is crazy," I said, and stopped. My voice was getting higher.

I felt something in my chest. Two small bulges were pushing out the front of the tunic, getting bigger until they were a pretty nice looking pair. I could feel -- I could see -- the nipples pushing against the fabric. I looked down the neckline and saw them, nice, round, and perky.

"Shit! If I've got tits, I've got..." I slapped my hand against my groin. I could barely feel the bulge of my "jewels" inside the tunic. And the bulge was getting smaller and smaller until, finally, it wasn't there at all.

I felt my waist pull in, my hips seem to stretch and get wider. The tunic hung down well below my knees by now. I lifted it a bit and looked at what was now a pair of really sweet, feminine-looking legs with just the right amount of curve to be interesting. My feet were a lot smaller, too. I think I could have gotten both of them into one of my sneakers. "I-I'm a girl," I said in disbelief.

"You are as you should be, our lost daughter, Ishtar, returned to us in the flesh, as promised by Gaia." He said it firmly, like it was written in rock or something. Now sleep and let your spirit return as well. Before I could say anything, he pulled out that spray and gave me another shot of it.

* * * * *

I don't know how long I slept this time. When I woke up, I was lying on a bed. I sat up. There were pictures of birds and flowers on the wall, and I could see a rack with two or three dresses and a couple of those tunics hanging from it. A dresser was against one wall. A drawer was open, and I saw some panties and bras.

Then I started to remember things. The green tunic was for everyday, just like the one I had on. The blue was for formal worship. There was a doll on top of the dresser, Rissie, her name was. The guy's name was Paulus. Our... their last name was ap Taffyd. "How the hell do I know this stuff?" I got off the bed. I was still wearing those stupid necklaces, but the damned oil was gone -- wiped off, seeped in, I didn't care.

I started walking towards the door. I noticed that I walked differently, more gracefully, with a swing of the hips, like I'd been doing it for years, like a girl. I stopped and shook my head. This just got crazier and crazier. Was I really this Ishtar? Was Brick Kabakjian just some crazy dream? My wallet, my ID was in my jeans. I can find out from them.

I walked out the bedroom door and back into the front room. Paulus and Lira were by the fireplace. They had a good little blaze going. When I got close, I saw what was left of my jeans in the heart of the flames. Paulus looked up and saw me. "We have no need of that false life now, daughter." He was smiling. So was Lira. Not a nasty smile, more like relieved, like some bad time was over. For them, I guess it was.

* * * * *

"Grass," I muttered, "nothing but dammed grass." I'd snuck out of the house in the middle of the night and followed the road that head away from it. I'd been walking for over an hour, and it was just this narrow dirt road between fields of what looked like overgrown grass, "wheat, half-grown and starting to form kernels," a weird memory popped into my head.

I froze when I heard the rumble of a car's engine. I looked quickly in both directions, but there was no sign of lights. I didn't want to take a chance, so I ran for the hay. Paulus came around a curve in the road just in time to see me running. He'd been driving without lights, so as not to give me a warning. He stopped the car and ran after me.

I made it to the hay and ran in. He came after me. He knew how to run in the thick strands of it. I didn't. He grabbed an arm and held. I twisted and turned but I couldn't break free. "Papa, you're hurting me," I screamed. Papa? I stopped trying to break free. Why did I say that?

"Your spirit grows stronger, Ishtar." He wrapped an arm around my waist and carried me back to the car like a sack of potatoes. "You don't remember it yet, but our fields go on for a half score of miles. When we get home, I'll just take those sandals of yours. That should keep you from trying to leave us again."

* * * * *

"Why did you do this to me, Lira?" I asked. It was two or three days later. We were cooking dinner. Paulus -- I worked very hard at not calling him Papa -- said that he expected me to help with the chores if I wanted to eat.

"Because you are our daughter. You left us, and we missed you so very much."

"But I'm not her. I know you think I am, and you used some kind of magic to make me look like her, but I'm not her. Please, change me back. I won't tell anyone, I swear by Gaia..." Another slip. Brick didn't know anything about Gaia, but Ishtar did.

Lira just smiled and kept on chopping vegetables for the stew. We were... they were vegetarians. Gaia didn't want her children eating each other, so she created plants that would sustain us. And there I went, sounding like them again.

"It's a quarter moon tonight," Lira said finally. "We'll have a prayer session after supper." She began to hum some tune I'd never heard before.

And I began to hum it along with her.

* * * * *

"Mama," I screamed. I'd been sweeping in the kitchen, when I suddenly felt something odd between my legs. Nobody was around, so I just lifted my tunic and felt down there, inside my panties. When I looked at my hand, there was something red and sticky on my fingers, blood. "Mama!"

Lira came running in from the yard. "That's the first time you..." She stopped and saw the look on my face. Then she saw my hand and chuckled. "Still say you're a boy, Ishtar? A boy doesn't have a time a month when he bleeds, but a girl does." She took my hand. "Since you still don't remember how, I'll show you how to take care of it."

As we walked to the bathroom, I vaguely remembered that this had happened to me before.

* * * * *

We were in the yard, tending to Mama's herb garden, bedding it down for the winter. I still remembered being Brick, but it seemed so long ago, like something from a story. I walked and talked like Ishtar. I'd had a period like any other girl. When I dreamed about boys, I wasn't one of them; I was the girl they were with. For the love of Gaia, how could I have ever imagined that I was really a boy?

I must have sighed out loud.

"Troubled my daughter?" Papa asked.

"Just remembering something from a dream," I said.

"Only a dream?" Mama asked.

"Maybe it was more once, Mama, but it seems like a dream now."

Mama smiled and gave me a big hug. "She is back with us now, Paulus, back forever and ever."

Papa smiled and joined in what became a wonderful group hug.

I was home.

* * * * *

One of the things we didn't have on the farm was milk. Papa drove to a store someplace every few days for milk, coffee, and other things that he or Mama needed. After a long while, they decided that I could go along if my chores were done. Hanson's General Store wasn't very big, but it seemed to have everything we needed.

"Here's half of the list," Papa said, handing me a slip of paper. "I'll meet you by the counter."

I took a small basket and started off. I was looking for teas -- Mama loved Irish breakfast tea -- when I saw him. It was a boy, about seventeen, a tall, skinny guy wearing a store apron and stocking shelves with cans of peaches. He stopped when he saw me. "Well, hello there, missy, can I help you?"

I suddenly felt like I was naked. I blushed and looked down. "No, th- thank you," I said quietly as I hurried past him.

Papa was standing at the end of the aisle. "You handled that very well, Ishtar." He had an odd look on his face, happy, like I'd just passed some kind of test or something. I went to get the rest of the things on my list.

The last item was milk. I opened the cooler that it was kept in. There were pictures on some of the cartons. One looked familiar. I lifted out the carton for a better look. It was me, the old me who never really existed. "Bart Kabakjian," the writing under the picture said. "Age 16. Last seen, March 7, 2002."

My head began to spin. I started to remember things about Brick. Things I'd wanted to forget because they made him seem real and I knew he wasn't: the time he almost drowned when he tried to swim across Lake Callaway, the joy of making first string junior varsity in his seventh grade, what his -- my? -- parents looked like, his big sister, Mary, who was away at college. "He was real," I said in a whisper. "He's... and I'm... I'm him."

They'd done something to me. The magic that changed me somehow gave me enough of Ishtar's memories to confuse me. They just added to that confusion until I started to believe it was real. Should I run or report them? No, I decided. I'd play along. I still knew how to act like Ishtar. I'd find out how they did it, and change back. Then I'd bust them.

I put the milk carton back, no sense giving things away. I took another that had a picture of some girl I'd never seen on it. I hoped she was in better shape than I was. Then I got the rest of the things we needed, butter, orange juice, and some flour. Mama was going to bake biscuits.

* * * * *

That night, I had an idea. If I had some of Ishtar's memories, maybe I could remember what had happened to her. I closed my eyes and concentrated. I remembered coughing, being very sick. I heard the word "carcinoma." Mama cried, but Papa said that he had faith that Gaia heal me, that she wouldn't let me die.

Somehow, I knew he'd been wrong.

I felt sorry for them, but not sorry enough that I wanted to stay with them.

* * * * *

It was Samhain, the fall harvest holiday. Papa said that spirits wandered on this night, and we had to be careful. "They're looking for a weak soul whose body they can steal," he said. "Then that person's true soul wanders lost through the world of dreams."

"But you could bring it back, couldn't you, Papa?" I asked. "Just like you brought me back."

"There are ways," Papa said, "but there are risks. The one who tries may become lost, even if the magics he uses are powerful ones." He patted the Book of Thoth and Ja-Thoth, the book we -- they -- had for a bible in their faith.

"Amen," I said. Mama and he both said it, too.

After they went to bed, I snuck out and got the Book from where Papa kept it. I read it through, cover to cover, over the next few nights. It had a lot of crazy stuff in it, even a few restorative spells, but nothing that even vaguely sounded like it would work real magic. They just sounded like somebody playing at doing magic tricks.

It had to be something else, but what?

I didn't think I was going to have time to look for it. The night I was finishing reading the Book, the light suddenly went on in Mama and Papa's room. "Who's out there," he yelled. "I've got a rifle in here."

I shut the Book and put it back in its place. "Just me," I called, trying not to sound scared. "I-I just wanted to get... to get a little slice of apple pie." Mama and I had baked the pie that day. She let me do most of the work, and it had turned out pretty good, if I say so myself.

Papa laughed. "Girl, you're gonna swell up like a watermelon, if you keep sneaking out to eat in the middle of the night." Mama must have said something because then he added, "But since it is your first pie, I guess you're entitled to an extra piece. Just leave some for your Mama and me." The light went out in their room.

"I will," I said. I took a breath, my first one since their light had gone on. Then, just to be sure, and because it was good pie, I went into the kitchen and had a slice.

* * * * *

A few days later, Papa and I went back to Hanson's. As we walked in, I noticed a state police cruiser parked in front. A tall cop was standing by the counter, drinking some coffee from the pot Mr. Hanson always had going. Papa gave me half the list again. Milk was the first item. I went and got a carton. Then, just as I got near the cop, I pretended to trip. I fell, landing on the carton. Papa ran over. "What happened to you?"

"Don't hit me again, sir, please don't." I screamed at Papa, trying to sound like I was terrified of him. I curled up in a ball there on the floor.

"Don't be silly, girl." Papa knelt and put his arm around me, so he could lift me up.

I screamed, even louder than before. "No, please, no, don't touch me there. I'm... I'm a good girl, please."

Everyone in the store was looking at us now. The cop put his coffee cup down on the counter. "Sir, could you stand away from the young lady, please?" He sounded polite but very concerned.

"The girl's just playing a game, officer," he insisted, but he did step back. "Ishtar, daughter, what are you doing?"

"I'm not your daughter," I screamed. I was actually beginning to feel a little hysterical at this point. "I'm not; I'm not."

A second cop joined the first. "Why don't we all go down to the station house and settle this. I'll radio it in." He walked outside. When he came back a few minutes later, he asked Papa. "Where's your car, sir?"

"The black Chevy out front, why?"

"I'll just drive the young lady in that, sir, and you'll go in the back of the cruiser if you don't mind."

"We will speak of this later, Ishtar," Papa said, glaring at me. Then he realized how it must look. "My daughter is given to pranks, officers. You mustn't take her serious."

"We take any accusation of child abuse very seriously, sir. If she's lying, we'll be more than happy to release her. If not..." He stuck out his hand. "May I have your keys, sir?"

* * * * *

"Tell me the story again, Ishtar." The police lieutenant sat looking at me. She was a tall, slightly plump woman, with just a bit of gray in her dark brown hair. A short man in a gray suit sat next to her. He was Dr. Reese, a child psychologist that they'd called in after they heard my story the first time.

"My name is Bart Kabakjian. I'm seventeen. I played football for the Curryville Wolverines. Mama and Papa -- Mr. and Mrs. ap Taffyd kidnapped me back in March. They used some kind of magic to change me into a girl and make me think I was their daughter, Ishtar. I only just came out of whatever spell they had me under. I want to get changed back, and I want to go home."

"Home," Dr. Reese said. "That would be the house you claim to have in... Curryville. I suppose it's a nice, big ranch house, much nicer than that place the ap Taffyds live in."

"It's an apartment, if you have to know," I said. "Why are you worrying about stuff like that? It's 344 Clifton Street; we live on the ninth floor. We moved there from a smaller place when I was six or seven."

"And your -- Bart's parents are..." The lieutenant asked. Her name badge said "Tayune," but she said to call her Jo."

"Jack and Carla Kabakjian. Before you ask, I have an older sister, Mary. She's away at State College now, engineering major. Anything else?"

Dr. Reese looked at a slip of paper. "Podestra... n'luthto... e... ah... fervina..."

The words sounded sort of familiar. "That's some kind of prayer, I think. It sounds a little like what Mama... Mrs. ap Taffyd says sometimes."

"What was the final score in the Curryville-Meade Run football game last year?" Dr. Reese asked.

I had to smile at the memory. "Eighteen... thirteen, Curryville. We were down by one, and they had the ball, about a minute left to play. I hit their man just right, and the ball pops out of his hands. Roger Schiarlotti catches it and gets about ten yards before they bring him down. We switch teams, and on the next play, Jerry Atwood throws a beautiful pass to Mort Kessler. Mort catches it on the twenty-three and runs it in to score. We missed the extra point, but it was enough."

"Satisfied?" Jo asked.

"Yeah," Dr. Reese said, "except it's physically impossible." He threw up his hands as if in surrender. "You can't just do some mumbo-jumbo and change a boy into a girl."

"They did," I said. "They put me in her clothes and jewelry, poured some weird oil over my head and -- ZAP! -- hello, Ishtar. I was a girl."

The two looked at each other for a moment. "Describe the jewelry," Jo said. It sounded like it was important.

"Umm, a necklace with the symbols of Thoth, Ja-Thoth, and Gaia on it." I picked up a pencil and drew a picture. "Oh, yeah, and a second one with a little angel -- what do they call them? -- a cherub, like a little cupid, on it."

"Do they still have that necklace?" Dr. Reese asked.

"I-I don't know. Why?"

It turned out that the necklace with the cherub was magic; something called the Medallion of Zulo. The thing even has a few dozen web sites, but they mostly treat it like some urban myth. Jo and Dr. Reese didn't think it was a myth. Neither did the ap Taffyds. When Paulus said that they'd had a sign, he meant that they'd found the Medallion and discovered what it could do.

The real Ishtar had died of some kind of bone cancer that kids get. It showed up about a year ago, and she had died only three months later. They'd buried her in secret and grieved till they were just about out of their minds. Ishtar was home-schooled, so nobody had missed her.

When the Medallion touched me and Ishtar's robe, it turned me into her double, fingerprints and all. It seemed that if a person wore the Medallion for a long time after they changed, they got the some of the memories and such of the person they'd changed into. After Paulus knocked me out with that spray, I had worn it for almost six hours. No wonder I walked and acted like her.

I'd have gotten her cancer, too, when I changed, but they had buried her in her good robes. The robe that they'd put me in was one that she hadn't worn for about six months before she died, before she had gotten sick.

My problem was that the Medallion had a knack for disappearing. They'd hidden it in one of the outbuildings on the farm, but when Paulus happened to check about a week later, it was gone. Nothing else was missing. It either vanished by itself, or somebody had come specifically for it.

Either way, I was stuck with Ishtar's body.

But I was Bart Kabakjian again.

My parents, my real parents were so happy to have me back; they didn't care what I looked like. Mary warned me not to be taking clothes from her room, while she was away at school. Then she gave me a big hug and offered to take me shopping that afternoon.

I went. I certainly needed to. Those clothes that I wore as Ishtar were terrible, so plain, and they didn't fit very well, and I -- yep, I knew who I was, but I was still a girl. I loved shopping and pretty clothes and all that stuff.

One thing that bothered me was how my friends were going to react. And how I was going to react to them. I had hung out with a bunch of pretty macho guys. Now, I was just the sort of hot babe that they liked to chase. And I found myself starting to get a little tingly when I thought about them.

Mom and Dad understood. Dad put in for a transfer to a site his company had in another state. Mom quit her job. It turned out that the ap Taffyds lived the way they did, because of their religion, not because they were poor. They had a good bit of money, and they were willing to spend some on me, if it would help keep them out of jail.

It did. They're on parole and in some sort of grief counseling. I honestly hope that the counseling can help.

My old school cooperated, too. They doctored my records, so it looks like I've always been Esther Kabakjian. We told everybody that I lost part of a year being sick, so I have to do my junior year over. That's because Ishtar was a year younger than Bart was. I'll never play defensive line again, but I have Ishtar's suppleness and grace. I've taken up acrobatic dancing, and I've become one of the cheerleaders at my new school. We're being touted for the statewide championship this year.

Somebody asked me if it's better being a boy or a girl. One's not better than the other, I've decided, they're just a whole lot different.

The End

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