While revising Masks XII before posting it on my Web page, I came up with an idea for a character whose story would begin late in that tale and continue in XIII. However, I soon realized the story worked better as a stand-alone. So, that idea and character became XIII and what would have been XIII is now XIV.
Masks XIII: The Other Half
"Vic! Do you have to come thundering down the stairs like a herd of elephants?!" said Alissa.
"Sorry, Mom," said the young man, as he swung 'round the handrail post at the bottom, lining up and landing halfway down the hall.
Tall, fit and even a bit handsome, Vic Peltior was obviously in too good a mood to let the mild rebuke affect him much.
"I'm not sure I like this," said Alissa, eyeing her son as he made ready for a night out with friends.
"Mom, you trusted me with the same guys when I was sixteen and seventeen. Why not when I'm eighteen?"
"Oh, let him go, Alissa," said Arnold, grinning. "The party we gave him was pretty sedate, and now he has something else to celebrate as well. Let him have a fling."
"Mom, it's okay," said Vic, as a car horn began blowing outside. "We have a designated driver!"
"What?!" said Alissa, as her son ran out the door. "Wait! Vic?!"
* * *
The four tired youths rode along through the gathering gloom for several minutes in silence after leaving the parking lot. Then Thomas, in the back on the left, impulsively punched his seatmate Vic in the arm.
"Congratulations, black belt!"
"Thanks," said Vic, tiredly, smiling as he absently rubbed his arm. "Thanks for the belated birthday gift, too."
"Hey, we kept promising you something special to celebrate when you turned eighteen. Figured waiting to give it to you after you passed would just make the day even more special."
"What if I'd failed?"
"Well, I'm glad I passed," said Vic. "I'm also glad I finally got to see a real strip club."
"Yeah, it's about time," said Carl, in the right front seat, teasing. "Just because you're the youngest of us doesn't mean you can slack off on something like this."
"Well, I'm glad you finally got your belt," said Thomas. "I just wish you hadn't had to wait so long."
"So I had to skip a test, because Dr. Thom doesn't award black belts to anyone younger than eighteen. It's not a big deal. I just had to wait another four months to test again."
"Yeah," said George, the driver, and the only one who hadn't had anything to drink, "but..."
There was a horrible impact, just outside where Vic was sitting. They were all belted in, but a hit that hard still jolted them severely. The right side of the car caved in, and Vic's head hit the upholstery, just behind the window, hard enough to briefly knock him out. As a result, he missed the rest of the wreck. The car spun clockwise, the rear swinging into the oncoming lane. A delivery truck coming the other way smashed into the left rear, shearing off much of the trunk and spraying gasoline from the car's ruptured tank. The truck then hit the car which had run the stop sign to hit the boys' car. Those two vehicles quickly dragged to a stop, with much sparking and shrieking of tortured metal.
George was stunned but still reflexively trying to control the car, not knowing there was so much damage to the rear axle that this was futile. The car went off the road into the wide, deep ditch on the right, rolling onto its right side in a shower of safety glass fragments and bits of metal as it slid to a stop. The occupants were too battered to react, Carl and Thomas as unconscious as Vic, George semi-conscious but hanging from his restraints at an awkward angle. All were injured, the two in the back seat seriously.
Vic returned partially to consciousness just in time to see the fire start.
* * *
"His injuries are serious, but he's currently stable," said the doctor, as he escorted Vic's parents to his room. "Frankly, I'm surprised he wasn't hurt worse. The other three boys were all hurt badly enough they... were gone before the paramedics got there."
"Those poor boys," said Alissa, quietly. "Their poor parents, too."
Arnold hugged his wife, briefly but firmly.
"He hasn't regained consciousness, yet," Doctor Jones continued as they approached the door, "but that's largely due to the medication. Despite a mild concussion there doesn't appear to be any brain damage. His worst injuries are the burns, and those are not life-threatening. We think that, being in the lowest part of the car, he was below most of the heat. Though if that truck driver hadn't had a fire extinguisher...
"Anyway, he's out of danger for shock, and if we can keep the burns from getting infected - which is unlikely, with us paying attention - he should make a complete recovery."
Inside, Vic lay motionless, only his arms, shoulders and head above the bedclothes, and those mostly swathed in bandages.
"Oh, Victor," Alissa whispered, moving quickly to the bed.
She wanted to hug him, but the bandages prevented that. She settled for kissing the right side of his forehead, which was bare, if red from a mild burn and glistening with ointment.
"He's going to be all right," said the doctor, firmly. "If he weren't stable we'd have him in intensive care. Frankly, we're surprised at how well he's doing. He's a very strong young man."
"All that karate practice must be paying off," said Arnold, moving to stand beside Alissa. "Any idea when we can talk to him?"
"We're amazed at his progress. I guess a lot of that is due to his excellent physical condition." Dr. Jones shrugged. "I don't recommend staying the night, since he'll be out at least the next ten or so hours just from the sedation. However, we're planning on trying to give him some food during lunch tomorrow. If you're here at ten, you should only have a short wait until he comes around."
"Doctor, I'm a pharmacist," said Arnold. "I know a bit about medicine and a lot about medicines. If you need to discuss something technical about his treatment, don't hold back."
Dr. Jones nodded, and he and Vic's father talked quietly for a few minutes while the boy's mother held his uninjured hand. Finally, the two men finished.
"I think we need to get home, now, hon," said Arnold, gently.
"I hate to leave him..." said Alissa.
"We'll both be better able to deal with things if we get a good night's sleep," said Arnold, gently. "You heard the doctor; he's not in danger and won't be awake for hours. Let's get home. Joline said she'd come there, anyway."
"You're right," said Alissa, nodding. "We need to be home when she arrives."
* * *
"Chief Portman?" said the uniform, as he caught up to his boss the next morning. "I have the preliminary report on that fatal car crash last night."
"Show it to me in my office," said the police chief, gesturing down the hall.
Moments later, he was seated, with the younger man standing beside him.
"The driver of the car which hit them was drunk," said the officer, putting the folder on his chief's desk, opening it and pointing. "Preliminary blood test showed a blood alcohol well over the legal limit. He had a couple of DUI already. That, combined with the truck driver saying he ran the stop sign..."
"There's a lot of talk about the boys in the car being drunk," said the Chief. "Even though two of them were underage."
"The driver of the boys' car was stone sober," said the officer. He turned to the appropriate page and tapped the blood alcohol results with his finger. "Fits the testimony of the people at the strip club; he only drank soda. The survivor was spotted buying some drinks, even though he was under twenty-one. Two of the boys were over twenty-one, the other - the driver - was twenty. He was actually the youngest-looking one; the survivor looked of age. Still, they were all young enough their IDs should have been checked. However, only the survivor was illegally drinking."
"I'll recommend that Vice check the place," said the Chief. He gave a humorless laugh and shook his head. "Ironic, isn't it, that it's legal to enter a strip club if you're eighteen, but you have to be three years older to legally drink."
"The real irony is, even though they broke the law, they were careful," said the officer, sadly. "Took a friend out to a strip club to celebrate, didn't drink that much or stay too long, had a designated driver, then got hit by a drunk driver. Poor kids."
"I hear the survivor is doing well," said the Chief. "He's supposed to be conscious, soon. I'll send a detective out to get his statement later today."
* * *
Vic woke to pain. Not a great deal of pain, but enough that he groaned as he opened his eyes.
"Good morning," said his Mother, smiling down at him. "Well, you're up a lot sooner than the doctors thought you'd be. We just barely got settled in."
"Okay, cliche time," said Vic, hoarsely, as he looked blearily around the small room. "What happened?"
"Your car was hit by a drunk who ran a stop sign."
"How are the other guys."
"They... didn't make it, honey," she said, putting a hand on his least burned arm. "I'm sorry. They all died quickly, so they didn't suffer."
His reaction startled her. There was grief, yes, but the predominant emotion was rage.
"I hope they give that bastard the electric chair!"
"They won't have to," said Arnold, also angry. "He died in the crash."
Joline, Vic's older sister, joined her mother in putting a comforting hand on her brother.
"Looks like the Foley family luck we got from Mom carried you through again," she said, softly. She smiled at her little brother. "You look so young laying there. Like you were fifteen again."
"They think the driver of the delivery truck which was also involved in the accident saved you," said Alissa. "He had a fire extinguisher and put out the fire."
"Thomas, Carl, George... They're really gone?"
Now came the grief. Arnold felt a bit uncomfortable, watching his nearly grown son cry, but it was definitely justified. He carefully put a hand on top of his wife's.
"Anyway," said Arnold, a catch in his own voice, "the doctors say you should be ready to come home in a few days. Your burns are healing nicely, and you're out of danger. You'll heal better at home."
Especially emotionally, he finished, silently.
* * *
Only Vic's Mother came to visit that afternoon. His Father had to work, and his sister was busy calling her friends and teachers at college to let them know where she was, and getting assignments. However, as Alissa was walking down the hall toward her son's room, Dr. Jones headed her off.
"Could you come in to my office for a bit?" he asked. "I need to talk to you about something before you see Vic."
"What do you mean you're keeping him longer than planned?" said Alissa, a few minutes later, as she sat across from him. "You said he'd be here less than a week, then could finish recuperating at home. That he was doing fantastic."
"It's been less than a full day, but he's almost completely healed," said Dr. Jones, looking puzzled. "We were astounded when we checked his injuries this afternoon."
"Isn't that good, though?"
"It's not natural," said the doctor, obviously unsettled. "Ironically, if he hadn't healed so quickly we'd indeed be considering sending him home soon. However, there's a good chance he may actually have a power."
"Isn't that good?" said Alissa, insistently.
"If his healing is due to a power, yes. However, whether it is or is not due to a power, we need to keep him under observation. I don't mean to worry you, but we have to figure out what's going on in case there are side effects."
Alissa nodded slowly, not convinced but willing to let the expert persuade her.
"So, what do I tell him about this?"
"I don't see any need to tell him anything which might worry him. If you don't think he'd be upset over possibly having a power, go ahead and let him know what I suspect."
"I'm pretty sure he won't," said Alissa.
"You know him better than I do, so I leave it to your judgement."
* * *
"Good morning!" said Alissa, when she finally entered her son's room. "How are you feeling?"
"Really good, though bored and a bit worried," said Vic, as he and his Mother hugged.
"The police just left. Well, one police officer. He took my statement about the accident. Which I totally don't remember. He didn't like that. Kind'a got accusing. Told me it was illegal for me to be drinking, even though I'm eighteen."
"Twenty-one is the national legal limit," said Alissa, nodding.
"Wait... You mean I was drinking illegally?!"
"Are you telling me you honestly thought you could drink at eighteen?" said Alissa, astonished.
"Yes," said Vic, in a small voice. He sighed. "Sorry. We all thought it was eighteen."
He suddenly scowled.
"That still doesn't explain that cop asking me the same things, over and over."
"Honey, you had a concussion. The doctors told you that you might have memory problems for a while. Maybe he was just making sure you actually didn't remember and not just covering up for your friends."
She sat in the chair beside the bed.
"Anyway, there's good news and bad news."
"Oh, please," said Vic, rolling his eyes. "You know how I hate playing that game."
"Oh, you know you love it!" said his Mother, cheerfully. "Anyway, the doctor says you need to stay here longer than originally planned. The good news is, it's because they think you have powers!"
"Yeah, I actually figured that out for myself," said Vic, nodding. He smiled a bit. "Cool."
* * *
"A power?" said Joline, that afternoon. "You mean like Great-Uncle Huskins had?"
"He'll like that," said Arnold.
"Well, they're not sure," said Alissa. "However, given how he's healing and fighting the pain killers and - before - the anesthetic, they're all but."
"Hmph," said Arnold. "Good thing this isn't a couple of years ago. Though there are still a lot of bigots out there, and some of them are still in positions of authority. We better plan on how to handle it if he does have powers."
* * *
"Okay, what did you want to see me about?" said Dr. Jones, as the door to Vic's room closed behind him.
Three days after the accident the boy was almost completely healed, barely showing any sign of injury and no scars. Even the previous IV puncture sites were now invisible. He was also eating like there were three of him.
"I think my penis is shrinking," said Vic, blushing.
"Well, that could be a reaction to some of the medications," said the doctor. "Stand up and take off your gown."
He put on some exam gloves and sat on a wheeled stool while Vic did that.
"Okay, pull down your shorts."
Blushing even harder, the young man did so. Dr. Jones frowned, leaned in, looked and felt.
"Yeah, there's some definite shrinking, of your penis and scrotum. Pull your shorts back up and turn, slowly."
Vic obeyed, especially glad about the first part. He'd always been a bit shy about his body. One reason he'd started martial arts was to build himself up.
"Raise your arms," said Dr. Jones, as Vic turned. "Have you noticed any swelling and tenderness of your nipples?"
"Well, I'll review your medications and see if any of them could be causing this. I don't think it's anything to worry about right now. We're having to keep you on such high doses to have any effect at all, that could explain it. I'll leave a note to take you off the drugs, if you think the remaining discomfort won't be a problem. Keep tabs on things, though, and let me know if the symptoms persist."
Vic woke to a bladder uncomfortably full. He slid from under the covers and staggered into the bathroom, still mostly asleep. That changed when Vic flipped on the light.
The first thing which caught Vic's attention was the twin mounds, barely muffled by the thin hospital gown. Vic stared at the mirror over the sink, looked down, cupped those breasts which should not have been there, then looked back at the mirror.
Vic's hair was unchanged from before bedtime, but the face was distinctly feminine. Dreading what he would find but knowing he had to look, Vic peeled off the gown. Then whimpered at the perky pair of breasts thus revealed. Trembling, Vic pulled out the underwear waistband and looked inside.
"Oooooh, fuck..." said Vic, in a distinctly feminine voice.
The situation was so bizarre it had an unreal air about it. Vic felt disoriented, disconnected, but the stark light of the bathroom left no doubt as to what had happened. Vic whimpered, and felt... something release inside, and saw a few golden drops appear.
"Shit!" Vic hissed.
Quickly, she - definitely she - spun around, yanked her shorts down and dropped onto the seat. Vic gave a little gasp of relief as the pressure faded. Once the flow stopped, Vic sat numbly on the toilet for a long while, too stunned to even think. Finally, she stirred.
"Reaction to medication my currently shapely ass!" Vic muttered. She grabbed the alert cord.
* * *
Hours later, Vic's room was still in an uproar. Some people had accepted the situation immediately. Others still weren't sure they weren't being pranked.
"Yes, for the fifteenth time, I really am Victor Peltior!"
"Well, this is unprecedented," said Dr. Jones, as he had repeatedly since being called in early from his home.
"Has anyone called my parents, yet?" said Vic, voice a bit shrill.
"What? Oh, yes; we need to do that, now that I'm convinced you're you," said Dr. Jones.
"Who else would I be?!"
* * *
"Oh, my..." said Alissa, stunned when she saw Vic. "Your sister and I thought you looked younger, but you must have looked more feminine."
"Whoa, bro," said Joline, just as affected. "What happened?"
"I turned into a girl, is what happened!" said Vic, angrily. "I thought stuff like this only happened in anime!"
"That's what you get for watching so much of that stuff," said Joline.
"Not funny. Not funny at all."
"Sorry. Uhm, do the doctors know..."
"Well, obviously, it's due to a power. They just don't know which. Or why."
"So... if you could turn it off..." said Alissa.
"Some powers do cause permanent physical changes," said Joline, doubtfully. "We studied it in one of my classes. Also the problems that can cause. I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but you could be stuck like that, bro."
"Oh, come on! I can't be stuck like this! I'm graduating later this month!"
Joline chewed her bottom lip and shifted uncomfortably. She knew this was a case where there might not be a cure. Before she could speak, though, there was a knock on the door. Dr. Jones then entered.
"Uhm, good morning," he said, uncertainly. "How are you feeling?"
"Like I'm the wrong gender," said Vic, angrily. "What's going on?!"
"We're still checking into the matter. The reason I wanted to speak with you is that we have contacted an expert on the medical complications of powers. Dr. Nathan Harvest. We're lucky to get him on such short notice, with all the complications following that... mental event a couple of months ago still being dealt with. If you agree, we'll call him back and arrange transportation and lodging."
"Oh, definitely," said Alissa.
All three of the Peltior women nodded emphatically.
"Good. Are there any questions in the meantime?"
"Why do I look younger?" said Vic, plaintively. "Girls mature earlier. I should look older."
"If you do have some power-related recovery working to heal you, it could have healed you to an optimum physiological age," said Dr. Jones, trying to sound like he knew what he was talking about.
He wasn't very convincing.
"When will this specialist get here?" said Vic, practically growling.
"Dr. Harvest should arrive on the redeye late tonight," said Dr. Jones. "Uh, if I call him as soon as I leave here, I mean. He's standing by."
"Another night like this," said Vic, tears starting to form.
* * *
The whole family - along with Dr. Jones - was present the next day at one-thirty when Dr. Harvest arrived. Despite his precipitous journey, he was neat in appearance and brisk in personality. After introductions were made he set right to work. First, he took an extensive medical history, not just of Vic but of Joline and their parents. He asked several questions which seemed odd, but which turned out to be intended to find signs of powers in any of them, including pre-accident Vic. He also asked about any incidence of powers further back in the family line. Upon hearing the information about Arnold's uncle he became very excited.
"I wonder... If pyrokinesis runs in the family, that would explain why fire awakened Vic's powers... but in that case, why were the burns so bad? Or did he get his injuries before the powers activated? That could be why they weren't worse..."
Dr. Harvest gave the other three Peltiors questionnaires to complete, then shooed everyone out except for a nurse and a female technician. He proceeded to give Vic a thorough exam. A very thorough exam.
"I have no conclusions, yet," he said later, to the assembled Peltior family and Dr. Jones. "Preliminary results show Victor is a healthy young woman of an apparent age of about sixteen. The pelvic exam was normal, and the ultrasound showed no internal abnormalities."
"All of this is abnormal!" said Vic, gesturing at herself.
"Medically normal," said Harvest, with emphasis. "However, considering the larger situation, there are several things which are definitely odd. Besides the gender change, Victor has lost a significant amount of weight. This despite eating a huge amount the past few days. The blood type is also different. I'm sure you've noticed that she no longer looks much like the photo you showed me. I'll know more about that once the DNA test results come back. However, it would help if you could examine old family photos and see if she currently resembles any of her ancestors."
"How common is it for powers to cause a permanent physical change?" said Joline.
"Very rare. The fact that Vic's mass changed suggests this is being caused by some sort of active power effect. If so, and we can figure out what the power is and how it works, simply stopping it working will - well, should - return her to normal.
"For now, though, my recommendation is for Vic to go home and try to resume normal activities. You should schedule a follow-up visit with Dr. Jones in two weeks. By then I should have finished my preliminary analysis and consulted with some other experts, and given him my findings."
"You're just letting him go?!" said Arnold.
"Frankly, I can't find any reason to keep Vic here," said Dr. Harvest, a bit embarrassed. "She's completely healed and perfectly healthy. If you're still concerned you should find another specialist in powers complications and get a second opinion. The field is still very young and no one person knows all of it. Keeping Vic here is just running up your bill for no reason."
"I'm afraid your health insurance won't pay for calling in another specialist," said Dr. Jones, also apologetic. "Well, not for a while. Or pay to keep someone not actually ill or injured here."
"First you say he can go home early," said Alissa, in slowly rising pitch and volume, "then you say you need to keep him, now you say take him home!"
"I'm sorry," said Dr. Jones, a bit timidly. "We just don't know what else to do."
* * *
"I'll be so glad to get back home," said Vic, tiredly, as they drove along. "All this still seems unreal. Maybe, back in familiar surroundings, I'll be able to get my head around it."
"Familiar activities will also help," said Joline. "I doubt you're ready to go out with your friends, yet, but you should be able to find plenty of familiar stuff to do around the house."
"You're favorite show is on tonight, remember?" said Alissa, suddenly. "Esper Jack."
"Mom, I like that show, but it's never been my favorite," said Vic, with a tired sigh.
"Of course it is," said Alissa, nodding cheerfully. "You always watch it."
However, the first thing which happened when they opened the door drove home the changes Vic had experienced. Coco, the family dog greeted everyone with her typical excitement... except for Vic, whom she treated with polite curiosity. However, once she got a good sniff, she seemed confused.
"She's not sure who you are," said Joline. "Good thing you're wearing your old clothes."
"Great," said Vic, voice choking. "Even the dog can't recognize me."
She suddenly started sobbing. The retriever and parents stood around in confusion.
"I'll handle this," said Joline, softly, as she ushered Vic away.
She guided her sibling upstairs into Vic's room, sat her on the bed and closed the door.
"Go ahead," she said, handing over a box of tissues from Vic's desk. "Get it out of your system."
"I hate this," said Vic, hiccuping through tears. She blew her
"You've had a huge shock. You probably need a good cry."
Joline turned Vic's desk chair around and sat patiently, waiting for her sister to finish. This took a while, but she finally ran dry. Then came a long silence.
"I hate that you're missing classes over me," said Vic, finally.
"Actually, I plan to use you for extra credit," said her sister, with a mischievous grin. "There's a required lab for one of my psych courses this semester, and one of the options is Gender Roles In Society: Nature vs. Nurture."
"You've got to be kidding me," said Vic, dismayed.
"I'd pretty much already decided on that, actually," said Joline. She laughed. "You know I'm a bit of a tomboy."
"You're going to be asking me all sorts of intimate, awkward questions, aren't you?"
"Just think of it as payment for me helping you adjust to the concave side of life."
* * *
Joline didn't leave Vic alone until the younger sibling recovered enough to satisfy her.
"Guess I should shower, now," said Vic, dreading that procedure.
"Why don't you change into your workout clothes and get some exercise, first," said Joline. "That's another routine which is important to you. Also, the endorphins that generates should help your mood."
"That actually sounds like a good idea." Vic grimaced. "Oh, goody. I get to see how much strength I've lost."
Joline started to rise, but Vic caught her arm.
"Please stay while I change," she said, softly. "Keep... keep talking with me. It'll help keep my mind off... things."
"Sure," said her sister, smiling and patting Vic's hand on her arm.
* * *
The warmup was disconcerting. Balance was different. Splits were disturbingly easier. Breasts moving were disconcerting, especially to the person currently wearing them. Vic was surprised that after a severe accident and several days in the hospital she was still in very good physical condition. With all that completed, the time came for the real test.
Vic finished setting up the weights and lay down on the bench. With a resigned sigh, she pushed up. Then gave a little involuntary yelp as the bar jumped off the stand. Startled, she lowered it back down, got up and checked the weight. It was still the usual amount.
"Okay, maybe I also got superhuman strength," she said, feeling a bit disconnected from reality. "That would be a nice compensation for the sex change. Let's double the weight and see."
More effort was definitely required this time, but she still lifted the weight with little trouble. Having a real Unbreakable moment, Vic decided to pile on all the weights. She lay on the bench and pushed up. The bar resisted a bit, then lifted with an ominous creak.
"Holy crap!" said Vic, her voice strained.
Realizing her arms were trembling, she carefully lowered the bar back onto the stand. She sat up, spun around and double-checked the weights. The amount was still a hundred twenty kilos.
"I'm strong," she said, awed. "Not... superhumanly strong, but... really strong."
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