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Copyright © Elaine Blankenship and Shannen Greggs by Elaine Blankenship and Shannen Greggs. All rights reserved.
by Lainie Lee and BoyChiq
Like, this story could never happen. But what if it happened to you? No real sex, but adults only, anyway. Copyright 1999 by Elaine Blankenship and Shannen Greggs. All rights reserved. ============================== Esperanza by BoyChiq and Lainie Lee The rain came down hard, harder, hardest near Buttonwillow. The traffic, way out in the middle of nowhere slowed nearly to a crawl. I had got stuck behind a couple of slow-moving big rigs going up a hill, side-by-side. The wet gloom made mid-afternoon into almost-night. Just as I slowed to no more than a walking pace, the right-hand door of my car opened and a girl climbed in. She dripped water on my seat cushions and turned to lock the door after she was inside. "It's too late now," I said. "T-too late?" She looked back at me with enormous gray-green eyes and a mouth opened to reveal a slight overbite and a bit of a trembling lip. "To keep anyone from getting in while I'm driving so slow." "Oh." She tried a smile. She wore no make-up but her skin had that clearness only the young achieve. Her tousled and tangled hair, dark in what light filtered though the storm, and made darker by being wet, lay plastered tightly to her cheeks, neck and back. In much the same way that a thin cotton shirt clung to her shape. I revised my guess as to her age downward, those breasts seemed positively adolescent. I smiled back, wondering if I should try to look avuncular. She might be delectable, but she might be under age, too. "I hope you don't mind too much, I'm soaking wet and cold and..." She turned her face away but continued looking at me sideways. "And I really need a ride to L.A." She certainly wasn't dressed for a fall storm in the California mountains, but Los Angeles would likely still be warm and dry this time of year almost the end of October. I turned some heat on to help her dry off and just drove for a while. The traffic cleared as the big rigs sorted things out up ahead. She studied them through the right-hand window as we passed slower moving vehicles and moved ahead into clearer weather. I studied her in little sideways glances. The face said eighteen, maybe early twenties and the length of leg in her too tight chinos made that a good guess, too. But she still had only little breast buds, just beginning to ripen, like a twelve-year-old. Maybe she was a late bloomer. "If I'm giving you a ride, I want something in return." She stiffened in the seat. "I... I..." Her head whipped back and forth, trying not to look at me. "Like your name," I finished. Well, I had found something out; she had had no intention of offering herself to me. I had wondered, a girl bold enough to steal a ride from a stranger, but no she was only desperate. Or perhaps my looks had put her off the idea. She considered the question of her name. Her face seemed guileless but I knew that in some way, her answer would be a lie. "Kelly." she said at last, and her stomach made an unladylike punctuating growl. "Excuse me." "Hungry?" She nodded. The risks of taking a young girl into a cafe seemed worth it. I took the next exit and parked at the coffee shop in the middle of the big truck stop. I got out my umbrella and hurried around the car. She might have been examining the big rigs parked in the lot more than waiting for me to open the door for her. She got out awkwardly, almost tripping. Her shoes were those clunky things that looked like a cross between maryjanes and high-heeled combat boots. I walked her to the door of the cafe, keeping my hands off her but blocking the last of the wind-driven drizzle with my body and my umbrella. She bumbled at the door, reaching for the handle then jerking her hand back as I wrenched the heavy glass and steel frame open. The wind almost tore it away from me and she scampered inside with a squeal, as a cold splash caught her across the calves. I walked in behind her, grinning. She seemed awkwardly, charmingly young, and even younger when she caught one of her big square heels in the drain mat just inside the air lock. "Damn heels," I heard her mutter and she blushed when I widened the grin to hear her curse. Inside, she staggered again and I put out a hand to catch her. "The food! The smell!" she murmured. We took a booth immediately, the place was busy but not packed and I wanted to get her seated. She looked pale and sick for a moment and I heard her tummy rumble again. "I'm so hungry! I don't think I've been so hungry in years!" "Relax!" I laughed at her expression, wolfish and waifish at one time. She fidgeted, then grabbed up a packet of crackers left by a previous occupant of the booth and ripped into the cellophane, scattering crumbs like a child. Nibbling on the saltines, she examined her fingers as if she had never seen them before. "I don't have any money." "If I'm going to buy you lunch..." I began. Her color rose. "Dinner," I corrected, smiling gently. She frowned, trying to decide if she was being teased. "Then you can tell me the story of how you happened to be standing on the side of the freeway in the rain," I finished, still smiling. Kelly, if that was her name, started to shake her head. The waitress plopped two menus in front of us. "Coffee?" she asked me. I nodded and she poured me one from the carafe she carried. She hardly gave us a second glance, I guess we weren't as odd a couple around here as I might have thought. "Wanna coke?" she asked my companion. According to her tag, her name was Francine. "Uh, yeah. I guess," Kelly said. "Diet or regular?" "D-diet?" Kelly said, sounding unsure about it. Francine scooted away calling over her shoulder, "Decide what you want, I'll be right back." Kelly, stared at the menu without touching it. I didn't really want anything to eat right then, I decided I'd rather watch her eat. "I'd better just have soup," she said. "I didn't eat at all today." "Soup." I said. She nodded. "You usually need glasses to read?" I asked. She turned that shade of red again. "Where are your glasses?" I asked. She shrugged. "I don't know." "You lost them? Left them in your last ride?" She made a face as if that had never occurred to her until that moment. "The truck." "Some trucker gave you a ride then kicked you out on the freeway without your stuff?" I guessed wildly. She nodded slowly then shook her head. "No, he, he, didn't want to stop. I screamed...." She winced. "You made him stop?" "And then I ran away.... I was so scared. He kept following me, he called me 'Esperanza' and....." She frowned. "That means Hope in Spanish." She shook her head and winced again, perhaps at the memory. "But he finally left you alone? In the rain?" I felt a bit of anger at the trucker. What had he done to scare her so? I could guess but I wouldn't do it out loud. "No. This was last night, it wasn't raining. I hid in a ditch till he gave up and went away. Then I woke up. I was wet and cold and I tried to catch a ride, no one would stop on the freeway. I climbed the hill a ways, I fell down a lot but the rain washed off most of the mud. I thought the cars might be more willing to stop if they were already slowing down. Then you rolled by, and I saw your doors weren't locked." She smiled with a bit of effort. This had been her longest speech yet and seemed to contain no lies. I grinned and Francine, the waitress, came back just then. "What'll you have?" she asked with her pad and pen out, setting a cola down in front of the girl. "Burgers." I said. "Fries with mine, soup with hers." I decided I would order food also, for company more than hunger. "Clam chowder or vegetable?" It was Friday, of course they had clam chowder. I looked at her. "Chowder?" "It's the white kind. Good." Francine amplified completely unselfconsciously. I liked her. Kelly nodded and the waitress scooted away again. "You ordered for me," she observed. "I'm paying for it, too." "I'll pay you back. When I can." I shook my head. "I'm past forty. I don't get many opportunities to buy dinner for a pretty young girl." Francine coming back with the soup helped her cover up her confusion and embarrassment. "I heard your stomach growling. Teen-agers." I waited until Kelly had murmured a thank you and Francine had left again. "How old are you?" I asked bluntly. She looked warily at me as she opened up another wrapped package of crackers, this time more carefully. "How old do I look?" I laughed out loud. "You mean how old am I willing to believe?" She bit her lip, sniffed of the soup and then made a face. "Uh. I'm...I'm 21." I shook my head, more lying. She was particularly bad at it. I changed the subject. "Is the soup all right?" "I think so. I'm just so hungry it is making me feel queasy to smell of it." She tried a spoonful. "Take it easy. No rush. It's after 4:00 p.m. The traffic down into L.A. is going to be murder in this rain anyway." She startled visibly on the word 'murder'. Uh, oh, I thought. She ate a bit more soup and nibbled at the cracker. "So." I returned to a previous lie. "Is it Hope instead of Kelly?" I asked. "Or Hope Kelly, Kelly Hope? You don't look much like an Esperanza." Despite her dark hair, partially streaked with blonde highlights, her face was not typically Hispanic, nor her complexion. Too light-skinned, with a dance of freckles, and her eyes that odd grey-green instead of brown. Not that those things meant much, Hispanics varied a lot. She shook her head. "The driver was Spanish, not me." Spanish? No one in California under the age of fifty referred to people of Latin descent as Spanish anymore. Maybe she was originally from New York, or the East, anyway? Suddenly, her face changed and she put her hand to her mouth. A noise, then she stood and ran for the bathrooms. In her haste, she chose the wrong door and disappeared inside. "You should have turned left," I called. She emerged, hand still over mouth, a shout of "Hey! Miss, ya got the wrong door!" followed her as she crossed the little hall and went through the door marked Women. Francine came over. "Should I go check on her?" she asked. "Would you?" I said. "She's upset and so hungry the food made her ill." Francine went into the bathroom after Kelly or Hope or Esperanza or whatever her name was. I sat there worrying about her and what I might have to do about the situation. A runaway? Probably. Got picked up by a trucker who said or did something that scared her, so she ran. It all depended a great deal on how old she was but I wouldn't know that for sure unless she showed me some I.D. Valid I.D. that is. The fake stuff was all too common in the L.A. area. Logically, reasonably, I ought to call the juvenile authorities right now and just turn her over to them. The risks for me were high in this situation. But if I did that, finked her out, the next time she ran she wouldn't trust anyone. And kids who ran away often did it over and over. I needed to get her to agree to let me call someone. Besides, If I walked out on her now, I'd never know what her story really was. Francine came out. "She'll be okay. Washing her face." She smiled as she passed me. "Your daughter?" The question meant something to Francine as nonsensical as it seemed to me. I shook my head. "Just a hungry kid. Climbed in my car. I was stopped on the freeway." The three sentence summary. Francine stood there and we looked at each other for a moment or so. "Your burgers are up," she said finally and went to get them. The burgers had arrived and I had started on mine when Kelly, as she had named herself, came out of the bathroom. She paused there, looking shocked, pale and disturbed, as if something had been made clear to her that she found intolerable. The sight of the telephone next to the bathroom door seemed to inspire something. She dialed and spoke into the phone for a bit. I didn't see her use any coins so she must have been making a collect call. No conversation followed this little playlet and she hung up the phone, looking a bit teary. I waved at her and she moved slowly back toward our booth. "Not home?" I asked. She shook her head. "Who were you calling?" Casually asked, an unimportant question, if I alarmed her again she would start lying again. "Family." Tears were leaking down her cheeks. Wow. I kept quiet. She ate more soup and sipped soda, going very slowly this time. I thought about it. I was in a pickle. I had to do something for her even if it meant turning her over to the police. And that might turn out to be the best choice for me, if not for her. Even turning her over to the police presented a problem if she chose to make any allegations. I put the worries aside for the moment. She was a hungry kid and she needed someone to be friendly. "You called someone in L.A.?" I asked. "Your family?" She nodded. "I'm so hungry and when I eat I feel sick," she complained. "One bite at a time," I advised. "Take a sip of Coke, eat some of the bread on your sandwich." I watched her eat for a while. She turned down the offer of any fries but the food she did eat seemed to want to stay down. I ate all my burger and reflected on the waist of it all. Francine appeared. "Dessert?" I shook my head. "Can you box up the burger? Maybe she can eat it later." "Sure. I'll make you a take-along soda, too." She grinned at the girl Kelly looked grateful until Francine produced a brush and comb from some pocket. "Use these, hon. Your hair is a mess." We both looked at her until she took the stuff and went toward the bathrooms. She hesitated a moment then chose the women's room again. I grinned. "Doesn't have her glasses." "Oh." Francine dropped the check and sighed. "Crazy kids. You want me to call the cops for you before she gets out of there?" "No." I shook my head. "She's got folks in L.A. I'll take her there. Watch, she'll try to call them when she gets out of the bathroom, they didn't answer last time." I took a business card out of my wallet and handed it to her. She read it. My name, Walter S. Dalton, my company name, address, phone number, et cetera. She looked at me and I could tell the moment it was she decided to trust me to do the right thing by the girl. After all, I could have lied and said she was my daughter. Kelly came out of the bathroom while I sat there contemplating what it might be like to be the father of a daughter her age. She looked even cuter with her hair brushed and combed out of her face, a soft dark cloud with lighter streaks framing the classic oval of her features. She went to the phone again. She tried to be quiet but I caught a lot of what she said. She asked for a collect call to "Margaret Kelly" then she said, "I know something about George," when the person came on the line. I didn't hear the rest of the call. She was crying again when she joined me. "I'm ok," she murmured as she slid back into the booth. She busied herself with the soup again for awhile. Finally, she looked up and regarded me carefully. "Are you married?" she asked. I shook my head. "Tried it, didn't work out." No need to explain any further. She nodded. "Where do you live?" "Burbank." I said. Another nod. She seemed to be steeling herself up for the big one. "Can I stay with you a few days? I mean...." She swallowed hard, her eyes wide, her lips trembling. I must have blinked but it felt like I just stared at her. Finally I asked. "Folks turn you down on coming back?" "Something like that," she admitted. A sad little answer. I hesitated to tell her no, she seemed fragile enough to break into a million pieces if I did that. Cry at the very least. But how could I say yes? I decided to change tactic. "Who's George?" She wobbled as if the world had moved underneath her, then she took a deep breath to tell another lie. "Someone I used to know." She didn't ask me how I knew about George. "What happened to him?" She had told someone on the phone, presumably the Margaret Kelly she had asked for, that she knew something about what had happened to George. "He's dead. I think." Not lying, the answer was too quick. This girl didn't lie that quickly, unless maybe she had been ready for the question. "You think? You don't know?" I probed some more. She shook her head. "He must be dead. Head on collision last night. I-5 south of Fresno." Wait a minute. I'd actually heard about that accident on the radio when I was getting a traffic report outside Fresno. There had been three fatalities and one of them a name that rang a bell now. "George Kelly?" I said. "Yes?" she answered. "The man who died was George Kelly, I heard it on the radio. Sports writer for the Daily News in L.A." "You didn't know him." She was telling not asking. "I read his column." She smiled. "Did you see the accident?" I asked. "Oh, yeah." The ghost of it passed across her face wiping away the smile. "From the truck?" "Uh, yes." She seemed to have no concept of what she looked or sounded like when she was lying. "That why you wanted the trucker to stop?" I asked casually, just probing again. She nodded bleakly. Not lying but the truth was all knotted up here and tangled in the events of last evening. "I woke up screaming," she volunteered suddenly. "I was in an odd place, a camper-like thing that suddenly I realized was moving because I was thrown around. It was the sleeper on the truck...." "Then...?" I prompted. "Then he stopped the truck, yelling at me in English and Spanish to stop screaming. He thought it was just a nightmare." She shuddered. "Wasn't it? You saw something terrible, then you dreamed about it?" "No. I was there. I saw the guy coming at me in the wrong lane. It went around the truck, missed it, but it filled the windshield, bright headlights. I swerved but no time, no time to get out of the way. It was over so fast it almost didn't hurt but, but..." she ran down. "That was your dream?" She shook her head. "That was how George died." "And you dreamed that you were George," I asked, wonderingly. Her story had grabbed me in the imagination. It almost seemed I could hear the tortured rubber, the tearing metal, the shattering glass, details unmentioned in her brief description of the event. Quite a story for an evening so close to Halloween. I could almost feel the ghost of the dead man in the room with us. "Yes. I was George." Something about the way she said it. Bleakly, hopelessly.Chapter II I watched her struggle to eat the soup. She almost didn't touch the burger at all. "Is that why you jumped when I said 'murder' earlier? You felt like George Kelly was murdered by the wrong way driver?" I finally asked when I felt sure she would not likely have a repeat trip to rid herself of the food. She grimaced then began leaking tears slowly. She wiped the first two away with fingertips, then let the others travel along the tracks made on her cheeks to drip off her slender jaw and into her plate. She shook her head but didn't speak. I felt like the criminal. But something about the story still bothered me. "Did you hear his name on the radio? No, wait you couldn't have, they didn't know who he was until this morning and by then you were hiding in a ditch...." This didn't make sense. "Nothing makes much sense to me about last night," she said as if she had heard my unspoken comment. Still weeping slowly, she smiled through the tears. "But, hey! I'm young now! I've got problems, but George is dead!" Then she really turned loose with the crying, staggered up to her feet and tried to head for the bathroom again. I moved ineffectually to help her but found myself standing outside the girl's bathroom feeling foolish and cruel. "What the hell did you say to her?" Francine asked at my elbow. "She saw a wreck on the highway," I said. The waitress wasted a meaningless glare on me and headed into the bathroom again to try to comfort the runaway girl. Runaway, for that was surely what she was. Maybe she had left something out of her story or just made most of it up. Maybe she had been with the trucker long enough to hear the details of how George Kelly died or maybe I wasn't the first ride to pick her up today. But one thing I felt certain of, now. She was underage and she had runaway from home. I wondered why, kids runaway for lots of reasons. I glanced at the phone. I wondered too, why had she called George Kelly's widow, if that was really who she had called. Francine burst out of the bathroom, moving fast. "You leave her alone!" she snapped at me as she went past, heading for behind the counter. "Francie!" One of the other waitresses wailed, "You got tables! Food up!" Well, I certainly wasn't going into the women's bathroom after her. But what was I to do? Turn her over to the police seemed logical, underage runaway girl, I could be in serious trouble for even giving her a ride as idiotic as that was. No one trusted grown-ups around children anymore. Francine dealt with her duties, disappeared in the back momentarily and reemerged carrying a cheap plastic handbag. "Girl lost all her stuff," she said to me as she disappeared back into the bathroom. I decided to wait this out at the table where I could at least sip a coke. I didn't want to turn her over to the cops. I'd heard to many horror stories of what happened to kids caught in the gears. What I wanted to do was talk to her parents, find out what they were like, why had she run away? Would they take her back, did they deserve to get her back, would she go back? If they would even talk to me.... She came out of the bathroom, carrying the little black handbag, being led by a smiling Francine. Her face had been washed, certainly and her hair combed again. But, she did look different and it took me a moment to realize that she wore make-up now. Lipstick in some pink frost shade, eye- color in green and maybe something else. She looked more grown-up and more like a little girl at the same time. I smiled at her and she dropped her eyes, blushing furiously. Francine interposed herself but turned to talk to -- Hope? Kelly? I guess I would keep calling her Kelly -- the girl. "Now you just keep that bag and those cosmetics, honey. You don't worry about it, Julie doesn't work here anymore and hasn't been back in months and it's just ordinary stuff. But don't it make you feel better to look pretty, to have stuff of your own?" Kelly may have nodded, the movement was a little too spasmodic for that description but Francine seemed satisfied. She turned smiling to me. "You had better take her home if you can get her to tell you where." I nodded. Francine boxed up the nearly untouched burger and provided us with cups of soda as well. I paid the bill, left a big tip and thanked Francine personally. "You were a big help," I told her sincerely. She smiled at me like one good person smiles at another. She made me feel good about myself, there should be more Francine's in the world. Kelly stood around, touching her face in wonder occasionally. Once I noticed her touching her lips and examining the color on her fingertips. She and Francine exchanged an awkward hug just before we left. The rain was down to spits and spats but I held the umbrella above us on the way back to the car. She took the little package of the hamburger and sodas and followed me out. I held the door for her and she waited for me to open the umbrella before venturing out into the rain and early fallen night. Kelly seemed even more unsure of herself as she slid into the seat and accepted the burger and sodas one more time. I closed the door and hurried to my side just as the wind came up and almost turned the poor umbrella inside out. I settled in, buckled up, cranked the engine and adjusted the heat. "Cold for October isn't it?" I said. A standard comment in Southern California anytime the temperature drops below sixty-five degrees; it would be Halloween in two more days but no one around here expected it to be cold. She nodded absently at the conversational null. The burger box was on the seat, the soda in the cupholders but she held the small plastic purse in her lap. She opened it and examined the contents, discarding odd pieces of paper and useless items into the bag I had hung from the radio knob. I pulled to the end of the lot and paused there watching the traffic merging into the freeway. No one in the restaurant could see us here, the big trucks were in the way. She gave them one nervous glance then looked at me, wide green eyes made wider and greener by her new makeup. "You look cute," I said. She blushed. "Francine insisted." "She was probably right, having makeup on almost always makes a girl feel better about herself," I said. I was trying to work things around to ask her to tell me where she lived, her real name, her parents' names and addresses. Maybe she had run from one parent toward the other who didn't really want her showing up. Life could get very complicated for children in the nineties. She shook her head and mumbled something I didn't quite understand. I finally decided it was safe and pulled into the traffic lane to finish the drive to Burbank. She remained quiet while we got back onto the freeway. I watched her in glances but she kept her face partly turned away. I could see her face more as reflection in the window than directly and she seemed to be working her way through a knotty problem. I regretted not having asked more about the phone calls in the restaurant. "Want to tell me more of your story?" I prompted. "What else is there to tell?" She sighed. "You aren't going to believe any of the rest of it." I grinned. "I don't believe half of what you've told me as it is. Maybe I really want to help. And maybe you just tell a good ghost story." She frowned. "The most help you could be would be to let me sleep on your couch for a few days, while I get things figured out." That again, didn't she see what difficulties it would produce. "Figured out? Like what? Where you are going to go, who you're going to live with?" She tried to nod and shake her head at the same time. "Who I really am," she murmured. "Who are you -- really?" I took the bait. She looked at me. "I kinda wish I had that stuff I left in the truck, if I did leave stuff in the truck." "What?" "Well," she went on. "I must have had something else with me, even if it was just a jacket." She looked at the pocketbook. "Or a purse. I wonder if I had a purse." She giggled inanely. "I probably did." Unselfconsciously, for the first time since I had met her, completely unselfconsciously, she examined her breasts. "I've got these," she said, hefting one of the little things through her t-shirt. "A purse would almost certainly go with them, wouldn't it?" I laughed, not sure exactly what she was driving at but she asked the question as if she really expected an answer. Suddenly blushing, she turned away from me. "I'm sorry," I said. She shrugged. "I'd better get used to it, I guess." She turned back with a wry smile, I felt glad that she didn't seem to be more upset. "You're going to laugh when I tell you the next part." "Okay, tell me." "I'm a boy," she said. I laughed. She grinned. "See? I told you, you would laugh." She blushed furiously but giggled herself. "Sure you are," I said. She blushed even brighter and the grin must have hurt her face. "Now, this I can prove!" I laughed again and she broke into outright laughter herself with a little edge of dangerous hysteria to it. I shook my head. "No, you are right, that I don't believe." Or did I? It suddenly occurred to me that this was a kid who had been totally unable to tell a convincing lie up to this point. I had always known when she lied; but this time, I didn't sense any lie, I just didn't believe her. How could I? That face, body, hair, posture even. This was a young woman, a girl about fifteen or sixteen, plus or minus two years perhaps. But surely not a boy. The tears were running down her face again and I realized suddenly that the laughter had changed polarity and metamorphosed into tears. I slowed and began looking for an exit or at least a safe place to stop. She shook her head. "No, keep going," she said, with a hiccough in the middle of it. "Are you ok?" I asked. She nodded ruefully. "I'll be fine, it just got away from me again." She wiped her face with tissue from my dispenser between the seats, then took a sip of her soda. "I--I guess my makeup must be a mess, huh?" This almost set her off again but she quashed the giggles with visible effort. "Francine gave you some, well, stuff? You want some light, there is a makeup mirror in the sunshade." She shook her head. "I wouldn't know how." I considered that reply. No way did it make sense, neither assuming she was a girl as I had done all along, nor taking her assertion of boyhood seriously. Any boy who looked like her would certainly know how to do makeup. She had pierced ears with tiny little plastic rose earrings and her eyebrows were plucked into a delicate arch. She flipped down the mirror and took a look at herself, reminding me for all the world of some guy checking to see if he needed a shave. I hadn't noticed this sort of behavior in her before. Or had I? The awkwardness I had spotted repeatedly now stood out in my memory as times she had moved like a man and not like a young girl. "Raccoon eyes," she said. "How do you get this stuff off?" I shook my head, did she really expect me to know. Using tissue dampened with water from the outside of the soda cups she removed as much of the makeup as she could. "Better?" she asked. I smiled and said nothing. The effort had reddened her face and made her look as if she had been crying for days. "It's terrible, isn't it?" "Why are you trying to convince me that you are a boy?" I asked. "It won't make a bit of difference about whether I let you sleep on my couch." "Hadn't even thought of that." She undid the seat buckle and moved to turn in the seat and loosen her jeans. "But I can prove it." "No!" I kept control of the car while wanting desperately to reach out and paddle her. She grinned, blushing her face even redder. "Believe me now?" I shook my head but she subsided in the seat and re-fastened the belt. "I'd better wait till we are stopped, your driving is scaring me." I concentrated on driving awhile. "So you are a boy?" I said. "Yes. Surprised me too. I mean I hadn't actually looked until the restaurant, gave me quite a shock." She grinned at her own nonsense. Maybe that was it, silliness didn't seem at all the same as lies. "It turns out I did go to the right restroom the first time." "I guess I really don't believe you. What do you mean, you hadn't actually looked? Ever?" "Well, the first time I saw this face was in the truck. And I thought I was having a nightmare, and...." She trailed off. I glanced at her. "The poor kid." "What poor kid?" Now she had me really confused. She gestured at herself. "The one who ended up in George Kelly's body." She looked bleak, "Just before the wrong-way driver hit." I felt the skin on my neck creep up into my hairline. "You think you are George Kelly?" I asked finally. She nodded. Now she looked more scared than I felt. "What the hell was the 'Pine Tar Homerun'?" I asked suddenly, desperately. "George Brett, Royals third baseman, got a home run called back for having too much pine tar on the bat. The ruling..." I interrupted, "Floats like a butterfly...." I stopped. "Stings like a bee." She said automatically, like almost anyone my age or older and almost no one younger than me. But she looked at me oddly, for a moment and stopped herself from adding something else. "Shit," I said. "That's not sports," she said. "You want OpEd." She grinned. I drove in silence a while. "George Kelly wrote several articles on that damn pine tar bat." "Yeah," she said. "I milked that one good." "You're his daughter?" "I was 67!" "Granddaughter? You read all his articles?" She sighed. "So now you believe me?" I asked a few more questions, she could quote Leo Durocher, Jackie Robinson, Yogi Berra, Casey Stengel, Satchel Paige, Dizzy Dean, and all accurately. I remembered the quotes from an article George Kelly did in the Daily News about famous baseball misquotes. I didn't remember it as well as she did. I asked about football. Horse racing. Olympic medals. I asked questions I didn't know the answers to, she did. I pulled off the freeway at Colusa. I didn't want a coffee shop this time, I wanted a drink. Parked outside the little cafe, I took my hands off the wheel gratefully and turned to look at Kelly, George Kelly apparently. She bit her lip a little fearfully, much like any other teenage girl might while parked in a dimly lit lot with a man more than twice her age, let alone any other considerations. "So," I said with no idea of how I might add a thought to the word. She nodded. "Just so." Neither of us said anything for awhile and the night grew around us, darkening with mystery and strangeness. In the distance I could see the glow of Magic Mountain, the amusement park. The other way lay the City of Angels. "And you are really a boy?" I finally asked. I may have boggled more over that idea than that she was really George Kelly. Whatever "really" might mean in this context of surreal revelation. "Uh. Yeah. Do I have to prove it?" She seemed a little reluctant now to strip down and show me. I shook my head. "How could you not know until the restaurant? I mean when you saw, uh -- didn't you check before?" "I dunno, I guess I just panicked when I saw the face and the," she glanced down, "tits, uh, these. I just assumed I was a girl and I didn't want to look. I mean, it was weird enough already, I really thought for awhile I was in a coma somewhere hallucinating." She shuddered and then giggled in embarrassment. The giggles faded into trembling and nervous looks out the side windows. I found it impossible to think of her as a boy, she looked so feminine even in jeans and the way her cookie-breasts showed through the t-shirt, the way her expressions seemed soft and sweet, the way her eyes revealed a woman's soul. Absently she chewed on a fingernail and I had to stop myself from saying "Stop that," like a parent. "Kelly!" I sighed. "This is incredible, it can't be real." She quivered once then something seemed to break inside. "Tell me! I'm supposed to be dead! And, and I'm not!" The tears leaked out again, "I'm not, and if I'm not dead, do you see, it means, it means, this poor kid is dead instead." She began to truly weep. "I didn't want to die and somehow, somehow I did this, I killed her! Him, whoever! And, and now," she gestured at the body of the teenage androgyne she had become, "this is God punishing me for not leaving when it was my turn!" I gathered her to me and she released the seat belt to push herself against my chest, "Oh God! I am so sorry! So sorry! I didn't mean to, I didn't mean to." I cuddled and comforted her like I would have any child and I tried not to think of George Kelly, or of boys who dressed as girls but only of Kelly, and the heartbreak she felt at this minute. Chapter III "Do you believe in God?" I asked quietly to her soft, two-tone, nearly straight hair. "Until last night, no, not really. I dunno," she sighed and softened against me, tension flowing away. "I guess I believed in something, maybe Purpose instead of God. Not what most people mean when they say God." I nodded. "Yes. Well, if you believe that God did this to you, then you would have to believe there was some purpose to it. Right?" "Uh," she said. Noncommittal, but she was listening. I stayed quiet a moment, thinking it through myself. Finally, she asked, "What kind of purpose? What purpose could there be for such a crazy thing?" "I'm not sure, I guess it is a cliche that we might not understand God's reasons for doing something." Suddenly she seemed to realize what she was doing, where she was, who was cuddling her and she pushed herself away, quickly if not quite violently. "Um, I'm ok now." "Sure." I undid my own seatbelt where the buckle had been digging into me. She looked at the cafe. "I'm not hungry." She took a sip of one of the sodas. "You wanna go in?" "There is a phone in there." I didn't want a drink anymore. "Who would I call? I don't know who to call?" She looked like she might tear up again. "I already called my wife." Her wife, oh the mind gibbered at that one. "I don't want to put her through anything like this, she couldn't take it. She's been sick. And now she thinks I'm dead and how would the truth be any better?" I couldn't think of any answer to that. "I called twice, the first time, she wouldn't accept, I said the call was from George." She smiled. A call from beyond, the kid was creeping me out again. "The second time I said it was from someone who knew something about George," she stopped. "You have to give a name," I said. "The operator's won't put through a call without a name." She nodded, "I said 'Hope'. I said my name was Hope. It might even be true, that truck driver called me Esperanza." She paused again and a glimmer of something occurred to me. She went on, "I said, 'Margaret, you don't know me and I never met your husband, but he gave me a message to give you. George loved you very much. Very, very much." Maybe she had no tears left for her eyes were dry, but her voice cracked and broke up on the words. She smiled. "Margaret said thank you and hung up. I added the bit about never having met myself 'cause I didn't want her to think I might be my own mistress calling." She widened the smile into a grin and hiccoughed a giggle. "Did you call her?" "Who?" She wiped at her eyes with the soggy Kleenex she had used before. "Your mistress," I said. She broke up into real laughing then and I smiled and grinned and chuckled. "What the hell is your name?" she asked after she stopped laughing. I told her and added, "Don't swear, little girls, even ones who might be little boys shouldn't swear, give people the wrong idea." She thought about that and nodded. "Yeah, I remember when I heard a girl swear I always thought, 'Well, she's easy.' Even if I knew it was wrong. Sorry. Is it Walt or Wally?" "Actually, I prefer Walter but to you it's Mr. Dalton. You're not old enough to call me Walt and no one is old enough to call me Wally." She made a face at me, realized what she had done and grinned. "Guess I had better get used to being a kid again, huh?" "You're not doing too badly at it. Um, know anything about how memory works?" "Hah. I've had my share of senior moments. Oh, memory is in the brain isn't it?" "Or is it?" I asked. Computer people, like myself, know a surprising amount about how memory works, human as well as computer. The differences are surprising and so is the lack of real knowledge about human memory. "Um? Sh-shoot! I dunno? Maybe the brain is just wiring to access the memory, personality whatever?" She shrugged. "Maybe. And maybe memory is two things, physical and call it metaphysical, psychic, something. You think you are George Kelly but obviously that is not George Kelly's body." I grinned. "Tell me! Okay, so I'm not really George Kelly, I just think I am? But I have George Kelly's memories." "Do you? Or do you only have some of them, don't try to think of them, how could you possibly know if you had them all?" She shook her head. "Maybe I'm not as bright as I was either, I don't see what you are getting at?" "Call her Hope. You have Hope's body, you must have Hope's brain, you might have some of Hope's memories in there too." She thought about it. I thought about it. "Maybe thinking about it is the wrong thing to do?" she said finally. "Maybe." "Maybe when I'm thinking about it I'm overwriting Hope's memories with George's." "Um, could be." "But maybe if I don't, I'll forget about being George, and then I won't know who I am." She sniffled, reflexively. "I don'wanna to forget about George but if there's anything of Hope left, well, don't I owe it to her to try to keep her alive?" "Um, that sounds, well...." I trailed off. Now she was saying her about herself. I'm a computer consultant not one of these storefront philosophers. Besides, being near her and knowing what I knew about her was having an effect on me that I could not fathom completely. I distracted us both. "I had another thought, about the truck." "Hm? The truck I was in?" "Right. George was a reporter, he found out stuff, and if he didn't know how he knew people that did know how...." She blinked. "We could find the truck, get your stuff back and maybe find out who you are." Now she really looked scared. We decided to use the phone after we got to my place in Burbank. The drive was quiet, perhaps she was considering strategies. I know I was. Strategies for dealing with whatever truths we discovered. She seemed amused at my clumsy attempt to sneak her into my apartment but no one saw us. "Relax, Walter. I'm not going to press charges." She giggled. "Don't joke," I warned. "You are a minor, probably under 18 and I could get in serious trouble doing this. And I wasn't kidding about calling me Mr. Dalton, at least, where anyone can hear us." "How about if I call you Uncle Walt?" she suggested slyly. I grinned back, "In Burbank? Then you'll be a ghost talking to a ghost." Walt Disney, dead for a quarter century, is still a legend in the city and locally known as Uncle Walt. I unlocked my door and stepped in, motioning her to follow quickly. She didn't. She dawdled like any teen-ager resisting the authority of an adult. "I am a ghost, aren't I? A ghost of sorts at any rate." "Yeah, and we are going to try to find out who you are haunting. Now get in here!" Startled at the tone in my voice, she scooted inside and suppressed a smile. "Walter, I can't quite figure it out. Just exactly how is it you're treating me? I'm almost old enough to be your father, y'know." "Almost? I'm 44. And you've got that wrong, I am old enough to be your father." She smirked. "No one would believe it either way. We don't look anything alike." That was the first time she had referred to the obvious differences in our appearance besides that she looked female, that is. "So if I am not your father, and people see us together, then...." She bit her lip. "Oh, yeah. I hadn't thought of that. But, Walter, this is California, Burbank for Chr-crying-out-loud. Not some little town in the South." I shook my head, she didn't really understand it but why should she? I let it go and I could see that she decided not to push it. I didn't want to explain to her that seeing us together people would almost automatically assume something about one of us or the other or both. I wished that neither of us would ever bring it up again. "Now, turn on reporter mode," I said. "How are we going to find that truck? Or failing that, find out who you are?" She shook her head and plopped onto the couch like any teenager thinking about some difficult interpersonal problem. "It's gonna be tough using any of my contacts. One, I'm dead, and two no one is going to talk to a kid." "You remember anything about the truck? A name, a brand name, can you describe it?" She tried. "It was a beer truck, I remember that. Pabst, Pabst Beer was the emblem on the side of the trailer. But the door of the cab had some other name on it...." "Probably the tractor belonged to the trucker. But Pabst is good, that's an imported beer, well from Milwaukee, not made locally, and there can't be that many places that distribute it." She had a strange look on her face. "What is it?" I asked. "The driver, his name, his name was --Ernesto?" "How do you know that?" "I dunno. I just, like, remembered it." I studied her face. She wasn't making this up and the provenance of the memory clearly disturbed her. I had noticed something else about her since we had the long talk in the parking lot but I didn't want to bring it up right now. Her manner of speaking had changed, less precise, more teenager-ish. I didn't want to know if she was doing it deliberately, not yet. "Well," I said. "That may help." "Where's your phone book?" she asked. I found the Yellow Pages, under some detritus and passed it over. "We gotta look up the Pabst distributors in the area. I dunno if we can call them tonight. Sh-shoot, it might be Monday before anyone would answer the phone." She held the book very close to her face and even so squinted as she tried to find the right part of the listings. "Can we get more light in here, huh?" I flicked on more lights but took the book from her hands when I saw her continuing to squint. "Your eyes that bad?" I asked. She grinned, shakily. "How would I know? Maybe it's just an effect of being new in the body and of having been farsighted for thirty years. I can see you fine enough, but little stuff, like printing, y'know, just kinda blurs out or breaks up or something." She hadn't quite told the truth and something new bothered her. She bit a nail and stared at it while I made up my mind not to press this issue at this time. I found the listing of the Pabst distributorship and noted that their address was in Los Angeles, not too far from downtown. I tried the number but got a recording about business hours. At this hour of the evening, it wouldn't be that long of a drive. "Whatcha thinkin'?" she asked around another bitten-off nail. "Don't do that," I said. "Do what?" "Bite your nails. It is really unbecoming." She blushed but put her hands together in her lap for a moment before changing position and pulling her legs under her. "Get your feet off my couch, you've got mud on your shoes," I said without really thinking about it. "Yes, sir." She straightened up, put her feet back on the floor and waved her hands around vaguely. "What -- what were we doing?" Then she giggled. "I called you 'sir'." I nodded. "Maybe you had better practice it." I watched her for a moment while she seemed to decide not to giggle again. "Kelly, are you aware of what you've been doing for the last few minutes? Maybe longer?" "I'm," she started then began again, "I've been trying to remember things, not George Kelly things, Esperanza things. Y'know?" I nodded again. "'S'funny. I can almost know something and then it sorta slips away? Huh? I think Hope may be my last name, her last name, his last name...." She trailed off and stared at the toes of her sneaks. "Why would a kid do this? Runaway...." "You sure it was a Pabst truck?" I asked. "Uh-huh. I saw the emblem, the blue ribbon. I worked in Milwaukee, for the -- the ball team. Publicity." She didn't name the team, it was probably the Braves when they were there. "I guess the obvious, huh?" "The obvious?" "Reason for running away." "Did you see the name Pabst on the truck?" "Uh, no? I dunno?" "Kelly?" "Um?" I asked her bluntly. "Can you not read now? Is that it? I saw the trouble you had with the phone book. But you don't act that blind otherwise." She shook her head. "I can read, I -- just maybe not that well?" She sniffled. "Great, I'm a queer and a retard. I couldn't use the phone book 'cause the letters kept breaking up into little pieces. Maybe I'm dyslexic." I sighed and rubbed my forehead. "Did the trouble with reading start when you started trying to remember? Remember things about Hope's life?" She shrugged. "I dunno. Maybe." I stood up and fetched her one of my light jackets. "Let's go, we're going to drive over to the Pabst distributors and see if we can find that trucker." Down in the car, Kelly asked. "Can I turn on the radio?" I nodded, the rain wasn't falling here but we might get a few sprinkles, I figured she would put it on a news station. Somehow she found Shania Twain singing "Man, I Feel Like a Woman!". She grinned at me and I smiled. After that song she found another station that didn't play too much hip-hop. "Cool, Backstreet Boys!" she said. I didn't feel sure whose tastes ran parallel, mine and George Kelly's or mine and Kelly/Hope's. But we listened to the groove and felt pretty good about sharing it. I wasn't familiar with the band but they had a nice sound. The Pabst distributor yard was open, trucks loading and we stopped to talk with the yard supervisor. "You sure it was a Pabst truck? We don't run that far north from this yard, and our long distance stuff comes in by train." I could see it in Kelly's face, she was no longer sure of the identity of the truck. We trudged back to the car and sat listening to TLC. I wondered again if I was somehow being had. Maybe just had for an evening's company and a place to sleep. Not all cons are for a big score and the little con is a fact of urban life. But how could she have faked all the knowledge of sports and things that happened before she was born, before I was born in some cases. Especially if she couldn't read. And now that idea started making me suspicious again. I didn't want to disbelieve her story but the bit with the beer truck upset my willing suspension of distrust. "I don't know how long it's been since I listened to Top Forty," she said. I sighed and decided to play along a little more. "Me either. I had the impression music went into the toilet in the early nineties." She grinned. "Don't like rap or hip-hop?" I shook my head. "Don't say anything," I warned. "S'alright. I don't care much for some of the new stuff either. What am I saying?" She laughed. I didn't comment. "Remember Alan Freed?" she asked after a bit. "Uh, no?" Actually, I did, sort of. I had done some research on the roots of modern music for a college paper. She sighed. "Neither do I, not so much as I think I should anyway. Early rock-n-roll deejay, some say he coined the name rock-n-roll and that is all I remember about him. Seems a shame, like it might have been important to me once." She bit her lip. She was weirding on me again. "I'm positive that truck had a blue ribbon on it," she said with a little sideways look at me. "Honest! Y'know it's just like so clear in my, waddayacall it, in my mind's eye." While she listened to Ricky Martin and Alanis Morrisette I walked back to the dispatchers shack and talked to the man there. "Blue Ribbon Freight," he said after a bit of thought and found the address for me in his phone book. "You're shitting me!" she said when I got back to the car to tell her. "Kelly!" I said. "Sorry, I meant, no kidding!" She grinned then burst into happy giggles. Her shoulders and hands moved to the music in an unconscious attempt to dance while sitting down. "Ya think?" "Maybe." And maybe you are beginning to lose it, George Kelly. Or, maybe you have been having me on all this time, girl. No use wondering what we would find at Blue Ribbon Freight, we would be there soon enough. The radio made it unnecessary to talk while we drove the short miles to the other side of downtown. Kelly jumped from the car almost before it stopped rolling. She sprinted across the blacktop to where a grey-and-violet tractor sat, a light glowing in a tiny window indicating that someone was inside the sleeper cab. She stopped halfway there to turn and wave back at me, shouting, "It's him! Ernesto! He picked me up outside Martinez!" By the time I got there she had beat on the door and attracted the attention of the person or persons inside. A sleepy-eyed man in gray slacks and one of those string type t-shirts looked at her from the cab door. "Esperanza?" I heard him ask. She laughed. "You called me that! Yeah, it's me." He smiled, "You left your stuff. You were having a bad trip maybe." He shook his head. "I told you no drugs in my truck." He shook his finger at her but he still smiled. When he saw me, his face changed. "Um, this is my friend, Walter. Ernest, Walter, Walter, Ernesto." Kelly said. I tried to look innocuous and smiled at him. "I wait for you so long I get docked for being late," he scolded her after deciding that he didn't want to know anything further about our relationship. "Who is it, Ernie? You gotta draft coming in that cab," a female voice from inside the tractor complained. "I get you stuff," said Ernesto and disappeared into the cab, closing the door. "Lot lizard," said Kelly. "What?" "Trucker's whore," she explained tersely, "though I suppose I should be careful what I call anyone else, who knows what I've been doing since I ran away." I pondered the way she had used pronouns in that statement. It didn't actually make me dizzy but the effect was similar. Ernesto reappeared with a burgundy backpack and a denim jacket. "You take care of youself, Hopey," he said. Then he added in Spanish, as if that made the caution doubly strong, "Cuidado, Esperanza." He smiled at her. "My stuff," Kelly/Hope/Esperanza sniffed. "Thank you, Ernesto." She clutched the bag to her with tears in her eyes. "Adios," he said and closed the cab door, just as his companion for the evening began complaining again about the draft. We walked back to my car in silence. She slipped the coat on and felt in the pockets before producing some black-rimmed glasses. She put them on and grinned, "Hey! I can see! Dang, these eyes are worse than I thought!" The glasses changed her face considerably, for one thing they were obviously boy's glasses and for two others they were both cheap and thick-lensed. The sort of glasses someone on a budget or depending on charity ends up with. She looked back toward the tractor cab and grinned. "I damn near kissed him." Chapter IV I laughed, a snort really, then we were both chuckling as we got into my car and sat looking at each other. The glasses failed to make her look like a boy, at least to my mind. She blushed and I realized that I might have been staring at her. "You are better looking than I thought," she teased. I snorted again. "Any ID there, something to tell us what your name really is?" She reached into the backpack, produced a small black purse that seemed to embarrass her further. Inside the purse she found a pocketbook and in that a student I.D. for "Terrence Harper Hope." She read the name out loud. Then she said, "My folks called me Terry." "You remember that now?" I asked. I looked at the picture, a serious-looking, slightly younger version of the face Kelly wore now. At an age when long, tousled hair is all that is needed to achieve androgyny. The little box for sex had an 'M' in it. She nodded. "I remember a little bit." She read more from the I.D. "This is for Tustin Unified High School, that's down in Orange County." The last said a little wonderingly. She might just as well have come from Canada or New York City. "It says I'm a 10th grader but it's two years old. And my birthday was... Sonovagun, I got the same birthday, I'm just, just forty-nine years younger! Exactly!" Tears leaked out again and her glasses seemed to fog up, she pulled them off and wiped her face. "Terry?" I said quietly. Every time a real chance for confirmation of her story came up, that part checked out. The picture on the I.D. did look like her, but ... couldn't it have been of a brother? She bit her lip and smiled at me. "Keep calling me Kelly, willya? Probably no one else in this life ever will again." I couldn't bear to think of hurting her by saying anything about my doubts so I just nodded. Still playing along, still feeling vaguely guilty about doing so, I said, "Kelly, what do you want to do? I have computers at home, if your folks still live in Tustin or Orange County, I may be able to find their address and phone number on the internet." I might as well have sandbagged her. She slumped in the seat and trembled. The glasses fell from her hand and landed in the floor boards. Neither of us made a move to retrieve them immediately. "I guess it isn't fair to them, they don't know where I am, where Terry is. Huh?" "No, but that is for you to decide, from the I.D. it looks like you really are eighteen, by about three months." I smiled. "So you are an adult, and I really can't presume to tell you what you have to do." Was she? I wanted to believe that at least, for reasons I didn't want to examine too closely. "Let's go back to your place, huh?" she said. Retrieving the boyish glasses from the floor, she replaced them in her coat pocket. Perhaps not wearing them had become a habit of the body. Perhaps they weren't really hers and just a pair that she had found that fixed her eyes well enough. Driving back, I surprised myself by discovering that I was happy. And that I did believe her, the whole thing, I believed it all once more as I had done in the rainy parking lot when she had blurted out the story. I tried to figure out why believing her made me happy. I knew I felt happy for her, she knew now what her name was, she had an identity and that was good. But it took most of the drive back before I realized that part of my happiness was based on the fact that she was eighteen, of a legal age. Legal age for what, I didn't want to think about too much. She by turns played with the radio and stared out the windows and poked idly around in the backpack. Once she produced a white plastic pill bottle, the labels both in English and Spanish. She looked at the bottle, felt idly of one of her breasts, and replaced it in the backpack without opening it or getting out her glasses to read the label. "You're not dyslexic, at least," I said at one point. She shook her head, "No, just half blind." She grinned. "And those are the awfullest glasses I have ever seen! Was I in some prison where I got them?" Neither of us tried to answer that, some sort of juvenile lock-up or foster care did seem likely if she were, if Terry had been, an incorrigible runaway. Back at the apartment, Kelly asked if she could bathe and maybe do some laundry. "Sure, I've got my own washer and dryer on the patio outside the kitchen. I'll noodle around on the net and see what I can find." "Find? About Terry Hope?" Catching me completely by surprise, Kelly pulled the t-shirt she had been wearing off over her head. Her adolescent breasts looked as startled as I felt, the little nipples popping out. "Sorry," she muttered as she caught me staring and turning her back she hurried into the bathroom, taking her backpack along. "Sorry, oh hell, sorry, sorry!" But I heard her giggling as the bathroom door closed. I shook my head and reminded my libido, "She's a boy." Part of me was unconvinced, or possibly unconcerned. A moment of considering the tax programs I had once worked on seemed to work at derailing my circular train of thought. I went into my computer office, the second bedroom of the apartment, and just to give her a little privacy in case she wanted to troop through the house naked while her laundry was being done, I shut the door. I had to move some stuff, I don't think the door had been closed since I put the computers in there. I didn't want to think about her maybe wandering through the house nude but of course I did. I wondered if she shaved her legs? Probably, I hadn't seen any armpit hair in my brief glimpse. Of course, I hadn't been looking for any. I couldn't see myself blush, but I could feel the heat on my face. Just what was I thinking about her, about Terrence "Kelly Esperanza" Hope? I knew that I had been intensely relieved to discover that she was eighteen. Why should that make such a difference? "She's a boy," I reminded myself again. But that left me with she same question, why should that make such a difference? I had never had more than the obligatory one teen-age homosexual encounter but it happened all the time. Didn't it? I snorted. Besides being a boy, Kelly was the ghost of a man who had been working for the Milwaukee Braves back about the time I was busy being born. That had to make some kind of difference. And once again it hit me, if I believed her. I had been a rationalist all my life, someone who refused to commit to a belief in the unprovable.... But now, well, when confronted with the inexplicable what does one do? I decided to surf the internet. I'd had enough tortured indecision tonight, find a technical problem and jump in with both feet. I'd dealt with a lot of life's fuzzy questions that way, little one and big ones. With computers, it comes down to on and off, yes and no, the simplest form of black and white. My distraction techniques weren't working to well and I had barely got started when she knocked softly on the door. I had heard her barefeet slapping in the hallway outside my office just a moment before the knock. "You had a few things in the hamper, I'm gonna wash those too. 'Kay? I don't really have enough to make a full load, just my stuff." "Don't wash the whites with the..." "Please!" she interrupted me. I pictured her smiling and rolling her eyes on the other side of the door. "Laundry stuff in the cupboard above the machines." I said. "Where else would it be? Duh!" She laughed and soon I heard the kitchen sliding glass door open and close. I grinned at the computer screen. If she wanted to practice domesticity, fine by me, I hate doing laundry. And housework in general, for that matter. If I didn't love living in an orderly place more, my apartment would look like a typical guys dorm room in a sitcom. I heard her running feet going back down the hall and into the bathroom. I wondered if she had worn anything onto the back patio. I hoped so, but with the overhanging balconies of the 2nd floor apartments and the six foot redwood fences, she might have risked it. She seemed the sort to take such risks. I wondered if George Kelly had been driving too fast the night he was killed. I checked the Daily News files on the web and read George's obituary. The paper had done George a nice one, and services would be Sunday, I noted. Would Kelly want to go? Sunday would be Halloween, too weird to even think about. I felt guilty again when I realized that I was scanning the obit for facts I could use to check Kelly's story. The birthday listed was the same as the one on the student I.D. The name of the wife was Margaret just as Kelly Hope had said. I noted too that George was survived by two daughters, Constance and Grace, no last names or ages given. Might one of them be the mother of Terrence Hope, or of my houseguest if she was really a she and not the boy in the picture. I stared at the picture of George Kelly the one that had run above his column for the last several years. I tried to catch a glimpse if my Kelly in the face, a hint of resemblance. Was there something around the eyes? I finally saved the obit to a file and went to the white pages listings, unsure of any conclusions so far. What the heck was I doing, thinking of her as "my Kelly?" I heard the shower running. One nice thing about living in a big apartment building is there is almost always hot water enough for both showers and laundry if you don't try to do both at 7 a.m. I tried not to picture her soapy young body in the shower. I had been on the internet, I had seen photos of those people called she-males. But the mind's-eye picture I had of Kelly did not include such a jarring detail as a superfluous cock-and-balls. In my mind she was all woman, young and virginal, a newly minted girl. I found six families named Hope living in Tustin, six with listed telephone numbers anyway. And several dozen more in the towns around Tustin; people might have moved in more than two years. I pondered the problem of locating Terry's parents as a means to distract myself from Kelly's presence in my shower. Runaways are usually reported to the police, perhaps the police would have a record of who Terry's parents were. I couldn't see them just handing it out to someone who called though, not without getting more involved with finding out who I was and what I knew about Terry/Kelly. She spent a long time in the bathroom and I spent a long time pondering her problems. I even looked up what I could find on laws regarding runaways. Some of it was good news, some bad. If she had ever been in juvenile court she might be technically still under court supervision until she was twenty-five. Screwy law, that one. But she was eighteen, now, and an adult for most purposes under the law. Don't think about that too hard. She was certainly old enough to decide if she wanted anything to do with parents who evidently had been unable to deal her as she was. Let alone who she had become now that she was haunted by the ghost of George Kelly. I thought about funerals held on Halloween. I'd come back to that again and the goosebumps of the fear of the unknown had a little war with the frissons of concern I felt for the girl who had stolen a ride. I heard her moving in the kitchen, and then the glass door being opened and I decided that she must be loading the dryer. I wondered what she had found to wear, something of her own or something of mine. I tried not to picture what she would look like with one of my size-17 long-sleeve white shirts draped on her slender body falling almost long enough to be a dress. If a transvestite wears men's clothes is it criss-cross-dressing? I snorted, the absurdity of the thought defusing the explosiveness I felt lay ahead. Just for the heck of it I looked up court cases regarding ghosts and claims of life-after-death, reincarnation and the like. There was too damn much of it to be believed, so to speak. I determined to figure out some kind of winnowing strategy to reduce the data flood to something that could be examined for relevance. She knocked softy again, "I made coffee. Do you want it in there or out here?" I hate drinking coffee at the computer, I always drink too much, don't enjoy it and end up with acid stomach. And then there are always spills. But I probably drink at least a pot a day sitting right where I was sitting just then. "Bring it on in." I tried not to anticipate how she might be dressed. The door opened and she came in, plastic coffee butler dangling from one hand and two thick ceramic mugs from the other. She wore one of my robes, the orange one my sister Beth had bought me for Christmas nearly two years ago. Beth lives in Florida and hasn't seen me in years and thinks of me still as her teen-age brother, I guess. She also thinks of me as someone who would wear orange, apparently. On Kelly it looked good. The robe, much too tight for me in the shoulders and tending to blare open at the waist, hung loosely from Kelly's narrower frame and nearly went twice around her slender middle. The color contrasted with the green towel she had wrapped turbanwise around her hair and somehow this made her eyes appear more green and her skin glow with clean pink health. Her legs flashed beneath the, on her, mid-calf hem. Long and smooth and needing a bit of a tan. She grinned when she realized I was taking it all in. "Like the package?" she asked as she sat the cups down and opened the butler. I probably blushed and felt an enormous need to clear my throat and sound really adult and masculine. "What do you take in your coffee?" she asked innocently. "Nothing, just black. Sugar and cream make you fat and sweeteners just taste bad." "I have found it so." She poured two cups and I caught myself watching the robe where it lapped over on her chest. No cleavage there, not really but the young skin of her neck working over the angles of the clavicle were ... lovely. "You've got good taste in coffee, Chock-Full-O-Nuts." She took her cup, smelled the aroma and smiled. I grinned at her. "Did you put on your glasses to be sure?" She stuck out the tip of her tongue at me. Was she doing these things deliberately? Damn. "C'mon, nothing else comes in that black and yellow can." I took a sip. It was good. Funny how some people can make bad coffee even with an automatic pot. "Mmm. Blue Ribbon Coffee," I murmured. She giggled at my gibe, sipped, made a face and then tried not to cough. "Eww! Bitter! How long have you had that can?" "Since Tuesday, maybe you don't drink coffee." "I've been drinking coffee for fifty years!" "Maybe you don't drink it black. Now." She tried sneaking up on another sip of the stuff. When it hit the back of her tongue she almost gagged again. "Guh-ross!" She frowned at the cup as if it were its fault that she didn't like the taste. I laughed. "But I like coffee!" She frowned at me this time. "I know I do! And I want some." Her mouth worked, trying not to pout. "Go get some milk and sugar, if you really want to have a cup. When I was your age I drank what my granny called 'uptown' coffee. Half milk and three sugars." "My age?" That broke up the incipient pout with another frown, this one puzzled. "Sounds awful, my Granny called it 'Boston Coffee.' And didn't you say milk and sugar will make you fat?" Her mood had flipped again, back to teasing. "You could stand a little more padding here and there." She grinned, set the cup down carefully, and stood up. "You just wanna make me fat!" she accused playfully. "And I just wanted to use the line about liking my men the way I like my coffee." Her hand flew to her mouth and her face turned very red. I snorted. "In that case you had best put a little coffee in your milk instead of the other way around." Her wiseass grin widened, as she moved the hand up to push the towel off her forehead. "Why? You think you're the man I'm talking about liking?" "Are you trying to flirt with me or just get my goat?" She fiddled with the towel, either loosening it or tightening it, and looked thoughtful. "I dunno, Just having fun, I guess." "Better be careful, girl. Fun like that might get you in trouble." "Not me. I'm a boy, remember." "Worse. The kind of trouble you could end up with is dead trouble." She nodded as the towel came partly loose and fell across one eye. Another change of subject apparently occurred to her. "You don't act black," she commented as she carefully undid the towel, pushing away the damp, dark strands that tried to fall around her face. I didn't ask, "What's that supposed to mean?" I considered the question in the light of what her attitudes might be, given her bizarre personal history. She didn't mean, you're not all over me just because I'm a white girl. She didn't mean you don't talk street jive. I decided that she meant that I didn't act as if I considered my blackness integral to my person. "I guess I don't think of myself as black, mostly," I said. "I'm just an engineer with some African ancestors. I'm English, French, Dutch, Spanish, Choctaw and who knows what else, the black is mostly for flavor." She had meant no offense and I took none. She snickered then looked serious. I had known we would have to get around to this sometime. "Have you ever been called Uncle Tom?" A fair question and an incisive one, she did have an understanding of attitudes "out there" to people like me. Some people don't like the fact that I consider my ancestry as one of the least important things about me except where it influences the actions of other people toward me. But I didn't wince. "Once or twice. Doesn't bother me as much as some things I've been called." She shook her head. "Too much for me, I guess." Too much for me, too. I don't think about my great-great-grandparents and the difficulty of their lives much more than most Americans. I wanted to change the subject, so I said, "You don't act like a boy." "I don't, do I? I wonder how come?" She turned her head sideways in a very girlish, flirty manner. I had to grin. "You don't think of yourself as a boy, maybe?" She shrugged, turning the towel over in her hands as she started to re-wrap it. Now with dryer side in, to soak up more damp, I supposed. She said, "It's funny, the body knows how to move, kinda. If I don't think of it, I find myself doing the damndest swishiest shit." "Am I going to have to paddle you to break you of that potty mouth stuff?" I said. I tried to grin to show I was teasing but really, that kind of thing did bother me. In more ways than one. She looked at me from under dark eyebrows, plucked, as I had noted once before to a thin and feminine arch. The grin got wider as she tried to bite it back. Then she threw the towel at me suddenly and ran from the room, laughing. The robe flapped around her and the legs flashed their length and creamy color at me. I started up from my chair. I stopped before I took even one step, I could pursue her, she seemed to want me to. But what the heck was I supposed to do when I caught her?Chapter V I found her on the back patio, pulling laundry out of the dryer and hanging some things up on the little clothesline to finish drying. "Need some help?" I offered. No rain here in Burbank and none likely, the clothes would dry quickly enough though I had almost never done it this way. "Sure. Those shirts are yours. If you want to hang them now, they'll be less likely to wrinkle than if I run them the rest of the way out in this dryer." She was carefully doing up buttons on a satiny blouse after having hung it on a plastic hanger. I pulled a few of the shirts out of my antique dryer and put them on hangers. I noticed that the dryer was still full of lacy underwear and frilly things that had no normal business being there. Looking at them made me feel odd, I hadn't mixed my laundry with that of a woman since my marriage had failed almost ten years before. "I didn't think that you were supposed to mix all this kind of stuff in one dryer load." She snorted delicately. "Like it's gonna matter in a dryer with only two settings. You got heat or no heat, that's all. I had a dryer like this one back in 1964, fer -- gosh sake's." She grinned. "That's why I'm taking a lot of stuff out still damp and hanging it." She reached into the still warm cylinder and pulled out a few of her unmentionables. "Now these are dry." She snagged some thing else and then restarted the dryer on the 'Air Only' setting. "I'll be right back, I'm gonna go put this on." She giggled and bounced a little as she went inside. I worked on hanging up the shirts I had taken out. Who would have thought she could be so domestic? I had noticed as I went through that she had apparently cleaned up the kitchen a bit, too, as there were no dishes in the sink and the counters looked neater somehow. I suspect she had put some things away that I perennially left our after using them. I wasn't sure what I thought about her feeling okay with doing something so -- intimate? That was surely not the right word, but it did make me grin. I wasn't sure what I thought about her going to put on something more feminine either. I didn't want to think about her slipping on the pink panties with the ruffles I had glimpsed. And the bra, a color between mauve and rose, a style that would seem to require more development than I had seen she had, was it padded? I missed a button on a shirt and had undo everything and start over. Had Terry Hope, the boy on the school I.D., had he been taking hormones, female hormones. The bottles of pills with labels in Spanish I had caught sight of when Kelly went through the backpack. Was doing something like that safe? She came back out, wearing a deep brown dress with emerald pockets and cuffs on short sleeves. She had a plastic bow in her hair, holding it away from her face on one side. The little stud earrings she had been wearing had been replaced with emerald green hoops, like the plastic bow and the plackets on her dress. The dress fit loosely and swirled around her legs. Her shoes were mocassin types I hadn't seen before, brown as the natural color of her hair. She also wore a golden-toned bracelet with lots of little gold stars on her left wrist, and a similar chain around her neck. And... were her lips redder, had she put some makeup back on? Surely she hadn't been inside long enough. The neckline of the dress was low enough that I glimpsed the swelling of her breasts, a promise of femininity that in lying may have spoke a truth. I took a deep breath and said, "That's a dress." "Brilliant, Holmes, I don't know how you do it." She snapped. "Dork." "Dork?" I said, "That doesn't sound much like George Kelly." "I don't look much like George Kelly, now do I? I'm practicing to be a teen-ager, now get out my face!" But she smiled. "Um, well, uh, no, but if you are a boy why are you going... so... totally... uh," I could not seem to finish the question. She didn't try to help. Maybe she didn't want to talk about it. "What do you think? Should I try to call Terry's parents?" "I thought you had decided to do that." I picked up the pants I had dropped and rehung them. "What should I say?" She toyed with an earring and bit her lip. "That you're wearing a dress and you look lovely in it?" She frowned. "I don't think they want to hear that." Beat. Blush. "Was that a compliment?" "I've given you other compliments," I said. "Yes, and they always embarrass me." "I'm sorry that you're embarrassed. If you wouldn't provoke compliments it wouldn't happen." She grinned. "I don't know why I put this on." "To get a compliment so you could blush prettily?" Blushing prettily, she shook her head. "No, I don't think so?" She was acquiring the habit of the young and female of turning statements into questions. We finished with the laundry and I carried most of the things in, she taking only a basket of her intimate items. It seemed natural that I carry the heavier more awkward load, even though she had carried everything out to the machines. "How am I gonna call them when I don't really know their number? I mean, I've been trying to remember it but ... nothing? And look what's happening to me from trying to get comfortable with the inside of Terry's head?" Three non-questions in a row, that trick could actually get annoying, I decided. "Come into the computer room when you put stuff away, I've got a list of people that may be your parents. Terry's parents. You think trying to use Terry's memories is making you act more like Terry would have acted?" "Kinda," she admitted. "Uh, I don't really have anywhere for my things besides the backpack?" We stood at the door to my bedroom and stared at one another a while. "It's like I know what Terry would do or would want to do? And well, I know that as George I would hate it but ... as Kelly it sounds like it would be fun?" She squirmed a little, blushed and looked away. I took the basket from her quickly, "We'll just leave your stuff in the basket for right now, okay? I'll put it on the bed." She retreated toward the kitchen and I stood staring at the basket of girl-things before doing as I had suggested. We met back in the computer room, she stirring up a cup of 'uptown' coffee. "This is pretty good?" she said/asked smiling. "I swear, if you start doing valspeak, fershur and y'know, I'm gonna have to paddle you." I mocked a threat. "That's the second time you threatened that. How do you know I wouldn't like it? Fershur, y'know?" I snorted and handed her the printout with the names and phone numbers of families named Hope in the Tustin area. She looked at it and paled. "This is them, fourth from the top." She put the list and the coffee down quickly and sat on the extra chair beside my desk. "You sure?" She nodded. A finger went into her mouth and she nibbled on a cuticle. "You going to call them?" She shook her head. "Hadn't you decided already to do so?" "What could I say? I don't know what to say? What should I say?" She might start crying any moment, I realized. I didn't want that. Still, "I can't tell you what to say, but you might tell them you want to stay in touch, that you're okay, you are alive. They must want to know." "I'm alive?" she laughed, almost bitterly. "Did you see what one of those pill bottles was? I, Terry bought more than hormones in Mexico. But, I'm not alive, I'm George Kelly and I'm dead! A drunk driver killed me and..." I looked her over carefully, from mocassin flats, to little green bow in her hair. Then I smiled slowly. She tried to suppress a smirk. "Damnit, Walter. I was working up some good drama there!" She giggled. "Okay, so I don't look a thing like George Kelly and I'm dressed like the girl next door, which is a hoot, dear Walter, if that expression isn't too antique for you. I am enjoying this little masquerade, weird as that would have sounded to me a week ago last Tuesday, but I am!" She paused and said in a tinier voice. "But talking to Terry's parents on the phone scares the shit out of me and that's the truth?" She picked up the coffee in a shaky hand and replaced it without taking a sip. She looked at the list of names without picking it up. I watched her and neither of us spoke for a long moment. Something she had said earlier sank in. I asked, "What else besides hormones did Terry buy in Mexico?" "Tranks. I recognized the generic name. Six or ten of those and a glass of booze and it's check out time. Or take the whole bottle if you want to be sure of catching the night train." Her face couldn't seem to settle on an expression. "Maybe they were trade goods for a life on the road, I dunno? But calling his folks would scare Terry like finding that bottle scared me." I think we may have sat thinking about that for awhile, neither of us saying anything. Finally, she said, "That bottle was almost empty. Maybe Terry tried ... and some force decided to give me a second chance ...." She looked wonderingly at her hands, her arms and down at her chest, "What did I do to deserve this? Is it supposed to be reward or...." "None of us ever know why we are here, why should you be any different?" I wanted to take her and hold her and keep her from crying again, but she surprised me. One little sniff, a tiny smile, and then she reached for the phone. Dialing apparently from memory, she bit her lip repeatedly. I heard the tiny noise of someone speaking after a while and Kelly said, "Mom? Momma?" I listened in wonder as she went on. "It's me, um, Terry. I wanted you to know that I'm ok. ... Yeah, I'm warm and dry and not hungry and I'll try to stay in touch. ... I'm sorry, I can't give you a number to call right now." She paused for a long moment, listening or thinking or just hurting perhaps. Then she looked up at me and started talking again. "Mom, I'm living with this guy, right now, he doesn't want me to give out his number." She quirked a grin at me. "Uh-huh, I'm like his girlfriend." I stared at her. "I've been taking hormones, and he says, if I'll marry him, he'll pay for the operation. Mom...." She watched me start a slow confused burn. "I gotta hang up, Mom, bye." The wise-ass grin gave her away. "Answering machine?" The obviousness of the joke had escaped me momentarily only because of the sudden rush of fantasy to the libido. "Yeah, it hung up after I said I couldn't give a number." She chuckled, giggled, really. "Had you going, huh? And most of it was true." "Most! Hardly any of it!" I shook my head. "What am I going to do with you? I can't believe you did that." "Like you don't believe that I'm really a boy? You saw my I.D. Terrence Hope, sex, 'M'. " "That might have been a picture of your brother." She made as if to pull the dress up and show me. "Don't," I said. "Why? Don't you want to know for sure? Before you decide what to do with me?" One tear glistened in a green eye. "Cause I'd sure like to know what you're going to do with me! Am I back out on the street? Are you going to call the cops? Tell me I have to go home to parents I don't know and who sure as heck don't know me." The tear made a narrow track thru the blush on the cheek. "I ...." I didn't know how to finish that. "Do you believe me that I'm really George Kelly?" "I think I do," I said.. "I think I do, too," she admitted, wiping away the tear. I thought about that. "You mean you aren't sure either?" "No. I mean, yes, uh," she said then stopped. "I feel more like Terry than George, I guess. I mean, I know I sure don't feel about some things the way George would feel. But I remember being George, better than I remember being Terry." She ran down and began twisted her fingers in her lap. "Who do you think you want to be?" I asked. "I'm gonna change my name to Kelly Esperanza," she said without looking up. "An Irish Hispanic?" I tried to tease her. She one-upped me. "Maybe I should change it to Kelly Dalton? Mrs. Walter Dalton." I didn't say anything for a moment. "No one does that anymore, Mrs. then the guys name." "I'd do it." She grinned. "I'm an old-fashioned girl." "You'd do that?" "Maybe. I think you saved my life." "Whose life?" We weren't teasing anymore. Suddenly, I knew that I had to know, who was this green-eyed, boyish young woman with the streaks in her dark hair. "I still don't know?" she said finally, with a sigh. "Do you still want to stay here a few days?" "Yes. I need to stay somewhere and the money I had in that backpack is gone." "Ernesto took it?" "Or that woman." "How much was it?" "Not much but I am officially broke, now." "I could take you to your parents," I said. "Terry's parents." "No. They don't want Terry back the way I am now." That one twisted oddly. "And I don't want to go and be someone's problem child." We were quiet again for a bit. "Stay then." She looked up, a little relief in her voice as she spoke. "I'll do housework. I can cook and what I don't know, well, George knew a lot about cooking." I hadn't asked her to do anything around the house but I knew she would offer. I had to smile at her eagerness. It made me glad I'd asked her to stay. "George knew how to cook?" "Yes. He had to batch it after Margaret got sick. And he traveled a lot sometimes and..." She stopped. "He did?" "Yes, lots and sometimes he was gone for weeks, like spring training. Instead of getting a motel room, he'd take an apartment and cook his own meals. Why are you asking this like this?" "Because you are suddenly talking about George instead of yourself." The change had been quick, from one sentence to another. We had another long silence while she poured me another cup of coffee and warmed up her cup of 'uptown'. "I'm not George," she said finally. "He's dead." She began to cry. This time weeping slowly, gently grieving for friends she would never see again, perhaps. Things she would never do again and things left undone that now were too late to ever be done in their proper season. I moved over to the couch and awkwardly held out my arms. She came and sat beside me and I put one arm around her and held one of her hands in mine. "Who the hell am I, anyway?" she whispered. The spookiness of the Halloween season seemed almost too appropriate. "Whoever you are you need a friend," I said. I tried not to think about my doubts, and the nagging feeling that I was being subtly conned somehow. I tried not to think about her warm young body next to mine, thigh beside thigh, hand in hand. "I need something," she said. And lifted my hand to place it on one of her breasts. "Kelly," I managed to say, my voice having gotten suddenly thick, "I'm not gay." "Neither am I," said Kelly. "I really am a girl. Have been all the time...." She used my hand to stroke her breast lightly, holding my wrist in her right hand and pressing my fingers to her soft adolescent titties with her left. I could have pulled away easily. "So you've been lying about being a boy?" She looked up at me. Tall for a girl, her slightly angular face softened a bit by makeup and hair style. "Yes. I'm a girl. Do I look like a boy?" I did pull away then, gently disentangling myself, pushing her away but smiling at her. Part of me cared not a bit whether she was telling the truth and part of me was very scared of finding out the truth. About her, about me. She stood, taking me by surprise. Quickly she pulled the dress off over her head and stood there in nothing but bra and panties. "Do I look like a boy?" she asked again. "Did you shave your legs?" I asked inanely. She looked down "When I showered, yeah, they were gross." "I hope you didn't use my razor. And no, you don't look anything like a boy." No tattletale bulge but I had seen transvestite performers in Las Vegas with less on than she wore now. She stepped closer to me and smiled. "I'm kinda cold." She wrapped her arms around herself and made her lower lip tremble. "You're kinda naked and I'm kinda uncomfortable about that." "Hold me. Like you held me in the car and in the restaurant." "I told you I'm not gay. I thought you were a girl then." But I was holding her, tenderly, gently holding her agains me. My hands searched her back and found the release for her bra. I didn't mean for them to do that but they did. "I told you I'm not a boy." She insisted, pouting a little. I dropped a hand behind her back and cupped her soft round ass for a moment before probing gently between her thighs. Then I kissed him to stop the tears again. Kelly sighed. "So, I lied." "When? When you said you were a boy? Or when you said you were a girl? Or when you said you wanted me to hold you?" I smiled. "I have always been able to tell when you're lying. Girl." She thought for a moment. "I dunno if I like that idea!" Then she snuggled in and turned her face up for another kiss. I gave her one. I couldn't think of her as a boy, even after I had confirmed what she had been telling me all along. "But this doesn't make me gay," I said feebly as I kissed her again. "I really am a boy," she said. "I know." We kissed, mouths open and I knew I felt that she was a woman and I was a man and I liked feeling that way about it. Then I asked something dumb, "Was George gay? I mean, maybe a few experiments or ...." I let that trail off, how the hell could it really be relevant now? She shook her head. "No. Not really, he thought about trying it once, but never did. I don't know if it works that way," she said. "But I don't feel gay, either." "Maybe," I said, "maybe you aren't gay. But are you happy?" She laughed then ducked out of my arms and ran out of the computer room, pausing for a moment in the doorway of the bedroom across the hall. We watched each other from the safe distance of about twelve feet. Before she had darted away, her hand had touched me much as I had touched her. And just as I had confirmed her true sex so she had confirmed my feelings. Reaching behind her, she finished undoing the bra and dropped it on the hall floor. Shoulder bumping at me, she made her little teeny-bopper tits bounce, never taking her eyes off my face. Then she turned and went into the bedroom. "I'll be in here," she said. "If you want me." If I wanted her? I wanted to spank her again for that but I grinned. The little minx really might enjoy it. I began unbuttoning my shirt, wasting one moment to glare at the bulge in my trousers before I crossed the hall into the bedroom. This might turn out to be a strange relationship, a man who wasn't gay and a woman who wasn't a boy. But I had hope that we could work things out. ======================= Copyright 1999 by Elaine Blankenship and Shannen Greggs. All Rights Reserved.
Copyright © 1999 by Elaine Blankenship and Shannen Greggs.
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