“Ashlee… can we talk about this?” Tabitha tried to muster a hopeful look, but it was a struggle for her to meet the girl’s eyes.

    “Talk about this?! I don’t have anything to talk about with you!” Ashlee spat. “I don’t even know who you are!”

    Each of Ashlee’s accusations felt like a blow to Tabitha, like this forgotten specter from her distant past had finally found a means to haunt her. It was easy for her to read the outbursts as Ashlee saying my REAL best friend wouldn’t have abandoned me, even when she knew Ashlee was simply failing to recognize her with all of her changes.

    “You’re not her,” Ashlee repeated, accepting Tabitha’s silence as tacit confirmation. “You’re not her.”

    The young girl’s glare hardened, growing guarded and distant. She wiped the brief tears that had formed and turned to storm out of the room with a resolute set of her jaw.

    “Shit,” Tabitha clapped her hands over her face in vexation. “Shit, shit, shit.”

    She’s not even unfounded in that basis, Tabitha rationalized to herself. She’s RIGHT to disassociate the current me from that Tabitha. I’m NOT the Tabby she last saw on that trampoline. My memories have an almost fifty-year difference, my body is fifty pounds lighter, puberty seems to be affecting me in a different way, my diet and metabolism and energy and body chemistry are all different. Those are all the SMALL changes—I have so many friends and family now. I’m a different person.

    Tabitha had been proud of how much she’d grown in these past six months, how much she’d learned, assumptions she’d overturned and new perspectives gained. Her development since incarnating into her past self had been meteoric, and by contrast Ashlee had of course not changed at all—she’d been left behind and abandoned again, now in an entire additional new context. After seeing the hurt and confusion in Ashlee’s eyes, Tabitha had never found her own impossibly unfair second chance at life so bittersweet.

    She’s rightfully angry—and in a lot of ways, Tabitha’s mind raced. She knows me—KNEW me, she isn’t going to buy any excuse I can cook up. I don’t think she’d believe the truth, either. No one would. And, no one will believe Ashlee when she says I’m not me, even though… she’s right. Technically. As if all of this needs to be any more cruel and unfair to her.

    “Tabitha?” Mrs. Cribb stepped into the room with a bewildered expression, not even remembering to knock. “What on earth happened?”

    “She... became upset,” Tabitha replied with an apologetic expression. “She’s—please don’t hold it against her. She’s been going through so much. And. Well. I’ve changed. Quite a bit. From the girl she remembers me being.”

    “She just stomps out here and says you’re not Tabitha,” Mrs. Cribb said with wide eyes. “She sat down out there in the waiting room and now I can’t get her to say anything at all! What happened?!”

    “I think she needs some time,” Tabitha pleaded. “Please don’t hold it against her. I know she’s been through a lot.”

    “Yes, but—did you say something?” Mrs. Cribb asked. “Are you okay? I’m just completely—I don’t know what to think, where all this came from.”

    “I’m okay,” Tabitha said with a weak smile. “Can you make sure she’s okay? And, um, tell her I’m sorry, if I said anything wrong?”

    “Of course, of course,” Mrs. Cribb nodded, pausing again in the door. “You’re okay?”

    “I’m okay,” Tabitha promised again.

    “Okay,” Mrs. Cribb murmured. “I’m so sorry about all of this—I don’t know what this is all about.”

    “It’s really not her fault,” Tabitha said. “She just… can you give her some time?”

    “I will—we will,” Mrs. Cribb fretted. “We’re going to take good care of her. Sorry for disturbing you with all of this today. I was glad to see you seem to be doing so much better! I’ll stop by again in the next week, if they haven’t released you yet by then.”

    “Thank you,” Tabitha said. “It was good to see you.”

    “Take care, Hun,” Mrs. Cribb said, finally hurrying back down the hallway towards the ward’s reception area.

    “Ugggh,” Tabitha let out a noise of exasperation the moment she was sure Mrs. Cribb was well out of earshot. She let herself fall back heavily onto her pillow and covered her face, completely at a loss as to what she should do about Ashlee. “This can’t be happening.”

    “Hey,” Alicia said, standing over the corner table out in the quad Elena had sequestered herself to.

    High school as a loner was new to Elena, but wrapping herself in a certain amount of distance from everyone else helped bolster her new goth persona. She wasn’t like Tabitha who’d hidden herself away completely unseen in the library at lunch, because Elena wasn’t intending to be socially invisible. Elena positioned herself on the far outer periphery of everyone else, because that was the statement she wanted to make.

    Her present lack of social engagement also may have given her too much time to reflect on such things.

    “Hey,” Elena looked up at Alicia with a neutral stare, neither intent on continuing conversation nor inviting the other girl to sit with her.

    “Can we talk?” Alicia asked.

    “Sure,” Elena said with indifference.

    “Okay,” Alicia planted the sketchpad and three ring binder she was holding onto the table and then climbed over the bench to take a seat. “Are you okay?”

    “Why wouldn’t I be?” Elena asked.

    “I’m serious—are you okay?” Alicia pressed. “Like, are we okay? If this is part of your whole new thing, then fine. That’s fine and cool. I don’t want you to be all upset about the Tabitha thing, if that’s what this is about.”

    Elena looked down at the table for a moment, weighing her words and trying to figure out what she wanted to say. After a few strained seconds she looked back up, simply deciding her friend deserved the truth.

    “I’m really upset about the Tabitha thing.”

    “Okay—thank you,” Alicia sagged slightly, trying to study Elena’s now intentionally difficult to read expression. “You don’t have to believe her. Us. You don’t have to believe us, we said that’s fine. That’s okay. But, can we talk about it, or…?”

    “I…” Elena frowned, staring at Alicia and trying to choose her words carefully. “I don’t think there’s anything to talk about? Really?”

    “Okay,” Alicia said, casting a nervous glance around and fidgeting with her binder and portfolio. “We don’t have to talk. But, can you listen to me for a bit?”

    Elena shifted uncomfortably in the seat opposite her friend, fighting the urge to quibble over how listening to Alicia talk would be them talking, and how she didn’t want to talk about this. With a sigh of frustration and pointed disinterest in her eyes, Elena waved her hand, gesturing for Alicia to get it over with.

    “I know time travel’s impossible,” Alicia said. “But, somehow or other, Tabs does know things that she can’t know. About the shooting, about movies that haven’t come out yet, about—stuff. The way future stuff is. I know you don’t believe her and that you’re not gonna be convinced, but can I just like, lay out why I’m convinced, so that things aren’t all weird between us?”

    “Okay,” Elena said, a little more coldly than she’d intended.

    “Tabitha knew I was an artist on the first day of school,” Alicia began. “Like, she knew beforehand. I had a paper out and I was doodling, not drawing, when she came up to me. Didn’t have my art out, no one had seen it. I went to Fairfield middle, you guys went to Laurel. So, on that first day she’s asking if I draw, wants to see my art, wants to get to know me.”

    “What were you doodling?” Elena asked.

    “Nothing!” Alicia held her hands up. “Just like, lines. Eyeballs. Shapes. Normal every person does this doodles, not even like effort or skill or anything. Just ordinary bored scribbling. But, she was suspiciously convinced that I was an artist.

    “That doesn’t seem suspicious, though,” Elena countered. “What seems like normal doodles to you is probably amazing to the average person. You’re an artist.”

    “It’s—no, it’s not even like that,” Alicia said in frustration. “Anyways. I get to know her, she turns out to be different than I first thought. We’re kinda sorta friends then, I guess. She asks if I want to hang out after school so we can talk about drawings and ideas and stuff, I’m like, yeah, cool. The shooting thing happens. I connect it to her looking up first aid and gun shot trauma stuff because she was doing that in the library all the time and that was weird. Suspicious. She tells me about the time travel. I don’t believe her.”

    “With you so far,” Elena commented in a deadpan voice.

    “Yeah. Well,” Alicia picked at the edge of her portfolio. “I kinda, I dunno, kid her about it over the days after that. ‘Cause I can’t tell how serious she really is about all of it. I happen to bring up how, yeah she must’ve known me in her first life, and ask her about that stuff. She gets like… guilty. She didn’t know me, not even from school. We’d like, never interacted in her first life, I guess, and she only recognized me from me getting famous for my art. Kinda wanted to—well, not take advantage of that, exactly, but wanted to have a sorta partnership sorta thing going on with me. My drawings, her writing. Like that.”

    “Okay,” Elena said, her interest starting to pique in spite of herself.

    “So I ask her about that, and Tabitha describes a specific piece of unfinished artwork in here,” Alicia slid her portfolio aside and jabbed a finger at the three ring binder. “I’ve never ever shown anybody these ones. No one knows about them, never brought them to school. My parents would freak out on me if they found them— I’ve had them hidden in my room at home. They’ve never left my room. Tabitha tells me, in detail, this specific one that’s super special to me, like it has huge personal significance to me as an artist. As a person. There’s absolutely, completely no fucking way she could’ve known about it.”

    “Could’ve been a lucky guess,” Elena shrugged. “Based on—”

    “It’s not,” Alicia insisted. “Trust me. It’s not. I’m going to show these to you now, so don’t freak out. Okay? I’ve never shown anyone these. Not art teachers or friends or anyone I know—nobody. Not even Tabitha.”

    “Alright,” Elena said, curiosity getting the better of her.

    With what could only be described as extreme reluctance, Alicia slowly slid the binder across the table to Elena. Intrigued as to what special secret drawings were so important that Alicia kept them hidden away, Elena opened the binder—and immediately slapped it closed again upon seeing the first drawing.

    “Is this porn?” Elena mouthed, glancing around them to see if anyone had been looking.

    “It’s not porn,” Alicia said, wrapping her arms around herself and making a face and looking incredibly discomforted at having shown anyone the secret binder. “It’s art. Okay? Stuff I have to practice to get good at it but I can’t show anyone because of what they’d say. Okay?! You don’t get good at drawing everything without practicing. It’s not porn.”

    Narrowing her eyes, Elena carefully slid the binder off the table and tilted it partway into her lap so that no one else nearby would accidentally see what she was looking at. Upon opening the binder, she again saw the first drawing—a pair of boobs hanging below a pair of shoulders and a neck. Flipping the plastic page protector—another pair of boobs, smaller, different-looking ones from a slightly different angle. The next page, more boobs. The next, boobs again.

    Holding her place between binder pages with her fingers, she flipped it closed again so she could shoot Alicia an incredulous look.

    “It’s art!” Alicia protested, covering her face. “Don’t judge me!”

    “Are there penises, too?” Elena remarked in a dry voice, opening the binder to skim through the pages.

    “Ew, no. I’m not drawing penises!” Alicia seemed aghast. “That’s disgusting!”

    “Alicia—what, are you gay?” Elena asked, looking from one sketch of naked breasts to the next in disbelief. “These are all boobs.”

    “It’s an art thing, oh my God,” Alicia hissed defensively. “The naked female form is full of artistic beauty that I really want to be able to express. Okay?! It’s not super sexual or anything, but yeah okay of course that’s the conclusion everyone’s just gonna jump to right away. So, you see why I never show these ever ever?”

    “Yeah,” Elena said, impassively examining the depictions of naked women drawn from the side, and drawings of them in various contorted positions. “Some of these are really good.”

    “Yeah?” Alicia squeaked.

    “But, then a lot of them look really weird,” Elena remarked.

    “Weird,” Alicia repeated. “Weird how?”

    “Like...” Elena went back several pages until she found a particular drawing again. “Like, here. Between her boob and her arm it looks weird, see? And then the boobs look pressed together like she’s wearing something, when she’s not. This boob would be out… here, like in this direction. But, you drew her with cleavage.”

    “Uhhh okay yeah that one is super messed up,” Alicia admitted. “I know the boob position on that one’s wrong, but the way the shape turned out was nice, so I had to save it for that.”

    “You did it again with this one,” Elena pointed out, rifling through the pages. “And this one. On the ones where you draw where the bottom rib stands out a bit, it’s down too low on her torso. Like the proportions are off, so she looks wrong.”

    “Okay okay okay!” Alicia groused. “Now you totally see why it’s something I have to practice, then! And a lot of these are old drawings anyways, geez! I just keep all of the nudie ones together like this, some of these are from forever ago.”

    “Just don’t draw on the nipples, and these won’t all be gross,” Elena made a slightly disgusted face. “If you’d add in a few lines to give them clothing, it’s less… weird and like porn, and you wouldn’t have to keep these secret.”

    “You wouldn’t get it,” Alicia sighed.

    “Yeah, I guess,” Elena said, casually flipping through the rest of the pages. “Which one’s the one you think Tabitha knew of?”

    “...Very last page,” Alicia said with a hint of trepidation.

    Wasting no time, Elena turned to the very end.

    “Okay,” Elena said, staring at it intently.

    “Okay what?” Alicia prompted, squirming in her seat.

    “Okay, this one’s different,” Elena remarked, letting her eyes search up and down the drawing as she tried to put it into words. “This one’s really good. Who’s she supposed to be?”

    The final drawing stood apart from the rest in that it seemed to convey something larger than the sum of its lines. Rather than the shock value explicit and in-your-face drawings of tits, this was a woman’s naked back, with only a hint of breast visible on one side. The musculature of the woman’s posture hinted at context, the detailing in each tangled curl of hair traveling down her neck and across one shoulder seemed significant somehow, and something about the way it was drawn was simply moving.

    “I don’t know!” Alicia whispered. “I’ve no idea. This one just kinda came to me. Inspiration. The anatomy’s not exactly accurate. But, this one was totally free-hand and without any references, and it still came out looking like a billion times better than anything I’ve ever drawn.”

    “I don’t think it’s better than your new stuff,” Elena pursed her lips in doubt as she examined the piece.

    “It is,” Alicia insisted. “It completely is. The others look good, but this is good. It has better feeling. It’s more. I’ve tried to draw this one a bunch of other times and they never carry even like a tiny fraction of what this one has.”

    “I don’t really get it,” Elena said. But then, maybe I also kinda do?

    “What Tabitha described to me,” Alicia leaned in close to whisper, “was the future perfect dream version of this that I know I’m going to manage to do someday. She put into words like, exactly how I want her back, how I want to have these parts here just defined by light and shadow so they’re a little more subtle—she knew. Because, I think she’d seen it. The finished version.”

    “There’s other explanations,” Elena said.

    “No one else even knows about this crappy version here!” Alicia insisted. “Let alone what it’ll be when it’s complete. It’s not like I sit there and draw leaning back ‘gainst my bedroom window so people outside can all see what I work on.”

    “Okay,” Elena couldn’t help but slightly concede in the face of Alicia’s apparent conviction. “But, that doesn’t mean Tabitha’s from the future. That’s still, like, the least likely explanation ever.”

    “Maybe,” Alicia shrugged, keeping her shoulders hunched in close. “I don’t know. She knows a lot of future stuff, ‘Lena.”

    “Stuff that we can’t verify,” Elena pointed out.

    “Not yet,” Alicia agreed. “But, eventually? What are you gonna do if she turns out to be right about a lot of big things?”

    “Invest,” Elena said simply, closing the three-ring binder and sliding it back across the table towards Alicia. “Make money.”

    “Okay,” Alicia sighed. “Maybe there’ll never be a point where you totally believe her all the way. I guess. But, can you at least start believing in her? Like, you don’t have to believe she’s from the future, but can you at least believe that we believe that? That we’re not lying to you, that this isn’t a mean prank and you don’t need to be pissed at us? You can just think we’re totally fucking stupid, if you want.”

    “I don’t have stupid friends,” Elena said, unable to hide her annoyance. “So… don’t go saying you guys are stupid, ever. Okay?”

    Elena couldn’t help but become even more annoyed as Alicia’s smile grew.

    “E-town’s… a really long drive,” Casey muttered, doing her very best not to scowl into the hand she was resting her cheek on as she doodled. “Like… ugh.”

    “I know,” Alicia winced. “I have gas money. And—you know, money money. I can pay you. I really need to get to Elizabethtown before December.”

    Alicia always gravitated towards the older girl now whenever she was in Mr. Peterson’s class for her Drawing elective. As a student assistant, Casey frequented the art room throughout several different periods. Whenever she wasn’t toiling away over at the sinks muttering obscenities under her breath at all of the students who neglected to properly clean their paintbrushes, Casey could be found loitering at one of the tables drawing cartoon bunnies.

    “What for?” Casey glanced her way with suspicion, peeking over at Alicia’s binder and artbooks.

    “Uhh,” Alicia protectively pulled the binder closer when she remembered it was her nudie folder that normally never ever left her hiding spot at home. “It’s a secret. Top secret, can’t say.”

    “Top secret, huh?” Casey pouted, drumming her fingertips on the scarred and paint-flecked surface of the art room table. “Okay… did you buy an art club shirt?”

    “I did,” Alicia nodded. “Gonna wear it soon, I promise. Hasn’t been washed yet. I can buy another one, if you need me to.”

    “Wear your shirt every Thursday for art club meetings,” Casey negotiated, pursing her lips. “I’ll need gas money. Annnnd I want you to be art club treasurer.”

    “You’re art club treasurer,” Alicia pointed out.

    “Acting treasurer,” Casey made a face. “And, now also… acting president.”

    “...Oh,” Alicia gave her a sympathetic look. “Sorry.”

    “It’s a small school,” Casey shrugged. “Mr. Peterson says some years the art club just doesn’t really make it, even if it starts off real strong. We had twenty seven people at the start of the year, and now it’s already basically down to just six. Counting me. Me, you, Matthew, Bill, Mike, and Ethan. And, Mike and Ethan—they’re flakey.”

    “Sorry,” Alicia apologized again. “I can… probably be treasurer. Is that just like, handling money? Accounting stuff?”

    “Accounting stuff?” Casey blinked. “We’re a high school art club—your job’s to sell art club t-shirts.”

    “...To who?” Alicia asked, raising her eyebrows. “No one comes to art club anymore.”

    “You want me to drive you to E-town, or not?” Casey gave her a withering look.

    “Uhhh I can guilt-trip my dad into buying a shirt?” Alicia gave her a weak smile. “And stuff? I mean, I can be treasurer, but—listen, I’m not really a people person. I don’t think I can get people to buy stuff. Matthew didn’t want to do it?”

    “He’s... kinda already only showing up at meetings to hang out with me,” Casey revealed with a sigh. “Not so much into the whole art thing.”

    “Ah,” Alicia gave her an awkward nod. “Yeah. I did… hear about you guys.”

    “‘Bout me and Matthew?” Casey gave her another glance before returning to her doodle. “Shit. Yeah. I knew your one friend had a crush on him, and now she’s all… she seems to be taking it really hard. I totally wasn’t trying to rub her face in it that night or anything, it was just super stressful and—”

    “I think Elena’s big makeover thing has more to do with Tabitha than with the Matthew thing,” Alicia admitted.

    “I feel like shit about it,” Casey said. “By the time I even thought of it, Matthew’d already been holding me for a while there in the hospital waiting area. And I was like, wearing his hoodie and all over him and… usually I’m way better about stuff with, uh. Keeping things discreet and all. Especially there in front of his mom! That was just… a horrible night.”

    “Really appreciated that you were there for us, then,” Alicia said. “I can... talk to Elena about the Matthew thing, if you want?”

    “What, in exchange for a trip to Etown?” Casey chuckled as she colored in the large round eyes of her Cocoa Cinnabun drawing.

    “No, of course not,” Alicia said with an aghast expression. “Buuut, also yes; if it’ll get you to drive me out there?”

    “So, why did you have to keep your relationship all secret?” Alicia asked with interest.

    Elizabethtown was a fair drive away, and Casey’s garnet GMC Jimmy was hurtling down the road. Both girls wore jackets despite the rush of air from the heaters, and LeAnn Rimes sung out a breathy melody of heartache from Casey’s less-than-capable speakers as additional background noise. Alicia didn’t mind any of it—she was too excited to get to their destination.

    “It’s this whole stupid thing,” Casey grimaced. “There’s like, a bajillion reasons. We’re technically the same age, but because our birthdays are far enough apart, I’m a year ahead of him in school, so now all of the sudden I’m this cradle-robber to some people.”

    “Oh, wow,” Alicia remarked. “So, it’s like pressure from the other juniors? Or the sophomores? I thought it was to keep away from the jealousy drama stuff, since Matthew’s… popular.”

    “The jealousy drama stuff is at least a majillion of the bajillion reasons, yeah,” Casey admitted. “Everyone gets so stupid about it.”

    “A majillion, huh?” Alicia laughed.

    “And then, also… nah I can’t tell you that part,” Casey teased.

    “Tell me what part?!” Alicia jumped at the bait with enthusiasm.

    “Well…” Casey smiled, pretending to be reluctant. “Also it’s that if people knew we were a thing, there’s no way they’d let us run around unsupervised together at all the youth group events our church has.”

    “Oh. Ohhhh,” Alicia covered her mouth in surprise to hide her huge smile. “I see.”

    “It’s not even what you think,” Casey shrugged shamelessly. “Not exactly. We make out a lot, and that’s pretty much it.”

    “That’s enough, though,” Alicia said. “Sounds really awesome just with that.”

    “Did you have a crush on Matthew?” Casey asked. “Do you think I’m some sort of cradle robber?”

    “No, no,” Alicia laughed. “The… person I like is... also a little bit younger than me. We’re still in the same grade though, at least.”

    “The person you like?!” Casey exclaimed in surprise. “Who?”

    “I’m not telling,” Alicia scoffed.

    “Is it a boy, or a girl?” Casey asked.

    “What?” Alicia snapped. “Why would it be a girl.”

    “I don’t know, I just thought—” Casey laughed, although she faltered into an awkward expression the moment she noticed Alicia’s glare. “Uhhh, I was actually just messing with you. None of my business. Totally cool if you’re into whoever you’re into, so long as it’s not Matthew.”

    “It’s not Matthew.”

    “Okay, cool.”


    “Is it anyone I know?” Casey prodded, holding up a hand before Alicia could deliver a retort. “Just askin’, ‘cause like, a great way for you to get closer to your crush? Bring him to art club every Thursday.”

    “Casey…” Alicia growled.

    “No, no, it’s totally legit, because you can just say you’re asking him ‘cause art club is so desperate for people right now!” Casey arched an eyebrow. “Getting extra time to hang out with him would just be icing on the cake for you. Right?”

    “You’re unbelievable,” Alicia made a noise of mock disgust and shook her head in dismay. “Actually, I was thinking about art club, a bit. I think Elena would be perfect for treasurer.”

    “So, it’s Elena,” Casey decided. “You like Elena. That’s cool, she’s cute.”

    “That’s not funny,” Alicia said. “What I mean is, like, I’m an artist. Not a... business-minded person. If Elena was treasurer, she would go in with a plan and stuff. Set goals, talk to people. Meet… quotas? Agendas? She’d probably get a bunch of people joining and attending art club.”

    “Wait, are you being serious?” Casey’s playful smile faded away. “Wouldn’t that be—is she even into art stuff? Wouldn’t that be weird because of the whole Matthew and me thing?”

    “No clue,” Alicia shrugged. “I’m not gettin’ into all that stuff. S’none of my business.”

    “Do you think she’d even go for it?” Casey wondered out loud.

    “Before, I’d have said no,” Alicia said. “Now—it’s a maybe? She’s really trying to set herself apart from who she was and be different now, and art’s all about expression. Right? Elena could be the brooding art club goth girl.”

    “Fuck,” Casey swore. “You’re right, I can already picture it. She’d be perfect, she was in good with a lot of the freshman peoples. But... then, how do I make sure she keeps her grubby little freshman paws off of my Matthew?!”

    “Grubby little freshman paws? You know what, Casey? I think the whole love triangle drama thing’ll be a big draw, actually,” Alicia relished her chance to tease Casey for a change. “Great angle for convincing her to join the club. We’ll get Matthew to ask her!”

    “That’s not funny,” Casey said, making a face. “Wait... do you think that’d work?”

    “Ughhhh you’ve gotta be fucking kidding me!” Casey groaned as they finally pulled into an empty parking space. “Seriously. Seriously?!”

    “This isn’t even on Dixie Avenue!” Alicia complained loudly in agreement, feeling a mixture of guilt and irritation. “They said they were on Dixie Avenue. I swear. They totally lied. It’s way back in here.”

    Although the storefront they’d been searching for in Elizabethtown was nestled in the very back of a small shopping center and somewhat removed from the main road, it did feature a tacky sign out in the streetside marquee that said HOBBY STATION in simple blocky letters. Between griping about the drama queens at Springton High and blaring the radio, however, the girls had somehow both missed it on their first pass and gone nearly six miles before realizing they’d overshot their destination.

   “This place looks… small,” Casey said with a dour look. “You’re absolutely sure whatever secret thing you need isn’t something the mall in Fairfield would’ve had?”

    “Absolutely sure,” Alicia lied with a straight face. “We called and checked literally everywhere. Do you want me to just run in real quick?”

    “No way,” Casey refused, turning off the engine and unbuckling her seatbelt. “After all this way? There’s no way whatever you’re getting stays a secret.”

    “It stays a secret,” Alicia grinned, freeing herself from her seatbelt and opening her door.

    The two teens left the GMC Jimmy and stepped out into the chilly November air of Elizabeth town, hurrying over into the barn-like decor of Hobby Station. Something about the structure seemed less comic book shop and more utilitarian, like the building might have been designed as an agricultural shed. Tiny decals of model trains lined the window set in the tiny door, and a bell jangled as they entered. The interior was somewhat stuffy with very welcome heat.

    “Hello, there,” the apparent proprietor was a nondescript middle-aged man rather than a kindly grandpa figure like Alicia thought he should have been, and Alicia stepped over to the counter while Casey was immediately distracted by a large and overly intricate display of model trains.

    Sure, it’s a cool diorama and all—but, you’re supposed to be a Junior in high school!

    “Um. Hi!” Alicia squeaked out, hurrying to unfold a piece of notebook paper from her pocket. “My mom called ahead, I’m looking for… a Dragon Models YF-22 Lightning 2? They said you had it in stock here?”

    “Dragon models?” Casey said with interest, immediately nosing her way back over towards them. “You have dragon models?”

    “Not literal dragon models, I’m afraid,” the man said with a good-natured laugh. “S’a brand, Dragon Models makes military model kits. I was the one who took that call the other day, had one set aside here for ya.”

    The man pulled a small box from an area behind the counter and placed it in front of Alicia before she could conceal the design on the front from Casey.

    “It’s... a fighter jet toy,” Casey looked confused. “You needed a little fighter jet? From here?”

    “It’s a specific model, not a toy!” Alicia cried out in exasperation. She gave her friend a pointed look as if to indicate she should worry about offending the salesman here, but the man just chuckled again as he punched the price into the register.

    “Comes to twenty-three ninety-nine,” the man said. “We don’t sell a lot of these ones, actually. Everyone wants to build the F-18 models after seeing that Independence Day movie with the aliens.”

    “Independence Day?” Alicia echoed, glancing down at the fighter jet artwork on the model kit box. It looked—pretty cool, with a streamlined simplicity that seemed futuristic somehow. The fighter boasted an attractive elongated star shape, like a five-pointed star that had been stretched out slightly to become more aerodynamic. The twin tail fins jaunting out at angles somehow just made it look even cooler.

    “Uhhh, yeah out of curiosity, are F-22s like this in any big movies or shows? Where would someone have even seen F-22s?”

    “F-22s?” The man paused to think. “Something on the news, maybe? Nowhere else I can think of... no, nothing really comes to mind. Independence Day had F-18s. I know those Iron Eagle movies had F-16s. The F-14 kits with the sweep wing like from Top Gun are still real popular, of course. Can’t say as many collectors are interested in the F-22s models, just yet.”

    “That’s… interesting,” Alicia said with a small smile. “Huh.”

    “Twenty four bucks, for a fighter jet model,” Casey hissed in an exaggerated whisper. “Who wanted this?”

    “It’s a surprise, for someone’s birthday,” Alicia gave the salesman an apologetic smile on Casey’s behalf while she pulled out a twenty dollar bill and then singled some ones out of a little blue velcro wallet. “I’m gonna put it together and paint it for them.”

    “Is he like, in the air force, or…?” Casey gave Alicia a searching look.

    “It’s a best friend thing, you wouldn’t get it,” Alicia rolled her eyes. “It’s symbolic. It symbolizes trust between me and—well, you wouldn’t get it.”

    “If you say so?” Casey said with a doubtful smile. “Best friend, huh? Just seems kinda… weird?”

    “Yeah, so?” Alicia smiled. “We’re weird friends.”

    “Is he cute?” Casey elbowed Alicia.

    “Um,” Alicia couldn’t help but look flustered. “Yeah? Kinda?”

    “Time to wake up, Sweetie,” Mr. Moore called softly, rousing Tabitha from her sleep.

    “I was just... resting my eyes,” Tabitha protested groggily, twisting up onto one elbow from the softness of her pillow. After a moment of blinking herself awake, Tabitha saw the empty cardboard box her father was holding and her eyes lit up. “Is it time?!”

    “It’s time,” Mr. Moore confirmed. “We just had our talk with the warden, and they’ve decided to let you out early on good behavior.”

    “Finally!” Tabitha exclaimed, sitting the whole way up and starting to swivel off the bed.

    “Hup-hup-hup, hold your horses little lady,” Mr. Moore held up a hand. “We’ve gotta talk about good behavior, first.”

    “Okay,” Tabitha grinned up at him. “I’m listening.”

    “The doctor said no running,” Mr. Moore began. “No strenuous exercise. No working out— that’s no jumpin’ jacks, no sit-em-ups, no pushups of no kind, not no way, no how. For the next few weeks or so, maybe more.”

    “Okay,” Tabitha readily agreed.

    “No long walks by yourself—nothing unsupervised at all, period,” Mr. Moore said. “No standing up for showers, you can take baths in the tub for a while. No playing tag with your cousins. No rough-horsing.”

    “Rough-housing,” Tabitha corrected.

    “That neither,” Mr. Moore nodded. “The doc said to keep any physical activity to an absolute minimum. An’ then, just to be mean, he also said you’ve also gotta take it easy on your noggin’. No more than an hour of TV at a time, same for readin’. Frequent breaks, whenever you’re doin’ anything that’ll make you concentrate or focus or work that head of yours too much. No hard thinking, doctor’s orders.”

    “Okay,” Tabitha said with less enthusiasm, casting a guilty glance at The Unschooled Wizard, a Barbara Hambly book borrowed from Mrs. Williams that was resting on the bedside table.

    “Doc says lots of rest,” Mr. Moore continued. “Naps every day, lots of quiet time. They had you walkin’ around a little bit okay, but you have any problems with your balance, or even if you just feel tired, you sit your butt right down and call for help. The boys got you a dinosaur to press for when you need anything. You need anything, and your mother’ll be right there.”

    “A dinosaur,” Tabitha repeated.

    “Makes a dinosaur noise when you press the button,” Mr. Moore nodded. “I’m told it is ‘way cooler than a stupid little jingly bell.’”

    “...Okay,” Tabitha said with some reluctance.

    “You’re not allowed to skip any meals, we’ve gotta make sure you eat everything on your plate. No using big words anymore or talking like a robot. You’re not allowed to talk back to your mother. You’re never allowed to talk to boys, and—”

    “Dad,” Tabitha rolled her eyes and shook her head as her smile surfaced again. “Hand, please.”

    Mr. Moore obediently assisted, holding her hand as she stretched her legs down all the way to the floor and carefully slid out of the bed. It took more conscious effort than she liked to steady herself, and after spending so much time as an invalid she felt physically weak in a way that made her heart sink. I’m not sure if I put on weight or lost it here, but… I’ve DEFINITELY lost muscle mass. Worst of all, I won’t be able to get it back for a while, seems like.

    “Easy does it,” Mr. Moore said.

    “I can stand on my own,” Tabitha assured him, attempting to tug her hand free.

    “Nuh-uh, not ‘till your eighteen and grown you can’t,” Mr. Moore joked, not letting go of her. “Seems like just yesterday you were first tryin’ to stand up all on your own like a big girl.”

    “Just yesterday, huh?” Tabitha gave him a wry smile, but stopped trying to free her hand. “Seems like quite a few yesterdays ago to me.”

    “You’re also not allowed to grow up so damned fast,” Mr. Moore cautioned. “The doctor was very clear on that. Wrote it down in all capital letters and underlined it an’ everything. You need to slow yourself way down, Missy.”

    “Uh-huh,” Tabitha indulged him. “Guess I’ve got no choice but to take it easy then, this time.”

    “‘Fraid so,” Mr. Moore nodded, setting the cardboard box down on the bed she’d just vacated.

    “Is that... real people clothing?” Tabitha asked with excitement. “You’ve gotta let me go so I can change, at least.”

    “Your Grandma Laurie made you a dress to wear,” Mr. Moore said. “You hold your peace and wait ‘till your mother’s here to help you get it on.”

    “I don’t need help to change,” Tabitha promised. “The little bathroom has handrails everywhere, look—by the door, by the commode, everywhere. I won’t let go of them.”

    “Hmm…” Mr. Moore gave the attached tiny bathroom enclosure a doubtful glance.

    “Dad, I’ve been getting up to go to the bathroom by myself for days,” Tabitha pressed. “Ever since they let me try to stand up.”

    “Well… alright, go on, then,” Mr. Moore frowned. “Keep a hand on a rail. You so much as wobble, and you’re grounded here to the hospital for a couple more weeks.”

    “I’ll be fine,” Tabitha assured him, lifting the dress up out of the box.

    Pulling it up revealed a rather plain light gray fit and flare dress made out of surprisingly heavy fabric she imagined was perfect for these winter months. It had a modest neckline that wouldn’t make her uncomfortable, long sleeves, and it looked like it would fall down just past her knee. A set of undies and familiar bra from home had even thoughtfully been placed at the bottom of the box. Tabitha found herself so enamored with the dress that when she gathered up everything and took an absentminded step in the direction of the little bathroom, she almost lost her footing.

    “Sweetie…” Mr. Moore warned, taking her by the arm for a moment.

    Didn’t, though! Tabitha showed her father a sheepish smile. Didn’t lose my balance. Just wavered a tiny bit. Not gonna let myself get distracted. Slow, careful steps.

    After stepping in and closing the door behind her, she did reach out and take hold of the nearest rails, if only to confirm their position. Falling down for real would be no laughing matter, after all. Holding up the dress, she grew more and more pleased with it, and after admiring it for a few seconds more she gently draped it over the sink and quickly discarded her flimsy hospital gown. Wearing real undergarments again was an enormous relief, the first step to being a person with agency again.

    The dress had no zipper or buttons, and Tabitha had to heave the whole thing up over her head and climb her way up into it. The fitted waist was difficult to squeeze her shoulders past, but once her arms swam up into the sleeves and she managed her head through the collar to wear it properly, it was a remarkably comfortable fit. Regarding herself in the tiny ten-by-twelve inch afterthought of a mirror the little enclosure was provisioned with, Tabitha smiled to herself and carefully pulled her tangle of reddish orange hair through the neckline. When she arranged things just right, the shaved portion along the one side of her head wasn’t even visible.

    I look… frail, Tabitha quirked her lip at herself. Pale, way more pale than usual. But, the dress is very nice! Has quite a bit of weight to it, too.

    “You let her go in there by herself?!” Her mother’s voice sounded along with a hearty smack. “Are you out of your mind?!”

    Tabitha quickly opened the door only to discover Mrs. Moore had mostly been teasing—her mother wore an enormous smile at seeing her up and about and dressed. The small vase of flowers, Tabitha’s binder, the small teddy bear from the boys, the borrowed novel, and the somewhat morbid framed certificate of death she’d earned had already been collected into the cardboard box. Her parents stood there, waiting to bring her back out into the world with scarcely-concealed anticipation.

    “Aw, just look at you!” Mrs. Moore sighed. “Here you are—your socks and shoes. How does it fit? You look just lovely.”

    “It’s perfect,” Tabitha blushed. “Thank you.”

    “Are we ready to go home?” Mrs. Moore asked, taking her by the elbow and leading her over towards one of the nearby chairs so she could don her footwear.

    “I’m very ready to get out of here,” Tabitha admitted as she bent over to tug on her first sock. “I’m ready… for ice cream. I want to go out into town somewhere—with my Mom and Dad—and just have ice cream. As a family. I think… I think that’s all I’ve ever really wanted.”

    “Phew, that’s a tall order in the middle of November,” Mr. Moore chuckled. “And I remember both you and your Momma are tryin’ to watch your girlish figures now, so—”

    “No, we’re having ice cream,” Tabitha shook her head in curt refusal. “We’re having ice cream, and that’s final.”

    “You heard her, Alan,” Mrs. Moore gave her daughter a supportive glance. “Ice cream. Family. That’s final.”

    “Alright, ice cream it is, then,” Mr. Moore shook his head before looking back to Mrs. Moore. “Did your talk go okay?”

    “Ssh!” Mrs. Moore glared, raising a finger to her lips. “We’ll get into that later.”

    Intrigued but not overly suspicious, Tabitha carefully tied one shoe and then the other, slowly sitting back up and then holding her hands out for support. Her father shifted the box under one arm and took one of her hands, and Mrs. Moore went for the other—quickly correcting herself after seeing the sleeve straining around the circumference of Tabitha’s new cast—and taking her by the upper arm instead. With her parents' help Tabitha drew herself up to a standing position, feeling better than she had in years.

    “Let’s stop by and say goodbye to Mr. Macintire,” Tabitha proposed. “Thank him for letting Hannah visit me every day. Let them know I’m being released.”

    “Hmm,” Mr. Moore frowned. “I don’t know that we want you doin’ a whole lot of extra walking around just yet.”

    “It’s on the way out, almost,” Tabitha pleaded. “Please?”

    “Well, of course we can stop by,” Mrs. Moore said with finality. “Alan—whatever my daughter says, goes.”

    Tabitha turned a beaming smile up towards her dad, melting away the last of his exasperated expression in a heartbeat. She felt great, Tabitha felt motivated, despite knowing her arduous period of recovery wasn’t quite done with yet. Getting better enough to be out of the hospital was more than good enough for now—and Tabitha was realizing she’d been looking forward to sharing moments with her parents like this for a lot longer than she’d thought. Maybe her entire life.

    We’re going to have ice cream!

A note from FortySixtyFour

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   Short and sweet as I can make a RE:TT chapter without making suspicious readers think the hammer's about to drop. Gotta start building back up some reader trust, because from here we're heading back to our roots in progression fantasy!

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About the author


Bio: Avid reader, reluctant writer.

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