This story is an extreme homage (bordering on AU fanfic) to a famous science fiction story, which shall remain nameless just because I suspect the author would not want the association (even though he is now deceased). However, if you know the story, you'll already know. If you don't, and you're particularly curious, send me a message.
I consider this a parody of the original story for amusement's purposes only, and to comment on and criticize some of the ideas expressed by that tale. I get no profit from this (or indeed any stories on the site).
It was also written several years ago, just never released on the website, and, in addition, it was set in the past even then (some parts more than otherS), which may make it dated.
When I was eleven years old, my best friend was a tomboyish little blonde girl: Jessie. Her real name was Jessica Kinzer, but everyone who knew her called her Jessie. We were eleven years old, and we were best friends, in the way a boy and girl could be in childhood, not yet old enough to be awkward around each other. Okay, we kissed each other one day, in a playground jungle gym shaped like a rocket ship, just to see what it was like, but decided we should just remain best friends.
When I was eleven, you had friends, but only a few really good friends, and you really saw them, in person, outside of school, all the time. If you wanted to talk to them and they weren't in front of you, you had to phone, and since there was only one phone in the house, you couldn't stay on it too long, so you'd find places to meet nearby, or go on an adventure exploring wherever the bus or your bikes or your feet could take you. You could spend hours at a time playing, without any adults having a clue what you were doing, until their voices rang out across the neighborhood, calling you for dinner. Today, people have thousands of friends on Facebook or Myspace and most of them, they've never met, sometimes never even talked to. Kids don't get together outside, except under the watchful eye of parents, for fear that some sexual predator would get them. Forget riding the subway alone, your parents don't even let you walk to school alone.
When I was that age, eleven, my parents divorced. My mom went halfway across the country to get away from Dad, and dragged me along with her. Jessie and I promised to keep in touch, but we grew apart quickly. The Internet didn't really exist then, and it was harder to maintain a friendship when neither of our parents would spring for a long distance call. Back then, when you stopped talking, it didn't mean you didn't care, it just meant distance and time were both against you.
When I was thirteen, Mom developed a drinking problem and couldn't take care of me. My dad took me back, reluctantly because he didn't want to burden his new, younger wife, with a grown child. I was glad, though, because it meant I'd see Jessie again. She was still living in the same house, and the first day I came back, I went to find her.
I was thirteen. Jessie was still eleven. I didn't notice any difference. People always said girls matured faster than boys, I thought I'd just caught up to her.
When I was thirteen, we used to spend hours in one of our rooms playing video games. Jessie had a Nintendo, while I had a Sega Genesis, and a computer, but I liked the latter more... the stuff you could get on them just blew my mind. We played games with simple graphics but seemingly complex gameplay. We built a city together in SimCity, and controlled a whole population as a benevolent God in Populous. I indulged my love of fantasy books with the new Gold Box Dungeons and Dragons video games, and Jessie sat beside me, suggesting which monsters to target first, what treasure to keep and what to leave behind. On consoles, Jessie and I threw turnips at turtles as a Princess and Plumber in Super Mario 2, and took turns rescuing children as a ninja named Joe in Shinobi. I even had a Game Genie that would let us cheat and get infinite lives or make you jump ten times higher. And when those games lost their allure, Jessie and I could bike down to the mall and play at the arcades, where, for a quarter a pop, you could play ones that were even better. Best of all, you could play these games without your full attention, and have the kind of deep meaningful conversations adolescents have while you played, and you could let it go when you were done, no consequences. Today, the graphics have improved, but only to make games bloodier and more sexually explicit, and you need to juggle ten buttons at once, and you can't just sit and play alone or with one friend anymore, the single-player experience is barely there, you have to play online multiplayer or you've wasted your money, and you usually have to pay a monthly fee for that. You need to schedule time together for raids in massively multiplayer online games to advance your party, and woe be to you if you don't play your best in one of them because they're not forgiving.
Jessie gave me my first blowjob ever when I was fourteen. She was still eleven. We were dating, secretly, because her parents wouldn't let her really date. To us it was real, though, and our friends knew. I loved her, and wanted to express that love. To that point, she'd rubbed my dick, but not to completion, and I'd felt up her flat chest and little hairless pussy, but she felt guilty about that, and got uncomfortable when I asked for more. I wasn't satisfied with just letting her be. My friends had all told me they'd had blowjobs (they were lying), and I wanted one, too. She didn't want to give one, but I kept begging, wanting to know what it was like. Finally, one summer day we were hanging out in the woods and I asked her again, and she told me "okay." She pulled down my shorts and held my dick for almost a minute before going on. I didn't think my cock would fit in her mouth, but it did, and she could get about halfway down before gagging. I closed my eyes and enjoyed the sensations of her tongue and in all-too-short a time, blew a load on her, some in her mouth, some on her face. She spit it out into some leaves and used Kleenex she had ready to wipe the rest off her face. Emboldened, I asked to fuck her the next day. She told me she was too young for that.
I loved Jessie and we still had lots in common, and she told me I was the best thing in her life. I knew she was the best in mine. I fought with my stepmother constantly, and my dad because of her. My mom had sobered up, so my stepmother gave Dad an ultimatum, send me to live with her, or find a new wife. I went back to live with my mother when I was fifteen.
I came back when I was sixteen. My mother had decided to return to the area, to reconnect with her old friends and her sister who still lived there. It was a different house, but close enough that I could still look up my old friends too. Most of them were sixteen. Jessie was still eleven.
When I was sixteen, I was interested in girls my own age, but I had a lot of acne, and didn't know how to talk to them. My previous friends had formed their own cliques without me, and they no longer seemed to have room for me. I would visit Jessie, who was now home-schooled, and sometimes I would take her to the movies. She'd call me her boyfriend, and I was old enough to realize something was weird, so when we were in public I was a tool and pretended she was just a kid I knew. When I was alone with her, we kissed and explored each other's bodies, but never got to sex. She never even gave me oral again, although I licked her pussy once. It was still hairless and smooth, tucked entirely inside of her body except for a little opening like a closed mouth smile. I remember it tasting like sweat, only with a bit of a metallic tang. I only did it for a minute, sticking my tongue in and around the hole and probably entirely missing her clit, but the memory of my taste was so vivid I could almost taste again it every time I thought about it, and I thought about it a lot because she didn't want to do it again. She always seemed guilty about what we did, but not enough to want to stop seeing me entirely. She had been out of regular school ever since the summer after she gave me my first blowjob, and by now I was her only friend. I was guilty too, afraid I was exploiting her just for a little human touch.
At sixteen, I used to go to movies a lot. Nobody goes to the movies anymore, because it's way too much money to pay for an experience in which theatre owners search your bags out of fear that you're recording the movie that's been on the net for weeks, and people bring screaming kids, or talk on cell phones. Today you watch movies at home, downloading them over the net, either paying far too much and doing it legally, or risking the wrath of lawyers and doing it illegally. When I was sixteen, we had Arnold Schwartzeneggar kicking ass, Bram Stoker's Dracula came to life and menaced Winona Ryder, and Disney still made beautiful hand-drawn movies that I could enjoy with Jessie even as I pretended, among my peers, that they were too childish. Today, the Terminator's better known as the Governator, going from supreme badass to yet another ineffectual politician, vampires are a teenage girl's romantic wet dream, angsting and sparkling in the sun, and Disney has abandoned traditional animation in favor of CGI and a child sitcom factory that seems to churn out every new star the teenagers love.
At eighteen, I went off to college. Jessie was still eleven. I would see her during the summers, and although I looked forward to seeing her, we were no longer dating, even secretly. By this time I knew there was something really wrong about her, more than the pituitary disorder her parents had been claiming for years. She wasn't stunted, she was eleven. Not a day older after all these years. And I couldn't date an eleven-year-old.
At twenty-four, the dawn of the millennium, I returned for good. With some money from my parents, I started up my own business, an ISP. The Internet was still in its teething stages, and there was room to make a profit by providing better service at cheaper prices than the guys like AOL. I saw Jessie from time to time over the next few years. She was always eleven.
In a lot of ways, the world of the 21st century had improved on the one before. The Internet, what I made my living from, has grown from a pursuit for geeks to a worldwide necessity. You can access information about virtually anything, from virtually anywhere. You can buy practically anything you want and have it delivered without having to leave the house. Many people can work from home, so they can take care of their kids at the same time, and save gas. We're all trying to be more environmentally and socially conscious than ever. But things have gotten worse, too. We're only environmentally conscious because the temperatures are rising and weather's more unpredictable than ever. For all we're more connected to the people we love, we're more isolated from everybody else. I couldn't remember the last time I talked to a neighbor. When I was a kid, I knew all our neighbors, they were my parents best friends. Now, people all over are ruder, and more raunchy than ever, it's like decorum was a thing we abandoned last century. When you go to the airport, you're as likely to be strip searched as greeted with a smile, and you aren't allowed to carry any liquids on board with you for fear they might be part of a clever bomb plot. Nobody feels safe anymore, the media portrays terrorists or dangerous sex offenders around every corner, and I'm not sure whether it's scarier if they're lying to us, or if they're right. Things may be better in a lot of ways, but even in my twenties I felt a yearning for some kind of innocence that we as a people had lost and, it seemed, would never get again, an innocence that Jessie seemed to still clung to. It was only natural she was innocent, she was eleven.
What I mean by eleven years old is not that Jessie was retarded, or mentally challenged, or special needs, or whatever initially well-meaning term hasn't been turned into a slur by now, although I bet most people who'd noticed her over the course of years would apply one of those labels. Her parents told people they were accurate, and that was why they took her out of school when I was fourteen. Which made a certain amount of sense. She was smart, funny, quick-witted, but she was smart for an eleven year old, and although she had tried her heart out those last few years in regular schooling, she just couldn't grasp everything.
And she didn't look like someone with a developmental disability. She simply looked like a pretty little girl. No breasts, just the start of a waist forming, legs and arms almost sticklike. She looked like a stiff wind could blow her over. Her blonde hair was often tied up in pigtails, as strange as that is nowadays. She looked like any carefree eleven-year-old girl. Except she was the same age I was, on paper.
She spoke way too much and way too fast, like a hyperactive eleven-year-old girl. She still had a collection of toys and teddy bears, like an eleven-year-old. She thought she knew everything, like an eleven-year-old, had opinions that were naïve but so firmly believed that you didn't want to argue with her. Whether officially thirteen, sixteen, twenty-four, or twenty-eight, she was eleven in all the ways that mattered.
Jessie's parents were pretty strange too, but they had their strangeness thrust upon them via their daughter. I was Jessie's only friend, and pretty much the only person she saw on a regular basis, outside of her small family. I became her link to the outside world, taking her out to do fun things, and so I had to deal with her parents. You might think it odd that they would let their eleven-year-old daughter out with an older man, but I'd known her since we were both the same age. I don't think it was so much that they trusted me, but that Jessie would have made their lives miserable without an occasional escape from them. Deep down, I didn't like them much, but I felt a little sorry for them. Jessie was a delight, but I thought it must have been hell on their marriage to still be taking care of a little girl who should be off at college, starting her own life. While parents might hope their delightful kids never grow up, secretly they want to watch them succeed in all of life, not just childhood.
I didn't entirely agree. For a little girl, I thought, eleven was a wonderful time, or it could be if you had parents and friends. You were still able to have the unbridled enthusiasm of a child, but with the start of some of the wisdom and intelligence of an adult. Your sacred, hidden dreams, had not yet been killed by the niggling little detail that the real world rendered them impossible. You're old enough to get the adult jokes, and really find them funny instead of pretending to. You're not just able to, but eager to stretch your horizons a little, reading or watching things that are a little too advanced for you, according to the recommended age guidelines. Eleven was a time when a girl can fall deeply in love without worrying about sex, she can dress how she wants without worrying about fashion, she can get away with murder by being cute and acting sorry afterwards. An eleven-year-old girl hasn't yet been forced to turn into, or pretend to turn into, a vapid slut in order to attract boys, she can still be proud of herself for her own qualities. Eleven is a time when your eyes are just open enough to the injustices of the world that you still think you can make a difference and you have more than enough of a heart to want to.
Jessie was trapped in that time, an eleven-year-old girl, and to me, it seemed like that might be the perfect age for her to stay. To me she WAS perfect.
To her parents, though, and I think especially for her mother, who had to stay home with her, it was a kind of nightmare. She'd grown out of the stage where all she wanted was to be with them, and no longer believed in their infallibility. She questioned them about why she hadn't been able to stay in school, and they had failed to give her an answer. Her father told me how they'd taken her to doctor after doctor, hormonal specialists, neurologists, pathologists, and never found a cause. For years, they had a little girl in their house, and their worry had all ran out long ago, and their hope along with it. They simply survived, day to day, accepting the situation was never going to change.
Jessie's father, Jeff T. Kinzer (Jeffty, to his friends, and to me) seemed to take it best, because he could leave for hours at a time for his job as a Foreman at Ellison Construction, and when he went home he could sit back with a six pack and let his wife do the child-rearing. To his co-workers, he was a good guy who did the job and didn't talk much. I always thought he resented me just because I was one of the few people still in his life who knew about the strange little secret of his family. He had a look of quiet menace about him, as though he expected I was going to hurt his daughter and wanted me to know that I'd die if I tried.
Leona Kinzer, on the other hand, was always unfailingly polite, and happy to see me. I think it was genuine, but it was also over-exaggerated, like a mask she wore in the hopes I wouldn't see how much she regretted about her life and family. To Jessie, she behaved like she was full of excessive concern, the type of mother who always say things like, "Take a sweater, I don't want you catching a cold," and who would watch as she crossed the street to get into my car, a street that rarely saw more than one car a day, as though she worried Jessie might get hit. It certainly wasn't me she was worried about… she was the one who called me to come over, and I think this may have been the one thing she defied her husband in, for she was a submissive thing with a defeated, haunted expression when she didn't think I was looking.
Leona Kinzer was tall, thin, and very plain. If she had ever had her daughter's beauty, it had faded with adolescence. Her hair was frayed and usually in a bun, she wore sensible, sexless clothes, no makeup, and she looked at least ten years older than she should, as though she could make up for her daughter's lack of aging by aging twice as much herself. She always seemed to keep her head down, like she was worried that if you looked into her eyes, you could see every feeling she was ashamed of. She always seemed to be cleaning something, something other than herself, like she thought if she just got the house clean enough, Jessie would become a teenager just to mess it up in youthful rebellion.
They didn't have the Internet in their home. I offered, but I don't think either of them really understood it. They didn't carry cell phones. They didn't seem to follow the news, except Jeffty watched sports. In some ways, it was as though they were stuck in the 80s along with their daughter, except they still aged. Their only concession to the modern era seemed to be, in the later years, their fascination with the growing trend of reality television, a trend I despised. They didn't despise it, they watched all the shows. Survivor, Big Brother, The Mole, The Bachelor, even the celebrity ones towards the end. I suppose it must have been a comfort that some real people were even more fucked up than they were. Leona could make hours of awkward conversation just by relating what went on the most recent week in Survivor. When I said I hadn't seen it, she assumed I meant I'd just missed the last couple episodes and not that I'd never watched more than an episode. All in all, I'd rather have spent the time hanging out with Jessie, but that wouldn't appear proper.
As for Jessie, she seemed to spend a lot of time hiding in her room when I was there talking to her parents, as though my time with her and my time with her parents were separate things, worlds never to be joined. She still had the old Nintendo system and sometimes I could hear the games playing in the background, and I wished I could go up and play the old games of my childhood, instead of staying downstairs with the adults.
Jessie must have known how odd her life was. She must have seen how other children aged, while she didn't, how everyone she knew had grown up while she was a child, but she never dealt with it directly. You would think she would be an object of curiosity or study, but it was amazing how a vibrantly alive girl like her had faded from everybody's view when she left school. A few people might have remembered that the Kinzers had a daughter who looked younger than she should be, but it was like they developed a kind of blindness when she was out among them, like they sensed she didn't belong in the world and just ignored her. Those that didn't, Jessie tended to push away, especially if they pointed out how strange she was.
How Jessie herself coped with the lack of changes in her body, in her life, was hard to explain. She simply seemed to have a kind of selective blindness of her own, and a constantly reshuffling memory. I don't mean she was forgetful, although she did forget many things. She forgot day to day minutia, she forgot school lessons if she hadn't kept up with them, she forgot birthdays and Christmases… not what happened during them, but the separateness of them. She remembered things from when she was ten, or nine, or earlier, as well as any eleven year old, and she could place them correctly in sequence. But anything that had happened since she was eleven, really eleven, was, in her mind, not fixed to any concrete time. If it was more than a few months, in her memory, it happened sometime last summer. She could remember the time she kissed me, but it was last summer. She remembered when I moved away with my Mom, but it was last summer. As time passed, more and more events happened in that eternal summer of her memory. She believed this utterly, and became upset when I tried to point out the inconsistencies, so after a while I no longer did it. It was just another strange thing about the mystery of Jessie.
Maybe that was part of the reason I was her only friend to stay around. I was the only one who had learned, after just a few not-so-subtle hints, to just accept her as she was and not question it, not demand answers she didn't have. And that was easy to do... I liked her, genuinely enjoyed her company, even if she was eleven and I was much older.
Because of my friendship with Jessie, I had to keep up that relationship with her parents. A young girl can't have a friendship with an older man without also being friends with the parents, at least for appearances sake. So I would have a beer with them, sometimes, after a day of taking Jessie out for a day at the fair or the movies, and we all participated in the fraud that we liked spending time together. We went over the same conversations repeatedly. Leona'd ask me how work was going. I'd come up with some inane story involving technology she didn't understand, but she'd laugh anyway. Jeffty would respond to questions with a monosyllabic grunt and a resentful glare, while absently peeling the labels off his beer bottles, and we'd retreat into silence. Occasionally Leona would try to break it by talking about the recent happenings in Survivor or Big Brother. I feigned interest, because it was better than just sitting there staring at each other.
"Do you want another beer?" Leona would say, always towards the end of the evening. "We've got plenty in the fridge." Jeffty would glare and glower, not very subtly. Leona didn't drink, so she was offering me his beer.
"No thank you, Mrs. Kinzer. I'm driving," I reminded her. I was always driving. Leona didn't drive at all, and Jeffty wouldn't give me a ride if he had a choice. If my car broke down, I expected he might loan me cab fare.
"Nonsense. You could stay on the couch," she offered.
I smiled politely, and told her I was on-call for work. And we would drift into one last awkward silence that stretched, until I saw Jeffty looking at his watch significantly. "Well, it's getting pretty near to Jessie's bedtime. I suppose you should be hitting the road then," he would say.
"I guess so," I would agree, secretly relieved. "Thank you very much for having me over."
He'd grunt, and Leona would ask if I wanted a cup of coffee for the road, and I'd refuse because I never drank coffee, and start walking towards the door. Jeffty would excuse himself to go tuck Jessie in, and Leona would help me with my coat, and I'd be gone. That's how it happened, pretty well every time I stayed for a drink… except once. It was when I was twenty-eight.
As usual, Jeffty told me it was time to go, that it was Jessie's bedtime, and he had to tuck her in. Suddenly, Leona gripped the armrest of the tacky love seat she was sitting on, and snapped, "Don't you think she can do without you for one night? It's not like she isn't going to be there, tomorrow, exactly the same. Maybe if you didn't tuck her in every night she'd grow up."
Jeffty patted one hand on his wife's shoulder in what was almost a mockery of a comforting gesture, drained of all grace, enthusiasm or real caring. "You'll have to excuse my wife," he said to me. "Some days are harder than others."
Then she said, "Sometimes I wish I could call child services and have her taken away."
John turned to face his wife, locking eyes with her. "You don't mean that," he said firmly, with conviction. "You know that wouldn't be the best thing for anybody." He glanced to me and gave a self-effacing smile, rare for him, for he was doing everything in his power to convey to me, with his body language, that it was just one of those moods, the kind women get and men are embarrassed about. "She doesn't mean it," he said. But she had meant it, at least in that moment. He suggested that I go, and at that point I was eager to get out myself. They didn't want anybody to see their family at their worst, and I didn't want to look.
For a week after that, I stayed away. Part of it was because I was disturbed on some level I couldn't name, depressed that there was nothing I could do to help. Part of it was that I was simply busy.
I had my own life, after all. By the time I'd turned twenty-seven (Jessie was still eleven) I'd sold the ISP to a bigger one, one prepared to service several states worth of customers instead of just a couple of cities. I let people think they screwed me out of my business, because I didn't want it to become public knowledge how much money I made off the sale. I used the money to diversify, buying some real estate and a couple other small companies, a dollar store, a copy center, a coffee place, and a few investments that ensured that even if my smaller businesses failed, I'd be able to survive for a while until I found something better. Most of the time I let the businesses run themselves and make money for me, but occasionally I had to step in and sign papers or make changes, and it was one of those weeks where I had to do a lot of that. I also had friends my own age to go drinking with, squabbling parents to keep apart, and the occasional date with a woman in the hopes that she might turn out to be Mrs. Right. I had my own life, and it was a pretty good life.
But I knew I would be seeing Jessie again sooner or later. She phoned me up one day and asked if I would take her roller skating. That wasn't really my thing, but I was happy to, because it was something she wanted and it meant I could spend time with her. I missed her, even just in that week. We were probably as good friends as an eleven-year-old and a twenty-eight-year-old could be. She fulfilled me on more levels than I could admit. She was my friend, from way back when I was eleven (she was exactly the same friend, for she hadn't changed at all, even though I had), and in many ways she was like a little sister I never had. In some ways, she was like the daughter I always wanted. And, yes, there was some lingering sexual attraction that I was by now totally ashamed of, and I could not deny that it was one of the things that kept bringing me back to her, for the sake of fantasy if nothing else. But it wasn't just that. I could sometimes convince myself that our relationship was perfectly normal, I was like a favorite, fun, uncle… even though I remembered when we had played together, both the same age, the age she was and I hadn't been for a long time. In one cheerful blonde little package, she brought both comfort and familiarity and strangeness and wonder into my world, and I needed both in my life.
I didn't realize how much wonder she offered until I showed up that Saturday afternoon for our roller skating date, and I began to notice things that I should have noticed long ago. There's a lot that goes into the category, but what I began to notice that day was outright impossible.
I pulled up in front of her house, but she wasn't there waiting for me like she usually was. I didn't want to go in, not that day, so soon after the awkwardness of last time. I needed to let it settle, have time for it to be plausibly forgotten, so there was no embarrassment on any side. Instead, I opened the window and honked my horn and yelled, "Jessie? You there? Come on, we want to get there before it gets crowded." It was a little joke, the place was on the verge of closing, and, although there were usually a couple people there on a Saturday, it was never crowded.
I heard her high-pitched little voice ring out, from a distance. "Just a second, Donny, I'm back here." Nobody had called me Donny since I was about thirteen, save her. To everyone else I was Donald, Don if you were a friend. But when I was eleven, everybody called me Donny, and she was the only one I didn't have the heart to correct after I decided that was too immature a name.
If she was in her room, with the window in the back of the house, I probably wouldn't have heard her. She didn't sound like she was inside at all, in fact. It was too close. "Where are you?"
"In the backyard."
I decided to get out of the car and go see her after all. Outside wasn't so bad. Most of Jessie's house seemed small and claustrophobic, even barren, but she had a great backyard. It was a kid's dream backyard, a huge grassy lawn that just smelled alive, a few stubbornly bare patches where you could sit without staining your clothes, trees perfect for climbing, a rope swing. The fence in the back had a gap in it through which one could escape into the woods, which weren't very deep, impossible to get actually lost in, but to kids it had a little air of mystery and magic. We used to pretend that gap was the gateway to a magical kingdom, and for us it was. That was where we first decided to be boyfriend and girlfriend and, later, where she gave me my first blowjob.
Jessie wasn't in the woods, though, she was gathering up some toys in the yard. Action figures, and mostly the kind boys liked. She wrote stories with them, adventure stories, great quests, and acted them out. She'd found ways to keep herself entertained when she didn't have friends around, you see, which was most of the time. "Sorry, I lost track of time," she said. "I just got to put my toys away, in case it rains."
"Okay." I noticed one had fallen out of her arms, unbeknownst to her, and I bent down to pick it up. The figure was a woman with pink hair and a star over her eye. It wasn't very poseable, it was a fairly static figure standing with a microphone. A button on it would probably play music.
Something about it twigged a memory, long buried. "Looks a little like Jem," I said, quirking my lip.
"It is," she said casually.
I stared at it. Something didn't seem to add up. Despite it being outside, it wasn't dirty at all. In fact, the doll looked brand new. And the clothes, they seemed to be contemporary, although she still had the glam hair and earrings, the rest of the outfit could have been from any modern rock star. "Jem and the Holograms," I clarified.
I started turning it over, my mind on the edge of grasping it, but not quite ready. "Where did you get this?" I knew there were people who did custom action figure sculpts on the internet. Or maybe some new toy company bought the license and made them, trading in nostalgia, like everything we loved about the past was some commodity. They all seemed to cost way too much… even this cheap plastic thing probably sold for twenty or thirty dollars, since their target audience was twenty-somethings with a lot of disposable income and a yearning for their childhoods. But then, Jessie and her family didn't have the Internet, so I couldn't imagine how she heard about it. These places didn't advertise on TV. Maybe mail-order? "It must have cost a lot of money."
She shrugged, and looked embarrassed. "Oh, no. Mom took me to McDonalds last week. It came with the Happy Meal." She made a face. "I wanted to get the Transformers one but all they had left was Jem." Jessie always identified as a tomboy, liking traditionally boyish things like action figures and comics, but I knew she had a hidden core of girliness she was ashamed of. When I was thirteen I found a secret stash of My Little Pony dolls in her room. She claimed her mother kept giving them to her when I teased her. If I had to guess, I would have said she chose Jem over Transformers, just like I always believed she begged her mom for the ponies. I might have found it cute, if it wasn't for the stubborn fact that what I was hearing and seeing was impossible.
Maybe you remember Jem. Jem and the Holograms was a cartoon that ran for about three years in the eighties. Like many cartoons of the time, it probably existed only to sell toys, but we were kids, we didn't care. It was unabashedly a girl's show. I was kind of like Jessie, in a way… I wouldn't have admitted I watched it, but I did. Not all the time, mind you, but the girls were hot, and the music wasn't bad, so, sometimes, if nobody else was around, I'd change the channel and watch Jem. The storylines were surprisingly deep, too, although it was filled with shallow characters like most cartoons. They stopped making it in 1988.
I turned the toy over, and saw Made in China, and a copyright symbol and date. 2004. The same year it was. It was a brand new Jem toy, and, unless Jessie was lying to me, it came inside a McDonalds Happy Meal. There was no movie out. There was no new cartoon. There was no rational reason why McDonalds would give out new Jem toys. It was outrageous... truly, truly outrageous. In some bizarre hypothetical world, I could maybe imagine a McDonalds giving out random toys it had in an old warehouse, just to get rid of them, but this was a new Jem toy, electronic, that had to be created with some sort of promotion in mind.
But Jem no longer existed. Nothing like it existed. In a few years, Disney would create a TV series, a teen sitcom focused on a pop idol with a double life, starring a girl who would become a megastar, but this was before that was even an idea. There was probably some cable channel playing Jem reruns, and if I chose to I could find it and watch, and probably wince at how badly the series had aged, but again, nobody would make a new toy for reruns. "What is this?"
"I told you, Donny, it's Jem. I just used her as a stand-in because there aren't many good girl action figures."
"It can't be Jem. Look at these clothes, they're so…"
She nodded, and wrinkled her face with a sour expression. "I know, I liked her last outfit better." For a moment she'd forgotten she was pretending she didn't like it. "Bet it only lasts a few weeks. They might even change it this week."
"Change the doll?"
"No, silly," she said. "Change it on the show."
She shook her head at me. "On Jem and the Holograms. Did you hit your head or something, Donny?"
"You mean on one of those all-cartoon channels on cable?" I asked. "Reruns?"
"Man, they got an all cartoon channel now? I wish we could get cable. All we get are crummy local channels."
I stared at her. It was like we were having two different conversations. I was investigating the impossible. She was dreaming of cable. I was almost afraid to ask. "So how are you watching Jem?"
"It's on Channel 7, twelve-thirty." She got self-conscious again, as though she'd suddenly lost her tomboy credibility. "I mean, I don't watch it very often, but sometimes everything else is in repeats."
Everything else repeats. But Jem was new? It couldn't be. Besides, the entire noon-hour was spent on news programs on almost every local station, although one or two played sitcoms. I checked my watch. "It's almost twelve-thirty now," I said.
She rolled her eyes. "Weekdays! Besides, it's boring usually. Too much making out." She faked a retching sound. "So we going to go roller skating, or what?"
She had to push me. I was too engrossed in the mystery. I didn't assume anything at that point. If anything, my mind was blank, stunned, knowing there had to be a rational explanation I just wasn't thinking of, and waiting for it to present itself. You would have thought the same thing, even being familiar with the certain amount of strangeness that Jessie's condition brought into your life. "Donny? We want to get there before it gets busy, remember?"
"Of course we do. Come on, I'll even spring for ice cream." And I shook my head one last time as though waking up from some weird dream. And I handed her the Jem toy. And she put it with her other toys, just inside the door, safely away from the rain that never actually materialized. And we went to roller skating, and had our ice cream, and I bought her lunch at a drive thru. And Jem wasn't mentioned by either us, though I couldn't stop thinking of it. And so, after I dropped her off, I stopped by every McDonalds I could find and asked them if they were offering Jem toys with a Happy Meal. And most of the young girls behind the counter didn't even know what Jem was. I searched on the Internet late into the night. As far as I could determine, no such toy existed.
I was busy with business issues all that week. I didn't see Jessie until the following Thursday. I finally got off the phone with my lawyer who was working out a contract dispute, and took the trip down to the Kinzer house. Leona answered the door, looking drained and beaten down, wearing rubber gloves and holding a sponge. "Is Jessie around?" Leona said she was upstairs in her room…
Some part of me was aware that my life was about to change forever, for I crept up the stairs very silently, like I was in some nature show, sneaking up on a rare animal in the hopes I could see it without spooking it. I guess deep down, I believed in magic again, and that I was about to see some. I hadn't believed in magic since I was twelve, I was a hardcore skeptic. No matter how much I loved stories of aliens or magic or super powers, I couldn't bring myself to believe in them without proof. But because it was Jessie, who was half-magic herself with her eternal youth, I suddenly believed that I was going to see the impossible.
And I did.
The door to Jessie's room was open, and she was on the bed, facing away from me and towards the television. I'd seen her room before, but not for years, except for a minute or two before we went out somewhere. Now I looked at it with new eyes. In some ways it was a shrine to childhood of the last twenty years. Her old Nintendo NES rested on top of the small television on her desk. There were also assorted comics strewn on that desk, posters of cartoons and kid's characters on the walls, figurines of superheroes on a shelf above the bed, watching over her as she slept. Jessie always loved heroes, for some reason. Even when she liked princesses, they were the heroic type who saved other people rather than the ones who were just pretty and rich. She had some sort of cross-generational hero alliance represented in her room. Some were from the 80s, some the nineties, some recent. None seemed to have any priority over the others, it was like each was alive to Jessie as any other. Now I saw why. For the first time, the evidence fit together, even if it added up to an impossibility.
The images on the TV sealed my belief, the death of the skeptic in me. I recognized what she was watching. A blue skinned winged creature landed on a roof, carrying a woman in his arms. "Sunrise is approaching," he said in a deep baritone voice.
Another, female blue creature carrying a red-skinned beaked thing, with wings curled around his body like a sleeping bat, also landed. "We need more time... if Brooklyn turns to stone before we find out how to activate the amulet, we'll lose him forever!"
"We're running out of land, energy, and time. We need to do something creative." That was the human, a blue-haired woman with a somewhat Native American appearance. It could only be Elisa Maza.
Jessie was watching Gargoyles, one of my favorite cartoons ever, a show that had not been on the air for seven years, a story of mythical creatures who turned to stone statues during the day and awoke at night, who were imprisoned by magic for a thousand years, only to be awakened in modern day Manhattan. The show had complex characters, long story arcs, and even references to Shakespeare. All on a show targeted to kids, part of the Disney Afternoon, itself a relic now that Disney had its own cable channel.
It lasted three seasons, and, although each one was a little less than the last, I loved it all the way through.
I watched through the door, instinctively trying to put together details and remember what episode it was, but I could not. This one had the gargoyle named Brooklyn possessed by some kind of evil spirit while in Russia, and if he turned to stone while it was in him, it would be part of him forever. So they were travelling across Europe, attempting to outrace the sunrise while trying to pull off a complicated spell that would cure him. Meanwhile, the other members of the clan were searching for the key at home in New York, where the creature was first released, all while being targeted by a bigoted human who hated Gargoyles. Although there were familiar elements, it was clear... it was an episode I'd never seen before, and I'd seen every episode. Before the end of the commercial there was more evidence that this was created sometime in the last few years… one of the characters, Lexington, who was good with computers, was asked for information over the cell-phone, and answered by looking it up on Wikipedia, which had only existed since around 2001, and weirder than that, he had his own business and helped the group on the run by renting them a plane. I didn't remember him running a business.
At the break, I crept downstairs before Jessie could see me. Without asking Leona, I went into the living room and turned on the TV there, used the remote control to find channel 20, the one Jessie was watching. Judge Judy appeared, yelling at somebody who borrowed somebody else's car and smashed it and refused to take responsibility. I flipped through every channel. There were talk shows. There were old sitcoms, and reruns of The Simpsons, but that was a different type of cartoon. The only channel still playing kids cartoons on weekday afternoons was the WB, and it was playing some anime shit based on capturing magical animals or creative use of collectable cards. A few of the channels were playing commercials, but I had a growing certainty that if I waited until the ads were over, I wouldn't see Gargoyles.
The only place I'd see that was on Jessie's TV. So I walked back upstairs, said hello to Jessie, and stood in the doorframe, and watched the rest of the program. It was great. Exciting, funny, full of likeable characters and despicable villains, and a last minute escape that, for a second, made me doubt my certainty that a cartoon for kids wouldn't kill off a main character permanently. Basically, it awoke my own inner child. What's more, it didn't feel like a show that was on for so many years everybody had stopped trying, stopped caring. It felt like a show where the ideas were still fresh, and being explored by people who loved it.
When Gargoyles ended, Jessie switched to FOX and we watched a new episode of Batman: The Animated Series. Jessie got excited about this one, because it was an episode that featured Robin's girlfriend, Spoiler, one of her favorites, who had, to my knowledge, only appeared in the comics, not the cartoon. Not in any cartoon, for that matter. Two impossible shows that should not exist, back to back, on different channels... and the toy commercials advertised new installments of product lines that had been off the market for years. I soon discovered that this was hardly an isolated incident... by spending time with Jessie and really paying attention, I became exposed to worlds of wonder I'd missed out on noticing all along.
I can't explain how it worked... I can't explain any of it. I never believed in things like ghosts, or UFOs, but here it was, the spirits of long-dead shows, invaders from some other dimension. I don't know. I could have posited that somehow she had access to alternate timelines, ones where these shows never went off the air. I always had a habit of try to explain the unexplainable in terms of science, even when the unexplainable was just part of fiction. But the truth was, I knew this went beyond that. These weren't just old shows still creaking along because in some dimension they're still profitable to produce, they were still full of the same magic I remembered. That became the only word that fit. I was confronted with the truly wondrous, and the only thing I could call it was magic. Jessie was eternally young and vibrant, and somehow she kept the things she loved young and vibrant along with her. It wasn't just another universe's television signal, either. In toy stores she found products that were no longer produced or could never be produced. In modern day gaming store, she found new NES cartridges that were 8-bit side-scrolling adaptations of Harry Potter, or impossible titles like Super Mario 8. At the movies she saw sequels that were never made, or even weirder, good sequels to movies that had a disappointing follow-up in the 'real' world. All it was centered on her, and when I was with her, I could enjoy them too. Magic was the only explanation.
I didn't realize until later that it wasn't good enough to leave it at that. I was extremely short-sighted, and in some ways I let her down for those months, more than I had for the years before. Because I enjoyed the magic that was Jessie without questioning, fearing that if I questioned, I might make it go away... but there was one question I really should have been asking. I had forgotten something, or refused to let myself remember it. Magic may be unexplainable, but it is not unfathomable. In stories, when magical things happen, people don't just wander into them. Midas wasn't just some person minding his own business who suddenly found everything he touched turning to gold, he was a greedy king who asked for the power. The Beast wasn't born looking like a monster, he was cursed by a vengeful fairy for his inner beastliness. Magic doesn't just happen, to people like Jessie, it's a blessing, or a curse, or sometimes it happens when somebody just wants something so much that the laws of nature bend to make it true. Magic may have no explanations, but it does have reasons.
It took me months before I really wondered what the reason was. How Jessie stayed eleven years old, how she kept the impossible happening was not the point. The point was why.
Before that question began to stare me in the face, right when I'd discovered the answer, I just enjoyed it for what I thought it was, a miracle. I started seeing Jessie more than ever, taking her out multiple times a week, when her father was at work. She loved the extra time we had together, and so did I, although for different reasons. Her mother didn't seem to mind, either. It was just for a few hours and I got her home before her father returned, except that one day, months later, where something happened that changed everything.
It was a Wednesday. Jessie and I were at the comic store, where somehow we'd find Claremont still writing New Mutants, and writing it well, Simonson still on Thor, Gruenwald on Captain America, Neil Gaiman on Sandman, which was supposed to be for mature readers but Jessie liked it anyway. I used to take her every couple months, not being too interested in the modern comics, but that was before I found out about Jessie's gift. Now we could find the old masters at the top of their form, paired with the hottest new artists. The store owner never seemed to notice that what we bought was unusual, which made me wonder sometimes if it was just me that was going crazy.
While Jessie was picking out her selections, I got a call on my cell phone. Business. The dollar store I owned was giving me no end of trouble lately, and it was starting up again. One of the suppliers had apparently given us an invoice to something we never ordered, and the manager was incapable of handling it. The only reason I hadn't let him go was that I didn't want to do the job myself until I could hire a replacement. It would mean I couldn't spend time with Jessie. "Really?" I asked into the phone. "You need me to do this?" I sighed. "Fine, I'll be there as soon as I can."
I turned, and there was Jessie, looking up at me with her comics in her hands. "You have to go?" she asked sadly. "You're going to take me home?"
We'd had plans to go to my place and watch TV while reading the comics together. Her strange powers worked their magic no matter where we were, but I had more channels... which meant we had more options to watch more of my favorite old shows still new on the cartoon channel, or maybe we might stumble onto some movie that didn't exist, but should have. I didn't want to give that up, no matter how much we'd done it before. "No, not just yet. But I do have to stop in the dollar store and deal with something. It might take a few minutes. You mind? You can wander the aisles, pick out anything you like." It wasn't like I was making much money off it anyway, might as well give the stuff away for free. Maybe Jessie would even find something magic there, too.
She shook her head. "I don't mind," she said. "I just like spending time with you. I wish I could live with you."
She said it like a joke, so I laughed, a little nervously, and then I paid for her comics and we walked just about half a block to my dollar store. There, the manager was waiting for me with his head sticking out of the office door, a phone attached. I made sure Jessie was okay, then went to join him. He passed me over to the supplier, who had me on hold, and then said, "Listen, since you're here anyway, I'm just going to get something to eat, I kind of skipped lunch." Without even waiting for my okay, he scooted out the front door while I made the decision to fire him as soon as I could manage it.
"Hey, I just saw you In the comic store, didn't I?" I heard from inside the store as I listened to muzak on the phone. I craned my neck, but couldn't see the speaker or Jessie.
"Yeah, I guess."
"How old are you, cutie?"
Right there I got bad vibes and thought about coming out to shoo this guy, whoever he was, away.
"Eleven," Jessie answered. Of course, Jessie was always eleven.
"No way," he said. "You can't be eleven. I know, I've seen you around town for years. You're one of those people, aren't you? The ones that look like kids but they're like thirty. Come on, you can tell me, how old are you really?"
I was just about to come out, but I wanted to hear how she'd answer. I knew I could be out there before anything happened if it started to get any creepier.
Jessie sounded nervous, defensive. "No, I'm eleven."
"Hey, if you want to play age games, we can play games. I saw the way you were making eyes at me in the store. That's what you like isn't it? Flirting with guys who think you're a little girl? Making them want you? But really we both know you're a woman..."
I had put down the phone, forgetting who was on the other end completely, and stepped out at this point, but still wasn't visible to either of them, nor them to me. That's when I heard Jessie shriek. "No, I'm not a woman! I don't want to be a woman, and you can't make me into one!"
I whirled around the corner, now in a run, just in time to see her toppling over a box on the ground. She tripped on it while backing away from the man, a frizzy haired redheaded guy with glasses and a bit of all over pudginess who was reaching out towards her. She landed on her ass and her head struck one of the shelves before completing its journey to the floor.
And the redheaded guy was continuing to lean over, even more towards her... maybe instinctively, to try to catch her, but it looked like a leer and I wasn't in any kind of forgiving mood. I swept past him and took a knee next to Jessie, helping her as she hissed through her teeth touching her head. Jessie almost always wore pants at home, but now that we'd started hanging out more often, she sometimes wore skirts. It was the same way when we were dating. Today, that was an extra layer of embarrassment, because after she fell, she had her legs bent at the knee with her shoes on the ground, her panties visible under her skirt both to me and the guy who'd made her fall. And he was looking. Practically staring at her Harry Potter Underoos.
Jessie seemed to be out of immediate danger, so, in a blind rage, I got up and pushed the guy into the shelf, knocking assorted plastic crap made in China to the ground. "You get the hell out of here before I call the cops," I whispered at him, full of menace.
"I didn't touch her," he pleaded.
"Get out," I ordered, and, with a look like a whipped puppy, he did. Probably to try and molest some other little girl, but right now only one was my focus.
Jessie had pulled herself to her feet, but her first steps were a little wobbly, and I rushed to her side to offer her support. "I'm okay," she said, but took my hand in hers and squeezed. She was terribly sweaty, clammy hands, and, for that matter, pale as a ghost, like she'd been scared out of her wits. With her other hand, she rubbed her head, casually, like she was trying not to show how scared she was and didn't know how much her body had already betrayed her.
She took a deep, cleansing breath. "Yeah. Are you done what you had to do? Can we go to your place now?"
I hadn't finished the phone call, but at this point I was prepared to just pay the extra invoice so I wouldn't have to deal with it. There was so much more important. "You bumped your head," I said. "We should take you to a doctor."
Her fingers dug into my arm. "No!" She looked at her fingers, that had been in her hair, and then thrust them towards me, to show they were clean. "I'm not even bleeding or anything."
"Just to be safe. You could have a concussion..." I'm ashamed to admit some small part of me worried if this might interfere with what I thought of as 'her powers'.
"No!" she said again. "I'll be fine. It doesn't even hurt. I can't go to the doctor. If my parents found out... they'll worry."
"I'll explain it to your parents."
"No!" she repeated, this time practically crying. The terror she had been trying so hard to hide before was now out in the open. "I'm not allowed to go to the doctor. If you take me they'll never let you come back, and I couldn't bear that, Donny."
That didn't make any sense. "What do you mean you're not allowed to go to the doctor?"
She seemed to almost be hyperventilating. "Dad says."
"But you've been to the doctor before..."
"Not since before last summer."
Had Jeff and Leona lied to me about what the doctors said? Had no specialist ever looked at her? Once they became aware of her condition, what kind of parents wouldn't even try to get answers? Not to mention injuries, or colds or other sicknesses. "Last summer?"
"Since I was supposed to become a woman."
She did know, on some level, what was wrong with her, but she almost never admitted it. I was torn between wondering why her Dad never took her to get checked up, my worry for her, and my desire not to make her any more worried and upset than she already was.
"Please, it'll be okay, it doesn't even hurt anymore," she insisted. "Let's just go watch TV, like we planned. You can watch me and if I look like I have a concussion or something then we'll decide what to do. Okay? Please?"
I let her talk me into it. But I watched her, carefully, and that put a damper on things... I couldn't enjoy any of the shows we watched, not while I was worried she might be hurt, although I noticed enough to realize they were still impossible, as was the movie sequel to Independence Day that Jessie wanted to watch after. Her powers seemed intact, and, more importantly, Jessie herself seemed okay, too. A little quieter than usual, but conversely smiling a lot more, and a little fakely, like she was trying to reassure me.
One of the things I missed while I was watching her was the time... we normally left so that we'd get there with plenty of time left before her father got home, but I hadn't realized how long the movie had been running. So I drove her home, late. We were quiet, not talking, for about the first half of the ride, when I looked over to her and asked, again, "How's the head?"
"It's okay," she said. "It doesn't hurt anymore."
"So, did you have fun today?" I was trying to lighten the mood that seemed to have soured in silence. "Other than the bump on the head, I mean?"
My efforts succeeded. She did brighten up, smiling widely. "Of course I did, Donny. I always love going out with you. I just wish it didn't have to end."
I grinned. "Yeah, me too."
"It doesn't have to," she said quickly. "You could just take me back home. To your home, I mean. I could stay there. The commercials said Iron Giant 2 was on tonight at 9, but you know I don't get Cartoon Network at home. We could watch it together."
I chuckled again, wistfully wishing that I could manage to keep her with me... the TV never played the magic shows when I was alone. "That'd be great, but I'm pretty sure your parents would object. They'll think I snatched you away."
"Yeah," Jessie said glumly, like she knew I was going to say it all along, but she liked to pretend, at least until I had to intrude with the truth.
"I'm sure they'll rerun it sometime. Or maybe we'll go rent the DVD."
She visibly deflated. "I guess. But I wanted to watch it tonight."
"Besides, there's plenty of fun going on at your place, right? You've got stuff to do."
She shrugged. "Not really. Just dinner, then watching TV... without cable. Maybe some reading, and then..." she shivered a little. "Bedtime."
I actually turned down the air-conditioning a little, figuring it was making her uncomfortable. What an idiot. "I'm afraid I don't have much more exciting planned for myself," I said.
"I don't care, I'd still rather live with you. I wish you really would just take me away."
I turned up towards the road her house was on. "Why's that?"
"You like me however I am," she told me.
It's true, I did. She was a great kid. "So do your parents," I said, more on hope than evidence.
She shrugged. "They love me," she said, and that was it, I thought. Jessie was quiet, up until I pulled up in front of her house. Her dad's car was already there. I pulled into the parking space behind it, and it was then she spoke again, as though she was continuing the thought without interruption. "Mom's jealous. And Dad always wants to turn me into a woman." I should have seen it, but I didn't. I actually thought about how perceptive Jessie was, realizing that her Mom was jealous that she was eternally young, and how her Dad wanted her to just grow up, and she hadn't missed all the tension it had created over the years, even if nobody said it. No wonder she wanted to get away. I was so impressed by her perceptiveness I forgot to be perceptive myself.
Jeffty came out then, on the porch. He stood there, waiting, a beer in one hand. "I guess it's time to go in," I said. "I'll tell your dad about what happened to your head." And maybe get him to break his insane policy and get her checked out.
"No," Jessie said quickly. "I don't want him to blame you. I'll tell him, I promise." She climbed out of my car, and then ran up the drive, on the porch, moving quickly past her Dad with just a quick word of hello. He caught her and pulled her to him, saying something softly, and giving her a kiss on the forehead, while she squirmed and tried to get away. He finally let her, and when she went inside, he stared at me.
I stared back. Finally, I decided whatever Jessie's fears, I had to tell him. I got up and walked up past his car, and waited there. "Sorry, we lost track of time and ran a bit late."
Jeffty spit towards the side and said, "I didn't know you'd taken her at all. You shouldn't do that. It's not right."
"I cleared it with your wife," I told him. "I assumed she'd told you."
He grunted. Jeffty was a big grunter. It was a sound that could answer any point, valid or invalid, convey agreement or disagreement, and leave you unsure about whether you had anything to say back. This time I did have something to say. "Listen, Jessie slipped and hit her head a little. I don't think it's serious, but you might want to get her checked out."
"I'll check her out," he said dispassionately.
"I mean by a doctor. I mean, she looks fine, but neither of us can diagnose a concussion."
His eyes flashed. "Don't you tell me what I can and can't do with my daughter."
"I'm not," I said weakly, pathetically. "I'm just suggesting." He nodded, then, like he was saying, "That's right you're not," and began to turn away. "Listen, Jessie told me..."
He spun around angrily. "She told you what?"
"She told me you don't let her see a doctor." He didn't answer, except to take a sip of his beer, so I continued. "And I understand why. I just think for something like this, you should make an exception."
That earned me another grunt, and he turned away once more. "You should check with me before taking Jessie out from now on." I looked to the window and there I saw Jessie, in the semi-darkness of inside looking out on a bright day, watching, like her life was being decided out on the porch. In a way, it was, I just didn't realize it until later. I was deciding whether to let her life continue as it had been for years, or to intervene.
And, without realizing it, I chose to let it go on, despite part of me knowing that she was desperately hoping I'd make another choice. She reminded me of a princess trapped in a castle, looking out at a potential rescuer, but even with that image, I still didn't know that she really needed rescue. So I shrugged at her helplessly and turned away.
To this day, I'm ashamed of that accidental choice.
But I'm proud that there came the chance to choose again, and it came sooner rather than later. It came on the long, lonely drive home, when I had time to think, and when I thought back about the day, and I realized the secret Jessie had been desperately not telling me for years.
It was all there. How she freaked out when that creep touched her, yelling that she didn't want to become a woman. How she wanted to come run away with me. How she shivered at the suggestion of bedtime. And how her mother was jealous, and her dad "always" wanted to turn her into a woman. Not wanted her to turn into a woman, wanted to turn her into one. As I thought about the way she squirmed away from his hug, the look on her face, I imagined him trying to make her a woman. Maybe he tried every night.
I had to pull over when the thought hit me, to get out of the car and lean over the edge of the road and take a long deep breath. It wasn't just a theory, I knew, even though I had no conclusive proof, I knew it in my heart... more than that, I knew that it had been going on all along. It was why Jessie was eleven all this time. I still didn't understand the how of the magic, but I understood the why.
In the stories, magic sometimes happen when somebody wants something badly enough that the world bends to make it happen. Once upon a time, facing unwelcome attentions from her father, a little girl named Jessie wanted to resist being forced into 'becoming a woman' badly enough that she kept herself a little girl through sheer force of will. It wasn't the kind of stories I'd grown up reading about, but I had a feeling it was true.
Maybe it explained everything else, too.
They say that some people, under horrific child abuse, create alternate personalities to deal with it. Maybe Jessie was so special that she created an alternate world, one where childhood never ended. Or maybe the world already existed, and she just found a way to escape there.
Or maybe it's something subtler.
Einstein teaches us that gravity bends time. Enough gravity, and time seems to stop. Mass causes gravity. But if you've ever been in pain, you'll know, pain has a mass, it bears down on you with an unrelenting pressure. The mass may only exist to you, but it exists nonetheless, and maybe it, too, could warp space and time, with its own kind of gravity, a very personal kind, that weighs down only the person feeling it but leaves everything else alone. Maybe Jessie's personal pain was so heavy it left her frozen in time, like the event horizon of a black hole. A singularity of pain. Maybe that was Jessie, and me, Jem, Gargoyles, The Iron Giant, and every other hero of hers were caught in orbit, because she loved us, and love lets us share pain… but not completely.
I flashed back on watching her retreat into her house, Jeffty's dark eyes staring back at me, and wondered what I'd just sent her back to, and lamenting what a fool I was for considering her condition a blessing because it gave my favorite memories new life. I thought the magic was a good thing, but I'd made two mistakes, both all too common. I fetishized the past, made it out to be some simpler time just because I was simpler when it was occurring. But the past isn't some perfect world we've somehow lost out on. It was a world full of flaws, bubbling just under the surface, we just didn't notice them, because we were kids, and even in memory, sometimes we still don't. Just because the past contains your favorite TV shows and movies and music, doesn't mean it can't also contain monsters, real monsters, and victims who don't get saved because nobody knows they need saving.
My other big mistake I made was that I hadn't fully appreciated that Jessie wasn't a child. To be stuck in childhood might be wondrous, at least if it's a good childhood... but Jessie was stuck at puberty. The awkward intersection of the world of the child and the world of the adult. Where you're aware of the unfairness of the world, but unable to change it. Where if you don't have friends or people treat you poorly, you assume it's your own fault somehow. Where nobody believes you have real problems and few people credit your opinions. Where you can have a first love that's a tool and tells people that you're "just some kid" when you're not alone, it breaks your heart a little but you accept it because you don't know you deserve better. And where if your own family is abusive, you can't just run away. I saw now that Jessie's nature was a curse, for all the magic and mystery it entailed. The irony was, even magic seemed to have let her down... if she'd just been allowed to age, she could have grown up and escaped long ago. Instead, she was stuck in a horrific situation no child, and for that matter no adult, should have to deal with, and yet the tools of childhood were all she had. So she surrounded herself with heroes, kept active and present, but all of them useless to do anything to really help her.
Except maybe one. There was one person in her orbit that could help her. If only I could figure out the right way to do it. As much as I knew it, I had no evidence, just a sick certainty of what was going on.
If Jessie was an ordinary girl, I could tell the police, and have them investigate… but she wasn't. Technically, they might not even do anything… legally, she was the same age I was, and while I might be able to petition a court to declare her mentally incompetent, people would make an evaluation, and Jessie's condition might well come to light. What then? Would she become a lab rat, investigated, even dissected, because she can do things that nobody else can? Sent to a mental health facility for the rest of her days?
She'd practically begged me to take her away from there, and there was no way I could do that… could I?
I didn't think I could, at first, but on the drive home, it occurred to me that the same thing that kept me from calling the police would keep Jeffty from doing so. Fear of exposure, although in his case, his own, rather than Jessie's. If Jessie disappeared one night, he might never report it. Even if he suspected me, what would he tell the police? That his daughter had run off with a twenty-eight-year-old man and even though she was born twenty-eight years ago herself, it was kidnapping because she was actually, eternally eleven years old?
Running off with her sounded crazy, but it wasn't completely implausible, if I could get her to come with me. I owned some rural property, about an hour's drive from town, a place I'd intended to rent out to vacationers, but nobody really knew about it. I called it the cabin because it was off the beaten path and hidden by some deep trees, but it was a normal, although small, house. It was out of the way enough to be attractive as a getaway, but still close enough to municipal services to have phone and electricity and indoor plumbing, though with a septic tank because sewer service didn't extend that far, and there was a place within easy driving distance to get groceries. I could keep Jessie there, at least until I figured out what to do. I might not be able to break the spell Jessie was under, but I could keep her from the pain she'd been enduring these many years. I chose wrong when I didn't know a choice was being made. But now I did know, and I could choose again.
I made up my mind that evening. For my friend, my first love, my surrogate daughter, I'd take the risk. I couldn't warn her in advance… Jessie had no cell phone and the only way I could talk to her is if I phoned the landline, and her parents would answer it first. Instead, later that night, I drove back to that area, but not directly to the house. I just parked on the other side of the woods and waited there, until well after dark, where the stars came out. As I crawled through the old hole in the back of the fence, it occurred to me that, like Jessie, the starlight twinkling above was also out of date with the rest of time, and I wondered if they had their own dark, secret, pain underlying their superficial perfection.
The starlight and moonlight was enough to see the house by, which was good, because it was otherwise dark and quiet as a tomb. No lights were on inside, but at least in starlight, I could tell which one was Jessie's room. There was a ladder leaning up against a shed, and I leaned it gently against the house and began to climb.
I'd thought to bring a flashlight, but I didn't want to use it until I could be sure Jessie was alone in there, so I waited a painful few minutes before my eyes convinced me that there was only one small lump in her bed, and then I rapped on her window. Once… twice…
The person in the bed moved, rolled over, but didn't get out. I tapped once more, then turned on the light, swept it inside, and then prayed she wouldn't scream. She didn't. She got out of bed, rubbed her eyes and squinted towards the window. She was dressed in pajamas, yellow ones, with the Justice League on them.
Finally, she slid the latch on the window and opened it. I turned the flashlight on my face as she approached, so she would know it was me and not some mysterious stranger. Maybe she would have opened the window for anybody. "Donny?" she asked, or started to. The last half of my name was cut in half by a yawn.
"Shh," I said. "What you said today… about wanting to come live with me. Did you mean it?" It had to be her choice. She might only be eleven, but she deserved one.
It took her a second, maybe she was still half asleep. "Yes," she said. Then her face lit up. "You mean it?"
"If we do," I warned her. "We might never be able to come back here."
"Good," she said instantly.
The window was open, so I started to climb in. I handed her a canvas bag. "Pack some clothes and anything you want to take. But we can't take everything. Only what you can fit into the bag, okay?"
She nodded, looked around the room as though making some quick decisions, or maybe just saying goodbye, and shoved some clothes into the bag. For an eleven-year-old, she was astoundingly practical. She was willing to leave all her toys behind. But then, those heroes never did a damned thing for her when she needed them.
Jessie was at the window when I heard a distant creaking, footsteps from down the hall, and getting closer. "Go," I whispered urgently. "Wait by the hole in the fence, to the woods."
Her feet were out the window, head still in her room, when the knob turned and the door opened. It was Leona. She let out a soft gasp as she saw what was happening. She didn't say a word. Neither did Jessie. I can't even try to interpret what wordless mother-daughter communication happened in those few seconds in their eyes or subtle facial expressions. To an outside observer, they just stared at each other. I finally spoke. "Go on, Jessie."
Jessie disappeared down the ladder, and I turned back to face her mother, hand going to my pocket. I'd brought a knife, just in case. If I had to use it, I wanted to use it on Jeffty… but I wanted to be ready.
Leona took one last breath, like a burden was finally off her shoulders. "You'll take care of her?" she asked, like my kidnapping was a fait accompli, nothing that could be stopped. Maybe she'd been praying for it for years. I wish I knew whether she was relieved that Jessie was going to be safe, or just that she would be someone else's responsibility.
I nodded there in the darkness.
"Go, then. Get a good head start. I'll make sure my husband doesn't wake up." She wiped something off her face and then held her chin up with some kind of dignity, and there was a grim determination in her face that I'd never seen before. It said, "I've failed my daughter for so long, for so many times, but this time, I won't do it again. This time I'll make it right." Even she could choose again, one last time.
So I left. I climbed down the ladder and ran to the hole in the fence. Jessie was waiting for me, and her arms enveloped me in a hug when I poked my head through the gap, as though she didn't really believe I was coming. "Come on," I said. "It's time to go."
We got in the car and I started to drive. Jessie sat in the back, and I told her it was going to be a long trip, so she should probably fall asleep. She closed her eyes, and some time later, she stirred at a sound and asked, "Are we there yet?" I didn't answer her. I was listening to the sound that woke her. Sirens. Distant, but sirens nonetheless, and approaching. Oh, God… My hands got so slick with sweat that I could barely keep them on the wheel.
I tried to decide whether to speed and try to make a break for it, or be inconspicuous and hope to slip under their radar, when I caught a glimpse through a thicket of trees of a string of fire trucks travelling up another road. They were the source of the sirens. Not police cars.
I pulled over and looked back. I was too far away to see the house, but in the moonlit sky I could see a dark stain, smoke, and I knew it was coming from the Kinzer house. "What's wrong, Donny?" Jessie asked.
"Nothing," I said, swallowing. "Go back to sleep. We've still got a long road ahead of us."
I saw it on the news the next night, while Jessie was asleep. The house was burned to the ground, and police suspected a murder-suicide. Both Jeff Kinzer and his wife Leona were dead. There was a mention of a daughter, who was in her late twenties, who could not be located. They didn't know Jessie was eleven, and if it stayed that way, they would never be looking for us. I didn't tell her what had happened, and she never asked. She never mentioned her parents again, in fact, although sometimes, very rarely, she woke up screaming 'no' to her dad, who wasn't there and never would be again.
I made it to my cabin, and we've stayed there ever since, except for occasional trips into town. Not our old town, but one nearer to our new home, where neither of us could be recognized and people might assume we're father and daughter. In some ways, we are. I've tried to give Jessie as normal a life as I could. I kept up her education using home schooling materials, I fed her, I tried to have as much fun with her as we used to. We didn't have friends close to us, but, after a couple weeks, I set up Internet access. The Internet fascinated Jessie because she'd never had it before, at least not to play with on a regular basis, where she could set up her own profiles and talk about whatever she wanted with people from all over the world. On the Internet, nobody knew about her condition, she didn't have to be a freak. And she loves the woods, in summers, it's like an eternal summer camp, and even in winters we can go sledding and ice-skating, or she'd spend nearly a whole afternoon playing in the snow and then come in to snuggle up against me to warm up, while I did my best to suppress an erection.
Yes, I've still had my sexual feelings for her... it was only natural, she was very beautiful, and she had become my own world... I no longer dated, or even did much business, except when I absolutely couldn't avoid it. Sometimes she was the only girl I'd seen of any age for days at a time. So the feelings did arise, more often than I'd be comfortable admitting. But I didn't want to be like her real father, so I was determined I wouldn't touch her, wouldn't pressure her, and just let her enjoy her new life. That included letting her squeeze against me under a blanket while we watched TV on a cold winter's night.
We had a lot of fun times with that TV. Her strange powers continued, but not quite as well as before. Even black holes eventually evaporate, deprived of new mass for long enough. Likewise, with the source of her pain removed, the effects of Jessie's strange gravity were also slowly winding down. Her favorites didn't stay in her orbit forever. We finally suffered through the cancellation of Gargoyles (on a cliffhanger, no less), and Jem was knocked out by the might of Hannah Montana, but we still found if she loved a show enough, we could keep it around. You know I've seen ten seasons of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and seven of its spinoff, Angel?
And Jessie aged. Slowly, but the signs were there. The watershed moment came when, one night, Jessie crept into my room after I'd gone to sleep. I opened my eyes and saw her, by the side of my bed, and when I turned on the light I saw that she was wearing only panties that clung too tightly to her, making her mound stand out. Her chest wasn't flat any more, it wasn't big, but there were visible swells. "Donny?" she said.
"What is it, Jessie?"
"I think I'm ready. Ready to become a woman." She came forward suddenly, kissed me on the lips, and her tongue tried to fight its way into my mouth, then she crawled into bed with me. I put my hands up, to resist or fondle her breasts, I couldn't say, although once they were in my hands I couldn't resist the softness and I gave gentle squeezes before I realized what I was doing. My hands lowered, and it was when they slipped under the waistband of her panties that I thought she shuddered, and I woke up, remembered my promise that I'd never hurt her.
"No," I said. "Not yet."
"I'm ready," she insisted. "I'm twelve." It was the first time I could remember her referring to her age as anything older than eleven.
"There's no rush," I said. "Give it time. I'll still be here."
I was strong that night, but it didn't last forever. She was thirteen, by her own count, three years later by mine, when she asked again, and this time, I couldn't be strong anymore. I gave into her request, I'd been without a woman for so long, and Jessie wasn't quite a woman, but she was close. I broke her hymen, which had been broken many times before but had always come back, with my fingers, then, after making out with her long enough to forget the pain, slid my penis inside. It was tight but wet and she didn't seem to be in pain. I would have stopped if she was. The next day we didn't talk about it, it seemed to be forgotten, and I thought I'd made a mistake.
The next time we did it, a week later, she suggested it, and revealed she'd been waiting all this time for me to ask, but I hadn't. This time, it started with oral sex, mostly me giving it to her, she didn't like performing it, though she wanted to try. She loved receiving it, now that I knew how to do it right, and although it took a while to give her an orgasm, it was like an awakening, that sex could be glorious. We had penetrative sex again, and for the first time it wasn't her first time. Maybe the magic hadn't betrayed her after all, not completely... the trauma of what her father had done for all those years didn't seem to have scarred her like so many others had been, and no matter how many times he'd stolen it, she'd preserved her virginity for somebody she loved, for a time she could give it, freely.
After that, we began doing it regularly, like new lovers. I guess that's what we were. We did it so often it took a while to notice that Jessie no longer found old TV shows on the airwaves, or impossible toys or comics in stores on our trips to the city. The next time we went out to the movies, we watched the same thing as everybody else. That was when I realized it. When we got home, I sat in front of the television for hours, scanning through the channels over and over again. I still do it from time to time. But I can't find new episodes of the shows we used to share. I can't even find the DVD season boxed sets we'd bought. We'd lost the magic.
I lost the magic, I guess, because to Jessie, it wasn't magic, it was just the way things were… but things were changing. She was changing, and she never noticed that it was a loss. She gained the ability to change, to grow. After all those years of it being denied to her, I couldn't begrudge her that.
I lost the magic, and, in a sense, I lost a lot more. Jessie's not quite the same perpetually cheerful little girl who was the one constant in my life. She still loved me and told me so all the time, but was occasionally sullen and moody for days at a time, and sometimes outright bitchy. She's changing. Her taste in music certainly took a turn for the worse.
But I don't mind. When you lose something, you can gain other things at the same time, and still come out ahead. There's still magic, it's just a different kind. I still find myself complaining about how much better things were in the past, but deep down I know there's a lot of good things about the world today, my life today, and there was all along. Throughout all the time she was eleven, Jessie found things worth saving in her orbit, and so did I, and even today, we both find new things to enjoy. Great shows, movies, books, games and everything else are still coming out, to become magic for a new generation of kids, and sometimes they fade away without living up to their potential, but that isn't such a terrible thing. There'll always be plenty of new to enjoy if you keep moving forward. And I still love Jessie, no matter how she's changed. Jessie is eleven no longer, but she's still Jessie, she's just growing up. It's not quite at a normal rate. It's been two years since we started having sex, when she was thirteen, and now she says she's fourteen. But she's not eleven. If she gets to eighteen, I think I'll propose. I just hope I'm not too old for her by then.
Hurry up, Jessie. You were a terrific girl, but I can't wait to see what kind of woman you'll be.
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