7:00 am, Wonder City, PA
Pearl Wong woke, as she did many mornings, with the weight of her Irish Setter Scully's longing gaze upon her. Scully's red-furred chin rested on the edge of the bed until she perceived that Pearl was awake, at which point, Scully turned two full spins of excitement, her tail thumping against the bed as it passed by, her long fur waving in the breeze of her speed. The excitement woke the shorthaired brown rescue mutt Mulder, who promptly fell off the bed (as he did most mornings), sprang to his feet, and barked in outrage at the bed for ejecting him.
Pearl sat up and caught up the fuzzy end of her sleeping braid, beginning automatically to take it apart.
"Morning," Pearl's wife Rosemary grumbled into her pillow. When Mulder forgot to stop barking, she bellowed, "Shut it!"
Mulder sat down and grinned at them from the foot of the bed. Scully gazed at him a moment, almost scornfully, then turned her gaze back to Pearl. She, at least, knew from whose hand the dog kibble flowed.
"I swear," Rosemary said, rolling over and sitting up to rub her eyes, "I swear
Mulder is sleeping on the couch tonight."
"Liar," Pearl said, leaning over to kiss her on the cheek. "Ow!" she said, as her hip popped painfully and audibly.
"You have got
to get to the doctor about your arthritis," Rosemary said, returning the buss.
"When you go to the eye doctor for a checkup, my darling pot," Pearl said, using the headboard to lever herself to her feet while her knees crackled a symphony.
"At this rate, neither of us will ever make an appointment, kettle," Rosemary said, scratching her fingers vigorously through her short silver hair.
"We'll manage, somehow," Pearl said, wobbling her way into the bathroom while her joints loosened up.
"Your grandchild is on the phone," Rosemary said from the door.
Mulder and Scully cavorted cheerfully around Pearl's feet in the yard, hopelessly tangling their leashes, as always. "What's up?" she asked as she revolved slowly in order to avoid becoming a Maypole.
"Your son is on the warpath again, I think," Rosemary said. "The story was brief and oh-so-carefree. Something about needing a real career."
"He's feeling insecure, I suppose, with his company 'rightsizing'," Pearl said. "Scully, sit! Come take Mulder, would you? I'll go in."
Rosemary descended into the yard, taking the leashes from Pearl in passing. "I feel bad for that poor kid. Can't you get Jim to lay off some?"
"Do you think Jim listens to his mother the evil lezzzzzbian?" Pearl said, not for the first time. "He thinks the whole thing is my fault anyway." She stepped into the kitchen and picked up the phone -- a landline, another sign they were ancient, Pearl thought.
"What's up, sweetheart?" she said.
"Hi, Grandma." Her grandchild X's carefully androgynous voice was crisp and passionless over the line. "My father just called to rant at me."
"Up early, isn't he?"
"On the train, apparently," X said. "It's one of his days in New York."
"Nice to air the family business on the train," Pearl said, then tightened her mouth. "What did he say?"
"It was just the usual," X said. "Paraphrased, it is his considered opinion that I am wasting my life with this para stuff, that I need to stop playing games and finish my degree so I can get out and start working the wage slave mines like he does."
Pearl sighed. This had been a war since X had turned 13 and come into not only zir para abilities but also zir opinion that zir birth sex was not necessarily the gender zie wanted to perform. Jim had, in fact, blamed Pearl for putting "strange ideas into the child's head" and Jim's wife had stopped speaking to Pearl for two solid (blessed) years. They'd discussed sending X to some sort of school that would "re-educate" zir, but gave up the idea when the Gold Stars showed up on their doorstep to discuss X's future. If the Gold Stars had gotten a tip from a certain therapist for paras, that was neither here nor there. "Honey, you know he's doing it because he's worried about his own job. It's all projection."
X echoed her sigh. "I know. And I tell myself these things. Somehow, it makes it better if you say them, though."
"Come over for dinner," Pearl said. "Rosemary is planning to make that casserole you like so much."
"Really?" X said.
"Really?" Rosemary mouthed silently from the doorway. Pearl flapped a hand at her.
"Really," Pearl said. "Come on, sweetheart. It's been a few weeks since we saw you." When X hesitated, she added, "Bring Madame if you like."
X said, "I'll be there around 6," and made no further mention of Madame, so neither did Pearl. That was a complicated relationship Pearl didn't want to touch
"We'll look forward to it," Pearl said, and they hung up. She looked at Rosemary. "Zie sounds so down, poor baby. I just thought..."
"I'll put the soybeans on to soak," Rosemary said with a little smile. "You've got a couple of new clients coming in this morning, right?"
"Oh!" Pearl said. "Right!" She hurried off to her office.
"The thing is," Robert said, "the thing is, you see, I mean, you can see that my para power is flying, right? There on my para reg card."
Pearl didn't glance at her copy of his card but kept her gaze fixed steadily on the light-skinned young man. He wasn't spandex team material -- too angular of body and face, all nose, chin, and elbows. He was dressed in a brown blazer over a blue oxford shirt and khaki trousers, the perfect IT middle manager look. But he was wringing his long knobby hands as he spoke. "I saw that you can fly, yes," she said.
"Well, the thing is," he said again, "is that I'm afraid of heights." He winced, clearly anticipating derision of some sort.
"That sounds like a very difficult thing to deal with," Pearl said, sincerely feeling that it must
be difficult as hell.
He glanced at her face, and she willed her expression concerned and friendly. Then he looked back at his knotted hands. "I've been afraid of heights since I was a kid. And I didn't get my power until I was... I didn't know I had my power till I was 16." He swung his hands down between his knees in frustration. "Everyone tells me, 'Oh, you'll love it once you do it. Oh, I wish I had your power, I've always wanted to fly.' I tell them I'd be glad to give it to them, and they just tell me that I haven't tried
"What do you feel when you try?" Pearl said, trying not to be distracted by the constant motion of his hands.
His shoulders hunched. "Like I'm going to die," he said. "I get up too high and I start thinking, 'What if my power just stopped working? What if I started to fall and couldn't concentrate enough to fly to save myself?' And I'm sure I'm going to fall at any moment, and I get dizzy looking at the ground. Once I threw up." He ran his hands through his thinning brown hair.
Pearl said, "What do you want out of coming to me?"
Robert sighed, despairingly. "I told my wife I wanted to learn how to fly." He looked from side to side furtively, as if his wife might be hiding behind the aspidistra. "But I really want to learn how not to care that I can't fly."
Pearl was sitting, making notes, when Rosemary stuck her head in. "Your son is on the phone."
Pearl put her head down on her desk very gently and started to laugh. "Oh, this is going to be a family
sort of day, isn't it?" This started Mulder barking from another room.
"Just think how much easier it would be for them to get hold of you if you actually carried your cell phone," Rosemary said.
"Tell him I'm working," Pearl said, sitting up and picking her pen back up. "I'll call him this evening. Late. Mulder, shut up!"
Rosemary mimed taking notes on a handheld pad, striking a feminine pose with her knees together as if she were wearing a narrow skirt. It looked very odd on her square, broad-shouldered, butch frame. "Yes, ma'am. And would you like coffee, ma'am?"
It made Pearl giggle to recall that actually, Rosemary had
been a secretary and had
worn those outfits. "Sweet and blonde, just like you ain't, sugar."
"Ma'am!" Rosemary said, clutching at her bosom. "Keep that up and I'll call Human Resources on you!" She turned and marched out, tossing her head as she went.
Pearl put her head back down and laughed some more.
The young Asian woman in the chair opposite Pearl was tired-eyed and silent. She sat with her shoulders hunched and her hands clenched together on her lap, her smooth black hair caught back in an untidy ponytail.
Pearl let the silence rest for a few moments; they'd done the initial introductions professionally enough. Now it was in her new client's court.
"I got your name from the union," Tala said finally. "I came to you because you were the only Asian on the list of therapists."
Pearl nodded. "That's how I get some of my clients."
"I work for...--" Tala caught herself, choked a little, then went on, "-- worked
for Dr. Marine. Have you heard of her?"
Pearl sorted back through her memory, and vaguely recalled the name belonging to one of the so-called mad scientists who was one of the sorts that straddled the line between hero and villain. There was something else that wasn't quite coming back... "Yes, I've heard of her."
"You may remember that she committed suicide two months ago," Tala said, drawing her ponytail over her shoulder and worrying the ends.
Memory dawned, and Pearl said, "Yes, yes, I do remember that news article." It had been, according to her letters sent to every major media outlet in the world, motivated almost entirely by making a political statement. She had wanted to echo the self-immolations of Buddhist monks, apparently, only more... spectacular.
"She was... I mean... I had to..." Tala twisted the end of her ponytail around and around her index finger. "I don't know how to say this."
"Take your time," Pearl said, watching the young woman with a studied air of serenity.
"I was her assistant," Tala said finally, brown eyes bleak. "Her lead assistant. I... helped her build that machine."
"The one that...?"
Tala nodded wordlessly.
Pearl grimaced in sympathy. "That must be a terribly hard thing to deal with."
"I didn't know
," Tala said, in a despair somewhere beyond tears. Her hands dropped into her lap, her shoulders collapsed in on her. "I didn't know," she whispered.
"Don't you think that was more her doing than yours?" Pearl said, trying for eye contact.
"Shouldn't I have guessed? Or something?" Tala said. "She had me building it in pieces, in components. She told me they were for some new 'great invention'. It would solve all the world's problems. When you work for these people, you learn to just nod and say, 'Yes, Doctor,' but you never think they'll..." She pressed the heel of her hand to her mouth to stifled whatever she was about to say.
"You never think they'll... what?" Pearl echoed.
"You never think they'll actually die
," Tala said, staring down at the floor. "Lab accidents, I expect them, everyone talks about the ones that blow themselves up by accident. But no one... no one
talks about the ones that do it on purpose
Pearl nodded. "It's more common than you think, because no one talks about it. And your situation... it's more common than you might think too."
Tala looked up hopefully. "Do you... could I talk
to someone else like me? Do you think?"
"Yes," Pearl said. "Definitely. I'll get those contacts for you. Let's talk right now about how you're feeling about all this."
Pearl reclined on the couch with an icepack on her head.
"Tough one?" Rosemary said from the doorway of the living room.
"God, yes," Pearl muttered. "It's a day of tough ones so far, with no end in sight."
"I'm going downtown for a bit," Rosemary said, walking in and bending down to kiss Pearl. "Marilyn wants my opinion on a new case and is willing to pay my consulting fees, so it must be a big one."
Pearl smiled and peeked out from under the icepack. "Well, you be careful. Dodge alien spaceships and random god wannabes, okay?"
"You know me," Rosemary said with a wink. "Caution is my spandex name."
After the front door clicked shut, Pearl meditated on the issue of her son and grandchild. X was an adult, of course, and Jim had no means of affecting zir life except by guilt and haranguing. Jim's wife was especially good at the haranguing... when she wasn't out golfing or drinking with her colleagues in the sales and marketing department at Wondera Pharma. Jim was on the verge of being laid off his job, which had had him traveling from Wonder City to either Philadelphia or New York more days of the month than not for the last couple of years. Things were not, Pearl suspected, hunky-dory between the two of them, especially since X had come out.
Scully's cold nose poked into Pearl's ear and snuffled there curiously. Pearl jumped upright with a, "Yaagh!" that only made Scully thump her tail on the floor and Mulder start barking and bounding around the room.
The eternal issue of therapists and superheroes alike, Pearl thought, getting up and taking the dogs outside. We want to save everyone. But no one can be saved without their permission.
There, Mulder ran around and around the yard, staring at the sky in the eternally baffled way that won him his name. Pearl said, aloud, "The truth is out there, right?"
Scully gave her an almost offended look.
"So, last time we met, you were just about to go home to visit your parents," Pearl said. "How did that go?"
The tall, lanky, 30-something white woman in the chair opposite crossed her lovely legs, smoothed her taupe pencil skirt, and gave Pearl a wry smile. "About as well as you might think," Shelley said in a smoky voice.
"I can think of any number of ways it could have gone," Pearl said. "I'm very imaginative that way."
Her client waved a long hand, slim silver bangles clashing at her wrist. "'You're the descendant of a hundred heroes! You're King Arthur and Cu Chulainn and Brian Boru and Robin Hood reborn! You're our son who will save the world! How could you do
this to us?'" She sighed. "I mean, what do you say to something like that?"
"What did you
say?" Pearl said.
Shelley grimaced. "Exactly what we worked out I could say. 'Mom, Dad, I'm much happier living as a woman than I ever was as a man. I love you and I hope you can come to accept me as your daughter.'" Her voice wavered over some of the words, and she dabbed at her eyes with a tissue. "The only thing my mother didn't
do was faint. I think she was too angry. My father did a good white boy imitation of... that guy on that show in the 70s. You know, the one that was always claiming he was having a heart attack?"
"Oh, yes, 'Sanford and Son' I think," Pearl said. "Did you have an ER run?"
"Very nearly," Shelley said with a short, humorless laugh, running fingers through her long, wavy blonde hair. "I think they were too afraid I might try to come with them, though."
"How are you
doing?" Pearl said, bringing them back to the point of it all.
Shelley's thin smile closed down and she set her square, heroic jaw. "I've got an appointment for the first doctor I need to convince to get the damned surgery."
"You've been putting that off," Pearl said gently. "And you had a lot of reasons for that."
"Daddy dearest put the worst of them to rest," Shelley said. "On the condition that I never darken their door again, he's giving me all the money that I would normally inherit when he dies."
"That's very unkind," Pearl said. "How does that make you feel?"
"Fucking furious," Shelley said, crumpling the tissue in her fist. "It makes me want to get it all in small bills so I can throw every one of them in his face."
"Anything else?" Pearl said, cocking her head slightly.
Shelley's shoulders slumped, and she pressed the tissue to her mouth to stifle a sob. "Like I'm dying inside."
The house landline was ringing when she got back in from giving the dogs their afternoon walk. This inspired Mulder to howl dissonantly along with the electronic ring. Scully sat down and stared at him as if he was an interesting new species and she was contemplating writing a paper on him.
Pearl glanced at the caller ID box, hesitated for a moment over her son's number, then picked up the phone.
"I thought I was going to have to leave another message," Jim said testily.
"Good afternoon to you too," Pearl said. "How are you?"
"Out of a damn job," he said. "I got my walking papers today."
"Oh, Jim, I'm so sorry," Pearl said. She was, though at least that
worry was over. Given what some of her clients said, the anticipation of a layoff was often much, much worse than actually getting the news.
He sighed, mostly exasperated. She could hear street noises in the background. "Well, I knew I wasn't long for the company. The new manager had made that clear enough. Look, Mom, that's not what I'm calling about. I want you to talk sense into Kristine."
Pearl said warily, "What about?" Though she knew, of course.
"She needs to stop playing around," he said. "It was all right when she was a teenager, but she's never going to amount to anything hanging out with that old con artist. She's got to finish college! She's got to wake up and smell the coffee!"
"And you think that any amount of talking is going to convince anyone of anything they may not be ready to hear?" Pearl said.
"Stop it with the therapy voice, Mom," he snapped. "I mean it. She needs to learn to dress professionally..."
"By which you mean 'like a woman'," Pearl said, trying to keep the boredom out of her voice.
"Yes, like a woman!" he said. "Because that's what she is!"
"No, Jim," Pearl said gently. "Your child is whatever she, he, or zie chooses to be. Not what you decide is right."
"She's can't go on like this!" he shouted. After a brief, embarrassed pause, he added in a lower voice, "She's barely para at all, but somehow believes she's some sort of superhero. When that old bitch who brainwashed her finally kicks off, she's going to be homeless, broke, and hungry."
"Look, Jim," Pearl said. "I don't have time for this debate again. I think you and Lucille need to decide whether you want to have a child or you want to have had
a daughter. Because Kris is not going to keep playing this game with you. Zie is an adult, and has, surprise, surprise, life plans and even financial security well in hand, with people who accept zir for who zie is. Given how little acceptance you've extended to me and Rosemary, I'm not particularly surprised by your reaction to Kris." She bit her tongue. That last was unworthy of her. But it was useless to deny it.
He said, "She can't divorce her parents. I mean, I couldn't just drop you because I think your lifestyle is atrocious, no matter how much I wanted to."
"No, Jim," Pearl said, more gently. "You
couldn't divorce your
mother. But Kris? May just decide that life is saner and more pleasant without you in it. And from what I've seen and heard, I couldn't argue with zir at all."
He was silent. She heard the traffic in the background again. Then he said, "You really think that... she'd cut us out of her life?"
Pearl restrained a sigh. "No, Jim. I think zie
might cut you out of zir
life if you don't start accepting zir life on zir terms."
"Those are stupid words," he muttered.
"And you're being a stupid man," she snapped, losing all patience. "Now look, I have to go because --" she bit down on the petty urge to say unlike you I have a job
"-- I have a client coming in. You think about your life, James Wong, and for once in your life, think about who and what you really want in it." And she hung up.
Mulder and Scully were seated side-by-side, staring up at her with big, soft, brown eyes, tails thumping tentatively. She crouched down and put an arm around each of them, pressing her face into Scully's red shoulder. "How did I raise that child?" she said. "How?"
"Don wants a divorce," Melinda said in a flat, exhausted voice.
Pearl managed to restrain her sigh. She'd been expecting this for months. "I'm so sorry, Melinda. That sounds very painful."
Melinda, a curvy biracial woman with pale brown skin and corkscrew curls, pressed her fingertips to the center of her forehead. "He says no matter how much I say I'll try, I never spent any time with him. Or the kids, he always adds as an afterthought. He says I take care of other people more than my own family."
"He's said all this before," Pearl said.
"I know, I know," Melinda said. "But what am I supposed
to do? I didn't ask
those... those people from the future to come back and reengineer my body like this when I was 35. I didn't ask
to automatically teleport wherever someone the future people think is important is in danger. I hate this life! I hate what they did to me! They didn't even ask
. And what am I supposed to do when I'm already there, let them die
"Of course not," Pearl said. "You have to do what you feel is the right thing."
"Exactly!" Melinda pressed the heels of her hands into her temples. "He wants me to move out. He wants to keep the house, for the kids, he says, and he wants the kids." She turned despairing hazel eyes on Pearl. "He says that if I don't fight for the kids, he'll let me have visitation and all, but if I do, he'll push for supervised visitation only. And that's one step to losing them entirely." She bit her lip as tears rolled down her cheeks.
Pearl leaned over and pushed the tissue box into reach. Melinda took one and wiped her eyes and nose. She whispered, "I don't want to lose them. Oh, Pearl, I don't want to lose them at all. Or Don. I want everything to go back the way it was before."
Pearl said, "Did you try asking them?"
"You know I have that 'emergency radio' thing in my head, right? Beam across time and space? So I ask them every night," Melinda said, the tears coming faster and harder, her next inhalation shaking her whole body with the sobbing catches in her throat. "Every. Damn. Night. I ask them to take it away, to give it to someone else, to give me my life
back." She let out an incoherent sound of pain. "They kept saying no. And last night, they didn't answer at all."
Rosemary handed Pearl a cup of lavender tea and a square of dark chocolate. "You look like you need that right about now," she said.
Pearl somehow wrangled the cup to her lips over the heads of the interested dogs curled up in her lap (and spilling over onto the rest of the sofa). "I look that bad, huh?"
"Let's just say that I woke up with a sexygenarian this morning and came home to an octagenarian." Rosemary slid away into the kitchen.
"I am wounded to the quick, you mean old woman," Pearl said, popping the chocolate into her mouth to get it away from the long pink tongue that snaked "sneakily" out of Mulder's muzzle.
"Vicious, that's me," Rosemary said, making noises that included opening and shutting the oven. Then she came back and produced a rawhide chew for each animal, and they heartlessly abandoned Pearl with eager barks and whines. Rosemary took advantage of the newly freed sofa space and settled in next to Pearl, putting an arm around her and pulling her close.
They sat together quietly and watched Scully make off with her chew to one of her very secret hiding places, while Mulder took his over to a floor lamp. He set the chew on the floor and carefully pawed the electrical cord over it. Scully returned and sat to watch him fiddle with the electrical cord, pushing it one way with his nose and the other with his paw. Finally, he sat back, barked sharply to declare his satisfaction, and trotted proudly away into the kitchen.
Scully glanced over her shoulder at her humans with the look of someone who had been reminded of her lottery winnings, then went, picked up Mulder's chewtoy, and took it away to her hiding place as well.
The doorbell rang. Pearl pecked Rosemary on the cheek and got to her feet, setting the remains of her tea on the side table. "Tell me I don't really
look ancient," she said to her wife.
Rosemary smiled up at her in that rakish way that had made Pearl's heart turn over when they first met. "You're still the most beautiful woman in the world."
"Even though I'm a grandma?" Pearl said.
"You just keep getting more beautiful," Rosemary said, reaching out to stroke her hand. "Now go be a grandma or I'm'a take you to bed, woman."
Pearl was still laughing when she opened the door to X, who was wearing a lavender silk shirt, sharply tailored black jacket, and black trousers. Zie was also holding a bottle of wine that zie pressed into Pearl's hands before hugging zir grandmother. "I had a premonition we'd want that. See, my power is useful sometimes isn't it?"
"Come on in, you," Pearl said, hugging X tighter. "We'll help you get a head start on... what was it he said last time? Being a drunk in the gutter, right? All for one and one for all in this family."
Scully barked once in agreement.
---From the Author:
Apparently, April comes later in the year than anyone thought.
Seriously, I'm sorry for all the delays, but finally, I give you the third of the four promised Interludes. The fourth IS in progress, and I hope that I will be posting it as a short series in January or possibly in February, which is when I expect Volume 2 to reach its conclusion.