Alternate Reality: The Bear Market

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Alternate Reality:
The Bear Market
by
Valentina Michelle Smith

Reality is a tenuous thing. Events can take different paths, leading to different realities. In one reality, for instance, there is a certain neighborhood where magic is real and children thrive, and where you can get the best Reuben in the world. In another, this neighborhood might not exist, but parts of its spirit may be found in other places, if you look hard enough. This is a tale of an alternate reality, where magic is still real and children still thrive, but the search for that perfect Reuben might just be a little harder.

The shop opened with very little fanfare, just another storefront empty one day and occupied the next. There were no banners proclaiming a grand opening, no balloons hanging gaily from the windows, no clowns or free hot dogs. The only external indication was a modest sign stating the name of the establishment, Sarge's Hobbies, and a modest storefront display tempting passers-by with the proprietor's wares.

If one looked past the grimy windows that perpetually seemed to need cleaning, one could find a very eclectic offering of goods. Plastic models of cars, ships, and aircraft, neatly stacked, next to skateboards, yo-yos, kites, model rockets, and most unexpectedly, plush stuffed animals. One particular bear, a mohair teddy with a plaid bow, held a Semroc Saturn1B in its paws, and a brown koala stood next to a very futuristic-looking rocket that looked like it might be at home in a science fiction movie. In short, it was just the sort of display that would appeal to a die-hard rocketry nut, or a confirmed plush animal lover. Or, a five-year-old little girl with long red hair and emerald green eyes, who was currently leaving her nose print on the storefront window.

Maggie's green eyes widened when she saw all of the wonderful plush animals in the window. And what were those things that the bears were holding? They looked like tiny rocket ships. She just had to see more. And so, with the total lack of fear that only a five-year-old has, Maggie grabbed the doorknob and pulled the door open.

“Maggie, you better not go in there!” she heard. Maggie turned and found her sister Rose scolding her. Rose, all of a year older that Maggie, fancied herself in charge of the two whenever they were together, a condition Maggie rarely acknowledged. But this time, Rose had the ultimate authority on her side. “I'm gonna tell Mommy!”

Maggie, halfway inside the shop, protested. “It's only a store, Rosie, and I won't stay long. I'm just gonna look around and come right out!”

“You know what Mommy says,” Rose retorted. “You aren't allowed to talk to strangers, and don't go into a strange place without her.”

“But there's aminals in here, an' rocket ships, an'...”

“You better listen to her and do what your mother says,” said a voice from inside.

Maggie looked around and saw a man step from behind the counter. He had thinning salt-and-pepper hair (although the salt seemed to be winning) and his smiling eyes were framed by metal rim glasses. His wrinkled face had obviously seen a lot in this world, and he had that sort of infectious smile that could bring joy to all but the most sour of sourpusses. In fact, his was the sort of face that would just not seem right without a smile. Maggie couldn’t help but trust him. “I just wanna to see da aminals!” she said.

“Tell you what,” said the man, “why don't you ask your mother if you can come and see the place. I'll be happy to introduce you to the animals. But only if she comes with you. Does that sound like a good idea?”

Maggie thought it over. There was, of course, the possibility that her mommy would issue an unequivocal “No,” which would mean that Maggie could never see the inside of the shop until she was ancient, like maybe ten years old. On the other hand, Maggie also knew just what cute little buttons she had to push to convince her mother of the sound, toddler-logic worthiness of her request.
“Okay, mister,” Maggie said, “I'll go ask mommy! G'bye!” And running with the speed and energy of a five-year-old dynamo, Maggie sped off with Rose to ask permission.

Sarge sighed. ‘Kids,’ he thought to himself. ‘How on earth do they find all that energy?’ Was I ever that young? He paused to lock the door, hanging a “Back in 5 Minutes” sign. Once secure, he made his way behind the counter to the little bathroom and closed the door behind him.

It was at times like this that Sarge's smile left him. He dropped his trousers and underpants to reveal the plastic pouch attached to his abdomen. It was full and needed changing.

Sarge opened the medicine cabinet where his colostomy supplies were kept. He took a fresh pouch from the box and some gauze 4x4 sponges. He detached the pouch he was wearing from the adhesive flange on his abdomen and wiped the remaining fecal matter from around his now exposed stoma. The odor of stool filled the bathroom, prompting Sarge to spray some Glade air freshener. He had lived with the stoma for three years now, and still could not stand the odor.

Following a familiar pattern, Sarge put the old pouch and the 4x4 into a special disposal container. He squeezed a few drops of pouch deodorant into the fresh pouch and attached it to his flange. He ran his fingers around the seal to make sure it was tight. Then he pulled up his underpants and trousers. He checked himself in the mirror, hoping that the loose fit of his trousers hit the telltale bulge of his appliance. Then he washed his hands with a strong anti-bacterial soap and sprayed more Glade.

Sarge sighed, trying to find his smile again before returning to the outside world. It was not easy. Every time he changed his pouch, he was reminded of the life he loved which had been taken from him forever by colon cancer. True, he had been discharged with full disability benefits, and had the same pay and privileges of any military retiree who had “put in his twenty.” But he missed the excitement of the flight line. He was grateful for the operation that had saved his life, but felt that he had been robbed of something precious, his life as an Air Force crew chief. And what was more, it had permanently robbed him of his future. His plans for life after retirement had been destroyed.

Another sigh, and Sarge thought about the red-haired girl with the green eyes who had just pressed her nose to his window. At the thought, his smile returned. Now he could go back to work.

* * * * *

“Mommy, it's a wonderful place! It has little rocket ships and aminals and trains and toys and the aminals can talk and I heard them talk, Mommy. Can we go visit? Please? The man said I could visit if you took me. Can we go? Please? I promise I'll be the goodest girl an' I won't make a mess an' I'll even take a baff tonight if we can visit. Please? Please? Please?”

“Calm down, little kitten,” Shelly told her hyperactive daughter. Maggie seemed to have her Go button hotwired at the best of times, but clearly something had really captured her attention.

“But mommy, the man is nice an' he said I should ask you first an' he's so friendly he wouldn't hurt you or anybody an' he said you have to take me an' I know you're gonna like him and the aminals can talk and did I tell you he has aminals an' trains an' ...”

“Maggie!” shouted Shelly, “for pity's sake, calm down! I'll take you!”

Maggie's face broke out in the biggest smile a five-year-old could have as she responded with a gigantic hug. “Hooray! Thank you, mommy, you're the bestest mommy there is! I love you, Mommy!”

Shelly returned her daughter's hug. “But remember your promise, honey. I'll take you to the store, but you have to take a bath tonight, and no fussing!”

“I pwomise, Mommy, I'll take a baff an' I won't complain or nothin'n I'll even let you shampoo my hair.”

“Now THAT's something I'd like to see!” Shelly said. “Just let me get your sister Baruchah and we'll go and visit mister...say, did you get his name?”

“He didn't say, mommy. I think it was 'Serge' or something like that.”

“Oh, is he a Russian?”

“I don't think so, mommy. He doesn't sound like a Russian like Mrs. Tereskova down the street or mister Muskovitz the spy.”

“Well let's go visit mister Serge or whatever his name is,” said Shelly. “And Mr. Muskovitz is an Israeli, not a Russian, sweetie.”

“He sure sounds like a Russian,” Maggie said.

* * * * *

Shelly had to laugh when she saw the sign over the shop. Once again her daughter had managed to totally mix up the English language. She was still laughing as she entered the shop with her daughters and niece in tow.

The bell over the door tinkled cheerfully as they entered and the proprietor rose to greet them. “Hello, there,” he said as he extended his hand to Shelly, “my name's Tom Doyle, but my friends all call me 'Sarge.' How can I help you?

“We're just looking around for now,” Shelly explained. “My daughter wanted to look about, and said I had to bring her by in person and give permission.”

“That's right,” Sarge replied. “I don't mind kids looking around, but I don't want to leave the wrong impression with their parents.”

“That's very thoughtful of you. By the way, I'm Shelly Johnson, this is my daughter Baruchah, and this is my daughter Rose. You've met Maggie, I suppose.”

“Yes, I have.”

“By the way, Maggie thought you were Russian, and your name was 'Serge.'”

Sarge's smile split in two as he laughed. “Did she, really?” he said. “My, but isn't it precious the way children manage to mangle English?”

“It certainly is,” Shelly agreed. “It's all part of the charm of having kids, and makes up for all the work. So when did you open your shop?”

“Just a few weeks ago. I'm still getting my stock delivered, but I have enough to open up.”

“Where does the name 'Sarge' come from? Were you in the service?”

“Yes, ma'am,” Sarge replied, “I spent about twenty-three-odd years in the Air Force.” Sarge then wiggled his pencil a la Groucho's cigar and said, “And they were twenty-three of the oddest years I ever spent.” He followed up by flexing his eyebrows, making Shelly laugh.

“Did you make all of the plush animals?” she asked.

“Just a few of them. I stock major brands like Gund and make some special creations on request.”

“Did you know that Maggie thinks the animals can talk?”

“She's right, ya know,” said Sarge. “The animals talk, as long as you listen to them, and as long as they have something to say. For instance, Junie here is talking to me right now. And she tells me that she's talking to Baruchah.”

Sarge turned to the shelf behind him and selected a teddy bear wearing a calico dress with a matching bow. He held it close to Baruchah and asked, “Can you hear what she's saying?”

Baruchah nodded, and Sarge continued, “That's right, she's saying 'Please take me home and be my mommy.' Can you be a good mommy to a little bear?”

Baruchah nodded and said, “Yes, sir, I can be a good mommy, just like Mommy.”

“Then she's yours,” said Sarge, looking up at Shelly. “On the house, of course. Call it a get-acquainted present. And of course, only if you approve.”

Shelly looked at Baruchah's smiling face, brightened even more at the prospect of taking home a new plush toy. How could she not approve? “Well, I suppose so, but Baruchah had better not expect this every day.”

“Of course not. This is a special day.” Sarge handed the teddy bear to a delighted Baruchah who immediately hugged it to herself. She hugged it so hard that, had she a bit more strength, the stuffing would have popped out.

Sarge how held another bear, wearing a lace-trimmed dress and a bonnet and carrying a basket filled with flowers. “Now Daisy here says she was talking to Rose. Did you hear her, Rose?”

Rose replied, “Yes, Daisy said she would like to come home with me and have tea, and would like a tea party with my other dollies and plushies.” She turned to Shelly. “Can I take her home, Mommy? Please?”

Shelly realized the corner she had painted herself into. “Very well, but you had better be sure to thank Mr. Doyle properly for his generosity, and I don't want you pestering him all day, either.”

Rosie said, “Thank you, Mr. Doyle, and I promise to be a good mommy and not pester you.”

“Sounds like a good deal to me,” Sarge said, and he handed Daisy to Rose. “Oh, and just between you and me, you can call me 'Sarge.'”

Rose giggled as though she were in on a grand conspiracy.

Maggie chimed in. “Mister Sarge, can I have a bear too?”

Sarge affected a very stern countenance. “I'm sorry, Maggie, but there will be no bear for you.”

Maggie looked both shocked and heartbroken and her lower lip began to quiver. But before she could shed a tear, Sarge pulled an orange plush kitten from the shelf. “Pixel tells me you are more of a cat person,” he said. “Is she correct?”

In the twinkling of an eye, Maggie's pout was replaced by the widest, happiest smile a five-year-old could muster. “Oh, yes, she's beautiful. Can I take her home, please? I promise to take good care of her and give her lots of hugs and never let go of her oh please please please could I have her mommy please please please?”

Sarge looked at Shelly, who nodded, and handed Pixel to a delighted Maggie. Little Maggie whooped for joy. “Oh, thank you mister Sarge and thank you Mommy and oh she's the bestest little kitten in the whole world and I love her to pieces and...” Maggie ran out of words, hugging Pixel as tightly as a five-year-old could hug.

Shelly was incredulous. “How did you know that she would like a plush kitten so much?”

Sarge smiled. “The animals told me, and they usually know what they are talking about.”

“How could I ever repay you for this generosity, Sarge?” As she waited for his answer, Shelly contemplated what Sarge had told her. Was it possible that he had some of the “ability?”

Sarge grinned as he looked at the three little girls hugging their new plush animals. “I think I've already been paid, just making these three so happy. Of course, a little word of mouth advertising and an occasional custom job would be appreciated.”

“I'll be sure to let everybody know about your shop,” Shelly replied. “But right now I have to get going. I need to take my girls home, and this little red hellion owes me a bath. I intend to collect!”

“Well the girls and you are welcome here any time, Shelly. Thanks for stopping by.”

Rose tugged at Shelly's leg. “Mommy, can I have a rocket ship?”

“You're a little young for a rocket, Rose,” Sarge said. “Maybe in a year or two, but for right now I think you should just take care of Daisy.”

“I will, Sarge,” said Rose. “I'll be a good mommy for Daisy.”

“I'm sure you will,” Sarge said.

Shelly gathered her young charges and bade farewell to Sarge. He smiled as they left the shop, a smile that managed to hang around until closing time.

As they walked away, Maggie told her mother, “You know, Mommy, mister Sarge smiles a lot, but he's really very sad. He just doesn't show it.”

“What makes you think he's so sad, Maggie?” Shelly asked.

“The aminals told me, mommy, and they never lie.”

* * * * *

Eventually the shadows grew long on the Street of Dreams, and Sarge hung the “CLOSED” sign in the door. Business had been fair. Fans of plush animals seemed to drift in, and a true rocket hobbyist had a way of smelling a hobby store anywhere within a hundred miles. Sarge had actually turned a profit that day. He smiled as he locked the store entrance, turned out the lights, and made his way to his apartment just above the store.

He stopped at the small kitchen and made a light supper from some left-over pizza and a bottle of Snapple. He then made his way to the bathroom, ran his hand over his five o'clock shadow, and started the hot water running. He washed his face, lathered up, and shaved as closely as he could.

Then he made his way to the bedroom where he removed all of his clothing. He stared once more at the pouch attached to his abdomen, sighed, and said to himself, “You know, I never did find shoes to match this bag.” Chuckling to himself, he began his transformation with a pair of nylon panties.

The panties were a bit tighter than his boxer shorts, and they held the pouch in firmly. Sarge frowned as he ran his hand over the telltale bulge, saying “I definitely need a loose-fitting skirt.” He then selected a bra from his dresser and, with dexterity from years of practice, fastened the hooks. He placed a pair of silicone forms into the cups, securing them with a bit of medical adhesive. It was Hollister adhesive, the same kind he used with his appliance. The irony was not lost on him.

The bra was followed by pantyhose and a slip. Then he pulled a dress over his head, smoothing it over his now feminine form. He paused for a critical inspection in the mirror, noting that the peplum skirt effectively hid the appliance. Satisfied, he sat down at a small vanity and applied his makeup. A bit of concealer, foundation, blush, some eyeliner, eyeshadow, and lipstick gave him a much more feminine face. It wasn't drop dead gorgeous, but he would pass.

Now Sarge pulled a wig over his head and adjusted it. As he stood, he realized that male pronouns were no longer appropriate. She had shed her male persona and become Nora Spencer.

Nora smiled at the feminine reflection she observed in the mirror. She walked over to a pair of 3-inch slingback pumps and stepped into them. She walked back and forth a few times, enjoying the distinctive click of her heels on the hardwood floor. She smiled, grabbed her purse, and walked to the rear staircase leading to the alley in back of the store. She paused to lock the door, made her way down the steps, looked either way, and strode off to the sidewalk. Her destination was a gay bar a few blocks away, a place that welcomed crossdressers and their admirers.

As she walked, she did not notice the man standing in the shadows. He wore a cloak made of raven feathers and carried a large Blackthorn staff. A kitten perched on his right shoulder. “Mew,” said the kitten.

“You were right, Maggie,” the man with the raven cloak said. “She's hiding something. She needs help, and I don't think she will find it where she's going.”

“Mew?” asked Maggie.

The man chuckled. “Not tonight, little kitten. Besides, I understand that you promised your mother to take a bath tonight.”

“Mew!” Maggie said indignantly.

“A promise is a promise. That's something a young witch needs to learn. Now run along home before you worry your mother to death.”

“Mew!” Maggie protested.

“Maggie!” said the man quite sternly. “There are times I regret having shown you how to transfigure. Your mother is still not happy about it. But she does have the power to prevent you from shape-shifting. Now scoot on home before you are late and she gets angry and grounds you again.”

Maggie lightly leaped from the man's shoulder and landed on her feet. The man waved his staff, and a pet door shimmered into being. Maggie leaped through the door, which opened to her home, and the door vanished behind her.

The darkly clad man chuckled. Shelly had told him of her meeting with Sarge, and gave Maggie permission to accompany him as long as she was home in time for her bath. He stood erect, held his staff above his head, and chanted some words in Gaelic. A shimmering light surrounded him, and his raven-feather cloak was gone. He was now clad in black slacks, a dark shirt with an open neck, and a black jacket. The staff had shrunk to a gnarled Blackthorn cane. He walked briskly, following the same path Nora took.

Nora had made her way to the bar, a place called The Court Jester. She was not the only man in drag that evening, but she looked more like a genetic woman than any of them. She sat at a table on the side, sipping a martini, when the waiter brought her a very unusual drink. It was a mug of beer accompanied by a shot glass of Jamison's, something she knew as an Irish Boilermaker. “Compliments of the gentleman at the bar,” the waiter told her.

She looked up at a very familiar man dressed in black. It wasn't possible, but she couldn't deny it! “Smitty!” she exclaimed.

Smith, the man in black, lifted his own mug, added a shot of whiskey, and sipped. He then sauntered over to the table. “I seem to recall a night when you drank me under the table with these,” he said.

Nora was a bit embarrassed. “How is it, I mean, how did you...”

Smith stopped her. “Why don't we talk about it in one of the private rooms?” he replied. He flagged down a waiter and slipped him some paper bearing the picture of a deceased President. The waiter smiled and waved them to the back, carrying the tray with Nora's Boilermaker. He set it on the table in the tiny private room and closed the door. Nora and Smith were alone.

Smith took his cane, muttered something, and set it against the door. “Okay, Sarge, nobody will disturb us. We need to talk.” He waited for Nora to sit, and then took his seat.

“Smitty,” said Nora, “you are probably the last person I ever expected to run into. I haven't seen you since we were at Edwards together. What have you been up to?”

Smith grinned, knowing his old friend was evading the subject with war stories. But what the heck, this might work out. “Well, after they cut back the test programs I applied for the Astronaut corps, but they were cutting back on that as well. Then I got recruited by Special Ops and became a spook. I could tell you what I did, but I'd have to kill you.”

Nora laughed. “I heard that you were in Colorado Springs. So did it have anything to do with the Stargate?”

Smith smiled. “No, not really. In fact,” he extended his hand and the cane came flying into his grasp, “I don't think you should ever mention anything about any sort of gate in Colorado Springs.”

Nora blinked, not realizing that she was being influenced. “Of course,” she said, “it's just a joke.”

“Exactly,” said Smith, letting go of the cane, which returned to its position against the door. Nora blinked again, her memory of the flying cane now erased.

“So what happened to you, Sarge? I thought you were going to put in your thirty, retire, and transition.”

Nora began to cry. Bill Smith was the only person who knew her secret, that she was really a woman, and wished desperately to transition. She had remained male only because she loved the Air Force so much, and being a man was the only way she could guarantee being a crew chief. The Air Force, unfortunately, had a closed mind toward transsexuals.

Nora was looking down when she felt the light brush of a hand on her cheek. She looked up into the eyes of Bill Smith. “Sarge,” he said, “remember who you're talking to. It's Tina, your old friend.”

“I know, Bill,” she said, “it's just, it's just,...” She hesitated. “It's just not fair!”

Tears poured from Nora's eyes as she began her story. “It was over three years ago. I put in the papers to re-enlist a year early. I thought this would be my last hitch, and then I could retire and start hormone therapy. Only I didn't count on the results of the physical.

“They did a colonoscopy. It's now required. They found a massive tumor, and it was malignant. I had colon cancer.”

Nora paused for a minute. She pulled a tissue from her purse, wiped the tears from her eyes, blew her nose, and continued. “I was taken off duty and sent to Wilford Hall in Texas. They started me on chemotherapy and radiation. I had to wear a pump all day and all night for six weeks. It pumped me full of some sort of chemicals. And every day I had to report for a dose of radiation. I guess it did what it was supposed to do, because the doctors all seemed happy. Then I got the surgery.”

She blew her nose again. “When they opened me up they discovered that the cancer had spread further than they expected. They had to cut out a lot more than they planned, including my anus and my rectum. When I woke up, I had this damned bag stuck to my gut, and got told I would have it for the rest of my life.

“Now, because of this,” she pointed to where her appliance was located, “I was discharged. Oh, they gave me full disability benefits, and I got help with my depression and with starting up my new civilian business. But because of the chemotherapy, I can't transition. No doctor will touch me. They say it will be too much stress on my body. So here I am, stuck with a man's body minus some parts I would rather have, and unable to get rid of the parts I would rather NOT have.”

She paused for a minute before reaching for the mug on the table. Emptying the contents of the shot glass into the beer she drank about half of it. “That helps,” she said.

Smith took a sip from his mug and set it down. “Sarge, what can I say? Is there anything I can do?”

Nora looked up at her old friend. “Not unless you can do some of that Houdini stuff on me and undo a bowel resection with a colostomy. And by the way, just how the heck did you get to be a Houdini?”

Smith grinned. “Actually, I'm a druid. And I got to be a druid because of some of the stuff I did in Special Ops. Don't worry, I won't kill you, but you won't be able to talk about it, except to me.”

Smith reached out and plucked his cane from the air as it flew toward him. “I can't make it permanent, but for tonight I can undo some of the past.” He held the Blackthorn cane level with his chest and spoke some words in Gaelic. A shimmering golden light surrounded Nora. When it faded, Nora had changed, and somehow she knew she was different. The colostomy was gone. Her normal functioning excretory organs had returned. But there was something else. She felt her breasts. The forms were gone! The mounds on her chest were real, flesh-and-blood breasts. And something else was different. Her male package was changed! She had a vagina!

“How, how, how did you do that?” she asked.

“It's called Transfiguration, or Shape-shifting. I can change my own form, or the form of another, for short periods of time.”

“It isn't permanent?”

“Sorry, it isn't. Transfiguration takes a bit of mystic energy to accomplish, and that energy fades with time. This ought to last about twelve hours.”

“Twelve hours,” Nora said. “Twelve hours in which to be normal. And then?”

“And then it's pumpkin time. You change back to your original form. And it would not be wise to transfigure again for a while. Unless you know the precautions to take, excessive transfiguration could have some nasty side effects.”

Nora twirled, enjoying the sensation of her feminine attire over her woman's body. “You know, Smitty, there's only one thing that could make the next twelve hours better.”

“And what would that be?” Smith asked.

“If I could spend them with my friend Tina,” she replied.

Smith grinned. He had anticipated that request. “Sure thing, Sarge,” he said. He once again held the cane above his head. The golden shimmering glow surrounded him. And when it was gone, a woman stood in Bill Smith's place. She had long, wavy, auburn hair, a dark complexion that suggested a Black Irish heritage, and a round, smiling face. She wore a black sheath dress with tan hose and black pumps. She wore earrings and a matching pendant of silver formed into Celtic knots and decorated with Connacht marble. A black leather bag with bronze links completed her ensemble. And the blackthorn cane had become shorter and thicker. No longer a cane, it had become a shillelagh.

“That is a lot easier than crossdressing,” Tina said with a giggle. “Well here we are again, Sarge, like the old days at Edwards. Two gals ready for a night on the town.” She stowed the short blackthorn cudgel in her purse.

“Say what is that thing, a magic wand?” asked Nora.

“Something like that. The Blackthorn wood serves as a conduit for the mystic energy and makes it easier to focus. It has no power of its own, but a skilled druid can use a blackthorn staff to good effect. So what do you say, let's go out and turn a few heads.”

The two friends left the room and headed out to party.

* * * * *

It had been over a week since Bill had treated Sarge to a night as a woman. For a few days there was new energy in Sarge's demeanor. But it faded shortly. Sarge had enjoyed his night out with Tina, but he knew it wasn't permanent. And what was worse, he knew that the next time would also not be permanent.

Smitty came by a few times and lightened his wallet on rockets and motors. They always talked, and Sarge always had a cup of good, strong Air Force coffee ready to offer. They talked of old times at Edwards Air Force Base and wondered at the fate of some old friends. Some of them had died in the Gulf, others had gone on to civilian jobs, and one or two were actually astronauts. All the while, Smith was reading between the lines. He wanted desperately to help his old friend.

While they were trading war stories, an elfin woman dressed mostly in pink came into the shop. She looked around a few seconds, and then walked up to the counter. “Hello,” she said, extending her hand, “I'm Dr. Misty Dawn, a local pediatrician. I was wondering if you could do a custom job for me.”

“I'm certain I can. What do you need? A bear? A cat? A monkey?”

“I need a little child. In particular, I need a little boy with a colostomy.

“You see, one of my patients is a five-year-old boy who just had to get a temporary colostomy. He'll have the pouch for a year. He doesn't know anybody with a pouch, so I thought I'd get him a little buddy to share his thoughts with. I have used dolls before and they can be very therapeutic.”

Sarge smiled a very sad smile. “I'm really very sorry to hear about that. I've got a colostomy myself, so I can commiserate. Where is his stoma located?”

“It's on his left side about three inches above his belt.

“Ouch! Not a good location. I'm glad that it's temporary, for the boy's sake. Okay, what kind of buddy do you think he would like?”

“Well, he's Hispanic, so darker skin, brown eyes, and brown hair would be good. Otherwise, just like any little boy. And I think he would like a cloth doll.”

“Not a problem. I can have it ready in a week. I'll put a little red patch where the stoma would be and then put a tiny pouch and belt on him. Sound good?”

“Oh, definitely. How much will I owe you?”

“Tell you what, Doc. Get him better and have him drop in to visit the shop. That’s the only price I ask.”

Misty smiled. “That is so generous! Thank you so very much!”

“You're welcome. Just be sure to mention where you got it. Could I have your phone number, please?”

Misty handed Sarge a business card. “That's my office number. If I'm not in just leave a message with my service.”

“That's fine, Doctor. I'll have the doll ready next week.”

“Why thank you, Mister...?” She hesitated, with a questioning tone.

“Just call me 'Sarge.'”.

“And my name is Misty. Goodbye, Sarge,”

“Goodbye, Dr. Misty.”

“The kids call me that,” Misty told him. “Just call me Misty.”

“Will do, Misty.”

Misty walked out of the shop, the bell tinkling as she closed it behind her.

“Well, business sure is good,” Sarge said.

“If you keep giving them away you won't be in business for long,” Smith warned him.

“Nonsense. I have more than enough to live on. This place is just to keep busy.”

“Suit yourself, Sarge,” Smith replied. He drained his cup. “Boy, does that ever bring back memories. I just loved a good cup of coffee before morning launch. There's nothing like a good cup of coffee. And that's exactly what we have here, NOTHING like a good cup of coffee.”

Sarge groaned, having heard that old chestnut at least a billion times. “Don't you have a job or something?” he said.

“Thanks for reminding me,” Smith said. “I have some things to take care of. I'll see you Saturday night, Sarge.”

“Looking forward to it,” Sarge replied as Smith picked up his Blackthorn cane and headed down the street.

One block away he turned left where Misty was waiting for him.

“Did you get what you needed?”

“Yes, I did.” she replied, holding the instrument.

“You’ve been watching too much television. That looks exactly like a Sonic Screwdriver.”

“It works more like a Tri-Corder,” Misty said. “I managed to get the readings I needed. I'll analyze them and bring them to the Gathering tonight. You are coming, of course?”

“Yes, I'll be there.”

“Come as Tina. This is a family Gathering.”

“Like I need to have my arm twisted!” Smith replied.

Misty gave him a kiss on the cheek before they walked off in different directions.

* * * * *

You would think that a Gathering of witches would be something out of The Scottish Play, with steaming cauldrons and black cats and bearded, wart-faced hags in pointy hats. Not so. This gathering of the Aunties, all very powerful witches, was more like a Tupperware party. The kids had all been fed pizza and milk and were now in the caring hands of their daddies, enjoying the latest animated gem from Pixar while their mommies chatted over coffee, tea, or water. Finally, Shelly called them all to order.

“All right girls,” Shelly began. “I've asked for this Gathering as a favor to Tina. Now we know what a great help she has been with the Kamp, and she has given generously of her time with her Book Club and her Morning Stories, as well as being the Kamp's model rocket counselor. She hasn’t asked for much from us, other than the opportunity to contribute. Tonight she is asking a favor of us. Tina, you have the floor.”

Tina was wearing a wool gypsy skirt with a cotton peasant top. Her wavy auburn hair was bound back with a leather thong, exposing her silver and turquoise earrings that matched her necklace. She stood to address the gathering. “One of my oldest friends needs our help,” she said, and told them about Sarge.

The women listened intently, for listening was their greatest strength. They all felt empathy for Sarge and his unfortunate plight, especially when they understood his desire to transition. This was something they all could agree on. But what were they to do?

Tina finished her tale, with a plea for help. All were silent until Holly spoke up.

“You know, Tina, our heart goes out to your friend. If it were in my power nobody would ever suffer the way he has, most especially a veteran. But we do have limited resources, and a mandate from the special angel who makes this all possible. We started the Little Kids' Kamp for that purpose, to let adults with children's' spirits live for a time as children. Your friend is an adult, and from what you say has no desire to be a child. Are we really the ones to help him?”

Tina answered, “If it were in my power to help her, I would. My magic comes from a different tradition than yours, but still derives from the same Source. But by myself, I do not have sufficient power.

“I ask this of you as a favor. I have not asked anything of you before. If it were anybody but Sarge...”
Tina hesitated, a tear trickling down her cheek. “You have to understand, Sarge was the one who helped me to become Tina. She was the only one I could ever share my secret with, and I was the only one she could, either. Without her I might have spent years denying my true self, pretending I was a macho guy and trying to suppress my feminine aspect. I owe my sanity to Sarge. She needs my help, and I have to find a way. Please, Holly, help me to help my friend.”

Holly paused. “You use feminine pronouns to refer to your friend.”

“She is a woman, Holly. She always has been.”

Holly nodded. “I understand Misty has something to add.”

Misty rose as Tina stepped back. “At Tina's request I made a surreptitious scan of her friend, Sarge, and I can confirm what she has said. Sarge has the soul of a woman, strongly female. In fact, it is so profoundly female I'm surprised that he hasn't gone off the deep end. It is very possible that his colon cancer was accelerated and exacerbated by severe depression stemming from his Gender Identity Disphoria.”

“So he is GID?” asked Jenna.

“Extremely,” said Misty. “In fact, if it is not treated quickly, I predict fatal complications within five years. Clinical depression can cause a lot of problems, and Sarge has a congenital predisposition to brain aneurysm. If he doesn't get treatment, he'll have a massive stroke.”

The women gasped at the grim prediction. Kim asked, “Is this for certain?”

Misty turned to her laptop and tapped a few keys. A large hologram graphing the results appeared in the middle of the circle. “I input the results and plotted them on the Real Time Analyzer. There's a 99% certainty Sarge will suffer a stroke. The only uncertainty is the outcome. I'm showing about a 50% chance of death and a 38% chance of becoming a vegetable. I'm sorry, but Sarge will probably not survive.”

Holly then said, “Somehow I don't think our special little angel would object. Misty, what can we do?”

“I projected a minimum-intrusive intervention with these results.” She tapped a few more keys. “What we would do is give the timeline a little nudge so that Sarge would get a colonoscopy five years earlier. The cancer would be discovered at the polyp stage. As you can see, he does not develop cancer with a 100% certainty. Unfortunately, we run into the law of unintended consequences.”

Misty tapped the keys a few more times. “In this timeline, Sarge has a 100% certainty of death in three years' time”

The Aunties were stunned. “How could this be?” asked Holly.

“Sarge is very conscious of duty, and very patriotic. In this timeline he volunteers for service in the war zone, and unfortunately, he gets killed.”

A quiet settled over the meeting, broken by Tina. She began to laugh, but there was no humor in it. “Oh, what a joke. What a horrible, awful joke. If I give my friend her heart's desire, she dies. If I sit back and do nothing, she dies. Tell me, what's the use of having magical powers if I can't help my friend?” Her bitter laughter had become bitter tears.

Misty spoke up. “Perhaps there is a way to help, Tina, but there will be a price.”

“What sort of a price?”

“Sarge will have to sacrifice something she loves.”

Tina hesitated. Then she said, “Tell me. Then maybe I can tell her. I'll let Sarge decide if she wants to make this sacrifice.”

Misty explained her idea to the Aunties.

* * * * *

It was 5:00 PM on Saturday when Bill Smith came walking into Sarge's Hobbies. Sarge had been waiting for him. He hung the “CLOSED” sign in the door and turned off the lights. “So, you ready to do the Houdini thing?” he said.

“I'll do that later, Sarge,” Smith said. “Right now I need for you to come with me.”

“What's this?” Sarge asked. “I thought we were going out tonight, you know, Nora and Tina.”

“I'll explain everything, Sarge, but you have to come with me. Trust me.”

Sarge replied, “Trust a pilot? Yeah … right!” Sarge grinned to let Smitty know he was kidding, as he grabbed his jacket. They stepped out onto the sidewalk and down the street.

“Where are we headed?” asked Sarge.

“To a friend's house. There are some people I want you to meet.”

They walked a few blocks, passing the time with war stories, until they came to a brownstone building. Smith walked up the steps and pressed the doorbell. A woman opened the door and let them in. Sarge followed.

Inside, he was greeted by several women. He immediately recognized Misty. “Say, the doll you ordered is ready,” he said.

“I'll be by to pick it up on Monday,” Misty replied. “For now, could you please have a seat? We need to talk.”

Sarge was puzzled, but he sat down in an armchair and accepted a cup of coffee. It was not as strong as he liked, but it was still good. The ladies all took seats, and Smith stood in the center. He held his blackthorn cane above his head and chanted some Gaelic words. The golden light surrounded him, and he was once again Tina.

“They know about you, Sarge,” Tina said. “I told them about you, and they want to help.”

“What do you mean?” Sarge asked.

Holly said, “Tina told us about you. She told us of your health problems, and of your desire to transition. Tina has done a lot for us, and she called in the favor.”

Holly stood, and a glow surrounded her. Her appearance changed. She looked older and had a receding hairline. “You see, we're all like you. We are women with a mutual birth defect, being born male. We all transitioned at different times. The results were as good as could be achieved, I suppose, but not as good as we wanted. Then something happened. Something miraculous.”

Holly stepped back, and her youth returned. Shelly took her place. “Almost all of us connected in Internet chatrooms, and in the rooms we met a very extraordinary girl. She had the soul of a child, and always took a child's persona. Yes, she was really an adult and a man, but we all knew her as Becky, the little girl.”

Misty arose. “In our fantasy world we were witches, and could grant wishes. Becky wished to be a real little girl, and we granted her wish. At least, in the world of fantasy, we could. But the real world took our Becky from us. She passed away, a victim of cancer.”

As Misty sat, another woman, Jenna, stood. “We were all saddened by Becky's passing. But after she died, those of us who has known her had a very strange dream. A little angel came to visit us. She told us that she was our Becky, and not to be sad, because she now had what she always wanted. She would be a little girl angel forever. And because we were all so kind to her, she made our fantasy come true. We were all suddenly witches, and had great power.”

Holly stood again. “We have used our power to help people like Becky. In our Little Kids' Kamp, we enable adults to deal with their Age Identity Disphoria. It's similar to Gender Identity Disphoria, and sometimes the two conditions exist at the same time. Many of the men we help become little girls for a time.”

The women were silent. Sarge said, “So what has this to do with me? I don't want to be a kid.”

“No,” said Tina, “but you want to be a woman, and I have asked my friends to help.”

“Tina was very persuasive, Sarge,” said Shelly.

Sarge sat back, considering what he had just heard. Then he asked, “Just what do you want to do?”

“Magic,” Holly replied. “We want to make you a woman.”

“I thought it was only temporary,” he noted.

Tina spoke up. “Transfiguration as I perform it, using the druidic tradition of runes, is temporary. What the Aunties want to do is more involved. We want to re-write your life.”

Misty went on, “It's a very powerful spell. You will remember what your life was like as a man, and we will remember that you were male. But as far as the rest of the world will remember, you were always female.”

“Oh, and one more thing,” Tina said. “We're going to eliminate the colon cancer, so you won't have a pouch.”

Sarge was speechless. A tear trickled down his cheek, then another, and he began to weep tears of joy. “I don't believe this! I, I,...”

Then Tina spoke up. “Sarge, before you say yes, there's something you need to know. This comes with a price. In order to accept, you will have to agree to help us out with the Kamp.”

“That's not a problem, Tina! I love kids!”

“Well, there's something else. You will have to give up something you love. You will have to leave the Air Force.”

“What? But why? I can't join at all?”

“No, Sarge, you will still join, and you will still be a crew chief. But because you will be a woman, you will never get promoted past Master Sergeant. I'm sorry, but you won't be allowed to go for thirty years. You will have to take a discharge after twenty-five.”

Sarge was silent. He thought about it for a few minutes. Then he said, “Well, twenty-five is better than none, and I would have been flying a desk instead of being on the flight line. So, why the hell not?”

Tina ran over and hugged him. “Hey, don't get all weepy, Smitty!” Sarge said. “So what happens next?”

“A little magic,” said Tina. “Just stand, and we'll form a circle.”

Sarge stood up. The women, Tina included, all stood around him and linked hands. He became aware of a golden light that surrounded the circle and enveloped him. He felt weightless, as though he were being swept up into the clouds. And in the golden light, he was met by a little girl with long, golden hair, a pure white gown, and a golden light that emanated from within her.

“Are you ... ?” Sarge asked, not finishing his sentence.

The little girl nodded. “I am you. I am your spirit. I am the spirit of all like you, the eternal child. Always remember that you are really a child of the One beyond all notion of age or gender. Keep your childlike sense of wonder alive, and you shall never grow old.” Suddenly she shone like the midday sun. Sarge felt as if he was falling.

Then he was back, circled by the women. Only he, was no longer he. She was instantly aware of the changes to her body. She was dressed in a simple jumper with a white blouse and sandals. Her hair flowed down to her shoulders, and she was wearing a necklace of colorful beads.

“It's true!” she said. “I'm a woman!”

“Welcome, sister,” Shelly greeted her as she was embraced by the rest of the family. She had finally come home.

Gina walked over to Tina, “How about you, dear? Would you like to stay a woman, just like Nora?”

“No, I prefer to go back and forth.”

“Let us know if you want to be one permanently, gal.”

Tears were running down Tina’s face, “You don’t know how much this means to me, both the offer, and even more, what you have done for Sarge.”

As Gina hugged her, she whispered, “I think we do.”

* * * * *

The new shop at The Mall opened with balloons, bright ribbons, and free hot dogs and soda courtesy of Muskovitz Catering, and passed out by Jenna and Shelly. (Naturally, the hot dogs were Hebrew National, the only kind Muskovitz used in his strictly Kosher business.) Kimmie, dressed as a clown was making balloon animals for the children who stopped in to The Mall's latest addition, a place called The Bear Market.

Inside the shop were shelves of cuddly little plush animals, mostly teddy bears, but also kittens, puppies, unicorns, monkeys, and a few pineapples and cucumbers as well. There was also a special section where kids of all ages could make their very own plush friends, complete with clothes, accessories, and a special stuffing machine. And that was just the beginning. A little further back one could find plastic models, crafts of all types, trains, airplanes, and a special section for model rockets.
Right behind the counter with the yo-yo's and the airbrushes, Sarge had her special wall. It had pictures of her next to every aircraft she had ever worked as crew chief. One in particular showed her standing next to a pilot, Maj. William Smith.

Smith admired the wall. “Nice lookin' fellow next to the X-57, Sarge,” he said. “I see you made sure your 'I love me' wall is in place.”

Sarge sipped from her coffee cup. “Yep, had to get the history of my Air Force career out on display. And that one picture isn't so bad, even if I had to share it with the snot-nosed pilot I let fly my aircraft.”
Smith grinned. The two had been trading barbs as long as they had known one another, and weren't about to stop now. Smith looked at the pictures and decorations, featuring not only Sarge but her new husband, Mike Griscom. Mike was a retired Green Beret and a confirmed Teddy Bear fan. He also enjoyed model trains. The Bear Market was a dream they shared, now come true.

Sarge paused to refill her cup, and Smith noticed she was pouring from the orange carafe. “Hey, Sarge,” he asked, “when did you start drinking decaf coffee?”

“Ever since the rabbit died,” she said.

Smith did a double-take. “You mean...?”

“Yep, I got a bun in the oven. Mike is overjoyed, and I couldn't be happier.”

“So when is the blessed event?”

“I'm about two months gone, so say about seven months.”

“Congratulations. I guess that make me sort of an uncle.”

“You're already an Auntie. At least Tina is. We want you to be an uncle, too.”

Smith gazed about the shop in admiration. The shelves were neatly stocked. Over in the middle of the store, Mike Griscom was showing some kids how to stuff their very own plush animals.

“This is a great place, Sarge, but I'm going to miss your old hobby shop back in the city. The neighborhood really needs a place like that.”

“I haven't left the neighborhood, Smitty,” Sarge replied.

“Oh, are you going to have two stores?”

“No, just this one.”

“I don't understand,” Smith said. How can you have just one store but still be in the old neighborhood?”

Sarge smiled and set down her cup. “Just take a look over near this counter,” she said.

Smith walked back to the counter and, sure enough, there was a wooden door with a little bell over the top. Funny how he hadn't noticed it before. He opened the door and stepped outside.

Smith looked around incredulously. He was on The Street of Dreams in his city neighborhood. And the door was adjacent to the same shop window with the same display of Sarge's Hobby Shop. But the sign was quite different now; this shop was The Bear Market.

Smith walked back into the store where Sarge was grinning at him. “How...?”

“Magic,” Sarge replied.

“When did you learn magic?”

“In a way, I've always known magic,” said Sarge. “Smitty, did you ever wonder how I always seemed to have just the right part just in time to make sure the bird was Code 1 for the morning launch?
Whether it was a wheel nut, an air accumulator, a hydraulic line, a black box, or whatever, I always managed to get it.”

“I just figured you knew where the bodies were buried.”

“Well, there was a little bit of friendly persuasion, but we crew chiefs have always had a special magic of our own. So when Holly and the other Aunties asked me to help them out, we set up this store with a few special qualities. Like my front door. It opens onto the Street of Dreams, but that's not the only place it opens. It also opens in neighborhoods all over the world. Wherever someone needs our help, he can find his way into The Bear Market.”

Smith whistled, … “That is some powerful magic.”

Sarge grinned some more. “Not really. You want to see some magic? Look at this.”

She pointed to the plush stuffing machine where Maggie had just filled a golden fur teddy bear with polyfoam and was now dressing it in a gray hooded cloak. She was laughing with joy as she held her creation high. “Look, Sarge, I made a teddy bear! Isn't she pretty? She's a real witch, just like Mommy!”

“Keep it quiet, Maggie, you don't want everyone to know, do you?”

Maggie smiled as she held a finger to her lips. Then she walked up to Shelly who was grilling hot dogs for the customers. She tugged on Shelly's pants leg and held the teddy bear for her mother to see. “Look, Mommy, I made this bear for you.”

Shelly looked at her daughter holding the teddy and tears began to fill her eyes. “Why this is beautiful! Maggie. This is a wonderful present. Thank you!”

Maggie just beamed a very broad smile. “I love you, Mommy.”

Shelly picked up her daughter and hugged her. “And I love you, too, sweetheart.”

Smith and Sarge had seen the entire performance. “Now there is real magic, Smitty.”

“You got that right, Sarge.”

The two then talked of absent friends from their days in the Air Force.

Eventually the grand opening wound down. The shops all closed and the lights were winking out.
Shelly had her daughters and her new teddy bear in tow and was guiding them way back to their home. “It looks like we have gotten Sarge's new shop off to a great start, girls,” Shelly said. “And you all behaved very well. Thank you for helping.”

The girls all smiled. “I like Sarge,” Baruchah said. “She's a nice lady.”

“Yes, she is,” Shelly said. “She is quite a lady.”

“She used to be very sad,” Maggie said, “But she's not sad any more. Now she's happy.”

“How are you so sure of that?” Shelly asked.

“Because the aminals told me, and the aminals never lie.”

(c) 2007, Valentina Michelle Smith

My thanks to shalimar and Holly Logan for proofreading and editing my original manuscript. Their assistance is, as always, invaluable.

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Magic

I like the way magic works in this world.

Not over the top, like in so many fantasy worlds, but with limits and real personal sacrifices for results.

I hope we keep seeing Sarge and Smitty/Tina!