Something Feels Strange - 51

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Something Feels Strange…

By Tiffany B. Quinn

My relationship with Laurie suddenly comes into sharp focus. It was what? Two months ago that I was having this same conversation with her? Only then I was the one feeling like a fool. If she felt half as bad then as I do now, I really feel sorry for her. I know how Andy must feel having been there myself. I need to try to make him understand that I really do love him, regardless of the motivation which began the relationship. That’s how Laurie got through to me.

I really, really hope this conversation has a similar ending to the one I had with Laurie. At least we won’t be fighting mosquitoes at the same time.

Chapter 51: It's OverOr Is It?

“Andy,” I begin the conversation tentatively, “before we go too far, I want you to know that what I said earlier is true. I do love you. No matter what you’re thinking or others may have told you. I. DO. LOVE. YOU. I just hope you can love me too when we’re done.” I’m sure that my makeup is in shambles from the tears.

“Do they teach you that in spy school?” he asks. The pain in his voice is intense. “You girls really know how to twist a guy around. I don’t know what to believe right now. God knows, I’d love to believe you, but how can I be sure you’re being truthful? You used me. How many other guys have you done that to?”

“Honest, Andy,” I quietly cry, “I do love you. I didn’t want to lie to you. I just wanted to be friends. I never wanted to hurt you.”

We drive in stony silence to our agreed upon lunch spot. Andy just stares ahead and I silently cry as we drive.

He must be really upset as he doesn’t come around to open my door. I guess I’ve earned that.

Finding a secluded spot under a sycamore tree by the nearly dry creek we sit on the grass. Silently, he hands me a sandwich and a bottle of water. I’m not in the mood for food, so I just set it down by me.

Finally I ask, “Andy, why are we here? You don’t seem to want to be.”

“Mom said I had to,” he replies with resignation. “She said that I should give you a chance to explain yourself. For some reason, she thinks you walk on water and that I shouldn’t let you go.”

That’s nice to know. At least Mrs. Lang is still a friend.

Taking a deep breath, I ask, “So what can I tell you? You obviously don’t trust me.”

“Why?” he quietly asks.

“Why what?” I respond.

“Why have you deceived me?” He asks, “Why have you used me? Why should I trust you now?”

I watch a bird hopping around in the creek bed looking for his lunch for a few minutes as I contemplate my reply. Should I tell him everything or stick to my Alaska cover? I get the feeling I shouldn’t tell him—or anyone—about the sex change. That would probably freak him out even more anyway. Knowing your girlfriend is really a guy can be somewhat unsettling.

I sigh. There’s no way that I can come totally clean here. I just need to find a way for him not to hate Tina when she disappears.

“Andy,” I begin, “things haven’t turned out as I planned. I can’t tell you everything, but I won’t lie to you. There are some things that just must be kept quiet or people will get hurt. It’s not that I don’t trust you, it’s just that it’s not my place expose these things.”

“Are you really Kristina Jeffers?” he asks.

“Yes and no,” I reply. “Legally, I’m Kristina Marie Jeffers now, but I haven’t always been.”

“Did you become Tina for this mission?” he asks.

“Yes,” I reply, “I was someone else before this summer.”

“I don’t suppose you can tell me who you were before this summer, can you?” he asks.

“No,” I cry, “I can’t.”

I’m in a much worse position than Laurie was when we had this conversation. I just can’t tell him everything he wants to know.

“Is there any hope for our relationship?” He asks with a forlorn voice.

“I don’t think so,” my tears were really falling now. I feel soooo rotten. Right now I’d like to tell him that we’d be together forever. “And it’s not because I don’t want it to. Honestly, Andy, I do love you so much that my heart feels like it’s being torn in two knowing this has to end.”

“What can you tell me?” he asks in a resigned tone. I suspect that my tears are shaking his resolve. I must look like a miserable little puppy. Few guys can stand firm in the face of a distraught girl. It’s just not in their nature—I should know.

“I can tell you that I was recruited to help uncover an espionage ring at the Lab. It was supposed to be just an easy information gathering position, but it turned into so much more than that. Your father was one of many suspects.  My task was to find a way to get close to several of the people on the suspect list. My cousin, Laurie, was also helping. We had planned that she’d try to become your friend while I pursued other leads, but that all fell apart once you and I met. There’s something about you that really attracts me. Believe me, I really fought it. Remember how we agreed to be just friends? In a lot of ways, I wish we could have. I never wanted to fall for you. It just happened. I wasn’t strong enough to resist the feelings that you generated in my heart even though I knew it was the wrong thing to do. I’ve thought about it a lot lately and I’ve come to believe that it’s your kind, gentle nature which is so fascinating. I don’t know any other guy like you. You really are a truly amazing guy. I guess I fell for you almost as soon as we met. I tried so hard to avoid it, but I couldn’t resist.

“Remember that hike we went on with Laurie? When you helped me up into that tree, it was like electricity coursed through my soul. I was mesmerized by your hypnotic hazel eyes, the feel of your strong muscles, and that wonderful manly scent of yours. My heart stopped beating as I wanted nothing more than to become yours at that moment. I’ve never felt that way about any boy—ever. I’ll never forget that moment. The very last thing I wanted was to feel that way about you, knowing my reason for becoming your friend. I was so confused and frightened. As I said, I knew then that it was a hopeless act to get involved with you but I couldn’t resist it. I just knew that my life would be over if we couldn’t connect.

“Then you disappeared underground for a few days. I thought that you must have felt my attraction and didn’t want some silly girl chasing after you.  I was scared that you hated me. It wasn’t much fun—those were horrible days for me. On one hand I prayed that you’d run but then I was terrified that you might.

“Anyway, finally you called me back. I was over the moon when you asked me to the dance, but I was very frightened too. Remember how nervous we both were when you picked me up? I thought I might die before we even got to the country club. But the night turned out to be magical. It’s an evening that I will cherish the rest of my life. It’s hard to believe that it was only two and a half weeks ago. In the intervening time I’ve come to really love and appreciate you. Unfortunately—in the back of my mind—there was an annoying little voice reminding that this will never last and that I shouldn’t get attached to you. I guess that I decided to live for the moment and just enjoy basking in the warmth of your embrace knowing that it would all come crashing down on the both of us very soon.

“I know that we’re both young and the chances of any kids our age having a lasting relationship is small at best.  I just hoped that we could end as friends and have a great memory to cherish.”

“So,” he asks, seeming to be softening a little, “did you learn anything about my father?”

“Yes,” I sigh, “I did. And before you ask, yes, what I learned was the key to the case. In fact the key came the first night I visited your home. Remember when we went upstairs to work on the website? I left my phone downstairs. The phone is a super special smart phone which has an eavesdropping capability. Anyway it recorded an argument between your parents. Your dad accused me of being a spy, but for the wrong reasons. My computer also has some special capabilities for eavesdropping and I left it in your foyer while we went to the fireworks.  The recording it made captured a phone call your father made to Mr. Rana. This phone call provided the key that broke the case wide open.  Once that happened, I was given the opportunity to bow out of the investigation but I didn’t. I didn’t want to leave you and the other new friends that I’d made. In hindsight it was almost certainly the wrong decision—sticking around put me and others in harm’s way.

“Ben is in the hospital now because of me. I feel real bad about that. That car was aiming for me and—thanks to some quick reactions by my bodyguard, she—the driver—missed me, but got Ben instead. I can’t tell you how many times in the last few days I’ve wished that I hadn’t gone on that run. I should have quit before anyone got hurt.”

I have to stop for a minute to stifle a sob. God, this is just sooo hard.

“The FBI picked up the case a week or so ago and they decided I needed to stay on the job. They really wanted to nail the bastards who were going to kidnap me. They knew that I was very tempting bait and it sounded exciting to me at the time. The faked sprain was a way to separate me from others so that no one else would get hurt.”

“You knew that these guys were out to get you,” he exclaims in surprise, “and you stayed in?”

“Yeah,” I admit with a humorless laugh, “Stupid, wasn’t it? Anyway I was willing to take the risk—in part—because I wanted to be with you for a couple of extra weeks. I was also enjoying being with my cousin and with Caitlin. You three have been real examples to me of what friends really are and I’m better for having been around you.”

He just stares at me with a strange expression. At least it’s not the accusing look that started this talk.

“What?” I ask in confusion. I don’t know what the boy is thinking. I hope it’s good but it’s hard to tell.

“Let me get this right,” he reflects back to me. “You were recruited to find moles at the Lab. My father was a suspect. You used me to get to him. You exposed him but fell for me in the process. You became bait to catch some really bad guys and you stayed with it even after one failed attempt on your life just to be with your friends longer. As a result of information you gained from sneaking around my house, the world is now a safer place.”

I’m still confused as to where this is going, “I guess that about sums it up.”

“Wow,” he says. I wait for more but nothing comes.

“I don’t know if this helps,” I offer, “but I also helped your mother get what she needs for her divorce. Please don’t tell her, but I’m the one who arranged for her to receive some evidence of his unfaithfulness which she’s using to strengthen her case.”

“You’re the one who did that?” he asked with surprise.

“Well,” I hedge, “I did ask the FBI to pass it on. Promise me you won’t tell your mother where it came from. Please?”

“Okay,” he says, “I won’t. She told me about the video but won’t let me see it.”

“That’s probably a good thing,” I tell him. “He does have a porn addiction. From the little I saw of it the video is basically a candid porn flick with him and a prostitute in the starring roles. The video is actually of pretty good quality for a hidden camera.”

“Wow,” he says again. “Is there anything else I should know?”

“Umm,” I fidget a little, “I suppose that I should tell you that I put some spy software on your computer system with the help of a geek at work.”

“You what?” he asked in surprise.

“Planted spy software?” I cringe. “It allowed me to see what transpired on your home system. I was particularly focused on your father’s activity.”

“Did you learn anything from that?” He questioned me.

“Umm, yeah,” I sheepishly admit. “Your father isn’t a very nice guy.”

“What else,” he continues the inquisition.

“Your father has several million dollars stashed away in an off-shore account?” I offer. I’m hoping this tidbit will distract him from pressing his current issue. “I don’t think your mother is aware of it.”

“He has WHAT?!?!?” Andy exclaims. “How much did you say?”

“Several million,” I reply hesitantly.

“Wow,” Andy says again—this time with wonder in his voice. “I’m sure Mom doesn’t know about that. Are you going to tell her?”

“I’ve asked if she can get to it,” I reply, “but the FBI tells me that they’ll seize it all if they can get to it. There’s a law that prevents criminals from profiting from their crimes. The problem is that it’s located in a country that doesn’t cooperate with the US in banking matters. In fact, the FBI can seize all his assets here when he’s convicted. It’s a good thing that your parents separated before all this hit the fan because there may be some protection afforded her as some of the assets can be clearly identified as hers and not his by the divorce court. I really wanted her to get that video so she’d file for divorce before this all came to a head.  I didn’t see much point in telling her about the money if she can’t get to it anyway. It’s probably best she doesn’t know about it when the FBI comes calling.”

“The FBI came calling yesterday,” Andy informs me. “They grilled both of us for several hours trying to determine what we did and didn’t know about Dad’s activities. I think we were effective in convincing them that we knew nothing—it wasn’t hard because it was true. This has certainly been a shock for both of us. We really didn’t have a clue as to what he was up to. Several million you say? I wonder what the bastard was going to do with that.”

Andy seems to have let down his guard considerably.

“So, Andy,” I ask quietly, still feeling really miserable. “Where do we go from here? I’m really sorry to have used you, but I had to. The end result is having a big impact on national security and I’ve done what I can to help your mother. If our friendship is sacrificed for those benefits, then I guess it has to be. However, I was hoping we could end this summer as friends. If it wasn’t for this investigation we’d never have met, but because of it our relationship is doomed. It’s a classic tragedy.”

I must look a sight. I didn’t know that a person could let loose so many tears. They’re still flowing down my cheeks and I feel my lower lip quivering. I’ve never felt so miserable in my entire life—either one.

“Oh, Tina,” his defenses finally fall and he scoots over next to me and wraps his arms around me. “This must be so much harder for you than for me.”

My God, this guy really is a good man. I can learn a lot from him. His kindness only intensifies my feelings of guilt and I sob uncontrollably for a while. Through all this he holds me close and whispers that it’ll be all right. How I wish at this moment that I could be the girl who deserves this wonderful guy. I’d like to keep him.

Eventually I regain some semblance of control.

“You know,” he says reflectively, “They say that love conquers all. Isn’t there some way we can beat this thing? Why can’t we just agree to meet up again somewhere after all this has blown over?”

“Andy,” I gaze into eyes—those beautiful hazel eyes. I just want burn the image of them into my mind. “I don’t deserve a guy like you—you’re the most amazing boy I’ve ever met. I envy the lucky girl who you chose to spend your life with—I really do. I’m just soooo sorry that it won’t be me. Very soon, Kristina Marie Jeffers will be just a memory. It has to be that way. Trust me, it has to be. Let’s just enjoy the little time we have left and move on having been enriched by the experience. It’s very difficult to imagine but out there somewhere we’ll each find happiness with someone else, but the memory of our short time together will make us better people and better companions. The memory will be better if we part as friends.”

We sit there is silence for a few minutes. I snuggle as close as I can to him and he continues to hold me tightly. I’ll really miss this.

“Ah, hum,” We nearly jump out our skins at the clearing of a throat behind us. Neither of us heard anyone approach.

“I hate to break up a beautiful thing,” I hear the Major’s voice as I spin around to see who’s there, “But you have somewhere to be, Princess. People are waiting for you to grant them audience.”

“Princess?” Andy looks at me in surprise. I suppose an obviously military/bodyguard looking guy calling me ‘Princess’ must give entirely the wrong impression.

“Andy,” I do the introductions as we scramble to our feet, “meet my Dad, Major Jeffers. Daddy, meet Andy. Daddy insists on calling me ‘Princess’. I’m not really royalty.”

“You wouldn’t know it at times,” the Major quips.

Shaking Andy’s hand in a typical manly way—you know, like it’s a contest to see who’s got the strongest grip—the Major says, “Thanks for being so good to my little girl. She thinks the world of you.”

Andy looks questioningly at me.

“Yes,” I tell him, “he is my father, for now, but no, he’s not my original one. It’s hard to explain. Please don’t ask.”

Turning to the Major, I ask, “Can we have a couple of more minutes, Daddy?” I give him my best impression of a sad, pathetic pleading puppy.

“Sure, Princess,” he smiles kindly, “I’ll just be over there waiting,” he gestures to a bench a little way down the bike trail.

There’s an awkward silence for a few minutes as Andy and I stand before each other.

“Andy,” I say finally, looking sincerely into those heavenly hazel eyes, “In some ways I’m so sorry, but in the end, I’m glad to have known and loved you. I’ve been one very fortunate girl. I feel like the luckiest girl on earth to have been able to love you and have you love me. For me, the pain will be worth the experience. I hope you can find it in your heart to forgive me and remember me with some fondness. I really do love you.”

He reaches out and pulls me close. “I love you too, Tina. I think I always will. You’ve helped me see so many things more clearly in such a short time. You’ve taken me from darkness into light. It’s amazing how much of an impact you’ve had on my life in only a few short weeks. You’ve opened my eyes to a whole new world. At the same time you’ve turned my world upside down and now I have to figure out how to fit the pieces back together again. I just wish you were going to be here to help me.”

“I wish I could, too,” I tell him as I wrap my arms around him, savoring the feeling. “But your other new friends can do that for you also. You’ve met some really cool people in the last few weeks. Give them a chance.” With a grin I add, “watch out for Caitlin. I know for a fact that she has been developing an eye for you as have a few other girls I know. Once I’m out of the picture she or one of them may try to take my place.”

“I don’t know about her,” he laughs, “she’s a bit intense for my liking. I just want you.”

I stand on the tips of my toes and unleash a passionate kiss on him. When we come up for air I respond, “And I want you, but we can’t have each other.”

He gives me another intense kiss before we separate.

“Will I see you again?” he asks as we gather our uneaten lunches and walk hand-in-hand towards the Major.

“I don’t know,” I honestly respond. “It depends on what happens in this meeting. I’m hoping they’ll let me stay long enough for the camping trip—that is if you can still come.”

“I can come,” he says, “Just let me know.”

“If you hear from me again,” I assure him. “Then I can go. If I have to leave today, you’ll never hear from me again. This will be our goodbye.”

He pulls me into a final toe curling kiss. I’m really really going to miss the kisses. They’re just not the same for a guy.

“I love you, Tina,” he whispers as we part company.

“I love you too, Andy,” I murmur softly in reply, the tears again streaming down my cheeks. Where does all this water come from?

---<>---

I’m not sure what the rush is. I’ve been cooling my heels in Aunt Jen’s office for over two hours now, waiting to hear my fate. It’s been more than enough time to restore my face to its earlier glory. Apparently there’s some big meeting going on involving the Lab’s security team, the Major’s anti-terrorist squad, and the FBI. My continued involvement in the final phases of the investigation are supposedly a part of the agenda. The Major tells me that the FBI has decided that they want to continue to use me as bait to draw out Mr. Rana. They think his obsession with me will bring him back where they can catch him. He is considered to be a real threat to national security. Apparently I make good bait—and I’m experienced at it. The Lab people have achieved their original objectives so they want to return me to my former status—they still haven’t told the FBI what that is. I doubt they ever will.

During this time, I spend lots of time with Brain Central—there’s not much else to do. I haven’t had much need for its moral guidance in a while. Actually I probably have but we haven’t consciously worked together much since I settled into my role as Tina.

Knowing pretty well what the options are going to be, Brain Central and I confer about the best course to take.

You know that you and Chris may be the same person, but your motivations are different, I’m told by my moral compass.

Yeah, I know, I ponder on that thought. Relationships are not as high on Chris’s list. Sure Chris wants to maintain a strong connection with Laurie and a few of his other friends, but he keeps it in context of the greater goals in his life. Running, college, and security are all balanced before the relationship side of his life is fully considered. Tina on the other hand seems to thrive on developing relationships first. She’s more interested in helping people than Chris is. Don’t get me wrong, Chris has always been concerned about others, but not to the depth that Tina has. Tina is similar to Chris in that she’s worried about the future enough to keep from making stupid mistakes. She doesn’t have any strong goals in life, probably because she knows her life will be brief. Both characters share a common core of honest integrity and a compelling desire to do what’s best or right.

‘That’s the difference,’ Brain Central points out. ‘Tina has to live for the here and now as that’s really all she has.’

‘So,’ I ask, ‘what do we do if given a choice of continuing as bait or calling it quits?’

‘Based on their core values,’ Brain Central responds, ‘I think the answer is the same for both and rather obvious. It’s just that Chris might be reluctant due to the risk. Tina will jump at the opportunity to remain for as long as she can.’

Brain Central is right, you know. I do feel a compelling desire to see this through to the end and to do my part in taking down the bad guys. I remember a civics lesson in school where we were taught that the framers of the U.S. Constitution commented that the constitutional government only works when the people have sufficient moral virtue to do the right things for the common good. The power for government resides with the people and if the people don’t do the right thing, then neither can the government. When that civic virtue disappears the constitutional form of government becomes unsuitable. It’s a concept that’s been instilled in me ever since I was small and I can’t resist it. I have to do my part.

---<>---

Susan Harrison, the Major, my real father—what’s he doing here—? Steph, and some FBI big wig come out of the meeting to question me about my desires to continue with the investigation. Not that I’ll be the one to make the decision to stay—I can, however, decide to quit at anytime—but they at least want to know my feelings on the matter.

The first option they give me is to stay on the job keeping my cover as Kristina Jeffers and to proceed with our planned trip this weekend then to return to work as an intern until my originally scheduled time of departure or Mr. Rana makes a move, whichever comes first. They really seem to think that Rana wants to solve the mystery of Kristina Jeffers so he and other operators don’t get caught the same way in the future. They expect a second kidnap attempt when Rana thinks that I’m no longer protected so they’ll drop hints that they’re done with my part of the investigation and feel that the threat is past. Unfortunately they don’t expect to have the foreknowledge of the players as they did last time. The risk is greater that something will go wrong. The FBI guy really does his best to sell me on this option.

The second option is to simply disappear tonight. I get the impression that the change—though those in the know aren’t saying anything about a change in front of those who don’t—would happen tomorrow and I’d get a few weeks paid vacation to readjust to my old life. The main advantage of this option is that I’ll be safe again. There’s no way that Rana will ever find me. It’s done and over with. Mrs. Harrison strongly advocates this option. She’s apparently gotten attached to Tina but doesn’t see the need to put her at any further risk. In fact, she apologizes profusely for having let things get so out of control as it is.

I ponder the choice one last time before telling them what I’m willing to do. Seeing and misreading my hesitation, the FBI representative decides to sweeten the pot by offering me a ‘reward’ if we can catch Rana. It’s much larger than the bonus that I’ve already been promised by the Lab for my work this summer. When I inquire, I’m told that the FBI’s reward is in addition to my already promised Lab bonus. I won’t need to worry about college expenses at all if I take it. Between the two offers, I’ll have enough money to get through a Ph.D. program if I want to. Unfortunately, I can’t get to the FBI money without going to college—it’s more of a scholarship. A huge scholarship.

“I’ll see this through,” I inform them, “if you’ll let me.” The last comment is aimed at my two fathers and Mrs. Harrison.

“Are you sure, Honey?” Mrs. Harrison asks the question that is also on the mind of my two fathers. “You really don’t need to do this. You’ve already done more that we could reasonably have asked of you. I couldn’t bear it if anyone else got hurt again like my Ben—especially you.”

“Mrs. Harrison,” I interrupt her gently. “I don’t mean to sound too idealistic, but if we don’t catch Rana and his crowd lots more people will get hurt somewhere, somehow. It’ll just be easier for us since we won’t really know the victims personally, but their friends and family will suffer because we didn’t do our part. Sure, we’ve plugged this leak, but he’s still out there intent on doing our nation harm. My staying on the job as long as I’m useful is the right thing to do. My protectors have been almost flawless so far. I trust them.”

I don’t mention that I was ready to help even before I knew about the scholarship. That’s just a nice bonus.

Mrs. Harrison gives me a tight hug before turning to the rest and nodding her readiness to get back to the meeting. They return to the conference room to continue whatever planning they are doing. Dr. Quinn smiles and winks at me as he returns with the group. I’m pretty sure that he knew what my answer would be. He knows me too well.

Now, I only have to await the decision.

It’s going to be a long afternoon——

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Thanks to Gabi's editorial efforts, this story is brought to you with a minimum of split infinitives.