Something Feels Strange - 54

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Something Feels Strange…

By Tiffany B. Quinn

I finally give up and crawl in my sleeping bag at one o'clock. I just can't stay up any longer. I'd like to reflect on the evening's chat with Andy, but I lose consciousness as soon as my head hits the pillow.

My last thought for the day is that I'm so glad we came.

This is going to be a great vacation.

Chapter 54: Show Time

Friday is pretty relaxed—for us teens anyway. The royal protection detail, on the other hand, has been busy doing background checks on everyone in the campground. The headquarters for the royal protection detail is an enormous motor home—my Dad calls it a land yacht—with a small satellite antenna on the roof. The RV is located at the site closest to the entrance to the campground. The antenna is not that uncommon on these big rigs as it’s often used for TV reception wherever the travelers may choose to go. In our case, the antenna is also used as a satellite uplink for the bank of computers and communications equipment installed inside.

The team does have me wander over—by myself—to watch the 4x4s hurry by on the jeep trail while Dad and Andy are out fishing in the early morning. I’m encouraged to break away from the group frequently throughout the day to give any kidnappers plenty of opportunity to do their thing without endangering my friends. Normally this would be difficult with the girls around since girls tend to travel in packs, but they are understanding of the need and give me some space. So does Andy, though I think he’d like the chance to be my knight in shining armor.

I’m starting to relate to the bait on my fish-hook. Forever waiting and not knowing when, if ever, the strike will come—somewhat nerve-racking to say the least.

After lunch we all hike to the top of Brown Mountain to the east. It’s not a particularly difficult or long hike as the mountain is more like a large hill but the air is thin so we take our time and enjoy each other’s company. From the mountain top you can see most the surrounding area. It’s spectacular and Andy takes lots of pictures—many with me and the other girls in them, but me in particular. We eventually have to retreat to camp as thunderclouds start to build in the mid afternoon. We almost make it back before a cloudburst unleashes its rain on us. In spite the girlish squeals, everyone has fun. The rain leaves us as quickly as it comes and the sun comes out. It also leaves us looking like drowned rats.

Since we have to change anyway, the single members of our group decide that it’s time to work on our sun tans. Tiff, Marla, Laurie and I end up changing together in the motor home. Remembering the beating Tiff gave me years ago when I wandered into her room to find her in nothing but her underwear I have to suppress a giggle when I see Tiff standing there completely naked. I managed to sneak a picture of her with my smart phone to be used as evidence that Chris really is Tina if she ever finds out who I really am. What would she do now if she knew that I was her brother? Marla and Laurie seem to have forgotten my boy roots since neither one of them seem particularly bashful about my presence—I’m just one of the girls.

With beach towels in hand, the five of us descend on the little bit of course gravelly sand beach by the boat ramp where we spend the next hour soaking in the sun, reading, and chatting. Andy is more restless than us girls and wanders off with his camera after a while. He’s fascinated with the natural wonders in the area in addition to the bathing beauties he’s with on the beach. At one point I gaze down the lake to see him focusing his telephoto lens in our direction trying to get some candid photos. I smiled and waved for the camera.

Several other teens, both male and female, join us on the beach. A couple of girls who are here with their families for the weekend seem to be bored and more than anxious for somebody new to talk to. The boys just want to hit on us. They back off from me when Andy comes back from his photo safari and claims another one of our now famous toe curling kisses.

Andy, Laurie and I use the canoe to explore the lake and do a little fishing. We put Andy in the middle of the canoe so that he can fish while Laurie and I paddle. Some guys in another boat seem to think Andy has the perfect deal—two pretty girls to paddle him around while he fishes. We return to camp as the sun sets and join our family and friends around the campfire once again.

Andy and I decide to try a repeat of the previous night’s star gazing. We spend an hour snuggling together and continuing our question and answer game from last night.

“Have you thought more about your choice?” I ask him as we begin to run out of questions.

“What choice?” he responds.

“You know,” I remind him, “the one about choosing to be a boy or a girl for the rest of your life?”

“Some,” he admits, “but it’s kind of a moot point isn’t it.”

If only he knew. I still don’t think I can reveal that deepest of secrets.

“But what if?” I press the point.

“I’ve been hanging around with four beautiful girls all day,” he begins, “and I’m sitting here with the prettiest of all. I’ve watched you all interact all day and listened to some of the things you’ve talked about. Frankly, I’m not really interested in some of it and I don’t understand the appeal of the in-depth analysis you all do on most subjects but I find your love of it fascinating. I might learn to like it if I were to become female, but I’m not sure that I’d want to spend the rest of my life doing that.”

“So,” I clarify, “You’ve given up on the desire to be a girl?”

“No,” he corrects me, “I’d still like to try it but I’m not convinced I’d like it to last forever. I don’t want to commit to it without testing the waters first.”

We spend some time, each immersed in our own thoughts after this statement. I don’t know what he’s thinking, but I’m thinking that I’ll recommend Andy for the next mission—if there ever is one. I’m also thinking about my answer to the same question. Do I want to stay female for the rest of my life?

I’ve had this internal debate before and I come to the same conclusion: I could be happy either way. There’s good and bad with each choice and there’s no way that I—or anyone else for that matter—can have only the best of both worlds. It’ll be best to go back to being Chris. I stand to lose more in the way of family and longtime friends if I stay as Tina. Tina has no real home or family.

For now—as I snuggle deeper into his arms—I’ll just enjoy being Tina while it lasts. I’m getting the distinct feeling that it won’t last very much longer.

---<>---

Saturday—our last full day at the lake—progresses much as Friday did until mid-afternoon. Aunt Jen tracks us down where we’re sun tanning by the lake with an urgent request for me to return to the RV where a meeting of our group is being held. A report has come in from the squad monitoring the airstrip. A single engine four-seat Cessna 182 landed there an hour ago with two people in it.  While it’s not his plane, Mr. Rana was the pilot and he had a female passenger with him. A SUV containing four guys was there to greet it. One of the guys stayed with Rana at the plane while the woman left in the SUV with one other. The remaining two disappeared into the forest on the trail leading to the lake. A check of the tail number on the aircraft shows that it was rented from an air service in Reno. The SUV was also rented at the Reno airport. These FBI geeks are pretty fast at tracking things down.

There’s been another raging debate about how far to let these people go with their plans. Of course the FBI and the Major’s team want to let them grab me so they can pin these guys down in court. The Lab team just wants to snatch Rana and be done with it. The FBI won the argument and I’m to expect a repeat of last weekend’s excitement only this time they’ll let them take me to Rana before springing the trap. Oh, joy.

When I return to the beach I notice that several other older teens and a mid-twenties woman and her apparent boyfriend has joined our little group of sun worshippers. The teen boys are doing their best to attract the interest of the girls. I wonder if I was such an idiot as a guy? The strange thing is that some of the girls seem to think it’s cute. Whatever.

Steph wanders by and gives me a sign which I interpret to mean that the woman and her friend are the ones seen leaving the airstrip in the SUV. This should be fun.

The suspicious woman has struck up a conversation with Tiff. She asks general stuff a newcomer asks at a campground. Like, how’s the water? Have you been here long? Where are you from? How are the bugs?

“Hey, Tina,” Laurie asks as I settle back onto my towel, “what did Mom want?”

“She was having trouble finding the chicken for dinner,” I reply, “You know, the chicken breasts I packed in the blue cooler. She was looking in the wrong one.”

“Did you find them?” she asks.

“That and a lot more,” I tell her knowingly. “It seems that we’re to have an exciting dinner.”

Our little group perks up at that. They can tell that something’s up but we’re not free to talk about it.

I suddenly get a bright idea.

“Andy,” I sweetly ask him, “do you have your camera with you?” A silly question really—when doesn’t he have his camera?

“Sure, Tina,” he replies.

“Can you take a picture of me and Laurie?” I ask sweetly. “I’d like to send one home to my family.”

He seems confused by the request, but being the bright kid that he is, he realizes something is up.  I position him so that he’s sure to catch the new woman and her friend in the background. I’m sure that my keepers have a dozen images already, but I just want to make sure.

Lora, our suspected terrorist kidnapper, is a very bubbly and outgoing girl and we all end up chatting easily together. Apparently she and her boyfriend, Casey, are just exploring the area for the day. They’re from somewhere back east and are vacationing in the South Lake Tahoe area. They came to the lake today because they wanted to see some wilderness. They’ll go back around sunset. She gushes about the beauty of the area and how she wishes they had more time to spend here. Needless to say, there’s no mention of flying in to the remote airstrip.

When we’re called for dinner, we part ways with Lora, Casey, and the other kids then head back for camp.

“Tina,” Mom calls from the RV, “can you and Andy come give me a hand in here for a minute?”

“Sure, Mrs. Quinn,” I reply grabbing Andy by the hand and heading for the RV.

Once we’re inside she puts us to work making lemonade and a salad.

“Okay kids,” she says quietly, “It’s show time. Sometime after dinner around sunset, we need you to get into a lover’s spat and for Tina to run crying into the woods along the trail that leads to the airfield.”

“What’s happening?” Andy asks with concern.

“Rana and his crew are in the area,” I inform him. “We need to give his crew a shot at kidnapping me again. Lora and Casey are part of his team. Show the picture to Mrs. Quinn and everyone else so they can see who the bad guys are and stay away from them.”

“Sure Tina,” he says. “I can do that. Why not just take Rana down now?”

“The FBI likes the action,” I sigh. “They need them to grab me so that they have a case against them.”

“That doesn’t sound very safe,” he observes.

“No it doesn’t,” Mom agrees, “I don’t really approve of this, but they tell me there’s at least two military squads and three FBI teams covering all the contingencies. They’re all experts so I guess we just have to trust them. Tina, you can still back out if you want to.”

“No,” I reply with determination. “I need to do this.”

“I’ll just be glad when this is all over,” Mom sighs as we turn our attention to the dinner preparations.

---<>---

After dinner, Andy and I head out to our boulder by the lake. I notice Lora and Casey sitting on a boulder a hundred yards away at the boat ramp.

“Andy,” I begin with tears welling up in my eyes, “I love you.”

“I love you too, Tina,” he replies with sadness. “This could be it, couldn’t it?”

No need to question what he means by ‘it’. My intuition is kicking in again. I can’t help but think I won’t be coming back tonight.

“Yeah,” I sigh, “It could be but I really hope not. Just remember not everything is as it seems as the events unfold. If something terrible happens to me just remember that everything is probably okay. Tina is going to have to disappear in a definitive way very soon anyway. Tonight may just be the night. Can you just hold me for a few more minutes?” The tears are now flowing freely.

“I’m really going to miss you, Tina,” Andy is obviously crying now too. “You’re the best thing that’s ever happened to me. I’ll always remember you.”

“And I’ll always treasure our time together too,” I snuggle a little closer to him. “Andy, can you do me a favor?”

“Anything,” he promises.

“If I don’t come back will you let Caitlin know how much I love her too?” I beg him. “She’s been the greatest girl friend that I’ve ever had. She’s really made a difference in my life.”

“I’ll do that,” he agrees.

We just snuggle together for another five minutes, each lost in his/her own thoughts.

“Are you ready?” I ask. We need to move this along.

“Not really,” he sighs, “but we better get on with it. The sun is just beginning to set.”

“This is so hard to do,” I cringe. “Don’t take it personal.”

“I won’t,” he assures me.

Here goes, I think to myself. I pat my fleece vest pocket to make sure the recording device I was given earlier is in place. I reach in to turn it on.

Suddenly I pull away from Andy and jump up to glare at him.

“What kind of girl to you think I am?” I yell. “I won’t put up with that kind of behavior from any boy!” I’m sure a slap would make the scene better but I can’t bring myself to do it. “And I thought you loved me!” I practically scream before running off. I think the whole campground heard me as I see shocked expressions on faces as I run by the campsites and into the woods crying my little heart out.

I travel a couple of hundred yards up the trail to a boulder near where I’ve been told that I can expect some protection. I just throw myself down on the boulder and cry. My tears are real. I cry because this is most likely the end of what has been a great experience. I cry because I’m losing some wonderful friendships. I cry because I’ll miss all the good things about being a girl. It’s just a good time to cry.

“Are you alright?” I hear Lora’s concerned voice cutting through my sobs. They took the bait. I think I know what the worm feels like just before the fish strikes.

Looking up I see that I’m right. It’s Lora and Casey.

“NO!” I cry, “I’m not. Andy is just like all the other guys. He’s just a lecherous bastard.” I hiccup from the crying. “And to think I really thought he was the one.”

“I know what you mean, Tina,” she commiserates with me. Casey just rolls his eyes. “Men can be such brutes at times. Look, girl, you should drink something for the hiccups. Try this.” She holds out a bottle of sports drink. Is this the way they do it this time?

“Thanks,” I say taking the bottle. Opening it, I take a healthy swig. At least there’s no after taste. Maybe the drug is not in the drink.

“Do you feel better?” she enquires.

“Some,” I reply now down to just sniffles. With a sideways glance at Casey, I tell Lora, “I’ll never trust a man again.”

Suddenly someone grabs me from behind and clamps a rag over my nose and mouth. I recognize the smell as I struggle to resist. Unfortunately, as the Borgs—of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy fame—say: resistance is futile. Darkness quickly claims me—again.

I really don’t like being bait.

---<>---

The first thing I hear as I regain consciousness is a tremendous amount of noise. I also notice that I’m lying in a moving vehicle of some type. My head hurts again and my stomach feels queasy as I begin to come out from under the influence of the chloroform.  I keep my eyes closed but rustle a bit.

“She’s coming around, Sir” I hear Helen’s voice shout somewhere close at hand.

Next I hear, of all things, my Dad’s voice. My real Dad, you know, Dr. Quinn.

“Just lay still, Tina,” He shouts at me, “We’ll be there in just a few minutes.” Wherever ‘there’ is, I wonder. Somehow the headache and nausea is not as bad as last time, but they’re still there. Maybe they didn’t use as much chloroform or I’m already getting used to it.

I slowly open my eyes to see that I’m strapped into a stretcher loaded into a helicopter. It’s also dark outside. Bummer, I find myself thinking, my first helicopter ride and I can’t see a thing.

My next thought is, I made it again.

I’m still groggy so just give in and drift off once more. There’s not much else I can do now anyway.

---<>---

I wake again as I’m being lifted out of the helicopter and carried to the edge of a clearing. Strong hands release me from my bonds and help me out of the stretcher.

“Is there anything else we can do for you, Colonel?” Helen asks my Dad. Colonel? I must be hallucinating.

“No,” He smiles back at her. “You should get back to your unit. Tell Major Jeffers thanks from me for a job well done. And congratulations on the promotion, Corporal.”

“Thank you, Sir,” she replies snapping him a salute which he amazingly returns. “I will, Sir.”

“Good luck, Princess,” she smiles at me. “It’s been great protecting you. Maybe we can do it again sometime.”

I’m not exactly with it so I just smile a confused smile as I struggle to stand up. “Maybe under different circumstances.”

“Maybe,” she grins before heading back to the helicopter with who can only be Spud and Jalapeño. They are returning my stretcher to the helicopter. With a roar of the rotors, they quickly disappear into the night sky leaving just me, my father, and a small pile of camping gear behind in a moonlit mountain meadow.

“How are you feeling?” Dad asks.

“A bit rough and very confused,” I reply, “What’s with the ‘Colonel’ business?”

“She wasn’t supposed to say that,” he sighs as he helps me over to a fallen log where we can both sit together. Sitting is not such a good idea for me, so I slide off the log and just lay on the ground with my head supported by a rolled up sleeping pad. Dad gives me a water bottle and some headache medicine to help me with my current ailments.

“You didn’t answer my question,” I point out. “And I’d like to know what happened while I was sleeping.”

“It’s been a busy night,” he says. He never was one for a lot of words. I’m starting to think I’m going to have to extract the details from him—like wisdom teeth—one detail at a time. “Maybe we should sleep on it.”

“I don’t think so,” I respond. I think I’m getting this female assertiveness thing down fairly well “Nobody’s sleeping around here until I find out what happened.”

“I think that you’ve been a girl just a little too long,” he quietly laughs. “You’re starting to sound just like your mother and sisters.”

I ignore the observation, “Well?”

“I can see that I won’t get any sleep until your curiosity is quenched,” he concedes.

“The short version,” he begins, “is that you did a great job of breaking up with poor Andy. I don’t think anyone within a mile missed it. Even though we knew it was coming, it was still shocking and very convincing. Your sisters and Laurie, however weren’t in the loop and were totally devastated. When he came running back to the camp they just all glared at him and gave him the cold shoulder. It was all I could do to keep from laughing it was so funny.” Dad has a decidedly weird sense of humor.

“Anyway,” he continued, “Poor Andy just went and hid in his tent. Ten minutes later we got the call that you’d been snatched. It was witnessed by Major Jeffers and a squad that he was leading. The FBI got it all recorded as well. The kidnappers checked your pockets and found your recording device which they logically took to be the MP3 player it represented. They just left it on, not knowing its real capabilities.

“Major Jeffers and his team followed the two guys who carried you on a makeshift stretcher back to the landing strip. The other two suspects went back to the parking area and drove away in their SUV.”

“So you did let them take me,” I commented.

“Sure, Tina,” he grinned, “they weren’t going anywhere fast while carrying a stretcher. It was all under control. Believe me, those two guys were wishing there’d been a way to bundle you off in the SUV without being seen. They were happy that you made life easier for them by running right into their arms, so to speak, but they wished you’d run into their SUV instead.

“Anyway, after you were kidnapped, we had to hang around camp playing along with the drama of your breakup with Andy and acting is if you’d come back on your own. As it got dark, I was able to slip away and jog up the trail to get to the airstrip.”

“Why did you have to be there?” I asked. Something’s not adding up here.

“Because it’s my operation,” he replies.

He must think I’m really dense as my only response is “Say, what?”

“Tina,” he sighs, “What I’m about to tell you can’t go anywhere—not even your mother knows this, and it needs to stay that way—but I think you need to know at least some of the story.”

He’s really got my attention now. This is the best cure for overcoming anesthesia induced fog.

“You know how I disappear on short notice a lot?” He asks.

“Yes,” I reply, “I just thought it was part of your job.”

“It is,” he explains, “but not the job you think. I also work for the military and coordinate with other agencies in a counter espionage activities. I’m involved with coordinating efforts to seek out leaks that threaten our national security. We’ve known for years that there’s been a problem at the Lab and part of my job has been to get to the bottom of it.”

“So you’re a spy,” I say in awe. I never would have guessed.

“Not really,” he says, “but a lot of field agents work for me, though many of them don’t know it. Kind of like you.”

“Does Aunt Jen and Mrs. Harrison and the rest of the security committee know this?” I ask.

“Not really,” he replies, “at least not until recently. I had to step in during the final stages but even then, I never really explained my presence. They believe that I’m just a concerned parent who happens to be a senior Lab employee.”

“So it was your idea to turn me into a girl,” I glare at him. It’s not an effective glare for two reasons: first, I’m not really upset about that and secondly, it’s dark and he can’t see me all that well.

“Actually,” he informs me, “no it wasn’t. That really was the security team’s idea. And—before you ask—I was not involved in recruiting you. I was surprised when you emerged as the prime candidate. It also made things logistically easier. We put a lot of pressure on the security team to make sure the process was safe and that they’d put in place the resources to ensure your safety. It was Jen’s idea to involve the Jeffers. Another convenient coincidence since I have some authority over his unit.”

“Does he know that you’re my real father?” I ask.

“No,” he responds, “he’s as much in the dark about all this as everyone else. My job is made easier if I remain in the shadows as much as possible. There’s only a handful of people who know about my true involvement in this project.”

“So,” I ask, “Are you happy with the outcome?”

“Mostly,” he replies. “We just wish Dr. Lang hadn’t gotten away. He’ll be a real thorn in our side if he cooperates with his new masters. We’re already working on means for mitigating that problem.”

Visions of foreign assassinations flash through my mind.

“How are you going to do that?” I ask.

“Sorry, Tina,” he responds, “I’m sure you have lots of questions, but I can’t tell you much more.”

“So tell me what happened to Tina,” I inquire, returning to the rescue story. “I assume that she’s ‘dead’ now. That’s the only way out of this mess.”

“You’re right,” he says, “Tina was ‘killed’ in the cross fire when we took down the bad guys. It was pretty much over by the time I got there. I’m told that one of the bad guys managed to break free when they were ambushed by the two military units. He started to raise his gun and was shot by two of the soldiers. He died before he got his gun to bear on anything though he did get off one wild shot. It was dark and there was lots of confusion for the bad guys so we gave them the impression that you’d been shot by the guy who died. The helicopter was called up to evacuate you and we kept everyone away. They just saw Helen and her team load your wounded body aboard the chopper. I hopped in the chopper on the far side so they wouldn’t see me and we flew away. The story is that you died en route to a military medical facility near Reno. The helicopter was conveniently in the area anyway because we decided after Rana arrived that Tina would have to die in some manner anyway tonight and the chopper was to evacuate her regardless. You would have ended up in this meadow no matter what happened. It all worked out for our good.”

“So what happens now?” I ask. “I suppose that I’ll become Chris again.”

“In the morning,” he replies, “we walk about two miles to a remote cabin where you get to spend a couple of weeks near some of the greatest trout fishing you’ll ever find. There’s some great trails around the area which you can run on also. I think you’ll find trail running to be fun. When your vacation is over, Chris returns from camp and life goes on.”

“So,” I have to ask, “When do I change back to Chris?”

“Tomorrow when we get to the cabin,” he replies.

It’s over. A strange mixture of sadness and relief wash over me. I’ve described the mixed emotions before but now it is even more intense. This is it. This is really it.

“Come on, Tina,” he encourages me, “Let’s get some sleep. It’s still four hours before sunrise and I’m tired.”

We roll out our sleeping pads and sleeping bags under the stars. It’s a clear night and the stars are brilliant.

Dad quickly falls asleep. He has had a long day.

I find sleep harder to come by as the experiences of the past seven weeks crash through my mind in a wild jumble. I find myself alternately giggling, crying, smiling, and frowning as the memories flow. I also run my hands over my female body trying to memorize the contours and feel of this body which I’m about to lose forever. I also find myself resigned to getting this over with. Will it feel strange to be back in my old body? How long will it take to adapt both physically and emotionally? There are so many questions.

What about my friends? I’m sure that Laurie and Marla will be relieved to see me back as Chris. Andy will probably know I’m just gone and not dead. Caitlin and the running team, however, won’t have that knowledge. I hope the loss is not too devastating. I hate to put them through the pain but it really is the only way for this to end.

Eventually, I join my Dad in the land of nod. The morning will start my journey back to what I was born to be.

I shall really miss life as Tina.

---<>---

Edited by Gabi