‘Goodnight Lois,’ I replied without looking up from the monitor screen as the last lab assistant finally left. I was always the last civilian to leave the complex; I guess the others had families to go home to, and I didn’t. I have been married to my work ever since I left medical school.
Watching Lois through the glass as she walked down the corridor, I shook my head. Women had always been a mystery to me, a mystery I didn’t bother to unravel. It wasn’t that I was a misogynist, I admired many a female scientist. I just couldn’t understand their thinking or their preoccupation, so I steered clear of any relationship.
Honestly, it also helped that I had a low libido and never possessed the sexual drive than many of my male colleagues had, a drive that had led them into disastrous relationships, acrimonious divorces and then mid-life crises. If I saw another fifty-year-old male in a red sports car, leering at women young enough to be their daughters, I’d puke.
Let’s face it, the statistics for marriage and long-term relationships are not great and I don’t understand why there is this romantic notion of a relationship that lasts forever. The bottom line is, if I had taken the time to engage in a relationship, I wouldn’t be where I am now, head of this research complex and receiving buckets of money from the Pentagon. Of course, there were a few times when I felt a twinge of regret at not having a family, but those times were few and I knew it was for the better. I was much too selfish to be a parent of any description and I thoroughly enjoyed the research projects I had worked on over the years. That was enough for me.
Currently, the research complex I led was focused on virus warfare, and the manufacturing of a discrete virus that would completely immobilise the enemy. General Buchanan had joked that the perfect virus should be able to be used on civilian populations as well, but none of my team found that particularly funny.
For me, the all important quest was for the cure of cancer. It was always something that remained at the back of my mind, but recently I had developed a new urgency to find a cure, as I had diagnosed the cancerous disease that had grown within me.
Determined that the disease I had fought against for all of my life would not defeat me, I had worked on the research in secret, completing the work that had taken me twenty-five years of part-time focus to compile, and now I was ready to test it.
I called it the Mask Virus, although, strictly speaking, it was not specifically a virus.
It attacked cancerous cells by using the genetic codes within the patient’s body to build and replace the ‘bad’ cells with healthy ones. The virus applied a ‘mask’ to the cancerous cells, isolating them and then finally eliminating them while rapidly replacing them with new cells that had been created from the optimal ‘healthy’ genetic codes. Any old cells that did not merge satisfactorily with the new cells were also replaced.
It should be tested for ten years or so before release but I didn’t have ten years; in fact, I believed I had, at the most, ten hours before the cancer within my body reached the point of no return and the virus would not be able to apply the mask. I had to inject myself tonight!
I left the complete research notes on my desk, along with the last will and testament of Jack Rhodes, and a detailed letter explaining what I had done. If I died, future scientists would be able to work through it, rectify my mistake, and defeat cancer. It would be a posthumous victory, but a victory nevertheless.
Slowly, I lay down on the small examination table in my office. This was it, I thought, this could be the end of Jack Rhodes, or the beginning.
I tightened the rubber strap around my arm, pumped a fist to bring up the vein and gave myself the first of three injections. The injections had to be fifteen minutes apart, a device against accidental infection, and I lay back on the table, waiting.
Waiting was something I was good at. I had learned it at an early age as I waited for meals and for foster homes when I was at the orphanage. The meals always came, but I never found a foster home and when I finally walked free of the orphanage, I vowed that I would never depend on anybody for anything. I was on my own, I told myself I liked it and that was the way it was going to be.
The second injection slid in, and I felt a slight burning in my arm so I quickly wrote a small observation note for those who would come later.
Then it was time for the last injection, and without hesitation, I gave it. Within seconds, I felt a strange feeling sweep through my stomach, and I tried to write another note but my fingers wouldn’t work properly. My head felt incredibly heavy, and I reluctantly let it sink to the small pillow, staring up at the glaring tungsten lights. This is it, I thought, this is…
A glass straw was gently pushed through my lips and I felt a liquid dribble into my mouth. ‘Try to swallow,’ the voice said and I did. ‘We’ve dimmed the lights, so you may try to open your eyes again if you wish.’
Slowly, I opened my eyes but everything was blurred, a row of indistinct shapes in white and a long room. After shutting and opening my eyes a few times, the room began to swim into focus. The indistinct shapes were, I saw, a row of people in white lab coats, all smiling at me with excited looks on their faces. To my right, I saw military personnel, mostly top brass. Some had their arms folded but all were watching me intently. To the left was a television camera and I realised I was being filmed.
The man’s voice spoke again. ‘Ladies and gentlemen, you can see the patient is awake.’ Applause rippled around the room, but he snapped, ‘We haven’t got time for that.’
‘It’s a breakthrough, Professor,’ and, for a moment I thought the voice from the group of watchers was talking to me, but the first voice answered.
‘Yes, it is, but the patient comes before congratulations. Please leave, and only the psychologists and psychiatrists remain.’
I watched them file from the room. They stared at me as they left and one of the men waved. I realized it was Bob Jones, a colleague who had worked with me on many projects.
A woman in a white coat appeared at the end of the bed, and a man in a suit and a Van Dyke beard moved slightly to the left while a third man in a white coat and a shaven head stood between them. It was he who spoke in that soft, confident voice.
‘Professor Rhodes, I’m Professor Henry Kruger. Welcome back. On my left is Doctor Brenda Peters and on my left Doctor William Murphy. I’m sure you have many questions and all of them will be answered soon. What I suggest is that I give you a few basic facts. Please nod if you understand.’
I nodded and opened my mouth to speak but Professor Kruger quickly put his hand up. ‘Please don’t attempt to speak yet, Jack.’ There was something about his tone that made me close my mouth and I waited.
‘I have read your notes many times and I must compliment you, Jack, on your outstanding work. Let me explain what has occurred. You injected yourself with what is now known as the Rhodes Virus, or the Mask, and it worked completely as you predicted but the results were, shall we say, unusual.’ I opened my mouth again but he raised his hand to stop me.
‘The virus masked the cancerous cells as you predicted and then sought to find within your body the healthiest genetic code. It then grew cells based on that code and then altered existing cells to form a healthy being. This process, by the way, took over seven months. You have been in a comatose state for that period while your body changed. It was a remarkable process, a process that had the entire scientific community at this complex completely and utterly enthralled.’
It took a few moments and I opened my mouth and this time, Professor Kruger didn’t try to stop me. ‘Are you trying to tell me I’m fe…’ I stopped, my voice sounded extremely strange to my ears and then it hit me. It was a woman’s voice!
‘Please don’t exert yourself, Jack,’ Brenda Peters said quickly as I tried to move. ‘We must take it one step at a time.’
‘I’m a woman?’ I had to ask, hoping that I had misunderstood them, but the strange voice that rang in my ears confirmed my first guess.
‘Yes, you are completely female, Jack. Apparently, the optimal genetic code was your mother at age twenty three.’
I blinked at that. ‘I’m twenty-three?’ I asked and even though my voice was strange to my ears, I heard the strain and fear in it.
‘Yes,’ Henry Kruger soothed. ‘We’re going to give you a sedative so you’ll rest for a while…’
‘No! Please don’t,’ I added, forcing my voice lower in tone, and they stopped. ‘I need to know the answers.’ They looked at each other, seeking confirmation. ‘I’m a scientist, Henry,’ I added, ‘I need to know.’
Professor Kruger nodded and smiled gently. ‘Of course, I think we’ll leave you with Brenda.’ They left and Brenda Peters came closer, a concerned look upon her face.
‘You must be the psychologist,’ I said. That voice, my mind silently screamed, it’s mine?
‘I’m afraid I am,’ she said with a smile as she sat next to me.
‘What is your specialty?’ It was small talk while my mind cantered along at extraordinary speed. I was a woman, I was my own worst nightmare?
‘Trauma counseling. Apparently the Pentagon thinks that being changed to a female is on the same level as murder, terrorist victims or hostages.’
I can understand that, I wanted to scream, can’t you? Why me? Why me! I managed a weak smile. ‘Can I see?’ Brenda nodded and produced a hand mirror.
I stared at the reflection of a young woman with dark hair and dark eyes with a slight almond shape. ‘My mother was Asian?’
‘Of Asian descent,’ Brenda said softly. ‘The Pentagon threw a lot of resources into investigating your parents.’
‘Is she alive?’
Brenda sadly shook her head. ‘No, she died in a car accident and you were delivered at the accident.’ She paused while that sank in. I had found my mother and lost her in one cruel precise moment. ‘Do you want to see the rest of you?’
I shook my head and dropped the hand mirror onto the bed. ‘I’m a doctor, I know what the female body looks like,’ I said bitterly.
Belinda shrugged. ‘For the record, your body is completely healthy. The cancerous cells have been eliminated and it appears the changes to your body have finished. All bodily functions are normal.’
‘I assume I was monitored during the process?’ Brenda nodded. ‘Can I see the tapes and the results of the tests?’
‘No, I’m afraid they’re classified above your security clearance.’
‘I have a high clearance.’
‘Not any more.’
I was astounded, and the completely surreal feeling brought on by the sound of my new voice and the image in the mirror remained. ‘But…’
‘General Buchanan has moved everything, including you, to a new facility and a lot has changed while you were in the coma. I think,’ she added when I opened my mouth to protest, ‘that you just assimilate everything the best you can. You and I will talk every day, okay?’ Resigned, I nodded and Brenda smiled. ‘Good. Now, the physiotherapists will come in now and help you from the bed. They’ve exercised you as much as they could while you were asleep.’ Brenda leaned forward, her eyes locked onto mind. ‘Co-operate, Jack,’ she whispered quickly and then said, ‘the exercises are good for you. Shall I ask them to come in?’
Something about her tone made me wary. I guessed then, that the room was monitored, probably bugged with cameras and microphones. It suddenly hit me that this discovery was a momentous one, one the Pentagon would wish to control at all costs. They don’t need you, my mind silently warned me, you could just be eliminated.‘ Yes,’ I said, my voice, a strangers voice ringing in my ears, ‘you’re right, send them in.’
The physiotherapists were jovial and enthusiastic women who helped me from the bed and began to help me become aware of my new body, and how I should do simple things like walk. Well, it should be simple, but it wasn’t and it took a while before I could move easily.
For two days I did nothing but exercise, walk and talk with Brenda. I listened carefully and made no comments but I felt as if I was wearing a mask, that I was peering through the eyeholes of some extreme mask at the world I knew. It’s ironic, I chuckled bitterly to myself,
‘If you say so,’ I said softly but inside my mind screamed,
Brenda and the nurses helped me with underwear and I felt awkward at first but soon accepted it. But I became increasingly annoyed that I had to wear a bra, even though I wore only a sports bra. The breasts were the most annoying things about this body, constantly moving and reminding me of their presence, and that they were uncontrollable without a bra. I ignored any attempts to get me to wear make-up or to style my hair. As for clothing, I always wore a tee shirt, jeans and sneakers. They were women’s clothes but I felt a little more comfortable with them.
I hated this strange new body I was saddled with. It was awkward and the hair was annoying. Life had been so simple as a male. Short hair, a quick shower and that was it!
During the third week, General Buchanan and his entourage burst into the room, followed by Brenda and Henry. I was seated at the desk, dressed in jeans and tee shirt and laboriously practicing writing with a pen. There were days when I felt as if I was back in school.
Buchanan stared at me. ‘Is it really Rhodes?’
‘Yes, General,’ Kruger said.
‘Amazing.’ The General walked closer. ‘Jack?’
‘Good morning, General.’ I answered.
He blinked, and then smiled bleakly at me. ‘I don’t believe it,’ he muttered.
‘General,’ I began, ‘why has my security clearance changed? And when can I get out of here?’
Buchanan smiled coldly; it was a smile I suddenly didn’t like. ‘You have no clearance as you are no longer Jack Rhodes.’
‘I don’t see Professor Jack Rhodes in here,’ Buchanan cut me short. ‘Do you?’ he asked his companions and they all shook their heads. ‘We have no way of knowing what your intentions are,’ he said to me. ‘As for getting out of here, I’m afraid you are a highly classified project and we need tests to ensure you don’t spread the virus.’
‘General,’ Kruger interrupted, ‘we have completed those tests. The virus is only transferred through injections.’
‘No matter,’ General Buchanan dismissed Kruger’s argument. ‘This is a potential weapon and it stays here until I decide. I’m going to require a great deal of convincing to allow it to go free.’
I resented being referred to as ‘it’ and was about to snap at the General when Brenda gave me a warning look and spoke. ‘I am compiling my recommendations on that, General…’
‘Good, I will read them when you submit them.’
‘No, I’m afraid my orders,’ she said with a tight smile, ‘are that my recommendations go directly to the White House.’
He glared at her and then tried to smile. ‘Of course, but through me.’
‘I will certainly send you a copy, General.’
He stormed out. Kruger grinned ruefully at me and followed the military entourage from the room.
Brenda turned and smiled. ‘I think we should get you dressed and go for a walk in the grounds.’
I opened my mouth, and she slightly nodded towards the corner where I supposed the bugs were, and I got the message. ‘That sounds wonderful, Brenda,’ I said with a smile.
We walked silently through the corridor, and Brenda signed me through the guard’s checkpoints, until we were in a small courtyard with a high wall around it, a small square of lawn and young birch trees.
Brenda sat on a stone bench and I sat besides her, listening as she spoke in a low voice, staring at the wall. ‘The camera is behind us so please listen to me and internalize what I’m saying before reacting. Buchanan wants to keep you here forever, or something worse, so the secret of the Mask Virus does not leak.’
Brenda suddenly stood and began pacing up and down and I guessed she was now performing for the camera.
‘I believe, that in time, you will begin to think and act naturally as a female. There are signs of it now, but I have no idea how long the process will take. My recommendations are that you remain here for tests for at least eight months, possibly a year and then providing that it is obvious you are no longer attached to the old personality and capable of living completely as a woman, you should be released back into the world to build a new life.’
She looked at me anxiously, and I turned slightly so the camera could see my face.
Instantly, I knew what I had to do. I had to convince everyone that Jack Rhodes had vanished! If I was to ever get out of here, and be free to rectify this horrible mistake, I had to convince everyone I was happy as a woman. ‘That sounds perfectly reasonable,’ I said with a smile. ‘General Buchanan appears to be a fair man.’ Brenda blinked at that; we both knew he was a complete bastard. ‘I will need help to learn, though.’
‘All of that will be provided,’ Brenda said with a smile. ‘I think it’s the best way forward, Jacquie,’ she added nervously, watching me for my reaction.
‘Jacquie,’ I said slowly and smiled, ‘I like it. I’ve always liked Jacqueline as a name.’ No, I didn’t, I’d had no thoughts about female names whatsoever, but if I had to act, I silently fumed, I would deserve an Oscar at the end of this! Anything, to get out of here, and back to where I could do research and figure out how to change back! I knew the problem was making sure the virus would not to select a female code; it would be difficult but I had confidence I would be able to find the solution.
‘Good,’ Brenda said with a sigh of relief. ‘We can begin. Is there anything else?’
‘Yes,’ I smiled. I had already figured out that females smile a lot. I had to accumulate mannerisms to help me convince the Pentagon that I was not only accepting of being female, but also happy about it. ‘Just one thing, I would like a refresher course on medicine so I can qualify as a G.P. I would like to be a doctor when I begin to build a life.’
Brenda nodded thoughtfully. ‘I see no problems with that, although with your age we’ll have to adjust the records to show you began to study medicine at an early age, a child prodigy,’ she added with a laugh. ‘It’s a good idea; in fact it’s keeping the Rhodes skills alive, isn’t it? It’s also helping the community, Jacquie.’
I nodded but I was thinking otherwise. I couldn’t care less about the community but, as a medical practitioner, I would be able to begin the research more easily, especially if I was working in one of the large teaching hospitals.
As we walked back, I kept my eyes on the military and medical personnel that passed us in the hall, particularly paying attention to the females. If I was to get out of here quickly, I reasoned, I had to do my own research on females based entirely on observation so I could acquire habits and skills.
I smiled and Brenda smiled back. Jack Rhodes was on his way out of here and a moron like Buchanan will not be able to stop me!
Brenda and the nurses had filled my wardrobe with female clothes in the first week but I had studiously avoided dresses and skirts, restricting myself to the jeans and tee shirts. The next morning, I stared at the dresses hanging in the closet and told myself I had to wear dresses every day from now on.
I had always been conscious of the hidden cameras and had quickly dressed in the bathroom, hoping there was at least some privacy there. It wasn’t that I was modest; I still didn’t believe this body was mine, but I didn’t want to give some perverse thrill to the military voyeurs.
There was no doubt Brenda and Kristine, the nurse, were surprised to see me in a blue dress. ‘That looks lovely,’ Brenda said slowly.
‘I just felt I wanted to get out of pants,’ I explained with what I hoped was a rueful smile. ‘I don’t think it looks nice, though.’
‘Yes it does,’ Kristine said quickly, ‘but I think you should wear the belt around the waist.’
‘And these shoes,’ Brenda said after rummaging in the bottom of the closet.
I was satisfied then with the image, it was acceptable, and I made a mental note to think more carefully about my future selection of clothes. ‘What about my hair?’ I hesitantly flicked the long dark hair that rested on my shoulders. How I longed for a simple buzz cut like I used to have.
‘It’s beautiful hair and so thick,’ Kristine said with what I thought was an envious tone, but then quickly dismissed that idea.
I forced myself to break into a big smile. ‘Would you? That would be wonderful. Thank you.’
She continued to study me for a moment and then nodded. ‘Tomorrow then, and would you like to learn about make-up?’
Again I smiled. ‘Yes, please, and anything else you think I should know.’
A routine was established and, surprisingly, the weeks and then the months passed quickly. I would wake in the morning, dress, apply my make-up and style my hair before meeting Brenda, Kristine, and Sue Collins, a doctor, for breakfast. I was sure they were watching me every step of the way and that was okay as I was carefully studying them and circumspectly including small actions I’d noticed into my own behaviour.
After breakfast, I would spend an hour completing tests for the scientists and often Professor Kruger would drop in to chat about every day things and was obviously careful not to reveal anything about the Rhodes Virus. I didn’t ask and, in fact, outwardly appeared a little bored with the whole process while secretly filing as much as I could away in my mind.
Tutorials commenced on behaviours, health and hygiene, fashion and relationships and I listened avidly, absorbing as much as I could to assist me in fine-tuning my cover. I protested when they suggested cooking classes.
‘You will need to eat, you know,’ Kristine pointed out, ‘and, from what I understand, Professor Rhodes couldn’t boil water.’
I saw Kristine and Brenda looking at me and I suspected they were testing me. How were cooking classes testing me? I wondered, but decided to go along.
‘You’re right, I’ll have to eat, so why not learn?’ I said, smiling brightly. The funny thing was I came to enjoy the classes and liked cooking. Each recipe was a different challenge, a puzzle that I needed to solve, and it was fascinating. The great chefs, I reasoned, are men, why not me?
I spent most of my waking hours with females and I actually began to find it quite pleasant. The conversations were always varied and wide ranging and I learned so much just by taking part.
After lunch, I spent the afternoon and early evening on the medical refresher course and it was a relief to focus on something so clearly black and white, and something I knew so well.
It was clear in my mind that I would not ever become completely female as I remembered everything from my medical background. Brenda had explained that there was no reason that knowledge and experience would vanish with the change, just that now I would apply a female perspective to that same knowledge and experience. I pretended to agree with her, but I thought the fact that I retained my medical skills was evidence I would internally remain a man.
Although I was becoming quite comfortable living behind the mask (as I called it), there were things I was clearly uncomfortable with, including the mood swings and the annoying trait of breaking into tears at the slightest thing. The fact that I once cried at a happy ending of a stupid movie was particularly annoying but I managed to mask that reaction when Brenda looked at me.
As part of the medical course, I worked in the base hospital in the emergency room, first acting as an intern and then after a few months as a doctor. I loved it, working the long hours, dressed in the scrubs and working with a dedicated team. Most of the cases were injuries but there were a few infections, blood disorders, ulcers, heart problems and even births.
I was now accepted by everyone as a female and treated as such by everyone, except by Buchanan. He was my toughest audience.
Buchanan watched my progress with a cynical eye and it wasn’t until ten months had passed that I knew he finally accepted me as a woman and someone removed from Jack Rhodes.
Brenda and I were in the canteen giggling at Kristine’s description of her date the night before when Buchanan suddenly appeared at our table. I thought he appeared a little nervous.
‘I hope I’m not interrupting, ladies?’
‘Of course not,’ I smiled and his eyes dropped to my chest for a second. I was wearing a new dress that Kristine had bought – it was cinched at the waist, had a low neckline and came to just above the knee. I thought it looked pretty but now I released why he was nervous: he found me attractive, even sexy! I smiled to myself; it gave me an edge, and something I could use to get out of the complex more quickly. I pushed the fact that I was flirting with a man quickly to the back of my mind before I was totally repulsed.
Brenda and Kristine exchanged fleeting smiles. Buchanan didn’t notice, but I did and gave them a quick frown. ‘I thought I would just let you know, Jacquie, that we’ve completed your documentation and it will be available next week.’ His eyes dropped to my chest again and I smiled sweetly at him.
‘What does that mean, General?’ I asked innocently. His eyes went down and up again.
‘You will have a birth certificate, driver’s licence and medical registration that will allow you to practice as a G.P. anywhere you choose.’ He coughed and said apologetically, ‘Of course, we cannot approve a passport as yet.’
‘I’ve no plans to go anywhere, General.’ I quickly stood up and pecked his cheek. ‘Thank you, you’ve been very sweet.’ He blushed furiously, mumbled something and wandered off.
‘Well,’ Brenda said with a smile as I sat down, ‘I think you’ve joined the club?’
‘Club? What club?’
‘Don’t go all innocent, Jacquie,’ Kristine laughed, ‘it might work on men, but not on us.’
‘I have no idea what you mean,’ I said, winking, and we broke into laughter.
I lay in my bed that night feeling quite pleased with myself as my plan was working perfectly. Everyone thought I was a complete woman with no desire to be Jack Rhodes. It was so easy to fool everyone, I even fooled myself every now and again. Maybe, I thought,
‘Hi there, Jack,’ he said breezily as he entered. ‘I need another blood sample.’
‘Of course,’ I said smiling, extending my arm. ‘I prefer Jacquie though.’
‘Sure,’ he said non-committally as he prepared to take the sample.
‘I think you guys must have a huge vat of my blood by now,’ I laughed and he glanced at me.
‘Jack,’ he said in a hoarse whisper, ‘I have a way to get you out of here.’
I acted surprised. ‘What are you talking about?’
‘A way to escape,’ he urged.
I laughed. ‘I’m afraid I don’t understand the joke, Bob,’ I said, taking great pains to read the name tag on his lab coat.
He jabbed my finger suddenly and it hurt, really hurt. ‘Ow,’ I said, shook my hand when he released it and a solitary tear trickled down my cheek. ‘That hurt,’ I murmured, sucking my injured finger, suddenly realising it had been intentional on Bob’s part, hoping to provoke a natural ‘Jack Rhodes’ reaction of anger.
Instead, it had provoked a ‘Jacquie Rhodes’ reaction.
‘I’m sorry,’ he said quickly, seeing the tear. ‘I’m really sorry, Jacquie, it was an accident,’ he added as he quickly packed up.
‘That’s okay, Bob,’ I smiled and pecked his cheek. ‘You would think I’d be used to needles by now.’
He left with a strange look on his face, fingers touching his cheek, and I thought I had passed the final test.
I was correct and the next day, I attended a meeting with Buchanan, Brenda, Kruger and Phillips. ‘We think you’re ready to leave, Jacquie,’ Kruger said with a smile. ‘How do you feel?’
‘Frightened,’ I said, knowing that what was they expected and, to tell the truth, I was a little afraid.
‘That’s to be expected,’ Murphy said and everyone nodded.
They handed me a small folder with my documents. ‘It’s all in there including your bank accounts. You’ve got a substantial amount as part of the compensation package the government has awarded you.’ I nodded.
‘We expect you to keep in touch with Doctor Peters once a week,’ Buchanan said.
‘I would want to anyway,’ I smiled and Brenda smiled back, reached out and squeezed my hand.
‘We want to know where you are,’ Buchanan added. ‘Don’t make us come looking for you,’ he warned.
‘The clothes and everything, including the doctor’s bag and medical supplies are all yours, you’re free to go,’ Murphy said quickly and everyone smiled.
‘I have to go straight away?’ I said in a small voice and I felt my eyes fill. Great touch, I told myself, but I wondered whom I was fooling. Suddenly, the idea that I was free was more than a little frightening.
‘No, of course not,’ Kruger said quickly. ‘When you’re ready.’
It took about a week before I had the courage to spread my wings.
Brenda, Kristine and I went shopping in the nearby town and I bought some more clothes: shorts, halter-tops, sandals, sunglasses and jeans. I also bought a car. I looked longingly at the large off-road cars but followed Brenda and Kristine to the compact wagons. ‘Very practical for a doctor,’ Brenda pointed out.
‘The seats go forward a long way, which is great,’ Kristine volunteered as she tried them out.
With the car now in the name of Jacqueline Rhodes, M.D., I cautiously followed Kristine and Brenda back to the complex. Driving in my female body was a new experience and I drove quite slowly back to the complex until I became used to it. I was on my way, I told myself, but, strangely, I felt quite sad to leave Brenda and Kristine behind.
The farewell the next day was tearful. I tried to tell myself this was what I had worked for over the past year, but it didn’t make it any better.
The base hospital team gave me a blue cap with M.D. on it and we all hugged. They were great guys and I was going to miss working with them.
Brenda, Kristine and I hugged each other, and I was crying freely when I finally drove away. I had Brenda’s cell phone number programmed into mine and both Kristine and Brenda had made me promise to come see them again.
However, I knew I would probably never see them again. When I had changed back to Jack, they wouldn’t understand or even know me. That thought made me burst into tears once again and through gritted teeth, I cursed the hormones within me. I was looking forward to being a man again, I told myself, it would take time to do my research, but I will achieve my goal so I can return to my safe, stable and predictable life.
I didn’t know where I was going and just drove South down the highway, planning to end up in Atlanta and start looking for work at the teaching hospitals. I stayed the night in a large motel and decided to have my first drink for a long time in the bar. Out of habit, I changed into a dress, did my hair and face and walked in. The woman behind the bar smiled and I ordered a drink.
‘Put the lady’s drink on my tab,’ a heavy man on a stool at the bar called, smiling at me.
‘That’s very nice,’ I smiled, ‘but I couldn’t.’ Before he could open his mouth, I quickly paid the woman and sipped the drink through the straw. I almost spluttered but managed to contain it. Jack had always drunk whisky, but this was terrible!
‘Don’t like it?’ the woman asked with a smile.
I grinned foolishly. ‘A friend suggested it, but it’s a bit harsh.’
‘Let me swap it for you,’ she said as she whisked the drink away.
Moments later she was back with a cocktail glass with a green liquid in it, a slice of lemon on the side. I pulled open my purse and looked at her but she waved it away. ‘No charge, I don’t get much call for cocktails here, so it’s a pleasure. Tell me what you think.’
She moved away to serve another customer and I cautiously sipped the cocktail through the straw. ‘What do you think?’
‘It’s delicious,’ I smiled, and it really was. I suddenly noticed that the bar was now crowded with men who had moved from the tables to the stools. All of them were smiling at me and I sighed inwardly. Brenda had warned me about how attractive I was to men, and I had thought she was exaggerating but, apparently, she hadn’t. Another curse I had to learn to live with!
A big man pushed through and stood looking down at me, his beer belly almost touching me. ‘Hi there, little lady. What brings you down here?’
‘I’m just travelling through,’ I said, looking around for a way out of the bar and back to my room.
‘Are you in sales?’
‘Medicine,’ I said, turning away and getting off the stool.
‘Pharmaceutical sales?’ he boomed.
‘No,’ I said, peeved, ‘I’m actually a doctor. And you,’ I said pointing at his flushed cheeks, ‘should get your doctor to test your blood pressure.’ There was small ripple of laughter and I escaped, leaving my half finished cocktail on the bar.
I was fuming when I returned to my room. This is ridiculous, I swore, I can’t even go for a drink on my own and my tastebuds are shot! I ordered room service and watched a movie on the television. The truth was after being surrounded with people for such a long time, I was feeling incredibly vulnerable and alone, maybe even lonely. What in the hell is happening to me?
Be calm, I told myself, once you begin work on changing back, you’ll be fine. With that thought, I snapped the light off and slept fitfully in my first night of freedom.
The next morning I rummaged through my clothes and decided on shorts, a white sleeveless top, sneakers and half socks. I whisked my hair into a ponytail and threaded it through the hole in the back of the M.D. cap the guys had given me. I told myself that I’d have my hair cut short soon and be back in trousers permanently. The thought that I wouldn’t be able to style my hair if it was cut really short popped into my mind and I quickly pushed it out again.
It was beginning to heat up and I drove for most of the morning. Somehow, I had driven off the highway and was now travelling on smaller and smaller roads. The map was useless, I couldn’t figure out where I was, and decided to keep driving until I found a town.
The country flattened and the dusty road I was driving down was suddenly parallel to a large river. Pulling over at a crossroads I saw a sign that pointed to a town called Indian Mask and it was only twenty miles further on. Suddenly, I relaxed, threw the stupid map into the back seat and realised just how worried I had been at being lost.
Grinning, I said, ‘Silly woman,’ to myself and reached for the radio button. Wait a minute, I immediately thought, what did I call myself? You can stop acting now, I told myself, there’s no one who knows you here.
The radio station was playing oldies mixed with country music and I sang softly to myself as I drove along, enjoying the peaceful countryside, the green fields, willows hanging by the water and a few horses running free in their fenced lots.
The road curved and I was later thankful I was driving slowly when I turned the curve. A pickup was on its side across the road. A boat trailer connected to it was at twisted angle, the wooden boat splintered and dangling from it.
The accident must have occurred minutes before because I saw a man groggily waving at me with both arms, warning me to stop. Even from that distance, I could see a trickle of blood on his forehead and his nose looked bloody.
Parking off the road, I grabbed my medical bag and jumped out, rushing over to the man. ‘My daughter’s hurt,’ he cried out to me as I ran closer. ‘We have to get help, she’s hurt bad.’
‘Okay, okay,’ I soothed, quickly looking him over. He had a gash on his forehead, a broken nose and cut lip, and his face was pale. ‘I’m a doctor, where is she?’
‘Doctor?’ He looked me up and down.
‘Do you want to see my license, or do you want me to see your daughter?’ I snapped.
She was in the pick-up and I guessed she had a broken arm and it looked like a deep cut on her left leg. ‘Hello, honey,’ I said softly as I clambered in, ‘what’s your name?’ I guessed she was about eight or nine and was dressed in shorts and tee shirt.
‘Lou,’ she said, white faced as she stared at me.
‘Is that short for Louise?’ I asked as I closely examined her leg. It was a long cut, but no real muscle damage, and she’d be okay after stitches.
‘Yes,’ she murmured, watching me as I wrapped her leg quickly. ‘Are you a doctor?’
‘Yes, and you’re going to be okay, Lou.’ I brushed her hair from her eyes. ‘I’m going to strap your arm to your chest so we can move you. It might hurt a little so I want you to be brave, okay?’
‘Okay,’ she said in a low voice. ‘What’s your name?’
‘Jacquie,’ I said, preparing the bandages, conscious her father was watching through the window. A least he didn’t pepper me with questions. ‘It’s short for Jacqueline.’
Lou smiled and began to close her eyes. ‘No, Lou,’ I said quickly, ‘don’t close your eyes, honey. Look at me, sweetheart,’ I ordered, worried about internal injuries, and she opened her eyes again. ‘Now, here we go,’ I said softly and I worked quickly. She grunted in pain and I saw her eyes sparkle with tears but I strapped her arm successfully.
Leaning down, I kissed her forehead. ‘You are such a brave girl, Lou. I’m going to call you tough Lou from now on.’ She weakly smiled at that and I ran my hands over her, checking for any other injuries.
Her father asked a question at last. ‘Is she okay?’
I nodded and turned back to Lou. ‘You keep your eyes open while I check your Dad, okay?’
‘Okay, Jacquie,’ she said and I crawled out of the car and quickly checked his eyes and the cuts.
‘Anything that really hurts?’ I asked.
‘Everything,’ he said ruefully and I smiled.
‘I think you’ll live but you’ll need stitches. Can you drive my car?’ He nodded and I decided to risk it. ‘We need to get Lou in the back seat and I’ll stay with her while you drive. You know the way I guess, I’ll just get lost. Is there a hospital here?’
‘There’s a small surgery at Indian Mask but the…’
‘That’ll do,’ I said briskly.
Lou was tough again when we moved her and soon her father was driving like a maniac down the dusty road. ‘I can see how you had an accident,’ I said. ‘Does your Daddy always drive this fast?’ I said loudly. He heard me and slowed down a little.
‘It was a cow, Jacquie,’ Lou said. ‘A cow ran in front of us and Daddy tried not to hit it.’
I kept her talking and soon we were driving down a sealed street that soon became the main street of the small town of Indian Mask. Small being the operative word although it was really pretty, the sort of town that you saw in old fashioned movies.
We drove past the courthouse, the churches, the stores and the gas station until we came to a big rambling house with a picket fence. The sign that stood in the middle of the lawn said ‘Doctor William Johnson’.
‘Bring her in,’ I said to the father, ‘and I’ll brief Doctor Johnson.’
‘But…’ he said, but I briskly walked up onto the porch and through the screen door.
The front door led to what I guessed was a waiting room, even though it was deserted. The reception desk was deserted so I rang the bell.
‘Can I help you?’ A large black woman with wire spectacles appeared, looking at me in a puzzled way.
‘There’s been an accident and a young girl has a broken arm and a cut leg. Is the doctor here?’
Lou was brought in by her father and said, glancing at the black woman, ‘I tried to tell her there isn’t a doctor here.’
‘There isn’t a doctor?’ I looked at her, puzzled and she shrugged.
‘The nearest one is sixty five miles away.’
‘But the sign?’
‘Doctor Johnson passed on three months ago,’ the woman said gently, ‘we just haven’t gotten around to taking the sign down.’
Lou suddenly said, ‘It hurts, Jacquie.’
‘I know, sweetheart,’ I said softly. ‘Is there a surgery here?’ I asked the woman. ‘I’m a doctor.’
She looked at me in surprise. ‘Yes, nothing has been moved, the town’s kept it ready for a new doctor as soon as we find him.’
I sighed, took my cap off and started winding my hair into a bun. ‘Can I use the surgery to set her arm?’
She studied me. ‘Are you sure you’re a doctor?’
‘She’s pretty good, Eleanor,’ Lou’s father pleaded, ‘Lou’s in pain here.’
‘Ok,’ Eleanor agreed at last, ‘it’s through there.’
I washed up and I was surprised to see Eleanor in a scrub smock, ready to assist. She watched me keenly as I set the arm and began applying the cast. I casually told her to finish up the cast, apply a sling while I stitched the leg. It was all local anesthetic and Lou grimaced a little but was great, I kept telling her so and making jokes as I worked. She giggled at some things, laughed at others and I saw even Eleanor cracked a smile.
‘There you go, angel,’ I said with a smile. ‘I’d better check your Dad, the brave cow protector.’ She giggled again and I asked Eleanor, ‘Can you finish the bandaging?’
She smiled. ‘Of course, Doctor.’
Lou’s father asked immediately, ‘Is she alright?’
‘She’s fine. Just let me work on you and you can see her.’
‘Thank God,’ he said and I smiled as I sat him down. His hair was dark and curly, his face was unshaven and he was lean and muscular.
‘So you’re Jacquie?’ he asked as I cleaned the cut and I nodded. ‘I’m Scott Carson. Thanks for everything you’ve done. Ow,’ he suddenly grimaced.
‘Nearly finished, though I can’t do much more for the nose,’ I said after fixing a strip over the bridge to keep it straight.
He shrugged. ‘It’s been broken before.’
‘Stand up and undo your shirt,’ I said. His chest was muscular but not hairy, just a few tufts of hair with a thin trail from his navel heading south. There were no broken ribs and everything seemed okay. ‘Everything seems fine. You can go see her now.’
I washed up and was brushing my hair out when Eleanor poked her head around the corner. ‘Cup of coffee, doctor?’
‘I’m dying for a cup,’ I said, rolling my eyes and she laughed.
After all the tests I could run gave them a clean bill of health apart form the obvious injuries, Scott and Lou left. I waved goodbye and sat on the porch, steaming mug of coffee in my hand. ‘You did good work in there, doctor,’ Eleanor said, sitting beside me. ‘I’m Eleanor,’ she said, flashing a grin.
‘Jacquie.’ I sipped the coffee. ‘This is a beautiful town, so peaceful.’
‘We think so. Are you on vacation?’
‘Kind of, but I got lost. I thought I could read the map but I must have taken a wrong turn somewhere.’
She laughed. ‘I think Scott and Lou will thank the Lord you were lost.’
A tall thin man hurried through the gate and up the path. ‘Here’s trouble,’ Eleanor whispered with a wink.
‘Hi, Eleanor,’ he said, eyes on me. ‘And you must be the doctor? I’m the Mayor, Ron Tomlinson.’
‘Jacqueline Rhodes. It obviously doesn’t take long for word to get around.’
‘You better believe it,’ Eleanor said.
‘Are you staying long in Indian Mask, Doctor Rhodes?’
I was suddenly conscious I was wearing shorts and the Mayor’s eyes kept drifting all over me. ‘Probably just tonight if I can find a motel. There is a motel, isn’t there?’
‘Of course, but why don’t you stay here tonight, you’re most welcome.’ Ron said. ‘The surgery and the house is owned by the city and is vacant until we find a doctor. As I said, you’d be most welcome, and it’s our way of thanking you.’
‘Well, I don’t know…’
‘Why not Jacquie?’ Eleanor said with a smile. ‘It’s clean and comfortable and it’s not being used.’
I shrugged; it was probably better than a motel. ‘Okay, why not?’
‘Great!’ Ron beamed.
‘I’ll show you where everything is,’ Eleanor said and stood up. Ron took that as his cue and walked off whistling.
‘It’ll be nice to have someone here again,’ Eleanor said as she showed me the bedroom, the kitchen and the bathroom. ‘Now, will you be cooking tonight?’
I looked around the big kitchen. ‘Probably not.’
‘Then it’s the diner, you can’t miss it, and it’s on the main street.’
‘Isn’t this the main street?
‘Yep, that’s why you can’t miss it.’ We laughed. ‘I’ll come by in the morning.’
After a long relaxing soak in the big bathtub, I dressed in jeans, a casual sleeveless top and sandals, did my face and, with my hair loose and my handbag over my shoulder, strolled down the street, smelling the jasmine in the air.
A woman was watering her garden as I walked past, a ginger cat on the picket fence watching the stream of clear water from the hose. ‘Good evening, Doctor,’ she called and I blinked in surprise. This is a small town, I told myself, and word gets around.
‘Hi,’ I called, ‘it’s a beautiful evening,’ I added, just for something to say.
‘It is. Welcome to Indian Mask. I’m Rhoda Simpson, my husband runs the gas station.’ She turned the hose off and drew closer. ‘Doctor, I know you’re just passing through but Jim has this cut that’s become infected but he won’t take time off to go over to the County. He’s a stubborn thing, you know what men are like, but I’m worried.’
I smiled. ‘Send him by tomorrow morning Mrs. Simpson, first thing, and I’ll look at it before I leave.’
The diner was crowded, I could hear the hum of conversation from the street, but it died immediately I walked through the door, the bell jangling loudly in the suddenly silent room.
Ron Tomlinson rushed forward. ‘Doctor Rhodes,’ he greeted me enthusiastically, ‘welcome. Let me introduce you.’ He took me by the arm and began introducing me to people until I was hopelessly confused.
‘Are you really a doctor?’ A big man in a sweat stained uniform asked and it was plain he was the sheriff.
‘Are you really the sheriff?’ I countered and everyone laughed.
‘Yes I am,’ he said, producing his wallet, ‘here are my credentials.’ I read the identity card, Sheriff John Hopkins.
I sighed, rummaged in my handbag for my purse and found my registration and license. ‘Here’s mine.’
He read it aloud. ‘Doctor Jacqueline Rhodes, guess you’re a doctor,’ he said with a lopsided grin handing it back.
‘Good, otherwise you’d arrest me for illegally setting broken arms?’
‘It’s just you look pretty young.’
‘Young and pretty,’ someone called out and there were a few chuckles.
‘Keep quiet, Donny,’ another voice called, ‘young Scott saw her first.’
More laughter and a thin woman rushed over, pushing herself in front of the sheriff. ‘I’m Alice, Doctor. This is my place. Ignore them and come and have something to eat.’ She led me over to a table with red-checkered tablecloth. ‘We can cook steak anyway you like it or, if you prefer something light, we have some fresh fish just caught this afternoon. I could grill a piece for you?’
‘Thanks Alice, that sounds perfect.’
I looked around the room as the steady conversation returned. It was nice, really nice and comfortable with the steady aromas leaking from the kitchen, laughter and joking and, once in a while, the tinkle of glasses.
It was strange but I felt at home and so relaxed. After all that time at the complex, pretending to be someone I wasn’t, it was a pleasure to relax and be to be me.
They left me alone, although I could feel their eyes on me every now and again, but they didn’t intrude. Alice chatted to me a little bit and Ron came over at the end of the meal and asked if he could stop by the next day to discuss a proposition.
I guessed he was going to try to talk me into staying and told him it was a waste of his time, but he insisted.
‘Okay,’ I agreed, ‘but I’m leaving tomorrow.’
That night, I called Brenda and told her where I was and what had happened. She listened carefully, asking a question occasionally and when I finished, she asked, ‘Is Scott cute?’
Cute, was he cute, I wondered, was he? ‘Maybe but he’s married. His daughter is a great kid, though.’
‘Hmmm,’ Brenda said. ‘Call me soon, we all miss you.’
‘I miss you too,’ I said and it wasn’t a lie.
I was halfway through my hair and my face before I realized what I was doing. Shrugging, I told myself I might as well continue, what was the harm?
Eleanor was cooking in the kitchen when I walked in. ‘Good morning,’ I greeted her. ‘You didn’t have to do that.’
‘I don’t mind. I used to cook breakfast for Doc Johnson, so it’s kind of nice doing it again.’
‘Okay,’ I smiled, ‘you talked me into it. Mrs. Simpson asked me to see her husband before I go,’ I said after swallowing a mouthful of scrambled eggs.
‘I know,’ she said with a sly grin, ‘he’s in the waiting room.’
‘Jim’s nervous about going to doctors, he hates it, so Rhoda must have seriously threatened him to make him come in,’ she said with a wink. ‘I think he’s been told go see the doc or miss out for a long time, if you know what I mean.’
I choked on my scrambled eggs and laughed. ‘I see.’
I finished, had a cup of coffee and glanced around the door into the waiting room and froze, the room was full of people! ‘What’s going on?’ I whispered to Eleanor, pushing her back into the kitchen. ‘What do these people want?’
‘They want to see a doctor,’ she said.
‘Is this some sort of trick, Eleanor? Is this Ron’s idea?’
‘Jacquie,’ Eleanor said seriously, hand on my shoulder while she looked deep into my eyes, ‘Indian Mask hasn’t had a doctor for over five months and word got around that you were seeing Jim so…’
‘People thought they might come around as well?’
She nodded. ‘Jacquie, are you in a hurry to get somewhere? I mean, if you weren’t, you could at least see the urgent ones before you go.’
Part of me wanted to say, no, I’m out of here, look after yourselves, sister! On the other hand, I remembered the smiles at the diner, the feeling of relaxation and the look of hope on the faces of the people in the waiting room.
I laughed softly, surrendering. ‘And I suppose they’re all urgent?’
‘Could be,’ Eleanor said with a grin.
It was strange but I didn’t want to disappoint Eleanor and what did it matter if I delayed my trip for a while? Where was I going, anyway? I shook my head. ‘You going to stick around?’
‘I wouldn’t miss this for the world, a young feisty female doctor in this town! Besides, somebody has to update the files, collect the fees. Here, doctor,’ she said, handing me a file, ‘your first patient file.’
Grinning, I walked out into the waiting room and the murmured conversation stopped as everyone looked at me expectantly. ‘Good morning, I’m Jacquie Rhodes and I guess I’ll be seeing you all before I go.’ They broke into smiles, and I looked at the patient’s file. ‘Jim Simpson?’
A big man got up and walked slowly across the floor towards me and I stuck my hand out. ‘Hi Jim. Don’t worry, I don’t bite,’ I said as I led him away, ‘Much!’ and I winked to the other waiting patients. They were chuckling as I shut the door.
The doctor’s surgery was a comfortable room with a big old fashioned desk, bay window with light curtains, bookshelves, a fire place and, of course the examination area.
‘Now, Doc,’ he began.
‘Call me Jacquie, Jim,’ I said, ‘where’s this cut Rhoda is worried about?’
Sheepishly he pointed to his leg. It was a long gash and severely infected so I had to clean it thoroughly before I stitched. He grimaced and then pulled his pants back up. ‘Thanks, Jacquie,’ he said swinging off the examination table and buckling his belt.
‘Step on those scales, Jim,’ I said, pointing at them.
‘What do you think?’ I said with a smile. ‘I want your weight. I see from this file you haven’t been here for three years.’
‘Well, if I ain’t been sick …’
‘Have you heard of preventative maintenance? Don’t you tell people to have their motor cars serviced regularly?’
‘Yeah,’ he said warily.
‘Pretty important to do that, is it?’ He nodded. ‘It’s more important to check yourself out regularly, Jim. Now, tell me your weight.’
At the end of the basic examination I wrote a prescription out and gave it to him. ‘This is for the leg and this,’ I gave him a sealed envelope, ‘is for Rhoda.’
He was puzzled. ‘What is this?’
‘Never you mind, and I’m going to ask Rhoda if she got it and if it was opened, okay?’
He shrugged as if to say, women! ‘Okay, doc,’ he said resigned. ‘Thanks again.’
I smiled and walked out to the waiting room and to my surprise, the number of people had increased, there were even people seated on the porch. It was going to be a busy morning.
Steadily, I worked through the patients and had no trouble; even the most cantankerous males seemed to accept me although they looked at me with suspicion until I proved I knew what I was talking about.
Mid-morning, Eleanor came in between patients with a coffee and smiled as she put it on the desk. ‘You okay, Jacquie?’
‘Sure,’ I said, ‘don’t tell Ron, but I’m kind of enjoying it.’
Eleanor laughed and then told me I had some visitors. Scott and Lou were standing by the screen door and Lou had a big bunch of flowers in her hand, her other arm still in the sling.
‘What’s this?’ I asked, squatting down so I was level with her eyes.
‘These are for you,’ she said formally, pushing the flowers into my hand, ‘to say thank you for helping us.’
I was conscious that everyone in the waiting room could hear and were all watching. ‘My pleasure,’ I murmured, ‘how’s the arm?’
‘Itchy,’ she complained, and I smiled.
‘You’ll have to put up with that for a while, I’m afraid. Should be easy for someone as tough as you.’
‘Sign my arm, Jacquie,’ Lou said with a grin and I noticed that Scott had already written something on the cast.
‘Sure,’ I said and wrote my name and drew a little heart next to it. For a moment, a thought flashed within me, asking why I did that, but I shook my head, ignoring it.