"I don't even own a skirt," Danielle Tyler said. "How can I pack one?"
"What about that denim mini you bought a couple of months ago?" her mother asked.
"I got icky frog guts on it in Biology," Danielle said. "I tried washing it, but they wouldn't come out, so I threw it away."
"Nevertheless, your aunt said you'll have to pack several skirts and dresses. No jeans, no slacks."
"What about shorts?"
"She didn't say."
"If they won't let me wear jeans, then they probably won't let me wear shorts. Where am I going?"
"To live with your Aunt Jessica."
Danielle shook her head. "Where does she live? You never said."
"In some sort of experimental housing project, that's all I know."
"Oh great," Danielle said, flopping down on her bed. "I'll be living in the projects. That'll do wonders for my reputation. I'll never hear the end of it."
"It isn't in this school district," her mother said. "Aunt Jessica lives up north somewhere. It's all hush-hush, and not part of some government housing scheme."
"And you'll get a better education than you're getting in that school you attend now."
"That wouldn't be hard," Danielle said. "They could run us through any elementary school in another state and we'd probably learn more."
"Some of the finest people come out of the California Public Education System—" her mother began.
Danielle was having none of that. "Yeah, but they also spent time in a real school, not in an advanced babysitting system. They teach to the dumbest kid in the class. I can do most of my homework before I leave school."
"But your grade point average is—"
"That's a load of bull, Mom, pardon my language. You have to consciously attempt to fail the tests to avoid getting good grades, and even then, some of the teachers won't let you fail. Half the stuff they teach us is political crap, and the rest is 'feel good' stuff that is like totally useless in the real world. There's a reason all the good teachers go to work for businesses. It's so they can teach kids what they need after they get their diploma."
"Same old Danielle," her mother said with a tight smile. "Where did you come up with such reactionary views? Never mind," she added with a wave of her hand. "We have more important things to deal with, such as finding at least three skirts for you." She eyed Danielle's closet. "Do you have any dresses?"
"I haven't worn a dress since fifth grade," Danielle said. "School picture day."
Her mother fished a letter out of her pocket. "It doesn't say you need a dress, but I've always felt a woman, especially a young woman, should have some choices. We'll go shopping this afternoon and buy you some things."
"Mother! My friends are coming over, and—"
"And they'll have to wait. Your Aunt Jessica is due here tomorrow afternoon, and this is the only chance we'll have to do some shopping."
Danielle had heard that tone before, and knew her mother wasn't going to be budged. Look on the bright side, she told herself. If you work it right, you can use her credit card, not yours.
"At least let me tell my friends I won't be seeing them until late this afternoon," she said.
"I thought they were in school."
"They are. Don't worry, I'll text 'em."
Her mother folded her hands in her lap. "Very well, but hurry. I want to miss most of the traffic."
Her parents had sprung this whole thing of moving out of the district on her by surprise. She'd tried to put her foot down, and discovered that they weren't interested in her thoughts. She hadn't expected her folks to move so fast. Normally they took their time and 'thought it over'. But then she thought of the party she wouldn't have to go to at the end of the week. It was one of those parties at Carol Anne's place. Her parents were out of town for a month so the party was going to be one giant orgy. She was still sore down there from having her last pregnancy taken care of and she just didn't feel like having sex, but she'd be expected to screw a couple boys at the party, even if it hurt.
She had one way to stay with her friends, and that was if the school administration stopped things. She knew they didn't like to lose students. It reduced their funding, and that was important to them.
The administrator put up a fight. It had taken three days to get all of the paperwork straightened out. The administrator had thrown up all sorts of roadblocks and made her parents swear up and down she wasn't going into a voucher school, whatever that was. Her father assured them that this was a move out of state for legal reasons and they had very little choice in the matter. He hinted that the Federal government was involved, and all of a sudden the problems just seemed to vanish. In less than an hour she was processed through, her records were bundled up and she was sent off with their best wishes.
She thought about that as they went downtown. This whole thing seemed rather strange. Kids did not get bundled off to a relative's on such short notice, not in this day and age. Years ago they would if the girl was pregnant, but that didn't happen any more. But here she was, almost ready to move to ... somewhere.
"Good, there's a parking spot," her mother said, and careened around a corner to narrowly beat out a Mercedes. Her mother killed the engine and looked over brightly. "Ready?"
"I guess," Danielle replied. She loved to shop, but that was with her friends. With her mother along she couldn't do any of the things she liked to do: try on weird outfits, flirt through the store window in something too short and tight to wear in public, and so on. She and her friends could easily spend a whole day going from store to store. But not this time. It was clear that her mother was a woman on a mission.
Apparently Aunt Jessica had sent a description of the typical skirt most girls were wearing in this town where she lived. Danielle looked at herself in the mirror when she tried on the first outfit her mother liked that didn't make her stomach turn over. The skirt came down to the middle of her knee. It seemed so ... old-fashioned. She'd spotted several stylish minis that were more her idea of what to wear, including one that had been incredibly cute, and short enough to make Melissa Kentridge jealous, but her mother had shaken her head. Reluctantly, Danielle put them back on the rack.
Part of the problem was her height. She was tall and willowy, and things that fit her slender build were hard to find. Her mother did have a sense of style, and she seemed to find those things that actually went with her blonde skin tones and short blonde hair. Danielle remembered a girl who'd been in school less than a month named Teresa. It was obvious her clothes had been picked out by someone who wanted to make her look bad. The cuts were all wrong, the colors didn't match, and all in all she looked so out of place it was a wonder she didn't go home crying every night. Given some of the girls at school, it was more like a major miracle Teresa wasn't an emotional basket case.
When they got home Danielle laid her purchases out on her bed: five skirts, two dresses, and a slip. That had been more than $300 in new clothes. That was twice as much as she'd spent in months. She made a note: she needed to shop with her mother more often, or at least with her mother's credit card.
It hadn't been all dresses and skirts. She'd sarcastically laid out several sets of knee-high socks to go with the skirts, but her mother had shrugged. "If you want them, you'll have to pay for them yourself."
Danielle had, but more out of rebellion than anything else. But her mother had sprung for several pairs of tights to wear under the skirts. From the few hints her mother had dropped, she'd decided Aunt Jessica lived back in the mountains. She'd seen reports of snow up there, and people who made girls go to school in the snow, in a skirt, had to be crazy, or at least men, which was often the same thing.
It was all right not to wear socks or tights down here next to San Francisco Bay. Sure, the breezes off the Bay could get a bit cool at certain times of the year, but that didn't happen that often. This was a temperate climate, and you could get away with almost anything as long as it was fashionable.
Her mother volunteered to iron and pack her new clothes, which was a surprise. That let her spend time with her friends. They took her to a Starbucks where they sat and talked until well after dark.
"I wish my folks would take me out of school," Joanne Simmons had said.
"Are you... ?"
"Again," Joanne nodded. "I'm going to see the doctor tomorrow. At least they can't tell my folks."
"I had it done about a month ago," Danielle said. "My cousin was visiting, and I asked her not to say anything, but..." She spread her hands helplessly. "I bet she has a mouth on her."
"Yeah, but I hear some of those schools up north can be pretty good," Kendra Wilson said. "You won't have to put out for the boys, and you'll get a real education."
Kendra was a brain, and made no secret that she wanted to be a doctor. When some of the more popular girls had begun picking on her because she wasn't as active as they were, and ragging on her because she studied all of the time, she had smiled back at them coldly. "At least I'll have a future that won't involve having to spread my legs all of the time to get a guy to like me. That's more than I can say for you. You might as well charge for it, you know? In fact, you will be, it just won't be a direct cash payment."
Naturally the more popular girls had resented her, and the only thing that had kept a fight from breaking out right then was the unexpected appearance of a teacher. They'd tried to get back at Kendra by sabotaging her books and locker, but that had failed when Kendra had put cardboard over the grill in her locker. And as for her books, one of the perpetrators, Melissa Kentridge as a matter of fact, had been caught trying to pour ink into Kendra's backpack. They'd been reduced to trying to ruin her clothes during gym, leaving stains and other marks on her jeans.
Kendra had retaliated by taking something from her College Prep Chemistry class and pouring it on their clothes after gym. The stink was so bad the girls had to go home to change. After that the attacks on her had slacked off.
"Who did you go see, Danni?" one of the other girls asked. "I'm not sure yet, and my last doctor was hopeless."
"Dr. Gilbertson down by the mall. The best thing is you can get to his office by going through the mall, so if your folks sees your car she'll think you're just shopping. He doesn't have much personality, but he has gentle hands and his instruments are warm."
"God!" Joanne rubbed her arms. "There's this doctor I went to a couple of months ago to see if I'd had any leftover problems from the last time I'd gone in to fix things, and he had a cold speculum. He put that thing in me and I thought I was going to jump straight to the ceiling."
The other girls around the table shivered. "Male doctors wouldn't do that if they knew what it felt like," Danielle said. "Give me a woman MD any day. Dr. Gilbertson is an exception. His wife's an OB/GYN, and she probably told him."
"So where, exactly, are you going?" Joanne asked after a bit.
"Some place way north," Danielle said. "I think it's almost all the way up by Mt. Lassen, maybe even in Oregon."
"That's out of the state," Keri said. "God, that is like so far from here, hickville and a half. I wonder if they even have running water and flush toilets."
"Of course they do," Kendra said. "They might not have good internet connectivity or cell phones, or if they do, they might be limited, but other than that they're just as modern as we are."
"You mean I could end up with dial-up?" Danielle said. "God, that takes like forever to load. How can anyone stand it?"
"People used to," Kendra said. "If that's all you've got, well, you used to it. Last summer we went on vacation to this place in Nevada. No cell phones at all, and after a while I didn't miss it."
"That's all right for you," Keri said, "but some of us like to keep in touch with our friends. I'm afraid Danni is going to be so far away that she'll be out of touch."
"At the very least I'll want to tell you about my classes," Danielle said. "They've got to be better than what we're taking right now."
"Yeah," Joanne said. "They think they're teaching us something, but did you notice how much more you can learn in one of those 'For Dummies' books?"
"If only they didn't have a name like that," Keri said. "That's the last thing you want to be seen with. People will think you're stupid."
"Buy book covers," Kendra said. "You can buy book covers that make them look like regular textbooks."
"I may have to," Joanne said. She looked at Danielle and shook her head. "God, I wish I was going with you. Anything to get out of that school."
"Only one more year to go," Keri said.
"Yeah, that means at least one more visit to the doctor, too. My sister is doing her first two years at the Community College. She can get birth control without mom freaking out. Of course she told me she doesn't need it. She doesn't have all that pressure to put out."
"I wish there was something we could do about that," Danielle said. "The trouble is, the administrators listen to the guys because they—"
"I know this one," Keri said, interrupting her. "They thought they were over-compensating for girls. Now if guys could get pregnant..."
"Be a whole different world," Danielle sighed. "Like that's going to happen."
The other girls nodded at this common wisdom. They talked some more, but eventually they broke up. They had dates, homework, and dinner to go to.
Aunt Jessica showed up right before lunch the next day. Danielle hadn't noticed her aunt wearing a skirt the previous times she'd visited. She must have, though, but after a while you just didn't notice it. Her skirt wasn't one of those fuddy ones she saw on the religious freaks, either; it was actually somewhat stylish an A-line skirt that looked like it was floating around her legs. She thought it was made out of rayon, but after a bit she wasn't sure. At least it wasn't one of those gray wool things the bible-thumpers wore.
Aunt Jessica wasn't wearing stockings or tights, so maybe it wasn't as cold as she was expecting. Of course it was just as likely that she kept the inside of the car nice and warm, and she found tights or nylons uncomfortable. A lot of gals hated wearing nylons because they'd bunch and pinch at the most awkward places, and would get runs after only one wearing.
"Everything ready?" Aunt Jessica asked after greeting everyone with a hug.
"I'm all packed," Danielle said. Out of defiance she was wearing jeans. She wasn't going to put on a skirt until they forced her to.
"Be good," her mother said, giving her a hug and a kiss. "And call when you get there."
"I will, mom," Danielle said. She could feel tears lurking somewhere, and she tried to snuffle them back. It was her first real time to leave home. Summer camp had always been for just two weeks, so it didn't count.
"I'll let you know how things go," Aunt Jessica said.
Danielle loaded her things in the car, and then slid in on the passenger's side. She wasn't sure if she was looking forward to this. She knew she was going to miss her friends, but she wasn't going to miss the other girls at school. Or the boys constantly hitting on her. On balance, she thought, this could be pretty good. It certainly couldn't get much worse.
Her aunt tried to draw her out a bit, but after a series of one-syllable replies she concentrated on driving. They were headed north, but after they got off I-5 Danielle couldn't tell where they were, except that it was in the mountains. She wasn't even sure which mountains, the Coastal Range, or the Sierra Nevadas; she'd been dozing when they'd made the turn. All she really knew was that they drove up one valley after another with nothing but an endless parade of trees around them.
It'd been bright and sunny in the Bay Area when they'd left. But in the mountains the clouds rolled in, rain began to fall, and the traffic got lighter. The radio didn't seem to be playing much that was interesting—Aunt Jessica did let her tune it to different stations—so she began to wish she'd brought a magazine or hadn't packed her iPod.
They came around a curve, and Aunt Jessica slowed. There was a small town up ahead, with a couple of gas stations, a diner, a church, and a bunch of houses crowded close to the road. Incongruously, there was what looked like a fairly good restaurant on one of the side streets. They drove past all of that, pulling into the last gas station.
"This is just for gas," Aunt Jessica said. "Do you have to use the bathroom? We still have at least an hour to go."
"It'd help," Danielle said.
"Be quick. I want to do this last section before it gets dark."
Danielle got the key and walked around to the side door. The Women's Restroom was remarkably clean, and even smelled of lilacs. When she was done she took a few moments to brush her hair out and tie it back in a simple ponytail. She refreshed her make-up, too. She'd shadowed her eyes to get that deep mysterious look she liked, and used an eyebrow pencil to make her blonde eyebrows stand out. Now she put a little more blush on the apples of her cheeks. The rest of her face had filled out a little since she'd seen the doctor, so at least she didn't have that 'hollow waif' look some of the girls liked, what the magazines called heroin chic. She didn't want to look like a hag when she saw the rest of the family.
Her aunt was tapping her fingers on the steering wheel when she got back to the car. She smiled, though, instead of saying something catty, and they were off.
They didn't get back on the highway. Instead they turned uphill on one of the local roads. The road was slick, and her aunt slowed down. The occasional car passed them, as did a couple of pick-ups. After about 45 minutes Aunt Jessica slowed way down, and it was obvious she was looking for a particular turn-off. When she saw the gravel road leading off into the trees, she smiled and made the turn.
They bounced through some potholes, turned a couple of corners, ground their way up a hill, and emerged on a smoothly paved road. After two more miles, and driving past numerous side roads, they pulled into the parking lot of a gray two-story building. The parking lot was at least half-full. Most of the cars looked like they were one or two years old, though she saw a couple of pick-ups that had rust spots, Bondo, and duct tape.
"We have a check-in procedure," Aunt Jessica said. "You'll have a doctor to see, and—"
"A doctor?" Danielle felt a cold spear stab through her. She might be able to hide things from her mother, but not a doctor.
"They want to make sure you're current on all of your shots, and things like that."
"They're going to make sure. Now let's get your luggage out of the car."
Her aunt found a handcart, and helped Danielle pile her things on it. They left them with a man standing at a loading dock, and Aunt Jessica led her through the front door, past a receptionist, and to an office deeper in the building.
"New person," Aunt Jessica told the woman in the severely tailored suit behind the desk. She took a folder out of her purse. "Here's the case file."
The woman read through the file very carefully, and then entered something in the computer than was on her desk. After reading that, she signed a sheet of paper and handed the folder back.
"Very good. Everything appears to be in order. Escort her down to Medical, please. They'll want to do the usual. When you're done, she's to see Mr. Halberstam in Room 201. He'll be expecting you."
Medical smelled of antiseptic. Aunt Jessica introduced her to a slender, dark-haired woman in a lab coat; she had a name tag that said Dr. Wayland. "This is my niece Danielle. She'll be moving in with us, and she's to have the complete work-up."
"We'll get right with her," Dr. Wayland said. She took Danielle back into an exam room, and handed her a hospital gown. "You'll need to change."
"I thought you were just going to check my shots and things like that," Danielle said.
"We will, but the law requires that I give you a complete physical."
Dr. Wayland nodded. "This'll go faster if you change. I'll be back in a couple of minutes." She turned and left.
Reluctantly, Danielle stripped and put on the hospital gown. She was sitting in a chair—this place didn't have any magazines to read—swinging her feet when the doctor came back.
"Ah, good." She took down a blood pressure cuff. "We'll start with the basics."
Two hours later Danielle was ready to grab her clothes and run. She'd never had a check-up like this one. They looked at everything! They checked her blood, her urine, swabbed the inside of her mouth, examined her eyes, did things to her skin, including taking samples of that and her hair, even put her in the stirrups and did a pelvic.
She hadn't expected that.
"No scarring," the doctor said after peering inside her. "That's good. Chemical abortion?"
Danielle swallowed. "Yes, ma'am," she got out weakly. She'd never talked about it to anyone. It was one of those things you didn't talk about.
"Well, it looks like there was no permanent damage. That's good. Have you had a period since then?"
"Uh, no ma'am. I only had it done about two weeks ago."
"I see." The doctor straightened up and noted something on her chart. "All right. I need to see the blood work before we go much farther. You can put your clothes back on."
Danielle scrambled back into her clothes and sat on the edge of the examining table. The doctor went through the original file folder, nodding to herself from time to time. Finally she took a syringe out of a cabinet and filled it with some clear liquid.
"Bare your arm, please."
"This will induce your period."
"Will I get cramps? Sometimes I've gotten them."
"Probably not," Dr. Wayland said. She swabbed Danielle's arm and gave her the injection. "I want you to see a doctor the day after your period ends. We'll get you started on the standard contraceptive routine and get you some medication for that nasty infection you have."
"Infection... ?" She didn't think she had syphilis again. She wasn't sure if she had gonorrhea or chlamydia. She hoped not, that would be the second time she'd had both.
"You have a bronchial infection that we can clear up right away," the doctor said. "Have you noticed the way you've been coughing?"
"Yes, but everyone coughs like that."
"You have a highly contagious form of bronchitis. Fortunately there's a cure." She left the room, returning moments later with a small brown bottle. "One pill a day for three days. Take it before you have anything to eat, and don't eat for at least half an hour after you've taken the pill. Water is fine, though. You can have all of the water you want. If you feel nauseous, tell your Aunt and she'll take you to a doctor."
The phone in the corner rang. The doctor talked to someone briefly, nodding. Finally she looked at Danielle as she hung up. "My, my. Syphilis, and a recent infection at that. We have to get that cleared up right away. Negative on any of the other sexually transmitted diseases, which is good. There are antibodies in your blood for gonorrhea, which suggests you've had it recently."
"I got it last year," Danielle said. "The doctor I was seeing said she had cleared it up about two months ago."
"That fits what I'm seeing." The doctor returned to her cabinet for another syringe and some more pills. "I'm going to give you a shot. After that I want you to wait an hour and then take these three pills. That should take care of that. Oh, and no sex for a few days." She smiled. "With your period being induced I don't think you'll feel like it anyway, but I have to caution you."
Danielle gave the doctor another weak smile. "That's okay, I haven't felt like it since the ... procedure."
"I'm not surprised." The doctor made a few more marks in her folder. "I'm giving you a tentative clearance, but only if you see me or another doctor right after your period." She handed Danielle a large folder crammed with paper. "These are your medical records, and when you get settled, you'll need to take these to whatever doctor you see."
"Will it be you?"
Dr. Wayland smiled. "Possibly. I usually practice in Terminus, though, and from the notes in your case file, I don't think that's where you'll be living. But if you are, I'd love to have you as a patient. I always love a challenge."
"A ... challenge?"
"You're a sick girl, and it'll take a while to clean everything out." She looked up at the door. "Now go, you still have a couple of stops to make."
Aunt Jessica was waiting in the hall. They went downstairs to a small locker room. "Take off your clothes," her aunt said. "You need to take a disinfecting shower."
"A ... what?"
"A shower. It's full of disinfectants. It's a requirement. And you'll have new clothes to wear. While you were with the doctor I bought you some things to wear."
Danielle began to unbutton her blouse. "How did you know my size? You didn't go through my things, did you?"
Aunt Jessica shook her head. "I asked your mother before we left. The clothes may not fit perfectly, but we can take care of that with a little needle and thread. You and Jenny can go shopping later today and get some things that fit properly."
Reluctantly Danielle went through the shower, scrubbing away vigorously. She didn't know what was in the chemicals, but it made her skin tingle. When she emerged she somehow wasn't surprised to see that her jeans had disappeared, and there was a modest skirt there instead. Grumbling to herself—she felt like her privacy had been invaded by somebody going through her things—she pulled it on. Then she had to deal with her hair. She was irritated enough she decided to let people see her without her make-up. But her hair ... she angrily yanked her brush through it until it began to look something like she wanted. When she was satisfied, she went looking for her aunt.
"I know," Aunt Jessica said. She smelled of the same stuff in the shower, and she wasn't wearing the same clothes she'd had on before. "I hate it myself, but it's a necessity. When we get home you should wash your hair again and get the smell of the disinfectant out of it."
"That was the most thorough medical check-up I've ever had."
"That's because we want to stop things before they become a problem." Aunt Jessica started for the stairs at the other end of the hall. "Now comes the difficult part," she said in a low voice. "I want you to listen very carefully to what you're going to be told."
Mr. Halberstam was a very stern looking middle-aged man with a long face and thinning brown hair. He was wearing a white shirt and tie, and was reading a folder in front of him when Danielle knocked.
"Come in, Miss Tyler," he said. He waited until Danielle was seated before folding his hands on his desk. "I'm here ... we're meeting like this ... so you can learn the basic rule that will govern your life for the next few years. In a few minutes you're going to go through a door elsewhere in this building. What you see on the other side of that door can never be discussed with anyone on this side. Understand?"
"Even my parents?"
"Especially not your parents," he said. "If you do, you will be subject to arrest and imprisonment, and so will they. Keep that in mind." He studied her face. "Do you understand?"
"What is this, some super-secret government project?"
"It is not a government project," Mr. Halberstam said, "but other than that, yes."
"And you think you can throw me in jail and—"
"We don't think we can put you in jail, we know we can because the law says we can, and we've done it."
"But this is California and the Uni—"
"I think you'll find that that does not matter." He pushed several documents across his desk. "I need your signature on these. I have had copies made, and you can read them at your leisure. The simplest thing, though, is to remember that you can't discuss anything that you see with people on this side of that door. Understand?"
There was something about his tone that told Danielle he was dead serious. She still had her cell phone, though it was buried in the bottom of her purse. She'd call Kendra when she could, and ask her. She was the brain, she would know how binding all of this was. She gave Mr. Halberstam a smile, and signed where he wanted.
When that was done, Aunt Jessica led her downstairs. They passed a window that looked out over the parking lot. The rain had given way to snow, and a light dusting covered the trees and cars. They turned a corner and went through two more rooms and a door where Aunt Jessica presented a keycard. The next room was much smaller, and had a counter in front of what looked like an airport metal detector set in a door. There was a curtain hanging in the middle of it and she couldn't see what was on the other side.
"Just follow me," Aunt Jessica said. She stepped through the curtain. Danielle blinked in surprise. She had the impression that the curtain didn't really part, but she couldn't see beyond that. Shrugging, she followed her Aunt.
Danielle felt a tingle as they passed through.
Her aunt sighed, a big smile on her face. "Won't be long now," she said.
They passed a window, and Danielle stopped in shock. It was sunny outside, with blue skies, drifting clouds, and not a raindrop in sight.
"Wh-what happened?" Danielle asked, staring out the window. There was a town on the other side of a creek. There were shops, buildings, and all of the other things a town had, except she didn't see any cars. There was a train or whatever it was called sitting at what had to be a station. It pulled away as she watched, disappearing around some buildings to her right.
"Where are we? Where is this place? It was raining a few moments ago."
"We're home," her aunt said. She took Danielle by the hand, and led her toward an outside door. "And don't worry, we'll get all of your questions answered."