Damaged Goods

Chapter 3, Part 1

by Dr. Seth
10/16/01

CHAPTER 3:
IKIRU

WARNING: Donít read to the end of this chapter if you donít like plot development. Also, one "f" word still makes the PG-13 rating.

There was a reason he had pulled the top down on his pastel yellow convertible, and the buildings and skyscrapers were doing their best to keep him from it. Jammed in Saturday morning traffic, Duane looked towards the slightly obscured azure sky, happy that there were few clouds present. It had been a lovely flight from the Dark Horse down to the Air Force base, but the drive wouldnít get better until he reached the rolling countryside in the next county over.

It had taken a mere three weeks for the military to get Darleneís house repaired, and he was surprised he could get a furlough so soon. In fact, when he mentioned it to Gen. Thornton, he seemed pleased to release him from his duties again, saying that the day off would do him good. Had Darlene conspired with the General when he went over to restore her house? Probably, Duane indignantly assumed, but they would be surprised to find out that Dr. Slate wouldnít play any of their games. Sure, Darlene had conned him into a few blind dates he had dumbly agreed to perform for her sake (none of them ever went anywhere) but the Doc usually spoke her mind, and rather sharply.

When he began to round the corner her apartment complex was situated on, he saw her waiting for him in front of the building. He couldnít help but note that the mint green cotton dress she wore looked rather good in contrast to her dark skin and her black wavy hair, which she had loosely braided into three small braids, then combined into one large braid that softly draped down between her shoulder blades. As he neared her, he also noticed her expression, which from afar looked tolerable, but turned to sour annoyance the closer he got. Her blood red colored lips were screwed tightly into a pout of sorts, and her luxurious, thick eyebrows were slightly knotted together.He quickly checked his watch to see if he was late, thinking this was the cause of her irritation, but he seemed to be on time. He imagined sooner or later he would receive some kind of explanation. She snatched open the door, her gold-rimmed glasses glinting in the bright sun.

"Itís not a date!" she snarled, jabbing one finger onto the tip of his knotted nose.

"I know! I know!" he said in his defense. She slammed the door shut and wedged her small yellow purse between them. He couldnít help but stare at her, unable to grasp why she wanted to make the situation even less pleasant than it could already be. She jammed the seatbelt into its socket, and kicked off her matching mint green two-inch heeled slides.

"Drive." She said it through fiercely gritted teeth, while tightly crossing her arms and legs.

"Look." Duane addressed her as sternly as he dared. "Letís not make this any harder than it already is. I know you probably have better things to do than spend an afternoon with me, but letís just be civil, ok? I promise you can abuse me as much as you want later."

"Just donít get the wrong idea," she said, her eyes locked on the horizon. Duane just sighed in defeat, mumbling to himself as he shifted the car out of park. He decided right then that he would try his damndest to give her the clear message that he had little interest in her by avoiding her company as much as he possibly could during the course of the day.

Suddenly, he realized something was lacking. "Say, whereís that robot of yours?" he asked.

"Rusty went ahead of us. I talked to your sister on the phone last night, and she said it would be a good idea to let Rusty come over early, since your nephew couldnít wait to see him again." When she said this, she more or less talked straight to the dashboard instead of acknowledging him.

"They seem to be getting along rather well, donít you think?" he commented.

Dr. Slate continued staring straight ahead, completely ignoring him. He chewed his tongue in frustration, gripping the steering wheel tightly. The ride was already long, and now it seemed it was going to be unpleasant as well. Duane hardly realized how tense he was until they finally broke free of the busy New Tronic Saturday morning traffic, and burst into the rural suburban area surrounding the metropolis. Taking in the uninterrupted sunlight and gazing at the rolling green pastures, his nerves began untangling themselves, and he began to relax.

Thirty minutes passed before he had the courage to glance over at Dr. Slate to see if her demeanor had changed. It had, actually, but in a rather dramatic way. Instead of being calmed by the beautiful scenery and the empty stretch of highway, her eyes were stretched as wide as saucers, and her hands were digging their red polished nails into his dash with such force he thought the white mesh gloves she was wearing would burst. He looked forward to see if there was some obstacle in the road, but the highway was vacant for as far as the eye could see. When he looked back at her, she was mouthing something incomprehensible and had bravely dislodged her hand from the dash to emphatically point at his speedometer. If she hadnít done so, he probably wouldnít have noticed he was going well over a hundred mph. He slowed down to eighty for her benefit. She sat gasping for a few moments, then snatched up her purse and slapped him in the chest with it.

"You -- you maniac!!" she shouted. "Just what do you think youíre doing?! Answer me!"

"Sweet Lady Liberty! The speed limitís only 50! If I went that slow, it would take us an hour and a half to get there!" He clutched at the area where she had slammed her purse into his chest.

"Youíre going to kill us, you...psycho!" She aimed the purse for his midregion again, but due to her anger, grossly miscalculated the blow. She ended up smacking him in the face, which in turn caused him to momentarily swerve, clipping a billboard by the side of the road. Erika immediately snapped back in her seat, letting him gain control of the car again.

"Iím trying to kill us?! I-uh...Uh oh." Duaneís rant was interrupted by the sound of police sirens. Apparently, there was a motorcycle cop hiding behind the billboard Duane had taken a chunk out of. Erika smugly awaited his comeuppance while Duane pulled over to the side of the road. As the cop pulled up behind them, Erika noticed that Duane seemed completely unconcerned.

"Just what the hell is wrong with you, son?" The cop strode over to Duaneís side of the car. "Letís see your license and registration!"

"What, didnít my license plate scan?" Duane dug in his pocket for his I.D.

"Do you know how fast you were going? Mike Christ!" The officer continued as if Duane hadnít said a thing. He snatched up the license and went back to his motorcycle to enter it in his mobile computer.

Erika watched in her side mirror as the policemanís expression turned from acute aggravation to somber remorse. What was this about? "Sorry about the inconvenience," the cop apologized as he handed Duane his license.

"No problem," Duane said. "Gee, could you do me a favor?" he added.

"Anything, pal." The policeman seemed to have turned into Duaneís willing slave.

"Could you look at my car there on the right side and see how badly I banged it up?" he indicated the side where he had clipped the advertisement.

The cop went around to Erikaís side and assessed the damage. "Aside from a few scratches, itís mostly ok." The cop patted the hood of the pastel yellow car.

"Thanks a lot. And donít worry about that billboard -- just put it on the governmentís tab," Duane smirked. The officer returned to his motorcycle and sped back to his hiding spot.

"What was that all about?" Erika asked incredulously.

"Itís a military secret...." Duane sang a line from a song that had been popular during the war, and gave her a sly little wink that did nothing else but unnerve her.

After another 45 minutes of endless green pastures, small signs of civilization finally appeared. They passed through a quaint covered bridge over a murmuring river and into a little town. Churches dotted the farther corners, alone on hills with ancient white paint flaking from their wooden exteriors. Some of the streets werenít even paved, and were lined with folksy curio shops, a candy store constructed in a old fashioned style, a barber shop with the red, white and blue swirling pole...it was a cozy slice of a time not populated by technology, so very different from New Tronic.

Much to Erikaís dismay, she noticed that the larger franchises had started seeping into the nooks and crannies of the town, sometimes shutting down what appeared to be family-owned businesses. A little green and white building with an old wooden hand painted sign reading "Maitland Hardware" had its windows boarded up, and another sign, more commercial, plastered over its door proclaiming it as the soon-to-be new site of a Star Bucks. A Behemoth Mart towered above a farmerís market that struggled in its shadow. A beautiful, still gleaming boxcar diner was forced to share the same corner as a Fat Guy fast food joint.

Erika still shuddered in a sort of suppressed fear whenever she saw their mascot -- a giant, leering burger boy, holding up their meaty product in his chunky fist. It wasn't that she was truly scared of the image; it just reminded her of the horrible way Donovan eventually warped her own robotics project until Rusty looked like that bubble-head meat boy. Her original design was a little more realistic, but Donovan had been creeped out because her project actually looked like a real child; and of course, if Rusty looked like some sort of comical mascot, he would be easier to spoon-feed to the populace. She willed herself to abandon the bitterness that would overcome her attitude if she were to continue on this train of thought, and tried to concentrate on being more relaxed. She maintained at least a little of her apprehension -- sheíd learned enough about men in her life to be wary of the lieutenant, no matter what innocence he feigned. He was probably just another Huckle or Donovan. And that sister of his was trying to push him on her! She would be polite, but resolved.

With a squeal of tires and a spray of gravel, they pulled into the lengthy driveway of a perfectly picturesque suburban house. It was just as Erika had seen in the photo on the Dark Horse, complete with tire swing. One could hardly tell that interstellar crazies had tried to suck it into a portal through time and space.

"What the hell?" Duane muttered as he parked the car. She turned to see what had elicited this comment from him, and was shocked to see Rusty pushing a lawn mower around the yard. He paused from this chore as they rushed over to him.

"Hi, Mr. Lieutenant Duane! Hi, Dr. Slate!" Rusty beamed.

"What are you doing out here?" Duane placed his hand on the back of Rustyís head, then retracted it with a yelp. "Donít touch him! Heís burning hot!" Duane threw an arm between Erika and the confused robot.

"Rusty, how long have you been out here?" Erika demanded.

"Mrs. Darlene said that I could play with Jeffy as soon as I finished mowing the lawn," he answered.

"Hi, guys! What took you so long?" Darlene called, opening the front door. Erika was just about to give her a piece of her mind, when Duane said exactly what she was thinking.

"Darlene, Rusty is not a tool, ok? Heís a very advanced, very expensive robot! You canít just make him mow your lawn!" Duane fumed. Erika was mildly grateful he had mentioned this; even if she managed to be polite, it still wouldnít sound good coming from her. "And look at this lawn mower!" he pointed to the old-ashioned, four blade, cylindrical lawn mower, the kind that was hand-operated without a motor. "I thought you and that dang husband of yours were going to get a new robo-mower!"

"Well, I would, if he werenít so busy." She pouted indignantly. "So, this is the hello I get? No Ďhiya, Darlene, howís it goiní?"

Duane sighed and rolled his eyes.

"I hate to interrupt, but do you have some water around here that I can spray Rusty with? I need to cool him off before his circuits fry," Erika interjected.

Duane jogged around the side of the house, retrieving a garden hose. "Will this do?" He cranked the water, holding it up for her to see. She nodded her approval, and sent Rusty over to stand in the spray of water.

"I think he overreacts sometimes." Darlene sighed, crossing her arms. Erika didnít feel like explaining to her about robotics, but was silently grateful Duane had handled the situation. "You look really cute! I love your shoes," Darlene commented.

"Oh. Thanks," Erika mumbled. Though she had tried to look appealing, Darlene could easily best her, fashionwise. She was wearing a light powder-blue button-down dress, like the sort factory workers wore but with a trendy cut to it; and with a simple belt fringed with luminescent glass beads cinching her waist, she easily turned it into a very stylish item. Not only was she naturally tall, but she also accentuated her long legs with three inch white slides.

"Unka Doo-wayne!" Jeffyís clear voice rang out from the doorway. The last time she had seen the little boy, he was wearing long pants, a vest, and a tie, in a very formal manner, appropriate for his birthday party. Today, though, he was wearing a simple grey t-shirt with khaki shorts, and precious red high tops, much like the ones Rusty 'wore'. Duane shut off the hose, giving Rusty a good pat to make sure he wasnít searing hot, then turned his attention to his nephew.

"Hey, tiger!" He threw open his arms, which Jeffy promptly plunged himself into. To see them embrace and interact as if they were actually father and son, Erika felt a sort of beautiful melancholy syrup over her.

"Is Wusty done with mowing so we can pway, Unka Doo-wayne?" Jeffy asked.

"He sure is!" Duane, with some small regret, let go of the little boy and momentarily tousled Jeffyís golden blond hair before he scampered over to Rustyís side. The boys intertwined hands and shared a giggle. Duane guided them back towards the house, with Darlene and Erika close behind.

"Jeffy, donít let your friend track water all over my house! Get a towel and dry him off out here!" Darlene called. Jeffy grabbed a towel from the downstairs bathroom, toweled Rusty off as quickly as he could, and then yanked him up the stairs, disappearing into his room.

"Your little robot is so cute! You should really make a home version of it, or something," Darlene said to Erika.

"Well, if my boss has his way...." she chuckled, stripping her gloves from her hands and placing them in her purse.

"Sorry about making him mow the lawn. I didnít know he was so sensitive!" she apologized.

"We just canít take any chances. Rusty can withstand a lot of heat, but if itís unnecessary, itís just best to avoid that sort of thing," Erika answered.

"I just donít know when Iíll get around to mowing the lawn, though...."

"Iíll do it for you, since that husband of yours never comes home anymore," Duane said.

"What? You canít mow the lawn! What about Erika here? Are you going to leave her all alone?" Darlene planted her hands on her hips.

"Iíd just be the third wheel in your girly talk," Duane grumbled. And I wouldnít want to give a certain someone the wrong idea! Duane thought to himself.

"Címon, donít be a killjoy," Darlene coaxed, tugging at his arm.

"Look, itís already half done. Iíll be finished by lunchtime." He pulled his arm free of her grasp and jogged down the steps on the front porch to pick up where Rusty had left off. Darlene shook her head disapprovingly as he pushed the lawn mower back and forth across her expansive lawn.

"Brat." Darlene sighed and headed back inside the house. "I guess itís just you and me, for now. I know Iím just a simple housewife, and I ainít as interesting as you or Duane, but Iíll try to keep you entertained." A tiny chime was heard from the direction of the kitchen. "Oops! Time to baste!" Erika followed Darlene as she hurried into the kitchen. Darlene motioned for Erika to take a seat at the elegant yet simple kitchenette as she whipped a gauzy apron around her slim waist and turned her attention to the stove.

Erika stared in abject fascination as Darlene basted a plump, golden turkey like some sort of kitchen goddess. Her apron, which Darlene had probably sewed herself judging from the initials embroidered into the pocket, was fastened into a perfect bow at the crook of her back, and even her nude stockings' back seams were perfectly straight, in a manner Erika could never manage. The woman could probably chew on a wart and still look completely divine. Erika had a small sensation that she must look like a coarse dumpling compared to her. Darlene spritzed some sweet potatoes nestled in a warm pot on the stove top with turkey juice, set the timer again, and then took a seat across from Erika.

"Sorry about that. Itís gotta be basted every 15 minutes." She smoothed her delicate apron on her lap.

"Thatís fine. It smells wonderful!" Erika smiled, trying to contain her jealousy.

"Iíve got the turkey going, and also Iím making some sweet potatoes, mustard greens, and a little apple and tomato salad. If you want, you can help me make the vinaigrette, but donít feel obligated; after all, youíre my guest and I donít want to put you to work!" Darlene returned her smile.

"I wouldnít trust me with your food!" Erika said.

"What, you donít feel youíre a good cook or something?"

"Itís just...Iím usually so busy with work, I havenít made a good meal in decades!" Erika admitted.

"Look, if a simple girly like me can handle the stove, Iím sure a brilliant scientist like yourself can do it! I think maybe itís just a matter of confidence. You know, me ní the girls -- that is, other wives around the neighborhood- we get together all the time and have little parties about stuff like that. Around Christmas time, we usually put together a little cookbook, and we sell them around the lodges -- Masonic lodges. Do you know about those?"

"A little," Erika replied.

"A lot of people think theyíre some sort of terrible secret society." Darlene rolled her eyes at this. "Itís just an organization that we have around here, where everyone is everyoneís brother or sister -... the boys are Masons, the girls are Eastern Stars- and weíre all united in God. Thatís all, no Satan-worshipping."

"Of course." Erika was entranced to hear the little details of Darleneís life come forward. By hearing about someoneís plain routine, anything that would be considered uninteresting and boring back in New Tronic, she started to realize how jaded she had become lately. After fighting off giant monsters, joining super-secret military organizations, and working with high-tech robots, a housewifeís life was suddenly very interesting, in a strange sort of way.

"Well, during the course of the year, we all get together to try to decide which recipes should make it into the book. Sometimes we hold demonstrations, so we learn how to make all sorts or great stuffs. You should come!" Darlene was clearly excited at the prospect.

"Itís not that I donít want to, itís just itís a terribly long drive, and Iím always so busy with work." Erika began to chew on a nail absentmindedly, ruining the red polish and her red lipstick at the same time.

"Iím sure you can make it, at least once. If the drive intimidates you, sometimes I let Duane land a helicopter in my yard, so you can come with him. Besides cooking parties, sometimes we have Tupperware parties, flower arranging parties, makeup parties, and sometimes..." Darlene leaned in across the table. "...Sometimes, we have lingerie parties!" She whispered this last sentence with a giggle, as if sharing some intimate secret. Erika raised her eyebrow at this. "In fact, last weekend, I bought this gorgeous little nightgown, with some nice lace and embroidery around the neckline and the hem, but I have no one to show it to, since George -- thatís my husband -- is always out of town." She pretended to absentmindedly play with the edges of her apron. "You wanna borrow it?" She furtively offered.

"What would I do with it anyways?" Erika nervously giggled.

"Well..." Darleneís eyes swept slyly over Erikaís blushing features. "You got a boyfriend?"

"Um, no." Erika felt as if she had sat on a tack and began shifting uncomfortably.

"You want one?" Darleneís nose crinkled. Erika gave a little cough to signal her discomfort, but Darlene misinterpreted it as thirst. "Oh, how silly of me! Youíve been in my house for ages now and I still havenít offered you some of the special pink lemonade I made! Iíd forget my own head if it werenít screwed on, honest to peaches!" Darlene scurried to the kitchen and brought out a beautiful crystal pitcher from the refrigerator. Slices of lemon floated serenely at the top of the perfectly pink lemonade. Darlene gracefully poured the beverage into an unnecessarily elegant crystal goblet, like the kind used for sherry or some other sweet wine, and began to drop heart shaped ice cubes into it. After garnishing it with a sprig of mint, she poured her own undecorated glass, and sat back down. Erika felt positively pierced by Darleneís bright green eyes, and began to fidget. She had made up her mind to reject this sort of intimidation, and here she was cowering from Darlene!

The chime went off once again, and Darlene glided back over to the turkey, leaving Erika free from her penetrating gaze. Erikaís own eyes slipped around the surroundings, not quite resting on anything in particular. They darted from the art deco salt and pepper shakers, to a porcelain ballerina, then to a photo of Jeffy... not until she pointed her eyes out the large bay window did they remain fixed. The object of her fascination was mowing the lawn... without his shirt.

Erika suddenly felt as if she had slipped into a vacuum in which nothing else existed except herself and Duane, pushing the little lawn mower back and forth, staring into its blades. The white shirt he was wearing earlier was non-existent, and a white undershirt hung from the back pocket of his khaki pants. Duane didnít have a defined, bulging physique, like Garth, but he had subtle, sinewy muscles that were just a side effect of his job, and not something he necessarily worked at to enhance. Erika wasnít attracted to overly defined muscles at all (in fact, they rather repulsed her) but the way they didnít interrupt Duaneís silhouette, and complemented his small form so naturally was just slightly appealing to her at this moment. Another thing that was usually disgusting on other men was their odd body hair, or their lack thereof, but here again, Duane seemed to have been blessed with a perfect configuration. Of course he had the usual underarm hair, just the slightest bit spanning his chest, and a dark brown curly line leading from his mid-abdomen into his pants, but for some reason, the most charming patch was just above the waist of his pants, right in the small of his back. One time, Erika had walked into Donovanís office at a moment when he had chosen to be topless, and to think of poor Jenny grooming the long, red, twisted hairs that spattered the expanse of his creamy, freckled back, she almost gagged; but Duaneís little tuft was completely different -- it was terribly cute and endearing.

The thing that was truly captivating to Erika, which made it impossible to peel her eyes away, were actually the vast amount of scars that covered his torso. She had been privileged enough to examine the scars on his arms and face, but these were a completely new set. She started to wonder what the rest of his body looked like as she lingered on each and every mutilation and mark.... He was peppered with bullet holes, and there were some odd slashes across her abdomen, but the dominating disfigurement was what appeared to be a napalm burn trickling down his back like a waterfall. For a moment, she imagined running a finger from the puckered pink slice on his neck, between his smooth shoulders, then across the rich texture of this burn, and on down to the patch of fuzz at the small of his back....

All of a sudden, she felt incredibly dirty -- she was no better than Donovan, Huckle, or maybe even Duane! How could she ogle him like this, in such a base manner? She was better than all of those perverts! With a sudden sense of shame, she snapped out of it, only to see Darlene frozen between the kitchen and the kitchenette, staring at her with wildly bulging eyes that darted from Erika, who was now blushing madly, outside to Duane, obliviously mowing along. Darlene swallowed slowly, her pearl necklace bouncing against the tightly strained hollow of her throat; Erika, too, tried to gulp down her embarrassment at being caught in the act, but still couldnít help feeling entirely corrupt.

"You know," Darlene managed a trembling smile, "I better go outside and warn Duane about getting a bad sunburn; the military will slap him with an Article 15 if he damages Ďgovernment propertyí!" Darlene pivoted abruptly and exited out of a back door, leaving Erika to wallow in her mortification.

In the glare of the hot sun, Duaneís pomade had begun to melt and mingle with his sweat, turning into a gooey paste that he had to repeatedly swipe off of his brow. He tried to ignore the immense heat and instead let his mind endlessly wander. He was so deeply entrenched in random thoughts that it came as a surprise when Darlene grabbed him by the shoulder on his way to the farthest end of the backyard.

"What do you think youíre doing?!" Her disapproval was barely contained through her gritted smile. "Put your shirt back on!"

"What?" Duane was momentarily stunned. "Why should I? I didnít want to ruin my good shirt, and besides, this is my house, and my family, and I didnít really think it bothered you!"

"For the love of Mike Almighty, Duane, do I have to spell it out for you?" She jerked her shoulder back towards the house in the slightest manner. "Please donít ruin your chances, here! Itís a little too early to freak her out, ok?"

"I donít care what she thinks!" Duane glared at his sister.

"You should! This is the first girl youíve actually brought with you in a long, long, long, time! This could be your only chance at settling down and becoming a decent man with a family, ok? So put your shirt back on, and try to be a little more presentable." She snatched his shirt from his back pocket and began unfolding it.

"I donít believe it!" Duane grabbed the shirt back. "Look, I assure you she has no interest in me, and for my part, I have no interest in her. Weíre just co-workers, got it? And just because marriage was supposedly such a great and wonderful thing for you, doesnít mean itís that way for everybody! My job doesnít really allow time for any kind of silly little girlfriends, let alone a wife! And ... and another thing- if you really think sheís such a great match for me, doncha think sheíd like me for who I was and wouldnít care that I was all....! " He shook his hands over his body, unable to describe his condition with words at the moment.

Darlene snorted in frustration and bit her lip, leaving little indentations of her immaculately aligned pearly whites on her full lower lip."Duane, we know that itís not right to judge people by the way they look, but sometimes, we canít help it. I mean, just look at you; you look like a one man freak show! I know later on youíll probably come to me whining and complaining about how lonely you feel, but you donít even make an effort to try to be decent! Even just for me, put your shirt back on, all right?" Darlene sealed the matter with a sharp glare.

Duane stood silently, feeling tremors fight their way up to his skin causing his fingers and lower lip to tremble. He thought he could be himself, without having to worry about this sort of judgment from his own family. Darleneís words had stung him to the bone mercilessly, and with a sigh of defeat, he replaced his shirt, wishing that he could truly be swallowed up by the ground so nobody would ever be forced to cast eyes on him again. Is that how Erika thought of him? Some disgusting amalgamation of hideous flesh, worthy of some seedy two-bit roadside attraction? What had she said to make Darlene come out here and tell him off like this? He glanced at her form in the kitchenís bay window. She was staring right back at him, with an expression he couldnít make out because of the glare on the glass.

"Lunch will be ready soon, so you should get washed up when you finish." Darlene primly informed him, then turned and made her way back in the house, thoughtlessly leaving Duane to his silent grief.

Erika felt so nervous watching Darlene and Duane conversing. She couldnít hear a word of what they were saying, but could only gauge from their body language what had been said. Apparently, Darlene had been upset that Duane was mowing the lawn topless. When she had finished with whatever she had chosen to say, Duane seemed to be so hurt, no matter how he tried to conceal it. Though Darlene could appear perfect on so many levels, she had this streak that Erika didnít like at all. First, she uses Rusty as a common tool -- as if he were a blender or some such thing -- and then she probably gives Duane the impression that heís a gruesome eyesore! Erika decided she would at least speak up for him, if she could do nothing else.

"Well, thatís taken care of! He says heís almost finished, so he wonít have to be out in the sun much longer. Can you believe itís only March and already it feels like summer?" Darlene resumed her seat across from Erika.

"Donít you think Duane would feel more comfortable in that terrible heat without his shirt? The poor guyís going to roast!" Erika said.

"Well, heís a little...different. I didnít want him to offend you." Darlene explained.

"He doesnít offend me at all. In fact, I find his physique rather attractive, if you donít mind me saying so." That would probably give Darlene the impression she was interested in him, but it was worth it. Besides, it was half-true.

"You do?" Darleneís jaw dropped in a ladylike manner, and then her expression turned from flat out surprise to extreme interest and pleasure. "Not a lot of people find his sort of...you know...attractive."

"I think itís cruel to make him think that heís ugly, or that he has to hide away so no one will see him! He got many of those scars serving this country, you know?" Erika felt her voice attain a harder edge to it, to drive the point home. Darlene studied her face for a moment, but was interrupted by the timer. She basted in silence and then called out the back door for Duane to come inside for lunch.

He hadnít exactly cleaned up completely, but he had managed at least to not stink like the sweating pig he felt like at that moment. Of course he put his shirt back on for dinner, but instead of rolling up the sleeves as he had done earlier, he turned them all the way down and buttoned them at the wrist, so no one had to gaze on his deformities. He also buttoned his collar as high as it would go for the same purpose. Bitterness nipped at him throughout the lunch without his consent; he would at least have thought Erika understood, after having examined him back on the Dark Horse so long ago. Well, to see his face and arms alone in a room was one thing, but to see his torso in the naked sun was another.

During the entire lunch he managed to sit as far away from both Erika and Darlene as possible, mimicking how isolated he felt. He also managed not to say a word to them until dessert, feigning ravenous hunger. The truth was, he could scarcely bring himself to eat, and instead ended up making faces from his foodstuffs to entertain Jeffy and Rusty. If he were to clear away the sumptuous meal in its entirety, he would be faced with his reflection at the bottom of the plate. His face was already reflected and distorted in several things -- the silver bowl filled with yams, the pitcher of lemonade with its goofy heart-shaped ice cubes -- he wished for nothing more than the ability to just plunge a fork and knife into his face and carve it off as he did the turkey earlier. It was hard to derail this train of thought once it left the station.

"I have a great surprise that I saved just for the end!" Darlene announced as she brought a silver platter into the room, topped with a titan pineapple upside-down cake. Duane made a little grunt at the cake, since he was still upset that he had missed the birthday cake (which was truly his favorite) and he had to settle for this pineapple upside-down cake (which he didnít like much at all). "Duane, remember where we used to go dancing when we were teens?"

"The Starlight?"

"No! Bigger!"

"The Centro Asturiano?"

"No, no, closer to home."

Duane paused for a moment, contemplating. "Old Man Tannerís?"

"No, no, and no, you lunkhead!" Darlene dropped a slice of cake onto his dessert plate. "Ms. Lemons, goof brain!"

"Oh. What about it?" Duane started separating the pineapples from the cake. He began to notice that Jeffy was squirming about in his seat at the mention of Ms. Lemonsí place.

"Since itís Saturday night, sheís having a dance, like she does every week, and I thought itíd be great fun if we could all go." Though Duane made an effort to stare straight at his plate, he could still tell when Darlene wrinkled her nose with marital thoughts. It was like a sixth sense.

"What do you mean? Sheís got to be...well, at least ninety!" Duane perplexedly asked.

"Actually, sheís 105, but sheís been holding dances every week, ever since we were teens -- and probably before -- and she still dances like youíd never believe!" Darlene squealed. "Itíd be just so nice if we could take Erika here to one of those dances! She could see what us kids in the sticks do for fun."

"Ms. Wemons!" Jeffy exclaimed. "Wusty, thatís the best pwace in the world! They show cawtoons on the side of a wall!!!" His little feet kicked about wildly in anticipation.

"Really?!" Rustyís eyes grew wide with this proposal.

"Weawy!!" Jeffy beamed.

"I donít know. Maybe you guys can go without me. Iíve got to go back to work tomorrow."

Duane munched his cake silently. When his eyes absentmindedly drifted up to Erika, he couldnít help but notice she was wearing an expression he couldnít read. The intense hatred in her eyes that she burned him with throughout the whole ride here had extinguished. Was it pity? Did she pity him? If she did, it only made him more and more infuriated. Shouldnít she know by now that he didnít need anybody to feel sorry for him?

"Duane, you are such a wet blanket. Iím not asking any more, Iím telling. Weíre going to Ms. Lemons." Darlene affirmed.

"Yay!" Jeffy threw his arms up in elation. "Mom, can I wear my wong pants?"

"You better!" Darlene said. At her motion, Jeffy grabbed Rusty again and thundered up the stairs. They could hear the boys noisily rummaging through Jeffyís clothes to find his long pants, which he had just had the privilege of receiving this past Christmas. "We better get changed ourselves." Darlene eyed Erika hungrily, the flaming desire to play dress-up burning within her.

"Whatís wrong with what Iím wearing?" Erika hadnít really gone dancing before, except in some formal settings, and was really unsure as what was proper to wear.

"Well, your shoes will just fly off of your feet, your dress is too long, and that braid is going to knock someone out if you spin around too fast! You have the most gorgeous hair Iíve ever seen." Darlene dug her fingers into Erikaís braid without her consent. "Oh, itís just so thick! Duane, donít you think this is the most beautiful hair youíve ever seen?"

Duane didnít answer. He scooped up most of the plates and dumped them in the sink. "Iím going to shower," he gruffly announced, slowly jogging up the stairs.

When he had disappeared at the top and closed the bathroom door, Darleneís full exasperation unfurled."What the hell is wrong with that jerk?" She released Erikaís braid, which slapped dully against her back. "Iím sorry my brotherís such a pisser. Iím sure heíll cheer up when we go dancing, though. He loves dancing. Do you dance often?"

"I didnít know Duane liked to dance," Erika said, stunned by this new fact.

"Oh, heavens yes! Mike Christ, itís probably what he does best!" Darlene exclaimed, as if it were supposed to be common knowledge. "He knows all of the popular modern dances -- swing, jitterbug, lindy hop... Even mambo, cha-cha, and I think he knows some salsa, too. He had a Latin girlfriend when he was fifteen, so she taught him all of those moves."

"Oh." Erika paused a moment to consider her emaciated repertoire. "I might know just the basics of swing, but certainly not much after that. I...donít go dancing on a regular basis." Her hands fiddled in her lap.

"As long as you know the basics, Iím sure you can do fine," Darlene reassured her. "But if youíd like, after we get dressed, we can practice some steps in the living room. Iím an excellent leader, since I learned it from Duane! For now, letís get to the attic and see what outfit we can whip up!"

She led Erika up the steps onto the second floor. To the immediate right of the stairs was a small hallway leading to Darleneís bedroom, a guest bedroom, and the bathroom, from which the sounds of Duaneís shower emanated. To the left was Jeffyís bedroom, and she could see Rusty and Jeffy laying out the six year oldís impeccably precious tiny wardrobe. Exactly at the top of the stairs, Darlene yanked the folded steps to the attic from their concealed spot in the center of the ceiling.

She motioned for Erika to follow her up the rickety steps, which she did with much trepidation. The attic was not cluttered in the least, and all of the boxes and trunks were neatly arranged. Even the womanís junk is tidy! Erika smirked. As Darlene knelt by a trunk, her skirt blossomed around her, scattering the slightest bit of dust in the bright sunlight streaming in through the rose window at the head of the room. She popped open a rather large trunk and started rifling through the multitude of conveniently folded squares of clothes.

"This is the cutest skirt!" she exclaimed, holding up a tweedy dark grey skirt. The front and back were flat, but the skirt had pleats exactly on the sides. "This is a great skirt for dancing, and itís probably your size. And these pleats on the side are just perfect because when you twirl around fast enough --" She shot a mischievous smile in Erikaís direction. "-- the boys can get a little peek."

"A peek?" Erika squeaked, unconsciously pressing her hands into her lap.

"Oh, they wonít see anything serious. Not really. Iíve got some tap pants down in my room that Iím having you wear tonight, so they wonít see anything important, but you know...." Instead of finishing her sentence with words, she finished it with the nose wrinkle that Erika was now terribly aware of.

Erika fingered the buttons on the front panel of the skirt that ringed the top and sides like a sailorís pants, and concluded that the skirt was too cute to pass up. Sheíd wear it, but sheíd try to keep her fast twirls to a minimum. She held on to it as a way of accepting it, and Darlene continued to search through the trunk for a top for her. They had to pass over a few elegant or cute numbers, simply because they would be too big for her, but finally settled on a charcoal shirt with three quarter sleeves and an graceful collar that started right at her shoulder bone and swept downwards. Both the collar and the sleeves were trimmed with black velvet. It was an ensemble that was not entirely casual, and not entirely dressy at the same time.

"Well. Weíve got the skirt, the shirt, the tap pants downstairs with some stockings...What size shoe are you?" Darlene asked.

"Size six." Erika replied.

"Jeez, youíve got tiny feet, like Duane! I know you wonít fit into any of my shoes..." Suddenly, she looked as if she was struck with inspiration. She scooted to another trunk close by and popped it open. Erika peered over her shoulder in curiosity, and noticed the trunk was filled with a myriad of strange costumes.

"What is all this?" She asked inquisitively, picking up a folded top hat. Darlene quit searching momentarily and huffed a sigh.

"Promise you wonít tell if I let you in on a little secret?" she asked over her shoulder. Erika nodded. "Well, I donít know how heíll feel if I tell you this, but Duane used to be into tap dancing and theater and stuff like that. He was really, really good at it."

Erika stared in silence for a few seconds, trying to imagine this. "Did he...just join the military or what? Why didnít he continue?" she asked.

"Not necessarily..." Darlene paused and seemed to be considering her words. "He busted his knee right before a big recital. It sort of screwed up his tapdancing gig for a while. Then he decided to get into the military, I guess. I havenít seen him tapdance in ages. Iíd ask him to show you, but heís way too shy, and I think it hurts his knee." Darlene herself seemed to be a little hurt discussing his tapdancing. Erika popped the top hat and tried to imagine Duane, whom was in general cranky, rude, shy, and introspective all at once, dancing jubilantly in front of audiences.

In her momentary reverie, she failed to notice that Darlene had thrust a thick photo album at her. "Here are some of our pics from when we were in high school. He was in drama class, so I know thereís a photo or two of him acting or dancing, at least," she said. They turned the heavy leather cover and examined the photos that had been neatly organized and preserved in between plastic sheets. Darlene didnít linger very long on any particular picture, so Erika could only catch snatches of Darlene and Duane at cake walks, square dances, on the first days of school.... They were quite charming, with Darlene in gingham dresses and curls tied up with ribbons, and Duane in jeans and white tees, with a greaser Ďdo, not too much unlike the rigid curl permanently affixed to his forehead.

"Oh, hereís his crappy car!" Darlene griped, pointing to a photo in which Duane was in the very same car he drove to this day.

"Oh, it doesnít seem to be as old as it really is..." Erika said, glancing at the strange, foreign Duane in the photo, grinning in his yellow banana car.

"The thingís ancient. Itís a í97! Iím surprised it still runs! And the way he drives it!" Darlene shook her head. "Heís a damn crazydriver!" She combined two words to make a new adjective/noun that fit Duane to a T.

"Itís that fighter pilot streak in him," Erika giggled.

Darlene snickered as she continued flipping pages. "Aw, lookit us! Arenít we cute?" Darlene said sarcastically as she landed on a page that held their prom photos. They were large photos that took up one page each, and they formed a sort of centerfold, since they were right in the middle of the album. Darleneís took up the right page, and it presented her in a flowing pastel blue gown, of the sort that was covered in ruffles, as was the style of the day. She was hanging off the arm of a rather large football-hero type. Erika, of course, preferred to look at Duaneís picture on the left, feeling as if she would never get used to seeing him without his bumps and bruises. He was posed with a girl who was a bit taller than him, and rather chunky. Her hair was an obviously fake yellow, and her white dress was much too tight on her, evident in the way it clung to her and bulged unattractively. Then, Erika noticed the dates on both of the photos.

"You both went to the prom of í98?" Erika asked perplexedly.

"Yeah. Weíre fraternal twins. Doctors blame me for stunting poor Duaneís growth. When we were little, mom told me he was a reject from munchkin land." Darlene replied.

"Fraternal twins? How interesting...." Erika resumed chewing on her nail.

"Here we are!" Darlene skipped a few pages ahead. "Oh, these are my favorite pictures!" she squealed. "Duane got the best parts in our schoolís production of ĎArsenic and Old Laceí! One week, he got to be Mortimer, and the next week, he was Jonathan! It was the best! He could do both the hero and the villain so well!"

Erika drank up the photos of Duane in the part of Mortimer, the quirky comedic hero. These were obviously staged promotional photos, since they were taken so close up, and they depicted Duane mugging it up with teenagers dressed as old ladies, and the romantic female lead, who somewhat resembled his prom date. These were followed by photos from the actual production, which were a little unfocused at times, due to the stage lighting, but conveyed the amazing range of Duaneís acting skills. The next set were the promotional photos of Duane in the part of Jonathan, the scarred villain. It was indescribably odd to see his once-untouched face made up with false scars. Though he was smaller than others in the production, he was still able to project an incredible presence on the stage. Erika wondered what had happened to this Duane -- to this alien being who was once so extroverted. She couldnít help but conclude that the military probably beat it out of him.

Darlene flipped a few more pages, and then suddenly slammed the book shut. This caught Erika by surprise, and she wondered what had caused this. "Ooh! I canít show you that one, I just canít!" Darlene giggled uncontrollably, an impish contortion on her face.

"You canít...?" Erika scratched her hand absentmindedly, trying to decipher Darlene.

"Maybe I can!" She thumped the large book open again and searched for the Ďforbidden pageí. "Heíll kill me! You canít let him know you saw this!" She was almost out of breath from excitement. Erika peered down at the photo, and her mouth dropped wide open.

"Is that...?"

"You bet!"

Erika had to clamp her hand over her mouth the stifle the river of laughter that threatened to explode out of her at the sight of Duane in a dress! It was unmistakably him -- with shaved legs, and stockings, and 3-inch heels, and a semi-hourglass figure, and a little black dress, and a curly wig, and a surly expression made up with lipstick and rouge!

"We did this for a dance contest!" Darlene began explaining. "We decided the only way to win was to do something outrageously different, and since he already knew how to follow, and I knew how to lead...doesnít that just beat all, though? I mean, look at him! Heís got on a little girdle and everything!"

"I canít believe it! Did you win?" Erika giggled.

"Of course!" Darlene exclaimed. "We always won contests. We were the best dance team in the whole damn state, I bet! Duane is the most excellent dancer! I really, really hope he dances with you, and heís not too cranky or shy or anything. Ooh, sometimes I wish he werenít my brother!" The way Darleneís eyes were rolling upwards and she kept heaving such sighs, she seemed more like Duaneís groupie than his sister!

She continued flipping pages, but none were as extraordinary as that one. Darlene left her to look over the snapshots as she went back to search through the trunk once again. Erika fumbled through the rest of the album, her hands trembling in excitement. Now she leafed through the rest of the pictures, which were of his brief dancing phase. He was incredibly graceful and talented as the photos proved.

She was disturbed from her trance by Darlene suddenly rising from the floor. "Okay, I found them!" She held out a pair of small menís shoes. They werenít exceptionally different, being rather regular black shoes, except that they were white where the eyeholes for the laces were. "These were Duaneís tap shoes a long time ago. I think theyíre the equivalent of a womenís size six. I pried the taps offa Ďem ages ago." She displayed the thick soles, damaged slightly where the taps were pulled off. "Here, try them on, so we can see if they fit you."

Erika pulled the shoes on, and they fit perfectly. "Theyíre actually very pretty," she said, admiring the shoes on her feet. "Do you think Duane will mind if I wear them?"

"I doubt he even remembers them!" Darlene gave Erika her hand to pull her to her feet. "Now letís go ahead and get dressed!" The two women put everything back in place, and then went down the rickety attic steps into the hallway. Darlene led the way, pausing by the bathroom door, evidently open by the steam wafting into the hall.

"Duane!" Darlene planted her hands on her hips. "Donít wear those stinky clothes! You mowed the lawn with them! Theyíre all smelly and sweaty! Whereís your common sense?" She marched into her bedroom to find fresh clothes for him.

"Well, just what am I supposed to wear?" he grumbled to her receding figure.

Erika timidly made her way past the bathroom door, stealing a glance at Duane. He was standing in his socked feet, wearing the pants and undershirt he was wearing earlier, and mopping his hair with the fluffy towel draped around his neck. Erika had never seen his hair clean and unstructured, and it hung down into his thick eyebrow-and-a-half in a cute manner. She could just barely feel the start of a smile and a bit of a blush tickling her features when Duane abruptly pushed the door shut. She stood alone in the hall feeling rather embarrassed, wondering if she had offended him in some manner.

Darlene hauled a small suit to the bathroom door, and without knocking, pushed it open. "Hereís your old herringbone suit. I found it after those aliens ripped the place up. You can use Georgeís undershirt and shirt for it," she said. "And last time you came to spend the night, you left a big pot of that ĎDapper Daní stuff you insist on mucking your hair up with. Itís stuck to the bottom of the cabinet." She retracted her presence from the bathroom, and closed the door once again. She led Erika to her room, and after shutting the door, immediately started stripping. Erika quickly looked away. She wasnít sure if she should just stare openly or turn away. "Hey, donít be shy; weíre all girls here!" Darlene reassured her, pulling her plain and simply functional garter and stockings off.

Erika wasnít used to being so open, and tried not to look directly at Darlene as she meekly began unbuttoning her green dress. She had barely finished that task when Darlene approached her with the aforementioned tap pants. She herself had already changed into a rich, deep turquoise bra and panty set which had an elegant leaf design embroidered upon the stiff and heavy fabric. The empty silver garters from the matching garter belt slapped against her bare legs. She held out the tap pants for Erika, who was now standing in her plain underwear. Erika took them and began to put them on over her cotton panties.

"Honey, youíve got to take those off. These tap pants have the underwear built right in, just like it has built-in garters," Darlene said.

"Oh." Erika blushed deeply, removing the tap pants.

"Youíre so shy, itís cute!" Darlene smiled wide. "Itís okay, Iíll be over here lookiní for a bra for you. The one youíre wearing has straps thatíll show." She turned away and rummaged through her underwear drawer as Erika quickly switched panties. When she looked at herself in the mirror, though the pants admittedly looked good on her, they were a little tight and form-fitting, even though they flared a little on the sides. The tap pants consisted of smooth black satin on the front and back, with large garter clips dangling from both sides, but from her hips to the hem, there was a little triangle of black lace that caused the sides to flare out.

"I hope youíre at least 34 or 36." Darlene handed Erika a smooth black bandeau. She turned away again to let Erika slip it on. At first Erika thought the strapless fabric wouldnít offer enough support for dancing, but it was perfectly tight and compressing. Next, Darlene took out four nude stockings and passed her a pair that had black back seams shooting from the chic Cuban heel.

While Erika was still fumbling with the large clips, Darlene had finished quickly and easily, and had extracted an evil-looking little device from a purple suede bag. "Ya gonna need this?" she asked, thrusting the thing at her. Erika looked down at it, and immediately refused. It was a smooth plastic oval, but it had a small wheel with teeth on one side of it. Darlene took a seat at her vanity table, jammed its plug into a socket and plunged it into her armpit, where it made horrible grinding noises as the little metal teeth snatched away the hair. Erika couldnít help but find it crude and disturbing as she finished with the stockings and slipped into her clothes. The end result was quite striking and elegant, and she gave a quick twirl in the mirror, just to see the skirt swell and fall as the pleats caught the breeze.

Darlene brought a rather plain grey one-piece from her closet and put it on. "That outfit is just lovely on you. Iím sure Duane will love it."

Darlene had let this last phrase accidentally slip, but to Erikaís surprise, it was exactly what she was accidentally thinking. Her mood fell a little at this realization, and she began to feel a bit foolish and embarrassed, and especially angry. Angry that she let her mind wander off so much that it would actually be concerned about something so stupid as whether or not Duane liked her appearance. She quickly brushed it off so her mood wouldnít spoil.

"Well." Her voice was quiet and still. "Are we ready to go?"

"Not yet!" Darlene chirped, snapping some earrings into place. "Weíve still gotta mess with your gorgeous hair!"

Georgeís shirt was just too damn big. Duane stuffed the excess folds of white fabric into the waist of his charcoal herringbone pants and let out a sigh that flipped up his dry natural hair. After looping a belt around his waist, he dove into the cabinet and extracted his old friend, Dapper Dan, a little tin can with a red winking man, and began to lacquer his locks. Wiping the steamed-up mirror, he saw his face crinkled in annoyance.

Well, of course he was annoyed! Annoyed at having to be forced into any more social situations with...with Her! He slapped the goo into his hair, chewing on his angry thoughts, unable to swallow them and just get on with it. Darlene he could excuse -- she had been preaching marriage and plastic surgeries, almost as if they went hand in hand, for years! She was the blah blah blah broken record! He wished he could just tell her the secret, just say, "Dammit, Darlene! Donít you know if I get one thing fixed, something else will spring up in its place?" Like the one time he had an actual fake tooth to fill in the gap, and it had gotten knocked down his throat in a Big Guy fight. It was pointless to think about that sort of thing....

But Erika! He thought she understood, having talked with him about it, knowing his occupation! Just what had she said that made Darlene tell him off? His mind imitated her voice as a whiny falsetto: Yuck, Duane has his top off! What a freak! Tell him to go put his shirt on before I throw up! Duane would have probably gone on staring at the mirror that dripped condensation down his deformed reflected features if Darlene hadnít pounded on the door.

"Duane! I left your hat on the bed, and you can pick out a tie from Georgeís tie rack! Okay?"

"Okay." He quietly answered.

"Erika and I are going downstairs, so hurry up! Since when have us girls finished quicker than you guys, eh?" She laughed at her own little joke, which Duane had no reply for. He heard her and Erika thump down the stairs. He knew that they had already reached the bottom, but he continued hearing thumping, and rather irregular thumping at that. He emerged from the bathroom to investigate. He paused at the top of the stairs. The girls couldnít possibly hear what he was hearing; they had put on some records and he could hear Darlene giving Erika dancing instructions. The noises were coming from Jeffyís room.

"Jeffy?" Duane rapped against the door with his knuckles. There was a flurry of whispers from within, and then the six-year-old boy came and opened the door.

"Hi, Unka Doo-Wayne." Jeffy pointed his eyes to the ground, which indicated some sort of real or imagined guilt. Duane looked beyond his nephew to see Rusty struggling to pull a pair of Jeffyís long pants over his metal body. He had evidently been squirming about on the floor during this task, producing the thumping noises.

"Boys! What are you guys doing?" Duane crouched by the struggling robot.

"Wusty just wanted to wear wong pants, too!" Jeffy hung onto his uncleís shoulders.

"Well, Rustyís already got some built in pants. He doesnít need to look too fancy, after all." Duane tugged the trousers off of Rusty.

"Shoot! If I canít wear long pants, then what am I going to wear? Jeffy said weíve got to dress up!" Rusty rasped in protest.

"Iím sure I can find you something." Duane stood and handed Jeffy his long pants. "After all, Jeffy, if Rusty wears your pants, what are you going to wear, champ?" He patted the small boyís head affectionately.

"I wanna wear...." Jeffyís Darlene streak showed through with his puckish squirming and giggling. He obviously didnít want to wear his regular semi-formal outfit and Duane had a strong inkling of what his nephew was getting at.

He feigned innocence. "Well? Whadya wanna wear, son?" He tried to suppress a spreading grin, putting on his best Ďseriousí face, as Jeffy clutched at his leg.

Rusty watched their interactions with intense fascination. Jeffy tugged at Duaneís shirt, forcing him to bend down so he could cup his tiny hand to Duaneís ear and whisper his plans in a hot rush of breath and laughter.

"You want to wear that, do you?" Duane grinned. "Where do you think your mom keeps it?"

Jeffy ran to the closet, threw open the doors and burrowed about for a large, white, cardboard box. He heaved the package onto his bed and threw off the lid, disrupting the nest of tissue paper within.

"This is the coowest!" Jeffy explained to Rusty, who had rushed to his side to inspect the package. "Unka Doo-Wayne got me this for Cwistmas!" He proceeded to bring out a miniature replica of Duaneís Air Force uniform, complete with a little hat, plastic badges, and the markings of a lieutenant, which Duane had specially ordered. It was quite common after the war to be able to order such military uniform replicas for childrenís play clothes, and he couldnít resist after seeing the outfits in the catalogue Garth had used to order a mini Marine uniform for his little brother back home.

Jeffy laid the complete outfit on his bedspread, which was covered with little military planes and jets, in step with the entire air force theme of the whole room. "Do you think Mom will care?" Jeffy asked.

"It doesnít matter. Now, hurry up and get dressed, Lieutenant!"

"Okey dokey!" Jeffy gave a little salute. Duane ushered Rusty out of the room and into Darleneís bedroom, where his matching fedora lay on her pristine and overly floral bedspread. For a moment, he considered letting Rusty wear it, but then negated that idea, thinking about how ill-perched the tiny hat would be on the robotís swollen melon. He instead began fishing for one of Georgeís plainer ties from his tie rack, and finally found a slim, black polyester tie that would survive the wear and tear of playtime.

"Got something for ya, sport." He motioned for Rusty to come over, which he did obediently, and stood gazing up at Duane with those small artificial blue eyes of his. Slightly unnerved, he kneeled down and affixed the tie underneath his bulbous head.

"I get to wear this?" he stared at the tie with a strange excitement. "Wow, thanks!" Rusty gave him a smile that had lost all traces of the apprehension the robot once held for him.

Duane found himself returning it, realizing that his unease around Rusty had waned as well. He admitted that he had been harsh to Rusty in the beginning, when he didnít have a complete grasp of the workings of the emotion grid, but after being forced to practically live with him, and watch him learn and grow from his example (with Big Guyís help of course), he realized he was very much like a child, and not entirely as robotic as he assumed he would be. He gave him a pat on the shoulder, to reinforce these feelings, then rose and picked out his own tie and put on his hat. After a quick stop at the bathroom to get his jacket, they returned to Jeffyís room with Rusty following along merrily at his side clutching the tie that hung around his neck. Jeffy had pulled on most of his outfit, and his hat hung cockeyed on his head as he laced up his shoes.

"Look what I get to wear!" Rusty said, holding up the tie as if it were a prize.

"Neat!" Jeffy finished with one shoe and started with the other. Duane couldnít help but feel a little taken aback by Rustyís reaction to the tie; it wasnít that big of a deal, but he treated it like a special occasion. Of course, Duane knew the reason for his behavior -- it wasn't that Erika was a bad "parent", per se; it was just that she was so busy, she couldnít give him the attention he needed. Duane himself felt a little guilty for all of the times he had to ignore Rusty for more important duties and had left him alone with an inanimate Big Guy, babbling on without an audience.

He abandoned these thoughts as he pulled Jeffy to his feet and gave him an once-over. "Looking good, soldier," Duane nodded, as Jeffy snapped to attention and gave a grandiose salute, his little face puckering into a serious expression. This didnít last long, as he launched onto Duane, throwing his arms around his waist and standing on the tops of his shoes. Duane knew what he was after. He reached deep into one of his pockets, the myriad of medals within jingling like loose change.

"Yay! You bwought them!" Jeffy pawed at him impatiently.

"Hold your horses for a minute, little man!" Duane chuckled, sorting through the medals. "Come on over here, Rusty, you get some too!" He proceeded to pin the small medals on Jeffyís uniform and Rustyís tie.

"Arenít these important army things, Mr. Lieutenant Duane?" Rusty asked, staring down at them.

"Unka Doo-Wayne always bwings some medals for me to pway with! He says theyíre not the weawy big important ones...." Jeffy let his uncle fix his hat before he ran to his toy chest to dig out some playthings to take to Ms. Lemons.

"We gotta hurry up. Iím sure the girls are impatient." Duane glanced at his watch, not really reading the time.

"I gotta get some toys for us to pway with!" Jeffy explained. Duane couldnít help but smile as Jeffy brought out his old and well-loved Big Guy toy. He couldnít wait to see the look on his nephewís face when the new, deluxe talking model that he had ordered came in, complete with a mini Rusty to accompany it. It was at least 2 times bigger than the Big Guy he had now, and on top of that, the little eyes lit up whenever a little button on the chest was pressed and it spoke 20 phrases that had been supplied by the Big Guy himself. It had incredible detail, down to the arm that had a habit of falling off. When Duane saw it, he was almost afraid there was going to be a little cockpit and a mini-Duane to stick inside!

The new toyís proceeds were all going to fund any and all Big Guy damage reparations, which was a project the army had been doing for a while. Unlike Rusty, which was mostly owned by Quark and had been mercilessly marketed in a thousand different, and redundant, ways, Big Guy was mainly the Army/Air Force's property, and they put out a few t-shirts and pins (only occasionally a toy) and mostly around the Fourth of July. So whenever a new product came through, he gave all of the merchandise he was entitled to directly to his nephew.

Rusty helped Jeffy pick out a little plastic plane and a lizard monster toy, in addition to the Big Guy. When this process was complete, Duane hoisted his nephew onto his shoulders and led Rusty by the hands down the stairs.

Erika and Darlene had put on a Squirrel Nut Zipper album and were dancing it up in the front room. Aside from the fact that Erika kept staring down at her feet and sometimes had problems with the faster turns, Duane gauged she could be a fine dancer with more practice. She was an image of loveliness in the outfit she and Darlene had picked out; from the luxurious, soft curls Darlene had obviously had a hand in, to the shoes on her feet....

"Hey," Duane spoke up. "Are those my old shoes?"

The women stopped dancing to acknowledge him, both a little out of breath from their practice. "Oh, yeah. Gosh, Iím surprised you remember them! I took the taps off a long time ago," Darlene replied.

He noticeably blushed at the mention of taps, and dropped the question.

"So whadya think about Erika, bro? Isnít she just beautiful? Iím so jealous!" She fingered her handiwork, winding a French manicured fingertip into Erikaís dark and lovely curls as Erika stood fidgeting, waiting for Duaneís answer.

"You clean up nice," Duane grunted, not wanting to reveal the true effect her appearance had on him. Of course Erika was dazzling. She was probably drop dead gorgeous sitting in a wet garbage bag in a roadside ditch! With the extra attention she had paid to her appearance today, she practically stopped his heart with her radiance, but he still couldnít shake the hurt she had inflicted earlier with her pity, or revulsion, or whatever it was.

"Forgive my brother!" Darlene snipped. "His image of beauty is beat up old junky cars and fast planes with lots of guns on Ďem! He wouldnít know true good looks if they came up and kicked him in his grumpy old butt!" She swished by him in an irritating and irritated manner to the coffee table to retrieve her purse. Duane could tell his embarrassed and poorly thought out comment had hurt Erikaís feelings by the way her eyes fluttered about the ground.

"Um, I guess that came out sounding a little...."

"Blunt?" Erikaís eyes hardened again.

"Yeah. I mean, well...Iím just a stupid grunt and I donít have the vocabulary to tell you how beautiful you really look." That should do it. Itís worked before. Duane was really good at detracting from himself to rectify situations.

"Donít strain yourself," Erika smirked.

He shouldíve known better.

"You look really great, Mom! I mean, Dr. Slate!" Rusty threw himself to Erika and gazed up at her adoringly. She shot Duane a worried glance at the mention of Ďmomí, but soon returned Rustyís affection.

"Thanks, Rusty. Whatís this youíve got on?" she examined the tie around his neck.

"Mr. Lieutenant Duane let me wear a tie and some of his medals!" he beamed.

"He wet me wear my uniform!" Jeffy chimed in from his perch on Duaneís shoulders.

"You guys look so nice." Erika smiled at Duane. "Rusty, did you say thank you?"

"I sure as shootiní did! It was awfully nice of him to let me wear his stuff!"

"No problem, little guy." He patted Rustyís metal head.

"Iím not sure about the medals, Lt. Hunter. Itís awfully nice of you, but what if they lose them, or something happens?" she asked.

"I dunno." He shrugged, causing Jeffy to rise and fall momentarily. "I could always earn a new one," he smirked.

"Whoís ĎLieutenant Hunterí? I donít see him anywhere!" Darlene jokingly looked around, as if searching high and low. "I see a Duane Hunter, but not a Lieutenant Hunter."

Erika got the drift. "Sorry, Duane." It was a foreign word for her, being so accustomed to calling him Lieutenant Hunter all of the time.

"Donít worry about it." He rubbed the brim of his hat. "Are we finally ready to go?" he asked.

"I think weíre all done practicing, so itís time to try out your new skills on a dance floor, eh, Erika?" Darlene patted the smaller woman on the shoulder. "Youíve gotta keep an eye on her tonight, Duane, or some good looking young guy is going to carry our Dr. Slate away! Sheís a better dancer than she lets on, yíknow, so Iíll bet you two are gonna just be peas in a pod!"

"I donít know about that...." Erika bashfully bowed her head, her ears glowing red.

"Wait!" Jeffy suddenly cried. "I didnít get to sawute the ceiwing!"

"Say, youíre right!" Duane snapped his fingers.

"Duane, what if you hurt your back or something? You know this Ďsaluting the ceilingí business gives me the heebie jeebies! Youíre already letting him wear his uniform, and I told him thatís only for special occasions! Youíre going to spoil him rotten!" Darlene worriedly chattered on.

"Mom, youíre no fun!" Jeffy shook his lizard toy at his nonplussed mother.

"Yeah, mom." Duane chided. He handed Jeffyís toys to Rusty as he prepared to 'salute the ceiling'. Being a small man, he had to grab Jeffy by the ankles and stretch himself the rest of the way to reach his goal. He wiped his hands down the sides of his pants, grasped his nephewís ankles firmly, and with a grunt heaved the boy up to the roof, where the child splayed his hands on the ceiling.

Strangely enough, the phone rang at lunchtime. Phone calls so rarely made their way into the Big Guy bay if there wasnít an emergency, and so Garth and Mack were a bit surprised by the jangling phone. Before they could put down their swollen ham sandwiches and answer it, Jo came thundering in.

"Iíll get it!" She snatched the phone off of its hook and tried to get around the corner, though the phone cord would only permit her to stretch as far as the door. The men exchanged raised eyebrows and suspicious glances.

"BGY 11, Jo speaking." She began with the formal introduction, though it was obvious she was expecting an informal call. "Hi! Sorry about today, I hope you can...."

There was an interruption from the other party. Jo huddled closer to the wall, mostly to hide her reactions to the person on the other end. "I couldnít help it!" she protested. "Iím really...WHY?!"

Her outburst startled Mack and Garth, and they strained to pick up any hint of the conversation.

"I thought you liked that!"

She paused to chew her lip.

"But...!"

A silence.

"But!"

Now some sniffling. If Jo were the girl they knew she was, she would soon chew this person up and spit them out, just so theyíd never know how much they hurt her.

"That suits me just fine!" she screamed into the phone, as if on cue. "Anybodyís more masculine standing next to you, you -- you castrated ass!" Again, the guys swapped looks. Jo was never at a loss for insults, and this one was sub-par for her! "In fact, why donít you put Ďfeminine, pot-bellied asshole with an Oedipus complex who uses fancy cars to make up for a lack of ballsí on your next personal ad so you can stop tricking people into wasting their lives on a semblance of a relationship with someone like you!"

His retaliatory remarks were small and tinny in the exposed earpiece of the phone as Jo carried it back to its cradle and slammed it into place. She crashed into one of the chairs at the table in a huff, her blonde hair flying about her reddened features.

"Jo! Iím surprised! How long has your little love affair been going on?" Mack wasnít very delicate with his opening comments.

"Two whole months! Thatís record time for me! Usually I canít get anybody to put up with me for two hours, let alone two months." She dug her knuckles into the table. "Too bad it had to be with that jerk off...." she added, a little sadly.

Garth looked both stricken and relieved all at once. "Youíre a wonderful person, Jo!" Garthís hand sneaked across the table to gently grasp Joís fingers. "Iím sure the person thatís right for you is just around the corner!"

"You know what his reasons for dumping me were?" she continued, without really acknowledging what Garth had said. "He was pissed off because we had this date today, and Thornton made me give my furlough to Ass Face, so I had to cancel. I told him my job was really demanding when we started dating, but he just threw a tizzy fit and said that it was the Ďlast strawí. Heís used to people running on his schedule, the selfish fuck," she grumbled. "And he said I was too masculine!" She snatched her hand away from Garthís caress to vigorously pound the table. "Can you believe it!? I think heís just insecure Ďcause heís a skinny twerp, and Iíve got more muscles than him. I want the next guy I date to be just a mountain of muscles! Yeah, and heís gotta have a job thatís just as rough, if not rougher than mine!" She started bunching her hands as if she were scooping up handfuls of muscles.

Mack caught Garth unconsciously flexing and puffing out in the corner of his eye, and the old man couldnít help but be a bit amused.

"Heís got to treat me like a lady, though! You know, be sensitive, understanding, sense of humor...but that doesnít mean he shouldnít know how to have fun, and he should be able to drink like a fish, and belch the alphabet! Mr. Bitchiní Camaro didnít even like beer. Can you believe it?"

"You know, you said yourself your job is demanding. You know the Commission frowns on us haviní outside relationships, so howíd you get around all that and meet this loser?" Mack asked.

"Through the stupid personals. I just wanted something to do, you know? Iím going to go stir crazy on this stupid ship!" she sighed.

"What if the perfect guy is right on this ship, waiting for you?" Garth suggested, trying to burn holes in her skull with his intense gaze.

"What? A sailor? Theyíve probably all got the clap, or something!" She stuck out her tongue in a cute manner, taking no notice of Garthís agonizing defeat. "Sometimes I think even if I did go on an actual date with an actually decent man, I wouldnít even know how to act! Maybe I am a little too tomboyish, ever since I joined the Big Boys club, here." She rested her chin in her hand and drummed her fingers on her face.

"What you need is a practice date," Mack offered. The old man was a bit more resourceful than he was letting on.

"What do you mean?" Jo was interested, but not hooked yet.

"We can get our hands on an etiquette manual thingy, and you can go on a practice date with...oh, I donít know. Maybe Garth," he grunted. Garth beamed at him with eyes shining wet with gratitude.

"If Garth even wants to do something like that." Jo angled a little punch at Garthís shoulder.

"I sípose itíd be nice to have somethiní interesting to do around here..." he tried to conceal his elation by feigning mild interest.

"All right then." Mack hauled himself out of his chair with a bit of a groan. "Letís go visit the library and check us out an fancy pants etiquette book." Garth and Jo were a bit confused, but followed Mack down the hall to their quarters.

"There ainít no library in here." Jo jauntily jammed her fist to her hip.

Mack extracted a single tool from the folds of his cargo pants, and simultaneously jimmied the lock on Lt. Hunterís door and disarmed the alarm.

"There we go." Mack replaced the tool and went to the stacks of books that formed the landscape of the lieutenantís room. The other officers felt a little ill at ease invading a fellowís quarters, but they eventually leaked in to examine the piles of literature.

"Wooh! I found his nudie mags!" Jo held up a small publication that was full of wartime type pinups and such. "And they ainít much of anything, either. All of these girls are just doing stupid things! Theyíre not even really posing! Look, this girl has got all of these groceries, and sheís trying to get on the bus, and her panties are falling off! Isnít that rich? How is this attractive? It just looks stupid!" She continued flipping through the pages.

"When us guys went to war, that was the only kind of girl around. See, beiní a female in the military, youíre surrounded by guys. So, I donít think youíd understand," Mack snorted, not making a real effort to conceal his presence in the room as he reshuffled piles of books.

"Whatever." She flipped the magazine onto the bed. "Ooh, whatís this?" She pulled another magazine from under the covers that had been poorly hidden. "Ooh, la la! Our Ass Face has been very busy indeed!" She snickered, holding up another wartime magazine that had a bit more unusual content -- lovely bathing beauties in photo series that depicted them in a variety of situations in which they had been gagged and trussed up.

"Now I donít understand that stuff in the least. But then again, I donít think it means anything. Just look at all the crap thatís in here -- Iím sure he just reads anything that crosses his path." Mack crossed the room to dig through the other piles.

"Dammit! He took my copy of The Jungle and never gave it back! Itís mine now!" Garth snatched his thin paperback from the books atop the dresser.

"Ooh, the meat book! Iíve been dying to read it!" Jo, in turn, snatched it from Garthís hands.

"I found it!" Mack brought out a large, worn, yellow hardcover etiquette book. "Awright, letís see...here it is. Courtin'."

"Courting?" Garth raised his eyebrow.

"That thing sounds ancient!" Jo whined.

"Itíll do." Mack reassured them. "Chapter 9: Courtin'. 'Havin' secured the right to escort the young lady of his choosing, with or without chaperone, on a date by asking permission of her parents, the gentleman and the young lady must take care to present themselves in their best manners, and dress accordingly for the date.' Sounds simple enough."

"I better call yoí parents!" Garth chortled.

" I better go get my corset!" Jo guffawed, holding her pinky aloft.

"Hey, we can translate it for modern times. Yer goiní on a date in a dingy ship, so wear yer work clothes. And since Iím the oldest officer here, youíve gotta ask me to take Jo out on a date, Garth," Mack explained.

"Youíre my daddy?" Jo almost doubled on the floor with laughter.

"Yes, I am." Even Mack had a good laugh.

"All right, here goes. Yo, pops, can I escort Jo here around the U.S.S. Dark Horse?" Garth could hardly keep a straight face.

"Sure thing."

"Oh, the U.S.S. Dark Horse! My, Iíve never been on such a fascinating date! You are certainly a charming gentleman of refined taste!" Jo elaborately went on in her fake British accent.

"Only the best!" Garth offered her his arm.

"Okay, now letís see..." Mack licked his thumb and passed through some pages. " Ď A typical date usually involves a meal and a simple excursion. Whether it be breakfast, brunch, lunch, tea, or dinner, the young lady or young man may not be familiar with the sets of silverware, nor with the courses that would be presented to them.'"

"Weíve got some ham sandwiches in the kitchen. Címon, Garth!" Jo pulled her companion towards the kitchen for the first part of their practice date.

On to Chapter 3, Part Two!

Back to chapter 3a

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