Chapter 3, Part 1
by Dr. Seth
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
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
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
"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?"
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
"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
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
"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 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
"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
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
"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?"
"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
"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,
"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
"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
"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
"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
"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
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
"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!"
"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
"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
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
"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
"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
"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
"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
"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.
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
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
"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
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
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
"Honey, youíve got to take those off. These tap pants have
the underwear built right in, just like it has built-in garters,"
"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
"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
"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
"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
"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
"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
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
He noticeably blushed at the mention of taps, and dropped the
"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
"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
"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
"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
"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.