Damaged Goods

Chapter 3, Part 2

by Dr. Seth


(I warned you guys....)

(On another note, the kid in white that Erika dances with; heís REAL and he does all of the things described! Heís a jerk!!! Iíve danced w/ him before!)

"Dammit, Duane!" Darlene shrieked, clutching the dash. "It takes 20 minutes to get to Ms. Lemons, not twenty seconds!"

"That was fun!" Jeffy chimed from the backseat.

"Hey, I kept it under a hundred." Duane shrugged, bumping Erika with his shoulder. Since Darlene had insisted she sit between them in the front seat, letting the kids take the back seat, Duane offered to let her out of the driverís side. Her hands were still gripping the seat, and it took a bit of effort to pry them, trembling, from the indentations they had made on the cushion. Once she was out, he ran to the other side to open the door for his sister.

"Youíre going to turn these suicide doors into homicide doors with your crazy driving!" she griped as he pulled her out. The women smoothed their dresses and hair while waiting for Duane to let the rambunctious children loose from the back seat. The sun had set by this time, but Erika could easily make out the form of a gigantic turn-of-the-century barn, from which fast and furious big band music was spilling over into the night. They had been forced to park in a field, since that was practically what the local landscape consisted of, and it would be a bit of a walk through well-trod flattened grass lined with cars, each one more vintage, decorated, or outrageous than the next. Duane headed their little procession, holding Jeffyís hand, who in turn was hanging onto Rusty, with Erika and Darlene bringing up the rear. Every once in a while, others hurried through the aisles of cars, completely dressed to the nines. Erika was amazed to note that there was no set age range at all -- couples carrying babies, elderly friends scurrying to the dance, teenagers, children, middle aged.... The function attracted all kinds from all places. Finally, they reached the barn, a huge monstrosity that had been outfitted to accommodate dances, with strung lights and ceiling fans visible outside from the high windows.

"Ok, sport." Duane knelt in front of his nephew. "You and Rusty can go on and play." He squeezed the childís shoulders momentarily, gathering the fabric of the miniature uniform. "Weíll be right inside if you guys need us."

"Okey dokey, Unka Doo-Wayne!" Jeffy cheerfully gave his little sloppy salute, knocking the cap back a little.

"And Rusty...." Duane turned to the robot. "I know youíre a pretty darn good robot-"

"Sure as shootiní!" Rusty exclaimed.

"Right- but I need you to take care of Jeffy. Since youíre a bit older, I suppose, you need to look out for Jeffy, ok? Heís just a little boy, and you canít play too rough with him. Donít let anyone else play rough with him, either. Itís a big responsibility, but I trust you, understand?"

"Yessir, Mr. Lieutenant Duane!" Rusty nodded in solemn agreement.

"Good boy." Duane sent the boys off into the night. He watched as they ran around the corner of the barn, where cartoons were being projected on one side. Ms. Lemons was a wonderful place for both children and adults, and Duane remembered his bittersweet childhood running through the extensive tangle of fields that surrounded the barn, and of graduating to adolescence and discovering the world inside the barn- the wild dancing, the hormone-addled fistfights, falling in love every other week -- the things he could no longer afford to take for granted in his far-removed life. He wondered to himself, if he had been the decent man he had convinced himself he was, if this is directly where he would go once he died. It certainly was a sort of heaven. He joined Erika and Darlene, waiting in line for paradise.

"I havenít been here for ages!" Darlene sighed. "George makes it home so little these days! Heís so busy with his job!"

"What exactly does your husband do?" Erika asked, her curiosity unbridled.

"I didnít tell you? Gee, I told you I would forget my own name if I didnít embroider it onto my underwear, honest to peaches! Why, heís a traveling salesman!" Darlene said proudly. "He sells just about anything door to door, and at business conventions, and things like that!"

"Where is old Georgie this time, anyways?" Duane asked.

"Heís in Akron, Ohio, for a vacuum convention. Theyíre coming out with a new model that has a hose thatís at least two times longer than the ones they have out now! Can you imagine?" Darlene was excited at this prospect, and Erika could visualize Darleneís mind working away, picturing the stairs and ceilings that needed maniacal vacuuming.

"Ooh, exciting." Duane mimicked Erikaís feelings, and she couldnít help but giggle under her breath. Duane fished enough cash to pay for all of them from his pockets and pressed it into the doormanís hand. The scene inside was one of splendor- the floating dance floor was ringed with simple tables and chairs, but the ceiling was lined with plain light bulbs that transformed into glittering stars above the dancers. There was a live band playing on a raised stage at the far end of the barn, and they were of good size- consisting of a bass player, a double percussion section, three kinds of saxophones, a trombone, and a trumpet (all manned by musicians with bizarre hairstyles) a wild guitarist who also doubled as a lead singer, two female backup singers, an organist/pianist, and a female lead singer who wore her glittering red dress as her skin. The dancers on the floor entranced Erika, whipping and whirling about. Darlene had to drag her, blinded by talent, through the crowd and to a small table they managed to find in the crush of people.

"You can just leave your purse on the table." Darlene chucked her own onto the wobbly plastic table top, and took off her small sweater. It was incredibly hot, despite the numerous fans pumping above the sweating crowd. Erika fought the itch to yank her sleeves up to her shoulders.

"Duane, why donít you take Erika out on the floor first? Sheíd probably do better with you before you got warmed up!" Darlene suggested.

"Are you kidding? No offense to her- but this is our song, sis!" He tugged on Darleneís hand, trying to pull her to the dance floor. Darlene paused for a moment, trying to pick the tune out. She picked up on it before Erika did, of course, and seemed torn between dancing now and letting Erika go with Duane.

"I can wait!" Erika took a seat in a plastic chair and motioned them away. As Darlene and Duane made their way to the floor, Erika concentrated on the music, trying to pick out what it was.

"Hey, little sister, what have you done?" The male lead growled into the fat microphone.

"Hey, little sister, whoís the only one?" The female lead purred next.

"Iíve been away for so long-"

"So long! Iíve been away for so long-"

"So long! Iíve let you go for so long-" They traded lines, finally combining their voices for the chorus.

"Well, itís a nice day for a white wedding...It's a nice day to start again...." The swing music was infectious, and Erika felt antsy sitting still. She wanted to jump up and start dancing...until her eyes caught Duane and Darlene. Their individualities melted away and they functioned like a single unit on the floor. Erika felt herself shrink at the sight.

They were perfect in every way! How could she ever survive those turns, those leaps and bounds...now what were they doing? It was certainly nothing she had learned! For the first time in her life, Erika felt completely uneducated. She could only helplessly watch, now dreading the inevitable moment in which she would have to dance with Duane- dance with anyone for that fact. The song was over too quickly in her opinion, and she could feel herself turning scarlet as they returned to the table.

"Whew! I need to practice!" Darlene was wheezing a bit from the exertion. Of course, Duane was used to such duress, and most likely had limitless stamina.

"Oh, itís our other song!" Duane snapped his fingers.

"What?" Darlene listened carefully, then without hesitation, decided to go again. "Sorry, Erika. Donít worry- I canít take too much more of this." They once again made it to the floor, much to Erikaís relief, and began a more intricate and difficult dance, no matter that the song was much faster than the one before. In fact, they seemed to be doing a rehearsed routine, with every move scripted before hand. She once again tried to pick out the lyrics, which were solely the male singerís now, and was disturbed by their content.

"Momma married a big asshole,
whiskey bottles on the floor.
He just keeps on watchiní TV;
stepchild tired of beiní poor.
Kitchen smells like a rotten garbage,
I canít chew my food, my face is sore.
Momma didnít come home last evening
Neighbors say that sheís a whore.
Some folks never want for nothiní;
Iím a worn out hand-me-down.
Stupid rich kid gets me angry
Lord, Iím gonna cut him down.
Now Iím grown up, same old story
At 21 I fell in love.
She left me just like the others,
Jesus, whyíd you curse my love?
Drunk daddy broke my fingers,
Drunk daddy done kicked my head
Drunk daddy smashed my sister,
Turned my whole world red,
Blood red."

Erika couldnít help but wonder- why was this their other song? She could somewhat understand the previous song, perhaps meant in a joking manner, but this...She was interrupted from these thoughts by a chunky young man approaching her table.

"Wanna dance?" He bellowed, though it was reduced to a small roar by the loud music.

Erika silently agreed by letting him take her by the hand. She managed to get to his ear to warn him of her amateur status. He did most of the basics that she already knew, and she found it quite easy to follow his new moves, since they were basically a repetition of the fundamental steps. He had probably been dancing long before she had gotten there, judging by the briny ocean of sweat that poured from him. She found it difficult to dance in the closed position, which forced her to lean closely to his spongy body, so she lost all concentration for the lyrics, and she also lost sight of Duane and Darlene. When each song was done, there always seemed to be one more person to take the last oneís place, and she found herself traded around the dance floor for at least six more songs. She started worriedly looking around for her companions, and managed to catch Darlene in the distance from time to time. She was an awesome dancer, and could take anything anybody threw at her. Erika wished she had gone to the rest of her swing classes! Erika really didnít get too nervous since all of her partners had been understanding, until a lean, younger man dressed all in tweedy white clothes managed to catch her for a slower dance. The moment he began, Erika was completely lost. When she leaned in to tell him so, he seemed rather agitated.

"You never learned to lindy?" His glare was sharp and powerful. When she answered negatively, he grudgingly settled back into his version of swing. Though he might have seemed like an excellent dancer, in truth, he couldnít keep the beat in the least, and he was just using her as a foil, essentially dancing with himself.

"Well, at least weíre not in a competition!" he smirked. Erika could barely tolerate this comment, but kept on trying to dance with him, wishing for the song to be over. Then, the final straw- he dropped to his knees, and Erika could only anticipate his next "fantastic" dance move. It was a lot more fantastic than she had bargained for. The boy slowly raised himself from the floor without aid of his hands, rubbing his nether regions on her body as he ascended. Erika promptly slapped him, and stormed off for their table. Dropping herself in her seat, she was surprised to find Darlene making her way back to the table.

"Can you imagine!" she huffed, placing three cool bottles of water on the table. "These things cost 25 cents! When Duane and I used to come here, it was only 5 cents! I feel so old!"

"Thatís cheap!" Erika gratefully popped open her bottle. "Back in the city, theyíre already at 50 cents."

"Youch!" Darlene greedily gulped down almost an entire bottle.

"Thanks for the water." Erika remembered her manners.

"Donít mention it." She laughed. "Are you having fun so far?"

"Oh, yes, I was having a great time- everybody here is so nice! Except..." Erika leaned in over the table. "Donít dance with this guy whoís wearing all white. Heís a horrible dancer!"

"Who, Forest?"

"Ah, so you know him?"

"Did he do...?" Darlene made a little motion with her fingers that re-enacted the event Erika had just suffered.

"Yes, he did!"

"Ew!" Darleneís tongue jutted out of her mouth. The current song ended, and the band brought out their amazing array of percussive instruments. They began with a Latin beat, and launched into their cover of Squirrel Nut Zipperís "La Grippe".

"Thereís a flu bug getting passed around," the male singer silkily sang. "And itís spreading like fire through this town! Thereís a virus, holing up inside us- every one that I know is coming down!" The song was much slower, and had a quiet sort of energy. They both started scanning the crowd for Duane, but Darlene had to abandon this task because an older gentleman had called her to dance. Erika watched them for a few minutes as they swayed easily along, finally letting her eyes drift away. They practically exploded from her sockets when they caught sight of Duane. He and a young woman had virtually been glued to each other, and they were performing an odd sort of dance Erika couldnít name. It was slow at most points, but intermittently, they would quickly turn and pivot. Besides being an unfamiliar dance, they would occasionally do things that Erika found hard to label as dance moves, things that she would expect Forest to do- except when Duane did them, he wasnít abrupt and rude, and his recipients seemed willing. He spun her out, drew her back in, and bracing himself, practically drew her right up his body, and they leaned back onto each other. Erikaís eyes just about rolled straight out of her head! A few people danced in her line of vision, much to her aggravation, and when they twirled off to another part of the floor, Duane was dragging his hand up the length of her thigh visible through one of the slits in the particularly short red dress. His caress smeared the fine sheen of sweat that made her shapely legs shimmer like polished onyx.

Erika felt the flood rise within her- the raging torrent of surprise and inexplicable jealousy- creeping through her body as her enraged blush seeped through her features. Just when his hand was about to wander in Ďforbidden territoryí (though Erika was beginning to wonder what exactly was forbidden on this chickís body) it snapped to her waist, and her leg curled around his own, and they went into another pattern if twists and turns. Erika swallowed, gathering her shattered mind. Looking at them, she drank in their details. A pleasant enjoyment was seated on Duaneís features, his nub of an eyebrow riding around high on his forehead in delight. Even when he wasnít almost groping her, his hands were feather light, reluctant to let go, clinging to her with exposed sensuality. And of course, the dancer was loving it, showing no signs of disgust, even though her hand was firmly clasped to his right hand, bubbling with distorted skin. Erika sighed weakly. When was the last time she had been touched like that? Never. Nobody had ever known how to touch her, or wanted to, in such a sensual manner. If only Duane would....Well, he would if he would dance with her...Erika didnít know what was more embarrassing- that she longed to be felt up, or that she would take advantage of Duane for such base purposes. Her throbbing jealousy receded into pulsing anticipation- anticipation for that dance she was going to snag as soon as they finished. After waiting for forever and a day for the song to end, they soon separated. He even kissed her hand, the devil! Erika stood, waiting for him to leave her so she could get her dance, but they just stood there talking intimately, it seemed, on the side of the crowded dance floor as others danced around them. What could they possibly be talking about? Erika irately wondered, still standing by the table. Examining her more closely, she realized the womanís legs were well toned and muscled, most likely indicating she was a dancer. The deal was sealed when Erika realized that the girl was wearing ballroom dancing shoes and a dress so ornately lovely that bared so much strategic dark, muscular flesh, that it must also be a ballroom dancing dress. Erikaís confidence trickled down within her like sands from an hourglass. She gulped down her doubts as quickly as possible. It didnít matter. He would dance the same with her, she was sure of it, even if her talent was lacking. Finally, the girl disappeared into the crowd, and Duane wandered back to the table.

"Duane!" Darleneís voice startled Erika right out of her skin- how long had she been standing right behind her? "Donít flirt with girls like that!"

"Itís a free country." Duane grunted in reply. He removed his jacket and hung it on the back of his chair before taking a seat. Sweat was spotting his shirt and beading on his brow.

"Why donít you go dance with Erika?" Darlene suggested.

"Why, I would love that! Címon, Duane...." Erika tried to be inviting as possible, about to drop on the floor in ecstasy just thinking about his touch. Duaneís features seemed to darken as he considered this, and his head bowed ever so slightly. What was he thinking?

"Um...not right now. My knee is hurting." He rubbed his knee under the table for emphasis.

"Your knee?" Darlene asked concernedly. Erika felt ridiculously jealous of the knee. It robbed her of her right to erotic dancing! Duane shrugged and folded his hands before him on the table. Erika had run out of time to ponder his strange behavior because a young woman had come over to ask her to dance. Reluctantly, she was led away, leaving Darlene and Duane alone.

Darlene stared at Erika with bulging eyes as she began to follow the young womanís lead on the edge of the dance floor, and then turned to Duane with a more fierce expression.

"Duane, Iím surprised at you!" she huffed. Duane simply braced himself for his sisterís rant. "How can you go off dancing with other girls like that, and ignore poor Erika? What signals are you trying to send her? Sheís going to think that you hate her!"

"Havenít you noticed the signals sheís sent me?" he narrowed his eyes in quiet retaliation.

"Sheís been nothing but sweet to you, and youíre so ungrateful!" Darlene pouted.

"Sweet?" Duane smirked. "In front of you, maybe, but when weíre alone itís a whole different story. She hates me, Iím sure."

"Oh, that is ridiculous!"

"I can dance with whomever I want to, however I want. These girls hereóI wonít ever see them again, Iím sure. I have to face Erika almost every single day! And they donít care how I...how I look! They like me for my dancing, and theyíre not afraid to touch me, and they donít look at me funny, and...and they just donít care. How I look, I mean." As he heard his voice grow dim, he realized that no matter how often he got over his appearance, he could be plunged back into insecurity a little too easily.

"Erika doesnít care about that either." Darleneís perfectly sculpted eyebrows peaked upwards in pity.

"How can you say that?" His voice was clear and loud, now. "What was that all about back home? ĎPut your shirt on, Duane!í How can you say she doesnít care, when she probably told you about how repulsive she thought I was!?" At this outburst, Darleneís face went from pity to mild surprise.

"Oh, Duane..." She grasped his burned hand in hers. "That was all my fault. I didnít want you to...I guess I didnít want her to see all that, I thought it might scare her away. But she told me she didnít mind...She told me she actually liked it..."

"Are you serious?" Duane asked. She nodded gravely, her eyes set in truth. "Thatís terrible!" He shifted in his seat, discomfited.

"What do you mean? I think itís wonderful!" Darlene snipped.

"Letís say she wasnít lying, that she really does like my appearance. That would mean she hates me for who I am."

"This is a gweat spot!" Jeffy indicated some mashed grass among a throng of children gathered at the far end of the barn. Rusty took his word for it, and sat cross- legged on the floor. They were sitting further towards the back, near the projection "booth"- a lifeguardís chair rigged with a projector. They had come in the middle of a Three Stooges short, which was being projected onto the side of the barn, much to Jeffyís delight. Rusty had seen the Three Stooges on TV from time to time, but here they were projected larger than life!

"Is this what itís like in movie theatres?" Rusty asked. Jeffy nodded.

"Havenít you never been to one?"

"Well...." Rustyís finger plucked at his rubberized lower lip. "Dr. Slate is always promising to take me, but sheís so busy all the time."

"Unka Doo-Wayne takes me to the movies when he comes home!" Jeffy bubbled excitably. "Maybe he can take you too! We can aww go together!"

"That would be so cool!" Rusty beamed.

"One time, we got to meet them!" He pointed to Moe, Larry, and Curlyís five-foot tall heads. "They were signiní autogwaphs in the mall! Unka Doo-Wayne and mom and me went, and they autogwaphed my Thwee Stooges poster!" Jeffy recounted.

"Wow." Rusty tried to imagine what they were like in real life as the film came to an end. The projectionist unlatched his sweetieís arms (who he had been cuddling with at the top of the life guard chair) and switched films. The next reel was a Betty Boop cartoon. Rusty immediately fell in love with her and her friendís inexplicable antics. Poor Betty had gotten the notion to run away from home with her doggy companion, Bimbo. They managed to stumble into the cave of a talented ghost-walrus, who proceeded to sing them the tale of Minnie the Moocher. And the films continued on and on, larger than life, to Rustyís never ending delight, until he was shaken from this waking dream by Jeffy tugging at his arm. Rusty turned to see what Jeffy wanted, and found him pointing into the darkness. His fingertip was tracing the flight path of a small, glowing insect flitting about in the night.

"A lightning bug!" He whispered an explanation. Lightning bugs? Rustyís curiosity was peaked, and as if reading his positronic mind, Jeffy wandered away from the group watching films to follow the shimmering creatures.

"They glimmer like glimmering things!" Rusty breathlessly exclaimed as he walked into a cloud of them. He looked down at his splayed fingers while the bugs landed and launched from them.

"We gotta catch Ďem!" Jeffy squeaked excitedly, waving his pint-sized officerís cap, dispersing them temporarily.

"Ok!" They ran about, trampling the grass that hadnít been mowed in a good month as they strayed further and further away into the expansive field behind the barn. The object ceased being the capture of the lightning bugs and had simply turned into a romp at high speeds, and they dashed around in no particular pattern, shrieking and giggling, giddy with freedom. Rusty looked upwards into the endless canopy of stars that were so easily seen from the unlit darkness. The full moon softly illuminated their playground, but didnít block the view of the stars, unlike the lights from the city. Unfortunately, he wasnít looking where he was going, and he collided with Jeffy, tumbling them both to the ground.

"Golly! I didnít mean to run into you! Are you okay? Did I hurt you?" Rusty worriedly checked his companion.

"Iím fine!" Jeffy giggled.

"Whew!" Rusty had been induced with paranoia about hurting the smaller boy.

"I thought I saw a fouw weaf cwover!" Jeffy explained, rolling over to get his hat, which had fallen off.

"A four leaf clover? Why?"

"Theyíre good wuck!" Jeffy explained. He propped himself up on his elbows, tracing circles in the dirt with his fingers as his eyes scanned among the weeds and flowers for his elusive four leaf clover. Rusty also rolled over on his stomach, and tried to find the clover as well. He began to wonder how the simple anomaly in a piece of common vegetation could bring about good luck, and what exactly this good luck entailed, and why Jeffy would need good luck, when he heard a group of people approaching, the moist grass whispering around them.

"Wusty!" Jeffy let out a bit of a whimper, and grabbed Rustyís arm. Rusty looked towards the sounds of those approaching, seeing only two boys and a girl, all a bit older than Jeffy. He couldnít understand why he would be so tenseósurely, they had come to play as well.

"Wet's go...." Jeffy had already gotten to his feet. Rusty followed suit, but was curious about the trio of children. Much to Jeffyís chagrin, it was too late to slip away, and the three descended upon them quickly.

"Hi, friends! Want to play?" Rusty asked as they came to a halt in front of him. A brown- haired boy in a red shirt swiftly delivered a kick to Rustyís shins. While this didnít hurt Rusty one bit, he couldnít help but wonder why this human would want to harm himself intentionally like that.

"Heís real all right!" The boy relayed to his friends, too proud to show his pain.

"I donít know!" The girl wearing a purple dress crossed her arms over her chest, eyeing Rusty nonchalantly. "If heís a real robot, why does he have that stupid grin on his face?" Rustyís grin fell a little at this comment.

"Yeah, and why does he have that weird lookiní nose? He doesnít look anything at all like the real Rusty!" The third boy, wearing yellow from head to toe, came forward to inspect him more closely. Rusty self-consciously clutched at his honker.

"I do not have a weird nose!" Rusty squeaked.

"How would you know what the real Rusty looks like?" Purple snarled at Yellow.

"íCause him and Big Guy had to come to our neighborhood one time Ďcause of that stupid lizard thing, man!" Yellow defended himself.

"Yeah, but I thought your cousinís best friend saw them, and you were too busy hiding away wetting your pants!" Red chuckled quite callously. Rustyís confusion grew, watching kids that were supposed to be friends bicker among themselves. And he didnít remember seeing anybody at all when he and Big Guy went to fight that lizard in the next county over. And he certainly didnít have a weird nose or a stupid grin!

"Wusty, come on, wetís go. These are kids fwom my school, and theyíre not vewy nice at all..." Jeffy whispered, pleadingly pulling at his arm.

"Hey, look!" Purpleís finger snapped right at Jeffyís face. "Itís Roach Boy!"

"Roach Boy? Where? Where?" Yellow, glad that their scrutiny was away from him, began mocking Jeffy as well. Rusty knew they had already seen Jeffy, but Yellow was searching around in an exaggerated manner, pretending he couldnít see him. What was their game?

"Oh, thereís Roach Boy! Heís so small, you can barely see him!" At this, they all burst into laughter. Jeffy seemed increasingly humiliated, and he shrunk further and further away.

"See? Now this just proves that this is nothing but a fake Rusty!" Purple wiped the tears of laughter from her eyes. "Roach boy would never be cool enough to have the real Rusty!"

"His weird uncle probably bought it for him."

"Spoiled brat..."

Jeffy looked quite upset. Rusty could only imagine one solution-

"I am the real Rusty! I can prove it!" Rusty stated.

"Wow, this toyís got a pretty big ego built into him!" Red chuckled. "Ok, if you think you are the real Rusty, weíre going to give you a test, and you have to do everything we say to do..." Rusty agreed, and proceeded to carry out every one of their orders. If they told him to do loops in the sky, he would do so. If they demanded that he demonstrate his nucleo protonic powers, he would shoot green beams through tree trunks. Their demands ranged from simple to extreme, and they were never ending. He continued on and on, hoping that the next task would finally prove to them that he was, in fact, the real Rusty, but they were never satisfied. Finally, Jeffy, who had been hanging around at the edge of their group, worriedly watching him perform, had had enough.

"Wusty! Youíve gotta stop! Theyíre just pwaying twicks on you!" He exclaimed. Rusty had already assumed this, but his naivetť had continued to cling to the hope that the opposite was true. He brought himself down from his headstand. Just as he did so, Purple delivered a cruel shove to the smaller child, throwing him to the ground.

"Can it, Roach Boy!" She snarled. Rustyís defense mechanisms clicked, and he launched into a loop, intending to end it with a kick to her head. He caught himself in mid-air--- even the slightest blow from his titanium-reinforced body would most likely be fatal to the childrenís soft bodies. Purple was at first scared, but calmed as Rusty floated back to earth. He stood contemplating how to protect Jeffy without the use of lethal violence. She mistook it as pacifism.

"Robots canít hurt humans!" she sniggered, her cruel humor settling in once again as soon as she was removed from harm.

"Yeah, but they canít let humans get hurt, either. If you keep beating up roachy, heíll go cuckoo, I bet! I saw Susan Calvin do it on TV once!" Yellow added. Thinking this was a good idea, Purple once again turned towards her tiny victim.

"Youíve got only one minute to leave him alone!" Rusty did his weak Big Guy imitation.

"If you donít, youíre going to be sorry!" he warned.

"Whatíre you gonna do?" Red laughed. Purple gave Jeffy a nasty pinch on the shoulder, making him whimper pitifully. Rusty had warned them. Yellow and Red, being the closest to him, were immediately snatched by the scruffs of their shirts and made airborne. With lightning speed, he whisked them back to the barn, and deposited them on the roof. He returned for Purple, who had set off running through the grass, and bore down on her. He swooped down and tucked his hands under her arms, sweeping her up and leaving her with her companions on the roof of the barn. They would be up there for a while, but not forever. At least the crowd watching films had somewhat noticed his green streaks in the dark. Rusty settled down next to Jeffy, who was still sitting in the grass rubbing his shoulder.

"Thatís that!" Rusty beamed, extending his hand to his friend. He jerked Jeffy back up on his feet, and they strolled through the field hand in hand.

"You were wonderfuw!" Jeffy grinned, squeezing his hand.

"Iím really sorry about what happened. I just thought...I just thought that kids were nice to one another!" Rusty sheepishly cast his eyes towards the ground.

"Not weawwy." Jeffy said sadly.

"Why did they call you Roach Boy? Thatís so weird!" This question elicited a small sigh from his small friend. Had he said something wrong?

"They were puwwing the wegs offa woach at school one day." Jeffy began. "And I wescued it. I gwabbed it, and put it in my secwet space at school. Itís head and body stayed awive for a wong time, and I fed it. But then one day it was gone."

"Ewww! Itís a roach! Arenít they yucky?" Rusty cringed at the thought of touching such an insect- a response that had been programmed into him by otherís reactions.

"Woaches may be gwoss, but theyíre not mean on puwpose, wike those kids!" Jeffy snapped to the roachís defense. "It didnít deserve to have its wegs puwwed off!"

"Itís just a bug!"

"Itís stiww a wiving cweature..." Rusty had a difficult time accepting this at first, and couldnít help but think of all of the monsters he and Big Guy had killed. Had any of them been innocent?

"Wook! Wazbewwies!" Jeffy gasped, pointing to a bramble in the dark. Rustyís mind was pulled away from itís quandary as they inspected the tangle of vegetation. "We could pick Ďem, but itís too dawk outside, and they have thowns!"

"Thatís no problem!" Rusty reassured him. "No pain receptors!" He turned the lights on in his eyes and illuminated the bush. Jeffy held out his hat as Rusty plucked the ripest berries from within the maze of thorns. With his eye beams on the plants, they discovered a blackberry bush sharing the same area, and filled Jeffyís hat with those as well. Suddenly, Rusty disturbed some sort of insect nesting in the plant, and it buzzed about in an irate manner.

"What is it? What is it?" Rusty yelped, swinging his eyebeams about, trying to land it on the strange creature. Jeffy squinted, trying to make out its form in the dark.

"I canít see it!" he complained, waving his hand through the dark. It smacked against the insect, and its loud buzzing stopped momentarily. Rusty looked down, shining twin spotlights on the bug lying in the grass. Jeffy squatted and examined it closely, turning it over with his hand. It didnít look familiar to them, and it was an odd iridescent green and had wasp-like qualities, such as sharp, angled wings, and a huge stinger.

"Did I kill it?" Rusty fretted.

"I donít think so..." Jeffy fingered the bug, rolling it around his palm. It twitched, startling them both. "It must be okay!" Jeffy chirped. They watched as it slowly rose to its feet, staggering and twitching its wings. Abruptly, it buried its stinger deep into Jeffyís palm, eliciting a piercing scream from the child. He threw it from his aching hand, and Rusty reacted immediately, charging his nucleo protons and aiming at the fleeing insect.

"No! Wusty!" Jeffy grabbed Rustyís arm. "Itís okay..."

"What are you talking about?" Rusty asked, irate that his aim had been destroyed. "That thing hurt you!"

"It was just scared...thatís all. It was just defending itself..." Jeffy pleaded. Rusty was at first confused, but decided that Jeffy knew best. He illuminated the welt on the boyís palm.

"See? It wooks wike a bee sting. No big deal." Jeffy gingerly touched the red bump on the center of his hand. Rusty smiled, relieved. Though he couldnít exactly understand the pain, or the function of the welt, as long as Jeffy said he was okay, he was satisfied. They laughed and shrugged it off, then went back to harvesting the berries.

The little cap was brimming with fruit, and Jeffy finally plunked down beside the plants to enjoy them. Rusty joined him, and though he knew it was fruitless, would grab a handful of berries from the hat and pretend to eat them. After half an hour of absolute pigging out, Jeffy rolled on his side and abandoned the berries. "I ate too much!" he groaned.

"Um, are you going to be ok?" Rusty concernedly asked.

"Yup." At this, Jeffy heaved a huge yawn for such a little boy, and lay prostrate, staring at the stars. "Iím getting sweepy." He said.

"Duane, why donít you go dance with Erika?" Darlene insisted as he led her out on the dance floor for the third time in a row.

"Well, donít you think I would if I could find her?" He kept looking past Darlene into the crowd, trying to seek out Erika. If only to please his sister, he would dance with her once. He didnít like the taste of the new perspective heíd recently gained on her, but just to keep the peace, one dance wouldnít hurt. He never said it would be the best dance, but...

"So, how often do you and Georgie come out here, anyways? This old place hasnít changed since last time I saw it..." Duane slowly spun Darlene out, keeping an eye out for Erika.

"Oh, George!" Darlene snorted. "George doesnít take me anywhere, anymore!"

"He doesnít? I guess his job keeps him away..." Duane reasoned.

"His job?" Darlene gave a disturbing laugh. "Oh, Duane, Iíve been meaning to tell you...His job..."

"What about it?" Duaneís gut tightened, sensing bad news on the horizon.

"Heís not in Akron selling vacuums. Heís out in New Tronic, shacking up in some two bit hotel with some two bit hussy!" She let out another laugh that cut through Duaneís horror like a knife.

"Are you serious?" Heíd all but stopped dancing, simply going through some of the motions. What did this mean? He had never liked George, but this was too much! What could this mean for his sister, for his nephew?

"Yeah, I found out about it last year, but yíknow...I couldnít divorce him being that Iím dependent on him, and Jeffy and all that, but now..."

Duane didnít like the sound of that Ďbut nowí. He hung in space, suspended on her every word.

"Now I have Aldous." She dreamily cast her eyes down, as she did when she was a mere teenager fawning over some movie star.

"Al-Aldous?" Duane fumbled the name in his mouth. He only knew one person with that peculiar first name, and he was desperately hoping it wasnít him.

"Yes, Aldous...Why are you shocked, you know him quite well, and you must certainly know what a nice person he is..." Darlene continued.

"General Thornton?!" Duane croaked, his eyes wide in disbelief.

"Yes, I guess, if you insist on calling him that. We met when he brought the military over to fix my house. I mean, Iíd seen him a few times, but we really sat down and talked and we found out we had so much in common! As soon as I can get the legal stuff all worked out, Iím going to divorce George and maybe..." She suggestively trailed off, though Duane already knew the predictable conclusion she would come to.

"Heís...heís old enough to be our dad!" Duane had stopped dancing now. He stood gripping his sisterís hands in the closed position, just staring into her eyes, desperate for her words to be false.

"Oh, none of that really matters." Darlene shrugged. "Címon." She nudged Duane to get him dancing again, and he simply did so in a daze. Itís not that he really cared about their difference in ages, truth be told, but the whole situation fit him so awkwardly. He was happy for his sister, but was disturbed by the fact that he had always felt that Gen. Thornton was really in fact a surrogate father to himself, and now that he was dating his sister, it would take a lot of time to rewire his brain more appropriately. He felt crestfallen, having to lose this aspect of their relationship, perhaps an aspect that Gen. Thornton never even realized existed.

"Thereís Erika!" Darlene directed his attention to the water fountain in the corner of the room, next to the apron of the stage. "Go on and get her, Iím going to sit down for a while."

Duane couldnít even bring himself to answer and moved towards Erika through the crowd as if moving through dense fog. Nothing seemed to exist except that piercing thought that had penetrated his brain. Erika was quite startled to find he was standing there right behind her when she came up from the fountain, drops of water glistening on her red lips. She smiled, or something -- he was too involved in his thoughts to really notice- and he wordlessly led her out to the floor. He continued leading her through the motions of some very basic dance moves. Her smile faded, and she leaned forward and demanded harder moves, her determined words riding on her hot breath, tickling the gnarled door of his right ear. Even this, he was impervious to. He indifferently spun her through more movements, apparently exciting her ire.

"Look, Duane;" She stamped her foot fiercely. " I know I was a little rude to you at the beginning of the day, but you donít have to make it up to me by dancing like crap! Now are you going to dance with me, or just be a jerk?!"

Again, he answered without words, instead grabbing her powerfully, startling her with his intensity, and he began whipping her through dance moves that ranged from easy to hard, so hard that she began stumbling from time to time. This, combined with the fact that he showed her none of the sensuality he used on his previous partners, only incensed her more. He stared at her, cold, hollowed, curtailing her harder words, and leading her to simply be quietly pissed. When the song was over, she marched back to their table; obviously, the night was over. He was surprised that Rusty had brought Jeffy back as well. The poor little guy looked tired out, and was slumped half asleep in one of the chairs.

"Heís all worn out!" Darlene said, patting the boyís head.

"So he is!" Duane struggled to muster a smile. He ignored Erikaís sharp glares and put on his jacket. He carried Jeffy in his arms all the way out to the car, with Rusty skipping ahead and the girls chatting together a few paces behind.

On the ride home, Jeffy and Rusty rode up front, and Erika and Darlene rode in the back. From time to time, he would glance in the rearview mirror and try to read their faces, but he was too tired to think anymore, and he needed his brain cells for that flight back home.

Darlene and Erika continued their conversation on the sidewalk in front of Darleneís house, leaving Duane to unlock Darleneís front door and put Jeffy to bed. He carried his nephew up the darkened stairs and into his moonlit room. It was a good thing that Duane babysat so much- all of that practice undressing and dressing the mostly asleep child was a handy skill on nights such as these. Jeffy stirred and moaned from time to time, but he managed to get him out of the uniform and into his pajamas without waking him up all the way. He lay him in his bed and tucked him in, gazing down on his nephew peacefully nestled in his air force sheets with little toy planes casting shadows on his bed. It was pure peace to Duane, and it was one of the few beautiful moments available to him in his life. His gaze drifted out the window, down to the pavement where Erika and Darlene stood chatting in the moonlight. What was poor Jeffyís future? He bent down to brush the childís golden hair from his closed eyes, and discovered his forehead was beaded with sweat and quite warm. Ah, another flu, he reasoned. He kissed Jeffyís forehead briefly then made his way back downstairs.

"Darlene!" He made his way across the lawn. "I think Jeffy has a fever."

"Again?" she exclaimed. "He just got over another cold! God, these kids! Theyíre always finding ways to get sick!"

"Lucky mineís made out of metal," Erika joked.

"Yeah, really. Well, I had a great time, and we had better do this again sometime soon." Darlene squeezed Erikaís hand.

"Sounds good," she replied.

"Goodnight, sweetheart!" Darlene gave Erika a big hug, and then turned to Duane to do the same.

"Weíll get together soon. Scouts honor." Duane said, embracing his sister. "Goodnight, Darlene."

"Bye!" She waved them off as they got in the car and drove away.

It was a tense drive through the cloudless night, and each star that shone unhindered in the clear night sky was just another angry eye burning down on Duane and Erika. If only I could gain custody of Jeffy, Duane thought. If only Duane wasnít such a horrible jerk, Erika thought. When he had parked in front of her apartment, she had practically bolted, somewhat afraid of him making unwelcome advances, which was really just a reflex she had learned after one too many rides home with Donovan. He offered his weak goodnight, his voice cracking a bit, but she disappeared within the complex without returning even that polite sentence.

"All right, you two. Now itís time for the goodnight kiss." Mack teased. Jo just let out a small titter, but Garth was sweating bullets. It was his big break. All of this other stuff was just for fun, but now, he was going to make his move. Mack escorted them to the hallway lined with their cabins, still reading out of the ancient dating manual. They stood in front of Joís doorway, making chit chat. Mack slowly slunk away out of sight, dimming the lights. He couldnít refuse himself a peek, though.

"Well, that was fun!" Jo said.

"Refreshing from our usual bit of drudgery." Garth nodded. It had been fun. Just a sort of pure enjoyment, without any kind of pressure.

"Goodnight, then." Jo said, turning to her door. But Garth hadnít budged. She turned to laugh again, as this, she supposed, was part of the joke, but as she turned she found his hands had wound around her waist. A bit startled, she looked into his face, to see that his eyes were so set on her, she could feel their intensity etching into her own. No, this wasnít the Garth she had just palled around with. This was Big Time Serious Garth. This was the Garth that got things done. Oh, and there was a little bit of Nervous Garth, the Garth that appeared when someone found an ownerless nudie calendar lying about, or when someone mentioned a piece of the Big Guy fell off. Yes, a very determined creature stared down at her, licking its lips unsurely.

"Um..." She tried to fill that little gap of uncomfortable silence that had developed. She placed her hands on the crooks of his elbows, just in case he was going to try something that she wouldnít like, something untoward. Instead, he did something gentlemanly, and pleasant. Something Jo never knew she wanted, but found an intense need for it the second it happened. Garth had kissed her, very simply. He tried to pull away to visually gauge her reaction, but she pulled him back into a deeper kiss.

And that was that! Mack happily thought to himself, closing the outside door and thinking about the stack of donuts he had to himself in the kitchenette. When he turned around, he smacked right into Duane, fresh from his trip, evident by the flight suit he was still wearing.

"Whatís shakiní?" he asked, but this usual question had more verve in it at other times. Mack simply assumed he was tired.

"Jo and Garth, in a second. While you was away, I decided to play matchmaker, with this." He held up the book, instantly realizing this unveiled his sneaky doings. Duane did little more than shoot him a look.

"So, they finally got together? Thatís nice." Duane managed a smile, but an unconvincing one. Mack invited him to the donuts, but of course, he had to decline.

"Whatís botheriní you, Duane? Did that dame throw a hissy fit?" Mack had powder on his nose, and jelly on his chin. It was cutely senile.

"That, among other things." Duane sighed, letting his face sink into his hand. "I...just donít want to talk about it right now."

"Fair enough."

The phone rang, interrupting the lull in the conversation.

"Iíll get it." Duane scraped his chair over to the phone. "Yello, Dark Horse, Lt. Hunter speaking."

Jo and Garth, still sharing a sweet kiss in her room, were interrupted by the sound of screaming.


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