by Erin Halfelven
Part 1 – Introducing…
1. Sleeping Giant
"You ever see anyone so gross, Darryl?" Kevin asked.
The old man on the couch was huge. Not just tall, I'd seen him standing and he was almost two foot taller than me, but massively built and with long grey tangled hair and a three-day beard, too.
"Shh!" I said, "He's your uncle, what if he threw us out?"
"Ah, he couldn't hear a cement mixer over his snoring," scoffed Kevin. And it was true; Uncle Steve's snores had a sound that made you think any moment someone would shout 'Timber!'
"Well, we don't have to try to wake him, do we?"
"Not that we could," said Kevin. "But no, we can find something to do outside, I guess. He's got the blasted old Super-Action show on again."
I kind of liked Super-Action, but I didn't say anything. Kevin got bored with anything that felt like news or didn't have a story to it or music or dancing and interviews with old time supers on a morning show didn't interest him at the moment.
This week, Dan Corey had some of the guys from the Vietnam unit, Company O. Not the Protector of course, but The Volunteer who was explaining how he had actually been dead for years and years and missed the start of the Vietnam War.
"That fella running around in my costume in the fifties, that wasn't Mrs. Rochambeaux's little boy Vincent, me. That was some other fella, in fact, it was four other fellas. They kept getting kilt," The Volunteer was saying.
"That wasn't you?" Dan Corey asked. He stroked his pet moustache and pretended to look surprised, though he had to have known this.
"Nope. I was still dead then. The Ubermann Korps had my body in a meat locker from 1946 to 1962, in Switzerland," The Volunteer said in a voice that made him sound like a blond Elvis impersonator. He didn't look old enough to have been in Vietnam, let alone World War II. Maybe being dead for nearly twenty years had something to do with that.
How could somebody be dead for so long but be alive and get interviewed by Dan Corey on Super-Action? I wanted to hear that. Supers fascinated me anyway, and The Volunteer had been around almost since the beginning of the Promethean Age, other than having been dead for part of it.
But Kevin didn't share my enthusiasm, at least, not at the moment. Ordinarily, he liked supers as well as I did and between us we subscribed or bought off the newsstand all the best super-fanzines, slicks and the cheap pulps, too. My favorite was Alien Eye Zed, 'cause the editor there had such a sense of humor, but Kevin preferred Action and Marvels, two of the slicks.
We used to buy the superbooks, when we were younger. Comic strip-like stories about supers, some real, like The Protector and Ramnor and Sensation, some just made up like Superman, The Invisible Girl and Spiderbob. The stories about the real people were sometimes made up, too and Kevin and I used to have some great arguments about which stories were real and which weren't and could Archimedes beat the Hulkatron.
Right at the moment, though, Kevin seemed too irritated at his uncle to sit still and listen to The Volunteer talk about what it was like to be dead. "Why don't we just stay and listen to this?" I asked.
He grabbed me by the arm and literally dragged me out the door. "If we stay here, we'll wake the old man up and he'll have something to say about all those other old guys on the TV. Like how they wouldn't have survived if they had to live off of carrots and ersatz kerosene like he did getting out of Rooshya." He meant Russia; Uncle Steve pronounced it funny.
"All right," I said, giving in. "I'm coming, don't drag me backward."
"Didn't you get cold?" Dan Corey asked just as we left, I guess about the sixteen years in a meat locker. Since Rochambeaux, the real Volunteer, didn't show up again until 1964, I wanted to know about the missing two years. Whether he felt cold while he was dead wasn't the first question I would have asked.
I didn't get to hear any answers right then, though. I turned around and hurried to catch Kevin up, out through the big dining room and into the huge kitchen. We'd been staying with Uncle Steve for two days already, and I still hadn't gotten used to how much bigger the old farmhouse was than the apartment where my sister and I had grown up.
Kevin's mom had gone into the hospital for some minor something, and Kevin had gone to stay with his uncle over Easter Vacation. At Kevin's invitation, I'd been glad to go along; anything to get away from my own home life.
This was Spring Break of our first year in high school; Kevin had just turned fifteen and my birthday was still ten weeks away. We were old enough to take care of ourselves but not old enough to be trusted to do so.
Our moms had some sort of connection to each other; they grew up knowing one another. Like that. And my sister, Tanya, four years older, had married Kevin's brother, Mike, six years older.
We even looked a bit alike, as did our moms. All of us with light brown or blond hair, blue or gray eyes, high cheekbones and small noses. Mom and I had pointy chins, Kevin's more square and his mom's kind of round. Uncle Steve's chin, on the other hand, looked massive, his jaw blocky and hanging open while he snored and drooled on himself. Also, his hair was gray, almost white.
"You sure he's related to you?" I asked as we headed toward the gigantic refrigerator in the corner of the kitchen. None of us were really big people, though Mike was a bit over six feet tall.
"All I know is he's supposed to be Mom's grandfather's older brother, or something."
After raiding the fridge for some milk, we went outside, through the odd little screened-in deck that Uncle Steve called a porch and into the wide backyard of the old farmhouse outside of town. We could just barely hear the rumble of freeway traffic about two miles away, but nothing disturbed the county road that ran past the place. To two kids from the suburbs, it looked pretty desolate.
There weren't many such places left within fifty miles of Los Angeles, but Steve had told us that it was the same farmhouse he and his brother had grown up in, back before television even. He said he had eleven acres, all that was left of two square miles of fruit trees, cattle pastures, truck gardens and a small vineyard.
"We should have brought your computer," I commented.
"That antique probably wouldn't survive the trip," grumbled Kevin. "Never thought it would be this dull out here, dang that old man for falling asleep in front of the only TV in this dump."
"He's your uncle; you ought not say such things about him."
"He's just a stupid old drunk, and he's my mom's uncle not mine. Besides, we didn't wake him up with a big bucket of cold water, did we? We showed him respect." He grinned and I just shook my head smiling.
I'm not sure how it happened, boredom obviously, but we ended up exploring the outbuildings behind the old farmhouse and discovered an unlocked door in the most stable and solid-looking one. "What do you suppose is in here?" Kevin asked as he opened it.
"Spiders? Stinky old hay? Rusty tools?" I guessed.
Kevin stuck his head in then opened the door wide. "You got to see this," he said.
The barn, or whatever you might call it, had one big central room with doors opening off it. And the biggest thing in the room had to be the car. It was almost the biggest car I had ever seen, not counting a Hummer or something. Deep metallic blue with tinted windows, it looked like it might have been used in a movie – bigger and realer than life.
Dust and maybe bits of hay covered everything in the room but lay lightly on the car, as if someone came out once in a while and dusted it off. Uncle Steve?
Our teenage facility with swearwords deserted us as we examined the dream car. "This thing must be worth a mint!" I said after we had both circled it and seen that yes, it was a real car, not some mock-up. It had lights and tires and we could dimly see seats and a steering wheel through the darkened windows.
"It's locked," said Kevin.
"Well, if I owned it, I'd sure lock it!" I said.
"After hiding it in ...whatever this place is? Why?"
But that got us looking at the rest of the room. The first thing we noticed was that one whole wall was a big map. A map of the county apparently but an old one, it didn't show some of the cities that we knew existed and it only had two freeways, the two oldest ones.
"Look at the map," I said. "Right in the center."
"Huh," said Kevin. He saw what I had seen; the very center of the map was the turn-off from the state highway onto the little county road that ran past Uncle Steve's farm. He reached out a finger and touched the map, "We're right here," he said.
"Yes, you are," said someone who must have entered right behind us.
2. With This Ring
"Uncle Steve?" I yelped. How a big guy could move so silently kind of scared me; we hadn't heard him before he said something.
Kevin took it more calmly. "Is this your car, Unk?" he asked, putting a hand on the hood of the big blue sedan.
"Uh huh," said Steve. "Figured you boys would find it sooner or later. Never seen two teenagers so willing to sit on their fat asses and watch the boob tube as you two." He scowled at us. "Took you two days to look inside an unlocked door."
"But you have the pick-up truck parked out front," I said."You keep this one for special occasions?"
"Yup," said Steve. "Very special. This was my Skarabmobile, back in the forties and fifties."
"Wow, it's that old?" I said.
"Skarabmobile?" asked Kevin.
"Uh huh," said Steve. "As in The Mighty Skarab." Then he added in a softer voice, "And Damselfly."
"Who?" I said.
"Thought you kids read up on all the old-timey mystery men and crimefighters? Damsel and I fought street gangs and crimelords like the Scorpion Mob and Ruth Lester. We beat the crap out of them with our fists and feet at first, but later the Insect Lords gave us superpowers."
We stared at him. Uncle Steve was a super?
"Yeah, the Insect Lords," he said as if we had asked him. "They live in another dimension that can be reached sometimes when they need you. Needed me. Us." He looked glum.
"Do you still have your powers?" I asked.
"Insect Lords?" muttered Kevin. "What? Cockroaches?"
Steve glared at Kevin but nodded at me. "I'm old but I just keep getting stronger. I don't even need to wear the ring anymore."
"What can you do?" I asked. "How come I've never heard of The Scarab?"
"Skarab with a 'k'," he said. "When I first picked the name, the newspapers didn't know how to spell it." He smiled. "Josie used to tease me about it."
"Josie?" I said.
"Ring?" Kevin said.
The old man reached into a pocket of his coveralls and came out with a soft-looking leather bag. "Rings," he said. "We each had one." He shook them out onto his palm as we gathered around him. The old man's hands were so large, the rings looked like the toys for little kids that they give away with fast food.
Except they weren't. The bigger ring had a rectangular blue stone set in bright yellow metal. It had a design etched into it, a sort of beetle shape. The smaller ring, also bright gold, had an oval green stone with a narrower, winged insect.
"Cool," Kevin and I said at the same time.
"The Insect Lords say you two are to have these rings," said Steve. He handed the blue-stone ring to Kevin and gave me the one with the green stone. He looked sad when he let go of it.
"What's the matter?" I asked.
"That was Josie's ring," he said. "She doesn't need it any more either."
"These will give us superpowers?" Kevin asked. "You're kidding us, right?"
Steve shook his head. "No, these rings are magic or what passes for magic in this world. They'll give you superpowers like Josie and I had back when we were Mighty Skarab and Damselfly."
Kevin looked at me. "What do you think, Darryl?"
"He's your uncle," I said. "And obviously, insanity runs in your family." Superpowers? Well, who wouldn't want to have superpowers, but magic rings?
"Ho, ho," said Kevin.
"Take the rings, kids," said Steve. "Yes, I'm a crazy old man, humor me." He scowled, a truly frightening thing to see and ice touched my gizzard, or whatever, for a moment.
Kevin took the ring with the square blue stone set in bright yellow metal. "Is this sapphire?" he asked.
Steve shook his head. "They're both beryl, it comes in lots of colors."
The second ring had an oval green stone in the golden setting. "Emerald is a kind of green beryl," I said, taking it. Why I had a memory for such trivia, I didn’t know.
"Wrong kind of green, see this is yellow-green? Emeralds are true green or blue-green." The old man knew something, too.
Kevin slipped his onto the ring finger of his right hand. Amazingly, it fit. "Huh," said Kevin. "Did you have these altered for us?"
The old man sighed. "They're magic rings. They fit whoever wears them." He shook his head like he thought we were too dumb to live. Okay, we were teenagers; it might have been true.
"You feel anything?" I asked Kevin since he had his ring on.
He shook his head. "Should I?" he asked his uncle.
Steve scowled again. He probably practiced looks like that in front of a mirror, in case he needed to scare a supervillain. "Maybe," he said. He looked at me.
Sighing, I slipped the ring onto my own finger. It fit perfectly but I didn't feel any sort of tingle or anything. "It's just a ring," I said.
"It's just a ring," Steve mocked me in a falsetto. "Reach with your other hand and turn it around counterclockwise, 360 degrees. Full circle."
While I hesitated, Kevin did so right away.
The transformation happened immediately. He grew about six inches, put on sixty pounds of muscle and was suddenly wearing a costume — dark blue with freaky magical designs in gold on his arms and legs and across his back and chest. Most of his face was covered, too, and he had two small antenna on his forehead.
The antenna looked stupid, actually.
"Whoa!" said Kevin.
I just stood there goggling at him.
Up until then, we had only sort of believed Uncle Steve that he used to be a superhero named Mighty Skarab. The man was older than some geological formations and smelled like stale wine. Yeah, he was big but kind of fat and his face had creases in it deep enough to lose the TV remote in. Of course, there were those scowls….
"This is bitchin'," said Kevin. Even his voice had changed, a deep, baritone, growly sort of sound. He stared at his arms and hands, flexing them and looking like a dork on steroids. "Is there a mirror where I can see what I look like?"
"Bathroom," said Steve, pointing at a door beside the big map wall.
Kevin lumbered off in that direction. "Holy crap," he said. "I feel like I could wrestle bears or crocodiles."
I couldn't stop staring at him. This was real, these were real magic rings.
"You gonna try your ring?" Steve asked me. "Just turn it around to activate the magic."
I looked at Steve, since Kevin had gone down the hall and I couldn't see him anymore. Something else occurred to me. "He looks just like that Saturday morning cartoon character, The Tick."
"Uh-uh," Steve disagreed. "Wrong way around. The Tick looks like me, Mighty Skarab. My costume had a red belt, though, not the gold doodads."
"You mean Kevin's costume has gold patterns on it. Huh. I'm not going to end up looking like Arthur am I?" I asked, thinking of the Tick's sidekick, a guy in a moth suit.
"Don't think so," said Steve. He didn't sound that sure of it.
Kevin came back. "Hey! I look like The Tick!"
"We were just saying," I commented.
"The Tick is a satire, based on me and a couple of other old guys from the 30s to the 60s," said Steve. "He can't sue you for looking like him. Besides, you've got those yellow patterns all over you. Trademark." He stared off into space for a moment. "Everyone who wears one of the rings has a different costume." He seemed to be remembering.
"Yeah, well. The Tick is sort of stupid," said Kevin, not quite complaining. He reached up and touched one of the antenna on his forehead. "I almost freaked when I saw these. What the hell are the dealie-bobbers for, anyway?"
"Your super-senses, you can hear and see and smell things humans can't," said Steve.
"But they look stupid," Kevin complained.
"Anybody laughs, bust them in the chops," said Steve. "You're super-strong, hard to hurt and faster than any human athlete. I think, if you've got similar powers to the ones I had."
"Oh, no," I said. "Hard to hurt? You mean he's nigh-invulnerable?" I snickered.
"Something like that," agreed Steve. "Like I said, The Tick is based on me. They had a superbook about me in the forties, called me the Blue Beetle." He shrugged. "Same kind of thing. I used to get royalties off it but back in the fifties some lawyers took that away from us costumers, part of the crap went on about the Overman Act."
“The fifties sucked, they taught us that in school,” said Kevin.
The Blue Beetle? I wondered. I knew I'd seen a picture of what the superbooks called the "Golden Age" Blue Beetle. Blue tights and tunic, red belt, boots and visor, I thought I remembered.
Kevin frowned at me, what I could see of his face not covered by the mask. "Let's see your costume," he said. "Twist your ring around."
I must have had a premonition; I didn’t really want to find out what my costume looked like. But I couldn't be afraid of something Kevin had already tried, so I twisted the ring around
I felt something kind of like what a movie ripple effect might feel like, a sort of swirling electric sensation all over. It didn’t hurt, in fact, it left me grinning because it felt kind of good. I shook my head when it stopped and said, “Wow, better than the roller coaster.”
I looked down at my hands, covered in green-and-yellow gloves. Where Kevin's yellow pattern zigged and zagged, mine seemed to just circle my hands and wrists and up my arms. I looked down to see the rest of me and almost screamed. "Oh, crap!" Okay, I did scream.
"Damselfly!" said Kevin, staring at me.
I turned and dashed for the bathroom, feeling my chest and even my butt jiggling as I ran.
I stared into the mirror. A green mask covered most of my face but it wasn't quite my face, was it? Blonde hair came out of the top of the mask, only a bit more than I had before but enough to fall nearly to my shoulders.
The stupid-looking, foot-long, green antenna on my forehead had purple tips to them. I bent one down to look and I felt that!
But they were attached to my mask, not my head, weren't they? I tried to check by putting my hands inside the mask and feeling of my forehead but there didn't seem to be an edge to get my fingers under. It didn't feel like a mask at all, it felt like my own skin.
The rest of my costume felt the same, like skin all over. I had on gloves with yellow rings encircling them and my boots had sort of purple circles around my ankles. I could feel through the gloves like bare skin, and even though I could see I was wearing boots, I couldn't feel them at all.
A green all-in-one covered me from mask to boots, tighter than any spandex. I ran my hands down my sides. My waist felt smaller, hips wider. Strategic holes in the fabric showed pink skin at upper arms, shoulders, hips, thighs, belly, midriff and um, cleavage. It wasn't a lot of cleavage, but I'm a boy, I'm not supposed to have tits.
I said it aloud. "I'm not supposed to have tits!" That came out louder than I meant it to, and I put both hands over my mouth.
I decided to try to cool it. Either that or I would just go nuts and start banging into walls and making loonie noises. The blasted ring had turned me into a girl. I checked the mirror again. I looked effably cute, as in the ef-word.
I checked my crotch. “Oh, crap!” I said. The transformation seemed complete; my groin was flat. I wanted to fall through the floor and disappear.
But Kevin appeared in the hallway outside the bathroom, instead. Or rather, Mighty Skarab Junior, I guess. "Wow!" he said. The dealie-bobbers on his head quivered.
I looked at him. It didn't take a genius to read his expression. "Oh, shut up!" I said. He looked even bigger than before and I realized that I must have shrunk. His muscles had muscles and his costume was just as tight as mine. I couldn't help it; I glanced down at his crotch and wished I hadn't.
I quickly looked back up at his face, located several inches higher than mine now. Before we put on the rings, Kevin and I had both been about five-seven, though he had probably outweighed me by ten pounds or more. Now he topped six feet by a couple of inches, judging from the doorframe, and I had lost an inch or so. Even more than I first thought; I looked down again and noticed that my costume boots had two-inch heels on them.
Kevin still stood there staring at me, his mouth hanging open, his dealie-bobbers stiff and still quivering.
“Shut up!” I said again. His staring made me fell odd, tingly in places I had never noticed having places before.
"I didn't say anything," Kevin protested in his rumbly new voice.
I wondered what I sounded like; my voice didn't seem to have changed, to me, but would I be able to tell? "That look was enough," I said. "Dweeb."
He grinned. "Lambchop," he said. "You're one hot chick, you know? And that costume is like painted on." His obscene antenna moved like they were trying to get a better look, too.
"I didn't...." I started to say but had no way to finish the thought, let alone the sentence. My mind was stuck in neutral. A glance at the mirror showed my own antenna quivering, too. I couldn’t seem to wrap my head around it. Magic rings weren’t supposed to… to… do what this one had done… were they?
And Kevin… Kevin wasn't supposed to look so good I had trouble not staring at him.
"Tell her to come back out here," Uncle Steve said from out in the big room with the car in it.
His calling me 'her' got my mind moving again.
"You crazy old man!" I yelled. I started out there, all right, and ran smack into Kevin who felt solid as a wall. “Get away from me, pervo!” I tried to shove him out of the way but he didn’t move. Instead, he sort of leaned forward and I realized he was going to look down the front of my costume.
I put one hand over the boob window and tried to bust him in the face with the other, but he caught my hand without even looking. “Wow,” he said. He looked me up and down as I struggled with one hand caught in his grip. "You've got legs, too!" he commented.
"I'm going to put foot where it will do the most good if you don't let go of me!" I told him, not wanting to think about how his looking at me made me feel. I pulled and twisted and when I stepped back a step, he let go of me and just stood there grinning like a sitcom character.
I could see Uncle Steve past him, and that distracted me from trying to fight the guy who used to be my best friend. "That blasted magic ring turned me into a girl!" I shouted at the old man.
Uncle Steve said the worst thing possible. "I kind of expected that." He walked up to stand behind Kevin. His wide face with its grizzled jowls might have been wrinkled up in a smile.
"You what?" I yelped. My mouth ended up hanging wide open. The two idiots glanced at each other then both grinned at me. I wanted to smack them with something heavy and maybe radioactive.
"Oh, man, that's cold, Unk," said Kevin. “You knew it would grow tits on Darryl?”
I managed to get past Kevin and stormed into the big room to confront the old man in front of that huge old car. "You better explain that right now!" I demanded. "What do you mean, you expected it to turn me into a girl?"
"It's done that before," he said. His eyes twinkled in their wrinkly old pits.
"What do you mean, it's done that before?" I shrieked. Nothing made any sense, everything he said seemed like something he thought of just to make me crazier. And he was staring at the hole in my costume, too! I crossed my arms on my chest to hide the cleavage.
He looked down at my legs then up and shrugged. "Three or four times." He seemed to think about it. "Every time a boy put on the green ring, except maybe twice." He looked at me. "There was a chance it wouldn't."
"So you decided not to tell me? Just because, it might not make my balls and dick disappear and give me a set of tits!" I knew I was waving my arms around like a lunatic. I wanted to stomp and scream and cry but I managed not to do that.
He shrugged again, and the corner of his mouth quirked up a little. He didn't look like he felt guilty about it at all, but maybe just a little sad.
Kevin seemed to be stifling a laugh. I glanced at him and he shrugged, too, but he didn't say anything. His mouth kind of stretched over a grin; he tried to look away.
Okay, I lost it. "You guys are laughing at me! This is not funny!" I turned around to face Kevin, a quicker movement than any I think I had ever made in my life, and that made me feel my butt jiggle. I uncrossed my arms and grabbed my ass with both hands.
That broke the dam; Kevin guffawed and chortled and snorted through his nose and it was so gawdam funny that Uncle Steve winked at me!
It knew it would probably take a really big gun to hurt that old man, but if I’d had one just then, I would have shot him right between the eyes. I think I called both of them several words I had never said before and they just stood there, the old man smiling and my best friend laughing his head off.
And in the worst of my own yelling, I knew I sounded like my sister when things hadn't been going her way like me hogging the bathroom on one of her date nights. That just made me madder; Tanya can be such a bitch. My voice was higher; I probably sounded just like her.
When I started to repeat myself it occurred to me to try to take the ring off. I pulled and twisted and yanked and cried with frustration. It wouldn't come off, but the jiggling I did while trying entertained Kevin entirely too much.
"You wouldn't want to lose the ring," said Steve, in what he probably thought of as a reasonable voice. "It won't come off while you're in costume."
"How do I get the costume off?" I wailed. I pulled at the edges but it really seemed to be painted on like Kevin had said.
"Twist the ring around again," Kevin suggested.
It seemed logical; I grabbed the ring on my right hand with my left and twisted it again.
"That's right," Steve said but I didn't stop to hear the end of it. "Back the other way," he finished.
The other way? Which was the other way? Too late, I'd already twisted the ring. Something happened; I could tell right away since Kevin's eyes got as big around as saucers and his dealie-bobbers stood up stiff and straight, pointing at the ceiling.
I didn’t feel that ripple effect again, like when the costume replaced my clothes; instead, I felt a draft, even more of a draft than I'd felt before.
I glanced down, fearing the worst.
4. Who's Darla?
My costume had disappeared leaving me standing in front of Kevin completely naked. I think I got a little hysterical then–okay, a little more hysterical. I dodged past him and back into the bathroom with him turning to follow. "Get out of here!" I screamed.
"Okay, okay," he said, backing out of the doorway, running into Steve standing behind him.
I slammed the door and wrapped my arms around my chest to keep my tits from doing things. "Uncle Steve!" I yelled.
"Whoo! Smokin'!" I heard Kevin say on the other side of the door.
"You twisted the ring again?" Steve asked. He didn't sound upset, but maybe a little concerned.
I looked in the mirror. "I'm a naked girl!" Costume, boots and antenna had all disappeared.
"Uh-huh. Just stay calm. You simply turned the ring the wrong way. It's a safety measure."
"What the junk kind of safety measure leaves me standing naked and still a girl? How safe is a naked girl?" I screeched.
"Whoo!" Kevin said again. "I'll protect you, Darla."
"Who the junk is Darla? Don't call me that, you clown-headed pile of monkey poop!"
"I think she's still upset," Kevin said in a deadpan, narrator sort of voice.
Uncle Steve sounded amused. "You should have — never mind."
I noticed something else. "And the ring is gone! Am I stuck like this? Don't tell me I'm stuck like this! How am I going to change back without the ring? I'm a naked pair of tits in here, and just you shut up the snickering, Kevin!"
I could still hear everything. I had barely noticed it before but I had super-hearing apparently. Just from the sounds I could tell where the two of them were standing on the other side of a closed door, the costume disappearing didn't seem to have affected that.
"Calm down," Uncle Steve said from about six feet away from the door. "Sometimes you wouldn't want someone to find out you were wearing the ring, so it disappears, too. For an hour or so. Depends on the situation."
"Huh?" I said. Somehow, I felt as if I had lost a lot of edge in the conversation. It's hard to aggressively yell at someone while you're standing naked in a bathroom holding the tits you shouldn’t have so they don’t make you crazy jiggling. "So I can change back?"
"Should be able to. When the ring appears again, just twist it clockwise, twice, all the way around. That's the real you setting. And any clothes you put on now, you'll be wearing the next time you use the safety position."
"Assume the safety position," Kevin said in a school-loudspeaker voice. "Like if you needed to use the bathroom, I don't think that costume comes off."
"Oh, shut up," I said through the door. "Go get some of my clothes from the house," I told him.
"Uh, Darla," Kevin said. "They're not going to fit you. You're like five-foot nothing and maybe ninety pounds."
If I were that short, I'd be smaller than Tanya. And wouldn't my sister get a laugh to hear me called 'Darla,' a name she had sometimes used when she really wanted to annoy me.
"Don't call me that! That stuff will fit well enough! I can't stay in here naked for however long it takes for this stupid magic ring to decide to re-appear! Get me some clothes to wear!"
"You heard the lady," said Kevin.
"There is a closet in the bathroom," said Steve. "Whatever you do, don't put on any of the clothes in there."
"Huh?" I said. I looked around and spotted the cabinet doors, like old-fashioned closets that had an upper part for shirts and things and drawers beneath for socks and underwear.
"Those clothes are very old," said Steve. "Completely out of style. You would be a fashion disaster looking for a place to happen."
“Har, har,” I said. I opened the cabinet door and looked in. I needed a step stool or something to reach anything.
"I'm telling you, don't wear those clothes," said Steve. His voice still had the flat intonation of a cartoon character trying to trick someone.
I could hear Kevin snorting and snuffling, making sure not to laugh. It sounded like he had a hand over his own mouth.
"Don't think I don't know what you're doing, Uncle Steve," I said. There actually was a step stool in the bathroom, under the sink. I pulled it out and put it in front of the cabinet door, avoiding looking in the mirror at my nakedness.
"There's a little black dress in there that would fit you perfectly," said Uncle Steve. "It's made of silk and feels like a million dollars, I'm told. It won't fit me so I'll never know."
"Jebus!" I sort of swore. "Reverse psychology won't work if I know about it!" I climbed up the two little steps and peered in. One side of the closet held huge, oversize shirts and pants folded across hangers. The other side, the larger half of the closet had colorful slacks, tops and yes, a little black dress. "Silk, huh?" I said.
What would it feel like to wear a dress? I knew I wasn't going to wear it – not ever! – but I did wonder for a moment.
Kevin had to put his two cents in. "Don't do it, Darla! Don't go over to the Dark Side of the closet!"
"Screw you, two-all-beef-patties-between-the-ears!" I said. I pulled out a pair of slacks, green, and the plainest top I could find there, an unfortunate shade of pink, but the colors seemed to go together. The other choices were frilly, or lacy, or both, or the gawdam dress.
Actually, there were two other dresses in the closet, too, one in green and one in a sort of hot pink. There were skirts, too, but I had settled on the slacks. I knew I would feel less like a perv wearing slacks.
My choices didn't seem particularly old or out of style, but I didn't know a lot about girl's fashion. How much style do simple pants and a t-shirt have, anyway?
Once I got them out of the closet, though, I realized they weren't as plain as I had thought. The slacks were medium green but the stitches were dark purple and the waist-band and cuffs had purple lace. The t-shirt was a pink color like a lighter version of the purple, and the shirt cuffs had little green and yellow bows. But… if I wore something, anything, at least I wouldn't be naked.
"There's underwear in the second drawer," said Uncle Steve.
"Thank you, Dr. Fraud." I gave it my best Tanya-style vocal sneer.
I climbed off the step stool, pulled the drawer open and found panties and bras. Bras. I probably needed a bra to stop the juggling act on my chest but dog-fetch-a-frisbee if I was going to wear one. The panties came in colors and some had lace and some didn't. I couldn’t go without underwear – I just couldn't! – but the idea of wearing girl’s panties really made me feel… creepy, I guess is the word.
I stopped for a moment to try to think about what I was doing. “I’m going to put these clothes on so I can go inside the house and get some of my own clothes to wear,” I thought.
It sounded good, and it was either that or break the mirror and try to slit my wrists. Not seriously, I wasn't despondent, thinking of suicide was just hyperbole, but I was mightily annoyed, put out, stressed, stretched and generally pissed off. I would have been angrier still, but I had somehow got the idea that anything I needed to do, I could do. Maybe the invisible ring gave confidence, too.
I tossed my head, annoyed, and pushed my longer hair behind my ears, gestures I had seen Tanya do a thousand times. "Get on with it, Darryl," I said aloud.
I got on with it. Picking a non-lacy pair of panties in pale green from the drawer made me cringe. “Crap!” I said. Maybe I would go without underwear. I looked at the slacks; they weren’t that girlie, other than not having pockets or belt loops or anything and the lace and… jeebus!
I guess I’m just too conventional, though, I couldn’t go without underwear. I pulled the green panties out and put them on, trying not to think about how they felt, sliding up my legs, cool and soft and smooth. The dang things fit, more or less, and that was a terrible, terrible thought.
Standing there, naked except for the panties for a minute or two, I half expected some god of masculinity to strike me dead for what I was doing. It didn’t happen, and I wasn’t sure if I felt relieved or disappointed.
I couldn’t hear Steve and Kevin outside the bathroom door anymore; they seemed to have moved away where they could discuss something without me hearing them. Maybe if I still had my antenna I could hear them, greater super-senses or whatever, but I didn't even try. Probably plotting how to get me to wear make-up, the jerks.
I put the slacks on; they barely reached below my knees. Not slacks then, some kind of capris or pushovers or whatever the heck they were called. The top I pulled over my head; it was basically a t-shirt but had puffy, short sleeves cut on an angle and little ribbons tied in bows on the shoulder seams and right in front of the neck. It also ended an inch above my navel, with a bit of lace that matched the top of the slacks.
And this was the plainest, least over-the-top-feminine shirt in the closet. I closed my eyes and tried to make the girliness go away, but it wouldn’t. At least it didn’t have a hole designed to show off my chest.
Facing a wall for a few minutes, trying to breathe normal and stop grinding my teeth, I knew if I didn’t move much the way my body felt didn’t make me nuts. Finally, I thought I could stand it for an hour or so, if Unk was telling the truth about the ring letting me change back.
I looked in the mirror over the sink. Someone who looked a lot like my sister had five or six years ago looked back at me.
5. Family Business
"This sucks so bad," I said out loud. I ran fingers through my hair to keep it away from my face and turned to open the bathroom door. "Shoes," I said suddenly, before I touched the door. The walk to the house was partly on gravel and partly across a yard that must have once been home-on-the-range to a herd of incontinent chickens.
I turned back to the closet and found two pairs of shoes that might fit me under the hanging clothes. One pair was high-heeled boots so forget them.
The other pair I didn't even recognize as shoes at first, they were some sort of ballet slippers or something, kind of rolled up like socks. I unrolled them and pulled them on. They fit well enough, too, and were some dark green color and not pink or purple. I felt grateful for that small thing.
I paused again to check the mirror. I looked sort of like Tanya and sort of like me and mostly like my mom, I decided. I kept my cool by rolling my eyes at my reflection and then went to open the door again, expecting the guys to be standing there waiting for me to come out.
But no, they had the hood up on that old car and were talking about cubic replacement and compressed rations or some such. "Hey!" I said.
Kevin looked up, "Oh, hey," he said. "You look nice."
I think I blushed. I know I scowled at him; he’d probably said that deliberately.
"Or not, if you prefer. Whatever makes you happy, Darla." He shrugged. So maybe he was just being clueless. I could have believed that except for him calling me 'Darla.'
I got around to noticing then that Kevin had changed back, wearing his jeans and polo shirt again instead of the blue-and-yellow spandex he'd had on as Skarab 2.0. He didn't have the muscles or height anymore, either. Good, I decided. Then I thought that he must have turned the ring back around the right way and I frowned again.
"This thing has an x-mounted twelve-cylinder airplane engine in it!" Kevin said, gesturing toward the machinery. "It's based on a '46 Packard that came with one of those old-style straight eights in it, so there's plenty of room under the hood for a modern, bigger engine!"
"What-ever." I didn't know how to act. Ordinarily, I'd be over peering into the engine compartment, too. Not that I knew or cared anything about mechanics, Kevin was always the gearhead but it would be a guy thing. It just didn't feel right for me to be doing what they were doing, though. And I might get grease on me or something.
"Crap," I said aloud, wondering if the ring had messed with my head as well as my body. I unclenched my jaw carefully so I could stop grinding my teeth. I never had liked getting greasy, but still….
Uncle Steve glanced up and caught my eye with another Sunderman shrug, reminding me that he and Kevin really were related. "Told you not to wear those clothes," he said. He started closing the hood while he spoke.
"Why? What's going to happen if I wear these clothes? You guys were right, my old ones won't fit me now." I waved a hand above my head, "Look at me, I'm flippin' Shrimpy McBarbie.” I tried to lay the sarcasm on but it almost sounded ditzy or something. “These fit and they're not too girly," I ended up saying; something I kept trying to tell myself.
Kevin snickered, the rat.
"Well, you're likely to start getting comfortable dressing as a girl and want to keep doing it when you change back," said Uncle Steve with a completely straight face.
"Oh, bull puckey," I said. The old man was teasing me, and I didn’t know how to take it. I didn’t like it at all but what was I supposed to do? Run at him screaming like a kamikaze cheerleader? The man was mountainous. I looked away.
Kevin was grinning like a trained monkey running for county supervisor, probably imagining how ridiculous the male me would look in the outfit I had on. I checked the lace edge of the top, to be sure it hadn't rode up or something. Kevin's eyes followed my hands and I quickly put them behind me.
He lifted his gaze a bit and commented, "No bra, huh?" I almost went back into the bathroom to put one on because I knew he could see the little bumps in the front of my shirt. That hadn't occurred to me before.
"This what you guys were doing while I was in there? Looking at the car?" Well, obviously, I don't even know why I asked except to distract Kevin from looking at my chest.
"Yeah," he said, drawling it out. "We didn't know how long it would take you to get dressed, being a girl now and all."
"Oh, truck you over a boulder, Kevin," I said.
"Girls pretending to talk dirty always makes me hot," said Kevin. "How about you, Unk?"
I swear the old man nodded. I decided I'd have to watch the language because I knew Kevin wasn't kidding; he'd said that before, it just didn't apply to me back then. I opened my mouth and my jaw popped because I had been grinding my teeth again.
"Uncle Steve says we can take the car out for a drive later. It can really move, but it needs a big engine 'cause it's armored." Kevin grinned at me, all kid-with-a-new-toy.
"Well, I'm not leaving here until I'm back to being me," I said. "And when I can change back, I'm taking that ring off and you can just find another dimwit to wear it."
Steve shook his head. "You shouldn't say that."
"What? Why not?"
"The ring won't like it."
"You...? What? It's listening?" I looked down at the hand where the invisible ring might be.
He nodded. "It's magic. And part of its magic is finding someone to wear it and do the job it was made for."
"Huh? What—what job is that?" I didn't like this at all.
"Protecting people, fighting evil, making the world safe for innocence and babies and all that."
"You've got to be kidding me!" I felt my voice climb into the squeaky range Tanya used when she had to do something she didn't want to do. I tried to get it back under control. "You... that... that sounds like a curse."
He shrugged and Kevin shrugged at the same time. "Somebody's got to do it," said my ex-buddy.
"It's not fair," I said. "You get all big and buff and I turn into a girl? That's just not fair!" Stupid, but I was crying again.
Kevin looked at me. "If I come over and pat you on the back and tell you it's going to be fine, you'll slug me, won't you?"
I nodded. "Bet on it, Jack," I said. I ran back into the bathroom for some tissue. After blowing my nose and wiping my eyes, I checked the mirror again. Oh, crap, I was pouting. I hated when Tanya did that.
After I got my crying back under control, I went out to the big room again, anything instead of facing that mirror. My skin looked all blotchy and I hated that, too, but I couldn't do anything about it.
This time the boys were looking at that old map, plotting out a late afternoon drive apparently. Obviously, neither of them cared at all that I had gotten the short end of the stick. They still had their equipment and they were happy about that.
I walked over and stood beside them while they talked about switchbacks in the mountains and turnouts on the cliffs above the town. They didn't do much more than glance at me, not even asking me what I thought about their plans. I caught Kevin looking at my chest and considered slugging him again now that he wasn’t Mr. Beetle.
He just grinned.
Uncle Steve finally turned to me and asked, "You still planning on defying the destiny the ring chose for you and not being Damselfly when Skarab needs you?"
I frowned, biting my lip to keep from pouting. Like I would go through this again, voluntarily?
"How often would she have to show up?" Kevin asked.
Unk shrugged. "Depends. Most of the other Damselflys did it nearly every night, at least until they got pregnant."
"Pregnant?" I sputtered the word. "Who's talking about getting pregnant, just what do you think is going to be going on at night?"
"Fighting crime," said Kevin. "At least, that's what I thought. Are we expected to do any extra-curricular hanky-panky, Unk?"
The old man shrugged. "Up to you two. 'Course, you're awfully young to be starting a family."
"I don't believe this conversation! There's going to be no hanky in this panky, buster!" I glared at Kevin.
"I think Unk is just winding us up, Darla," he said. "Look, I know who you really are, and you're cute now and all, but I've seen you play the armpit polka and that just isn't the sort of talent I look for in a date."
I snorted. The old man's eyes sort of twinkled under his brows; they were bushy enough to make me think of taking a weed whacker to him and not just because that sounded like a good idea on general principles.
Kevin laughed. If it wasn't so serious and so me, yeah, it was kind of funny but I didn’t feel like laughing.
Steve looked right at me, and I could tell he wasn't teasing now. "Skarab needs his Damselfly."
"But why me?" I whimpered.
"Where do you think those clothes came from?" he asked. "They belonged to the last Damselfly; that's why I knew they would fit well enough."
"What happened to her? Who was she?"
"Your grandmother, Katrinka; she's gone. I'll tell you sometime how it happened." He looked sad. "It's a family business, kids. So it's got to be you two. And Darryl, your mom and your sister already turned it down; Damselfly has to be you."
6. When Is a Damsel?
"They turned it down?" I yelped. "Why did they get to refuse and I don't?"
Steve looked uncomfortable.
"Doesn't seem fair, Unk," put in Kevin. "It really doesn't."
"Well, it isn't fair," Steve admitted. "I guess I should have said, not that they turned it down but that they washed out. Couldn't deal with the training, couldn't stand the idea of hurting people…."
I stared at him. "I don't want to hurt anyone either, not anybody. Except you."
Steve and Kevin both grinned at me, I don't know why. So I stepped up to the big guy and slapped him in the face. As hard as I could. He didn't wince or flinch or even dodge. I tried punching him in the gut, but it was like hitting one of the padded practice boards in karate class.
When I moved to put a knee in his crotch, he stepped back and held up a hand to keep me at a distance. "That's enough," he said.
"Oh, sure," I said, holding back tears. "You can dish it out but you can't take it, old man." I don't think I had ever been so angry in my life. And being that angry hurt.
"I'm sorry, Darryl," he said. "I should have explained it all to begin with. But I was afraid you would not even try if I hit you with too much at once. And I really didn't expect the ring to trap you."
I didn't want to let him off that easy but I wasn't sure what to say. We just stared at each other for half a minute or so. "You said this had happened before?" I finally asked him. "I want to know more about what's going on. You said this was family business earlier and… and that I'm related to the other Damselflys. I want to know how. And I want to know now, at least some of it."
I crossed my arms which meant that I was more aware of my chest than usual but I ignored that, trying to look firm. Kevin winked at me and I felt my heart sink a bit. It's hard to be firm when you know how cute you look.
He nodded. "Maybe the first thing I ought to do is tell you who we are…."
I frowned at him. "Who we are? I'm Darryl William Breslaw, or I was until a few minutes ago."
Kevin piped in, "And I'm Kevin Sunderman Lockyear, and you're my mom's uncle, Steve Sunderman."
"Steven Cyrus Sunderman," said the old man. "Though some of my old records have my middle name as Cyril."
"Fascinating," I said.
"You know that I'm not actually Kevin's uncle? I'm Kevin's mother's great-uncle. My younger brother, David, was Marlette's grandfather. David Sunderman. Originally, Xanderov when our father came over in the 1890s; Kiril Xanderov, from Bulgarian Macedonia but was part of Turkey then. He changed it to Sunderman and gave us English names to fit in better."" he went on. "So, I'm your great-great-uncle."
"Like I said," I noted again. "But you're not my uncle."
"No," he agreed. He looked off in the distance for a moment. "I visited my dad's old village thirty or forty years ago. Dirt poor farmers and miners the people were when Dad left, and when I went there and they probably still are."
Kevin and I kept quiet for a moment while he stared at the floor. I tried not to feel bad for having slapped him; it seemed stupid now.
He started talking again. "I…. Do you remember your grandmother Katrinka, Darryl?"
I shook my head. "Not really," I said. "She went away before I started school."
"She was my grand-daughter," he said. "Her mother was Laura, Josie's daughter."
I stared at him. "I remember you now," I said in a small voice. "You… you visited us once…. Mom and Tanya called you Gumpy."
He laughed with genuine enjoyment. "Easier to say than great-grampa or even great-great-grampa." Still smiling, he said, "You can call me that, too, if you want."
"Then I guess I should call you 'Gunky,'," said Kevin, grinning. "How about that, we're cousins, Darla."
"Don't call me that! And we're just barely related, third cousins or something. Who's Josie?"
He looked sad. "The first Damselfly. My partner and my wife…. She died. Laura was our daughter; she married a Russian named Anton Breslaw. Katrinka was their daughter, she was Damselfly, too."
"Crap," I said. I knew my mom and her mom had kept the Breslaw name, but no one had told me about Damselfly. Mom and Aunt Marlette, Kevin's mom – not really my aunt but I guess my cousin, too – had gone off somewhere leaving Kevin and me with Uncle Steve for spring vacation.
Knowing the family story, why had they done that, leaving us with this crazy old man? Did they know what would happen? They must have had some idea. My sister, Tanya, had married Kevin's brother Mike, and they had moved up to somewhere near San Francisco. They must have known all this too, but nobody told me anything.
I glared at Gumpy again.
The crazy old man looked very bleak. "Laura and Katrinka are gone; I don't think they're dead, but it's complicated. David and Anton both wore my Skarab ring for a while each; they're both dead. Besides family, there's been at least one other Skarab and one other Damselfly that I know of, and both of them died."
I had a sinking feeling and I guess it showed on my face.
"That's… a lot of dead people," said Kevin, looking at me with probably the same expression.
Steve, my Gumpy, nodded. "It's been a long time; I was born in 1916."
"Holy crap," said Kevin. "You're almost a hundred years old." That thought shut him up, and Steve and I stayed silent, too, for a bit.
We had sort of wandered out of the door of the garage/barn thing where the old car sat. Kevin looked at the hills surrounding the old farm while Gumpy just stood there, like the ruined statue of some old time warrior. Pigeon shit would have completed the picture, and I turned away so as not to look at him.
I didn't want anyone to see me, dressed like I was, but there was no chance anyone would, I realized. The nearest neighbor must have been half a mile away on the other side of a ridge, and the house blocked the view from the road. I folded my arms under my boobs again and practiced a good Tanya-style pout. I wanted to stay mad but I knew I was losing my edge.
Kevin picked up a rock and threw it at some trees down beyond a sort of gully. It made a noise like a bullet ricocheting before disappearing high in the sky. He and I just looked at each other for a moment, and he said the F-word, silently.
I shook my head and glared at 'Gumpy.' "What's all that stuff you've been talking about got to do with this?" I gestured at my body and what I was wearing.
"My wife, Josie…." Steve began. "Josie was born Joseph Willough."
He had a tear in his eye. "She… he discovered that I was the Skarab, and I gave him the green ring. The first few times he used it… it, uh, he became a sort of junior version of me."
"Oh, please, a boy sidekick? This was in the forties, right?" I said. Being a boy sidekick had once seemed like a pretty cool thing to me, and I would certainly settle for that as opposed to what had actually happened. And it had apparently happened to… to my great, great grandmother, too?
"What did you call him?" asked Kevin. A pretty inane question, I thought.
"Well, in costume, I called him Jack but the dimes and superbooks called him Beetleboy," said Steve with a fond look.
Kevin snorted then looked a bit concerned. He glanced at the hand where he wore the blue ring, and I smirked at him. Let him worry about turning into a girl for a bit.
Gumpy went on. "And we both developed some new powers, two rings working together are more powerful than one."
"Where did the rings come from in the first place?" I asked.
"I found the blue one, in Egypt, when I was in college on a field trip. I should have reported finding it; we were on an archaeological… 'dig' they call them now. We said 'excavation' back then. Digs were for dinosaurs…." He seemed prepared to go off on a tangent.
"But you didn't report it?" I asked.
"'My precious!'" Kevin quoted, hunching over and rubbing the ring.
"Shut up!" I told him.
"I didn't," said Steve. "I couldn't tell anyone about it. I tried – several times." He shook his head. "Things happened. We ended up back in the States, and I still had the ring. By this time, I had figured out that wearing it made me stronger. Mystery Men were a thing then…."
He looked up at us. "The newspapers were full of their stories. Crimefighters, adventurers, some of them villains and some might as well have been. Challenger was one of the first, back before World War I but others began to appear later, after the war. By the thirties, they were all over the place: Minuteman in Boston, Spectral in New York, Hoodwink, there, too. Stuntman in Los Angeles, Bellringer in Philadelphia."
He sighed. "I was going to college in Chicago; it was the Depression, lots of crime; booze had been made legal again, and the gangs were looking for new ways to make money. I had the ring; it made me strong and quick and I healed fast when I got hurt…."
He trailed off for a moment and waved a hand. "Not important right now. I started running around town in a blue suit with a snappy fedora and calling myself Skarab. The superbooks spelled it with a 'k' and I kind of liked that so I've always kept it that way." He smiles a very small smile. "I busted some heads of some gangs who had tried to claim the college as part of their territory and I felt pretty good. It was fun."
He glanced at the sky."This was about the time the Comet Prometheus appeared. The world was about to get even stranger."
"We studied the comet in school," said Kevin. "It's actually a gray dwarf star."
"Which is another way of saying no one knows what it is," I said. "Lots of people think it gives off radiations that cause supers and metanormal phenomenon." I did know something about this, and it fascinated me but I kept my attention on what Gumpy was talking about.
Steve nodded. "Makes physicists and astronomers crazy, it's like quantum macro-reality one of them said, whatever that means."
He went back to his story, "The Spanish Civil War started. In 1938, stories came out about a Red Cross ambulance driver who used blue light to stop bullets and bombs."
"The Protector," said Kevin. "The first documented metahuman."
"At least, the first one to get big press," I said.
"That's right," said Gumpy. "Shortly after that, I went back to Egypt with my archaeology professor as a grad student. The war began, and I went to the US consulate in Egypt and enlisted in the Army – even though we Americans weren't in the fight yet."
"Why did you do that?" I asked.
"Seemed like the right thing to do. And I was feeling guilty," he said. "I'd stolen something before… and I stole something again. A green ring I found in a box being sent to the British museum. It seemed like a match for the blue one I had been wearing for years. I wanted to get away from my professors before they figured out what I had done."
"Wow," I said. "You stole it, too?" I looked down at my hand that supposedly still wore the now invisible ring.
He nodded. "It seemed like the right thing to do at the time," he repeated.
7. War Stories
We were back in the garage, standing near the big old car with the airplane motor under the hood that Kevin had just closed carefully as if it were a museum case. We decided to head back to the house, but before that happened we had an argument.
It started out with me asking, "What happened to Joe, Jack, Beetle Boy? How…?"
Steve polished an imaginary speck off the fender of the car, looked at me and sighed. "How did he become your great-great-grandmother?"
I swallowed and it was hard to speak, so I just nodded.
"At first it was kind of slow, I guess," he said. "I didn't notice but…. Josie, Joe, wanted it to happen, wanted to be…. A girl, not a boy. And she, he, had a magic ring, so…. Well, she later told me that every night she made a wish on the ring, she wished she could be a girl."
"Well, okay for her!" I said. "But I didn't make any such wish!"
Gumpy just nodded, looking sympathetic, or trying to. "Josie got her wish but like I said, it happened slowly…." He trailed off looking off down into some lonesome personal memories from his expression.
I didn't want him to not tell the whole story. "Who was she, he? How did you guys meet?" I asked.
He told a little more. "When Joe and I met, in Egypt, his parents had been killed. English mother, American father, diplomatic corps with a side of espionage. This was just after I volunteered at the embassy and got signed up with Military Intelligence."
I nodded; he'd mentioned that before.
"Joe needed someone to look after him; he was just a little guy, thirteen years old and not five-foot-tall. I ended up being volunteered for the job by my commander. Uh, I had told them what I could do but not how I did it. They wanted me for counter-espionage stateside, so accompanying an American national minor looked like a good cover."
Kevin and I exchanged glances. This was a complicated story, and Steve wasn't telling everything, but I kept quiet because he was still talking at least.
"While we were in England, there was some trouble and I ended up using the Skarab identity to clear it up but Joe figured out who I was and how I did it." Steve grinned ruefully. "Clever little snot. It didn't go over well with the brass that suddenly Joe knew about our operations but there didn't seem to be much they could do about it. So we went ahead with the plan…."
"Plan?" I said to prompt him.
"To take Joe home to the States and for me to work counter-intelligence. We got stateside, and it turns out Joe's US relations were shitheads, and I wouldn't leave him with them. Drunks, con-artists, some of them in jail and none of them with what you could call a home."
Steve smiled sadly. "I just decided that I would keep him with me or with my own folks. And the brass let it happen because they couldn't think of a solution except some foster family. They tried that but Joe ran away and found me again."
He grinned. "And Joe knew too much to be forced into that when he wasn't willing. I had not quite seven years on him. David was five years younger than me so I thought of Joe as another little brother. For a long time, at least. He stayed with my parents and David for awhile but when I moved to Milwaukee on orders, he came with me."
He looked around at us as if surprised we were still there. "He insisted on it. I didn't know it but Joe had a crush on me. "
"We figured that out," said Kevin, and I nodded.
"Yeah, well. Joe sort of blackmailed me into giving him the green ring and we partnered up in the style of those times. Lots of adventurers and mystery men had teenage partners. I thought I knew what was going on until people started asking me, when Joe and I were out around town as Steve and Joe; people would ask me, 'Why does your niece dress like a boy?'"
Kevin laughed, and I glared at him. Then I glared at Gumpy on general principles.
"We battled mostly ordinary crime but sometimes the M.I. types had counter-espionage work for us to do. Usually sad little wannabe Nazis or other homegrown fascists. We got kind of famous, locally, because Milwaukee didn't have any other Mystery Men. At least, not ones that were on the side of the cops." He grinned and so did Kevin.
"When the war started in '42, I tried to get activated to go overseas but the War Department didn't want me clogging up their operations. They were already having trouble with maverick supers who wouldn't follow orders. We kept doing what we had been doing and got involved in fighting the Ruth Lester crime syndicate all over the Midwest."
"Joe to Josie?" I prompted. Ruth's daughter, Carol, still controlled a lot of crime in Illinois and Wisconsin, I knew from reading the superslicks; a tangent about her operations could last hours.
"One night…. Early 1943, we had figured out how to… to… use the extra dimensions in the rings to store costume changes. And one night, when Joe twisted the ring, he didn't become Beetle Boy. He… she… She was obviously a girl wearing a girl's costume."
"She tricked you," I said.
"Doofus," agreed Kevin.
Gumpy nodded, smiling a little still. "She was a minx. She had it all figured out. Army Intelligence would give her a new identity and when she turned seventeen, we would get married. Pretty much worked out that way, too."
Once again, I had the impression that Steve was leaving a lot out. "You said something earlier about three or four other boys who got turned into girls by wearing the ring. Who were they?"
"I did?" He looked blank then glanced at Kevin. "David wore the green ring a couple of times, no problem. And Mike wore the green ring once, became Beetle Boy but then he gave it to Tanya, and I gave him the blue one. The green one didn't change him, obviously, but that whole thing didn't work out…." He trailed off, thinking about something.
"Quit stalling!" I insisted.
He sighed. "Some memories are painful, honey." He stared at me. "You look so much like her…."
My turn to look uncomfortable. "This has something to do with how she died?"
Kevin piped up. "You don't have to tell us right now, Unk…"
I interrupted, "But I want to know!"
Steve grinned a little ruefully. "You're like her in more than looks. Okay. But let's go up to the house first. And you'd better bring those clothes from the bathroom with you, so you'll have something to wear later."
That's when it turned into an argument. I couldn't tell if he was serious about it. "I'm just wearing these while I'm a girl, when I change back, I won't need them," I said.
"But you don't know how long it's going to take before the ring will let you change back."
"What? A few hours? Isn't that what you said?" I protested. I didn't like the implication.
Steve sighed. "Honey, it might be days or even longer. As long as you're being stubborn about not wanting to be Damselfly.… This is a magical protective entity you're dealing with; it doesn't operate by logic or reasonableness. It's going to get your co-operation one way or another. It's forced mine, more than once."
I looked down at myself, at the bulges in the pink top I was wearing. I sighed. "I don't want to take the clothes," I said. "I don't want to wear girl clothes, as soon as I get to the house, I'm going to put on some of my own stuff."
"It's not going to fit very well," Kevin pointed out. "You're kind of teensy now."
He would have to point that out. "I don't care. I don't like wearing this stuff, it makes me feel creepy." Actually, it had stopped feeling creepy almost immediately–and that creeped me out in an entirely other way.
"There may be times you'll need female clothes. Being Damselfly may not always involve being in costume," Uncle Steve said. "Bring the clothes."
I made a face and Kevin snickered. "I'll get them for you, Darla," he offered. "That way you won't have to admit you're giving in."
"Oh, fine then," I said, not happy about it. And him calling me Darla was just dog-do on my cupcake. I suspected that I might be pouting, but I tried hard not to think of it that way.
Steve and Kevin looked at one another, nodded, then shrugged, and Kevin went to the bathroom in the barn to get the clothes. "There are paper grocery sacks in the bottom drawer, use a couple of those to bring her underwear and shoes along, too," Steve told him.
"They're not mine," I muttered but they pretended to ignore me.
"Ooo," said Kevin, apparently already looking in the top drawer at the bras and panties. "Lingerie. Are you wearing a cute pair of panties, Darla?"
I was; a person has to wear underwear, but now I pretended to ignore him. "I thought you said that if I agreed to be Damselfly when needed that the ring would let me change back," I asked Steve.
The old man nodded. "Sure, when it's convinced that you are going to keep that promise. Tell the truth now, if everything went back to where it was, would you even think about putting the ring back on?"
He had me there. I sighed. "But Gumpy, it turned me into a girl. I don't want to be a girl."
"You sure sound like a girl," Kevin commented from the bathroom. “I'm just saying.”
"I do not sound like a girl," I said. I had been trying hard not to. "Do I?"
I could tell Uncle Steve was having a hard time not smiling. "Um, well, yes, you do. The pitch of your voice went up a bit.... But it's not just that, I think the ring is nudging your emotions, just enough that you're reacting... differently than the boy you used to be would have."
"This is just so not fair," I said. I knew I wanted to cry, but that would be just too girly, so I tried to get mad instead. "This is all your fault, Gumpy. What did you give us those rings for if you knew mine would probably turn me into a girl?"
"The world needs Skarab and Skarab needs Damselfly," he said.
"Oh, like there aren't enough supers around? L.A. is crawling with mutants and cyborgs, aliens and overmen and yes, a few magical crusaders already. They've got a fifty-story tower full of Protectors in Hollywood. Why does the world need me to give up being a guy?"
He shrugged. I was beginning to hate seeing him do that. "I don't know, but I know that it does." He made it sound final in his deep rumbly bass. I turned my face turned away so he wouldn't see me cry.