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Butterflies are the Gentlest
February 16, 20--
Please, please, write back as soon as you get this and tell me you're okay. Your email address keeps bouncing and when I call you I alternate between busy signals and "mailbox full" messages. But the folks at the post office say they're pretty sure they can still deliver letters, though delivery is going to be slower than it was before all this craziness started... I'm going to make three copies of this letter and mail them at different post offices; I hope you get at least once of them. I'm at Robert's apartment, the address above. We cancelled the honeymoon trip because of all the flights being grounded and the general chaos.
We were so bummed when you told me you wouldn't have enough vacation time to come to the wedding, and I almost thought about postponing it so you could come, even though the church was already reserved and the invitations were already at the printer. But it's a good thing you weren't there, really. At least I hope so. Please write and tell me things are better where you are. All the guests who came to Athens for the wedding are wishing they'd found a good reason not to come, and the local folks are wishing they'd had some reason to be in Atlanta or Augusta or somewhere that day instead. I hear on CNN that things are weird all over, and terrible in a lot of places, but I haven't heard anything about Bowling Green; tell me what's happening there? Athens (actually Clarke County and I think about six other counties mostly to our northeast) is one of the worst areas in Georgia for suicides -- when I went back to work every bed in the place was full, with over forty people admitted in the last twelve hours with various injuries caused by unsuccessful suicide attempts, and St. Mary's is full of them too, I hear; plus a similar number of accident victims as anywhere else. I'll explain why in a minute. It's probably best to take things in order; I'm getting ahead of myself.
The wedding was almost over when it happened. Whatever 'it' is; we're starting to figure out what but we still don't know how or why. The preacher was asking Robert one of the last questions and he suddenly faltered and looked pale. Just then I felt horribly queasy and nauseous for a second, not long enough to throw up, and then it got better but I still felt bad. Weird, mostly in my belly but kind of all over. And I glanced from the preacher to Robert and I saw he was looking bad too. For half a second I thought he was having second thoughts and was about to yell "No, actually, I don't!" and walk out, but then I thought, it's probably the rehearsal dinner. We all got food poisoning and it's hitting us all now at the worst possible time. Al, Robert's best man, was looking kind of queasy too, and so were the other groomsmen and little Tim, who was our ringbearer. (He's already nine, can you believe it? He was, what, only six when you saw him last, right? Anyway, nine is old enough to know better than to do what he did a few moments later -- but I'm getting ahead of myself.)
So the preacher said "...to have and to hold, from this day... um..." and then he stopped. It seemed like forever before he spoke up again, but I guess it was only a few seconds. Then "from this day forward, till death do you part?"
Robert was feeling weird too, we all were, and he could tell I wasn't feeling well too. He told me later that I looked like I was about to pass out, and the bridesmaids didn't look much healthier. He whispered to me, "Do you feel okay? Should we find a doctor now and finish this later?"
"I'm okay," I whispered back. "Let's get this thing done!"
Then he said aloud "I do," and the preacher asked me the question, and I answered it, and somehow we muddled through the last few minutes of the service without any of us passing out or throwing up, although I think a few people in the congregation did. The organist missed his cue by a few seconds and hit a few wrong notes, but didn't do too badly considering the way he must have been feeling. I was pretty annoyed when I saw that Tim had his right hand down the front of his pants, scratching his crotch in front of everybody, but I didn't know what the look on his face meant until later.
As soon as we left the sanctuary Robert said he had to go to the restroom. I said I did too, and we kissed and went off in different directions -- the closest restrooms were on either side of the vestibule. Liza followed me into the restroom half a minute later, and then Paula and the other bridesmaids, with Heidi dragging Tina by the hand and Tina saying she didn't have to go -- she's Robert's niece, and our flower girl.
I was looking at myself in the mirror and splashing my face with water and so forth, trying to figure out what was wrong. The weird feeling was fading, but really slowly. I still have traces of it now, two days later.
Liza and I talked about what was going on. She was feeling pretty much the same way I was, and had felt the same momentary nausea just when Robert and I were getting to our vows -- and then it turned out all the bridesmaids had felt it too, and even Tina, though for her it wasn't as bad.
While several of us were talking Paula had gone into a stall to pee. When she came out she cleared her throat to get our attention and said, matter-of-factly, "It looks like my clit is gone."
Well, within a few minutes all of us had checked ourselves and found the same thing, or rather, the same nothing. We talked about what had happened for another minute or two, but got nowhere, and decided we'd better go to the reception. Robert was standing in the vestibule just outside the ladies' room waiting for me. Someone was talking to him, one of his uncles I think, and he excused himself and came over to talk to me.
"Honey," he said in a low voice, "I've got some bad news. Something really weird."
"Me too," I said. "You first."
"This..." he held out his wedding ring, and I saw then that he wasn't wearing it. "We're going to have to get it annulled. Non-consummation, I reckon."
"What?" I asked, feeling worse than ever.
"I felt sick for a moment there during the wedding, then just weird and wrong; I couldn't quite figure out why at first. And when I went to the restroom and looked at myself... Well. You can see I still look the same with clothes on, but... I'm not a man anymore, not where it counts."
He was blushing, and talking quiet so no one would hear us, and it took me a while to get the story, but basically: he had a vagina. And so did Al and the groomsmen and Tim... their penis and testicles were clean gone, and apparently, though they weren't quite sure, their prostate as well.
"Tell me something," I said, "do you have a clitoris?"
He blushed brighter than ever. "I, um, I'm not sure. I didn't really look that close. It's just too new and weird."
(I'm abridging this of all the interruptions. Every minute or so someone would come up to us and say it was a beautiful wedding and congratulations but they weren't feeling well and they thought they'd leave now and not stay for the reception, so it took us a while to get through this.)
"Come on," I told him. "We'll find someplace private." We went down the hall off the vestibule and found a Sunday School classroom. On the way there I told him what Liza and the bridesmaids and I had found out about ourselves. I pulled him inside, closed the door, pushed a chair up against it, and closed the curtains, then told him, "Take off your pants."
He argued a bit, but I said, "I'm your wife. And a professional nurse. Either of those reasons should be good enough for you."
I examined him then. Among other things I confirmed that, yes, his prostate was gone, and he didn't have a clitoris any more than I had.
"This isn't really a vagina," I told him. "It's like maybe a little boy's idea of what a girl is like down there when he's heard about how girls are different from boys but hasn't ever seen one up close."
"Al was saying something about how it didn't look right," he said; "his, I mean, not mine -- we all examined ourselves separately. But -- however it happened, I mean, we can't be really married, can we?"
"We don't know what caused it. For all we know it'll reverse itself as suddenly as it happened. And I'm sticking with you anyway; you can't get rid of me that easily."
But it was sinking in then. We'd been saving ourselves for each other our whole lives, and now it looked like all our savings were in the same failed bank, with no FDIC in sight.
We looked at each other without saying anything for a few seconds, and then hugged and kisssed, and I said, "Come on. People are waiting for us."
But not many people, it turned out. Way more than half of the congregation had left early. The caterers were nowhere to be seen, but the few guests who had stayed for the reception weren't letting that stop them from helping themselves to the food already laid out. They were standing around talking in low voices in small groups, more like at a funeral than a wedding reception. But when we came in most of them gave a cheer -- maybe not as loud or as long as I would have expected, though.
My Mom came up to us right away. "Where did you disappear to?"
"I'll explain later, in private," I said. "Sorry. We can do the photos later."
"Maybe," she said. "I haven't seen the photographer since we left the sanctuary."
"Where's Dad?" I asked, looking around and not seeing him.
"He went out to the car for something," she said.
Robert's parents came over to us then. Both of them looked poorly, his father a good deal worse than his mother. Robert's father asked him something in a whisper, and he nodded in confirmation. Then I said, "He told me already. You don't have to whisper. You too?"
He nodded, ashen. "And Dad?" I asked Mom.
"Him too," she said. "All the men in the church, as far as we can tell."
"What if it's all the men in town, or all the men in the world...?" Robert said. "We should listen to the news. Doesn't the church have a TV or two somewhere for showing educational videos?"
But just then my Dad returned. "I've been listening to the radio in the car," he said. "The local news is saying what happened to us is happening all over Athens and in some other nearby places, Lexington and Commerce for instance. NPR doesn't say anything about it happening elsewhere, but something weird is going on pretty much everywhere -- something different in every city, and several different things in the bigger cities."
"What things?" I asked.
"People in part of Washington D.C. have four arms now," he said; "that includes the Capitol and the White House... and in another part of the city, where the NPR studios are, they have another thumb where their pinky used to be. There were several other weird changes reported from other big cities that I don't remember, but the important thing is that there were a bunch of plane crashes all over the world at the moment the changes happened, and a few more since then. The FAA has grounded all flights in or to or from the U.S. until further notice."
"So, change of honeymoon plans, I reckon," Robert said.
"You might can still stay in the Westin tonight," Robert's father said (he had been going to drive us to our hotel in Atlanta that night, and then we were going to take a shuttle to the airport Sunday morning) "but I wouldn't recommend it. I expect things are going to be crazy, and probably worse in big cities than around here."
So after the reception, which didn't last as long as we'd expected -- after another hour it was just Robert and me and our parents -- Robert's father gave us a ride to Robert's apartment, and we spent the night there. We watched CNN for a while, and heard about the tripods in Chicago and the "centaurs" in northwest Atlanta and Marietta, who were having to learn to walk all over again, and dozens of other changes that had happened to people in dozens of other places, but nothing about Athens, -- or about Bowling Green, as I mentioned before. After we turned off the TV we undressed and went to bed, but -- well. I'll just say that we don't seem to have any erogenous tissues anymore. After we found that out, we just held each other until we fell asleep.
Sunday morning I woke up early, and felt Robert there next to me, and because I remembered we were married now a good ten or fifteen seconds before I remembered what else had happened yesterday, I was exploding with joy for about that long. Then I remembered everything, and felt horrible, but not quite as bad, I figured, as Robert was going to feel when he woke up... I got out of bed carefully, trying not to wake him, and went to the toilet, then came back and sat on the edge of the bed for a while, watching him. Then he woke up, and from the expression on his face as he saw me sitting there, and then the change in it a few seconds later, I could tell he was thinking and feeling much the same things.
We talked more about what had happened to us while we fixed and ate breakfast, without coming to any conclusions; then we watched the TV news for a while to see if, just possibly, planes were flying again and it would make sense for us to hurry down to Atlanta before our putative departure time. Of course they weren't. After a little further discussion, we showered and got dressed for church; we were too late for Sunday School, just in time for worship. There were more people there than usual, but a lot of the people we knew weren't in their usual places. Hardly anyone said anything explicit about the changes. The pastor alluded to them generally in his prayer, but not in his sermon -- which I suspect he had written several days earlier. A few people commiserated with Robert and me on our honeymoon being spoiled so -- without of course saying exactly what they thought had spoiled it...
On the way home we heard some local news on the radio, including something about the suicides and the injuries from failed suicide attempts. When we got home I called the hospital and asked if they needed me to come in, and of course they said yes. Just as Robert and I were saying our vows, all the sick and injured people in the hospital (and elsewhere, apparently) got suddenly well; but within minutes the emergency room was admitting new patients, accident victims first and unsuccessful suicides a little later, faster than the rest of the hospital could discharge the ones who'd gotten mysteriously well while losing their reproductive systems.
Robert hadn't said much all day, and I was a little worried about him, but it sounded like I was needed badly at the hospital, so I went.
It was crowded, with three patients packed into a lot of double rooms and two people into single rooms -- every kind of failed suicide attempt you can think of, some with not quite fatal blood loss, some with gunshot wounds, or various kinds of poisoning and overdoses, some with likely brain damage from carbon monoxide inhalation... Plus a few hundred people who'd been in car wrecks Saturday right after the changes happened, themselves or another driver losing control when the nausea overtook them. The region between us and Atlanta, Monroe and the small towns to its north, had far more accidents than their little hospitals could handle, and we got the some of the overflow from there too. And the emergency room (I heard from some other nurses on my lunch break) was overwhelmed not just with actual injuries, those due to the changes plus the usual background level, but with people (mostly men) panicking about the changes and wanting to be examined. Various doctors had examined themselves and other people and found pretty consistent results, so they were turning away most of the people without actual injuries.
What they found, looking at men (or former men), was pretty much what I'd seen when I examined Robert: no penis or testicles, no prostate, a sort of pseudo-vagina. And inside, no ovaries or womb or anything, either... Someone said they were starting to do genetic tests, but couldn't figure out what the results meant yet. As for the women -- or former women? -- we had not only lost our clitoris, but all our internal reproductive organs as well.
When I got home from work, pretty well exhausted, I found Robert in bed. He wasn't asleep, wasn't reading, wasn't watching TV; just lying there. I worry about him. I crawled in beside him and after a few moments he held me, and I told him what all had happened at work and what I'd learned.
He started talking again about getting the marriage annulled, but I said: "The same thing happened to both of us; neither of us has any reason to marry anybody else, now or ever, as long as this weird change lasts. So why not stay married even if we can never consummate it? I'd rather be with you than anybody else, even if we're like little kids, brother and sister, instead of the kind of husband and wife we expected to be." Right after I said that, I thought: Or two sisters. But I didn't say it.
We're both going to work today; we decided to save our vacation time for when things calmed down and we could have a honeymoon trip of some kind, if not the one we'd planned. I'll stop here and get this letter ready to mail on the way to work -- then more copies of it at other post offices later in the week, when I have time to get over to Monroe or Commerce, if I haven't heard from you by then.
From: Anne Hartz <firstname.lastname@example.org> Date: Sun, Feb 24, 20-- at 9:25 PM Subject: Your letter To: Laura Vance <email@example.com>
I got your letter yesterday. I think I got Internet service back Friday, but I was too busy to use it until today. I expect you've been working extra hours too. We've had hardly any suicides and suicide attempts, certainly not as many as you had in Athens, but just the car wrecks last Saturday alone filled us up -- in Nashville and the surrounding area almost every car that was in motion at the moment of the changes crashed, and we got a bunch of the overflow from the Tennessee hospitals. Even after Saturday I think there's been a higher rate of all kinds of household and workplace accidents, what with people in north Bowling Green getting used to the changes in their bodies and people here on the south side just being distracted with the general strangeness.
I feel horrible about you and Robert's wedding and honeymoon being ruined so, but at least you and him -- her, it? -- I'm sorry, I shouldn't joke -- at least you and Robert are still members of the same species. Maybe you're immature members of the same long-lived species and when you're a hundred or two hundred years old you'll go through puberty again and develop new sex organs, hopefully of opposite sexes... Last Saturday when the changes happened, I was at work, here at Greenview Regional on the south side of town, and Dave was at home; and the dividing line between two of the change-regions ran right through downtown, between us. I became -- well, physically I'm not noticably any different, but I feel... I'll get to that. Dave, like all the other men in north Bowling Green and the suburbs and country for fifty miles north of here, now has five eyes spaced evenly around his head, and no hair. The women in that region got the extra eyes and lost their hair, too, but they've also got pouches like mama kangaroos. And those of them that were four months or more pregnant all went into labor at 12:41 last Saturday, and gave birth to babies that should have been premature, but seemed to know what they needed better than the obstetricians -- they crawled into their mamas' pouches and have mostly stayed there since.
The staff and patients who were here last Saturday at 12:41 all sort of bonded together, and so did various other groups of people who happened to be near each other at that time of day all around south Bowling Green and a region extending east to Glasgow and south almost to the Tennessee line. Some of them were people I've known for years, some I'd just met days or even hours before, some I'd never met before; some I loved and some I could hardly stand; all of them feel like family now. I get uncomfortable when I'm away from them for too long. It wasn't until yesterday that I could bring myself to leave the hospital and go home -- or to what used to be home. Dave and I ate supper and talked, very awkwardly, for an hour or two, and he gave me your letter. Then I left and drove straight back to the hospital as fast as I could. It just felt too weird. I still like him as a friend, but there was no romance there anymore; I couldn't feel attraction for a male of a different species, and he made it clear, after he worked up the nerve, that he felt the same way about me. (I won't go into detail, but google "marsupial reproductive system" sometime.)
Of course the patients who were already here last Saturday recovered so thoroughly that they would have left any other hospital, but they feel uncomfortable leaving, and we can't stand to see them go; the people who were visiting sick friends and relatives Saturday afternoon are family now, too. We've found things for them to do to help out around the place; God knows there's plenty of extra work. We've modified a lot of the offices into apartments for the staff and our former patients and visitors; we've found we sleep more comfortably together, like kittens in a big pile. I'm sleeping on a pile of pillows and crumpled-up sheets on the floor of what used to be an accountant's office with three other nurses and two ladies from housekeeping.
I said I didn't find Dave attractive anymore since the change? I'm feeling a pretty strong attraction to most if not all of the men, staff and patients and visitors, who were here last Saturday (though I've managed to avoid acting on that attraction so far), but not to any of the men who weren't here then, the staff who weren't on duty at the time of the changes or the patients who've been admitted since then. Not just the five-eyed marsupials from the north side of town, but the normal-looking guys who were somewhere else at 12:41 last Saturday.
We're understaffed most of the time, since none of the staff who weren't on duty when the changes happened, if they were anywhere in the south Bowling Green change-region, can stand to be away from their new ad-hoc family groups for more than a few hours.
I'll stop here. Tell me what's been going on since you wrote?
From: Laura Vance <firstname.lastname@example.org> Date: Mon, Feb 25, 20-- at 8:12 PM Subject: Re: Your letter To: Anne Hartz <email@example.com>
Anne -- it's wonderful to hear from you. I'm sorry to hear about you and Dave, and now I feel guilty for feeling sorry for myself and Robert, but really things are bad all over and I should have stopped feeling guilty about feeling worse about my own misfortunes than those of other people a long time ago. Do keep in touch with him. This breakup, if it is a breakup and not just a temporary problem, isn't either of you's fault, and there's no reason you shouldn't stay friends through it if you're honest with each other and keep in touch.
What's been happening since I wrote? Well, Monday we went to work, as I said we were going to. I called Robert a couple of times during the day, I was so worried about him, but he seemed to be less depressed than he was Sunday; work helped. After work we fixed supper and ate and managed to find some other things to talk about besides the prevailing weirdness, though we talked mostly about that, of course. One of his co-workers had killed himself Saturday evening. Another was in Macon Saturday, visiting family, and came home with a prehensile tail and retractable claws. In contrast to the hospitals, things were less busy than usual at the UGA library, since a lot of students who had gone home for the weekend hadn't come back to Athens yet -- some still haven't -- so Robert and the other librarians spent a lot of time in the breakroom listening to news, or websurfing. "Even more time than usual, you mean?", I said, joking. A lot of websites were down, or working only intermittently, but CNN and a few other news sites were up again by then and he had some interesting stories from places where the changes were even stranger than in Athens. If you just got Internet access back a couple of days ago you might not have heard about them; it sounds like you might have been even busier than me, with Greenview being understaffed as well as overfull. I'll paste in some links at the end of this email.
Athens Regional is fully staffed -- well, no more understaffed than we were before the changes. I think we've had only one suicide among the staff, plus two or three accident victims.
I said Robert was doing better Monday than Sunday, but Thursday evening I came home and found him sitting on the edge of the bed, naked, staring into the mirror. He was in such a fugue he didn't notice me come in until I put a hand on his shoulder. He didn't startle, even; he just looked up at me and said, "This is what I am now."
"Right," I said. "It's what we both are." I started getting undressed too. "I'm not going to have your babies. We're not going to spoil our grandchildren and give them noisemakers for Christmas to pay back our children for all the sleepless nights they caused us. But you've still got me. Tell me I've still got you."
I sat on his lap and put my arms around him. It was like sitting in my mother's lap when I was a little girl; warm and safe, but not exciting.
"You've still got me," he said. "You'll always have me." We crawled in under the covers and lay there holding each other, not saying much, until we got hungry.
Next day on my break I met Mom for lunch and I cried my eyes out because I was never going to have any children, not now, and Mom cried too, but not as much because she already has a grandson in Perth where men are still real men and women are still real women, even if they have stubby vestigial wings that they can't fly with. (I'm attaching a picture of Todd that Lena sent me. Isn't he the cutest thing? Lena tells me he can get off the ground for a moment or two when he flaps his wings hard enough; they're bigger relative to his body than hers or Terry's.)
It hasn't been that bad since. The hospital's starting to get less insanely busy, and the library's returning to normal levels of busyness with most of the students already back in town if they're coming back at all. I'm starting to hope that the worst is over, at least around here.
From: Anne Greenview <firstname.lastname@example.org> Date: Thu, Feb 28, 20-- at 11:22 AM Subject: More changes To: Laura Vance <email@example.com>
Please note the new email address. My old ISP, like the hospital, has been understaffed since the changes and their web email thingy hasn't been working consistently, and of course I haven't been at mine and Dave's house to need to use the DSL line there, so I cancelled my account. If you sent me any mail after Tuesday of this week, please send it again.
We decided to change our names, those of us who were here at the hospital on the fourteenth, to reflect how we feel about each other now. I hear the other new families around town are doing the same, but I haven't left the hospital; I just hear news from patients and visitors. They call me Tall Anne when they need to distinguish me from the other women named Anne Greenview, a nurse on the cardiac floor (Short Anne) and a urologist (Blonde Anne).
I did talk to Dave on the phone a few times, and he came to visit me here once. He's hooked up with a marsupial girl from down the street. It doesn't bother me. I mean, I couldn't complain, since I've slept with two guys from security and a respiratory therapist since I wrote you last. Dave sent me half of the money from our accounts; I gave it to Tara, the weekend receptionist, who's been handling our money. I mean the Greenview family money, not the hospital money. It's been awful, the TriStar corporate suits and the local hospital administration people who weren't here during the changes wrangling with the family about control of the hospital, and trying to evict the patients and visitors who were here during the changes, and forbidding us to sleep in the offices and so forth. Some of the staff who weren't on duty then but have been coming in to work anyway (mostly marsupials, and a few who were in Louisville or somewhere on the fourteenth) have taken the administration's side, but most are sympathetic to our plight and have threatened to strike if the administration tries to fire us and replace us.
Dave offered to bring me anything I wanted from the house, and I asked him to bring me any of the books and DVDs he didn't want, and some of my clothes, but not too many because I share a room with other people now. I picked over what he brought and kept the stuff that wasn't too formal for wearing around the hospital when I'm off duty, and told him to give the rest to Goodwill. We had a better visit than before, since I wasn't feeling nervous about being away from my family, and the marsupials apparently don't have that anxiety about being separated from others of their kind.
I picked out a couple of books I wanted to read soon and put the rest of them, and the DVDs, in the hospital library. It's a lot bigger than before, and better organized; one of the former patients is a librarian, and she's taken over the job of keeping it in order and cataloguing all the donations it's gotten in the last couple of weeks.
I'm very happy. I hope things will get better for you and Robert soon.
From: Laura Vance <firstname.lastname@example.org> Date: Fri, Mar 1, 20-- at 9:58 PM Subject: Re: More changes To: Anne Greenview <email@example.com>
Anne, you're scaring me. What's going on up there? Write again and convince me you're still the same person, or I swear I'll come to Bowling Green, never mind work, they can't refuse me vacation after I cancelled the honeymoon, and I'll drag you out of that commune or hive or whatever and shake some sense into you. I tried to call you but I got a message saying your phone had been disconnected.
From: Anne Greenview <firstname.lastname@example.org> Date: Sun, Mar 3, 20-- at 2:05 PM Subject: Re: More changes To: Laura Vance <email@example.com>
Laura, honey, calm down. Everything's fine. I cancelled my cell phone because I wasn't needing it, since I'm never out of the hospital. If you need to talk to me you can call the hospital main number, 270-555-0156, and ask for Tall Anne. You're welcome to come visit, of course. I don't know how else to convince you everything's fine, if telling you so in an email doesn't... I don't understand what you're worried about.
From: Laura Vance <firstname.lastname@example.org> Date: Sun, Mar 3, 20-- at 5:21 PM Subject: Re: More changes To: Anne Greenview <email@example.com>
It's the way you're casually talking about getting rid of most of your clothes and giving all your money and other possessions to the hospital commune or whatever it is. The Anne Hartz I know used to poke fun at hippie communes and monasteries and convents and everything of the kind. Don't you remember? And this "Anne Greenview" stuff is really scary. I don't understand. I really am coming up there as soon as I tell my boss I'm taking the vacation time I already had approved before the wedding.
I tried calling the hospital main number and asking for you, like you said, but I got some vague person who said they'd go look for you, then put me on hold for twenty minutes and finally hung up on me. As intermittently as you seem to be checking email, I'll probably be on my way by the time you read this.
From: Laura Vance <firstname.lastname@example.org> Date: Tue, Mar 5, 20-- at 10:02 PM Subject: Anne To: Robert Vance <email@example.com>
Weird as it seems, Anne really is okay. She's not quite the same person I knew, but then, I'm not the same anymore, and neither are you...
The trip up here was... a trip. We've seen almost a dozen human subspecies just around Athens, what with students and other people having beeng out of town on the day of the changes, but I think I must have seen fifty or more at various gas stations, fast food places and rest areas along the way. I took some pictures with my phone; I'll show you when I get home.
I got confused looks a few times from fast food servers and so forth trying to figure out whether to address me as "sir" or "ma'am", and guessing wrong almost half the time. I hadn't realized until now how much I'd changed in the last few weeks. Are people who don't know you calling you "ma'am" sometimes? Don't answer that by email if you don't want, we'll talk when I get home. I'd changed so much that Anne didn't recognize me at first.
I got to the hospital a little before the evening shift change, parked and went to the reception desk. I told the receptionist (she was one of the five-eyed marsupials Anne told me about, so not part of the hospital commune, I guess) I was looking for Anne Hartz, or Anne Greenview, or Tall Anne, a nurse on the pulmonary floor. She said she would page her, and she did: as "Tall Anne". A few minutes later she got Anne on the phone, and handed the phone to me, and Anne told me she would come down to the lobby as soon as she finished report, in another fifteen minutes or so.
I sat down and waited, and watched for her. Various people came and went, a lot of normal-looking people and a lot of quintocular marsupials (I assume they were marsupial because Anne told me they were, but they were all fully dressed, so I couldn't see their pouches), and a few of the other new subspecies: an eyeless couple from Nashville, making clicking sounds with their tongues as they walked to sense things by echolocation, and a quadruped, I'm not sure where he was from, and some others. A woman came in and looked around, whom I didn't take any particular notice of at first; then she went to the reception desk and talked to the receptionist, who stood up and looked around, then pointed at me and said something to her. I looked closer then, and finally recognized Anne. I think she got within four paces of me before she recognized me.
Anne hadn't told me that her skin was darkening and her hair was lightening. And her eyes are hazel now. Once I saw her up close I realized that almost half of the normal-looking people I'd seen walking through the lobby had borne a strong resemblance to each other -- a family resemblance: light brown skin and dark brown hair, and, I found out later once I started looking more carefully, hazel eyes.
"Laura," Anne said, and hugged me as I stood up. "I'm so glad to see you! But you should have sent me a picture. I didn't realize you'd changed, I mean visibly outside your clothes..."
"I kind of didn't realize how much," I said. "It's been gradual. Did you not notice that you've changed too?"
She looked startled. "Now that you mention it, I guess I have... I did notice, I just didn't think it was important. I mean, not compared to the huge changes the marsupials up on the north side of town went through, or the poor blind folks in Nashville, or lots of others."
"You're probably right," I said, deciding not to make a big deal about it; but it worried me. The changes we went through on our wedding day might be just the beginning; who knows what else is going to happen to us, or even if we'll notice it happening?
We talked there in the lobby for a few minutes, and then Anne wanted to show me around. I was keen to see the way the place had changed after becoming a commune. She took me to the pulmonary floor where she usually works, and introduced me to various co-workers -- one of them, Tracy Greenview, née Barnett, went to Emory with me and Anne. I say it's a pulmonary floor, that's her specialty, but right now it only has a couple of pulmonary cases, marsupials who were in near-drowning accidents when the change happened while they were swimming or boating. The rest of the floor, like most of the hospital, was full of car accident victims; mostly bat-people from Nashville, with a few locals, more marsupials than... whatever it is Anne and the others like her are.
From there we went to the office where she sleeps at night. The accountant who uses it in the daytime had gone home; Anne got me to help her push the desk up against the wall, then we laid out a mattress, took a bunch of pillows and linens from a nearby supply closet, and made the bed.
"You really sleep here with four other women?" I asked her.
"Well, not always," she said. "Sometimes I sleep with one of the guys, and fairly often one or more of the women who rooms here sleeps somewhere else with a guy, and once a couple of guys joined us here. That was fun." She sounded totally unselfconscious as she said that. Robert, I would bet every penny I have that Anne was never unfaithful to Dave before this weirdness started, and I'm just as sure that she was a virgin when she married him -- I was her maid of honor, we told each other everything in those days -- but now...! The way this thing changed her is scary, but it's not something I can rescue her from, as though she'd joined a cult and separating from her from it would start undoing the brainwashing. It's biological. Friday night you and I talked about the way we've been feeling different, still loving each other but not wanting sex anymore, and I think the same kind of thing is happening to Anne and the others here, in reverse. Something like it is probably happening to everybody everywhere, really. If Dave's brain didn't change along with his body, he'd probably be as freaked out at the idea of sex with a marsupial woman as Anne was at the idea of sex with him... Yeah. She told me more today about that first meeting with Dave than she said in her email. Google "marsupial reproduction", or rather, don't. You can ask me more when we talk next, but you may wish you hadn't.
We ate supper in the hospital cafeteria -- and I don't know how, but it's far better than any other hospital cafeteria I've ever eaten at, even Crawford Long; as good as a sit-down restaurant. Anne says it's gotten a lot better now that the kitchen staff know they're cooking for family and not just co-workers. (I'd asked Anne to come to a restaurant with me, but she refused and told me that the cafeteria was really good, which of course I didn't believe until I'd eaten several bites.) We talked during supper and for several hours afterward; then I left to go find a motel. More about that in a minute. But as I talked to Anne I realized that, yeah, she's the same person, biological changes aside -- by that I include the changes in her brain, the way her sex drive works and some other related things. She still laughs at the same kinds of jokes, with the same weird staccatto chortle, still likes and dislikes the same foods, still reads the same paranormal romances.
I said what happened to us was happening to Anne and the rest of the "Greenview family" in reverse. What I mean is, we still love each other in a focused, exclusive way; if I remember right you described it as being exactly like Eros without the sex, which seemed weird at the time, but now it makes perfect sense, because the way Anne talked about her -- pardon my French, but her fuckbuddies -- it was Storge with sex added. Affection, strong and unconditional but unexclusive, with a strong component of sexual attraction. People have been trying that on a fairly large scale since the 60s, and more sporadically for all of recorded history and probably longer, and it never worked because it rubs human nature the wrong way; Eros is a jealous god. But does human nature still exist anywhere in the form we're used to it? The more I saw of this Greenview commune, or rather nest or hive -- now that I think of it "nest" seems like the best word, because this is definitely a mammalian kind of thing here, not insectoid at all -- the more I think that this Storge-plus-sex is somehow natural and right for Anne and the others here. And maybe there's something we're missing about how this Eros-minus-sex we feel now is good for us. I miss you frantically and I want to talk to you for hours and hours about this when I see you, but my cellphone isn't getting any reception to speak of at this motel, though I easily got my laptop talking to the wireless network with a little help from the very competent and helpful IT guy on staff.
It's a tiny independent motel a mile or two from the hospital, which belongs to a couple from Pakistan who are now the paterfamilias and materfamilias of a commune like the one at Greenview Hospital: the owner-managers and their children, plus the maids who were on duty on Valentine's Day, all the guests who were in their rooms at that time of day, and a few random people who were sitting in their cars at the intersection in front of the motel at the time of the changes. The IT guy I mentioned was on his way from Miami to visit his family in Indianapolis, stopped here for the night late on Friday, and slept late; when he woke up, he told me, he had a new family, and he spent the next few days fixing up his new home with a wireless network, and has been working since then on overhauling the office computers and creating a website for the place. Apparently the motel family are all squeezed into a few rooms on either side of the management office, three or four to a bed, like the folks at Greenview.
I'll probably meet Anne for breakfast tomorrow and then head home.
See you soon! XOX
From: Robert Vance <firstname.lastname@example.org> Date: Wed, Mar 6, 20-- at 8:52 AM Subject: Re: Anne To: Laura Vance <email@example.com>
I bullied my supervisor into letting me take my vacation now, so stay put and I'll join you there. Or we can meet in between, anywhere but Nashville I guess; Chattanooga is fun, or maybe Asheville or Pigeon Forge. I'll try your cellphone again from time to time today as I travel. I'm fixing to leave the library and head home to pack. I can't stand to miss you like this!
See you SOON.
From: Laura Vance <firstname.lastname@example.org> Date: Sun, Mar 15, 20-- at 7:02 PM Subject: Honeymoon!!! To: Anne Greenview <email@example.com>
You'll never believe what's happened!
Now that I've intrigued you I'll make you stew for a few paragraphs. Don't cheat and peek ahead.
Our vacation runs out in a couple of days and we're on the way home again. We've been in the middle of nowhere more often than not, and this motel is the first place we've stayed at in some time that has a wireless network, so I'll take the chance to fill you in now; I probably won't have email again until I get home.
My cellphone rang when I was driving through Cookville, Tennessee the day I left you. It was Robert! He'd finally gotten his vacation approved and was on his way to meet me. We met up in Knoxville and talked about what we wanted to do for our honeymoon. It's still not a good idea to travel to the Bahamas, apparently, so we modified our original plan and decided on a road trip through interesting small towns with weird roadside attractions in Georgia and Alabama and Florida. So far, so Kerouacesque.
I'll tell you some other time about the Agrirama (really! could I invent something like that?) and the Cypress Knee Museum and the other silly or weird things we saw, but the best thing that happened to us, which the rest of Athens is going to hear about and then rush to the Everglades as soon as they pick their jaws up off the floor, is hot, sticky humid weather, the kind where your clothes soak up so much sweat within five minutes of your putting them on you might as well have gotten dressed while you were still in the shower. (Not that we've showered or worn clothes recently. That might be a problem sooner or later.)
Just sun and hot weather aren't enough. Any number of students and other people from Athens have been to south Florida beaches since the change. And heat and humidity per se aren't quite enough either. We apparently had to hit just the right combination of conditions, which we found in the Florida Everglades about twenty or thirty miles inland from Naples.
We stayed for a while at a campground run by the Seminole Indian tribe. (The Seminoles on this reservation had a really interesting change, shared with white and black and Hispanic folks in a long narrow change-region running north from here between the many smaller coastal change-regions... but you're mad at me for making you read so far for the real news, so I'll save that for another email.) There were few other guests, and none right near our campsite, and we were hot and sticky, like I said, but still somehow happier, more comfortable even, than we'd been in days. So we took to leaving our clothes off except when we went to the campground office or the convenience store near I-75 for supplies. We saw a few alligators, but they didn't bother us.
One afternoon we were lazing on a spread-out blanket in the shade of some cypress trees, when I started to feel a... hmm. I'm at a loss for words. I'll say an itchy tingling, but that's not quite right. At first I couldn't place it; then I decided it was not entirely unlike the feeling I used to get when I was sitting next to Robert during a movie, our arms around each other, and my crotch would insist that it wanted him now, not later, and what's all this nonsense about the sanctity of marriage anyway? and I'd tell her, "just sixteen days till the wedding."
I checked, though, and my pseudo-vagina wasn't wet. I mean, yes, my whole body was wet, but only with sweat. Robert saw what I was doing and said, "Are you feeling something there?"
"Yes," I said excitedly. "Are you feeling it too?"
"I think so," he said. "Is this what being a woman feels like?" His voice was strange; sad and excited at once.
"Not really," I said. "I mean, this is more like what I used to feel toward you, physically, than it is like anything else I've ever felt, but it's not really like that either. It's new."
"What we are, we don't know yet," he said; from his tone I think he was quoting or more likely misquoting something.
We experimented a bit but, despite the weird tingling, we didn't have erogenous tissue any more than we had a day earlier. That feeling got stronger all afternoon and evening, and I felt a longing; not for Robert, though I still loved him as much as ever, maybe more, but for... This is going to sound weird, but I promise it will make sense in a minute or two, or as much sense as the things you've done since the change make to me. I wanted the Everglades to make love to me. Robert and I talked, and he was feeling much the same. We were feeling wonderfully lazy, and not at all hungry though we hadn't eaten since breakfast. We lay there holding each other, sipping Gatorade and soaking the blanket with our sweat, and watching critters small and large crawl and fly by without taking any notice of us or bothering us, until we fell asleep.
The next morning I woke up to find I had blossomed overnight.
So had Robert.
You saw how my breasts had atrophied over the few weeks since the change, so by the time I came to see you half the strangers I met mistook me for a man. And I told you how my mound had kind of flattened or smoothed out, till my crotch looked like Robert's, and our pubic hair fell out. (I should tell you now that I'm sorry I got mad at you when you asked me to show you, and couldn't understand why I was upset; I know you think differently now and don't feel about privacy like most people used to and like we Athenians still do. I know, but sometimes I have a hard time with it emotionally. So be patient with me and I'll try to keep being patient with you.)
So now that I've said we blossomed overnight you're thinking, adult-sized bodies shaped roughly like prepubescent girls: then bam, two mature women! No, I'm talking literally. We had flowers growing out of our pseudo-vaginas. Big white flowers with two layers of five petals each, and (I found, carefully inspecting Robert's blossom while we both giggled like teenagers) both pistils and stamens. I touched his and and he touched mine, but only briefly; they were painfully sensitive. They weren't meant to be touched by fingers.
What they were meant to be touched by, we could figure out easily enough; we felt it already, we'd felt it the evening before -- but within a short while after dawn, as we lay there embracing and our blossoms opened wider in the morning light, we knew. And the Everglades knew us, in the Biblical sense.
By nightfall I'd lost track of how many species of pollinator had visited us; two kinds of hummingbird, and several kinds of bees, and a zillion butterflies. The hummingbirds were slightly rough; the butterflies were the gentlest lovers. It was always good when a bee crawled inside, or a butterfly inserted her long curling probiscis like a tiny elephant's trunk, but it was several times better when a butterfly visited me who had just visited Robert's flower a moment before. We lay there, too stunned with ecstasy to move, all day, and fell asleep when our flowers closed again just after sunset.
We'd had big bottles of Gatorade sitting in a cooler within arm's reach, and finished them off in the course of the day; next morning when we woke, we felt thirsty, but not dangerously dehydrated, and we no longer felt the same need to lie there and let the pollinators have their way with us. We got up and went to the car, and got the larger cooler out of the trunk; I made us drink a bunch more Gatorade before we did anything else.
We got up and walked around, feeling the delicious breeze over our sweaty bodies and in the petals of our flowers. We had to walk a little differently because of the flowers, they were so big. We ate breakfast, our appetite (for food, I mean) having come back, and walked some more, wearing just shoes and nothing else. Mosquitoes abounded, but they didn't bite us -- they hadn't bitten us during the whole trip. We probably don't smell like mammals to them, somehow. A few butterflies and bees visited us during our walk, though not nearly as many as the day before, and we'd lean against each other and hold still while they pollinated us, then sigh with joy and hug (sideways, careful not to bump our flowers into anything), and go on. Nothing except the pollinating insects and those two solitary hummingbirds took any notice of us; maybe we smelled too plantlike for the carnivores to want to eat us and too animallike for the herbivores.
We stayed in the Everglades for the rest of our vacation, of course, but then we had to go back, and we found, when we packed the car and tried to get dressed, that of course we couldn't fit any underwear on over these flowers. Not boxers and certainly not panties. And putting pants or a skirt on over them, with or without underwear, was just as painful. We settled for just shirts and shoes, with which we should in theory be admitted to any restaurant in the country, then finished packing and drove out.
No police pulled us over for public nudity while we were driving, but things got awkward for a moment when we stopped in Port Charlotte to use the restroom at a gas station. But the gas station clerk didn't raise an eyebrow at our condition; just pointed the way to the restrooms and went back to her cellphone conversation. I guess we're not the only ones whose change made wearing clothes difficult or impossible.
I'll write again soon after we get home.
From: Anne Greenview <firstname.lastname@example.org> Date: Tue, Mar 17, 20-- at 8:09 PM Subject: Re: Honeymoon!!! To: Laura Vance <email@example.com>
I'm so happy for you both! I had a feeling something like this would happen, though I lie when I say "like this" because I didn't expect it to involve literal birds and bees! (And butterflies. Why am I not surprised they are the gentlest?) You make me jealous, and if I thought it would have any effect I would repay you by telling you how wonderful Paul the phlebotomist or Harry the respiratory therapist or Mark the rheumatologist are in bed, or in a supply closet or a deserted stairwell... but you and Robert are so wrapped up in each other that I am only making you laugh, at best. I don't quite understand what that's like, though I remember the way Dave and I used to be, but I'm sure it's good for you as well as delightful fun. Do you still have that letter I wrote you near the end of Dave's and my honeymoon? If you find it please send me a copy; I think perhaps it will remind me what I used to feel and that will help me enter into the spirit of your last email, which I have printed out and carry around with me and read when I am feeling tired and overworked. I want so much to share it with my family but I won't unless you say it's okay, because I know privacy matters to you, and though I can't always guess what you will consider a violation of privacy I will try now to err on the side of caution.
The court ruled in favor of the Greenview family against the TriStar corporation, so we have full control of the hospital now, though we have to pay TriStar a certain tribute whenever we show a profit for a given quarter. But we are now non-profit and they can't force us to make a profit if we're happy just being together and helping people together. TriStar is appealing the ruling, saying that the judge in the district court is of the same subspecies as us and was biased in our favor, but our lawyer, who seems very competent though he is a marsupial, thinks we will win on appeal too.
Tracy sends her love as well. I hope to see you again, when you and Robert have fruit of your loins to show off (see, I can make Bible-English jokes just as well as you)! Do you think they will look like peaches, or pecans, or what? And when you plant them, will they grow into trees whose branches bear human babies? What a wonderful world we live in now!
From: Laura Vance <firstname.lastname@example.org> Date: Fri, Mar 20, 20-- at 8:19 PM Subject: Re: Honeymoon!!! To: Anne Greenview <email@example.com>
We told our families and co-workers about what happened once we got home -- not in as much detail as I told you, of course, except to my Mom -- and our doctor, of course; more about that in a minute. I just checked my voicemail and found calls from the Athens Banner-Herald, the Flagpole, and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution all wanting to interview us. How exactly they heard, especially the Atlanta paper, I'm not sure; but rumors are all over town, and everybody who can get vacation time is heading to the Everglades. I hope the sudden influx of camping tourists won't cause ecological damage. Probably there are other swamps that are good for triggering our weird reproductive cycle, maybe closer to home; the Okeefenokee, probably, if not now then in a month or two. And surely we'll have some weather of the right kind here in Athens later in the summer.
No fruits or nuts, I'm afraid. You'll have to settle for a couple of tiny plant-people embryos in a couple of tiny uteruses!
Yep, the ultrasound today showed we're girls inside where it counts, which we weren't a few weeks ago. The flower petals fell off Wednesday, leaving the same sexless-looking pseudo-vaginas, but we saved them and genetic tests show they're human tissue, or as human as anybody is these days.
I don't actually have scientific proof that we're pregnant. The more invasive tests the doctors wanted to do, besides the ultrasounds that showed an undersized but roughly human-looking womb in each of us, seemed likely to endanger the babies, if they're in there, which I feel sure they are. I'm going to name mine Anne.
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