Elliot came back to the hospital later that evening with Terry. Darlene was getting well enough to complain about the hospital food so Terry was sneaking her some Kentucky Fried Chicken. Elliot and Terry could hear women talking as they approached the room. When they walked in Caroline and Cara Marshall were sitting in the two chairs by Darlene’s bed talking to her.
All three women stopped talking when the men entered the room. Caroline Marshall gasped when she saw Elliot, but then she rushed to him and crushed him in a bear hug. “I’m so glad you are alive!”
“Thank you,” Elliot grunted trying to catch his breath.
Caroline stepped back and looked Elliot over. He’d discarded his vest, but was still in his purple button-up shirt and grey dress pants. “I don’t know what I expected when Cara told me about your changes, but I didn’t expect you to be so handsome.”
Elliot blushed. “Thank you.”
“He is very handsome,” Darlene agreed. “It’s really quite amazing. I see small pieces of Jenna in his eyes and lips, but the way his face has squared and filled out changes his look. He actually reminds me of a picture I saw of my father as a young man.”
“Really?” Elliot asked.
“Yes. I’ll have to show it to you,” Darlene said. “In fact, if you were in an army uniform, you would look just like him.”
“Wow. That’s cool,” Elliot said.
Cara stood and moved to the door. “I’m going to get a soda. Does anyone else want one?”
“No,” Terry said, holding up the drink carrier with three drinks on it.
“Get me a Dr. Pepper,” Caroline said.
“Okay,” Cara said. She met Elliot’s eyes briefly before frowning, turning and leaving the room.
Elliot let out a heavy sigh when she was out of sight. “She’s never going to forgive me.”
“I wouldn’t be so sure about that,” Caroline said. “Granted, she is having a hard time dealing with the truth of what happened. She still feels like there was something she could have done to change the course of events.”
“She could not have stopped how things went down,” Elliot said. “If anything, she might have gotten herself killed.”
“That’s right,” Terry agreed. “Michael was not going to let anyone ruin what he had going on. He would have probably killed both of them. We all have to be thankful Darren Parker, or William Defoe, whatever his name is, showed up when he did or Elliot would not be with us right now.”
“Yes,” Elliot said. “I owe William my life.”
“So Darren Parker was an FBI agent this whole time?” Caroline asked.
“Yes,” Elliot said. “My father had been a suspect in the human trafficking ring for a while, but they didn’t have anything substantial on him until I found that body in his freezer.”
“I still can’t get over that,” Darlene said. “How many dead bodies went through our garage and I had no clue?”
“You had no clue because Michael didn’t want you to,” Terry said. “You and Jenna, or Elliot, were his cover. A family man with a daughter of his own surely would not be involved with kidnapping and handing over young women to a human trafficking cartel.”
“How long had he been involved with them?” Darlene asked.
Terry looked at Elliot. The two of them had spent several hours in a debriefing with Mark , William, and Dana and learned some very unbelievable things about Michael Matthews. Elliot cleared his throat and said, “At least ten years.”
Darlene’s mouth dropped open. For a few seconds she couldn’t catch her breath, setting her alarm off and bringing the evening nurse in the room. “What’s going on?” the nurse demanded.
“It’s okay, Genie,” Darlene said. “They were just catching me up on the news with my ex. What they told me just caught me off guard and I couldn’t catch my breath.”
The nurse, a heavy set white woman with greying dark brown hair turned her intense blue eyes on everyone in the room. “Her buzzer goes off again and visiting hours will be over, got it?”
“Yes,” everyone mumbled and dropped their heads.
“Sorry guys,” Darlene said after the nurse left. “She was a drill sergeant in the Army. Still acts like one most of the time.” She shook her head. “Ten years, so eight years with us, that means he started when Jenna was around ten years old. That son-of-a-bitch!”
“Don’t beat yourself up, Darlene,” Terry said. “I’ve known Michael for a lot of years and had no idea that he was involved with the trafficking. I’m a cop trained to watch for criminal behavior in everyone I meet. Michael deceived everyone, including me. He didn’t leave any clues about his behavior. If Jenna hadn’t found that body, he might still be getting by with it.” Then he turned to Elliot,” Sorry, I meant Elliot.”
“It’s okay. Jenna was the one who found that body. Elliot didn’t exist until later,” Elliot said.
Caroline looked toward the door. “I wonder what’s taking Cara so long.”
“I’ll go look for her. She might have gotten lost. This is a big hospital,” Elliot said, although he was thinking she was probably trying to avoid him.
Elliot found Cara in the mostly empty cafeteria. She was nursing a cup of coffee. “May I sit here?” Elliot asked.
Cara sighed heavily. “If you must.”
“I understand that you are trying to avoid me,” Elliot said. “I’m sorry things have turned out the way they have.”
“Yeah, me too,” Cara said and looked directly into Elliot’s eyes. “Have you thought about going back to being a girl?”
Elliot shook his head. “I can’t, Cara. This is who I am. I never realized how uncomfortable I was in my own body until I started making these changes. Everything started making sense and I started really feeling good about myself.”
“I knew you were always worried about gaining weight and ran every morning like demons were chasing you,” Cara said. “But you never said you didn’t want to be a girl. I know you hated having to wear girlie things because of your dad, but to become a guy?”
Sighing, Elliot said, “It’s more complicated than that.”
A tear escaped Cara’s eye. “I thought we told each other everything. I thought I knew who you were.”
Elliot reached over and took Cara’s hands. “You did know me, better than I even knew myself sometimes, but I had suppressed my masculine side for so long, I didn’t know who I really was. I wasn’t allowed to be myself. You know that.”
Cara reached out and ran a finger along the scar on Elliot’s cheek. “I was so upset that I couldn’t help you. I felt so weak and small compared to him.”
“My father is a big man,” Elliot said. “Even though I worked out with weights at school and practiced my martial arts moves, I was no match for him, especially that night. He wasn’t as much enraged about catching us as he was in figuring out that I had been in his freezer and saw that body. There was nothing anyone could have done to stop him unless they had a gun. He was set on killing me. And he would have killed you too if you hadn’t run.”
“Sometime you’ll have to tell me the whole story about how they saved you and where you went,” Cara said.
“Maybe we can go out sometime while I’m here in Evansville,” Elliot suggested.
Cara shook her head. “We’re going back to Richmond tomorrow.”
“Okay,” Elliot said quietly.
“Are you going back to Salt Lick?” Cara asked.
“I’m not sure. Everything is up in the air right now,” Elliot said. “Mark and Dana, my FBI handlers, are talking to the Evansville District Attorney about when the trial for the girls kidnapped from here might be and whether or not I will have to show up as a woman.”
“What do you mean?” Cara asked.
“Well, it’s very complicated. All of my documents show that I am now legally Elliot Judson Cross, but my father’s attorney is protesting my testimony saying I’m not the same person who saw the body. He’s trying to make it so that I can’t testify unless I do it as Jenna Marie Matthews, but legally that person doesn’t exist,” Elliot said. “Dana said I should show up at the trial in a dress just to mess with my father.”
Cara burst out laughing and then couldn’t stop. Elliot smiled as he watched Cara try to get control of herself. It was good to see her laugh. Finally she wiped her eyes, “Wow, that is hysterical. You never wore dresses before, and to show up in one now, after you exposed yourself to him as a man.” She started laughing again. “Oh my God! That would be priceless.”
“I know, right,” Elliot said laughing along with her.
Cara wiped her eyes again and then looked at Elliot soberly. “Elliot Judson Cross? Those are our street names.”
Elliot beamed. “I knew you’d figure it out! That was why I chose that name, hoping that one day you would see it and make the connection. So you would know I was alive.”
Digging in her purse, Cara got out a tissue to wipe her face. “I want you to know I have not laughed that hard in a long time. Thank you for that.”
“I’m glad I could make you laugh,” Elliot said. “I was pretty good at it before. Watching you laugh has always been one of my favorite things to do.”
Cara couldn’t help but smile. “We did do a lot of laughing.” She studied Elliot’s beautiful eyes and realized that Jenna was not completely gone. The twinkling in Elliot’s eyes were the same as Jenna’s, as was his infectious smile. Sighing and letting her smile waver, Cara said, “I miss Jenna.”
Elliot took her hands again. “I know and I miss you, but we’re not the same people we were in high school. We wouldn’t be even if none of this would have happened. Who knows, we might have gotten to college and met new people and broken up. It’s hard to say.”
“I can’t imagine that happening, but you’re right, we are definitely different people now,” Cara said.
“I know your feelings for me are very different now,” Elliot said. “But I hope we can be friends.”
Cara squeezed his hands hard. “Can’t you just go back to being Jenna?”
Elliot shook his head sadly. “No, Cara, I can’t. It’s more complicated than just stopping testosterone and changing clothes. I am a man from the depths of my soul. Granted my body says otherwise, but my mind, heart and soul are all man. I can never go back to being a woman.”
Letting go of his hands, Cara sat back and studied him. “Are you going to have the surgeries?”
“Not the bottom. It’s extremely expensive and ineffective from my understanding. Plus the risks and complications are just not worth the costs. The top surgery I’m torn about. I had naturally small breasts to start with, they have shrunk with the testosterone usage and weight lifting.” Elliot blushed. “I don’t know if you were paying attention when I flashed my father, but you can tell that they are a woman’s breasts so I can’t go shirtless, but they don’t stick out far either.”
“What was that vest thing you had on?” Cara asked, remembering clearly Elliot exposing himself that day in the woods.
“It’s a binder. It’s made specifically for binding a transgender man’s chest, although a lot of men with man boobs use them too,” Elliot explained.
“That makes sense,” Cara said.
“There you two are,” Caroline said. “Darlene was worried you two were having a big fight somewhere.”
“No, just talking,” Cara said.
“And?” Caroline asked.
Cara looked at Elliot and smiled. “We’re going to be friends.”
“Good,” Caroline said.
Elliot stood. “I better get back upstairs before they eat all my chicken.”
“Yeah, I had to leave or I was going to eat it,” Caroline confessed. “It smelled so good. I think that’s where we’re going now.”
Cara looked at her mom in confusion. “Where?”
“KFC!” Caroline said.
“Oh, yeah, that does sound good,” Cara said.
Elliot pulled his cell phone out of his back pocket. “Let me give you my cell number,” Elliot said to Cara. “You can call me anytime you’re ready.”
“Okay,” Cara said and dug her cell phone out of her purse. She didn’t offer to give him her number even though she should have. Cara just didn’t know when she would be really ready to talk about all that had happened between them, including becoming attracted to him when they were working together at the restaurant.
Caroline pulled Elliot into a hug. “I’m so glad you are okay. And I hope you go back to cooking at Sandy’s restaurant. Jason just doesn’t have your touch.”
“Thank you, Mrs. Marshall,” Elliot said. “I’m still waiting on the FBI to let me know when I’ll be needed for testifying and I’m going to see what Mom wants to do when she gets out of here.”
“Please, call me Caroline, and I totally understand. I gave your mom my number. Please keep in touch,” Caroline said.
“Take care, Elliot,” Cara said, turned and started heading for the doors.
Caroline shook her head sadly and hugged Elliot again. “Bye.”
“Bye,” Elliot said and waved at their retreating backs. With a heavy heart, he left the cafeteria and headed to the elevators. His biggest fear had come to pass. Cara couldn’t love him as a man.