Stacy McNicholls trudged through the parking lot, feeling the salt-infused, tire-trodden, gray slop soak through her shoes, into her socks, and between her toes. She never remembered Minnesota being cold before, but she guessed that was because the thrill of going to Northern State kept her warm and insulated. She longed for those Super Stacy days, of being a top prospect and putting in fifteen points a game, but somewhere she’d lost it. Maybe it was in that scrimmage against Black Jackie, where everyone had been so confused when they started passing to each other. Maybe it had been the incident in Russia when she figured out that “Sooka Stackhouse” wasn’t Russian for Super Stacy. The coaching interviews had all gone well until she asked about the cheerleaders. Even her one attempt at a regular job had ended when she tried to dunk a basket into the deep fryer.
She’d been resigned to taking a job at the concession stand alongside the track stars and tennis dolls when a fan had told her about this place. The almost Owl Bar look to the front made her cringe; for one thing, hers weren’t big enough, and for another, the Owl Bar was almost the definition of ungreatness, but if she had to sling fries in a short skirt, it might as well be in red and blue.
The first detail she noticed was the sign—the Bulldog on the awning was school-issue, but the stein of beer that he hung onto was most definitely not. Then she saw the warm and inviting slogan. “Welcome to Becky Bulldog’s Bar and Grill, the greatest little great place in the greatest city on the banks of the Great Lakes”.
The trigger word jumped out at her again and again. She could barely avoid creaming her jeans in public. She ran as fast as she could to find privacy, hid behind a dumpster, and promptly fainted.
“Welcome home, Super Stacy,” the imposing brunette in the faded Northern State warm-up jacket said with a warm smile.
Stacy blinked herself awake and looked around. She was in a room that had the sense of being used for storage, though she was on a bed with well-soaked sheets. Nylon felt smooth against her skin, and she realized that she was dressed in her old game uniform.
“Umm, thanks... uhhh...”
“Becky Bulldog, greatest little owner of—sleep tight, little pup,” Rebecca said, watching Stacy’s body seize in delight as she once again fell into mindless joy at the trigger every Northern State Bulldog had. She pulled the sheet up to let Stacy dream of her glory days as Super Stacy once again, then stepped through the connecting door to her office, shaking her head as she went. Fourteen years... the dreaming woman on the bed had been eight years old when Rebecca had taken her first steps down this path.
Even in 1992, the women’s game had progressed enough that no matter how tall or strong she was, someone as clumsy and awkward both physically and socially as Rebecca Bullard would never be more than a mid-major prospect, and the schools that expressed the most interest in her were Division II, more interested in her GPA than her PPG.
The most recent straight-A report card she had brought home to her academically obsessed family had earned her a pair of North Stars tickets; her parents would have had conniptions if they knew what she was planning to do there. Even fourteen years later, she could remember shivering in her short and somewhat improvisational skirt, the prettiest thing she had owned at the time, even if it had been made out of her older (and much more petite) sister’s old prom dress. She hadn’t been cold at the time, though. She’d been thinking too much about stealing a kiss from one of her hockey heroes, or even earning a flirtatious look from one of them.
What she’d gotten instead was heavily accented fawning over her long legs from one of the training camp rejects. The attention had been enough to make her panties tingle in ways a seventeen-year-old best understood from illicit reading, and as she was lost in his presence, she no longer cared what his intentions were, or even whether he would be there the next morning. All that mattered was him, and how he held her hand as she led him to her car and he led her to his hotel room.
By the time she was home, Rebecca Bullard was a fading memory and Becky Bulldog was just being born, indifferent to the lecture from worried parents when she showed up the next morning.
Back then, she had had no idea that she was the first subject of twenty years of Soviet research tucked away in the mind of a mad genius who had the guts, but not the platform, to implement his schemes—not until she started talking about the rabid following college sports had in America. At the time, she hadn’t had anything to judge it against, but looking back, that qualified as the strangest pillow talk she had ever experienced.
He was the brains of the operation, always had been and always would be, but she was the public face of the plan. A single simple promise to an athletic program that had been the laughingstock of Division I, and it had built up into the empire that Northern State could now be acknowledged as. For most people, the accomplishment there would have been plastered all over the walls in bright red and navy blue, but Rebecca kept no pictures from her on-court days. Her Northern State photos were one of a kind, from a life off the court that no one could have imagined, hand in hand and arm slung over the shoulders of Anton Barnevsky. She was the only one who had known the shy Russian who stumbled over even the simplest English phrases; to everyone else, he wore the self-assured false face of Midwestern Anson Barnett.
Before Becky Bulldog had ever worshipped Anson, Rebecca Bullard had fallen in love with Anton.
The plan had been fast and simple: build an empire through his multi-layered and super-effective mind control techniques, which would allow his athletes to gain an edge both on the court and in the classroom. Winning would draw the fans in, which would draw in better athletes, starting a cycle that would be just a little bit better than the last. It had worked—worked too well, spinning so far out of control that Rebecca now needed five franchisees across the state to pick up the pieces.
Every time another young Bulldog crossed her path, Rebecca wondered again what to call herself? Bitter first victim, still bearing the scars from Anton’s earliest experiments? Angry ex-girlfriend who couldn’t stand seeing her man with anyone else? Concerned alumna trying to keep the Bulldog name pure and Anton’s secret safe? Or an unholy mix of all three? Whatever she was, she was content to remain it. Being a refuge for those who the control overwhelmed was simply her way of giving back to the man and the school that had given her so much. And as menial as the tasks at the Bar and Grill were, they were still better than the low-level scut work that Anton would give the alumni at the university.
Of course, the fact that her bars were packed every night with Northern State fans too blinded by the décor to notice who their servers were, or how much they were spending, might have influenced her thinking, but she didn’t like to think about that.
“She’s awake. Again,” Ross informed her. Rebecca looked over at her husband with a smile. It was hard to believe they’d once been such bitter enemies, the woman who had defined Northern State athletics and the man who had sworn to take them down, but they had settled into a relationship that worked on multiple levels. For one, both of them now had more damning information than would be needed to bury Anton and destroy Northern State if things went too far. For another, they had a lot in common once they got past their initial enmity, and some nights Rebecca could pretend that they were a normal couple with no skeletons in the closet.
For a third thing, Ross was tall, dark, handsome, and could do things to her no Northern State athlete could even dream of, and he appreciated everything she had learned in four years at Northern State. On those nights, Rebecca was more than happy to admit that they weren’t a normal couple, and would do it with a devilish smile.
“Thanks, hon,” she said with a kiss, and gathering her thoughts, she headed towards the basement room where she had stowed Stacy for the time being. “Hello... again,” she greeted Stacy.
“Whoa, what came over me? Please don’t say me. Gosh, I hope you have a shower around here. I am so sorry! I don’t think I can stop apologizing—I don’t know what happened, it’s like-”
“After six months of being beaten down, we just remind you how great you are, and it’s been a long time since you’ve heard that. And you really needed to remember how great you were, didn’t you?” Rebecca said, the smile on her face plastered on so Stacy wouldn’t notice how carefully Rebecca was scrutinizing her reactions.
“Right. I guess. I don’t even know why I came here. I’m just so confused,” Stacy continued, her voice a little dreamy from the rapid hits of the trigger word.
“Happens to the greatest of us Bulldogs. Oh, dear. Ross, get her some water before she hyperventilates herself back to sleep. Now where were we? I think I was still introducing myself when you gave out. Name’s Becky Bulldog, and if you recognize it, it might be because I was Anson and JC’s first major recruit in women’s basketball. Given your reaction, I guess you’re looking for a job here while you get back on your feet.” Rebecca looked up as Ross came back with a glass of water and a glass of something stronger. “Thanks, dear. Take this. That should make you feel better,” she said to Stacy, passing over the glass of water as she sat down on the bed next to the confused former basketball player.
“Thanks,” Stacy said. Lowering her voice to a whisper, she went on, “So, um, why am I so... hot?”
“It happens. Look, I went to Northern State, so I know what happened to you. It’ll be okay. You have a home here, and I’ll help you get back on your feet,” Rebecca replied in the same whisper.
“So you’ll work with me to get my jump shot back? And work on my passing? I had no idea you were a coach! Oh my God, this will be-”
“Great?” Rebecca suggested slyly, trying not to laugh at the girlish squeal of excitement and the way Stacy’s eyes bugged out. “Or something like that. Come on. Time to suit up. Off to the shower with you.”
Once Stacy was safely ensconced in the bathroom, Rebecca shut the door and sagged against the wall. Ross came over and put an arm over her shoulder. “How far gone is she?” he asked sympathetically.
“Pretty damn bad. All she knows is basketball. And she’s worse than the last one, who was worse than the last one, who was worse than the last one. The cycle’s working perfectly, and it scares me shitless. They’re getting stronger on the outside and weaker on the inside—it’s no wonder more than half of them get swept up by some scavenger and turned into someone else’s new toy, and the percentage of ones that just go crazy is going up every year. What is it, one out of fifty that can rebuild their lives without help?” Rebecca shook her head and throttled back the hysterical note in her voice. “I have to remind him of who he was again. In the meantime, I’ve gotta get Stacy settled in. For now, it’s dishes. I don’t want her ruining the carpet in front of customers. I just paid for that, and you know how much it cost.”
Ross held her close and stroked her hair, knowing that banalities like the price of the carpet insulated her from the worst of the implications that passed before them every day. For all of the toughness she was showing, she was biting back years of frustration. He knew she wondered whether Anton was in control of anything anymore- and for himself, he wondered if she was beyond anyone’s control; since he wasn’t fond of the idea of being beaten to a pulp, he kept that to himself.
She patted him on the shoulder, a time-honored signal that she needed to move on, and headed back to her office. “Is this what you dreamed it would be, Anton?” she asked herself. “Are you still trying to build people better than the average to build a better society? Or have you fallen under Anson’s spell the way so many other people have?”
The ideas might have been Stalinist trash, but the cynic that Rebecca had become found comfort in the idealist she had once loved, the man she still loved more than she could admit. Not Anson Barnett- she hated the boisterous, sex-crazed, trash-talking AD at Northern State as much as the most hardened Mindcrime agents and the rest of the Big Ten did—but the man behind the mask, whose confidence was only ever in his science and who was only at ease when no one else was around.
The early years had been nothing like what had followed. She and Anton had been equals, he growing the program to dominance with back office moves and laying the foundation, she leading the team and bringing in the fans. The tricks had started out simple: honing observational skills to a point where even the most casual thought of friend and foe alike could be read, learning some of the tricks of control, picking up ways to ace boring classes without paying conscious attention. And of course the victory parties had been legendary. Some things didn’t change—they just scaled up and out of control. First it had been basketball and football, then track, then every sport; through serial recruiting, they’d even branched out to academic competitions with that girl on Jeopardy!.
But behind the success was something uglier than Rebecca had ever wanted, and it was that secret darkness that had her calling the admissions office at Northern State to see if she could find out what Super Stacy was like before she was super.
“I know that look, Rebecca. You’re thinking that he’s gotten to be too much,” Ross said from the doorway. “He’s offering control as a major. He’s gone too far. It’s time to let the truth be known.”
Rebecca sighed. “Anson’s gone too far, but not Anton. That’s why I’m still here. Someone has to remind him of what Northern State was supposed to be.”
“Which is?” Ross inquired with a tilt to his head.
“A place where the soul would grow into something special, not where it would be mauled to the point that you can’t function with your degree.” The snarl in her voice was Ross’s cue to back off verbally and offer quiet, physical reassurance. She let him think he was helping, but her thoughts were in too much turmoil to be so easily soothed. She had been the first, the media darling of the first championship team, the hometown girl who’d known the right things to say and brought a title to a town that needed it. Football would follow the next year, and that opened the floodgates. Peggy Jensen- no, Miss Peggy; any other name was long forgotten and unnecessary—had figured out how to apply control methods during recruiting, and from that time, not one in a hundred of Northern State’s targeted recruits had gotten away.
Becky Bulldog was supposed to do the same on the professional level. She would build the women’s game in the pro ranks and become the poster child for the system, a player who could never be selfish, never worry about breaking down, never worry about slacking off. She’d been the first player signed by the IWBL, and Anton’s genius mind was quick to realize that having one of his alumni succeed on the professional level would bring the program to heights undreamed of in all of their planning.
But that had been before the first practice. Looking back, Rebecca had to laugh at who she had been and how she had become who she was, a progression from someone who couldn’t recognize a clue until it was pounded into her subconscious with a hammer to a self-aware woman able to conjure up the legend of Becky Bulldog at a moment’s notice.
If it hadn’t been for her teammates—but there would be time to reminisce about that later. She had to put in another appearance to check on her recruit, so she squared her shoulders and summoned up the old arrogance as she checked on Stacy. “Feeling better?” she asked as she popped her head into the bathroom. “Looks like you knew that you didn’t have a cheerleader to handle the soap for you. It’s the little things that count. Gotta crawl before you can walk, after all.”
Stacy dried herself off, seeming not to care that there was a virtual stranger in front of her, and changed into the red t-shirt and shorts waiting for her. “So what would I be doing?” she asked.
“That’s up to you. No, really, that’ll be up to you. But let’s start at dishwashing,” Rebecca suggested.
Stacy shrugged. “I guess that’ll improve my ballhandling.”
Every impulse Rebecca had screamed at her to hit Stacy upside the head and set her straight right then and there, but years of experience told her to wait. Stacy had to understand that her basketball career was over—if nothing else, she wouldn’t leave Rebecca’s domain chasing will-o-the-wisps and being suckered into other people’s schemes. As well, it would give her a shorter leash to play out while she waited to see if Super Stacy could ever become plain Stacy McNicholls again. She had more than enough waitresses that were hers forever, never able to function beyond the simple tasks she gave them, never able to accept that there was anything beyond Northern State. They were good for business, but bad for her ego, and even though that was their decision (of sorts), she still hated it. But she had a challenge at hand to worry about, and she corralled her wayward thoughts. “Bring anything with you? I’ll show you where you can stow it.”
“Y’all live here?” Stacy asked with a confused and not entirely approving look on her face.
“It’s a dog eat dog world out there, and not always in the fun way. Someone needs to keep you out of the concession stands,” Rebecca replied with a smile.
“Right. Forgot about that. I guess washing dishes won’t be that bad,” Stacy admitted. If nothing else, she needed the money, since her only check from Russia was long gone.
“If you don’t have anything with you, we can have it picked up from where you were staying before. So let me show you to the basement- that’s where we house you pups. Hopefully, while you’re down there, you’ll grow into something great,” Rebecca said. Sometimes taking control was as simple as timing the trigger word to break down the first hint of resistance. Simplistic, but it had worked for years.
Stacy’s eyes were glazed over as she mumbled, “Looks comfy.” Rebecca hid a smile. Only someone tranced out and oblivious would find anything “comfy” about barracks in a basement room hidden behind a false meat locker. The rows of bunks were simple and efficient. While each had a TV, a foot locker or overhead compartment, and a curtain for privacy, the overall effect was of being a communal citizen in a large kennel.
Rebecca checked the curtains and the lockers, frowning at the periodic open curtain that revealed something better left to privacy, until she came to an empty space. “Last row. Lucky you, you get the bottom bunk and a little peace and quiet until the next grad comes along.”
“Guess I gotta start somewhere. Anyone here I know?” Stacy asked.
“Might be. I don’t know how much mixing the teams do these days. Most of your class and the ones right before are on shift—it’s dinnertime, you know. But right now... be great and don’t blink.”
Stacy stared at Rebecca in wide-eyed confusion, which was perfect for Rebecca’s purposes as she popped open the gaudy ring she wore on her right hand and blew the powder in it right into Stacy’s face. When Stacy breathed it in, she froze in her tracks and fell onto the bed, stiff as a board.
Many thought that zombie powder was fatal, or just the stuff of late night movies. In reality, the movies and the urban myths were there to dissuade amateurs from trying to recreate the complex blend of sedatives and hypnotics that induced the near-dead trance of folklore. Those of the voudoun faith guarded the recipe, sometimes with their lives. Tammy Wilkerson hadn’t been willing to go quite that far, no matter how deeply she believed in the spirits of the world, but she was one of the most adept practitioners of the craft in the United States, one who flew under the radar because she had never practiced for her own gain. But Becky Bulldog’s arrogance during that initial shootaround—dismissing everything that wasn’t blue, red, and from Minnesota in an almost refreshingly total manner, with complete disregard for race, sex, religion, or sexual orientation—was legendary, a cautionary tale that was bandied about for years to come.
As Tammy had explained in her thick accent years later, “Child, wasn’t any way in de world I was lettin’ you run dat team into de ground, no matter what Morganstern say. Point guard leads de team, and first t’ing I had to do was lead Rebecca back out from under dat blue and red spirit holdin’ her down.”
Just for the flash of a moment, Rebecca wondered where Tammy was now, and if she had any idea of what Rebecca had become, and if she was still trying to salvage Bulldogs. That was for another time, though; at the moment, Rebecca’s hands were full. She asked the probing questions that she knew would bring forth all of Super Stacy’s trials and tribulations up to the point where she’d come to Rebecca. “All that training and you still couldn’t tell that Black Jackie was no longer on your team?”
“She dunked it on their asses! It was great!” The shiver that ran through her as she described the moment was almost orgasmic, and her pride in Northern State shone through even in her entranced state.
Rebecca’s mouth twisted. This was going to be difficult. “I bet. So tell me about life before Northern State... and at Northern State.” She listened to every sordid detail, holding back her sighs but shaking her head at the story. Back in Rebecca’s day, the arrangements were simple: boyfriend off the team to show family values and promote a tighter community within the department, girlfriend on the team to cover all bases and knit the team together internally. What Stacy described sounded more like a series of pornographic videos, more intense and more extreme than anything Rebecca even wanted to imagine. She was relieved when Stacy finished describing the post-graduation orgy so that she could open the ring on her left hand to release the slow-acting antidote that would take Stacy from the trance state into a deep, natural sleep.
As she was tucking Stacy into bed, a spot on the back of her neck tingled. She turned and saw Ross waiting for her, and her face turned solemn. “Did she tell you anything useful?” he asked, joining her in the short walk up to the kitchen.
“Only if you decide to give up this exciting journalistic life and become a porn producer. So no.”
“Hey, you never know,” Ross replied with a forced laugh. He followed Rebecca’s gaze to the dishwashers, mindlessly cleaning and drying better than any machine.
“It’s getting too easy to take and keep them, you know. How much further can they go before I can’t even help them?” Rebecca asked, and only to Ross would she show that kind of fear.
“You haven’t gotten to that point yet. Track star, soccer player, swimmer—they didn’t have prospects before you got your hands on them, and now they’re productive. That’s more than anyone else can do with them. And then there’s the waitstaff...”
“They’re still red and blue on the inside, and if the alpha calls, they’ll come whining. It’s the best I can do, but what if the best I can do isn’t enough?”
“If it’s the best that you can do, then what else can you do? The only way you can get closer to them is by working with Anton more closely, but I don’t know if we could do the whole Mormon thing with him...” Ross trailed off before the dishrag in the face could cut him off.
“If I wanted that kind of help, I’d go to Denver, not Provo.” Rebecca rolled her eyes. “Not that that kind of help would be any good. What does she know about Anton and what he does? Besides, she’s a cop. I’m not calling the cops on him. It’d make things worse!”
“Is that the real reason? Or are you still his more than you’ll ever be mine?” Ross asked with a note of dread in his voice.
“Don’t remind me. It’s been a very long day, and it’s getting longer by the second.” This last was said as Stacy walked slowly out of the back room in her embroidered red shirt and blue shorts and mechanically took her place in the dishwashing line. There was no real awareness in her eyes when she grabbed her rag and started scrubbing like there was nothing more important to do in the world.
“They have to know the conflict’s there before they can resolve it,” Ross said gently. The earliest stages of deprogramming always unnerved Rebecca, bringing back as they did the conflict that put her in this position in the first place. Four years of programming and Anton’s overwhelming presence had run up against Tammy’s intense deprogramming and the power at her fingertips, creating a conflict that was too much for even the strongest and fittest body to bear. No one outside the community knew what to think of Rebecca’s on-court collapse at her homecoming game in Minnesota, except to recollect the worst fates that had befallen star athletes in the past. All the tests came back normal (though some eyebrows were raised at the STD tests), revealing no heart damage or arrhythmia.
No one from the community gave any public statements, either. There was really no good way to explain that the son of a Soviet researcher and a voodoo priestess had had a throwdown in Rebecca’s mind, and that they’d nearly torn her apart. And like a good Bulldog, Rebecca was loyal to her school—and her teammates. She couldn’t expose Anton and she couldn’t expose Tammy, so she announced that she had a heart condition and couldn’t play any longer.
In a way, she was right. The conflict systematically took away everything that had made her a star, leaving her the clumsy, awkward-shooting player she had been at seventeen. She might have done well on some second-division European team, but the scrap of her that was still Becky Bulldog wasn’t satisfied with anything but the best, so she became a journeywoman, the butt of every joke, until she found her way back to Minnesota and a place where she could make herself useful again.
“You’re thinking about back in the day,” Ross said in mock accusation.
“About my ‘heart condition’,” she agreed, dropping in the air quotes with a note of self-loathing in her voice.
“Which one? The broken heart? Or the fact that you have a heart at all?” Ross asked, putting his arms around her waist and one hand over her heart. She leaned into his strong support and savored one of the few things in her life that she knew wasn’t programmed, even as it was tempered with her love for Anton. Thinking about the first man she had ever loved, and what had become of him, made her come closer to crying every time, even seven years after she retired from the pros and opened her refuge for Anton’s victims (with help from several Northern State boosters who might have been blind to what caused the downfall of ex-athletes, but not to the results).
Her mouth quirked bitterly as she regarded the latest of those results, Stacy washing away without a care in the world, a five-star athlete reduced to a worthless dishwasher at a two-star dive.
“You could tell him to stop it or you’ll talk,” Ross suggested.
“I could. You could. But I won’t and I can’t. Let Jo Mackey take over the team? Or maybe Ally Byrd? You didn’t have to cover the Danes’ game against the Peaches this year. Whatever Anton’s been teaching them, it works—oh, it works too well. Anton has a heart underneath all that ‘greatness’. The ones after him have nothing but ‘greatness’,” Rebecca said, mocking the quotation marks in a sign of emotional distress so great that even the enthralled dishwashers took a step away from her as their survival instincts kicked in. “What he does now, it’s justified, has been since the start and gets more so with time. Otherwise, one of them would take over and be worse. That’s how I know he has a heart, because if he didn’t, he wouldn’t give up his secrets and give at least some of his athletes a chance to do something with their education.”
Ross stepped away, letting her have her space. “I understand.”
“No. No, you really don’t, but thanks for trying to. It’s almost 2. Time to close up for the night,” Rebecca said, changing the subject with abruptness that meant no one could gainsay her. She started rounding up her troops and getting them marshaled into bed, shooing Ross out as she did.
Several hours later, she stood over Stacy’s bunk with her arms crossed, shaking her head. “Well, at least she didn’t fall asleep on some poor unsuspecting girl in the 69,” she said. Stacy was still too out for her liking, but it would take time for the young woman’s badly battered mind to reset from the controls placed on her.
“Geez, how badly did you knock her out? She didn’t even give anyone a kiss for old time’s sake, just zombied in and went kerflop. This place is getting kinda boring, but I guess that’s a good thing,” one of the waitresses said. Rebecca turned and looked down at Desiree Allensworth, formerly Desiree the Desire Ray and queen of women’s volleyball for four years. Part of her was concerned at Desiree was slipping, but at the end, she laughed.
“Maybe for you. A fresh bulldog seeing a juicy rump roast like yours in our jean shorts? I keep ‘em on a leash for a reason,” Rebecca shot back. Desiree laughed herself into obedience, heading for the showers without another thought. Rebecca turned back to the bunk and belted out, “Now, as for you, more dishwashing or are you going to get your ass out of bed? It’s 11 and we open at noon!”
Her control had taken root perfectly, she saw, as Stacy shot up out of bed before her eyes even had a chance to open.
“Wow, I was out cold, wasn’t I? And... there was no one here? No one munched on me? That’s... different,” Stacy mumbled, grabbing her head and trying to gather her thoughts.
“I know. Not taking advantage of people at their most vulnerable, what a novel concept,” Rebecca said, the disgust dripping from her voice. It was disgust born of long experience; she knew better than anyone outside the program what kind of carnal rewards Northern State used to cement their trigger phrases and programming.
“So was that my first lesson? Or something? I have things to do,” Stacy said.
Rebecca smiled. No mention of basketball anywhere—a very good sign. “I was going to show you around the greatest little great place we have here.” The corner of her mouth quirked upward in a smile as Stacy merely crossed her legs, another good sign. Sometimes even Rebecca needed to reach for a convenient vibrator (or a convenient husband) when she fired off the trigger three or four times in a row, so for a newly indoctrinated recruit to just cross her legs, no matter how tightly together she pressed them, showed promise and strength of will.
“That would be nice,” Stacy said, trying and failing to hide how flushed she was becoming.
“Great! I think your fellow Bulldogs would be happy to help show you the ropes,” Rebecca said. The double entendre was yet another test, but this time Stacy didn’t pass. At the prospect of a return to Bulldog bonding, she fell back on the bed with her shorts around her knees.
“Couldn’t expect one day to be enough,” Rebecca sighed as she turned away from Stacy’s writhing form and went back upstairs to get ready for the day.
Ross was waiting for her with a devilish smile. “I take it she couldn’t handle one of your dirty jokes,” he said.
“No one can that soon. Makes sense, since nymphomania is the first symptom of Anton’s overload.”
“Really? The way we are, I would never have guessed that,” Ross said, sticking his tongue out at her.
Sometimes she was willing to play along, but this wasn’t one of those days. She turned and glared at him with such ferocity that he couldn’t do anything but back off. For a moment, she was alone, and she saw in her mind’s eye Stacy’s writhing form again, and it brought back memories of her college years. She had been Anton’s first and foremost, but she had been a Bulldog, and that meant that she belonged to the team as much as they belonged to her. The memories of some of those locker room trysts still made her warm between the legs, even years and a marriage later.
“Told you she was still Northern State,” she heard Desiree say with a laugh as she passed by with a former swimmer, both in their waitress uniforms. Desiree had no idea how lucky she was that she had jolted Rebecca out of the beginning of the fantasy; given that Rebecca was remembering LaKeisha Carr, Desiree would have ended up on the floor in another minute, and as worn out as Brand New Carr had been in ten more minutes. But Rebecca was aware of her responsibilities, so she went back downstairs to check on Stacy, who had come out of her Bulldog haze long enough to drift back into Rebecca’s sphere of influence and was dressed in her waitress uniform, eyes vacant as she waited for a command.
“I’m showing you around, unless you think you have something better to do,” Rebecca snapped at her, using a sharp tone to wake her up and establish their respective places in the hierarchy. Stacy blinked awake and let Rebecca lead her upstairs, each step clearing the fog over her brain.
“Sorry, I’ve been blanking out a lot lately. You must think I’m a idiot,” Stacy said, slightly embarrassed.
“I’d be worried if you weren’t having blank periods after four years at Northern State. I still get them sometimes,” Rebecca replied with a reassuring smile. “And this is our main dining room.”
“Yeah, that’s what most people say.”
Stacy stood transfixed at the red and blue interior with just about every letter of Northern State history written on the walls, tables, chairs, and even the little bulldogs in the carpet.
“Health department wouldn’t let us use doggie dishes to serve the food in,” Rebecca added.
“Don’t need it,” Stacy said with a grin. The gleam in her eyes told Rebecca that she had accepted this as her new home, and that was enough for Rebecca to click her ring back into the off position. She watched as Stacy took off, grabbed a tray, and put on the nametag with her Bulldog nickname on it, getting herself ready for lunch service. The kiss she gave Desiree was a bit more intense than would normally be accepted in public, and the coy, “Could you straighten my nametag... oh, yes, just there!” lacked subtlety.
The first step had been taken, transitioning Anton’s Super Stacy to Rebecca’s Stacy McNicholls. Now the long process of making Rebecca’s Stacy into Stacy’s Stacy, into a free woman who could function on her own, could begin.
Most people would not be able to carry off a schoolgirl’s skirt in red and blue with any elegance. Most people were not Rebecca Bullard. Though the skirt stopped well above her knee, and though the royal blue blouse revealed more cleavage than it had been designed to show, there would be no doubt in anyone’s mind that she meant business. “You must be going to the campus. You never dress like that for me,” Ross said with a leer.
Rebecca giggled and kissed him onto the bed, making sure that he got a couple of peeks up her skirt and down her blouse before she became all business once again. Ross recognized the change in mood. “Basketball players always hit you the hardest, don’t they?”
“You’re surprised why, dear?” Rebecca asked archly.
“I know that they were your team before they were Anton’s. But is this a business visit or a personal visit?”
“If I were going on personal business, I’d be letting Stacy burn off the excess tonight,” Rebecca replied, which did the trick of making Ross shut up and fantasize about his beautiful wife, both with and without a gorgeous young blonde. She left him alone and went out to the car, picking up her old blazer as she went out. The list of needed items for her latest employees rested on the passenger seat, and she looked over it as she went. Only half her mind was on the road, just enough to make note of lights and the flow of traffic; it wasn’t like she needed to think about how to get back to that fateful place.
The Anton she had known had been a kind man, after all, and a great teacher, sharp-witted and somewhat shy. His shyness had been a problem early on; he had needed his loyal Rebecca to convince him to expand the program to football, and to build up his courage to take the reins instead of delegating to his coaches. Inside or outside the community, she knew that no one would ever believe that the man who could use any object to do a successful induction on even the toughest mind could barely ask her out to dinner when she had been on her knees waiting for any command.
She knew Anton was still there, because he still defied the boosters and the people who thought they knew when they tried to stop her blunt comments about the school on TV, on the radio, and in the Star Tribune. She knew Anton was still there, because otherwise her project would have stalled years ago instead of growing bigger and better every day. As much as she loved Ross, this was why she still loved Anton, and why she still did what she could for him—he saw the evil, but could do nothing about the monster he had created.
She pulled into a convenient parking space, not bothering to check whether it was reserved; being Becky Bulldog had some advantages in the state of Minnesota. Her smile was broader than even the soccer team’s as they ran to their locker room for their reinforcement. She walked through the campus and into Anton’s office first as she always did, flaunting her legs in her skirt as if she were still the seventeen-year-old girl he charmed outside the arena before he charmed an entire state.
“Ah, Becky Bulldog! Who do you have in your little kennel these days?” Anton asked with a nervous smile.
“Super Stacy’s the newest pup. There are a few others whose things I need to collect so they’ll feel at home. I assume you’ll give me access to Miss Peggy and the files in the guidance office, of course,” Rebecca replied, letting enough subtext slip through to scare him.
“Would I do anything else? She’s in the office now. Care to give Ker-eee L and the crew a pep talk while you’re here?”
“So not a cheerleader, you should know that,” Rebecca replied with a flip of her hair.
“True, true,” Anton said in a tone of voice that made Rebecca look sharply at him. Before she could voice the question that was forming in her mind, he asked, “So was it the time away from me this time, or a more general lack of reinforcement?”
“Wouldn’t you like to know what’s in my mind?” Rebecca countered with an inscrutable smile, knowing that he would tear at that for hours after she left, looking for the hidden meaning. She had to do this to him every time, each time giving him a different answer to the questions he was really asking: Why aren’t you at the desk next to mine? Why aren’t you still here? Why are you not Rebekah Barnevsky in my bed and Becky Barnett to our adoring public? A moment of pity softened her heart, and with a look at the empty desk next to him, she said, “I realized how deadly staying a team would become.”
As if it had been yesterday, she remembered one of the early lessons he had taught his players. Success is a given. If there is failure, it must be memorialized so it will not repeat itself. That was why he kept the empty desk with her nameplate on it next to him. That was why her #0 hung alone from the rafters, despite the brilliant players that had worn the red and blue of Northern State.
“Staying? Or being?” he asked with a small laugh that hid deep fear. Rebecca was the only one he could reveal it to, and in turn that fear made her realize why she remained a loyal Bulldog, no matter how often she (metaphorically, of course) peed on his rug or chewed up his favorite slippers to let him know his place.
“Either. Imagine all this without you,” she said with a friendly hug. He laughed, and once again Anson’s mask was in place. She winked at him as she walked out the door to her next destination.
“These are the things you requested,” Miss Peggy said in a flat, almost robotic voice. The white powder that dotted the collar of her navy blouse was the only clue that she served Rebecca in this task.
“Great. Now get back to work,” Rebecca replied, administering the other side of her ring. She hadn’t needed to do either. Anton’s trigger was enough for someone like Miss Peggy, always was and always would be. Becky Bulldog armed with Anton’s trigger could do whatever she wanted on the campus of Northern State, and that was why Rebecca Bullard chose to use the weapons given to her by another.
She rifled through the box to see if there was anything of particular interest, or anything that would warn of interference from another group, but mostly she laughed at the cute little mementos that Miss Peggy collected from parents and friends of Northern State’s recruits. Some people knew enough to know that they’d lost a friend or a child, even if they didn’t understand the whole of the matter, and knew enough to be afraid of what would happen if they tried to expose Anton, but didn’t know enough not to hope that there was some glimmer of the person they had known before hiding under Bulldog bravado.
Sometimes she wondered how she would have reacted if someone had come up to her with a piece of her old life when she was still nothing but Becky Bulldog. Most of the time she wasn’t interested in that kind of introspection, and this was one of those times. She put the box on the passenger seat next to her and drove back to the restaurant in time for the whirlwind of dinner service to begin.
After the chaos was finished and she could let her guard down for a moment, she looked over her creation, over the shrine that buried the soulless. Some could and had found their souls again and gone on to different lives. Most hadn’t, and for as long as she could, she would protect them from the cruelty of the real world.
She didn’t blink as Ross came up behind her and put his arms around her waist, tracing the line of her belt. “I guess all dogs do go to heaven,” he said.
“If you can call this heaven. At least it’s not hell,” she replied.
“Don’t worry. You’re doing... dare I say it...” He grinned and pulled her more tightly to him so he could whisper the last word in her ear. “Great.”
“I thought you’d never say it,” she said with a ragged gasp, letting the trigger go to her head as she buried her tongue in his mouth, letting the past few days melt away in her husband’s arms.
“Is it always like this?” Stacy asked Desiree as they watched on one of the security cameras, both licking their lips and smiling conspiratorially at each other.
“Basketball players are the best at bringing out the Bulldog in Becky. Oh, yeah, she’s still there, no matter how much she plays it down. Even with all the nasty things she says in the papers, she’s a good teammate and a very great Bulldog,” Desiree replied with a naughty grin, kissing Stacy in an echo of the image on the video screen.