Merope, Maybe : 19 / 19

 

Merope, Maybe : 19 / 19

[ Melanie Brown’s Switcher Universe ]
by Iolanthe Portmanteaux

 


"Beauty begins the moment you decide to be yourself."
— Coco Chanel


 

There were two more downpours during the night, each one lasting about three hours. The rain itself was pretty loud, but the noise that kept waking me was the wind, which whipped through the region like a fury, landing random punches on vulnerable structures, windows, and trees. In the nearby park, an enormous maple was ripped from the earth, and now lay on its side, half its roots exposed like a naked nerve plexus.

The theme of the weekend was aftermath.

Luckily, local flooding was limited and not too serious. On the other hand, fallen branches, and consequent downed power lines were nearly everywhere. Femke's apartment, like much of the city, was without electricity. The power company sent emergency text messages that cautiously projected it would take a week to fully restore power.

Even if we assumed that the estimate was high (that the power company's "week" was meant to lower expectations and to encourage planning), we still had no idea when it would come back on. Rowan's neighborhood, as it turned out, hadn't lost power, so Femke took refuge with him.

They invited me to come along, but I declined. I didn't want to be a third wheel in that little apartment, and I figured I could tough it out alone.

I could, but in the end it was profoundly boring. To my surprise, I had nothing to read! The only books in the house were Femke's, and were generally either psychology texts or murder mysteries written in Dutch.

Thinking, or imagining, that Dutch was something like English, I picked up one of the novels and read aloud. I thought maybe the sounds would eventually resolve into some kind of sense.

They didn't. The words did seem almost-English, but strangely altered, as though someone had taken the text, added extra vowels and other obfuscations. There was no way. I put the book back.

After two hours alone with nothing to do, the phrase climbing the walls began to echo in my brain. I went for a walk, but the streets and sidewalks were still heavily littered with debris, and very few stores were open. After returning home, I thought about taking a bath just for something to do... and I do mean quite literally that I spent some time thinking about it: I sat on the edge of the tub, fully clothed, and weighed the pros and cons of filling the tub and immersing myself.

In the end, I didn't take a bath.

I felt foolish, like a character from Waiting for Godot, like Gogo and Didi, who say about everything, "It will pass the time."

I thought about using some of my precious phone minutes to look up quotes from Godot, but didn't.

Happily, as I held my phone in hand, weighing the pros and cons of looking up something so eminently useless, a text from Cleo rescued me. Her neighborhood, like Rowan's, hadn't lost power, so she invited me to wait out the storm with her and Mukti.

In spite of my soul-deadening boredom, my initial inclination was not to go. The thing that decided the issue, that tipped me in favor of Cleo's offer, was battery power: I was down to about two hours on my laptop and only 26% remained on my phone, so I packed a quick bag and carefully made my way to Cleo's house. It took some slow, careful, sometimes nerve-wracking driving. I passed three telephone poles leaning perilously, one of them snapped off about three feet up, and suspended only by a few splinters of wood and by the wires connected to it. Black cables (electrical? internet? telephone?) lay draped across the streets. On one block I had to drive with two wheels on the sidewalk to avoid the massive limbs of a thick old tree. In another place I happened to glance up and brake just in time to avoid being struck by a log falling from above — courtesy of an earnest citizen with a chain saw, busy on his own, self-appointed DIY mission to make the world a better place.

I parked in my old driveway and entered through the kitchen. Mukti was busy cooking a fragrant stew.

"Don't judge me," he told me, half-embarrassed, half-apologetic, half-comic.

"Why would I judge you?" I countered.

"It's beef stew," he confessed. "Aren't you a vegetarian?"

"Not by a long shot," I replied, grinning. "Beef it up!"

Mukti had no comeback for that, so he told me that Cleo was on the phone, on a series of phone calls. "She said you should find a room that suits you. You know the house."

"I kind of thought I'd camp out in my old office."

"Oh!" he exclaimed, and apologetic: "I took your office over, I'm afraid. Hmm. Give me a half-hour. I can clear my stuff out—" I could see from his face that he was calculating the level of effort required, so I pre-empted:

"Don't do that. Don't put yourself out. What about the guest room in the basement — is that free?"

"Free and unencumbered!" he responded with a benificent glow. "Do you need help with your bags?"

Nice of him to offer, but no, I didn't need help. All I had to carry was my laptop bag and an airline carry-on. Neither of them were heavy. I'd only brought toiletries and clothes for a few days. I had no problem clumping down the stairs, although I did bump and thump the walls and stairs a bit as I went.

In less than twenty minutes I settled in. It was honestly a good choice of room: private, separate, clean, comfortable.

I plugged in my phone and laptop. They were happily sucking up power, looking forward to reaching 100%.

Once I booted my laptop, the first thing I did was check my email. Leon had thoughtfully sent a message telling us all to stay home both Monday and Tuesday as well. "The office will be closed both days. I've informed our clients. Given the current conditions, no one will be expected to work." Nice!

I listened for a moment, for sounds from upstairs, for my hosts walking around at least, but there was nothing. Quite a contrast to Femke's place, where the neighbors on the floor above dropped some heavy object on the floor each morning, and clomped back and forth from one end of their apartment to the other several times before leaving for work.

After a few moments appreciating the silence, I dove back into the contents of Stan's USB. So far I'd gotten through about half the documents, and that was just a superficial sort into categories, and the occasional jotting of notes. I was absorbed, lost in it, almost immediately, and had no sense of time passing.

Mukti had to call me three times before I heard him at all. "Lunch is ready!" he bellowed. "Are you coming?"

"Yes, yes!" I called. "Just give me a minute to wash my hands."

When I arrived upstairs, I found the kitchen table set. Mukti was dishing stew from a large pot with a big ladle. "Sit where you like," he told me. I took the seat farthest from the stove, thinking he'd be getting up and down.

Cleo sat directly across from me, her phone pressed against the side of her head. She waved a greeting at me, pointed at the phone and mouthed the words one minute.

I could only hear one side of the conversation. At first I thought she was talking to another psychologist, but the conversation quickly devolved into administrative matters, using words like funding, grants, outreach, and extension (whatever that last word meant).

She managed to close the conversation before Mukti set a basket of warm bread on the table and sat himself down.

"This smells amazing!" I exclaimed. Then, to Cleo, I asked, "Working on a Saturday?"

Cleo smiled in a way I hadn't seen in quite some time. It was that sort of smile that says I have a nice surprise for you! — as if it was my birthday.

"You've started a fire," she told me, and took a sip of water.

"You say that like it's a good thing," I replied, cautiously.

"Oh, it is! Do you know what a gold mine you've opened up?"

"Um, no, I don't. What are you talking about?" I prayed she didn't reply with yet another metaphor.

"This whole Switcher business! I've been talking to other mental-health professionals for days — almost every free moment — and every single one of them has the same reaction I had. No one can believe that there is no counseling, no follow-up, no anything for Switcher victims!"

"How can that be?" I asked. "How many years has the Switcher been, uh, alive? I mean, all the people he touched—"

"At first, law-enforcement agencies, intelligence agencies, government agencies, wanted to keep the whole business hushed up. They were afraid of panic, of fraud, of all kinds of disorder. I mean, if you can't depend on a person being who they are, who they've been, what kind of society can you have?"

"It sounds like a science-fiction novel," Mukti threw in.

"Now that people DO know about it, it's all wrapped up in conspiracy theories, and just when the government needs to put a strong hand on the tiller, the very agencies dealing with it are crippled by lack of funding and by a growing realization that they can't stop the Switcher; they can only mop up after him."

Cleo stopped to take a few mouthfuls of stew. Mukti picked up the thread. "Haven't you been following my podcast? Cleo and her colleagues are setting up a national network of mental-health professionals to treat and study Switcher victims! It's ground-breaking stuff!"

The two of them took turns, tag-teaming me in explaining the story.

"It's amazing how it's mobilized the therapy community. Imagine it: it's a totally uncharted area. There are no books, no academic papers, no protocols, not even the most rudimentary surveys..."

I took it in as well as I could. It was fairly overwhelming.

Then Mukti gave me a tap on the arm. "Hey — your friend Femke is involved as well. I'm surprised *she* didn't tell you all this."

"Oh, right," I replied. "She didn't. We live together, yeah, but we don't see each other all that much. She's over at Rowan's or at school, or wherever she goes. I don't see her much, actually."

When I said, don't see her much, Mukti raised his head and looked at the clock. "Oh, speaking of that— I have a PT session coming up in fifteen minutes. You might want to make yourself scarce... until about... well! I can call you when the coast is clear."

"What are you talking about?" I asked, puzzled. "And what's PT?"

"Physical therapy," he explained. He and Cleo exchanged glances.

"So?"

Cleo toyed with her waterglass, a faint smile playing on her lips. "Mukti's client is Pamela, from next door." [pause] "Wayne's mother."

"Oh!" I groaned, like a balloon deflating.

"She was over here Thursday afternoon, and she had quite a story to tell."

"She was spitting fire," Mukti added. I could see he was trying not to laugh.

"Well," I began defensively, although I'm not sure what I meant to say next.

"She thinks you took advantage of her son."

"Oh my God!" I cried.

"She called you a succubus," Mukti added.

"What the hell is a suckerbus?"

"I looked it up, just to be sure," Mukti informed me. "Succubus. Not Soccer Bus. It's a malign supernatural being, a female demon, who seduces vulnerable men and steals their soul through sexual activity."

"Whaaa!" I breathed, all the air going out of me. I'd never been accused of such a thing in my entire life!

Once I caught my breath and was able to speak, I told the story as it *actually* happened, from the little dog licking my ankle to my ride of shame with Ross.

I didn't leave anything out: I told them about the squeaky window, about being trapped beneath the sleeping Wayne, about the naked search for my phone, and the silent door that led outside.

Cleo's only comment was, "Ross always was a dog. Did he really say he never gave Pamela cause to be jealous? That's a laugh!"

After a moment's reflection, she added, "I guess it's natural to want to kick the tires..."

"I don't intend to make a habit of sleeping around," I declared, my cheeks burning.

Mukti and Cleo's cheeks were twitching, so I gave a reluctant huff and told them, "Go ahead and laugh. I don't care."

At that, the doorbell rang. "It's Pamela," Mukti announced. "I'll take a slow walk to the front door while you get out of sight."

Cleo grabbed my table setting and disappeared it into the dishwasher. "Pamela notices everything," she explained. Then (because the door to the basement was visible from the front door) she grabbed my arm and pushed me into hiding behind the couch. "Not a sound!" she hissed.

"What about my car?" I whispered.

Cleo made an exasperated noise and rolled her eyes.

In fact, the first words out of Pamela's mouth was, "Whose yellow car is that?"

Mukti, jovially: "A friend parked it here, so it wouldn't be damaged by the storm."

"Hmmph," Pamela replied in a doubtful tone.

Once Pamela and Mukti were closed in my old office, Cleo grabbed my arm. "Get downstairs and stay there quietly until we give the all clear. Got it?"

Mukti later told me that Pamela's eyes roved everywhere, looking for any sign of me.

"There wasn't a square inch of surface area on the entire first floor that she missed. If you'd left a single stray hair, she would have spotted it," he told me, grinning. "She could have a career in CSI."

 


 

By Wednesday, most things had returned to normal. Power was restored to Femke's apartment and to the office complex where I worked. Not everyone was back at work; some of the more far-flung suburbs were still in the dark and still encumbered with downed trees.

This meant that our shared parking lot was mainly empty. I was able, for once, to park close to the building, in view of my office windows.

At 10:30 I leaned back in my chair, stretching my upper back and shoulders. My movements stirred Dave, who smiled at me, then turned to look out the window.

"Hey, Merope — you drive a yellow Corolla, don't you?"

"Sure do. Why do you ask?"

"There's a kid, looks like a punk, sitting on the hood of your car."

I came over to look. It seemed like such an unlikely thing to happen. Our office park isn't within walking distance of anywhere or anything — not a convenient distance, anyway.

The "kid" was dressed in baggy jeans and wore a dark gray sweatshirt — not a hoody, I noticed — but she did wear a olive-colored watch cap. On her feet was a pair of dark blue Vans.

Dave bristled a bit and offered, "I can call Security for you, have him run off the property."

"It's a girl," I told him.

"How can you tell?"

"Something about her face."

Speaking of her face, the kid's face suddenly turned and looked me in the eye. She nodded directly to me, and gestured come on down here with her index finger.

"I'm going down there," I told Dave. "Do NOT call Security."

"That's a not a good — uh, do you want me to come with?"

"No, I'll be fine. I'll be back in a jiffy."

It had to be Laura. Somehow I knew. By now she was probably over her period, or at least over the shock of it.

The air outside was clean and clear, as though the recent rains had washed and purified it. The world was quiet, as far as I could hear, so my footsteps sounded loudly as they crunched over the grit and stones tossed here by the storm.

The girl was about five inches shorter than me and looked young, oh so young. I remembered that Laura told me she had just turned eighteen.

"What name are you going by?" she challenged.

"I'm Merope, Laura."

"No," she countered. "I just left Merope at home, and I'm not Laura, I'm Boyce."

"Is that what your driver's license tells you?" I asked quietly. "Do you have three forms of identification that prove you're Boyce?"

Frustrated confusion played across her features for a moment. She swept it away, and poking herself in the chest, hard, with her index finger said, "Inside. I am Boyce here, where it counts."

I told her — and I meant to say it kindly, but it came out much harder than I intended — "There are maybe five people in the world who'd give a shit about what you just said. Everyone else on earth will say, What's your name, little girl?"

Her face twisted in anger, but before she responded, I pushed on. "I'm Merope. You left Boyce at home, and you're Laura. I mean, what can any of us do? Explain our story to every single person we meet? If a cop pulls you over for speeding, will you say, Hey, funny story about my drivers license? When you go for a passport, do you think they'll be interested in your secret identity?"

"It's not a secret identity," she muttered.

"Look, I will try to not call you by any name, but if you say Boyce, I'll be thinking of the person who looks like Boyce, and if you say Merope, I'll think of the woman who looks like Merope."

She looked down at the ground. She cocked her right leg and rested her heel on my bumper.

"Can I do something for you?" I asked. "Why did you come here?"

She seemed deflated, a little discouraged. After a sigh and a shrug, she pulled herself together enough to ask, "Are you sure that the Switcher took those prototypes? The metal tubes about yay-big?" She illustrated the measurements by using thumb and forefinger like calipers.

"I'm absolutely positive. I saw him take four cylinders out of my bag, and he dropped them into his pockets."

She ran her hand over her mouth. It occurred to me, right in that moment, that the Switcher got rid of the cylinders before switching with Mukti. I mean, I knew, even if I didn't know for sure. Anson's pockets were empty by that point, and he was carrying a briefcase. Possibly a briefcase full of money?

I didn't mention it, because I didn't want Laura to go bother Mukti and Cleo.

"Okay. Tell me this: did you make a copy of my USB drive?"

"No."

"Did you download the files anywhere? To your computer? To any computer? To the cloud?"

"No to everything you asked. There is no copy. No download. No anything."

"Has anyone else seen what's on there?"

"No," I lied.

"Have to talked to anyone about the prototypes and the USB?"

"Boyce asked me this already," I pointed out. She bristled at the name. "I told the people at the processing center that the Switcher took the cylinders. They said they would tell the FBI, but they didn't. As far as the USB drive, I didn't even know I had it at first. It was stuck under a hem in my bag."

"And you told the FBI, right? Did they look at the files? Did they understand what it was about?"

"No, they could not have cared less. And I didn't have the USB with me when I talked to them. I don't think they believed there even *was* a USB drive. They acted like I was an attention-seeking loon."

She ruminated, quietly processing what I'd said.

"They told me that no theft of intellectual property had been reported, and that no one reported any industrial espionage. Does that make any sense to you? Do you believe it?"

She took a breath, thinking. "Yeah, it does." She looked up at me. "If it got out, it could kill the current round of VC funding. Just for starters. It could pull the plug on the whole thing."

"VC?"

"Venture Capitalists. Investors. Actually, I still have a contact inside the company, and they told me the same thing. You were the only loose end I needed to check on."

"I'm a dead end," I told her. "I don't have the prototypes, I don't have the USB drive." I shrugged.

"And you never met me," she said.

"Fine. Can I ask what you're going to do? Can you still sell the USB drive?"

She laughed. "You know, people talk like the Switcher is some kind of criminal mastermind. He's not. He's a guy with one weird-ass skill or trick. He took the prototypes, but they only get you so far. It isn't a complete implementation. It's not a guide to manufacturing. It's just a proof of concept."

"And the USB?"

"It gets you a little further, but there's one thing the Switcher couldn't steal."

I considered for a moment. I've never worked in manufacturing, but I did know a little something.

"Are you talking about know-how?" I asked her.

"Yep. And that — in spite of what the Switcher did — is still inside me."

"And the Chinese firm will pay for that?"

She smiled. Then Laura turned. She didn't bother to say goodbye.

"Hey," I called. "What about Merope? I mean, the original Merope?"

Laura stopped and stood up straight. "Yeah. I left her a note. Like you said, now she's Boyce. She's got my house, my car, my bank account. She'll be fine."

"But she won't have you."

Laura looked at the ground. "I thought we were going to be the Bonnie and Clyde of the twenty-first century. Then look what happened to me." She spread her arms. "I got screwed. Royally. Hey, is it true that you can only get switched once?"

"That's what I've heard."

"If I ever meet the Switcher again, I'm going to beat the living crap out of him, and then I'm going to kill him." She nodded several times. "That would give my life meaning."

With that, she turned and walked away. A black sedan waited at the edge of the parking lot. I turned away before she climbed inside.

 


 

There isn't much more to tell. Six months later, I got my own apartment, and was training in a more modern programming language, Elixir. I had hopes of changing jobs by the end of the year.

Nearly a year after Femke's experience with Stan, he landed on the FBI's Most Wanted list.

It began when Femke finally confided with Javier about her experience up north. Javier spoke with his brother, the state senator, who started an investigation. There was already some momentum to take apart the whole Switcher processing system, and that lent power and media interest.

Stan, predictably, went on the run, but was quickly intercepted in Belize.

At the beginning of November, my second November as Merope, I got an email. It was from Merope's mother. An invitation to Thanksgiving.

I'd been thinking about Merope's family, curious, wanting to get in touch, but not knowing how to start. A phone call? A visit? I couldn't work up the courage, but Merope's mother did.

I replied immediately, and gave her my number, proposing a video call. It was awkward at first, until I asked them to tell me about Merope, and that opened one door. Then, Merope's mom said softly, "Now, what about you, darling? Tell us about yourself."

The kindness in her voice brought tears to my eyes, and we started having nightly calls: some long, some short. We got to know each other.

"I always seemed on the wrong foot with Merope," her mother confessed, "and I didn't know how to fix it. Now I know that you're not really her, but at the same time I feel I've been given a second chance."

I flew to Omaha on the Saturday before Thanksgiving. I stayed in a hotel, just in case some emotional distance was needed.

On Sunday morning, I went for a walk, looking for a cute, friendly coffeeshop.

I hadn't gone far when a man, a good-looking thirty-something with reddish-brown hair and a nice smile stopped in front of me and exclaimed, "Merope? Merope Goddard! Is that really you?"

I laughed and told him, "Yes and no. Maybe. I'm Merope, maybe."

"Maybe?" he repeated.

"Yeah," I responded.

"Where do you get the maybe from?"

"Well...," I took a deep breath. "How much do you know about the Switcher?"

"Oh, come on now," he scoffed, but he was laughing when he said it, and he sounded interested. Very interested.



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