Switched! - 1. Reasonably Terrified

A Switcher Tale...

Switched!
Switched!

1. Reasonably Terrified

by Lulu Martine

I came out of the UCLA Student Financial Services building in my wheelchair and saw the girl throwing up on the sidewalk. I started toward her without really stopping to think. She looked like she needed help.

Closer up, I realized she was younger than I had thought. Barely five-feet tall, in platform high-heel sandals that made her look taller, and a bomber jacket that gave her some bulk—she might be as young as eleven, and most likely not much older.

So, probably not a university student. She wore long, straight, dark hair, and cheap jewelry, with her skinny legs in a miniskirt. It's not that cold in LA in November, but she must have been freezing with the wind coming off the mountains above the city.

"Miss?" I called out. "Miss, do you need help? Should I call someone for you?" I had my phone in my lap, using both hands to maneuver my chair.

A police car pulled to the curb, and an officer got out. "Do we need medical transport here?" he asked.

"I don't know?" I said. I moved closer to the girl, but I didn't want to get splattered with what she was spewing. It looked nasty.

She still hadn't said anything, but that changed when she suddenly straightened up, screamed, and collapsed onto the pavement, lying in her own vomit. The policeman and I reached her about the same time, he being more agile on his feet than I with my wheels, but me with a closer starting point.

I don't remember if I said anything. She opened her eyes and reached toward me, and I stuck out my hand. The next thing I knew, the world had exploded in light, sound, and pain. My muscles convulsed, and I felt myself being cast into some sort of abyss.

*

When I came to—I didn't feel I'd been out long—the cop was standing over me, smiling—with a gun in his hand. "Get up," he said, holding out his other hand.

I didn't realize I had fallen to the pavement, but that's where I was. I tried to explain that I had a bone disease that had collapsed my spine, and my legs were too weak to hold me up. He simply reached down and pulled me to my feet, and I was standing for the first time in more than a decade.

I looked down at myself,--but first I realized there was a third person in our tableau: a familiar-looking old man in a wheelchair who seemed to be just waking up. "Wha-wha-wha?" he said.

The policeman pointed the gun at me. "Run," he said. "Run, 'cause if they catch you, they'll put you in a cage and never let you out."

I stared at him, knowing I could not run. I was disabled, a cripple, in a wheelchair—but no, I wasn't. I looked down at myself and recognized a bomber jacket, a black miniskirt, and skinny legs wearing high-heel sandals.

"Run!" screamed the cop. Then he turned the gun and shot the old man—who might have been me—through the head. The noise, so close, was incredible, and I felt sure I had been splattered with bits of bone and brain and blood.

I ran. I stumbled several times, but I did not fall down, though I did bounce off a light pole and a tree before I heard another gunshot and the whhhp!-crack! of a bullet passing over my head.

"Run," the cop shouted. "Run, cause when they catch you, they'll cut you apart to try to find out how I did this!"

Completely panicked now, I ran, seemingly pursued by the cop's laughter. I don't know how far I ran or even what direction. Just away from the financial services building where I had worked for more than twenty years.

*

After I exhausted myself running, I hid in some bushes in someone's yard. I breathed in huge gulps of air and coughed out bile and snot. My heart thuttered against my chest, my lungs and throat burned, and my side and legs cramped. Everything farther than a few feet away looked blurry and doubled. I blinked several times and rubbed my face with the sleeve of my jacket.

It didn't help because the sleeve was spattered with…. I didn't want to think about it. I smelled like vomit, and I wasn't sure I hadn't shit and pissed on myself, too. I was rank. I lay under the bushes for some time, sobbing. What had happened to me?

I'm a methodical person, basically an accountant, so I tried to take an inventory of my situation. No one seemed to be chasing me, though somewhere a dog was barking. I was in a residential neighborhood, presumably somewhere near the university, lying under a pyracantha bush in a wide green yard in front of a two-story house.

I looked at my hands. Small and slender, the nails were painted black but partially worn off and broken. My nails? The hands certainly felt like they belonged to me, and one nail, in particular, ached and burned, a split hangnail. I used my teeth to pull the broken part free and squealed with the pain.

"Jesus," I heard myself say in a thin, impossibly high-pitched voice, "what the hell did I do that for?" I sucked on the finger. It tasted of dirt and blood and I discovered that I had something else in my mouth besides teeth and tongue. A little exploration made me think I might have a tongue piercing. "Fuck," I said.

I checked my ears. I had several piercings in each one, including a pair of long, dangling ones that almost reached my shoulders. I also discovered my straight, dark-brown hair well past my shoulders. "I'm that girl," I thought wonderingly. I was wearing the bomber jacket. The miniskirt had ridden up during my running and bunched around my waist.

I tried to pull it down, but it wasn't budging in my position under the thornbush. How the hell had I gotten into the little depression near the trunks of the hedge without getting stabbed a dozen times? Could I get back out?

I waggled my ankles and saw my feet at the end of my too-skinny legs, still wearing the platform, high-heel, buckle-on sandals. I'd been running in those? But I had been running….

I hadn't been able to run in more than twenty years. Just like I hadn't been able to quit my job in all those years and forego the rather generous insurance I had through the university.

Well, that problem seemed to be solved, I thought, distracted from my plight by a brief internal leap of joy that I never again had to sort through applications for financial aid or write another letter of denial.

Anthony Garibaldi, TonyGaryUCLA online, had quit his job and run away, leaving his wheelchair behind him. A sudden image of the cop putting a gun to the head of an old man, and pulling the trigger brought another retching sensation, and a taste of bile to the back of my mouth.

If...

If I was now the girl.... And the cop had shot the old me.... Then?

Then some of the mess on the sleeves of the jacket….

There were impossibilities I didn't want to think about, my brain skittering away from them like a spider that has fallen onto a hot griddle.

Dead. I'm dead….

But there I lay in the dirt, smelling loam and vomit and.... Damn, I did shit on myself, didn't I? "I was scared," I said out loud.

Damn right, I was scared. Some monster cures me of paralysis, shoots me in the head while I watch, threatens me with some mysterious 'they,' takes shots at me to force me to run.... And now I faced life as a teenager in a miniskirt? Terror was the only reasonable response.

*

I discovered that it was as easy to get out from under the thornbush as it had been to get in due to one fact. I'm so damn skinny that just by flattening myself against the earth, I only had to worry about my head as I slithered like a snake out of danger with only a few strands of my hair caught on twigs and thorns.

That was bad enough, though. It took me some minutes, crouched there, saying, "Ow, ouch, oh, damn it all," and "fuck me" to get my hair untangled.

I had suffered only one wound, on the upper left side of my butt, which itched like hell. I resisted rubbing it. "You don't know where it's been," I told myself, trying for a quantum of humor.

Freed from my fettering hair, I was finally able to stand up and pull my skirt down to cover my ass, which was the only part of me with real substance — not my head, which was entirely unhinged by the thought that I was wearing a skirt.

Not my shoulders, either, those were lost inside the bomber jacket. I sighed, shrugging to keep the jacket from slipping off my skinny inconsequence. And I tried not to think about the consequences of being a teenage girl now. Those worries could wait.

I could only marvel that no one seemed to be noticing me. It was what? Mid-morning? I'd been leaving work to make a ten a.m. doctor's appointment. It couldn't be as late as eleven yet, could it? I crossed the street and sat down on a service box of some type, probably phone or cable TV. Time to finish my inventory.

There were no pockets in my skirt, but the jacket had several, most of which had zippers, so this did take a while. I did find a phone which wouldn't turn on, but I found several other things as well — fourteen dollars in cash, some change, and several cards.

Perhaps because of some blurring, with the card held almost at the end of my nose, I struggled to read an expired CA ID in the name of Margaret Hoa Robert with a picture of a pretty young woman with long dark hair, amber eyes, and vaguely Asian features. The home address was in Fountain Valley, miles away from West LA, down in Orange County.

Me? Must be. A business card seemed to be for a nail salon in Westminster and didn't tell me much, so I looked at the ID card again.

The birth date listed would make me.... I did the math. I did it again because I didn't like the answer I'd gotten. "Fuck me!" I said. Margaret (My name is Margaret?) wouldn't be sixteen until January 6, next year? Which was only about eight weeks away, but still.

Another card in that little packet was a worn-looking prepaid debit card for Margaret H Robert. The sort of thing you give to a student, so they have access to money, but you control how much they can spend by preloading the card. Almost useless without the PIN, and did it have any money on it in any case?

I investigated more pockets. Lipstick, mascara, a compact, and other makeup supplies. No clue what to do with those. When I opened the compact, it turned out to have six different shades of eyeshadow in it—but I could get a glimpse of my new face in the tiny mirror.

A worried, starved-looking face, so very disheartening to look at. I could see fear in my amber eyes. I put the compact away, my hands shaking a little, and looked through more pockets.

Most of them contained the assorted junk you might expect of some teenage girl who used her jacket as a purse. One was a slender white tube: a tampon. I hoped I wouldn't have to use it. I knew what one did with such a thing, but not the precise how of the task. Yeesh. The implications were disturbing.

Several combs, hair barrettes, bobby pins, a pack of tissue, another of panty liners (!), a fingernail clipper; I used the last to neaten up the nail I had torn, making little ouchie noises as I did so. Then I dragged a wide-tooth comb through my hair with more ouches getting rid of tangles.

I had tons of thick heavy hair, down to my waist, so it took some time to comb. The balding old man inside me was vaguely amused at having so much hair now. The act of combing it seemed to soothe my nerves, so I stayed with it until I had all the tangles out.

I felt better. Amazing what a little attention paid to oneself does for one's sense of well-being. I dug out the compact again and took another look at my face. My mascara had run, which I hadn't noticed before, but it left black streaks down my face. "Dammit," I said in my squeaky new voice.

I got a tissue out of the packet, wet it with spit, and scrubbed away some of the black marks left by my terror and confusion. A better clean-up would have to wait for more resources and repair to my makeup—my makeup!—might be beyond my expertise. It had been many years since my involvement in community theater, and that kind of makeup is not at all the same.

I went back to taking inventory. Nothing else useful in that pocket. But in the next, I did find a depleted pack of menthol cigarettes with a Bic lighter. Oh, joy. As Tony, I had never picked up the habit. I could only hope Margaret wasn't a tobacco addict. Or any other kind, for that matter. I blinked, another worry I didn't have time to worry about.

I resolved to toss the cancer sticks as soon as I found a trash bin, but the lighter might be useful — last pocket, inside the jacket: six foil-wrapped rubbers in two different sizes. I would have said, "Fuck me," out loud again, but it seemed too damn likely that someone had been doing just that.

I rubbed my head in frustration. What the hell had this girl been doing with her life? A girl gets a tongue stud for basically just one reason…. But it's all impossible anyway, I told myself. What did I know about being a teenage girl? Clearly, not much. Was I stuck like this? Well, there was no going back to being Anthony, that body was dead.

My hands wouldn't shake so much if I were really dead, I told myself as I put everything back into the same pockets it had come out of. Maybe I needed a nicotine fix, but I wasn't going to do that. Maybe I needed some other drug, but the less thinking about that, the better.

And I hadn't found a charge cable for the damn phone—not that I had a place to charge it.



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