Switched! - 5. Phone Home

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A Switcher Tale...


5. Phone Home

by Lulu Martine

The bus continued to travel north along the edge of the campus with rows of apartment buildings on the left side, including mine, or rather Tony’s. And sure enough, there were three police cars parked on the street plus a van right out of the CSI television shows.

I shuddered to think I might have gotten into that mess if I had tried to go back to my apartment. Tony was dead, but he was killed over near my office on the other side of the campus. Why were the cops here? Even though I had predicted that very thing, it still shook me up to see it happening.

My hands were shaking again as I tried to distract myself from the fallout of my own murder. I’m just a fifteen-year-old runaway with a nearly dead phone. It’s got nothing to do with me. I’ve got other problems.

We made a turn and continued along a more parklike route for a bit. Trees and grass on one side, lawn and—headstones?—on the other. Veteran’s Memorial Cemetery, I’d forgotten how near it was. I looked away. I didn’t need to see more dead people.

This was a city bus, and I wasn’t familiar with where it might be headed, but I didn’t get off at any of the exits, passively allowing fate to pick a destination for me. I especially didn’t want to get off the bus near the cemetery.

What other numbers did I have in my phone? I hit the Recent button and looked at that list. The two most frequently called numbers were West LA exchange, identified as Garth and Lila’s. I looked at the info page on both. Lila’s had a nearby address and appeared to be a business. 

Garth had three phone numbers and two addresses. The frequently called number was identified as mobile, and the other two were home and work, and attached to appropriate addresses. Home was, at a guess, one of the apartment buildings nearby. Work had a University exchange number, and the address would be the School of Theater, Film and Television.

Uh, oh. I puzzled over that for a bit. Was Garth my boyfriend? Did I live with him? Was he a student, an administrator, a faculty member, or just an employee? I didn’t call him, just then, but instead looked to see what other numbers I had under Favorites. 

One jumped at me — Mama, with a 714 area code, which would be Orange County. I looked at history. I hadn’t called that number in two months. What kind of daughter doesn’t call her mother for two whole months? Mama had called Margaret a few times, missed calls, but not in several weeks.

I started crying, and I couldn’t figure out why. I didn’t know this woman, and she might think she knew me, but she really didn’t. Before I thought it through, my agile little thumbs had hit the dial button. I struggled to stop crying, searching in my pockets for the packet of tissues.

A woman answered. “Now you calling?” she snapped. She didn’t have a real accent but a sort of non-native flavor to her voice, and she left out articles and helping words.

“Mama?” I said. Her voice had the strangest effect on me. I knew it, but I didn’t know it.

“You in trouble? That why you call your mama?” Her voice was sharp, angry, but also called up smells I halfway recognized—hot spicy soup, strong chemicals, and clove cigarettes.

“Uh, huh,” I said. What the heck had Margaret done to piss off her mother that she was still mad after two months?

“Good!” she said. “Maybe you learn something. You need money? You run out of six hundred dollars you stole? Your boyfriend kick you out?”

“Um.” This was a strange conversation. I had stolen money from my mother and ran away from home? “I’m sorry, Mama.” My eyes were burning.

“You damn right, you sorry,” she said. Then she unleashed a stream of Vietnamese. I presume it was Vietnamese, full of hisses and tones and the choppy gutturals that make it different sounding than Chinese.

“English, please, Mama,” I said. I sounded whiney, and I was sure I had said something similar many times.

“You never like talk chyeng-wet.” She paused, and I heard a noise like maybe she had blown her nose. I took the empty space to blow my own.

“You not my Margie any more? You run away, and you break my heart. His name, Gordon? What is it? He call you Marla? Take picture of you, make promises. You not even that pretty!”

More Vietnamese. I waited it out. The bus was making a wide turn, I think onto Sunset Ave. Where did it go from here? A few people had gotten on and off at stops as we went through the campus, but it was no more nor less empty than before.

Mama spoke English again since I didn’t answer when she spoke her own language, even though meaning for me seemed just out of reach. “You get enough to eat? You have clothes to wear? Place to sleep?” Her concern came through her anger. “You on drugs?”

I still didn’t answer. I was wearing good clothes, but I didn’t know any other answers, even to her English questions. My face hurt.

“I not call police this time,” she said suddenly. “You tell them lies. You tell them I beat you! Why you busting my balls, con-guy? Ha?” Con-guy was daughter, how did I know that?

“I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” I said, weeping now. Had I tried to get her in trouble with the police? I’m a terrible daughter!

“This your father’s fault,” she said with even more venom. Then another stream of angry Vietnamese.

“I’ll call back,” I said when she paused to make gulping sounds. “My phone is dying.” Anything to get away from this conversation.

“Mep yow con, way nya,” she said. It didn’t sound angry, just hurt.

I didn’t know what that meant, but I could guess. Something like, “I still love you, come home.” I hung up.


The bus seemed more empty now, hollow. It took some time to manage to stop crying. 

That woman, I didn’t know her name —Mrs. Robert— she was not my mother. Was she? She didn’t know me, but she thought she did. Tony’s mother, Mrs. Garibaldi, in the rest home in Arizona, she didn’t know me anymore, either, even when I was in my old body.

And I’m Margaret now—now and for the rest of my life. Mrs. Robert is my mother, if I even have one. Dammit, I have to stop crying.

A middle-aged woman across the bus aisle, the only other female passenger, watched me with obvious empathy. I turned away to look out the window to avoid seeing her hurt with my pain that I could not justify, even to myself. Was this Margaret’s distress coming through, crowding into my existence?

I hadn’t had time for existential considerations. How in the world could it be that I existed at all? My whole mind and memory, transplanted in a moment into another body? It didn’t seem possible, and I don’t just mean in some mechanical way—it didn’t seem at all consistent with how I thought reality worked.

Not just, what mechanism could operate with a touch to gather memories, thoughts and feelings, identity itself, and move this gestalt whole from one physical body to another—while at the same time moving another such construct the other direction—not just that, but also why? Why would there even be a capability built into reality to make such a thing possible?

It made the next question necessary—is there such a thing as a soul? And if so, what is a soul made of and how does it fit into a universe of subatomic particles and all the rest. I’m no physicist, but I once had a broad education, and I’ve read a lot of science fiction. 

The kind of world where what had happened to me could happen at all was not a world of hard science, but rather one of science fantasy. Magic. And the problem with magic is that if magic is real, then what does reality even mean?

And what about the leakage from Margaret’s memories I seem to encounter sometimes? I’m thinking with her brain; it would make sense if some of her remained in odd corners of the gray matter. In fact, that made more sense than what seemed to have actually happened.

Was it comforting or scary that Tony seemed to have overwritten Margaret, and yet—while I thought I was him—I seemed to act and feel more like her.

And where the heck is this bus going? We were pulling into the Brentwood Village Mall parking lot. We stopped, and two people got off, but no one got on and off we went again, heading south this time, if I wasn’t completely turned around. And I might be, I wasn’t thinking with the brain I was used to using.

Existential questions were all well and good, and I’d love to be Tony sitting in a bar somewhere bullshitting about the whichness of what with the guys I went to college with over a few beers—but I wasn’t. I was Margaret, sitting in a bus to nowhere, having heart palpitations.


No, wait. That’s my phone, I must have it on vibrate, and I put it back in my coat pocket. I pulled it out and stared at it. Was Mrs. Robert calling me back? I put the phone up close to my face so I could read the name. Garth.

Time to find out who he was. I pressed answer and put the phone to my ear. “Hello,” I said.

“Marla,” he said. “Where the fuck are you?”

“On a bus,” I said. His voice, too, sounded familiar.

“You ain’t back from Wilshire yet?” he asked. “You were gonna meet me at the studio at one.”

“What time is it?” I asked. I didn’t need to know, but it was something to say.

“Almost two. Hey, he sent the money. Come to the apartment. I’ll go by the bank and have something good for you, hanh?” He chuckled.

By the time I had blinked twice and began to say, “I—,” he’d hung up.

I had tons of questions. What had I been doing in Wilshire? That’s almost all tall office buildings, not where you would expect to find a teenage runaway. Also, he who? And what money? And most of all, what should I do now?

The phone made a rude noise, warning me it was running out of power. I quickly shifted to the info page for Garth and memorized the address that looked as if it might be an apartment building. Then I clicked the phone off to save what little battery I had left.

Marla? Did he call me Marla? Hadn’t Mama said something about my boyfriend calling me that? My hands were shaking, and I knew I might be close to panic again. But there’s nowhere to run on a bus.

I wasn’t sure I was doing the smart thing, but I got off the bus at the next big stop, another shopping mall, and decided to wait for one going the other way on the same route. I got a cup of water and a taco from one of the fast-food places, the water to rinse my mouth out, and the taco because I was suddenly starving.

Eating seemed to help the shakes I’d been having, and I remembered the cigarettes I had found in my pockets. I got rid of those. “Don’t say I never saved your life, Margaret,” I told myself.

There were two lonely outside tables near the bus stop, so I sat at one of them and huddled inside my jacket, waiting. My legs got cold when I stopped moving, but the top half of me was warm, and that seemed like enough. The oddest thing was I felt calmer than I had since the terrible things that had happened. I had somewhere to go and someone expecting me, and it was—comforting?

What was Garth going to be like? His voice was the only clue I had. He’d sounded like an adult, but not like a faculty member or even someone who might work in administration, like Tony. Janitor, groundskeeper, what the heck? How had he ever hooked up with Margaret?

With me? I’m Margaret. Could I trust him?

Too many questions and no answers at all.

Suddenly, though it probably happened more gradually and I just noticed, now there were more people around, teenagers. Kids my age, that is. I remembered there was a high school nearby. It must be the end of the day for some of them. Good, I wouldn’t stand out so much.

Two guys took up places at the other outdoor table with bags from the taco place. I became aware that they were watching me. It felt weird. I kept my knees together, consciously, with my feet directly under me, not facing the table but looking out at the bus stop. This felt weirdly comfortable and safe.

I didn’t look at them, and after a bit, I realized they had stopped looking at me. Body language? Maybe. Something to remember.

The bus came, and I paid another dollar to get on, but the driver glared at me. “S’posed to show your student ID,” he growled. I gave him a big-eyed look and felt my lower lip tremble. “Take your seat,” he snapped. When I did, a girl grinned at me and I smiled back. 

I wanted to giggle, but I resisted it. Another arrow in my feminine arsenal, I thought.


The address I had memorized was a two-block walk off the bus route, and 457 Memorial Way turned out to be a four-story pile of beige blocks with an iron-barred security gate.

Something occurred to me, and I dug in my pockets and found what I was looking for—an utterly nondescript piece of green plastic the size of a credit card with a stylized triangular arrowhead at one end. I put it into the slot of the card reader next to the gate, arrowhead first, and heard the lock snap open.

I pushed my way into the courtyard. Apartment 217 came to mind. But was that Tony’s apartment number, where my dead self had lived? Or was it my boyfriend Garth’s place? I didn’t feel certain either way, but it felt especially odd to contemplate having a boyfriend.

I started up the iron-and-concrete stairs, the green keycard still in my hand.

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I wouldnt trust Garth

more than likely a pimp. but what choice would she have?



Garth's role in this does seem problematical, doesn't it?

Thanks for commenting, as always, Dorothy.

- Gender is between the ears, sex is between the legs and anywhere else you can get it. - Lulu Martine

Run kid, sounds like Garth

Run kid, sounds like Garth wants to pump you full of drugs.


It does sound like drugs, doesn't it? What else could he be offering to supply? Maybe a little black dress for stepping out?

Thanks for commenting.

- Gender is between the ears, sex is between the legs and anywhere else you can get it. - Lulu Martine

My thoughts exactly.

Monique S's picture

Where's Tony's common sense gone?

She can't blame everything on the hormones, surely? Or does poor Margaret have an overriding deficiency in the intelligence department?

Monique S


I think Margaret feels a lack of good options.

Thanks for commenting.

- Gender is between the ears, sex is between the legs and anywhere else you can get it. - Lulu Martine

Something good

Nyssa's picture

I am pretty sure that what Garth has for her isn't good. Sounds like she's posing for inappropriate pictures or maybe a webcam girl from the hints you've dropped. But Margaret would've been far better served to spend her brainpower on why it's a good idea to go to the apartment and what she's going to do if Garth is a threat rather than the whichness of what.

Love that last phrase, btw.

Good guesses

Considering how panicky our girl can get, it's odd that she doesn't seem afraid of Garth, doesn't it? But she does know what to do about threats. Run away!

The lovable phrase isn't mine, btw, I borrowed it, I think, from some 19th-century playwright, I just don't remember who. Thanks for a thoughtful comment.

- Gender is between the ears, sex is between the legs and anywhere else you can get it. - Lulu Martine

It's hard to think what one would do

Iolanthe Portmanteaux's picture

It's hard to think what one would do in such a situation... it could easily end badly.

Fingers crossed for Margaret.

- io

Fingers crossed

Margaret perhaps should think of other things to keep crossed?

Thanks for commenting.

- Gender is between the ears, sex is between the legs and anywhere else you can get it. - Lulu Martine

I have to agree

Garth does seem to be a pimp. the meeting at the studio, the he payed good money and getting something good for you. (drugs)doesn't sound in her best interest.

Tony's knowledge

Tony's knowledge here can serve as wisdom for Margaret, perhaps.

Thanks for commenting.

- Gender is between the ears, sex is between the legs and anywhere else you can get it. - Lulu Martine