A Minority Of One : 2 / 9

A Minority Of One : 2 / 9

[ Melanie Brown’s Switcher Universe ]
By Iolanthe Portmanteaux


Men may rise on stepping stones of their dead selves to higher things. — Zane Grey


When I left the meeting with the lawyer, I had a lot to think about. I could kind of understand that Theresa might see me as an “asshole” — I mean, we were married for twenty years! You can’t live with anyone in such proximity without irritating each other! You get to notice things… little things… like the way that Theresa says “consequently” a thousand times a day. I’ve never said anything to her about it, but it bugs me. Still, I’ve never made a big deal out of it. When you’re married, you have to let things go.

The FBI agent was walking at my side, smirking like the jackass that he was. He stopped abruptly, struck by a thought. “Hey,” he said, as if reading my mind, “It really bugs you that your friends didn’t want to adopt you, doesn’t it? Maybe there’s a way you can fix that: you can tell them that, now that you’re pint sized, they can spank you whenever you misbehave.”

I gave him a look of disgust. “That is SO inappropriate, man. Grossly inappropriate.” He let out a short bark of a laugh, and started walking again.

I was just about to ask him what time it was, where we were going, and whether I could get something to eat, when we turned the corner and ran into the nurse.

“Hi!” she said, with a smile at me. “I was coming to get you. I’ve got something for you to eat, and then I’ll show you where you’ll be sleeping. How’s that sound?”

“Great,” I replied, and the two of us looked in silence at the FBI guy until he put up his hands and said, “Okay, okay! I’m leaving,” He turned and walked away.

The nurse led me to a small, nondescript break room. There was a fridge, a microwave, a sink, and a table with four chairs. I sat in a chair while she fetched my “dinner” from the fridge: three plastic-wrapped sandwiches, an apple, and — believe it or not — a half-pint carton of milk.

“Gee, thanks, Mom!” I said, in a chirpy, teen-girl voice. She burst out laughing.

“There’s cake if you’re good — but only if you eat all your dinner,” she replied, in a joking version of a “Mom” voice.

“Is there really cake?” I asked.

“Yes, there’s cake,” she said. Then, hesitating, she added, “Seeing as how today is your birthday — in a way — I thought about giving you the cake first, but if you eat the cake, you won’t eat the sandwiches.”

I was about to contradict, when my stomach let out a loud rumble. I sighed with resignation and tore open the sandwiches. The choices were tuna salad, chicken salad, and bologna with cheese. Whoever made the sandwiches leaned heavily on the mayonnaise. “Now I know where I am,” I told her. “This has to be the Mayo Clinic.”

She made a puzzled frowned, silently repeating Mayo Clinic. When I lifted a slice of bread to show her the generous slathering of thick, white sauce atop the orange cheddar, she got it. “Hmm,” she observed, “That *is* a lot of mayo, but I you might want to leave the Dad jokes behind when you start your new life.”

“Hmmph.” If the FBI guy had said it, I would have been angry, but I knew that the nurse was nothing but kind. She was probably right, as well.

I took an experimental bite of the chicken salad. It wasn’t bad. The tuna sandwich was a little soggy, so I ate that first.I couldn’t deal with the bologna-cheddar-mayo combination, even after wiping most of the mayo off.

The milk? Well, it tasted milky, the way milk does. “I haven’t had a glass of milk in what? Twenty— thirty years?” I mused. The strange incongruity of my remark caught the two of us up short. We looked at each other in silence for a few seconds, then let the awkward moment pass in awkward silence.

After I finished the sandwiches and the apple, she produced a large slice of a beautiful multi-layer cake. There was chocolate icing between the two bottom layers and raspberry icing between the two top layers. It was covered with a white buttercream icing. I took a forkful, and found it superb.

“I can’t believe this cake came from the same kitchen as those whack-ass sandwiches!” I exclaimed, and got up to grab a second half-pint of milk.

“It’s not from the same kitchen,” she confessed. “It’s actually the last piece of Ron’s birthday cake. I kind of stole it.”

“Who’s Ron?” I asked. She didn’t answer, she just let a half-smile dance on her lips. I got it in one: “He’s the FBI ass—”

“Ah-ah-ah!” she cautioned, cutting me off with finger wag and a smile. “Now that you’re this size and shape, you’re going to have quit swearing. If you don’t, it will make you stand out, and not in a good way.”

I shrugged and dug into the cake, which was now doubly excellent.



In spite of the sugary cake, I was tired when I finished eating. The nurse brought me to a dorm room. Like every other room in this place, it was painted the same dull, institutional green that gave a definite “prison” vibe. There were four sets of bunk beds bolted to the floor. The door was locked, but there was a phone on the wall next to the door. It had no dial or keypad, but the nurse told me that if I took the phone off the hook it would ring at the security desk down the hall. The room had an attached bathroom fitted with two showers, two sinks, and two toilet stalls.

She gave me towels, sheets, a pillow case, and a blanket. When I stared at her blankly, she sighed and made up the bed closest to the bathroom.

"Hey, where are the others? My friends? My so-called friends."

"We don't put kids and adults together," she replied.

"Got it." It made sense. In my particular case, maybe they kept us apart so they wouldn't have a fight on their hands.

After she left, I realized I had no idea what time it was. I wanted to know, but didn’t seem important enough to pick up the phone and ask. It was strange, not knowing — I mean, I didn’t even have a general sense of which part of the day it was: Day or night? Morning or evening? Did I just eat lunch or dinner? Or was it a midnight snack?

Of course, I had no sense of how long I’d been knocked out, and consequently how long I’d been in this place. There were no windows, so there was no light from outside. The lights in the hallway dimmed after the nurse left, so it felt like night.

The nurse suggested I take a shower before bed (“It’ll help you relax, and you are a bit stinky”) but instead I curled up in the blanket and lay on the bed fully clothed. I didn’t even bother to take off my shoes until I half-woke later in the apparent night and kicked them off.

It took a long time to fall asleep. Sure I was tired, and I still felt sleepy and fuzzy-headed from the tranquilizer dart. Unfortunately, everything else militated against my drifting off.

First of all, the crappy food. My stomach hurt. Maybe that was down to nerves, or the way I gobbled them up. I had eaten with unusual speed. Maybe that was part of having a teenage metabolism.

On the other hand I had to wonder whether this girl — this girl’s body — was lactose intolerant. Did mayonnaise have lactose? Or worse, was she gluten intolerant? Did mayonnaise have gluten? Anyway, either of those intolerances would suck. Having both would suck even more. If she did have some intolerance, would it mean that I’d wake up with diarrhea? (Spoiler: I didn’t.)

Second, the creepy surroundings. I had no idea where on earth we were. It seemed like a military base, but I wasn’t aware of any military base anywhere near home. Did that mean we were far away? Or was this a secret urban base, hidden in plain sight? Or deep underground somewhere? Did secret underground bases even exist in this country? There was no way of knowing — they’d be secret! At the same time, this place didn’t need to be very big to accommodate the handful of rooms I’d seen. For all I knew, we could be in a basement at an industrial park.

Third, wherever I was, I was certainly a prisoner. They assured me that I wasn’t; they told me explicitly that I wasn’t under arrest or in any kind of trouble, but it sure felt like captivity. I mean, I couldn’t leave, right?

Which led to the fourth thing: when they DID let me go, they’d have to give me to someone. I was a minor, for fuck’s sake. I couldn’t live on my own except as a runaway. Unfortunately, running away wasn’t a viable option. Even if I managed to (1) get away, and (2) cook up a fake identity with (3) a fake ID, there was no way I could pass for an adult: I was flat as a board; obviously pre-pubescent. And I was small — which was an issue in itself. Being pint-sized was was even weirder than being a girl. As Leo I would have filled this bunk. I would have found it cramped and small. Now, no matter how I lay, there was space below my feet and above my head. Another kid my size could fit in next to me without crowding. And — as the FBI guy had observed — if I needed to kick someone in the ass, these little feet of mine wouldn’t make any impact. If I balled up my little fists and gave someone a punch in the gut, even if I put every ounce of strength and every atom of weight behind it, they’d laugh it off.

My point being, I couldn’t survive on my own. Not in this body.

And so, oh boy, there was a *fifth* item to add to the list of disturbing stuff to keep me awake: In a few years — by the way, how many years would it be? —I’d start having the monthly blues — or reds, really. How messy was THAT going to be? I tried to mentally gather everything I knew about menstruation. It didn’t take long: I knew next to nothing about it. I mean, I understood the process on a vague, textbook level, but what was it like to experience a period? Would I be an irrational bitch half the time? Without any effort, I could call to mind a dozen times that Theresa lay into me, shouting, even screaming, over nothing whatsoever. All on account of good old Aunt Flo. Great. Now I’d be doing that, too.

And didn’t cramps come with that as well? And headaches? I wasn’t sure about those items, but one thing I *was* sure about, was the mess.

It would be nice to know how much warning you get, before it comes. Maybe I could get the lowdown on all that from the nurse in the morning.

Strangely though, of all the things I had to grapple with, the one item that was clearest and most concrete was the whole Switcher business, with this Simon guy. That part — the craziest, most far-fetched part — was the easiest to believe. I didn’t need a mirror to know what I’d become: I could feel it. And I could see it, simply by looking down at myself. I was living in a different body. I was somebody else, somebody different, now. No doubts; no fuzzy uncertainties. I couldn’t question the evidence of my senses. That would be insanity.

From there, my thoughts drifted inevitably to my wife and friends — each of them in their new bodies. At least in their cases, they already knew their new selves. They already had history with the person they had become. I pictured each of them and mentally swapped the personalities with the faces. It could be comical, like a wacky sitcom. Whatever. I’m sure they’ll get used to it.

Which was a sixth thing! Right? I was up to six things, so far, that were keeping me awake, yes. And what a thing! Why did Theresa suddenly hate me and want to toss me over the side? She always wanted a child, and here I was, ready made: the child she never had.

Yes, sure — there was a bundle of sensitive issues there… It would be weird as hell, but the two of us had history together. Big history. How could she, when things got a little strange, give me a flat NO, right out of hand? How could she throw me off the train, so to speak? How could she abandon me? Involuntarily I pictured Theresa and me: the two of us together, as mother and daughter — but only for a moment. My mind rejected the image. The picture was wrong, anyway: I imagined Theresa as she used to be: a woman, living in her own body, and me as I am now — a little girl. But that’s not how it would go. Theresa was me now — Leo. She was a great big guy. We’d be father and daughter, not mother and daughter. We'd be like Gerard Depardieu and Katherine Heigl in My Dad The Hero. Okay, I had to admit: it would be very awkward. It would be awkward as hell.

Alright. I could see that she wouldn’t want me as her child — let alone daughter! — but divorce? Why on earth would she divorce me?

Then again, who would she really be divorcing? Let’s see — Theresa was now me. Meredith was now Theresa. So… in reality, Theresa would be divorcing Meredith. That made some kind of sense.

And Max? Max would be all alone, as Meredith. Oh man, what a fate! Not that Meredith was bad-looking. I mean, she was okay. Although I couldn’t picture Max being interested in guys. And what would he do for a living? Max was a big-time computer programmer — he couldn’t just show up at his office out of the blue as Meredith and say, “Hey, everything that Max could do, I can do now!”

He’d have to pick up Meredith’s Maid Service — her home and office cleaning business.

And THAT pulled in yet another consideration to really keep me awake: the job, the heist.

When that goddamn girl walked into our yard, I had just begun to outline a job: a con, a major theft — one that couldn’t work without Meredith’s business.

I nearly let the cat out of the bag about that, when I told the agent that I “wondered how much the girl had heard.” If the agent wasn’t so intent on smirking at my situation, he would have asked, “Heard about what? What were you talking about?” Then, no matter what I answered, he’d go ask the same question of my three friends.

I’m not sure, though, how much they could tell him. The heist is still only an idea. A lot of key pieces were still missing, a lot of details that I didn’t know. It isn’t workable yet. The basic idea was sound, though. I hate the phrase “the perfect crime” — I’m not sure that there *is* such a thing. A perfect crime is a one that no one notices. A perfect crime is like a perfect game in baseball: it seems like nothing happened. No one realizes a crime has been committed at all. That’s what makes it perfect.

However, an unreportable crime comes in as a very strong second to “perfect,” and my idea was in that category: there was a way to steal millions, literal millions — maybe even half a billion — from someone who was a thief himself. He wouldn’t be able to call *any* branch of law enforcement without exposing his own crimes. In fact, after the heist, his best move would be to go on the run himself, which had the added benefit of leading everyone to believe that he took all the money himself, including the money we stole.

It was good, really good. It was tantalizing. The excitement of it kept me up at night. Even so, the plan had too many holes: I needed a lot more information. That was the point of the barbecue: I wanted to float the idea to the others, and talk it through. I needed input from Theresa and cooperation from Meredith. Max was just a bonus — if I could hook him, I figured it would make it easier to interest the two women.

My spirit fell again… I had assumed that my friends — if they were my friends — would be willing to discuss the idea, at least as a hypothetical. I felt sure that they’d want to help me work out the rough spots, fill in the gaps, but maybe I was wrong.

I knew they weren’t criminals, but this was an opportunity that could tempt anyone. It certainly tempted me, almost to the point of obsession.

Let’s say that they took in enough of what I did manage to say… let’s say they grasped the basic idea. From there, they might be able to work out what was missing, how to do it. They wouldn’t need me. Certainly I brought a certain expertise to the table, even in my present form, but they’d have to be willing to listen, to give me a chance.

Unfortunately, though — if the FBI guy was to be believed — my “friends” didn’t want to hear anything from me. They were angry and offended and glad to be rid of me.

I wiped my nose on the edge of the blanket, and frowned to myself. I’d covered all the topics that were keeping me awake, and pretty much put them to rest, or least set them to the side for now. The only ones that still rankled were the divorce and the badmouthing.

The FBI guy claimed that my friends bitched about me, and said that I’d “ruined” their lives. But was that really how the conversation went? Let’s say that Theresa was angry, upset, and frustrated — among other things, about this Switcher business. Okay. So she looks in the mirror, she sees my face, and out of force of habit, she fires off a few old complaints about me. Standard stuff: everything is Leo's fault. The FBI guy, who is clearly a loser, is already salivating at the idea of mocking me for ending up as a little girl. Now, he hears Theresa airing old, shop-worn complaints. For him, on the other hand, it’s dirt he’s never heard before, so he thinks it’s a bright, new, juicy revelation.

Meredith is there. She’s Theresa’s best friend, almost to the point of being servile. Okay. So, as Theresa’s BFF, Meredith would go along with anything Theresa said. She’d echo Theresa’s complaint, and probably amplify or extend it a little. That made sense: that’s what always happened. Theresa bitches a little, and Meredith jumps on board. She’s that kind of person. If Theresa said something absurd, like “I hate pizza!” Meredith would pipe up and say, “I hate pizza, too! I’ve ALWAYS hated pizza! What’s up with pizza, anyway?” Of course, neither of them actually feel that way. It’s just a thing they do.

All the while the stupid FBI guy is there, soaking it up, thinking he’s hearing something I haven’t already heard a hundred times or more. He’s listening and smirking.

Then there’s Max. Max is my friend. I love him to death, but he’ll do anything to get along. He absolutely hates confrontation. The man has no backbone. He’ll lie down and let Meredith walk all over him. If Meredith says, “Pizza sucks” Max will say, “Oh, yeah. I was just about to say that.”

Let’s be clear about one thing, though: they all love pizza. None of them have ever said a word against it. It’s just a made-up example. And — they all love me. In spite of the things they might have said, or things the FBI clown misunderstood.

Okay, so that settled that.

There was just one thing left: something the nurse said, that needed checking out.

I stuck my nose inside my shirt, inhaled, then sniffed my hair. Whoa! I wasn’t just “a bit stinky” — I reeked. Badly. I was a real stink bomb. I sighed, a loud, heavy sigh. Then, on purpose, I let out a REALLY loud, exaggerated sigh. I was all alone, so what difference did it make? And so what if I was stinky? There was no one here to smell me.

I took a whiff of myself again and groaned. It was bad. Like dead-animal bad. The thing is, I didn’t want to take a shower. Not for anything. I could reek until morning, as far as I was concerned. The problem with taking a shower was, if I took a shower, I’d have to take off my clothes. If I took off my clothes, I’d see myself naked, in my new body. I wasn’t ready for that. I couldn’t deal with it yet. If I saw myself naked, I’d be crossing the Rubicon. There would be no way I could pretend I was still the same person, not even inside. I was somebody else now. Everything had changed or was going to change. But not tonight. I could hold everything off for one night. I’d take my shower in the morning, and THEN everything could change.

Tomorrow, I’d see my friends, Theresa, Meredith, and Max. Now that I’d thought things through, I wasn’t angry with them. I was hurt, for sure, but I understood. I resigned myself that when it came time to say goodbye, I’d do my best to leave on good terms. I could forgive them.

And did I really have to say goodbye? We’ll see.

After that, I’d meet this girl’s parents. They’d probably want to see if this could work… if they could take me, as if I was their actual daughter. My heart sank. How could they possibly want me? I wasn’t her. I couldn't be her; I knew nothing at all about her. I took a breath, and accidentally sobbed, a single sob. Or something that sounded like a sob, a little sob. I wasn’t crying.

But, face it: My own friends didn’t want me, and they know me. This couple, this girl's parents, not only didn’t know me from Adam (or Eve), but I wasn’t their daughter. I couldn’t begin to pretend to be their daughter. Why were they even bothering to come? There wasn’t any con or charm to work on these people. One look at me, and it would be over. Everything about me, every word I said, every facial expression, every gesture, every tone, every movement — every everything would scream I’M NOT NOT HER!

I started to cry. Once I started, I couldn’t stop. My nose ran like a dripping wound, and — like the asshole that I am — I wiped my runny nose on the clean blanket again. I blew my nose copiously on the pillowcase and flipped the pillow over. Sorry, but I wasn’t getting out of bed just to find a tissue. I curled up in my blanket-cocoon, miserable and stinking, and cried like a lost little girl.



The next thing I knew, someone was gently shaking me. “Wake up. Wake up, Leo. Time to wake up.”

I blinked into the light. It was the nurse, from yesterday. She was holding her nose and waving her hand in front of her face.. “You didn’t take a shower, Leo! Why didn’t you? You smell bad! REALLY bad.”

“I didn’t want to,” I mumbled.

“What did you say? I couldn’t hear you.”

“I didn’t want to,” I said, this time clearly.

“Why not?”

“I didn’t want— I didn’t want to see myself naked.”

“Ohhh!” she exclaimed, getting it. “Okay,” she said, speaking gently. “What if I help you, and you keep your eyes shut?”

I considered it for a moment, then declined. “No, I’ll do it,” I said. “I have to get over it — get it over with. Bite the bullet, whatever. One thing that might help, though, would be a small shot of a tranquilizer dart, if you still have one.”

Of course she didn’t have one. She wouldn’t give me one, even if she did. I only was joking, anyway.

While she waited, I stripped, and saw my pale, bony frame for the first time. I conceded myself a single sigh, then got down to it. I shampooed my hair, I soaped up and washed every part of me. I felt forlorn, helpless, and alone. I caught a glimpse of myself in the mirror above the sink. I looked like a drowned cat. Even so, I didn’t stop to soak in self-pity. I kept going. For a second time, I shampooed and soaped up all over again to make sure I got the stink out. I had to try and make a good impression on the girl’s parents.

Once I was dry, dressed, and had brushed my teeth (twice!), and combed my hair, I felt a lot better, although I wasn’t optimistic on my chances with the parents.

“Can I see my friends now?” I asked.

“No,” she replied. “I’m sorry, but they’re gone. They left. Once they worked out their legal stuff, they were escorted out.”

“Without saying goodbye.”

She hesitated, then after a look at me said, “Actually, they *did* want to see you. They wanted to confront you — particularly your, ah, ex-wife. In her exact words, she wanted to really tell you off. She wanted let you have it, once and for all.”

“Why didn’t she?”

“When she and the others saw you sleeping, she lost the heart to do it.”

I frowned, not understanding, so the nurse explained, “You’re forgetting: you’re a little girl. You look quite angelic when you’re asleep.”


“Your wife was embarrassed. REALLY embarrassed. She turned all red, and left, and once we were out of earshot, she couldn’t stop talking about how she’d feel like a monster laying into you now, and so on.”

“Okay,” I said. “I get the picture. So when do this girl’s parents arrive? And what is this girl’s name, by the way?”

“Celine Morsten,” the nurse replied.

“Where is the real Celine Morsten? Who is she now?”

“Um… she was shot dead by police in a separate Switcher incident.”



After breakfast, I met with the lawyer again. He repeated that I would leave in one of two ways: I’d either be accepted by the Morstens as their daughter, or go to child protective services as an orphan. “Those are your only possibilities,” he said. “If the Morstens don’t want you, you’ll be out of here as soon as we issue your new documents. You might start thinking of what you’d like to call yourself, if the Morstens don’t want you.”

“What I’d like to call myself?” I repeated stupidly.

“Yes, you’ll need a name. A whole new name. First name, last name… middle name, if you like. You ought to start thinking now, because if the Morstens say no, you’ll be gone as soon as your documents are ready. If you don’t have a name right then, one will be chosen for you at random, from a list.”

At that, I drew a blank. I sat in a chair for a half hour, waiting for the Morstens. All I could think about was my name. Your Name Here. Who could I be? First name, last name. Something, Something. Hi, I’m — something. My name is — Bond, James Bond. Dent, Arthur Dent. Fine, but I needed a woman’s name. Hello! My name is “fill in the blank.” Could I be “Celine Morsten” even if they didn’t want me? Probably not.

Names flowed through my head. None of them were any good. They were either (1) stupid names (like Bertha Twins or Tess Tickles), (2) names of people I knew, or (3) names of famous people. For a few minutes I actually believed that it would be cool as hell if I called myself Rebecca De Mornay. Sure, it’s the coolest name ever, but it wouldn’t work. They probably wouldn’t let me choose it, anyway. Then, some ridiculous part of my subconscious threw up the name Monalisa Heggadeggaden. I don’t know where it came from, but like a stupid song that gets stuck in your brain, once that idiotic name came into my head, I couldn’t shake it. I struggled to find a plausible name to drive it out, but it resisted.

It was so persistent, in fact, that when I finally met Mr Morsten and shook his hand, I almost said, “Hello, my name is Monalisa Heggadeggaden,” but I managed to squelch the impulse and just say, “Hi.”

“Hi,” he said. “How are you feeling?”

“I’m pretty overwhelmed, honestly,” I confessed. Then I noticed that he’d been crying: his eyes and nose were red. He looked pretty damn tired, as well. So I asked, “How are you doing?”

“Not very well,” he said. “All of this Switcher shit… on top of everything else...” he let the words trail off. He was a big guy, six-three maybe, 230 pounds? He was built like a linebacker. He didn’t look like the type who cried very often.

“So, your name is Leo, is that right?” he asked me. “I mean your real name, who you were before.”

“Right. Leo Bilsten.”

“Leo, I’m Ken.” He took a breath, and began. “So here’s the deal, Leo: My wife and I have lost our daughter.”

“I know, I heard she was shot.”

He winced at the word. “Yes, she was. She was. But did you know that she provoked the shooting?”


“Yes, Celine was… wild. Feral. She had zero impulse control. She was destructive, violent.” He paused and looked off before confessing, in a low, intense tone, ”My wife and I, we were afraid of her.”

“Think about that,” he said, letting it sink in. “Think about being afraid of your own child. I’m not a fearful man. I’m a cop, I’d like to say that I’m not afraid of anything, but that little girl scared the hell out of me. The shit she pulled nearly destroyed us, a few times over. I’ve had to leave my job, pull up roots, and move three times, on account of stuff she’s done. And she was never sorry. Never.

“I’m not going to get into her life story, except to say that we just moved, just one week ago. I’m supposed to start a new job, in new place. Then this Switcher business happened. That Simon guy, after he took her identity, he came along on the move and actually lived with us! For a little over a week. We thought Celine had finally turned over a new leaf, but instead it was that murderous psychopath laying low. A policewoman who’d seen the switch finally helped track Celine down. That was yesterday, when the switch was pulled on you.”

“Okay,” I said. I didn’t quite follow the details, but I let it go.

“Here’s the deal, Leo: We talked with your friends. They told us a lot about you. They said you’ve committed fraud, you’ve conned people and gotten away with it. You’ve stolen and cheated and never held an honest job. Is that true?”

I looked him the eye. I wasn’t going to lie. I didn’t expect this to work out, and after seeing his distress, I figured the best thing I could do was to try to make it easy for them to say goodbye. If I made it clear that I only looked like their daughter, maybe they’d have a chance at moving on.

So I said, “Yes, it’s true. I’m not an honest person. I’ve never held a real job. I’ve used the people around me… It’s all true. I don’t know what my friends have said, but I’m sure that whatever they told you is accurate.”

Ken nodded. “On the other hand, your friend Max or Meredith, however you want to call him or her, said that you have a good heart and that if we offered you a second chance, you might use it in the right way.”

I wasn’t sure how to answer. I didn’t want to make promises. I found myself saying, “I appreciate Max’s vote of confidence.”

Ken nodded again.

“Here’s the deal, Leo: our daughter Celine put us through hell. We don’t miss that, but she was our daughter. We loved her and we miss her. Here is my offer: if you come with us, *you* will be our daughter. We know that you’re not Celine. You won’t have to pretend with Lois and me. You can talk about being Leo, if you need to — and that’s not something you’ll be able to do if you go into the system.

“We want a second chance at raising our daughter. We’d like to see it turn out right for a change. We’ll treat you right, and we expect you to treat us right. Remember though: it’s a two-way street. If you want us to trust and respect you, you’re going to have to trust and respect us. It won’t work if it everything only goes in one direction, the way it did with the real Celine.

“You have to understand viscerally that we are damn fucking tired of living in hell. If you engage in criminal activity, if you take drugs, if you drink before you’re legal, if you lie or steal, if you even try to commit fraud, if you behave in any way that makes our lives difficult, we will disown you and make sure you end up in juvie or in jail, whichever is more appropriate. And believe me, by now I know how that make that happen very quickly.

“We want a normal, quiet life. If you want that, too, then we can try to do this together. We’ll get a second chance with Celine, and you’ll get a second chance as Celine.

“But only a second chance. There won’t be a third. If you fuck up, you’re done.”

“What do you say, Leo? Should I call my wife in, so the three of us can talk? Or should we call it quits right here?”

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