A Minority Of One : 3 / 9

A Minority Of One : 3 / 9

[ Melanie Brown’s Switcher Universe ]
By Iolanthe Portmanteaux


The difficulty, the ordeal, is to start. — Zane Grey


Once Ken was done, his wife Lois, Celine’s mother, came into the room. She didn’t shake my hand. She didn’t greet me, not even with a nod. She gave me a look that chilled me to the bone, and then she sat down and without preamble began to speak in a low voice, nearly devoid of emotion.

“There’s something that no man can understand,” she said, “and that’s the connection between a mother and her daughter. That body that you’re living in... grew inside me for nine months. I held… you… when you were a defenseless infant, and I fed you from my own breasts. Of course, not you; it was Celine, but you — the physical you, comes from me. You came out of me. That is the strongest fact in my life. As far as I’m concerned, it’s the strongest tie in the universe. Do you understand?”

Although I had no idea what to say, I opened my mouth to speak. Lois didn’t wait for my reply.

“I’m going through the worst, most twisted emotions you can imagine. Even before she was born, my daughter was part of my life — for good and bad, she was part of me. Then we find out that all last week, it wasn’t even her — it was that psychopath, living inside her like a parasite! And now she’s gone — dead!” A sob fought to emerge from her throat, but she choked it back down, and kept going. “She was shot — like a criminal. And now, there’s you.” She gestured at me.

“Whoever you are, you’re not Celine. I don’t know who you are.”

“I’m Leo—”

She interrupted. “I wasn’t asking you. I’m talking because I’m trying to make you feel what I feel. You’re my daughter, but you’re not my daughter.” She shook her head. Tears welled up, but she didn’t cry. Her tears never left her eyes.

I cleared my throat and spoke. “Look, Mrs. Morsten — Lois. Maybe the best thing for all three of us is for me to walk away right now and leave you. I’ll ask them to send me someplace far away, so you’ll never see me, even by accident. I’m not her… I can’t pretend to be.”

“That won’t work,” she said in a flat, dismissive tone. “Do you have any children?”

The absurdity of the question wasn’t lost on us, but I knew she meant as Leo. I shook my head, no.

“When you have a child, they are part of you, forever. Every birthday, every anniversary of her death — those days will darken my heart until the end of my life. And you — If you walk out of this room and enter the system, if we never see you again, I will think about you every day. I won’t want to, but that’s what will happen. Every moment, I’ll wonder where you are and what you’re doing. Even though you’re not her, I’ll worry about all the bad things that could happen to you. I’ll wonder whether you’re alive or dead, sick or well. It will kill me not to know anything about you.

“I know you’re not Celine, inside. You don’t have her soul or her mind, thank goodness, but you have the part that we made. To tell the truth, I don’t want you in our home. It disgusts me that that Simon creature lived with us for a week.” She turned to face Ken. “All that long drive here, it was him in the back seat.”

She fell silent for a moment. Then she went on:

“It’s not that we want Celine back. She made us suffer in ways I didn’t think were possible. I didn’t think she would live to see her eighteenth birthday, and I was right.”

While Lois talked, Ken twisted his hands, one in the other. He kept taking deep breaths and looking away. Sometimes he squirmed and moved his chair an inch one way or another.

While Ken struggled physically with his emotions, Lois barely moved. She’d lift her head to look in my eyes. She’d lower her head to look at the floor. At times she’d make a gesture, but for the most part, she was stock still. Her clothes hung loose upon her, like a scarecrow. Clearly she was burned out. She had no more emotion to give. First Celine, then Simon, had drained her dry.

Even so, she wanted a win here. She was not going to walk away with her hands empty. There was one last thing she refused to let go of, and that “something” was me. Or at least part of me.

“I know you’re not a good man,” she told me, looking me square in the eye. “At least, that’s what your friends have told us. And I know that if we don’t take you, you’ll be a ward of the state, an orphan. If that happens, you won’t be able to talk to anyone about who you really are and how you came to be.

“The same is true for us: the way we lost Celine — it will always be a shameful secret. If you don’t come with us, the State will say she died. They’ll give us a fake death certificate and a story to tell, and that will be the end.

“If you *do* come with us, at least we’ll have that much in common, like three random survivors of a shipwreck, washed up on shore together. We’ll help you learn to live as a teenage girl, and on the outside we’ll look like any normal family. But when we’re alone, we’ll talk sometimes about the horrible things we’ve seen in this life.”

When she looked at me, she looked into my eyes. It was a soulless look that I’ve never experienced before. It wasn’t disgust or anger or sorrow that I read in her eyes. There was a wasteland behind her eyes: a black, burned-over landscape, with no sign of life between here and the horizon. Honestly, the woman terrified me. Her suffering was a black hole; sitting so close to her made me feel I was perched at the very edge of an abyss, and I was afraid I might fall in and never return.

And yet, in spite of Ken’s physical agony and Lois’ vast, cold, boundless depression, they wanted me to come with them. As warped as it seemed, I felt I understood. In spite of who I was inside, I was all that remained of their daughter. I was like the discarded wrapper that once contained a treasure. Now the treasure was gone. If they didn't take the wrapper, they'd have nothing.

Ken and Lois had already made up their minds.

And what about me? How did I feel about Ken and Lois?

The most obvious downside was the emotional turmoil they carried with them — they had just lost a child, after all. Worse than that, they could see her live and move — knowing all the while that she was dead. That had to be a unique kind of horror to have to live.

And yet, as awkward as it might be, negotiating an emotional minefield wasn’t exactly new to me. Theresa went through a year of depression, and it was no picnic. However, after a year she came out of it. Lois would probably do the same, right? I imagine that depression is something like the flu. It hits you and sticks with you until it’s done with you.

There was my other option to consider as well: becoming a ward of the state. At least there I wouldn’t have to masquerade as someone’s dead daughter. I’d be alone, though. And once I turned eighteen, the state would drop me. I’d have to fend for myself. Of course, I’d plan for that day, save what I could, make whatever arrangements I could manage…

Clearly, it would be easier with the Morstens. If I took the role of their daughter, my eighteenth birthday wouldn’t be a drastic cutoff. I’d have more slack in the timeline of creating and establishing my independence.

It struck me that when I considered where my life could go after I left this room, I was still seeing myself basically as Leo. The idea of being someone else, someone new — and of all things, a girl — it hadn’t really penetrated very far into my view of the future.

To tell the truth, I can’t say that I wanted a fresh start, or a new life. I was pretty happy with the life I had as Leo. Also, knowing how I am, how my mind works, could I sincerely promise to live an honest life? Certainly not forever, anyway — but on the other hand, I felt pretty sure that I could lie low for five years with the Morstens, until I was eighteen. After that, all bets were off. Life with the Morstens would be a damn sight better than bouncing around as a foster child. They looked to be in their early thirties: Lois was probably 21 when she had Celine. As it happened, Ken was a cop, yeah, but he didn’t look like an asshole. In the spite of all she’d been through, Lois had a young, hip look that appealed to me — for instance, she had one of those short, asymmetrical hair styles that usually I found strange, but on her it looked good. Her makeup was light, subtle, almost invisible, which I also liked. Her clothes were tasteful, not showy. For sure, I needed to learn all the feminine arts, and Lois looked like the right person to teach me.

In any case, there wasn’t any real choice to be made: I’d either be adrift in the system, utterly alone, or living with a stable couple who knew the score, and... couldn’t live without me.



The three of us were bundled into the blacked-out back of a van. As I adjusted the straps on the jumpseat, I saw once again how small I am now. I could only just touch the floor with my toes. I wasn’t even half the size of Leo. I pulled the straps as far and tight as they go, but it wasn’t tight enough. “Hang on!” the driver called. “We’re moving out!!” I clutched the straps with both hands, and the van barreled forward.

After an hour of bouncing, braking, and turns, we were let out in a Target parking lot

“Another minute in that van and I would have vomited,” Lois announced. “I think they drove badly on purpose.”

“They didn’t want us keeping track of turns and distances,” Ken explained.

After the van drove off, I asked, “Now what do we do? Take a bus? Call a cab?”

The van had dropped us next to a gray Prius. Ken patted the car and smiled.

“I didn’t think a cop was allowed to drive a Prius,” I quipped.

Ken smiled. “When you’re a tough guy, you can drive whatever the hell you want.”

“Oh, please!” Lois laughed, rolling her eyes.

“Listen,” Ken said. “I am starving! What say we cross the street and hit the Cheesecake Factory before we head home?” Lois and I agreed, and as we walked together, I asked, “Where *is* home, by the way?”

“Lambeth,” Ken replied.

“Lambeth, Connecticut?”

“Yup. The one and only. Do you know it?”

“Um, yeah. That’s where… Leo Blisten, uh, lives.”

“Hmm. Is that going to be a problem?”

“No,” I said. “I mean, unless we, like, live right across the street or two doors down or something.”

“Once we order our food, let’s look up your old address on the map.”

We were all pretty hungry. I ordered a burger, fries, and a milkshake. Then, out of habit, I reached for my phone. Lois noticed my movement. “We’ll get you a phone, hon. You’ll need it.”

Ken took the cue, and consulted his. “Well, we’re both on the North Side, but in pretty different neighborhoods. I wouldn’t say we're close at all.”

Lambeth is located on a long hill just north of the Fifth Connecticut Lake. Rich people live on Lakeside, which is (obviously) the side that faces the lake. The rest of us, the working and middle class, live on the North Side, the part of the hill that faces north, away from the lake. My old house and Max’s were up the hill a bit, so they were marginally more expensive, but it was still North Side. Ken and Lois’ house was on the flat land below the hill. It was a fair hike from the Morsten’s to my old house, and they were in completely different neighborhoods.

“We’re not likely to run into each other,” I observed.

We were all a bit relieved at that, although it did put an idea in my head that I’d have to run by Ken.

After our small talk petered out, and we were simply sitting, waiting, hungry, Ken, suddenly remembering, told us in a low voice: “Listen. New rule: no Switcher talk in public. At all. Agreed?”

We all agreed.

Our food arrived, and we fell to. I didn’t realize how hungry my ordeal had left me, and my food was nearly gone before I realized how quickly I was eating. Having a teenage metabolism probably had a lot to do with it. I swallowed the milkshake in a series of gulps, groaned my way through brainfreeze that followed, and THEN asked, “Hey, I’m not lactose intolerant or gluten intolerant or anything like that, am I?”

“No,” Lois said. “Why do you ask?”

“Just curious,” I said, and unexpectedly released a loud, frog-like burp that echoed in every corner of the restaurant.

Blushing like a stop light, I apologized. “I had no idea that was even coming out.”

“Don’t worry about it,” Ken assured me.

“While you pay, I need to use the little girl’s room.” Lois announced.

I watched Lois work her way through the restaurant, and as soon as she was out of sight, Ken said, “What’s on your mind? Since you finished your food you’ve haven’t quit squirming.”

“Really?” I said. “Wow. I thought I was still as a statue.”

“Nope. Remember: your energy level is much higher than your old self. Plus, your teenage hormones might be kicking in. AND, keep in mind that Celine was always kind of jumpy. Your face and body are probably not as still and unreadable as you’re used to.”

“How do you know what I’m used to?”

“I’ve met the old you — at least, your old body. It doesn’t have the same range of expression you’ve got now.”

I nodded. “Good to know.”

“So, what’s eating you?”

Good question. What was eating me was a stash of money I’d hidden back at my old place. It wasn’t a fortune, but it wasn’t money to throw away. Behind a panel in my home office, I had a little over twenty thousand dollars. Theresa didn’t know about it. It came from various sources over the last five years.

So… yeah, I’m not surprised I was squirming. It would be nice to get my hands on that money, but how? Then it came to me. My father’s books.

I said to Ken, “I know I shouldn’t do this, but I want to go by my old place and pick up some books of mine.” Then I added, “And I want to say goodbye. For good. I didn’t get a chance. I actually haven’t seen my friends since the… since the event.”

Ken simply said, “Okay.” Surprisingly, he didn’t even think about it. Just “okay,” right out of the gate. He unpeeled a toothpick and got busy jimmying the thing in and around his teeth. He stopped for a moment to ask, “Will we need boxes or bags or anything?”

“Oh, yeah — one wine box ought to do it.”



We dropped Lois back at the house. Ken told her, “Celine and I have a little errand to run.” Lois nodded, but didn’t have any other reaction that I could see.

“Move up to the front seat, Celine,” Ken told me, and when I stepped out of the car, Lois stood in my way. “I need to give you a hug,” she said. “I’ve been dying to do that, all day. Come here.” She embraced me. She just… held me. She hung on to me. At last she let go, and with a sad smile said, “Celine — the old Celine — would never let me do that.”

I climbed into the front seat, and it seemed enormously wide. Again, only my toes touched the floor, and I had to hold onto the diagonal part of the seat belt to keep it from crossing my face.

After Lois had gone inside and we were moving again, Ken asked me, “Am I going to have to fight anybody once we get there?”

“No,” I replied, surprised by the question. “I just want to pick up some books.”

He nodded. Ken didn’t look at me. He was the kind of driver who kept his eyes on the road.

We pulled up in front of my former home. It looked bigger to me. I glanced at Max’s house, next door. It also looked considerably larger. “I wonder when this Land of the Giants feeling will pass,” I wondered aloud as I rang the doorbell. Ken tilted his head and looked at me. I wasn’t sure whether he understood. Then, of course, when Theresa opened the door, I had to look up at her.

Now, who was Theresa now? “Uh, Meredith?” I asked.

“Yeah,” she admitted, with a sheepish smile, as if it were some sort of dopey joke. She greeted Ken and shook his hand. “We met earlier at that… place.” Ken nodded. She looked down at me. “And you — what do we call you now?”


“Nice name.” She glanced over her shoulder. “Listen, I don’t know if it’s okay to invite you in. Let me go get Leo — Theresa — oh, you know who I mean!”

Theresa, now in my old body, came stomping up the hallway, scowling, angry, both hands actively clenching in fists. He looked as if he was about to kick my ass into next week. I heard Ken shift his stance, but I didn’t look away from Leo. Ken already met Leo, I remembered. That’s why he asked if he’d have to fight. I never realized how scary I looked to other people. And if I had to tilt my chin up to gaze into Theresa/Meredith’s smile, my head had to go all the way back to meet Leo/Theresa’s scowl.

“Well, look who it is,” she snarled. I half-expected her to spit on me. She gave a dubious glance at Ken and asked him, “You decided to go through with this? Really? In spite of everything we told you?”

“Yes,” Ken replied. He didn’t add anything. He didn’t justify himself. He only said a simple “yes.”

“Hmmph,” Leo snorted, then sneered down at me. “Look at you now: you’re just a skinny little runt! Maybe now, now that you’re not so big, people will finally get to knock some sense into you.”

“Hey!” Ken barked. “That’s enough of that.”

“Oh, yeah?” Leo countered. “Is it enough? Is it? Look at the mess I’m in. I can’t get a job, because this asshole has no work history, no resume, no job skills to speak of. I used to be an accountant, a controller, a person in a position of responsibility! Now I can’t do that any more, because that’s Theresa’s life, not Leo’s.” His jaw worked, as if he was chewing on his anger. “Even if I WAS still Theresa, this jerk got me FIRED with his scams and his… his crooked shit!”

Now I understood. The light broke upon me. After twenty years of living together, I finally, suddenly, realized that I’d never seen our relationship from her point of view. From my point of view, everything was fun, all fun, all good — even now, I’m pretty sure most of it was — but at the same time, I destroyed her career. None of us went to jail, but yes, I was trying to work a scam on her last employer. They couldn’t prove anything, and they didn’t lose any money — which is why (as I said) neither of us went to jail. However, Theresa had to resign. And yet, as bad a setback as that was, I thought she was okay with it! After all, *I* wasn’t worried about it: we had money in the bank... and I was working some possibilities...

This was it: this was the problem, in a nutshell. I was sanguine, happy, full of hope. My view of life was always optimistic. Things were always going to get better. In Theresa’s eyes, on the other hand, the whole mess had already gone to hell. Even before the Switcher got involved.

Why didn’t I see it before? Because I was in there! I was Leo. I was the big man. I was going to make everything right. I had it all in hand. I was going to make it work. But now SHE was Leo, and she had no idea how to begin.

It was clear in that moment what I had to do.

“There’s money,” I said.

“I DON’T WANT TO HEAR YOUR STORIES!” Leo shouted. “Your big idea is full of shit! Do you understand me?”

I had to be cautious. I didn’t want Leo to say any more about that “idea.” I don’t know whether the plan was still possible, but there was no point in throwing the possibility completely out the window.

Also because I didn’t want to screw up my place in the Morsten home, I did NOT want Ken to catch even the slightest whiff of my plan.

“It’s not a story,” I assured her. “There’s real money, hidden in the house.”

Leo stopped shouting. He was still breathing hard, as he looked down at me with a fierce red face. His expression was full of hate. I couldn’t help it, I started shaking.

That never happened to me as Leo: I never had attacks of nerves. Now, my legs were wobbling — so much so, that I was afraid they might give way, and I’d fall down.

And then, something magical happened.

Ken put his hand on my shoulder.

As soon as he did, I stopped shaking. I took a big, deep breath, and I wasn’t nervous any more. It was as though the warmth in his big, strong hand lent his strength into me.

Once again I tilted my head all the way back, so I could look Leo in the eye. I told him, “Let me show you where it is. There’s a secret panel in my office. You won’t find it by yourself. I’ll show you, and then I’ll leave.”

Leo gave me a suspicious look, but he stepped back and gestured for us to enter. I went up the stairs first, then Ken, then Leo. Ken was carrying an empty wine box we’d picked up on the way.

“What’s the box for?” Leo asked suspiciously.

“Books,” Ken said.

“My dad’s books,” I explained.

When we got to my office, I immediately felt something was wrong.

“Did you, uh, did you mess with the papers on my desk?” I asked.

Leo clenched his fists and shouted, “Seriously? Seriously? You’re going to ask me about your fucking papers now? NOW? I can’t believe you! But, no — I didn’t touch your precious papers. Okay?”

“Yeah, yeah,” I said. “Sorry! Okay, look.” I picked up a ballpoint pen. “There’s a screw here in the wall — see how it’s shinier than the others? Here.” I handed Leo the pen. “Push on that screw with the capped end of the pen. Um, push a little harder.” He did so, and with a soft, muffled click!, a panel in the wainscoting opened slightly. Leo opened it a little more and swore.

“It’s not as much as it might look,” I said, “But it should help, at least a little.”

While Leo was hypnotized by the contents of the secret cache, Ken asked, “Which books are we taking?”

“The Zane Grey and the C.S. Forester novels,” I said. “They were my father’s.”

Ken got busy packing the books in the box. Leo shut the panel. “I’ll count it after you go,” he said.

I glanced at Ken, who had his head down. I couldn’t help but steal a look at the papers on my desk. Leo saw me looking, and his eyes narrowed with mistrust. I shook my head and turned my back to the desk, so that I was facing Ken. Ken fitted the last two books in place, hefted the now-filled box, and stood up.

I told Leo, “That’s it. Don’t worry, I won’t be back, but if there’s anything I can do—”

Leo cut me off. “I don’t need anything from you.”

“Okay,” I said, and walked downstairs.

Before he closed the door on me and Ken, Leo bent down, close to my face, said growled, “Don’t imagine that this comes anywhere near to making us even.”

I opened my mouth to say something — I don’t even know what — but Leo shut the door and threw the deadbolt. The finality of that gesture was not lost on me. I stood there on the walkway, staring at the door, feeling the weight of her rejection. I couldn’t take it in.

What I was feeling was worse than divorce, I was sure. Leo/Theresa had dropped a gravestone on our marriage, on our relationship, on *everything* that ever existed between us. There was no resurrection to come; there was nothing to hope for — no reconciliation or forgiveness: just a rupture, beyond any possible repair. It felt like death.



I managed to hold it together until we got home. The three of us sat down in the Marston’s kitchen. Ken placed my box of books on the floor, next to my chair. After washing his hands, he brewed a pot of tea and put some cookies on a plate.

“These are my favorite cookies,” Lois told me with a smile. “Le Petit Ecolier — the little schoolboy. It’s a butter buscuit with a piece of milk chocolate on top.” I’d seen Lois smile while we were at the restaurant, but this was the first she smiled while looking at me.

“They are good,” I said, after taking a bite. I looked at the cookie and saw that I’d bitten the boy’s head off. “They’re really good with coffee.” Then I wondered, “Hmm. Did Celine like coffee? Will I?”

“No, she didn’t,” Lois said. “That’s something you can look forward to, as you grow up — developing the taste for it.”

I looked around us. Aside from the big appliances — the fridge, stove, and dishwasher —- and the cabinets, the room was full of unpacked boxes.My box of books was just one more carton in a room full of cartons. Lois bent down and picked out one of the books. She read the title: Riders of the Purple Sage.

“I’m sure I’ve heard of this one,” she said.

“That’s the only one I’ve read,” I told her. I reached down to pick another at random: The Trail Driver, by Zane Grey.

I held onto the book, unconsciously clutching it to my chest, while Ken recounted to Lois our adventure at my old house.

“Was it difficult?” Lois asked.

“I never knew how hard it was for her,” I replied.

“For who? Your wife?”

I nodded. I sat there and drew a long, heavy breath. “I mean, I thought everything was great. I was happy and hopeful. I assumed she felt the same. Now I understand that for her, it was completely different. For me, it was an adventure, a life full of thrills. For her, it was like she was trapped in the backseat of a car being driven by a crazy man.”

“That money…,” Ken began, “When we went there, your original idea was to keep it for yourself, wasn’t it?”

“Yes,” I confessed, and unaccountably, tears began running down my cheeks. I couldn’t understand why. The tears wouldn’t stop. I sniffled, and the tears started flowing faster.

Ken moved next to me, put his arm around my shoulders, and let me cry.

“I’m sorry,” I told them, once my tears subsided. “I’m really not a good person.”

“I’m not sorry,” he said. “I’m going to tell you two things: one is, that if — IF — this new little family is going to fall apart, we’d rather see it go to pieces sooner than later. Am I right, Lois? We’ve had enough heartbreak and bullshit, and we won’t stand for any more. And if our new little nucleus is going to break and fail, it would be better if it happened privately, between the three of us. We don’t want to have move again, to start our lives all over again. Am I right, Lois?”

I blinked and sniffled and turned my eyes to Lois, who nodded grimly. “Damn straight,” she replied, and she handed me some tissues.

“What’s the other thing?” I asked.

“In the end, you did the right thing, didn’t you?”

“I guess so,” I said. “But if it was the right thing, why does it feel so bad?”

Lois put her hand on my thigh and gave it an affectionate squeeze. “Let’s go upstairs,” she said. “I’ll show you your room, and you can set your books down. Then I’ll give you the grand tour, okay?”

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