A Minority Of One : 4 / 9

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A Minority Of One : 4 / 9

[ Melanie Brown’s Switcher Universe ]
By Iolanthe Portmanteaux


“Pards, are we in hell?” shouted Tex, huskily. “Or are we out? Boys, it’s passed away. We’re alive to tell the tale.”
— Zane Grey, The Trail Driver


Lois gave me the “grand tour” of the house. I’d already seen the kitchen. On the whole, the place was dated, but workable. It wasn’t awful. The backyard wasn’t huge, but there was enough space to set up a grill, to entertain, and to have a respectable garden. The garage, which was separate from the house, was in good repair. The house itself was a decent size, and didn’t need any obvious repairs. It had three bedrooms, two and a half bathrooms, a clean and usable attic space, and a half-finished basement. By “half finished” I mean that the previous owner had begun work on a mother-in-law apartment, but stopped halfway. There were the beginnings of another bathroom, pieces of a kitchenette, a space that would be a laundry room once the walls were up, and a large empty space whose destiny seemed undecided.

The house was bigger, and in better shape, than I’d expected. I don’t keep up with houses and property values — that was always Theresa’s thing — but I did know that the Morstens’ house weren’t in a very desirable neighborhood. This part of town was considered blue collar/working class. It had some decent old houses, like this one. The tradeoff was that your nice-looking, good-sized house, bought on a cop’s salary, was located in a not-so-nice part of town.

Another drawback: you couldn’t count the house as an investment. The market in this part of Lambeth was dead, and barring an economic miracle, it wasn’t coming back.

On the other hand, as far as the neighborhood was concerned, “not-so-nice” didn’t mean dangerous. It might seem scary if you didn’t know the neighborhood; which had partly depopulated after a load of factory jobs left town. The state of the houses could vary wildly on any given block: a pretty, well-tended house could sit next to a house that was boarded up, abandoned, and surrounded by an ugly chain-link fence.

To live there, you either had to take a long-shot bet on the future or learn to live with the contrasts of beauty and ruin.

Ken, I think, could manage it — if only Lois could. It wasn’t clear whether she was able.

Admittedly, they’d only been in the house for a week or so, but none of the boxes were unpacked, and there were boxes everywhere. You couldn’t walk through the living room at all. The beds weren’t assembled; the family had been sleeping on mattresses on the floor.

My bedroom, like Lois and Ken’s, was piled with boxes. There was a bed, unassembled, leaning against one corner. The mattress lay on the floor. I stepped into the room. The window had a view that included a piece of the house next door and a portion of the street. It was a nice size for a teenager’s room. I spotted a laptop on the floor, plugged into the wall. “Is that Celine’s laptop?” I asked.

“Yes,” Lois sighed. “Simon was pretty busy on that while he was here. He changed the password, but Ken should be able to reset it for you.”

I nodded, and we returned to the kitchen. “You know,” I told Lois, taking a page from the TV home-improvement shows Theresa loved to watch, “I don’t think either of these walls are load-bearing. We could blow them both out, and have a nice open-concept on this floor. Put in a big island here… and over there, a pair of french doors that open to a deck…”

“Yes,” Lois agreed. “I’ve had all those same thoughts. If we did some soundproofing and finished the basement, we could turn it into an income property.” She spoke about the improvements in a jaded tone, without enthusiasm or interest.

I very nearly opened my mouth to respond, but I bit my tongue just in time. I knew from the TV shows that (1) the zoning laws might not permit an income property, (2) there wasn’t enough daylight down there, (3) an apartment would need a separate entrance, and most of all (4) the rental market was as dead as the home-sale market. I didn’t say anything because I didn’t want to bring Lois any further down.

Lois was pretty far down. It’s not as though she never smiled, but generally she seemed utterly worn out. She wasn’t just tired; Lois was clearly depressed. If I couldn’t read it from her face and manner, the story was clearly told by the mass of unpacked boxes.

So all I said was, “It’s a nice house. It’s big. On the one hand, it has lots of potential, but at the same time it’s fine as it is.”

“It’s nothing like our last house,” Lois confided. “I loved that place. For me, it was our forever home. It had everything. Unfortunately, Celine pulled some pretty extreme sh— stunts.” Her face blanched at the memory. “We had to run out of town. Literally. We lost so much money when we sold that place. It was a fire sale, if you know what I mean.”

I did know what she meant.

Lois looked in my eyes and said, “I really appreciate the fact that there’s an adult in there, who knows what I’m talking about. You know, actions and consequences. Real estate values. Selling in a bad market.”

“I get it,” I assured her.

“Oh,” she said, suddenly remembering. “In the bathroom upstairs, the bottom drawer is yours. All the stuff in there is Celine’s. I don’t know what you want to do with it — with her toiletries. There are three toothbrushes in the rack above the sink. The red one is yours.”

I must have made some kind of face, because Lois smiled slightly and said, “If it’s weird for you — using Celine’s toothbrush — we can get you a new one this afternoon.”

“Yeah…,” I said. “I guess.. I mean, I know it shouldn’t matter… technically we have the same mouth, the same germs, but… even so, I’d feel like I was using somebody else’s toothbrush. And it wasn’t just Celine’s, it was Simon’s, too. I— I just couldn’t do it. I’d really prefer my own.”

Lois laughed. “Did you ever read No Exit by Sartre?” I shook my head. “It starts off like this — a guy ends up in Hell, and the first thing he asks for is a toothbrush.”

“Um, I don’t feel like I’ve landed in Hell,” I told her. “I hope you don’t feel that way.”

She let out a heavy sigh. “God help me, sometimes I do.”

“I’m sorry,” I told her. She shrugged.

“It is what it is,” she replied. “I’ve always hated that phrase. It’s so inane. You might as well say potatoes are potatoes, but now — somehow— that stupid phrase fits exactly the way I feel. ‘It is what it is.’

“Celine had us on a downward spiral for years. Lately that spiral was turning faster and faster. Maybe now it will finally stop. I sure hope so.”

I wasn’t sure what to do or say. I figured I’d try a “girl” thing: I set my book down and offered a hug. She shook her head. “It’s fine,” she said. “Really, I’m fine. You know what? Let’s go back upstairs. I can show you some of Celine’s — some of your stuff. Clothes and things. Then we”ll see if you want to keep any of her toiletries. That way, we’ll know what we need to get later.”

I’d ready seen Celine’s room — my room. It didn’t have much character. There weren’t as many boxes as the other rooms. There were a few pieces of furniture: besides the unassembled bed, there was a desk, a bureau, and a little bookcase. I pointed to a door in the wall (blocked by boxes), and asked, “A closet?” Lois nodded. There was nothing on the walls — no posters or photos. There weren’t any knicknacks or stuffed animals or books or souvenirs lying around. Nothing that gave an idea of who used to live there.

The boxes were mostly marked “Celine clothes.” I opened one. I’ve never been interested in clothes, so it just looked like a box full of different colored cloths to me. One box had “Celine shoes” written on it. Another read “Celine boots,” “Celine winter,” “Celine sports”...

“Was Celine into sports?”

“No,” Lois scoffed. “She liked buying clothes. She liked stealing clothes. She didn’t care much about wearing them, though.”

My eyebrows went up at that. Lois quickly amended her statement: “I mean, she didn’t run around naked. That’s not what I meant. She just wore the same ugly things over and over. I’d show you pictures, but one day she burned every photograph we owned — not just pictures of her, but my wedding pictures, old family photos…”

“Did you have any digital photos?”

“Yes, but she blew those away as well. She had a lot of energy for her… for her projects, if you can call them that.” Lois shook her head.

“Someone told me that it had to do with her self-image, but I think she just didn’t care. She was an anarchist by nature: she didn’t value anything.” Lois stopped for a moment. “No — that makes her a nihilist. She was a nihilist and a narcissist, and maybe even a psychopath, if we’re handing out labels.”

I had no idea what to say, so I didn’t respond. Lois looked into my eyes and said, “What a lovely thing for a mother to say about her daughter, eh?”

I shrugged and offered, “If that’s what she was…”

“...that’s what she was,” Lois said, completing my phrase.

I looked at the computer. “I’m surprised that the Feds didn’t take that laptop.”

“Oh,” Lois said. “Nobody thought about it. We didn’t mention it.” She hesitated for a moment, then confided, “I don’t think that any of those people know what they’re doing. They don’t seem to care, and I don’t think they’re making the right kind of efforts.”

“Yeah,” I agreed, thinking of my experience with smirking Ron, the FBI agent.

“I’ll be interested in looking at the browser history,” I told her. “I’ve been wondering why and how Simon settled on me and my friends as targets.”

“Oh, that’s easy enough to answer,” Lois said. “You weren’t targets at all. It was random. I mean, think about how they knew that Simon was Celine.”

“I don’t know how they knew,” I told her.

“Sorry, I thought that the Feds had told you everything. Okay… it went like this: When Simon switched into Celine, there was a cop who saw it. No, let’s take a step back. Simon was… Simon was inside some man. Some random man. I don’t know his name or what he was up to. I’m sure Ken knows, if you’re interested. Anyway, this man had a gun. Again, I have no idea what led up to the moment, but here was Simon in the body of this man, holding a gun. This happened a few days before we moved here. There was a policewoman. She was chasing the man. She didn’t know anything about the Switcher or Simon or any of that. For her, this was just her ordinary line of duty — dealing with a threat to the community. She ran one way, her partner ran the other way, so they could head this guy off. And then, she cornered him. The policewoman had her gun drawn, so Simon shot her. Celine happened to be there, completely by accident, so Simon switched with her. Now Celine was in the body of the gunman.

“The shot knocked the policewoman down, but it didn’t kill her. She had… her bulletproof vest. It saved her. She witnessed the switch, but she didn’t understand it. In fact, when Simon, in the guise of Celine, ran off, the policewoman was glad. The little girl was out of danger, or so she thought.

“Now, the policewoman was lying on the ground, looking up at what she thought was a gunman, and fearing for her life. She fired at Celine and missed. Celine, for whatever stupid reason, fired back. More than once. The policewoman was shot four times — three of those shots were from Celine. The policewoman’s partner arrived on the scene, saw his partner on the ground, and Celine standing over her, shooting. Celine aimed her gun at him, so he shot her twice and killed her.”

“I’m so sorry,” I said. What else could I say?

“Yeah,” Lois acknowledged. “I have to hope that in some way, that part of her is at peace somehow. If that’s at all possible. Sins forgiven and all that.” She swallowed hard and looked away for a moment. Then she looked back at me and said, “We’ve all had our shocks, though, haven’t we? Even you — it’s like your old self has died. In a way, anyway. Somebody else is living your life, and not the way you’d live it.

“We’ve all got to pick up whatever pieces we have and try to go on.”

I shrugged and gave what I hoped was an encouraging smile. I guess it worked, because Lois smiled back at me. The she glanced at her watch and gave a soft exclamation of surprise.

“I didn’t realize how late it was,” she said. “I’m going to start on dinner. Do you mind staying up here until it’s ready? I need a little time alone. I’ll call you when it’s ready. Ken will be coming home. You can just put your feet up, look through her stuff — your stuff, I mean. You can try to unpack, read your book, whatever you feel like doing.

“After dinner we’ll stop by CVS and pick up whatever you need — toothbrush, shampoo, all that.”

I nodded, but then I stopped her. “Wait — you said you didn’t think Simon targeted me and my friends, but I don’t see why you say that.”

“Oh, right! I didn’t finish. The Feds followed up on the shooting, a few days after the fact. They were on Simon’s trail. Actually, I think they’d already lost his trail, but something about the shooting fit a pattern. Well, the policewoman couldn’t give a good description of Celine, but a security camera caught the switch and the shootout, and a street camera caught Simon fleeing the scene as Celine. The Feds had a pretty easy time identifying her, because Celine was well known to the local police.

“Even so, each of those things took time. It was a week before the Feds got here. They were heading here, to the house. She spotted them and took off on her bike. They chased her through the streets. She was running, looking for someone to switch into. I guess Simon is good at running — I mean evasion — and on a bike he could cut through alleys and footpaths. The Feds were in cars.

“That’s why I don’t think that Simon targeted you. It was opportunistic. He was just running. He saw the barbecue smoke, smelled the steaks, knew there’d be people…”

“I guess so,” I agreed. “Still, I’m sorry for what happened to you and Ken… and to Celine as well. No matter what she was like, or what she did, she didn’t deserve to die like that.”

Lois nodded and looked away for a moment. Then she said, “Simon got Celine killed. He hurt all of us: the three of us, your friends, that man the police shot… Oh my God, this Simon guy… I thought Celine was a terror: but she was an angel compared to Simon.”

I nodded, and Lois turned and went downstairs. I found that I was still clutching the Zane Grey novel to my chest, like a security blanket. I didn’t feel ready to start looking through clothes, so I lay on the mattress on the floor, and started reading.

My father used to love Zane Grey’s stories. He read them over and over, and tried unsuccessfully to get me to read them. After he died, my mother insisted that I take them all. “Read one, at least,” she said. “It will help you understand your father, as a person.” With that motivation, I read Riders of the Purple Sage. I remember that I liked it well enough, though it didn’t stick in my memory. It sure didn’t tell me anything at all about my dad.

This book, though, The Trail Driver, was different. I fell into it. Time disappeared. I honestly forgot where I was and who I am, I was so engrossed. When Ken appeared at my door and said, “Dinner’s ready,” I almost jumped out of my skin. He chuckled.

“Good book, huh?”

“Yeah, I guess so. It started off a little hokey… he tries to write in this Texas accent, so you have to ignore that. And the racial stereotypes… But once this mysterious character, Reddie Bayne, shows up, the story gets a lot more interesting. There’s some kind of secret about him… about his life before he joins the cattle run.”

“Sounds like you,” Ken commented with a smile. “Mysterious, interesting, a secret past.”

“Aw, shucks, pard. I don’t know nothin’ about horses, though!”



We ate in silence — at first. I could see they were both suffering. It was clear that Celine’s wildness and her death had beaten the life out of both of them. Lois was no longer smiling; she was in a state of melancholy. Neither of them could find much to say, so I tried tossing this ball into the air: “In that book I was reading, these cowboys are driving cattle, and they’re near a stream. One of them asks for help getting his boots off. He says he hasn’t taken them off in a week. Do you think that’s possible?”

Lois clicked her tongue and said, “Back in those days, I guess a man could wash himself once a month and count himself quite hygienic.”

“Those days?” Ken repeated with a laugh. “Those days are still among us. If you’d ever smelled a policeman’s locker room, you’d know that.”

“Wow,” I said. “It’d be tough having a partner who wasn’t clean.”

“Tell me about it!” Ken rejoined.

“This reminds me of something I read once… where was it?” Lois chimed in. “This woman couldn’t get her little boy, her son, to wash himself. They’d have terrible fights. She tried everything: punishments, promises, treats… but nothing worked. Finally, one day she gave up. Completely. She stopped trying, stopped talking about bathing... Just stopped.”

“Then what happened?”

A smile briefly appeared on Lois’ face. “After a few days, the boy came home from school crying. The other kids told him that he stank. From then on, she never even had to ask. He took showers every day, on his own.”

We all laughed.

Well, sure, it wasn’t the most scintillating conversation, but it got everybody talking, and by the end of the meal, Lois was smiling, Ken was relaxed, and I was beginning to think that I’d landed pretty well.

“Do you have any tools?” I asked. “I think, after I clean up here, I can put our beds together. It won’t take long.”

Lois said, “If that’s the case, I’ll do the dishes!” Ken fetched his toolbox, and forty minutes later, both beds were assembled. Lois found the sheets and bedspreads. I offered to help her, but she pointed out, “You’re all dirty and dusty — both of you! Get cleaned up and — oh! ready for bed!”

“It’s too early,” I said. “Could I take a shot at setting up the TV?”

After an hour, I had to give up. I couldn’t find the cables. Also, with all the boxes around, there was no good place to put the TV or to sit and watch it. To say nothing of the fact that there was no way to see where the cable hookup came out of the wall.

“Okay,” I said to Ken. “I give up. You get the first shower. Tomorrow I’ll tackle the kitchen.”

“I think you better take the first shower,” Ken replied. “You look like you’re about to fall over.”

He was right. I was running on fumes. Once he said it, I felt an achy tiredness all over.

I trudged upstairs, got in the shower, and turned on the spray. It was glorious. I loved the hot water. I loved getting clean again. And the moment I slipped between the clean sheets, I felt myself sinking into dreamland.

On my way down to the world of dreams, a sudden realization hit me. Somewhere in the back of my brain, the dots connected and a picture emerged. In my mind’s eye I saw Ken’s hand, holding his phone, and on his phone was a map. On that map were two pins: one for my old house, and one for the Morsten’s house. My old house is nowhere near my new house, I observed. If the Feds chased Simon from here, on a bike, he would never have gone that far, if he was simply looking for a new victim.

Simon had targeted us. He wasn’t running at random; he made a serious, concerted effort to reach my address. It was an uphill ride; it ran against the grain.

I lay on my back, mouth open, astonished. It wasn’t supposition: it was a the clear fact. But what did it mean? Why would he target me? Or any of the four of us? None of us were famous, none of us were known, not even locally. I didn’t even have a police record. It didn’t make much sense. In fact, it made no sense whatsoever.

I was so tired, though, that my thoughts grew fuzzy and confused.

A moment later, sleep washed over me like a wave, and I slept until morning.

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