A Minority Of One : 5 / 9

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A Minority Of One : 5 / 9

[ Melanie Brown’s Switcher Universe ]
By Iolanthe Portmanteaux

 


“But, Reddie, don’t you want a man to be honest?”

“Not— not when he knows too much.”

— Zane Grey, The Trail Driver


 

As Leo, I was a late sleeper. Up late at night, up late in the morning. It suited me, since (as my friends rightly said) I never held a regular job. Maybe it was laziness, maybe it was metabolism. Whatever it was, it worked for me. I never believed that old saw about the early bird catching the worm. Who wants to catch worms, anyway?

However, that morning I discovered that as Celine, I was an early bird. Ken and Lois didn’t warn me. I’m sure it didn’t occur to them to tell me, but at 5:30 exactly, my eyes popped open, and I was wide awake. So awake that there was no falling back to sleep. After a visit to the bathroom, I discovered that Lois had laid out an outfit for me to wear: shorts, a top, underwear, and flip-flops. She must have fished them out of the boxes while I was sleeping.

I appreciated the gesture. The world of “girl” was so new to me, I didn’t feel ready to grapple with clothing choices. If left to my own devices, I would have grabbed the first thing that I happened to see. My wardrobe as Leo was very casual, and everything “went with” everything else — at least as far as I could tell. I’m pretty sure that I never spent more than fifteen seconds deciding what to wear. The business of color choices and finding “the right thing” seemed like a huge waste of time. If Lois was going to choose for me, so much the better.

Sure, I’ll need to learn about clothes eventually. Maybe next month? At any rate, it wasn’t at the top of my to-do list..

After getting dressed, I quietly descended the stairs to the kitchen. Happily, the stairs didn’t creak or squeak, which is always great. Once in the kitchen, I ate a handful of granola and swallowed a few mouthfuls of milk, right out of the carton. (Don’t tell anyone!)

My intention was to get a few calories into me while I looked into making a real breakfast, but to my surprise, the small amount I’d eaten took care of my hunger entirely — an unexpected benefit of being so much smaller than I used to be!

I sat at the kitchen table and returned to reading The Trail Driver. Reddie, the enigmatic character I mentioned earlier, was in torment. He had a secret, a terrible secret that he claimed “always ruined everything” once it became known. On account of this secret, Reddie was always on the run. And yet, he seemed like a perfectly good person; a likeable, honest, dependable person. What could this secret be?

At last, unable to bear it any longer, he confessed to his boss, Mr. Brite (Note: I’ve corrected the spelling to make it more readable):

"Mr. Brite, I— I'm not what I— I look— at all."
 

"No?— Well, as you're a likely-lookin' youngster, I'm sorry to hear it. Why ain't you?"
 

"Because I'm a girl."
 

Brite wheeled so suddenly that his horse jumped. He thought he had not heard the lad correctly.
 

But Bayne's face was turned and his head drooped.
 

"Wha-at?" he exclaimed, startled out of his usual composure.

I, too, was taken completely unawares. I didn’t jump like Mr. Brite, but I did exclaim “Whoa!” out loud. Then I burst into laughter. Honest and truly, I didn’t expect it at all. I knew Reddie had a secret, but never in a thousand years would I have guessed that the young, good-looking cowboy was really a girl. I had no more suspicion than Mr. Brite had.

Who knew that a western novel would have a twist like that!

Ken came into the kitchen, dressed in his police uniform, just at that moment. “What’s up?” he asked, full of curiosity.

I showed him the cover of the book, to give him some context, and explained that Reddie, that enigmatic character, was actually a girl disguised as a boy, and not only disguised, but working as the “horse wrangler” on a huge Texas cattle run.

“Huh,” Ken grunted. “That sounds about as confusing as our lives are, right about now.”

“Yeah,” I nodded, “that’s so.”

A smile played on his lips. “Maybe that book will give you some insights, Celine.”

“Maybe so, Dad,” I answered playfully.

He came back in the same vein: “Celine, your mother wants a hot breakfast: pancakes and eggs and so on. I’m going to stop at Big D’s to get it. Do you want to come with me? That way, I can drop you back here with the food and head on in to work. Save me a little time.”

“Sure!”

“Just one thing—” he hesitated. “What did you say Reddie’s job was? House wrangler?”

“No, horse wrangler. I said hawse because it’s spelled that way in the book.”

“Huh. Why on earth would they need a horse wrangler on a cattle run?”

I shrugged, put my bookmark in the page, and followed him outside.

After we pulled out of the driveway, Ken thanked me for assembling the beds. “Things like that, they make a big difference. Sleeping on the floor — even on a mattress — that’s survival-level. Sleeping in a bed is civilized.”

“We did it together,” I pointed out.

“True, but until last night I haven’t had the energy or inclination for it,” he confessed. “Once you started, it was easy. It’s that way with a lot of things: getting started is the hardest part.”

After a short silence, I told him, “You know, before, in the kitchen, I was being ironic — I was trying to be funny — when I called you Dad.”

“Yeah, I know. It’s just as strange for me to call you Celine. You look like Celine, but aside from the physical, you’re nothing like her at all. Still, we have to keep calling each other those names until it’s second nature.”

“Okay, Dad.”

We both smirked, but the funny had already gone out of it. Just that abruptly, it wasn’t ironic any more. Already, it was who we are now, the roles we’d been dropped into.

After we fetched the food, he left me at the end of the driveway. I waved goodbye to him as he drove off. Then I smiled hello at the old man next door. He was in his front yard, watering his flowers, watering his lawn. “That your Dad?” he asked.

“Yep.”

“He’s a cop?”

“Yep.”

“Well, I’m Mr. Waters,” he said. He gestured with his hose. “See? Waters. You’ll never forget my name.”

I fought the urge to call him Mr. Hoser — It would be rude, especially after he was being nice. Plus, there was no point in offending him: he was our neighbor. He also wasn’t stupid.

“I saw what you were thinking there,” he told me, and we both laughed. “I’m glad you folks moved in. I was afraid that house was going to stay empty, like so many others. Such a nice house! And you look like nice people.”

“I think we are,” I said. “We try to be. You have to excuse me, though. I want to get this food to my mother, while it’s hot. It was nice to meet you, Mr. —” I hung fire, until he laughed, and raised the hose a bit, as if to spray me. “I’m Celine, Mr. Waters. We’ll be seeing each other a lot, I’m sure!”

It was funny, wasn’t it, how behaving like this, playing the part of a teenage girl, suddenly seemed so natural. Still, I’d only interacted with adults so far. I doubted that interacting with other kids would be as simple.

Lois hadn’t yet come downstairs, so I put the food on plates, and poured the coffee into a mug. I couldn’t find a tray, so I awkwardly carried the food upstairs. On a box near her bed I managed to lay out the food without spilling anything. The flatware clanking woke her.

“You’re hired,” she said, and smiled.

“I went with Dad to get this for you,” I told her.

Dad,” she repeated, deadpan.

“Yes, Mom,” I replied, in a tentative tone.

“Ohhh,” she sighed, and put her hand to her chest. “It’s going to take a while to get used to that. It’s still an effort for me to call you ‘Celine’. Hopefully, soon, my heart won’t break each time.”

I couldn’t help myself. I mugged, rolling my eyes and groaning, “Oh, Mom,” the way any teenage girl would, reacting to her mother’s melodrama.

She didn’t laugh or even smile. She fixed her eyes on me and said, “Don’t play me.”

“I’m not!” I protested. “We have to get used to calling each other these names.”

“Yeah,” she acknowledged. “I know we do. Doesn’t make it easy.” She tapped her finger on the impromptu table, considering, and in a gentler tone told me, “I think — at least for me — it’s way too early for jokes.”

I left her to her breakfast and went back downstairs to the kitchen. The exchange with Lois reminded me of Theresa’s bouts with depression. Sometimes she’d be normal, happy, even upbeat, and soon after she’d be hostile, suspicious, angry. She was convinced that her depression was strictly internal, self-contained — that it was a state affecting only her — but that was never the case. Desolation oozed out of her, like a dark miasma. It seeped into everything. It followed me, clung to me, like a cold, thick, dirty fog.

I was determined to not let Lois’ leaden state affect me, the way Theresa’s had. I shook it off before the negativity got under my skin. Seriously, I literally shook myself, the way a dog shakes off water. I wasn’t fool enough to think I could fix Lois, but at least I could work on the environment. Improvements in the home would help all three of us.

I’ve never done much cleaning in my life, but I have watched other people do it. That’s how I knew that the first thing to tackle was the fridge. I tried to pull it out of its niche. It wouldn’t come. I knew I wasn’t very strong, but the fridge was on wheels — it ought to roll forward. I tried rocking it. I pushed, then pulled. I tried to tip it backward to unstick it, but it didn’t shift, not even a micron. Sitting on the floor, I faced the refrigerator, spread my legs, and braced my feet on the wall to either side of it. After hooking my fingers underneath, I pulled with every ounce of strength in my skinny, thirteen-year-old body. Nothing happened. It didn’t budge. Not even a little.

I was still struggling, grunting with frustration and effort, when Lois came downstairs. Our combined strength, and her better leverage, got the fridge away from the wall. The floor behind was dark and filthy. The back of the fridge itself was matted with dust. Lois got the vacuum and went after everything that could be sucked up while I took a bucket of water and cleaner and washed the outside of the box. Standing on a chair, I scrubbed at the grime on top. I had to keep changing the water, it became murky so quickly.

“I don’t think they ever cleaned back here!” Lois exclaimed. She scrubbed the floor behind the fridge until it was so clean, it looked new. Then we pushed the fridge back in place. I was about to attack the inside of the fridge, when Lois stopped me. “Let me do that. You can vacuum the tops of the cabinets, then the insides. You can stand on the counter. We’ll wash that later. If we put the vacuum on a chair, the hose will reach all the way up.” I pulled one of the kitchen chairs over toward the cabinets, and slipped out of my flip-flops. Lois caught sight of my feet, and stopped me by putting her hand gently on my arm. She said, “Wait! Go wash your feet… Celine.”

There was a long pause before she got my name out. I could hear the effort behind it.

“My feet?” I asked.

“They’re filthy,” she pointed out. I looked at my feet, and the soles were black.

“When did that happen?” I asked. “All I did was—”

“All you did was walk outside. Go sit on the edge of the tub and wash them. Then you can stand on the counter. I’ll wipe off the chair you stood on earlier.”

We spent the entire day cleaning that kitchen. The stove took even longer than the fridge. I mistakenly believed that everything was essentially clean before we started. In my estimation, an hour (at most!) of wiping things down would have been enough, and by now we should have finished putting all the pots and pans and dishes away. I couldn’t have been more wrong! We didn’t get as far as putting anything away! All we managed to do was clean the fridge, the upper cabinets, and the stove.

This became the model for our early days, the first few weeks: They were days of cleaning and unpacking. I’d go with Ken to pick up some breakfast. I’d chat with briefly with Mr. Waters. Then Mom and I (yes, she didn’t wince any more when I called her ‘Mom’) would clean and put things away.

Somewhere in the middle of the fourth day, we took a break. I’d been cleaning windows. It took several tries before I learned to do it the way Lois wanted. At first, our ideas of clean were widely divergent. Then I came to understand that I never really knew what clean was — until now.

During our break, Lois asked me, “Did you ever clean house before this?”

“Why? Am I that good at it?”

“Well, no, honestly, you’re not. You have the tendency to stop before you’re done, but that’s not what I meant. I’ve never seen a teenager who cleaned without being asked, and I’ve never seen a teenager who didn’t mind being corrected.”

“Well, you know I’m not really a teenager.”

She shrugged, as if that were obvious. I thought for a moment, and told her, “It isn’t as though I like cleaning, but I feel the need to contribute. The thing is, the more we clean, the more I see that needs cleaning. Like, I’m cleaning the windows, and on the third window I realize that the whatchamacallit — the sill? The flat part between the outside window and the inside window — it’s filthy. So I clean that. Then I see that the blinds are dirty… It’s like it never ends.”

“Yep. That’s how it is,” she agreed. “It never ends.”

We hauled the winter clothing, the Christmas decorations, and other seasonal items up to the attic. That was a huge effort for me. It was difficult, getting used to how little strength I had now.

Lois consoled me. “Sure, you’re not as strong as you were as Leo, but you’re pretty strong for a girl your size. You’re wiry. And you’re fast. At least, Celine was fast… so you must be fast.” She faltered for a moment, looking down, but she quickly recovered. “You ought to go out for some team, you know, when school starts. Some sport. Have you played any sports in the past?”

I hadn’t. Neither had the real Celine. So, in an attempt to see if I had any aptitude or inclination for any sport in particular, the three of us went to the park early Sunday morning. We brought all the sports paraphernalia we could get our hands on: tennis rackets and balls, a basketball, a baseball and gloves, and a soccer ball.

It was an uncanny, disturbing experience. I’ve touched all of those things as Leo: I’ve played games of tennis and basketball. I’ve played in softball games. I wasn’t particularly good at any of them, but they were familiar to me. I’ve kicked a soccer ball once or twice, but now all of those things were foreign to me. There was zero muscle memory. Admittedly, as Leo, I didn’t have any great skills to start with, but the tiny bit that I *did* have didn’t transfer to my new body.

Ken and I started off playing catch. I hate to say it, but I threw like a girl, and I couldn’t catch to save my life.

When I tried to dribble the basketball, it kept bouncing back higher than my head. The ball seemed to have a mind of its own; it moved more than I meant it to.

It was pretty confusing, and more than a little frustrating. “It’s like I’ve never done any of these things before!” I exclaimed. “But I have done them before! All of them!”

“Not in this body, hon,” Lois said.

“Don’t worry,” Ken told me. “You have plenty of time to learn whatever you like, and with practice, you can be good at any of them. Celine was always quick and coordinated.”

Lois added, “Keep in mind that these aren’t your only choices. We can take a look at what else your high school offers.”

“My high school?” I echoed. The blood drained from my face as I said it. I’d kind of blocked out that part of my impending destiny.

“Yes. They probably have track and cross-country… field hockey…”

Ken chimed in with “Lacrosse, swimming, gymnastics…”

Lois added, “Maybe they have a dance team — do you think you’d like to dance?”

Ken finished up, with a teasing grin, “Of course, there’s always cheerleading.”

“Oh, come on!” I protested.

“Don’t knock it till you try it,” Lois suggested. “It’s a great way to meet boys.”

“Boys?” I repeated weakly.

“Or girls, as the case may be,” Ken added helpfully. Lois shot him a cautioning look, and he gave her a shrug.

To make a long story short, the only sport we tried that seemed like fun, the only sport I didn’t totally suck at, was soccer. I can’t say that I was good. I certainly wasn’t a natural, but it somehow seemed to make sense in a way that the others didn’t.

“We’ll see if there’s a summer soccer team. Would you like that?” Lois asked

“Yes, I think so,” I replied. “I’d like to be good at that.”

“It will also give you a chance to meet some other girls your age before school starts,” she said.

I froze for a moment. Spending time with Ken and Lois was good. Talking with Mr. Waters was fine. But socializing, making friends, blending in with girls my age? That seemed a step too far. For sure, I couldn’t talk with “girls my age” about property values, or “blowing out the walls to make an open concept design.” They weren’t likely to want to clean house with me.

“What do girls my age talk about?” I asked.

“Oh, hey,” Ken interjected, as if he hadn’t heard. “What’s happening in that book of yours? How’s Reddie doing?”

“Oh,” I said, smiling. "Right now there’s a bad guy after her. He wants to marry her.” For some reason, I blushed as I said it.

“Mmm,” Ken said. “Girls your age talk about stuff like that.”

I didn’t answer. I wasn’t sure whether he was teasing me until he finished the thought: “Maybe you could visit the library and ask them what books a girl your age might like. That could give you some conversational material.”

Lois said, “Unfortunately, we’re out of touch with that world. Celine was never interested in the things that other girls do.” She smiled and ruffled my hair. “Oh my God, look at you! You’re scared to death, aren’t you!”

“I’m not scared,” I lied. “I’m just a little worried about fitting in.”

“So is every other girl your age,” Lois replied. “Don’t worry — you’ll figure it out. We’ll figure it out. All you need is one friend to help you find your way in.”

I nodded, but I was still nervous. Weird, huh? As a child, I never experienced that kind of anxiety. I never had the dream where you find yourself at school in your pajamas.

I can’t say that I always felt ready for everything. I can’t pretend that the weight of anticipation never bothered me. And yet, I never felt this kind of anxiety before. Nevertheless, facts were facts: I was now a thirteen-year-old girl, nervously fearing high school, as if it were a completely new and unknown world for me.

When we got home, it was still morning, about a quarter to eleven. Ken decreed that today there would be no cleaning, unpacking, or anything remotely resembling work, so I decided to take a bike ride before lunch. Ken had recovered Celine’s bike soon after Simon ditched it, but I hadn’t tried riding it yet. I had to get used to riding again: it was awkward at first, but soon I was wheeling around town like a pro. It was a very enlightening ride: Even though I’ve lived in Lambeth for twenty years, this part of town was unfamiliar to me. All the streets, houses, and trees were new to me.

Just when I judged that it was time to head back, I came upon Hertford Hill: a long, straight, gentle downhill slope. The street was smooth, in good repair, and there wasn’t a car on it. Perfect for flying! I pulled onto that street and let myself coast. It was simple, beautiful. It put me immediately in the zone. Gradually I picked up speed, with zero effort on my part. I felt free, unencumbered. I forgot all about the Switcher, I forgot about being a little girl, I forgot about high school and fitting in. It was just me and the hill and the rushing air. It was everything.

A woman on a bicycle suddenly wheeled up a side street. How irritating! If she pulled out, she would break my momentum, interfere with my perfect downhill glide. She had come up quickly, but she stopped abruptly so she wouldn’t cut me off. She put her feet on the ground, which made it clear she was staying put for a moment. How considerate! She sat there on her bicycle, and looked up at me. I saw her jaw drop open, but I wasn’t paying enough attention to recognize her. Honestly, I didn’t really look at her at all. I shot past her like a bullet, and left her farther and farther behind, going faster and faster, until I heard her shout, “Leo! Uh — Celine! Leo — Celine, wait!”

It was Meredith. Damn! Not that I didn’t want to see Meredith — or the Max inside her — I just didn’t want to stop. My first time on a bicycle in how long, and she has to stop me? Now that I was flowing and flying, I didn’t want to stop and turn back. Why was she just sitting there? Why didn’t she roll down to meet me?

Swearing like the man I used to be, I gently applied the brakes and carefully squealed to a stop. I stepped off the bike and walked it back to where she was.

“Hey, what time is it?” I called to her. “I don’t have a watch.”

“Twenty to twelve,” she said. “And hello to you, too.”

“Hello, yeah, sorry! The thing is, I need to get home before noon. Can you come with me, but stop just before we get there? We can talk on the way.”

Meredith frowned. “Do you not want to see me? Are you not supposed to see me? What’s the deal here?”

“I do want to see you and talk with you,” I told her. “But I need to get home for lunch. I’m trying to be on time. Also, I don’t know how Ken and Lois feel about my seeing you. I’m going to have to ask them.”

“Are you shitting me?” she asked, incredulous. “You’re 42 years old! You don’t need to ask your so-called parents. Seriously!”

“I’m thirteen,” I retorted, “in case you hadn’t noticed. By the way, have YOU looked in the mirror lately, Mrs. Shearpen? You’re not a forty-year-old man any more either!”

Meredith sighed. “I know, I know. I get it. Believe me, I get it.”

“So, yes, I have to ask my parents. I don’t want to screw things up with my new family. They’re good people.” I looked at her. “Are you okay, though? Are you adjusting?”

“No, Leo, I’m not ‘adjusting.’ I’m not adjusting at all. I can’t handle this. I can’t deal with being stuck like this — as a woman — and not just any woman, but Meredith, specifically.”

I shifted uneasily. Meredith wasn’t moving at all, and I really did need to get home. So I told her, “Hey, um, we really have to move while we talk. I’m not going to be late: I need to get home before lunch. And another thing — don’t call me ‘Leo’ — my name is Celine, okay?”

Meredith looked at me as though I’d asked her to do something that was utterly insane and completely outrageous. Also, she hadn’t budged an inch.

“I’m going to start moving,” I told her. “If you want to talk with me, you have to pedal, too.”

She scoffed, but turned her bike around and quickly caught up with me.

“Where is everyone living now?” I asked. She scowled. It was a little disconcerting. Max had always been a very positive, smiley guy. So far, he was turning out to be a pretty grouchy woman.

“Meredith — or Theresa — is mostly at your old house, with Theresa — Leo.”

“Look, Meredith—” I interrupted. “Just call each person by the body they’re in. I”m Celine. You’re Meredith. Otherwise we’ll get all mixed up, and we’ll end up saying crazy things in front of people who don’t understand. Okay? So you’re saying that Leo and Theresa are living together? Or is Theresa just spending a lot of time there?”

“She’s pretty much there all the time,” she answered, morosely. Her tone made me glance at her in surprise. Meredith caught my look and read the question on my face. “Don’t ask me whether they’re in a relationship. I don’t know who sleeps where, and I don’t want to know.”

“You’re at your house, all alone, then?”

“Yes. And I don’t like it. Everything is too complicated. I want to simplify things.”

“Simplify how?”

“I need to get rid of all the distractions, and start simple: me, in a small apartment, alone. I need to be able to concentrate and focus on my future.”

“You can’t focus on your future now?”

“No! Like I said: everything is complicated! Even the things that should be the easiest! I mean think: Now that Meredith — Now that Theresa and I are both women, we can’t be married.”

“Sure you can — if you want to.”

“I don’t want to! I’m not a prude, but right now the idea of what kind of sex I could be having, or should be having, and with who, it's too… well… it’s too… Let’s just say that as a concept I can’t deal with it.”

Meredith was reacting so physically to the topic, that her bicycle was wobbling badly. I tried to throw her a life line by changing topic. “So you want to get a small apartment, all by yourself?”

“Yes. That’s the best thing to do. I want to sell my house and everything in it, split the money with Theresa, and the three of us could move in together.”

“Move in together? You just said that you want to live alone.”

“Just until we can work out all the legal and financial stuff.”

“Are Leo and Theresa up for that?”

She scowled again. She was doing that a lot. “It’s hard to talk to them about it. It’s hard to talk with them about anything! They’re pretty strongly in denial.”

I almost said something about the pot calling the kettle, but I bit my tongue instead. It wouldn’t be helpful to say it, even though Meredith clearly didn’t have much of a grip on the situation herself.

“Why do you want to live with them?” I asked. “I mean, after all, they’re right next door.”

“I don’t want to live with them!” she exclaimed. “Aren’t you listening to me? It’s a temporary step!.I want to get the two of them settled, and then I’ll get the hell out of here! Lambeth is a dead end! I want to divide my assets with Theresa. Everything. Then I can leave with a clear conscience.”

“If you want to leave, why didn’t you just leave when we were all in that military base? They would have given you a whole new identity and whatnot. Wouldn’t they?”

“No,” she said. “I mean, yes. Yes, they would have done what you said, but I couldn’t just walk away from my life and from — from — my wife’s life.” Her face was working, betraying an emotional struggle that I didn’t quite understand.

“Also,” she continued, “what the Feds were offering was a pittance. It wasn’t a generous resettlement at all. As Meredith, I get a hell of a lot more from from Max being dead.”

“What do you mean ‘dead’?”

“They declared Max dead,” she said. “I’m the beneficiary on the insurance policy, the 401k, all of his — my — assets.” I blinked several times, but said nothing.

We pedaled in silence for a few blocks. I asked the time once again.

“Also, the cleaning business,” she said, as if she hadn’t heard me. “Did I mention that? As Meredith, I own that. I want to turn it over to Theresa. Completely. As things stand right now, I have to help out. I have to talk to clients. And I have to CLEAN, if you can believe that!”

I nodded, but I didn’t let on that I’d been cleaning all week, myself. Voluntarily. “Can’t she hire some help?” I asked.

“She *has* help,” Meredith agreed. “She can hire more, if she needs to. She’s already got fifteen employees, didn’t you know that?”

“No, I didn’t know. I thought it was just her and Theresa. When she talked about the Ponzi guy’s house, she said it was just the two of them.”

Meredith stopped. “Okay, first of all, he is not ‘the Ponzi guy’.”

“Theresa said he was running a Ponzi scheme.”

Meredith hesitated. “Okay — Okay, yes, she did say that. But his name isn’t Ponzi.”

“What is it?”

Meredith, red-faced with irritation, replied, “It’s Shushamusha something! I don’t know! Sha-sha-whatever! It’s some kind of foreign name, Italian, I think. Who cares?”

“Sorry!” I said, my hands up in surrender. “I didn’t mean to hit a nerve!”

“Anyway, okay: So... for that house… The problem with that place, and that guy — okay, let’s call him the Ponzi guy — is that he runs his business from his home. It’s a financial firm, so he requires background checks on everyone who sets foot there. Right now, only Meredith and Theresa are authorized to enter, so I have to go. And it’s a lot of work! The place is enormous! We go there three times a week.”

“Three times a week?” I repeated. “Does it get that dirty?”

“No, it doesn’t. The thing is, the guy has loads of money and he likes to think he’s a clean freak. But he’s not. He just likes to spend money. So we go there five hours, three times a week.”

“What’s this guy like?”

“I don’t know — he’s just some guy. I haven’t actually seen him. I never met him. It’s always his assistant — or whatever she is — who talks to me. He leaves me alone. I think he’s afraid of people, or something. He’s — uh — he’s — well — sweet — he’s sweet on Theresa.” The last four words came out in a rush. Meredith glanced at me, probably thinking I might be jealous. Oddly, I didn’t feel a thing.

“Does that bother you?” she asked, watching my face closely.

“No,” I told him truthfully. “Anyway, now it’s not Theresa any more, not really. It’s Meredith. Does that bother *you*?”

I probably shouldn’t have said it. It was a reflex. His remark about Theresa was a jab at me. Mechanically, I took a jab back at him. I wish I hadn’t. It really ignited a fire in Meredith. She looked at me, jaw set in anger, then struck back with, “Yes! Yes, it does bother me! It bothers me a lot! But did you know that when Theresa was Theresa, she and the Ponzi guy were screwing? Did you know that? Does that bother you?”

I didn’t answer at first. Her question seemed to have come from another life, another world. Almost as if it was simply a movie I’d seen, or someone else’s life — not a life I’d recently lived. Honestly, though, I felt like I should be angry. I ought to feel betrayed. But I didn’t. I felt something nebulous and vague that I couldn’t name, a feeling like déjà vu, but weaker, more distant.

“I’m more worried about high school,” I found myself saying. Meredith scowled and shook her head. She took another shot, from a different direction.

“Did you tell your new mommy and daddy about your scheme?” she asked in a sneering tone.

“What scheme?”

Meredith scoffed. “You know what I’m talking about! Your scheme! The scheme that you wanted to talk about at the barbecue.”

A chill ran over me. “No, that was just an idea. It wasn’t all there. Did you guys tell anyone…?”

“Nobody mentioned it to the FBI, if that’s what you’re worried about. But Leo told Ken and Lois that you were cooking up something big and bad.”

Damn! “Well, in any case, that idea is stone-cold dead,” I interrupted, dismissively.

“Still, you were working on some kind of scam, weren’t you?”

“It was half-assed, half-baked,” I told her, “And I don’t want to talk about it. I’m focusing on my future, like you said. Also, I notice that you complain about having to clean, but it’s only been three times so far, right? Fifteen hours?”

She looked at me in exasperation. “Fine! Yes, fifteen hours. Still, it’s house cleaning! I’m a high-level programmer! I shouldn’t be wasting my time doing that shit! But it isn’t just ‘fifteen hours’ like you say. I have to clean my own house as well! Meredith — I mean, Theresa — is always popping in and ragging on me about the state of our house, so I’m cleaning nonstop. Seems like I’m doing nothing BUT cleaning!”

“Hmm,” I said, “She’s really cracking the whip, huh?” I fought to keep the smirk off my face, but I could see from her reaction that I didn’t succeed.

My house came into view, so I stopped in my tracks. Meredith stopped and stared at me, red faced.

“You were working up some job,” she insisted. “Some kind of scam. It was all about that Ponzi guy, wasn’t it?”

“Yes,” I admitted in a low voice. “But this isn’t the time or place… not that I want to talk about it — at all! Anyway, it was very vague. It wasn’t viable. It was full of holes; it was unworkable. Besides, what do you care?”

Meredith shrugged. “Just curious,” she said, and let the question drop. I absolutely did not want to talk about it. It was exactly the kind of thing that could ruin my situation with the Morstens. Talking with Meredith about it, especially out here on the street, was a terrible idea. She was so incautious, anyone could overhear. I really didn’t need or want that complication.

“I think you better turn back here,” I told her. “That’s my house right up there.”

She gave me a wounded look. “Are you ashamed of me or something? You know that I met them — your parents. I think they liked me.”

“I just have to ask first.”

“Would you? Please? It would be nice if I could come over and talk to someone else about all of this. Someone normal, someone who knows what’s going on! I’m losing my mind, and the other two aren’t helping at all.”

I promised I would, and she turned her bike around. Before she pedaled away, she said, “Don’t call me, though. You’re still persona non grata with Theresa — I mean, Leo. A call from you at the wrong moment could touch off a raging volcano.”

I shrugged, not sure how to respond, so she said, “I’ll get in touch with you.”

“Fine.”

“Fine.”

I watched her pedal away, then pushed my way toward home. Our conversation was pretty surprising. It seemed that, in dealing with our four new lives, I was coming out ahead.

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Comments

Meeting Meredith

laika's picture

Celine is adapting so well, realizing this is her life now and just trying to move forward. While Meredith clearly isn't, and feels like she's been dealt a shitty hand. "I was a high level programmer," she grouses. Even more than the involuntary sex change, the decrease in social status seems to chafe at her self-image.

In comparison I think Celine's lack of real ambition and tendency to sort of go with the flow in her former life might be helping her now, because she had no real vision for what her life should be like the more success driven Meredith. Plus she has two really supportive people in her life, a fresh start; and it's going to seem more and more natural to call them Mom and Dad and to love them like they really are her parents, and while she won't forget that she used to be the same age as them it won't feel that way anymore.

It will be interesting when she starts interacting with other kids her physical age. They might think she's a bit weird, eccentric or whatever for not knowing certain things a girl her age should but I think kids will be drawn to her attitude and spirit and I doubt she'll become some total misfit outcast.

But I'm thinking she might want to steer clear of Meredith, or at least avoid getting hooked into some scheme of hers that could mess up this second chance at life she's been given.
~hugs Veronica

oh, yes, we find out

Iolanthe Portmanteaux's picture

We will find out soon!

- io

Hmmm, are there red herrings here?

Nyssa's picture

So, I believe our best candidates for Simon are the new Meredith, who seems far too interested in the scheme Leo had (putting her at the top of my list), the new Theresa, who seems to have secrets with the new Leo, and a couple of dark horses in Mr. Waters, who is positioned well, and the Ponzi guy, who I mention only because he seems mysterious, but as the likely target of the scheme he seems unlikely.

All of which begs the question, if Simon had time to research all this then why not just choose someone who already had the wealth, power, and position? Unless the scheme isn't the only motivating factor. So, a very engaging and tantalizing tale. Can't wait to see how Zane Grey fits in. He was a favorite of my grandfather, but I never read more than a few pages.

I don't think there are any red herrings

Iolanthe Portmanteaux's picture

There are some elements that are just ordinary life, like Mr Waters and his family, and Alfie and his parents -- and even Zane Grey.

There are two things happening at the same time: Celine's acceptance of her new role, and the idea for the heist, which seems to have taken a life of its own.

In any case, the last thing we knew about Simon is that he was in Max's body. If he'd decided to stay in Meredith's body, Max wouldn't have had a reason to run away as he did.

Meredith can't be switched again -- it's a one-time, one-way deal. Once you're switched, you can never be switched again.

Tomorrow we will find out a little bit about how Simon knew about Leo.

- io

Max running away

Nyssa's picture

I forgot momentarily. I actually had that thought earlier. I feel like I need to sketch out a logic map.

I made a map

Iolanthe Portmanteaux's picture

I did make a map, a couple of maps, and consulted it often during the planning phase.

I think after the next chapter, it will be easier for readers to keep track.

- io

Why 64 questions?

Jamie Lee's picture

Cleaning can take a short amount of time, or as Lois and Celine discovered, take lots of time. But they did it together, they were around each other. This time together gave the two the chance to know each other better.

Why was Meridth near Celine's home or in that area? Bike riding can take a person in many direction and into different areas. So this wouldn't have been unusual except Meridth started asking about the Ponzi guy and the scheme the old Leo had brought up during the BBQ. And s/he kept asking. Why? Could it be Meridth isn't actually Max but the bastard who's caused all their problems? If Meridth is actually Simon, then knowing what Celine was talking about at the BBQ could mean s/he is planning to steal money to get away or head out of the country.

Others have feelings too.

Meredith can't be Simon

Iolanthe Portmanteaux's picture

One of the laws in Melanie Brown's Switcher Universe is that a person can only be switched once.

We know that the person inside Meredith is Max, and that Max is now Simon. If Max wasn't Simon, he wouldn't have run away.

- io

I was wondering ...

If Celine is thirteen, wouldn't she be in middle school, rather than high school? It's a minor detail that doesn't take anything away from the story, but I am curious about it. Thank you for another wonderful chapter! :)

"Middle school" varies from place to place

Iolanthe Portmanteaux's picture

Schools in the US are governed locally, and their setup varies accordingly. I went to an elementary school that went from K-8 grade, then to a high school for 9-12. In the next town over, they had elementary school for K-7, middle school for 8 and 9, and high school for 10-12. My daughter went to a school that had elementary from K-8, middle school for 9 and 10, and high school for 11 and 12.

I've seen other configurations as well.

- io