TG Universes & Series:
A Minority Of One : 8 / 9
[ Melanie Brown’s Switcher Universe ]
By Iolanthe Portmanteaux
of his own smallness. It argues, you see, a power of comparison and
of appreciation which is in itself a proof of nobility."
— Sherlock Holmes , The Sign Of The Four
When I arrived home on Friday night, I was tanned, happy, and full of the energy that only teenagers are capable of. One glance at Ken and Lois told me that my absence had done them good as well. Ken had his arm around Lois, and they were both VERY happy. I wanted to observe that somebody got some! but given my place in the family dynamic, I doubted that the remark would be welcome. So I was silently happy for them, and happier still when they folded me into a three-way family hug.
I couldn’t help but start babbling about all the things we’d done on our trip, when Lois gently interrupted me, making a “slow down” gesture with her hands.
“Just a quick thing,” she told me with a smile, “Your friend Meredith is coming over for dinner tomorrow night.”
Her announcement stopped me dead. I blinked three or four times, and stood there with my mouth hanging stupidly open. Luckily, I stopped myself from asking Why? — It would have sounded awfully selfish of me. Instead, I said, “Uhhh… good! That’s real good.”
“She and I have been talking,” Lois shared.
“On the phone?” I asked.
“Of course on the phone, silly!” Lois laughed lightly. “I feel like I’ve found a friend here.”
“I’m really happy for you,” I told her. “Max— uh— Meredith! They’re a really nice person.”
“Yes,” she agreed. Her eyes twinkled.
“Um,” I said. It was all I could manage to say. Obviously, there was nothing wrong with Meredith and Lois becoming friends. Or maybe, there was nothing obviously wrong with it. On the face of it, it made perfect sense: Max, like me, had been switched into a female body, and Max — now Meredith — didn’t have the luxury that I had, of being able to literally grow into the role. Meredith was thrown into the deep end, as an adult. It made sense that she’d reach out to Lois, who was the only adult female who could understand and be willing to help.
Oh, except maybe Theresa. But from what Meredith told me on our bike ride, Theresa wasn’t very easy to separate from Leo, and Leo wasn’t very easy to talk to now.
“Why don’t you head upstairs and take a shower, honey?” Lois suggested. “Wash the trip off you, relax a bit. Don’t make the water too hot, though — it will feel good, but it will make your sunburn worse.”
“Right,” I said, still a bit stunned by the idea of Meredith coming over.
“And when you’re settled, Meredith wants you to give her a call.”
“What? Me? She said not to—”
“I know all about that. I’ll call her and then I’ll hand you the phone. Okay?”
I trooped upstairs with my bags, and stood frozen in place, like a marble statue, in the middle of my room. After a few moments of standing stock-still and stupified, I realized that I was still holding my bags. I opened my hands and let them drop to the floor. Then I went and took a shower.
Why did Meredith’s impending visit bother me? It felt like an invasion, like an interruption. I had the feeling she was going to jam a stick between my spokes.
I took a deep breath. There was no point in pretending that I didn’t understand. I knew very well what the problem was — or part of the problem, anyway. It was this new dynamic, my new role. Things had changed. I wasn’t an adult in a kid’s body any more. I was just a kid now — no matter who I was inside. If I hadn’t gone with the Marstons, if I’d become a ward of the state, things would have been this way right from the start. It was different (up to now) with the Marsons because Ken and Lois knew the score. I had a bit of a honeymoon period with them, but now the honeymoon was over.
Before the Mystic trip, I was Leo-who-looked-like-Celine. Now, I was the new Celine.
This new reality keyed into something that happened on the trip, on the second night.
It was actually one of the themes of the trip for me, but it really came to a head on Wednesday night.
Nobody in Mr. Waters’ family knew my inner reality. For them, I was just the thirteen-year-old who lived next door. When the adults would say, “Come on, kids!” or “Dinner’s ready, kids!” they were including me in that call. Like the other kids, I’d respond.
That much was new. That much I expected. It was an adjustment in any case, but I could deal with it. I just had to ignore the little voice of protest inside me, the one that whined I’m not a kid!
There were other things, too: like the park worker who checked my climbing harness, to make sure I’d done it right, or Daphne’s father, who asked whether I’d buckled my seat belt, and looked to be sure after I’d told him I had.
When we were in Mystic, walking around the Old Town, Daphne’s aunt actually bent down and tied my shoe when it came undone. I was just about to do it myself, but she got there first! It wasn’t like I was helpless or anything! While she was doing that, people walked by, glanced at her, glanced at me. I knew what they were thinking, so I cried out, “I *do* know how to tie my own shoes!” It came out with more dismay than I meant to express.
Daphne’s aunt straightened up, smiling. “I know you do, honey. I just want to make sure it doesn’t come undone again. You don’t want to trip and fall, do you, sweetie?”
All day long it was like that. Strangers would call me “little girl” or “honey” or “sweetie.” One older Southern woman called me “baby girl” and I felt something wilt inside me.
Still, all of that I could handle. I handled it all day long.
It had more of an impact when the adults said, “Okay, kids, time for bed!” and when they’d tell me to be sure to brush my teeth.
I never protested any of this. I knew it was all well meant. I knew what I looked like. There wasn’t any point in trying to make assertions or try to claim rights based on who I used to be.
A lot of how we see ourselves is conditioned by the way people treat us, and for four solid days I was treated like a little girl. At times it felt like everyone — even people we passed on the street — were building a box around me: a box that was the exact size and shape of a thirteen-year-old girl. It wasn’t as though I wanted to break out of the box — it’s just that I found it disconcerting to have to face, over and over, just how thoroughly and completely I’d been transformed.
The event that drove my new reality home occurred on the second night of our trip. All of us kids had gone to bed at ten, and Daphne, who shared a room with me, quickly dropped off to sleep. I lay awake,excited, happy, looking forward to tomorrow. I could hear the adults talking downstairs. Because the bedroom door was closed, I couldn’t make out what they were saying, but they were pretty lively. It sounded like fun.
I had to get up to pee, and when I came out of the bathroom, the adults’ laughter came rolling up the stairs. I couldn’t help but smile. Their laughter was infectious. Daphne’s aunt was talking about “Ronnie,” a boy they all knew back when they were in high school, and she casually mentioned that he was particularly well-endowed. Her statement was greeted with hoots of disbelief and pretended shock, and of course the others wanted to know how she knew “what he had down there.”
Without thinking, I slowly made my way down the stairs, one step at a time, taking in the story.
Daphne’s aunt had the floor: “Remember Jane Chatpern? Her parents had a house in Rhode Island. In the summer after graduation, a bunch of us went out there so we could spend the day on the beach. It got to be seven or so, and we were regrouping, getting ready for dinner. I needed to wash the sand off me, and the shower in the house was busy, so I went to use the outdoor shower. I didn’t know that Ronnie was already in there. It was all completely innocent! The latch didn’t really work — it was loose, you know? So it didn’t really lock. He was in there, facing the door, about to turn on the water, buck—” she abruptly froze, a little shocked at seeing me there on the stairs.
Daphne’s mother called out to me, “Is something wrong, honey? Can’t sleep?”
“No,” I said. “I heard you laughing and talking, so I wanted to come down hang out with you guys.”
A series of glances shot back and forth among them, and Daphne’s father said, “That’s nice, sweetie pie, but some things aren’t for little ears.”
“Um,” I began, not sure how to explain. “No, uh — it’s okay.”
“No,” Daphne’s father countered in a very firm tone. “It’s *not* okay. I’m sure your parents would want you in bed right now, not discussing adult topics with people you barely know.”
Daphne’s mother stood and came over to me. My hand rested on the bannister. She placed her hand over mine, looked up at me, and smiled. “Listen, sweetie. You run back upstairs and hop into bed. I’ll come up in a minute with some warm milk with honey. It’ll help you sleep. Then I’ll tuck you in, night-night.”
I opened my mouth in mute protest, but I could see I had no hope of prevailing here. I’d made a tactical blunder. There was nothing to do but retreat.
As I turned to go upstairs, Daphne’s father suggested, speaking to his wife, “Maybe you could quietly read her a story while you’re up there?”
“No, I’m good,” I replied, embarrassed. “Thanks for asking, though.”
“She might be a little homesick,” Daphne’s uncle suggested. “Is this her first time away from home?”
A few minutes after I settled back in bed, Daphne’s mother came quietly into the room. She put her finger to her lips. “We don’t want to wake Daphne,” she whispered. She sat on the edge of my bed and placed a warm mug of milk in my hands. “Drink up,” she said with a smile. “Are you sure you don’t need a story?” She was holding a copy of Andrew Lang’s Blue Fairy Book, and touched the end of a bookmark so I’d know she’d already chosen one.
I shook my head no. I was so mixed up inside, I couldn’t get any words out.
“You’re not scared or homesick, are you?”
Again, I shook my head no. She put her hand on the bottom of the mug, gently tipping it to make me keep drinking.
“You know, sometimes adults talk about things that children shouldn’t hear—” she began
I cut her off, saying, “I didn’t hear any stories. I just heard you guys laughing when I came out of the bathroom. I wasn’t up here listening.”
She smiled in relief, and brushed a strand of hair from my forehead. “Finish up,” she prompted. “Drink it all down, honey.”
I finished, and held the mug so she could see it was empty. She dabbed at my lips with a napkin, took the mug, then kissed me on the forehead. “NIghty-night, Celine,” she said to me.
“Nighty-night,” I repeated. Then she slipped silently from the room.
I lay there for a half an hour, feeling as embarrassed and humiliated as I’ve ever felt. Then, listening to Daphne’s slow, rhythmic breathing, I dropped off to sleep.
This was my new reality. I wasn’t a 42-year-old man in a little girl’s body any more. I was just a little girl.
That new reality didn’t follow me home from Mystic. It was already here, waiting for me.
Ken, Lois, and Meredith were adults, and as such, they had a latitude and power utterly beyond my reach. They lived in a different world from me.
I was just a kid. The others had no reason to continue to treat me as an adult. I mean, I *look* like a kid. I guess I *act* like a kid most of the time. I assume and expect things, the way that children do: I expect that adults will help me and take care of me.
When I became part of this family, I had no problem letting go of all my adult responsibilities. I didn’t even think about it. Most of those responsibilities I wouldn’t be able to manage, anyway: things like earning a living, paying the bills, driving places, shopping for food, maintaining a serious lifetime relationship…
I didn’t think much about it as it was happening, but by now things had gone so far, it became existentially embarrassing. I was a dropout! I’d dropped out of adult life. I didn’t feel guilty. I felt foolish and exposed. I was living off the Marstons. It wasn’t as though I had a choice, though! Back at that military base, they couldn’t let me leave on my own. They had to give me to someone: to either the Marstons or the state. I’d have to wait five years before my life was my own again.
Given all that, there was no way I could expect Ken and Lois to treat me as though I was the third adult in the house.
And *that* was the problem with Meredith coming over, or with Meredith talking to Lois. I was irrelevant. I had zero control, zero choice. Meredith could say any crazy thing she liked about me. She could spill all my secrets, my past misdeeds, my problems with Theresa… She could even make things up out of whole cloth, if she felt so inclined, and there was nothing I could do about it. Meredith had plenty of darts she could casually stick into me. She might stick me badly without meaning to, or even realizing that she’d done so.
She was such a different person now. Her transformation from Max to Meredith was an upheaval. Her life was now a mirror image of what it used to be. As Max, he was totally predictable and habit-driven — at times he was downright boring. He was methodical, conventional, slow and dependable… As Meredith? My brief encounter with her made me very uneasy. She seemed to have slipped her moorings. She was dangerous, unpredictable, volatile, like a hand grenade with a loose pin, rolling around, just out of reach.
Still, there was one topic Meredith couldn’t use against me: the idea for the heist. For the first time, I was glad that I told Ken and Lois. Luckily, I’d disarmed that landmine, but who knows what other explosives Meredith could casually drop?
As soon as I was clean, dry, and dressed in my PJs, I came downstairs to the kitchen. Lois, still smiling, called Meredith, and after a brief exchange, handed me the phone.
“Hey, Meredith,” I said. “How’re you doing?”
“Better,” she said. “With Lois’ help, and some… other stuff.”
I frowned, not understanding. Lois, still smiling, left the kitchen.
“What other stuff?”
“Ohhh,” she said, with a soft sigh, “I mean sex. Sex is the ‘other stuff.’ Let me tell you, it’s so much better as a woman. You’ll see. You’ll find out.”
“Are you talking about sex… I mean, are you having sex with men? Or did you go the other way?” I asked in a low voice.
“With a man, with one man — so far. It’s the Ponzi guy.”
My jaw dropped. My eyes popped in surprise. “Uhh, okay,” I said, more than a little shocked. “Are you sure that’s a good idea?”
“It can’t be bad, because it feels so good,” she said. “It’s *better* than good. It’s wild! He puts his hands all over me. He touches me everywhere, and I love it. He makes me scream — in the good way. Oh my God, how he loves to touch me.” I was about to say something, but she cut in: “Oh, Celine — when I said it was wild, I mean ‘wild’ in a good way.”
“Yeah, I got that.”
Meredith let out of a sigh of pleasure. I’m sure she meant it to be sexy, but it only irritated me.
“That’s great, Meredith,” I said, but my tone said, I really don’t need to hear this. “Do you talk to Lois about all this?”
“Oh, yes! And she’s a great resource! You’ll see. When you’re older. When you need guidance… in the intimate things... in the world of… in the female world, the feminine world.”
“Oh, God,” I groaned, involuntarily.
“Listen, Celine: I can see that you’re too young to hear about these things, and honestly, I don’t want to offend your sensitive ears…”
“Yes, good. Please don’t. Remember — seriously — I’m a child, a minor. Spare me the intimate details. Don’t make me cover my ears.”
“Can you just skip ahead to the punch line? Why did you want to talk with me?”
“Okay, yes. You know I’m coming over for dinner tomorrow. What I was wondering is that maybe you wouldn’t want to be there?”
“What?” She really threw me for a loop there. It was a twist I never saw coming.
“Well, your mother said you have a boyfriend now.”
“Uhhh,” the words caught in my throat.
“And I thought, maybe you’d like to have dinner with him, instead of an old lady like me. I mean, you’ve been away for a week, right?”
“So you’ve been counting the days. See?”
“Meredith, I don’t know. I don’t think it’s appropriate for you to suggest—”
“I’m sure Lois has worked out the details. She just wanted you to talk with me so you’d know I was cool with it.”
“Uh—” Again, she’d caught me up short. I didn’t know what to say. It wasn’t as though I gave a toss about whether Meredith would mind, but when she put it that way, she shifted the ground and threw me off balance.
“Look, Celine: just talk with Lois now and see, okay?”
“Great! I owe you… a great big hug! Bye, now!” And with that, she hung up.
A great big hug?
Lois came in and saw my look of confusion. “This is so weird,” I said. “And awkward.”
“It’s only awkward if we make it awkward,” she told me. “Meredith needs to spend time with grown-ups. Preferably not the ones next door — Leo and Theresa.”
“True,” I agreed.
“It will be easier for her if you’re not there.”
I gave a acquiescing shrug. “Okay, I get that. But please, tell me that you didn’t call Alfie’s parents.”
“But I thought you *liked* Alfie, don’t you?”
“Sure, I like him, but I’m not ready to marry him. We’re only thirteen, both of us. I barely know him.”
“Okay, but listen: his mother is going to the flea market in Lakeside tomorrow. She’s bringing Alfie to carry her things. If you go along, Alfie won’t complain like he usually does. And she says the flea market is a lot of fun.”
I grunted. I’m not sure what my grunt was supposed to mean, but at the very least it signalled that I’d heard.
“And then dinner afterward. Dave and Ken will be working the evening shift, so it’ll just be you three.”
“Oh, God,” I moaned.
“Don’t be so dramatic,” she said. “I’m sure it will be fun.”
“Okay,” I said. “I’ll do it. But, hey — can I step out of my role as a teenager for a moment, and ask you something?”
“Meredith told me that she’s having sex with the Ponzi guy—”
“— and you know that he — the Ponzi guy — was having sex with Theresa up to now?”
“That’s over now.”
“Okay, but do you know whether he’s screwing his assistant as well?”
“Oh… I didn’t know he had an assistant.”
“Mmm, yes, he does.”
“Hmm! That could be a delicate question, but I’ll see whether I can find out.”
“Okay, I don’t actually want to know the answer to that question. I’m just thinking about Meredith.”
“Okay,” Lois said. “And, Celine? Please don’t let me hear you use the word screwing again. It’s indelicate.”
Saturday morning at ten, Mrs. Mustone came to pick me up. The flea market was, as I said, in Lakeside, which is the part of Lambeth that faces the lake; the part where the rich people live. I’d heard of it, but in all the years I lived in Lambeth, I’d never ventured there.
“Isn’t it funny that the flea market is on the rich side of town?” I said.
“Yes,” Mrs. Mustone agreed. “There are a lot of things that are classy if you’re rich, and trashy if you’re not.”
“Like what?” Alfie queried.
“Being bilingual, for one,” she replied. “Owning chickens, for another. Or.. let’s see… living in a ‘little house.’ Hmm. I’m sure there are others.”
“Okay, Ma! That’s plenty!”
“Well, you asked me!” she protested.
We parked at a big parking lot at the western end of Lakeside. Honestly, it was Lakeside in name only. There’s Lakeside, then this parking lot, and then a huge, flat field, which was now full of canopies, tables, and little roped-off areas.
“The best thing about this place,” Alfie told me, “is the Mexican Street Food stand. Did you ever have beef tongue?”
“No, I haven’t.”
“Well you can have some of mine, if you like,” he said, and when his mother wasn’t looking, he stuck out his tongue and waggled it at me, smiling as he did so, and watching for my reaction.
“That’s very bold of you,” I said. I tried to sound neutral, but couldn’t manage to hide my amusement.
We didn’t hold hands, but every so often our hands touched and we gently bumped into each other.
Again, I was struck by how easily I’d fallen into this, the boy-girl thing. It wasn’t a decision. There wasn’t any point where I said, “I’m going to like boys now.” It just seemed to happen, to start and grow, all by itself. I was glad once again that Reddie had blazed a trail for me, so to speak. At least conceptually, I had a model for someone who had once been a boy and became a girl, and then found a man who suited her perfectly.
While we wandered, I thought about Meredith. I was glad she had Lois to talk to, and I was VERY glad that I wasn’t going to be part of their dinner conversation. I was happy to get out of her way. Hopefully, she wouldn’t muddy the waters for me while she sought her own clarity.
I scanned the crowd, looking for familiar faces, but didn’t find any. I wondered whether the Ponzi guy might be here as well, but I had no idea what he looked like.
Surprisingly, Alfie and I had a lot to talk about. I asked him what he knew about Tallmadge High, and it turned out that he had a lot of useful info. Growing up here as he did, he’d been to the school building a number of times for local events, so he had a sense of the physical layout. Also he had an older cousin who was entering junior year. It turned out that Alfie had been asking questions of his cousin, trying to get ready — exactly as I was — and Alfie was happy to share what he knew so far.
After we exhausted that topic, Alfie asked me where we’d lived before Lambeth. Luckily, I’d prepared for exactly that question — I’d done some reading about Cincinnatti, which is where the Morstens lived last. I also had stories and recollections I’d gotten from Ken.
“You make it sound like a wonderful place!” he exclaimed. “Why on earth did you ever move?”
His question caught me up short. Why indeed? I remembered how wistfully Lois had spoken about the forever home they’d left behind. And the stories I told? As I said, they were Ken’s stories, and without thinking, I rendered them with all the warmth and affection that Ken expressed when he told the stories to me. That was where the feeling of wonderful came from, the emotional background that Alfie perceived and reacted to. I mimicked it in my retelling, and he naturally took the feelings as my own.
“Why did we move?” I repeated aloud, and internally asked myself, How did Ken and Lois manage to leave the place they loved?
Alfie smiled. “Yeah, why did you?”
“Oh, I screwed up,” I told him, and felt my spirit deflate a little. “I did something bad. Something really bad.” My voice sank to a lower register as I spoke.
“I can’t believe that,” he said, still smiling. He took my hand.
“I wasn’t a very nice person,” I told him. As I lifted my face to look into his, a huge tear welled up in my left eye. It was true: I wasn’t a nice person. Leo Bliston was not a good man.
Suddenly my life and Celine’s collided, meshed, and merged into one thing. She and I — me and her — we had stolen the lives of the people around us, the people who loved us most, the people who were closest to us — and we burnt those lives down. We exploited our friends, used them, carried them along for our own purposes, and devastated their own plans, their own joys. We were selfish, self-centered, and never stopped to consider how we affected the people around us. Not only did we lack empathy, neither of us had a sense of right and wrong. Well, I’m sure we did *know*: We knew right from wrong, but wrong and bad were a lot more exciting than right and good. Even more than that, wrong and bad were a hell of a lot easier and a lot more satisfying.
As these awakenings, these stabs of conscience and memory passed through my mind and washed across my face, Alfie — who waited and watched, began to feel confused — and a little worried. “I can’t believe that,” he repeated. “You’re one of the nicest people I’ve ever met.”
That did it. Once he said those words, loaded with his sweet sincerity and trust, I couldn’t hold back any more. The fat, round tears that had gathered in my eyes rolled down my cheeks, and my body shook with silent sobs.
In spite of being startled by my sudden transformation, Alfie had the consideration and presence of mind to take me by the shoulders and guide me behind the tent-like booths to a spot where no one could see us. He held me while I cried, and let me soak his t-shirt with my tears. I clung to him and wept like a child. I had no choice; it I couldn’t stop.
Alfie drew the line, though, when I began to snuffle. He pushed me a little away from him and pulled a clean white handkerchief from his pocket, which he unfolded and put in my hands. I blew my nose and dried my eyes.
“Wow, you’re a real gentleman! You actually carry a handkerchief!” I said, trying to make light of the situation.
I sniffed. “Sorry,” I said.
“It’s okay,” he said. “Seemed like you needed to let it out.” He grinned and kissed my cheek. “Sometime you’ll have to tell me what an awful person you are. I’ve got to say, you hide it well.” He smiled as he said it.
“I was,” I insisted. “I was awful, terrible. I really was.”
“Right, sure,” he said. “Can we go find my mother now? Are you okay to go back out there? And, um, you can keep that handkerchief.”
We wandered for five minutes before we found his mother. She was staring at a bunch of paintings. Well, not actual painting paintings. They were framed posters of old works of art. There was a wide variety of styles, from Leonardo da Vinci to Andy Warhol.
“They’re nice, aren’t they?” Mrs. Mustone asked me, drawing me close to her and putting her arm around me. Clearly, she could tell I’d been crying. “Do you see any that you particularly like?”
I ran my eye over the display, still feeling the aftereffects of my weepy emotional release.
One of the paintings did strike me. Once I saw it, none of the others compared. It was a Renaissance painting of a woman sitting in a chair, looking — well, I want to say she was looking into the camera even though it’s not correct. She has a baby on her lap, and another child standing next to her.
“I like that one,” I said.
“What do you like about it? What is it that draws you?” she asked me, sounding surprised.
“Her face,” I said. “She’s beautiful… but she looks a little tired and a little sad. She looks real. It’s like she doesn’t want her picture taken, but she lets it happen anyway. Do you know what I mean? What is this painting?”
The vendor said, “It’s the Madonna della seggiola by Raphael Sanzio. Twelve bucks.”
“That’s a pretty good price,” Mrs. Mustone said to me. “Would you like it?”
“Um, yeah, I guess I would,” I said. I wasn’t 100% sure that I wanted it, but I felt I’d been put on the spot. In any case, there wasn’t anything hanging on my bedroom walls, so this would be a start. I fished in my pockets for the money Lois had given me to spend.
“No, let me get it for you,” Mrs. Mustone said. “Let it be a little present from me to you. Okay?”
The rest of Saturday was pretty low key. It was nice. Mrs. Mustone was really sweet. Dinner was great — manicotti, salad, garlic bread.. After dinner we watched The Irishman, starring Robert de Niro, Joe Pesci, and Al Pacino. None of us liked it. We were all bored, colossally bored, but no one dared say so until the entire three hours of it were over.
Then Alfie stood up, stretched, his arms high over his head, and exclaimed, “Jesus Christ! That was sooo long! Way too long! Oh my God! And nothing happened!”
“Alfie, language,” his mother said gently.
“Why did they talk so much about that fish at the end?” I demanded.
“Why was it called The Irishman?” Alfie demanded. “He could have been German or Greek or anything! They could have called it That Guy Over There.”
“The whole thing could have been shorter,” Mrs. Mustone admitted.
“It is what it is,” Alfie said, imitating de Niro.
“And it’s not what it’s not,” I added, in Pesci’s voice.
“Well, now we can say we watched it,” Mrs. Mustone concluded. “At least we have that.”
By the time Mrs. Mustone drove me home, I was pretty beat. It was eleven, which was early for me when I was Leo Bliston, but late for Celine. My metabolism and my inner clock were drastically different now. Alfie and I sat in the back seat and held hands in a loose way. When we arrived at my house, he walked me to my front door. We had a quick kiss, and I smiled at him as I closed the door behind me.
I have to say, I was liking the way things were going. It was simple, uncomplicated. I liked the way we held hands — loose, sometimes barely touching. I never liked the palm-to-palm grasp that I grew up with. My hand always got sweaty, and I never knew when I could let go. With Alfie, our hands would brush, touch, and only sometimes give a brief squeeze. It wasn’t a commitment or a declaration to the world. It was for us, like a private ping: I’m here. Are you there?
My mother and Meredith were still talking excitedly in the kitchen. They hadn’t heard me come in. In order to avoid explaining my picture, I set it down in the entryway, leaning it against the wall. After taking a deep breath, I stepped into the kitchen, so I could tell Lois that I was home.
When I entered the room, the two of them looked up quickly, as though I’d caught them in the middle... of something; who knows what. They were probably deep into a topic that “wasn’t for little ears.” It didn’t matter. I didn’t care. It was kind of cute. Whatever it was, it was fun and funny for them.. The table had the remnants of apple pie and coffee, but it was clear from the empty bottle on the counter and the particular way they smiled, that they’d both had more than one glass of wine. Neither of them appeared drunk, but their faces were flushed with alcohol, shared secrets, and the excitement of a new friendship. Whatever they were saying when I entered, they abruptly stopped and stared at me, grinning, mouths slightly agape.
“Hi, I’m home,” I said.
“Oh, there she is!” Meredith exclaimed.
“Hi, honey, come over here and give your old mom a hug,” Lois said, with more warmth than usual.
I dutifully trooped over and submitted to a hug, first from Lois, then from Meredith, and then gave in to a group hug that was awkward, but mercifully brief.
“How did it go?” Lois asked.
“Did you have a nice time with your boyfriend?” Meredith teased, almost singing the last word.
“It was nice,” I said. “It was great. Except that we watched The Irishman. *Not* recommended.”
“Which Irishman?” Meredith asked. “What was he doing? Why were you watching him?”
Lois, laughing, swatted Meredith gently with the back of her hand. “The movie, silly!” They both laughed.
Then Meredith queried, “Which movie?”
“The Irishman!” Lois shouted, shaking with laughter. Meredith shrugged, puzzled. I had to get out of there.
“Okay, now I’m home, but I’m really beat. Do you mind if I go up to bed?”
“Yes, yes, honey!” Lois exclaimed. “Go to bed. You need your sleep to help you grow.” Then she jumped out of her chair and hugged me again.
As I was leaving the room, I almost warned Meredith to drive safely, but I realized it would sound awfully precocious, coming from a thirteen-year-old girl. So I just said, “It was nice to see you, Meredith.” Then I took my painting and went up to bed.
That night I had the deepest, most refreshing sleep since I became Celine, and maybe for a long time before. I even slept late! For the first time, my eyes didn’t snap open at 5:30. Today I didn’t wake until nine.
When I sat up on the edge of my bed, I spotted my new picture. It didn’t look the same to me as it did yesterday. If anything, the woman looked even less happy at having her picture taken. “Don’t worry,” I told her. “Things will get better.”
I padded downstairs, still in my pajamas, and heard my parents talking. It was mostly Lois, describing her conversation with Meredith. She was still happy, excited, positive. It was nice to hear her sound so alive for a change.
Hopefully, it would last.
“I’m surprised she told you all that,” Ken was saying. “That’s pretty private information.”
“Oh, it’s just money,” Lois said, in a breezy way.
“A million dollars is a lot of money!” Ken exclaimed.
“That’s just her — his insurance policy! That doesn’t count the house, or the 401k!”
I walked into the kitchen at that point, and Lois beamed at me. “There she is! Hello, sleepyhead!”
“I hope we didn’t wake you,” Ken said with a smile.
“No, I’m surprised I slept so late. This is the first time.” Usually I just jammed a handful of granola into my mouth at breakfast time, and drank some milk from the carton, but today, Lois made pancakes, so I sat at the table and ate like a civilized person. The pancakes were very fluffy and very tasty.
“Max had a million-dollar insurance policy?” I asked.
Ken and Lois looked at me askance, so I said, “Am I not supposed to know?”
The two of them glanced at each other, then Lois laughed. “I’m sorry, honey! Do you know, I think I’ve finally settled into seeing you as a teenage girl. I just don’t expect certain things to come out of your mouth.”
“Yeah, me too,” Ken said. “When you asked that, my first reaction was that’s not something a kid should know.”
“Don’t worry — I won’t repeat it,” I assured them. “When I ran into Meredith on my bike, she mentioned some of that stuff. Is she still set on dividing all of Max’s assets with Theresa?”
“Yes,” Lois answered, but in a strangely cautious way. I figured this was more of the not for little ears territory, and after the mega-dose I received on my trip, I found it a little galling.
More to Ken than to me, she said, “Meredith’s having some trouble selling the house, though. That’s a big hold-up.”
Intent on reclaiming some of my lost adult status, I spoke up and said, “Regardless of how the housing market is doing, I know Max got a great deal when he bought that house, and he paid it off years ago. Meredith may not make much of a profit, but it isn’t like she’s underwater. If she wants to get out, she ought to consider anything she gets as money in her pocket.”
“It isn’t that,” Lois told me. “It’s held up in probate.”
“Oh,” I said, deflating a bit. I don’t know anything about probate. Lois, as if reading my mind, and rubbing it in, asked me, “You don’t know anything about probate, do you?”
“No,” I admitted.
“Mmm,” Lois said, nodding.
I scratched my eyebrow, then I sat on my hands. To break Lois’s gaze, I glanced at Ken, who had a weird, abstracted look on his face, as though he was about to sneeze.
It wasn’t a sneeze. He was trying to remember something. It suddenly came to him, and he nodded.
“Now I know what this reminded me of! All this talk about Meredith providing for Theresa — it reminds me of Breaking Bad.”
“Is that the show where Bryan Cranston makes meth?” Lois asked. “Believe me, Meredith is NOT going to be doing that.”
“No, no — it isn’t that! What I remember isn’t the meth — it’s what I realized after. When I’d seen the whole thing, all the episodes, it suddenly hit me that the motivation for everything he did, was to provide for his family. He thought he was going to die, and he didn’t want to leave his family in the lurch. It was his suburban-father ethos, but he went to an extreme.”
Lois’ face changed. Her excitement and happiness stopped, stock still. “Hmmph,” was her only comment, but her smile disappeared. Ken recognized his misstep. He wasn’t sure exactly what he’d done, but he knew he’d broken Lois’ mood. So he tried a different tack. He asked me, “What are your plans for the day?”
“Um, I guess I ought to clean my room,” I said. “And I have a picture to hang. Mrs. Mustone got it for me at the flea market yesterday.” They wanted to see it, so I ran upstairs and brought it down. I tried to explain what I saw in the woman’s face, but I could tell they didn’t get it.
Ken and Lois exchanged a quick glance, and he asked, “Are you religious, Celine?”
“Religious?” I repeated, and burst out laughing. “No, why?”
He mutely gestured at my picture.
“This?” I said. “It’s just a picture.”
“It’s a Madonna.”
“Oh, yeah,” I said. “I guess it is.” I looked at it again. “For me, though, she’s just a woman. I like her face. I’m intrigued by her expression.”
“Okay,” Ken said. “But if you ever feel the need to attend some kind of church or whatever—”
“No, no,” I assured him. “I don’t. I won’t. Don’t worry. It’s just a picture.”
“Did Mrs. Mustone choose it for you?”
“No, *I* picked it. In fact, she was surprised that I liked this one. I think she expected me to choose something more modern. She asked me what I liked about it.” I studied the face while I spoke.
“So what was it you liked about it?” Ken asked.
“It looks like she didn’t want her picture taken. I know it doesn’t make sense. That’s what I like. And besides that, I want a picture on my wall. There are no pictures on my walls.”
After the conversation in the kitchen, I briefly considered hiding the picture in my closet, but I took another look. This time it seemed as though the woman was protecting something. Obviously, the baby… but also herself. And maybe something else. She looked like she had a secret. Like Reddie Barnes, I thought. Like me. So I drove a nail into the wall and hung the picture on my otherwise empty wall.
I cleaned my room. It didn’t take long. I opened the window to freshen the air. Then I changed my sheets, vacuumed, and dusted the furniture. I was just about to turn on the computer and get started with social media, when Lois stuck her head in.
“I wanted to get back to you on something,” she said in a low voice. Clearly she didn’t want Ken overhearing. “You asked me whether the Ponzi guy was having sex with his assistant. He’s not.”
At first, I wanted to interrupt and say that I didn’t want to know, but when I heard the whole thing, I was puzzled, and had to ask, “How do you know?”
“Because she left. The assistant left. She quit, or was fired. In any case, she was gone before the Ponzi guy took up with Meredith.”
“Okay,” I said. “Thanks for telling me.”
Lois didn’t respond, but before she walked away, she gave me a knowing smile, a somewhat superior look, as if to say You don’t know everything!
It rankled me. In the first place, I didn’t care about being right or wrong. I was simply concerned — or at least curious — about Meredith. It sounded like she’d fallen head-over-heels for the Ponzi guy — a man we all knew was a criminal. If he was monogamous (albeit serially monogamous), that fact didn’t make him a saint.
In addition, I felt that my contribution and concern wasn’t being given much weight because of my apparent age. It’s not that they didn’t want to hear from me; it’s just that I’m only thirteen, so what could I know?
I looked at my Madonna. Now she looked coy and secretive. “Are you some kind of Rorschach test?” I asked her out loud. “Are you going to change every time I look at you?”
Reddie Barnes was more my speed, I told myself. She was just a little ahead of me. This Madonna, on the other hand, exists in another world. All I can know of that world is what I’m able to read in her face.
I sat down at my computer, and after thinking for a bit, I created an email account. They asked me for my cell phone number, which I couldn’t give them, but I was able to create the account anyway. I considered whether I should get a Facebook account. I dithered for a while, then decided that when school started, I’d see whether the other kids had Facebook accounts. I’d wait, and decide then.
I made a Twitter account, and by the time I was done with that, I was feeling lost. I’d never concerned myself with the internet at all, let alone social media. I took a look at Instagram, but they too asked for my phone number.
It sucked to be thirteen. Well, not really. What sucked was not having any money. If I were still Leo, if I needed a phone, I’d just go buy one. Sure, right now I could go downstairs and ask Lois when we were going to take care of that, but I didn’t feel like talking to her at the moment.
So, planning ahead: I figured I could spend a few hours each day on Twitter until I understood it. Once I had a grip on that, and once I had a phone, I could work on Instagram. In the meantime, I could ask Alfie which apps kids around here used. That is, if Alfie knew. He was a jock; I don’t know whether he spends any time online.
After an hour and a quarter at the computer, I’d had enough. On a scratch pad I wrote Video games? Computer games? — Weren’t they a part of a teenager’s social life? I added another line to my scratch pad: Look online for articles on how teenagers spend their time.
I also jotted Music. Magazines? Movies? TV shows?
By now I wasn’t just tired of staring at the screen. I was also getting a little hungry. Time for a snack.
I was on the third or fourth stair from the top when I realized that Lois was on the phone. Her voice was happy again. Excited, even. It didn’t take long for me to realize that she was talking to Meredith. It quickly became clear from her remarks that Meredith was talking about sex.
I sighed and went back to my room. From there, I could hear Lois’ voice but not make out what she was saying. I sat on the floor with my back to the wall, waiting. Every so often my stomach would rumble. I was pretty hungry, and the hunger and the waiting made me irritable and impatient.
After five minutes that seemed like an hour, I decided to go downstairs and quietly make myself a sandwich or something. I’d just have to block out Lois’ phone conversation.
To my relief, I heard her goodbyes as I descended the stairs, and she hung up the phone before I set foot in the kitchen.
“Well!” Lois said, beaming.
“Well, well,” I replied, nonsensically.
“Meredith is doing really well,” she said. “Really well.”
“Oh, no,” I groaned. “You’re not going to tell me about her sex life now, are you?”
“What? No! Of course not!” Lois said with a laugh.
I opened the refrigerator and stared inside, waiting for inspiration. Lois gave me a coy look, which I found unnerving.
“Why are you looking at me that way?” I asked.
“Well, if you *must* know,” Lois replied, “Meredith and I were talking about your plan.”
The blood drained from my face in an instant.
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