Merope, Maybe : 1 / 19

 

Merope, Maybe : 1 / 19

[ Melanie Brown’s Switcher Universe ]
by Iolanthe Portmanteaux

 


"I am not contained between my hat and boots."
— Walt Whitman, Song of Myself


 

If you want to see Upper Harmish at its best, you need to visit mid-September, when the leaves are turning. Many people do: it's the one and only time of year when our hotels, motels, and B&Bs are chock full. Many visitors choose to drive through the western hills, where you're surrounded by bright reds, yellows, and oranges. Some subject their cars to the arduous climb up Braeke's Height, where they take in the brilliant sea of nearly-psychedelic hues. There are outstanding panoramas in every direction.

A healthy portion of our visitors books a breakfast, lunch, or dinner cruise up the Harmish River. Once the cruise leaves the town behind, the river opens up, and its wide expanse is flanked by soft hills packed with maples, oaks, dogwoods and other varieties noted for their powerful autumn colors.

Some tourists — some, but a much smaller number — do what I do, which is to simply walk along the river. It's totally free, and I think it's the absolute best option. You can see the river, which is nice in itself, and you can see the buildings on the opposite band, standing behind the trees on that side. The river walkway is generously wide on both sides of the river, and so thick with trees, it's very nearly a long, thin slice of forest. You see the colors, but not only do you see them, you trample them underfoot! You walk on them, you wade through them, you make the swoosh swoosh swoosh sound as your feet and legs kick and sweep through dry leaves. In the distance you hear the muffled scrape of rakes pulling the scattered foliage into piles.

It's a complete autumn experience. There's a unique fragrance in the air that comes only this time of year... the smell of the leaves of deciduous trees as they dry and begin to decompose.

There's nothing like it.

I doubt anyone could put that scent in a candle!

So... that's what I went out to enjoy on that fateful day. As far as I knew at the time, it was nothing more than a lovely Friday in September. That's all I expected to see and hear and smell. The weatherman called it "the pick of the week" for temperature, for sun, for mildness. I could see it from my window: a simply beautiful, nearly perfect day.

And I had nothing to do.

The day in question was a Friday: the second Friday of the month, the second Friday of my retirement. I'd enjoyed a nice retirement party, two weeks ago, and after that, a dozen days of freedom, more or less.

I was already bored and disappointed.

Being retired wasn't at all what I expected; at least not so far. I know I hadn't given it much time, but I had — or *thought* I had — a pretty clear picture of how my life was going to be. When I first made plans to retire at sixty, I imagined that Cleo and I would travel, see the world, learn new things, visit new places, spend more time together. I counted it as quite an achievement: the fact that I'd saved up enough to quit working while I was still young enough to enjoy my life.

Unfortunately, Cleo wasn't on the same page. Not at all.

"What did you think would happen when I retired?" I asked her.

"I assumed that you'd find ways to spend your time," she replied. "You seemed to have it all planned out."

"I thought that I'd be spending that time with you," I protested.

"You expect me to quit my job!" she said, in a tone of accusation.

"Well, yes," I said. "It seemed like the obvious step."

"All these years you've been planning, you might have bothered to mention it."

"Oh," I said, in a small voice. It's true. I never mentioned the idea... I never thought to question the idea... it all seemed so obvious...

I'm forty-five years old," she pointed out. "I'm just beginning to come into my own, professionally. I'm not ready to stop."

"Okay," I acknowledged. I could feel myself losing ground.

"My life isn't a sidecar to yours, you know."

It was a embarrassing surprise: she was absolutely correct. I never asked her, or even myself, what she might want, how she pictured the life ahead. I had ideas and plans. Why shouldn't she?

That wasn't all. Even before that conversation, the difference in our ages began to matter. At some point she didn't see me as young any more. Or — if not young, well, I thought we both felt we were about the same age. The change seemed very abrupt to me: Suddenly, my hair was white. Suddenly, I had a pot belly. Suddenly, I had new aches and pains.

Worst of all, the older I seemed to get, the more I irritated Cleo.

"Could you please stop making all those grunts and groans?" she'd ask. "You sound like an old man!"

"Do I really?" I asked.

"Just listen to yourself next time you tie your shoes," she replied.

Cleo began to interrupt me a dozen times a day, saying, "Anson, please! You've told me that story a thousand times!"

Honestly, I don't think I repeated myself that much (if at all), but I had to take her word for it.

Okay... I could adjust to all that: I could make better habits. I wondered, though: could I get used to spending my days alone?

What an ass I'd been! Thinking she'd drop her career just because *I* stopped working!

Maybe she would have, if we'd made our plans together.

And I had to admit, Cleo had a great job: a psychologist in a group of psychologists. They shared a nice suite of offices downtown. It was quiet, professional, and managed to be elegant and comfortable at the same time. She enjoyed her work. She loved her co-workers. She often said, "It's the most intellectually stimulating environment I've ever experienced! And so supportive!"

Which was, of course, great for her.

Not as great for me.

I had no idea, of course, that while my life appeared to be slowly sinking into a disappointing muddle, it was about to take quite an incredibly dramatic turn: A jack-knife change of direction that would land me with a whole new set of problems and issues. An alteration so total, it would make my former life seem like a pile of plain mashed potatoes by comparison.

After dressing in soft, comfortable clothes, I sat down to put on my walking shoes. I managed to tie them without my usual series of old-man grunts and groans. Then I stood to look in the mirror as I plopped a new cotton bucket hat on my head. I smiled at myself. Turning sideways, I hefted my belly with both hands. "I look like an old duffer," I told myself, "but in a good way."

Cleo and I live in a solid three-bedroom house just north of downtown. From our place, it's a pleasant mile and a half to the river. I planned to head more or less directly there. Then I'd turn west on the riverway. After about 20 minutes, I'd cross the Spring Street Bridge, and return east on the other side. The views are different but wonderful on either side of the river.

That was my plan, anyway. As you'll see, things didn't work out quite the way I expected! Not at all.

But I'm jumping ahead — sorry!

On a side street close to the center of town I stopped for coffee and a bun. A new, hip coffeeshop featured a walk-up window open to the sidewalk, so I gave it a try. They were out of croissants, so I let myself get talked into trying a "roasted tea scone." It was a strange item, but I felt inclined to try something new. In a way, that scone set the tone for the rest of the day. Big, baked black tea leaves lay draped across a maple glaze. Honestly, it was the maple glaze that sold me, but as much as I enjoy maple sugar, the mapleness wasn't strong enough to overpower the bitterness of the tea leaves and the tiny, unnameable crunchy bits hidden inside. Each time I encountered one of the small, dry, friable cubes, I wanted to take it between my fingers, trot back to the window, and ask what on earth they were made of. But the moment my teeth came in contact with one of them, the weird, tiny cube would break into bits and disappear, like ashes in a strong wind. The coffee was passable — officially not bad, but the scone was a conundrum: I just didn't get it. I managed to eat the whole thing, though. It wasn't horrible. It simply tasted as strange as all get-out.

The barista called to me from inside the sidewalk window, asking whether I liked the scone.

"I think it's more of a concept piece than a breakfast item," I replied.

He shrugged, smiled, and told me he'd pass my comment on to the baker.

"It's thought-provoking," I added.

"Um, okay," he replied, in a tone of faux uncertainty, as though he didn't understand why I was still talking.

I moved on, but the scone stayed with me.

The amalgamated taste of coffee, tea leaves, and maple glaze remained with me vividly, all the way to the river. It was certainly a combination that made you think. It made me think what a bizarre combination it was. I kept finding myself licking my lips, puzzled by the scone's persistence.

When at last I reached the river, for some foolish reason I headed east rather than west, the opposite of what I'd planned. Maybe there were a lot of tourists heading west? I don't know. I don't remember. Maybe it was an after-effect of the scone. I twisted my mouth around and made some smacking noises with my tongue. It didn't help. I couldn't rid of the bitter/maple amalgamation. In any case, heading east wasn't really a conscious decision. I simply turned left instead of right, on a whim. A little thing, but as it turned out, it was absolutely the most momentous decision of my entire life.

Of course, I had no idea at the time. How could I? I drifted along the brick path, as I had so many times in the past, enjoying everything about the day. The air was sharp, clean, and fresh. The leaves were at their peak — vivid colors — half of them still clinging to the trees, the other half covering the ground. It was as picturesque and homey as I expected. The only thing missing to make it perfect was Cleo by my side. Cleo, with her hand in mine... Cleo, asking me Do you have to make that sound?

What sound? I'd reply, but she wouldn't answer.

Every minute or so a jogger would pass. People walking dogs of every size and variety. Young mothers pushing strollers.

I thought about giving Cleo a call, but didn't. It was difficult to catch her between patients. At best, I could leave a message, but I didn't feel like doing that, especially when I had nothing in particular to say.

For a moment I considered giving my son Herman a call, but he tended to be even busier at work than Cleo, and more fussy and irritated at being interrupted. I never thought that processing bank loans could be such an intense and stressful occupation.

I hope I don't sound like I'm complaining. I love my life. I love my family. I was having a wonderful day, relaxing, enjoying the scene, happy to not be at the office.

After twenty minutes of slow, easy shuffling, I came to a point in the path known locally as "the Pinch." Come to think on it, the reason I originally meant to head west instead of east was exactly to avoid this spot. It's famous for its view of Monument Hill, across the river. In fact, the Pinch features a park bench, placed at the exact spot where the view is optimal.

Unfortunately, it's one of the worst places to stick a bench.

You see, the point is called the Pinch precisely because the path curves dramatically out to follow a bend in the river. At that bend is a centenary chestnut tree. Yes, it's lovely. The massive, impressive tree constrains the path on the river side, and the obnoxious corner of a twenty-foot-high brick wall pokes in from the other side. The bench is offset slightly from the wall's intrusion, but it still impinges on what would otherwise be a wide, pleasant walkway. Not that the Pinch is absurdly small; it isn't. There's enough room for two or three people to pass, depending on their size. Even so, there's nearly always a little traffic jam because someone's stopped in the middle of the path to admire the view. Inevitably they stand exactly at the choke point, between the tree and the bench.

Today, that someone was me. When I realized that *I* was the thoughtless lout standing in the way, I took a few quick steps to the side and backed away from the path. This put me square in the ivy that borders the path, but I didn't care. I smiled and let a young mother and her double-sized twin stroller pass.

Like everyone else who momentarily blocked foot traffic, I'd stopped to admire the view. And what a view! The panorama was at its best today: the sky itself was decorated with picture-perfect cotton-ball clouds against a blue background you'd find in a Renaissance landscape. A Mediterranean blue. That celestial blue, the weightless clouds, the insanely colored autumn leaves, perfectly framed the obelisk on Monument Hill.

It struck me that the thing to do was to snap a photo and send it to Cleo, so she'd know I was thinking about her; so she could share my experience. No message, no reply required. Simply an expression of joy and beauty.

While contemplating my shot, I had to step into the ivy a second time to let another young, pretty mother with a stroller pass. Once she turned the bend and disappeared from sight, I snapped a few pictures of the city.

I'll admit, I'm no great shakes at photography, but these were poor even by my standards. It seemed that what I liked best in what I saw — the sky, the clouds, the leaves, the monument — was the hardest thing to catch. No matter how I turned or zoomed or angled my phone, all I could see was the leaves underfoot and the river as a thick dark underline.

Frustrated, I decided to climb onto the bench in hopes of finding a better composition. Clearly, if I were just a tiny bit higher, I could leave out both path and river and capture the image that caught my eye.

Getting up there, though, was harder than I imagined. Yes, I'm sixty. I'm not old but I'm overweight, and a bit out of shape. Even so, taking that short step up and onto the bench shouldn't be such a huge effort! And yet, I came upon one of the odd surprises that come with aging. I set my left foot on the bench, and discovered to my chagrin that my leg didn't have the power to push me up to a standing position. I tried my other leg. No go on that side as well. I had to resort to a less dignified method: I leaned forward, planted my hands on the back of the bench, and tugged with both arms as I pushed with my leg. That effort, accompanied by a rather ungraceful grunt and an unexpectedly cracking fart, left me standing upright on the bench facing the wrong way.

A third mother with a stroller waited patiently while I struggled. It wasn't as though I took up any of the path; she was only being cautious. If I'd fallen backward, I could have flattened the stroller, with her baby inside — or at least, bowled into the little family like a set of ninepins. It would have been inconvenient and embarrassing. As soon as I was up and out of her way, she smiled politely and pushed quickly on ahead. I felt fairly confident that she hadn't heard me break wind, not that it mattered.

It was all a little undignified, but here I was.

With small, careful steps, I turned myself around to face the view. I wobbled for a moment, then stood up straight and tall.

I must have made a ridiculous spectacle: a pot-bellied retired office worker, perched on the uneven beams of a park bench. I never thought I had any issues with balance, but despite that belief, I found myself wobbling. My gyrations were only slight at first, but soon I was shaking like a go-go dancer. I feared I might fall. To steady myself, I bent my knees and grabbed hold of the back of the bench. After a few deep breaths, I felt pretty steady, so I straightened up. To keep my balance, I extended my arms like a capital T. Good. I took another deep breath, let it go, and lifted my phone in front of my face. Darn! I'd waited too long to snap the picture; in the meantime my screen lock engaged, and my screen had gone dark.

I pushed the button to light the screen. I swept my fingers, inserted my code. The camera was ready to go. I lifted it in front of my face. Confoundingly, the double image — the actual monument in the distance and the tiny obelisk on my phone — confused my eye. Despite my best efforts and my firmest resolve, I wobbled again. I heaved a deep, fearful breath. I wanted to close my eyes for a moment, but knew it would only make things worse. Just then, a voice, a loud, unkind voice, cut in—

"Hey, Humpty Dumpty! Will you be careful up there?" It was a woman, shouting in a rude, impatient tone. Humpty Dumpty? Was I really that round? Even if I was, it was unkind to say so. Once again, I stretched out my arms in a T for stability, and in a moment my wobbling fell to a minimum. I turned my head to look down at her, much in the way a young gymnast on the balance beam gazes down at her coach.

In spite of myself, I was fascinated by what I saw. This woman was dressed for success, dressed to impress. Her pumps were a conservative dark blue, and had long, narrow heels. She wore a pale peach camisole under a light gray jacket with a matching gray skirt that ended just above her knee. Her hair was cut in a short, angled bob.

She stood, waiting, arms crossed, foot tapping — an attractive thirty-something brunette. She frowned, impatiently judging my efforts. She would have been more attractive if she dropped her disrespectful, antisocial attitude. Her scowl full of disdain, she commanded, "Get down from there, before you hurt yourself or someone else!"

"Why don't you mind your own business?" I asked, in all sincerity. "Just keep on walking, and we'll both be much happier." My temper began to rise. I could feel myself growing hot with indignation.

She barked, "You're shaky and unsteady — why are you even up there? I'm afraid you're going to fall, and if you fall, you'll going to fall on me."

"You're being ridiculous!" I shouted, red-faced, offended, and angry. "You're exaggerating, and you're insulting! Move along! Move along, now, quickly!" I waved my arms to give her a visual aid. Frowning even more deeply, she decided to change tack. She took a breath, calmed herself, and responded in a quieter tone, "I can't walk quickly in these heels over brick. I need to be careful, or my foot will get caught. If you promise not to move a single muscle, I'll scoot by, as fast as I can manage, and then I'll be on my way." I nodded, waving my arms dismissively. She let out a final, irritated tsk! and click-clacked past me on her hard, judgmental heels. I couldn't help but glance down as she passed. I've always had a weakness for a well-formed derriere, and her smooth gray skirt offered a moving outline of what lay beneath.

As fate would have it, my exertions, my arm-waving, but above all my indiscreet gawping at the rhythmic motion of her backside, increased the precariousness of my perch. Yes, it was rude of me. Even so, what happened in the next few moments was not my fault at all. It's something that could happen to anyone, anywhere: my right ankle buckled beneath me.

It's an injury that can easily occur even on smooth, solid ground: where sometimes, somehow — and no one knows why — one foot decides of its own accord, and for no good reason, to twist violently inward, throwing all your weight on the side of your foot. It's very painful. As I said, no one knows what provokes it, but something provoked it now.

That is why I fell. To my credit, I did shout, "Watch out! Look out below!"

I might as well have shouted "Timber!" or "Land ho!" for all the good my warning gave.

The woman let out an astonished cry, saw the impending danger, and made a little jump. Under normal circumstances, if she were an ordinary woman, her slight skip would have carried her completely out of danger. What I mean to say is, I didn't fall on her. I didn't knock her or bump her or grab hold of her as I fell. I barely touched her. Unfortunately, she was NOT an ordinary woman. That slightest hint of contact — the very air at the edge of my fingertips, strafing across her aura, so to speak — the lightest, merest sweep, not-quite down her back. That's all it took.

Then, confusingly, I fell down twice. I hit the ground as Anson — a heavy sixty-year-old landed like a sack of stone potatoes on the hard brick path, with my body twisted awkwardly. I scraped my elbow, my knee, my wrist, and the side of my face. The right side of my pelvis took a great wallop. As my body fell, I watched my phone sail through the air, as if in slow motion. Gravity guided it down and bounced it off a brick, until it finally came to rest in the ivy that bordered the path.

Then came the strange part, and my first clue to what happened: I fell a *second* time, this time backwards. First came the sensation of being struck in the gut. Then my knees buckled, and my soft and cushioned butt landed on the stomach of an older man who conveniently broke and absorbed the full impact of my fall.

In a stupor, I took in the impossible scene: I was sitting on the ample stomach of a man who lay on the ground, out of breath and in pain. That man was me: Anson Charpont, retiree.

I gazed down at the new me: the me who sat on the belly of the old me. I raised my hands and saw they were young, unwrinkled hands, small hands with delicate fingers, fingers with painted nails — the color called Ocean Blue, one of Cleo's favorites.

A breeze carried up the path. The air flowed swiftly along my naked legs, ending beneath my skirt.

I'm slow, but I can add one and one and one and one. Clearly, I was now the woman, and the woman I'd argued with, was now me.

"Damn it!" the new Anson shouted. "Get off me, you idiot!" He followed his demand with a string of expletives and obscenities, ending with a rude and inappropriate shove to my tailbone. I gingerly rose to my feet, then offered my hand to my old self, the old man.

"Don't touch me, you imbecile!" he groused. "Haven't you done enough?"

I watched him struggle to sit up, unsure what I should or could do to help. He rolled over awkwardly, clutched the park bench, and used it pull himself into a kneeling posture. There he paused to catch his breath. He turned his head and regarded me with a stare of cold hatred. "After all the trouble I went to..." he muttered. Another deep breath, then he leaned heavily on the bench and hauled himself to his feet. He nearly fell when he put his weight on the bad ankle. I grabbed him out of instinct. This time he didn't resist.

While my hands were on his arm, he turned to look me in the face. His face — my old face — had a large, ugly scrape on the right cheekbone. It was painful to see. His breathing was shallow — is that how mine had always been? After some experimental shuffling and shifting, he suddenly, without any warning whatsoever, gave me a shove and snatched my bag from me. I mean, he took the woman's bag, her purse. He meant to knock me down, but his aim was off. I didn't fall. I stumbled back a step or two; that was all. He opened the woman's bag, and began fishing things out and dropping them into his various pockets. I saw him take a gray metal cylinder, about three inches long and maybe an inch or so in diameter. He dropped it into his jacket pocket. Then he pulled out three more similar cylinders and shoved them into his other pockets. They bulged in an unattractive way. Then, after one last careful look inside, he said to me, "Here. Have yourself a party with the rest of this crap." He held the bag out to me, offering it, until — the moment I reached for it — he dropped it on the ground.

"Now get lost," he growled, "Don't follow me." And in a voice loaded with sarcasm added, "Enjoy your new life."

With that, he limped off, as quickly as he could manage.

One of the less pleasant aspects of aging is encountering yourself in photos. I never got used to the way my jaw expanded and the skin of my neck and arms sagged — to say nothing of how large and ungainly I'd become. It was painful enough, as I said, to see those changes memorialized in pictures, but now that I could see myself on the hoof (so to speak) — see myself as others saw me, limping away — was distressing in the extreme. I turned my eyes from my old self, and took a gander at my new self, to see where I'd landed, in terms of physical body. I looked pretty good, from my vantage point: I was young, fairly fit, a woman with a good figure, legs like Betty Grable (if I dare make the comparison!), and what appeared to be a fine pair of full, firm breasts. Not Miss America, or even a runner-up, but not bad.

Anson, my old body, was already at a surprising distance, and after a quick turn off the path, he disappeared from view.

Finally alone, I asked myself What do I do now?

I sat on the bench — that fateful bench — to take stock of my situation.

Clearly, I'd just become a victim of the Switcher. Although these events are far from common, enough people have encountered the Switcher that the topic has grown from an urban myth to a concrete reality. Some of his victims were celebrities, politicians, and other well-known and influential people. At long last several governments (including our own) set up national toll-free numbers and broadcast public-service announcements to explain what was known about the Switcher. They also instructed the public with a set of rules called What To Do When You're Switched.

Consequently, I knew very well what had happened to me. I also knew what I was *supposed* to do: the first step was to contact the authorities. I couldn't remember the toll-free number, but it would be a quick look-up on my phone. Speaking of which, I went and fished my phone out of the ivy, where I'd seen it fall. It hadn't suffered from the impact. The screen hadn't cracked.

Actually, the first step from the Public Service Announcements was a negative: If you're switched, you aren't supposed to call family or friends. The reason? It only causes problems, confusion, unnecessary distress, and — sometimes — legal issues. I didn't want any of that. "The competent authority" would take care of notifications. I understood that "competent" in that sentence didn't mean they were good at what they did; it only meant that it was their job. Still, I was quite willing to let the government unwind this one; I felt pretty sure from what I'd seen on TV that they'd unite me with my old family at the right time, under the right circumstances.

Okay: so I was supposed to call "the competent authority" to tell them I was switched. They, in turn, would either come to pick me up or tell me where to go for processing.

Fine. I'd do all that. But first, I wanted to understand as much as I could, before taking any steps. I wanted to have some kind of control over my new future. I wasn't going to be a passenger into my new life; I was determined to do at least some of the steering. I needed a plan, and to have a plan I needed to know my options.

My first question was Who am I now? I jiggled my bag — the woman's bag. All the clues to my identity were in there — unless the bag contained an apartment key, a car key, a business card, or really anything that led to more clues in another location...

To my disappointment, I didn't find much in the bag: A small pack of tissues, a lipstick, a tampon, a sanitary pad, an expensive-looking pen, a red wallet, and two envelopes. The wallet had a healthy amount of money in it: mostly twenties. A quick count told me it was just over $400. There were credit cards and a drivers license — all in the name Merope Goddard. "Oh my God," I groaned. "I'm stuck with a weird-ass name."

Then again, maybe I wasn't stuck with that name. I was pretty sure the government could give me a new name, if I wanted one. After all, I wasn't likely to pick up this woman's life where she left off.

The address on the drivers license was Omaha, Nebraska. That's way over in the middle of the country. Not close at all. I've never been.

There weren't any photos in the wallet, or store receipts, or scribbled notes. Nothing to fill out the picture of who she was.

I thought about my interactions with "Merope" — and realized that I'd never met the actual woman, Merope. If that was even her name. No, the real Merope was off somewhere in someone else's body. The person I met was the Switcher, in Merope's body.

As I said, the bag contained two envelopes. The thicker one was full of money: hundred dollar bills. It was a stack about a half-inch high.

The smaller of the two envelopes contained three more drivers licenses, each with a different photo of the new me, each with a different hair color and style, each from a different state, each with a credit card in the same name.

"What kind of mess am I in?" I asked myself. It was alarming. Was Merope a crook? A scam artist? Or was this collection of money and fake IDs the work of the Switcher, alone?

I was startled, and worried, sure, but I didn't get overwhelmed with fear. I knew from the public service announcements that there were processing centers set up exactly for this kind of mess. I knew I could depend on them to sort it out for me. I dropped everything back into the bag and picked up my old phone. (This Merope woman didn't have a phone, by the way. Odd, right? I didn't see the Switcher take it from me... so did Merope have a phone in the first place?)

My first intention was to look up the number of the Switcher processing center. Every good citizen by now knew the procedure by heart. It was only two steps, after all: Don't call friends or family. *Do* call the processing center. They instruct you where to go or where to wait for pick up. Before I made that call, however, I wanted some more information. I wanted answers. But who could help me? Who could I call? I scrolled through my contacts, without any real idea of what I was looking for. A friend? A lawyer? Family? I couldn't call Cleo or Herman. At least, I wasn't supposed to call them. Anson — my old self — was retired, so I had no office to call, no job to notify. I didn't think any of my ex-colleagues would be much help anyway... As for my friends, I loved them, but didn't see a point in dragging them into my mess. Even if I could convince them that I was Anson, what did I expect them to do? Aside from sympathize, I mean. With a heavy sigh I began to see there wasn't much point in breaking the rules. Whoever I called — if they even believed me — would probably freak out, and both of us would be in trouble.

In trouble for no good reason.

In trouble for no good reason... As that phrase echoed in my brain, my eye fell on a name: Rowan Brissard. Now, *he* was someone who didn't mind getting in trouble for no good reason. Would he help me? Probably. Should he help me? Probably not. Could he help me? I'd say he was a strong maybe.

Once upon a time, Rowan was my son Herman's best friend. They parted ways after high school: Herman left the state for an east-coast college; Rowan stayed in town and became — of all things — a policeman.

Back when the boys — well, technically, they're in their twenties, so they aren't boys any more — but back when they were teenagers, Rowan cost Cleo and me many sleepless nights. Neither of us could fall asleep until we heard Herman arrive home. As soon as we'd hear the front door close, we'd relax and drop off. Until then, we'd worry that Rowan had dragged Herman into some crazy stunt that left our son dead, hurt, or arrested.

The two of them managed to survive their teens and early twenties without a scratch and without a police record. It seemed a legitimate miracle.

On looking back, I think Cleo and I exaggerated the potential dangers. As a parent it's difficult not to. Or maybe we were all just lucky that nothing ever went too far in the wrong direction.

Rowan was never a *bad* kid. People used to say he was "a little wild," but now I think he simply couldn't see the point of following rules that didn't make sense. "Rules for the sake of rules," he'd say.

So, would he help me? I think he would. He shouldn't help me, but I felt confident that he wasn't afraid of... whoever it was that ran the Switcher Processing Centers.

Could he help me? I think so. Rowan's a cop. If anyone could make sense of the contents of Merope's bag, Rowan could.

I've never been one to act on impulse. I plan. I love to plan. Usually I deliberate as long as possible before making even the most conventional choices, but today was not an ordinary day.

And so, in the spirit of the day, on a totally crazy impulse, I did exactly what I was told NOT to do. I called Rowan.

"Rowan, this is Anson Charpont — Herman's father."

Rowan laughed. "Okay, lady, thanks for the laugh. You have a nice day, now."

"Wait, wait — don't hang up! I'm the victim of a Switcher incident! I want to talk to somebody before I turn myself into the processing center."

"Somebody, huh? Somebody/anybody? Nobody in particular? But hey, look — how do I know this isn't a practical joke? Or a scam? Nowadays, anybody can say Switcher and pretend to be somebody else."

"True, but why would a young woman pretend to be Anson Charpont? What's the upside?"

"Point taken. But even so— Convince me. Tell me something that nobody other than you, me, and Herman would know."

"Okay..." I said. "Give me a moment to think."

"You should have expected this question. Come on."

"Okay, I've got one. When Herman's grandmother died, I caught you and Herman in a back room at the funeral home. You were about to light up a joint."

"Hmmm," Rowan acknowledged. "You're halfway there. Now tell me what happened next?"

"I lit up with you two," I admitted, blushing as I said it.

Rowan grunted in acknowledgment. "I always thought that was a stone-cold move on your part, Mr C."

"Well, it was Cleo's mother, not mine," I confessed.

"Okay, one more," Rowan said. "Who did I lose my virginity with? You know this one."

"Do I?" I searched my memory. "I don't think I— oh, wait! It was your cousin Julie! Wasn't it? Now it's coming back to me. You told her that you had a brain tumor, right? And that poor girl believed you—"

"Okay, okay!" Rowan interrupted. "The name would have been enough. No need to root around into the details. We're not here to dredge up the past. You've convinced me." I heard him drumming his fingers. "Okay. What to do. Alright. Listen, my shift isn't over until five. Can you hang out for a couple of hours? Can you get over to my place? meet me there? You know where I live, right? There's a cafe and a bookstore across the street where you can kill some time..."



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