Merope, Maybe : 2 / 19

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Merope, Maybe : 2 / 19

[ Melanie Brown’s Switcher Universe ]
by Iolanthe Portmanteaux

 


Glinda: Are you a good witch, or a bad witch?
Dorothy: Who me? I'm not a witch at all.
— The Wizard of Oz
(1939 film)


 

After I ended the call with Rowan, I took a second look at Merope's bag... what I hoped was a deeper, more careful look. It had occurred to me that Cleo's bags often featured hidden or extra pockets that weren't apparent at first glance. I'd struggled with them on occasion, when her phone was ringing in some undiscoverable location. I could hear the phone, and feel the phone through the wall of the bag, but find a way to extract the phone from the bag? Impossible.

It wasn't the case here, though. Merope's was a simple bag: one big pocket, two big handles. No secrets, no hidden pouches, no surprises. I'd already seen everything there was to see.

I furtively mulled over her three extra IDs for a bit. Why furtively? They couldn't all be legitimate, so the simple act of possessing several identity cards made me feel guilty and vulnerable. A random passerby could see at a glance that I was holding multiple drivers licenses. Could I be arrested simply for possessing fake IDs? Was holding three fakes three times worse than having one fake? I didn't know, so I tucked the extra IDs safely back in their envelope. For a moment I was tempted to toss them in the trash. The only reason I didn't was my hope that Rowan would be able to learn something from them.

Learn what? I didn't know. If I knew, I wouldn't ask the question, would I?

Why did I call them "extras"? It seemed to me that "Merope Goddard" must be this woman's real name. For one thing, hers was the only ID she kept in her wallet. Another point in Merope's favor was that her date of issue was a year and a half earlier than the others. Last point: the Merope ID looked worn, used, handled. The other IDs appeared uniformly pristine: fresh from the mint, so to speak, even if the dates of issue were months past.

I had to admit, though, that I was out of my depth. My conclusions made sense to me, but that didn't mean I was correct.

Certainly Rowan could cut through my confusion. Policemen see fake IDs all the time, don't they? Rowan probably had a fake drivers license himself when he was a teen. In any case, by now, he had both training and experience. He could probably pick out the fakes from ten feet away. And maybe he'd have an idea why she had three fakes in the first place. What was the point of that?

With a sigh I packed everything away, just the way I found it. Then quite suddenly, I felt very hungry, and that surprised me. After all, I'd eaten my usual breakfast, and less than an hour ago I'd consumed that bizarre scone.

Ah, but it was Anson who ate that food! My previous body, my previous self! I had no idea what Ms. Goddard had eaten and when. In fact, I'd been thinking (a little stupidly) on how abruptly the taste of that weird scone had vanished. Of course it vanished! It left with my old body. The Switcher, after he limped away, was probably asking himself what the devil I'd eaten before he stole my body.

I patted Merope's bag, reflecting that now I had the means to eat whatever sort of lunch I pleased. The question was: what did I want to eat? A quick stroll through downtown would give me some ideas.

Up I stood — and wobbled. Heels! I took a few experimental steps — small, slow steps... doing pretty well, or so I thought! Until I got a sense of my ridiculous posture: bent forward at the waist, backside sticking out, head tilted down so I could stare at my feet. Alright: I needed to work on my execution.

With a deep breath, I straightened up and squared my shoulders. I set my gaze straight, forward, direct, like a soldier. I kept my steps small, but decisive. Now I was making progress. The bricks were treacherous, though: when my heel hit any rough spot, my ankle wobbled dangerously. Clearly, I needed to get off the brick path.

There were plenty of exits; one at each city block, leading immediately to the paved streets of downtown. The closest was only a few yards; I directed my feet that way.

Immediately my incautious left heel sank into the space between two bricks and seemed to lock there. I tugged with my foot, but the shoe wouldn't move. In my old body, as Anson, I wouldn't have had any hope of reaching down to touch my feet — I'd have to sit on something if I needed to reach that far.

Now, as Merope, I was far slimmer, but my attempts to bend down and grab my shoe were hindered by my skirt: the farther I bent, the more I reached, the tighter my skirt constrained me. I began to fear that I'd bust a seam. I was slim, yes, but the skirt was tight. I kept bending my knees, to the point that I risked falling on my ass...

I straightened up. The best course of action was apparent: I needed to slip my foot out of the shoe and then... and then take it from there. Maybe I could nudge the shoe free and slip my foot back inside...

Before I had the slightest moment to lift my heel, a man approached me from behind, swiftly. "Here, let me help," he said. He didn't give me time to react: he simply reached down and grabbed my foot and shoe.

"I— I— was just about to take my shoe off," I stammered, too taken by surprise to protest more firmly.

"No need! No need!" he assured me. By rocking my trapped heel back and forth gently, he freed it, without damaging my shoe.

He straightened up, smiling, wiping his hands against each other.

"Thank you," I murmured, flushing red as a beet.

"Happy to be of service!" he replied. He made the motion of tipping his hat, and then he was gone.

In an overabundance of caution, I moved on tiptoe until I left the path and stood on an ordinary, concrete-paved sidewalk.

Where was I going? I felt a little confused, a little disoriented, after my encounter with that man. It was odd and somehow disturbing; I needed to digest the experience. Honestly, it shocked me. In fact, it shook me. But why?

He didn't touch me inappropriately, I didn't think. He wasn't rude — or was he?

What in his behavior bothered me, exactly? I replayed it in my mind's eye. He came up from behind me. I didn't have a chance to see him; not even a glance. Without so much as a by-your-leave, he grabbed my foot and freed my heel. When my foot was free, he left. He didn't take it as a pretext for chatting me up, which I was glad of. So what was the problem?

Not sure how to see it or understand it, I walked slowly toward downtown. The day was still incredibly lovely. The intense, vivid leaves were everywhere, shushing underfoot. There was a lot to enjoy.

At the same time, I felt perturbed. Was I making a mountain out of a molehill?

Then it clicked, and when it clicked, it made me angry. I said to myself, He grabbed my foot and freed it, the way you'd free a horse or donkey whose hoof was stuck. And that was it: he didn't treat me as a person. I doubted he'd do the same to a man, if a man's foot could somehow stick in a similar trap. He would have said, "Would you like a hand?" or "Do you mind if I—?" Instead, he assumed it was fine to put his hands on me.

Now that I understood what was bothering me, it morphed from a vague sense of shock and unease into a small angry fire. Then the fire dwindled down to nothing. Okay, the thing happened. I didn't die. It wasn't bad... it was only... slightly disconcerting.

I stopped for a moment to get my bearings, and reckoned my best bet for a decent lunch spot would be somewhere along Olduvai Street, just two blocks straight ahead.

Olduvai Street is an interesting mix. First of all, the posh shops are there. But so are the consignment shops, bistros, little pizzerias and ethnic fast food. As usual, Olduvai was busy with both locals and tourists with money. Most of the crowd appeared to be people who worked in the towers nearby: dressed in business casual, no shopping bags, no gawking.

I could feel my food preferences had changed. Hamburgers, pizza, burritos, didn't call out to me — they'd lost their appeal, at least in that moment. I found myself wandering into a vegan fast-food place that I'd never noticed before. I had a plate piled with leafy greens, falafel, humus, red cabbage with walnuts, and... I'm not sure what the other item was... some sort of meatless meatloaf... but everything tasted great; I liked the whole meal; it was *healthy*. I felt it doing me a world of good.

After I finished and cleared my table, I realized that there were no men in the place: only women. They were all professional women, all of them dressed along the same lines as myself. None of them gave me a second look. I blended right in. Is this my new demographic? I wondered. I took the restaurant's card. I was sure I'd be back. It seemed like a reference point I'd need in future.

For about an hour I wandered along Olduvai Street. The clothes stores — of which there were many — took my attention. I have to say, it's not that they drew me — they didn't. It was more the realization on my part that I'd have to pay more attention to that world now: the world of dresses, shoes, of colors and patterns. I'd need to know what's up-to-date and what's outdated. It seemed like a heavy task now, but I was sure my feeling would change, the more I learned about it, the more I immersed myself. Some of the second-hand stores had pieces that were colorful and bold. Would I be able to wear such things? Or would I stick with a more sober, neutral look, like what I was wearing now?

I suppose I could check in at the vegan restaurant, see how the women my (new) age were dressed, and base my decisions on that.

In spite of my musings, in spite of this feeling of having a new world to explore, the hour of walking, of window shopping, wore me out. I got tired, and felt grubby, dehydrated.

I bought a bottle of water and boarded the bus for Lavenrick. I wasn't in any hurry to get there. It wasn't the sort of place a woman would want to hang around alone, before Rowan arrived. Lavenrick is part of Greater Harmish, but It's a run-down area. It's not very appealing as a neighborhood. Even back when I was Anson, I wasn't very comfortable there.

I understood why Rowan lived there: the rents are low.

Even so, I needed to get off Olduvai Street. I needed to sit down. Lavenrick wasn't a great choice, but I had nowhere else to go. The bus was comfortable. The air conditioning was good. I sat. I relaxed. Nobody bothered me. I sipped my water.

Rowan had mentioned a bookstore and a cafe. I could hang out there; I didn't need to stand in the street.

 


 

In spite of recent noise about "gentrification" and "up and coming neighborhoods," Lavenrick hasn't changed for decades. The buildings, the sidewalks, the streets, and even the traffic signals and street lights look badly in need of a cleaning. Under the grime there are some architecturally interesting constructions, but inside, what kind of shape were they in? It was hard to imagine you'd find much that was promising when every block featured at least one building with its windows boarded up and its doors secured by thick, heavy chains held by massive padlocks.

The bus dropped me in front of Rowan's apartment. As I stepped off, the driver cautioned me in a low voice, "Be careful out there, lady, be careful."

His well-meant but unnecessary warning sent a chill through me. I looked around, up and down the street, and found literally nothing to be afraid of. As far as I could see, the only other person on the sidewalk was a short, stout woman in a beach chair, doing a crossword with an enormous pencil. She was on the far side of the street, several buildings down. I doubt I could throw a baseball that distance. A transistor radio (the first I'd seen in... what? forty years?) hung from the arm of the chair in a crocheted bag. I couldn't hear it well. Even the sound came from far off: a tinny gospel rendition: When The Roll Is Called Up Yonder.

I had two hours to kill. I tried the bookstore first. It was run by a man in his fifties who incongruously resembled Robert Vaughn, the actor who played Napoleon Solo in The Man From U.N.C.L.E. I think he was also in The Magnificient Seven — or was it The Magnificient Eleven? I couldn't quite remember, and almost asked the man, although he was probably too young to remember.

The building itself was three stories tall and extremely narrow. Inside it wasn't exactly dark, but the lighting had a effect of dimming rather than illuminating. In spite of the full, brilliant daylight outside, all the light inside came from the yellow glow from bare incandescent bulbs dangling at the ends of long, thick cords suspended from the ceiling. The place was crammed with bookshelves separated by narrow aisles. Definitely not up to the fire code. The store was surprisingly deep: from the front door I had an unobstructed view down the central aisle all the way to the building's back door. I could tell it was the back door because the upper half was a pane of white frosted glass, glowing with sunlight.

The owner followed my gaze. He smiled and said, "It's 300 feet, end to end. It's the entire length of the block on that side. I'd like to say that it's the length of a football field, but it's not." He shrugged. "Sometimes I *do* say it anyway, though." He chuckled at his own joke.

I hadn't spoken yet. I found myself taking deep breaths through my nose, sniffing. How long had it been since I'd set foot in a bookshop? As Anson... I couldn't even remember. As Merope... who knows? But the smell, that characteristic odor... there was nothing like it.

Seeing me with my head tilted back, the owner smiled and spoke again. "Nothing like the smell of old books, is there? Unfortunately for me, I can't smell it any more. Every so often it comes upon me, but as a rule... nothing. Tell me, what does it smell like to you?"

"Ah...," I breathed deep and slow, trying to take apart the scents in the air. "I never tried to analyze it before. I just took it as one thing: the fragrance of an old bookstore. Well... something like... chocolate? coffee? vanilla?"

"Those are the usual guesses," he conceded.

"What is it?" I asked. "I mean, what gives old books that smell?"

"I believe it's two things," he said. "The first is that, even after all these years, the paper in the books is drying. The evaporation process releases some aromatic chemicals into the air. Then, too, the books themselves are decomposing. Very, very slowly, but it's definitely happening. That's another component that your nose detects."

"Interesting," I replied.

"Let me know if I can help you find anything, or whether you're looking for any particular books. Otherwise, have fun browsing. My name is Gary."

He looked at me expectantly. I couldn't help it. I had to reply, "I'm Merope."

His eyebrows went up. "You pronounce it merrope, to rhyme with rope?"

"Uh... well, how do *you* pronounce it?" I asked. Honestly, I'd never seen or heard the name before today, and had no idea how anyone said it.

"Well, I'd say merra-pee, to rhyme with therapy, but what do I know? You're the first Merope to ever set foot in my shop; the first Merope I've ever met! I hope you don't mind my saying, but it's such an interesting name! Merope: the faintest of all the stars."

"Excuse me? Faintest? What do you mean by that?" Was he calling me stupid?

"Oh! I'm sorry! I don't mean anything bad by that! Not at all! My mind is like—" He gestured with his fingers, as if he meant to pluck an explanation from the air. "Let me put it this way: I sit in here all day long, thinking of this and thinking of that, with all these books around me. I can't help but follow every chance phrase and wild association my mind comes up with."

"And?"

"And? Oh! Yes! So... Merope is an unusual name, as I said. Putting on my amateur astronomer's hat, I can tell you that Merope is one of the stars in the Pleiades. I'm sure it's not the faintest star in our sky, but it's the faintest in that star cluster. That's all I meant."

I gave a murmured, "Okay, then." He added, "My mind is like... uh, if you say po-tay-toh, I can't help but think pah-tah-toh."

"Let's call the whole thing off," I quipped, half-singing. His face brightened.

"Well, done!" he exclaimed.

I regretted it immediately. I shouldn't have encouraged him. He took half a step closer to me.

"Okay," I said. "I'll guess I'll have a look around."

"Looking for anything in particular?"

"No, just browsing."

"Browse away," he replied with a grand sweep of his hand.

As I moved past his desk, past the spiral stair to the second floor, he scratched his head and gestured toward me with his index finger.

"Merope," he repeated. "Merope was also the mother of he-who-cannot-be-named." He followed that with a significant look.

"I'm sorry, but I don't know what you're talking about," I told him, and took another step further into the shop, away from him.

He frowned. "You're not a Harry Potter fan, then?"

"Nope!"

"None of the books, none of the films?"

I shook my head in the negative.

"Ah. Pity." Undeterred, he dug into his memory once again. "Merope Riddle!"

"Um, no," I replied. Not my-- not Merope's last name, but I wasn't about to tell him what it was.

"No, no — Not you! Merope Riddle was Voldemort's mother!"

"Sorry, I'm not following. Is this still a Harry Potter thing?"

"Yes, yes, I apologize. Merope... Merope Riddle... Voldemort... Harry Potter... I hear a word... an idea... a name and i'm off to the races, pulling out every stray word association. As in this case, to the name Merope."

In spite of wanting to end the conversation, I found myself admitting, "I'm surprised the name means anything to you. Me, myself, I'd never heard the name before."

He frowned, trying to puzzle it out, then asked, "Before what?"

Damn it. Oh, well, out with it. I confessed, "I'm a victim of the Switcher."

"Ohhhh! I see! A very recent victim?"

"Yes, it happened just a couple of hours ago."

He nodded, looking me up and down — an open appraisal, as though my admission gave him license for indiscretion. "I must say," he said, "I can't imagine that you were better off before the switch."

I didn't know how to respond to that... that line. All I could do was clear my throat and repeat that I was going to browse the bookshelves.

He let me walk away at that point, and I did have a good time scanning the shelves, pulling down a book here and there, blowing the dust off some long-untouched tomes...

Every so often he'd pop up. He seemed to have an instinct for when I was bending down to check the lower shelves.

"You were a man before, weren't you," he stated.

"Yeah," I responded curtly.

"I can tell because you're a little stiff, you know? Like you're not quite used to your new... uh... anatomy." He gestured with both hands in front of his chest followed by a second gesture, signifying my hips.

I nodded, not smiling. He seemed to take the hint, and retreated to his desk, up front.

Later, he came back again, this time with the observation/question, "Before the switch, you were an older man, weren't you. And I'm guessing you weighed a fair amount... that you were overweight." He moved his hands as if trying to feel a invisible belly in the air before him. "I'm putting this together from the way you move."

"I see," I replied. I felt that my responses were pretty arid, devoid of any encouragement. Again, he seemed to take the hint, and returned to his desk, but again, it was only a brief respite.

"You said you were switched just a few hours ago."

"Yes."

"That's, uh, not a very long time. Am I right in deducing that you haven't called the Processing Center?"

I didn't answer. I simply stared at him, looking him in the eye. I was getting fed up.

"Can I ask why you didn't call them?" he persisted. "I mean, I guess I understand: what's the point, anyway?"

In spite of myself, I asked, "How do you mean?"

"Well — it's not as though they can *fix* you, right? Not that you need fixing! I mean, this morning you were an old fat guy, right? and now you're a babe. They couldn't switch you back, even if — for some crazy reason — you *wanted* to. It's the Humpty Dumpty principle, right? All the king's horses and all the king's men?"

He chuckled to himself. "Besides, what can they do to you if you don't call? How would they even know?"

I had to confess, he'd raised an interesting question. But now that he asked, now that I thought on it — I'm a computer programmer, and the logic of it was immediately apparent to me. It was a simple linked list. I mused aloud, "I guess there's a chain of switches, you know? Person A swaps with person B, then C, and D, and so on. If A, B, and D call the Processing Center, it won't take long to figure out that C is missing, and who they are, inside and out."

"You've got a point there," he admitted, turning it over in his mind.

"As far as what they can do to help, they can sort out my identity, explain to my family..."

"Hold on, now." He put up his hand to stop me. "You said my family." He shook his head. "You saw the Switcher run off with your body. How long do you think he's going to be happy being you? This guy can be whoever he wants to be — whoever he happens to bump into. Believe me, if you were an old duffer like you say, he's going to swap you out for first younger model he meets. Whoever ends up playing you, THEY will get to meet your family and figure it out. You don't have to worry about it."

"I *do* worry about it, though. I can help but worry about it. It's my family. They'll wonder what happened to me, and I need a chance to at least say goodbye, if not make contact for the future. I didn't suddenly quit caring about them when the Switcher hit me."

He shrugged dismissively. "I'm pretty sure that you're going to have a lot more fun exploring your future than worrying about your past. I mean, look at this—" he took my my left hand and rubbed my ring finger with his thumb. "Not married. There's no sign you ever wore a ring on that finger. I'll bet you never had kids, either. From the look of those clothes, you work in an office somewhere. A nice office. And I'd bet cash money that there's a guy in that office, probably a good looking guy, with a nice sized wallet, and he's dreaming about boning you. Night and day."

I pulled my hand out of his grasp.

"What a lovely picture," I commented, in a voice dripping with sarcasm and disdain.

"Hey, don't knock it. Looking the way you do, you could probably get married in no time. And once you do, you can just sit back and say, Honey, why don't you rub my feet for me? or Baby, will you suck on my toes while I watch TV?" Not seeing the reaction he hoped for, he concluded with a shrug, "Worse things could happen."

"I guess," I acknowledged, not really meaning it.

"Look, I actually know two people who went through those processing centers. The people in those centers — all they want to do is fill out some paperwork and kick you the hell out."

"Don't they do have to do some job placement, and give out new identities?"

"Maybe they used to, but all they do now is give you a thousand bucks, a listing for a shitty job out in West Nowhere, North Dakota, and a bus ticket that'll take you halfway there. You know how people say Don't let the door hit your ass on the way out?"

"Yeah, I guess."

"At the processing centers, they don't even bother to say it."

He went on to recount the experiences of his supposed friends in the processing center. The more he talked, the less I believed. His stories had the smell of urban legend — the sort of thing that happens to "a friend of a friend." Someone you don't know. Someone who has no name. In reality, of course, there is no friend. It's all made up and attributed to an imaginary person.

In spite of my disbelief, I listened. Mainly because I still had time to kill, and he was halfway entertaining, as long as he wasn't hitting on me.

After he ran out of tall tales, he offered me a cup of tea, which put me in mind of the coffeeshop next door. "I own this whole building," he boasted, waving his hand as if to take in his whole domain. "I live on the third floor. I could fix you a nice cup of tea. I've even got those digestive biscuits that the Brits love." Then, struggling to keep his facial expression neutral, he offered, "I've also got a bed up there, if you, ah, need to lie down after your ordeal."

I declined, politely if somewhat icily, and left.

 


 

The atmosphere in the cafe was much easier. The couple who ran the place were friendly, but not chatty. I tried to dawdle and make my muffin and cup of coffee last as long as possible, but after thirty minutes I was ready to leave. It was a nice place, but it wasn't a very large one, and I felt like a dog in a manger after my coffee was gone. Oddly, after the coffee, I felt a hankering for a cigarette. Funny, because I didn't notice either cigarettes or a lighter in the bag. It wasn't a very strong desire, but...

I asked at the counter, "Do you sell loose cigarettes?"

She gave me a strange look. "That's illegal, don't you know?"

"I didn't know," I told her. "But it would pass the time, and I don't want a full pack."

So... no cigarettes. After a few minutes the desire was gone.

At a loss for anything better to do, I walked two blocks North, then came back again. I looked at the time. Still early. I walked two blocks South, then back again. One block East, then back again, and at that point Rowan arrived. Grinning like a possum eating sweet potato, he asked, "Mr C?"

Rowan — if I had to describe him in a word — looks like a cop. He's six feet tall, long, strong upper body, strong arms and legs. Lean, without a scrap of body fat on him. His shoulders and hips are narrow, like his head, giving him an almost feral look. Not like a wolf, though: if Rowan were an animal, he'd be a wild dog, or a dingo, or a coyote. As far as looks... he was the kind of man that women call "not bad looking."

"Unfortunately yes, it's me," I assured him. "Can we get off the streets?"

Walking in this part of town — as opposed to walking downtown or along the river — was rather hot work. There were no trees or grass. The streets, the sidewalks, and the buildings radiated all the heat they accumulate during the day, and there wasn't a breath of wind. Consequently, I was drenched with perspiration, even the palms and backs of my hands.

"I wouldn't say unfortunately," he shot back with a big grin. Rowan give me a thorough visual assessment, nodding as his eyes traveled from my feet to my head, then back down again. "You've done pretty well for yourself, Mr C. Definitely an improvement! Not that there was anything wrong with the old you! But the new you... You're something else."

"Stop it, please," I muttered, shaking my head.

"Come on, Mr C! I'm just teasing! Trying to lighten the mood. Even so, everything I said is 100% true." He opened the building's front door and we stepped into the entryway. "Just gotta get my mail," he narrated, as he unlocked the the small, narrow, incredibly squeaky door and fished out some bills and advertisements. Finally, he unlocked the inner door and we passed through into a long hallway. The air was cool, but seemed old somehow.

"No elevator," he explained in an apologetic tone, and he pushed open the door to the stairwell. "Luckily, it's only one flight." He gestured with his hand, saying, "Ladies first," as if it was a capital joke.

Earlier, in the bookstore — and against my better judgment — I had climbed a spiral staircase (much to the interest of the owner, Gary). This stair was less awkwardly constructed than the tight, rickety spiral, but once again I felt the constraint of my tight skirt around my thighs. And, as Gary had so ungraciously pointed out, I wasn't quite used to my new anatomy.

With a sigh, I explained to Rowan, "This skirt doesn't seem tight until I have to actually move my legs — and the damn thing makes me walk funny!"

"Oh, do you think so?" Rowan asked.

"Well, yes!" I exclaimed. "It's as though my thighs were bound together. I can't lift my foot to the next step without practically pressing my knees together and swinging my hip to the side!"

"Is it like [he cleared his throat] is it like when you're driving, and you have to take your turns wide?"

"Well, it's something like—" I began, but stopped when Rowan had a fit of coughing. Concerned, I turned back to look at him, and realized that he was laughing, not coughing. "Oh, it's SO funny, isn't it!" I exclaimed, red-faced with indignation and embarrassment.

"No, no!" he protested. "Look: I'll admit you're a little awkward. But you're definitely not funny," and he let out a few coughing laughs.

"If it's not funny, why are you laughing?"

"It's the things you say!" he cried. "Believe me, if you weren't describing it, any man alive would be silent, fascinated by your bee-hind as you climb the stairs."

"Hmmph!"

"That's a good thing, believe me."

I huffed, trying to move a little faster.

"Mr C, you should be pleased to know: I'm giving your caboose a very high rating on the Rowan scale."

"Rowan, these comments of yours are more than a little rude, and not very sensitive. This Switcher episode has put me very much out of sorts. Finding myself in a woman's body is confusing and disconcerting!" After a pause, I added in a quieter voice, "And often humiliating."

"I'm sorry," he apologized. "I wasn't trying to hit on you or even tease you. Honestly, I thought I was doing you a favor."

"Doing me a favor? What on earth are you talking about? How could speaking to me that way possibly be doing me a favor?"

"Okay, look: I tried to put myself in your position — seriously! And I figured, one, that you used to be a guy... so you wouldn't get all worked up and offended the way a woman... might. And, two, I figured that... now that you're a woman, you'd find it reassuring."

"Reassuring? Rowan, those are not the—"

He interrupted, speaking with a lot of emphasis: "Reassured about how you look," he said. "A lot of women are insecure. They don't know how they look to men, and I figured you'd want to know how attractive you are. You have killer legs, for instance."

"Well, uh, then, uh, thanks — I guess."

"And don't worry: I'm not hitting on you. I'm not going to hit on you. I have a girlfriend. A serious girlfriend." We'd reached the top of the stair. He reached past me to open the door to the upstairs hallway. "Incidentally," he added in a quieter tone, "my girlfriend can be quite jealous."

I paused in the doorway. "Okay, noted. Does she live with you?"

"No... not yet, anyway. But if she calls, don't talk or make noise, alright? And if she comes over, just... act normally."

"That's what I usually do," I assured him.

Like all the other apartment doors in this building, Rowan's door was a thick, heavy, six-panel knotty pine affair, with three locks. His apartment surprised me. I expected an environment that reflected the outside: I expected empty beer bottles, old hamburger wrappers and pizza boxes, but there was none of that. The place was spotless and in good order. The walls were painted a creamy beige. Everything was wood and earth tones. The furniture was sparse: a love seat, an armchair, a coffee table, a small sideboard — all of it tasteful, harmonious. It wasn't luxurious, mind you: most of the pieces were clearly second- or third-hand, but carefully chosen. The only thing on the walls was a framed poster of a vintage advertisement, probably from the 1920s. It showed a woman lounging on a couch, wearing headphones. I don't recall the brand.

"Wow, Rowan! I didn't expect this!"

Rowan disappeared into his kitchen. I heard the refrigerator door open, followed by the hiss of a beer bottle opening, and the clatter of its cap on the kitchen counter.

"You expected some kind of pigsty, didn't you?" he countered. Sticking his head out from the kitchen doorway he asked, "Beer? Water? Something else?"

"A beer, if it's cold," I answered.

He popped another open for himself, and walked over to hand one to me. It was so cold there were thin bits of ice sliding down the outside of the bottle. I tipped the bottle to my lips and gratefully took a healthy mouthful.

"Hmmph," he observed, with a grin, "You're still enough of a guy that you don't need a glass. I bet you're going to let a rock-shattering burp rip in a minute."

"I would never—" I began, thinking that I didn't "let rip" burps as Anson, but as I spoke, a bolt of gas slipped out, under my radar. It erupted into a sharp, frog-like belch. Rowan laughed, snorting, "You almost reached the Richter scale with that one."

"Sorry, I—"

He waved my apology off. "Anyway, you didn't answer my question, Mr C: you thought I lived in a pigsty, didn't you?"

"Well, not as bad as that...," I hedged. "I expected... well... empty bottles, pizza boxes... I mean, I didn't expect furniture this nice... everything tasteful and coordinated... and all so clean. I'm sorry, I underestimated you." I stopped, catching a scent in the air— "It even smells clean! Is that an herbal scent? It's almost faint, but definitely there."

"Yep. Scented candle from yesterday, or the day before." He took a swig from his beer. "Anyway, though, I'll admit — if you visited here maybe a year ago, it would have been like you said. Not a pigsty per se, but... you had the details right. All this... cleanliness and harmony and nice smell... this is all due to Femke, my girlfriend."

"Femke? Is she Dutch?"

"Yep. She's great. She could probably give you some pointers about being female, if you're open to it."

"Sounds like a great idea."

Rowan took a step back, away from me, and made some strange facial contortions. "Um, speaking of scents," he said, bringing the back of his hand near his nose, "You've been sweating pretty hard, haven't you."

"Oh, sorry, do I smell bad?"

"Big time. Listen, I want to hear the story of your encounter with the Switcher, but first you need a shower. I'll give you a towel. Use the girly looking shampoo and body wash and such in the shower. I'll lay out some of Femke's clothes on the bed that you can wear." He glanced at his watch. "When you go into the bathroom, hand me out your clothes and I'll run them down to the dry cleaner around the corner. They have a rush service; they'll have them ready by morning."

"Okay," I agreed. "Just one thing, though: while I'm in there, can you go through this woman's bag? See if you can figure out what... uh... well, whatever you can out about her. Okay?"

"Sounds intriguing," he agreed. "Oh, and if you're hungry, I can order some Chinese. There's a great place a few blocks from here."

 


 

Showering was quite an interesting experience, though I didn't have time to dwell on my anatomical changes. Rowan cautioned me that the hot water tends to run out quickly. "So do your hair and your face, first and fast. Just remember that a cold blast is coming." And so it did! I managed to clean my head and upper body with hot water, but ended by dancing in an icy spray as I rinsed the soap off my legs and feet.

Honestly, though, as different as it felt to have a full pair of breasts as well as a completely reformatted pelvis, the most interesting part of the shower was washing my hair! Anson's hair was sparse and thin. It was decades since I enjoyed the sensation of running my fingers through my hair, and Merope had plenty of hair.

As I dried myself, I examined my new face in the mirror. I liked it. It wasn't show-stoppingly beautiful, but it was nice enough. Merope looked like a good person, even if her purse might say otherwise.

But then, a question came. I opened the door a crack and yelled, "Rowan? Are you here?"

"Yes, I'm here. What do you need?"

I shouted, "What does Femke do with her hair after a shower?"

"In the middle drawer of the vanity there's a big comb, with big teeth. She combs her hair with it, like a thousand times."

I fetched the comb and washed it with hand soap. I ran it through my hair and immediately hit a snag. "Patience," I counseled myself. Better get dressed first, I realized.

Rowan had laid out a light yellow sports bra, a pair of white panties, soft blue shorts, and a small, tie-dyed blue t-shirt that read, I'M NOT ANGRY, I'M JUST SMILING IN DUTCH.

The shorts were a little snug, but aside from that, the clothes fit me pretty well. They were far more comfortable than the business clothes Merope wore.

When I emerged from the bedroom, Rowan glanced at me and asked, "Clothes okay?"

"They're fine. They're great. Thanks."

"You can thank Femke, when you meet her," he replied with a little grin.

"Is she coming tonight?"

"No, but you'll meet her eventually, I'm sure. Um, look over there—" he pointed to a small drying rack. "Your intimates. I handwashed them in Woolite and hung them to dry."

"Dry cleaner? Woolite?" I asked. "Rowan, you're really been domesticated, haven't you?"

"I've learned a few things," he replied, still smiling, not rising to the bait, though I sensed I might be touching a nerve. "I'm not a complete savage."

"Yes, I can see that." I had to be careful, to not tease him too much. I needed his help now, and would probably need him in future, so there was no point in aggravating him.

Rowan was sitting at his small dining table with the contents of Merope's purse spread across it, along with his laptop.

"Revenons à nos moutons," Rowan announced grandly, "Let's get back to the matter at hand!" He opened his hands, palms up, as if he were displaying all of Merope's possessions. "This is a very interesting woman," he said. "Our Miss Merope is a quite the woman of mystery."

"Mystery!" I repeated, "Is she a good mystery, or a bad mystery?"

"Is there a difference?" he replied.

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Comments

“ just... behave normally”

Emma Anne Tate's picture

He says, to a young(ish) woman who used to be and old(ish) guy.

What could possibly go wrong? Giggle!

Nice job reeling us in, Iolanthe!

Emma

And…?

This is becoming quite the interesting tale. Can’t wait to see what happens next.

Rowan is unexpected

Really thought he was going to hit on our girl, but maybe it's still early; after all he got Femke's clothes correct. Good story.

>>> Kay

Your brillent

Sunflowerchan's picture

Your brillent descriptive prose lured me into this story with the first chapter. And your masteful employment of character development kept me waiting for the next chapter. I'm sorry it's taken me so long to get back to this wonderful piece of fiction. The heat down here in the Southner United States has really been taxing on me. Also! I have should have known I've heard this name before Merope, Merope Riddles! Mother to the now famous Dark Lord who reduced the British Wizarding population by almost half. And as the bookseller pointed out a very rare name indeed. I can't help but wonder what the future has in store for Mr. C now Ms. R and what zanny misadventures the pair will get up too as they try to put a true face to the mystries Merope who the switcher switched with before getting switched with!