Merope, Maybe : 4 / 19

 

Merope, Maybe : 4 / 19

[ Melanie Brown’s Switcher Universe ]
by Iolanthe Portmanteaux

 


"To most of us it seems a terrible thing for a person not to know who he really is."
— Milton Rokeach, The Three Christs of Ypsilanti


 

After I'd cried myself to the point of exhaustion, I became aware of a soft, gentle sound... like a cooing. Was it pigeons? Raising my head, I focused all my attention on the sound. It wasn't constant; it came and went, like faint waves, hissing quietly on a distant beach. I tried to still my breathing, taking soft, shallow breaths. I sat motionless, my ears seeking out the source, until a low tone came in and made everything clear: It was Rowan, talking, having a hushful phone conversation. He was trying to not wake me. The other voice was too small and too far off for me to hear. I only got Rowan's half of the conversation, but of that, none of the words; only the murmur of his affectionate, sensual tone.

He must be talking with Femke, I told myself.

The sound was strangely soothing, like an emotional anchor for my shipwrecked soul. Listening to Rowan's kind yearning made it easier for me to think about Cleo. I didn't feel the pressure to parse out how much guilt I had to bear for what had happened to me. My breath quiet, almost imperceptible, I drank in the affirmations of his love for Femke. The muffled words pushed away my anxious need to blame myself or to search for some kind of pardon.

Sitting very still, holding my knees, tilting my head back to hear better... Rowan's voice was enough. It fed my soul.

I felt absolutely sure I wouldn't sleep a wink, sitting as I was on the hard, bare floor, wedged in between the bureau and the wall. The beer must have made me sleepy and susceptible, and the emotions of the day clearly wore me out — far more than I realized... I closed my eyes one moment, and the next moment, when I opened them, the pale light of morning was touching my window and filling the room.

Stiffly I got to my feet and looked down at my body: my new breasts, my smooth young legs. It wasn't a dream. I'd been switched. It really happened. The Switcher was no urban legend. I'd met him, and my life would never be the same.

Blinking, I examined the unfamiliar face in the mirror. How long until I'd be used to seeing the new me? How long before I'd expect to see that face, and feel that it was mine, and not some strange mistake or elaborate prank?

I had nice skin, though: soft, no zits, no obvious blemishes...

There came a soft tapping at the door, and Rowan gently called, "Mr C? Are you awake? It's six-thirty."

I opened the door. Rowan stood awkwardly at the very threshold, as if he'd pressed himself up against the door. His face was only inches away from mine. We both took an abrupt step back. At that point, I noticed he was fully dressed and ready to go.

"Thanks," I said. "I just woke up."

Looking over my shoulder in surprise, he thanked me for making the bed. "It's so perfect, it almost looks like you haven't slept in it," he commented.

"I don't think I got much sleep last night," I told him. "I'm not sure how much I slept and how much I just blanked out."

"Okay," he said. "I'm done in the bathroom. It's all yours." Blushing slightly, he pushed some balled-up cloth into my hands. "These are yours, too — it's your... intimates. Could you, um, put 'em in, um—" he gestured with his chin toward the bed. "Femke is here."

I glanced around the empty room behind him, puzzled. "Where is she? In the bathroom?"

"No, no — she's down in the street — across the street, getting breakfast."

"She's a seriously early bird, isn't she," I observed.

"You don't know the half of it," he replied. "She stopped at an all-night pharmacy and got you a few things." He handed me a plastic shopping bag. Inside was a toothbrush and toothpaste, a deodorant stick, a hairbrush, a box of tampons and one of pads.

"That's nice of her," I said.

"She said there are other things you need, but she wouldn't know which kinds until she met you."

"Huh," was all I could manage to say. I wondered in a vague way about Femke's motive for helping me, but before I could formulate my uncertainty into a question, Rowan gently pushed me toward the bathroom.

When I emerged ten minutes later, the table was spread with breakfast items.

"Hallo, Merope," Femke called. "Help yourself to breakfast here. Coffee?"

"Hi, Femke. Nice to meet you. Yes, coffee, please." She poured me a cup. I took an experimental sip of it: black, unsweetened.

"Wow!" I exclaimed. "That might be the best coffee I've ever tasted!"

"You Americans are so enthusiastic," Femke observed. "It makes me doubt your sincerity."

I was a little taken aback by her abrupt comment. Rowan, seeing my reaction, explained, "Dutch people are very... forthright."

"Forthright?" Femke repeated. "We would say frank."

"Anyway—" I broke in, "the coffee is good."

"Good, I'm glad," Femke acknowledged with a nod. She looked me up and down, and said, "I see we're about the same size. I'm sure I have something you can wear to this center of yours."

"Oh, no," Rowan said. "She needs to go in the clothes she wore when she was switched."

"Why?"

Rowan made a vague, helpless gesture. "I don't know why. They take the clothes you were wearing and analyze them."

"Analyze how?" Femke scoffed, smiling. "Do they think these clothes are soaked in moonbeams and sprinkled with fairy dust?"

I laughed. "She's right. What on earth could they possibly find?"

Rowan spread his arms, palms up, in surrender. "Why are you asking me? I haven't the slightest idea."

"Well, then, we'll have to bring something decent for her to wear when she leaves," Femke declared.

"We?" Rowan echoed. "Are you coming?"

"Yes," Femke replied, decisively. "*I* am going... but you are not. You have to work."

"I... don't... know...," Rowan said, drawing the words out.

"I do," Femke replied.

"How will you... get... there?" Rowan asked her, again drawing his words out slowly. "Will... you... take... the... ah—" As each word emerged from his mouth, Femke's eyebrows incrementally rose. I had no idea what he was getting at.

"I'll take *your* car," she declared. "The blue Golf." She shook her head. "Such a funny name for a car."

"And what will I do?" he demanded.

"Come on, Mr Big-City Detective," she quipped. "It's not such a great mystery. You know what you'll do."

He sat glumly for a few moments, then shrugged and said, "Okay."

I shook my head. "Should I ask?" I ventured. "I have no idea what you two are talking about."

In one voice, they replied, "No."

Femke glanced at the clock. She asked Rowan for the ticket from the dry cleaners, and left to pick up my clothes.

Rowan and I sat in silence. He cocked his head to listen to the apartment door slam, then the door at the top of the stairs, then the door at the bottom of the stairs, and finally the twin booms of the doors at the building's entrance.

"She's um, she's very nice," I said. "I like her."

Rowan laughed. "She's great. She does take some getting used to. But try to not take anything she says personally. It's cultural."

"What do you mean?"

"Dutch people shoot from the hip," he explained. "Forthright is the perfect word: it means direct, outspoken."

"And she's the one taking me to the center. Not you."

"She insisted on it. She's very curious about the whole Switcher phenomenon. She can't wait to talk to you about it. And... this... gender swap makes her curious as hell. Get ready for a thousand probing questions."

"Okay," I said.

"Another thing — she *really* wants to help you adapt to being female. In part it's because she's generous and helpful. It's also because she wants to observe the process."

"Well... honestly, I wouldn't mind the help... I think I can put up with the scrutiny." I shrugged and concluded, "I guess it's a fair trade off."

Rowan seemed relieved. "I'm glad to hear you say that," he said. Then, after a quick glance at the door, he leaned forward and sotto voce told me, "She doesn't know about the fake IDs or the money, and I don't think it's a good idea to mention any of that to her. At least not until you come back from the center."

He leaned back and took a sip of coffee. "It's probably fine to tell her about the cylinders, though. She might have an idea what they are. Who knows?"

Minutes later Femke arrived with my freshly cleaned clothes. She stripped off the plastic and handed them to me. "Get you going," she said. "If you need help knowing which end is up, call me."

When I emerged, dressed in what I thought of as my "Merope outfit," Femke nodded in approval.

"A very professional look," she commented. "You look like a bank worker."

"Actually, my son—" I began.

"At the center, they will think you're in charge," she joked. "You should try giving them some commands, to see whether they obey." She turned to Rowan. "What agency could she come from?"

"Homeland Security," he replied. "But not really — If she says it, they'd want to see her ID."

"Hmm, ja," Femke acknowledged. Then she looked up and clapped her hands once. "Wheels up!" she exclaimed. After giving Rowan a poke in the chest, she asked, "Is the car all gassed up?"

"Uh... I don't know," he responded slowly.

"I only heard the last word," she told him. "You answered no." She drew it out, the way he had. He handed her a set of keys. She set her own keys on the kitchen counter. They kissed.

Femke looked at me. "We are now boarding first-class passengers," she declared. "Do you have all your carry-on items?"

"Oh, the bag!" I exclaimed, picking up Merope's purse and looking inside. "I almost forgot!"

Femke said something that sounded like "skeet op!" and was out the door. I ran after her.

We exited through a back door to a parking lot behind the building, where Rowan's blue VW Golf was parked.

Femke gave a tsk and a sigh. "So dirty!" she exclaimed. "Does he never clean this car?"

We climbed in, and Femke took off with a roar.

 


 

Neither of us spoke until Femke threaded our way onto I-60.

"It's tricky getting on the highway from this part of town," I observed.

Femke grunted in assent. Then, after a quick glance at me, she said, "You know, I'm very excited to meet you. I've never known anyone who was switched before. Did you?"

"No, I never. In fact, I was beginning to believe the whole thing was just made up. An urban legend or conspiracy theory. If it wasn't for the PSAs—"

Femke interrupted with a growl. "When I was at university," she said, "One of the teachers put together a seminar. She called it The Psychology of the Switched. I found the title quite evocative, so I was the first to sign up."

"Was it interesting?" I queried.

"I never had a chance to find out!" she exclaimed. "There were two knuckleheads who didn't even sign up. They simply arrived. They turned the first session into an argument about whether the Switcher was real, or only an urban legend." She shook her head. "No one wanted to talk about *that*, but these two had a very provoking manner. They dominated the discussion, talking over people, interrupting..." Femke pulled into the left lane and passed a slow-moving panel truck.

"The second day, the teacher tried to get ahead of the troublemakers, but they changed tactics and this time they argued that the Switcher's victims weren't victims at all. They were mentally ill, or malingering."

"Oh!" I exclaimed. I felt my spirit deflate.

"I grew so angry that I left. The teacher was upset about her own inability to control the class, and she canceled the remainder of the seminar."

"That's too bad!" I agreed. "I hate that dog-in-the-manger attitude."

She turned and stared at me. At first I wondered whether she understood what I meant by a "dog in the manger." Then I worried that she'd taken her eyes off the road for so long! I was about to cry out, when she turned her gaze forward, focused on the road ahead.

"In any case," Femke continued, "Here we are! In a perfect position to give those two imbeciles a hard knock on the head. We're far past urban myths, conspiracy theories, and mental illness. You are the real item! Rowan recognizes the old Anson Charpont in you. I'm sure we'll find a new Anson Charpont at the processing center."

The idea of seeing someone else lumbering around in my body struck me forcibly. "I hadn't thought about that," I muttered weakly. "I mean, I saw the Switcher walk off in my body, but to see some poor stranger stuck in there..." I shook my head.

"You're not experiencing nostalgia for your old body, then?" Femke asked with an ironic smile.

"No," I said. "I don't miss being old. I don't miss feeling old. I don't miss being overweight. I feel... apologetic to whoever got stuck being me, but I wouldn't go back if I could." After a pause I added, "And I don't miss..." I sighed. "Well, let's just say that my old life was getting very... cluttered with emotional complications."

"Now you feel you're given a clean slate," Femke suggested.

"Yes, I do feel that," I agreed.

"Enjoy it while you can," Femke advised.

Femke fell silent as we approached the complicated intersection where I-60 meets both Route 47 and the Pelham Crossway. Drivers who didn't play close attention would end up going miles in the wrong direction before they'd be able to turn around and try again. At worst, you could circle through every loop in the overlaid cloverleafs several times until you found your one way out. I'm speaking from personal experience. The first argument Cleo and I ever had was fought in those cloverleafs. When Cleo realized we were literally driving in circles -- and not only that, but also driving through circles on top of circles, she began shouting at me. I got so flustered that I almost missed our exit. We nearly ended up taking a third trip around when I managed to make an abrupt and dangerous exit."

"What do you mean by that?" Femke asked with a laugh.

"I was so nervous, I cut across two lanes of traffic," I explained. "Two big SUVs narrowly missed hitting us."

Femke shook her head and gave a tsk with her tongue.

I almost began perspiring, picturing the massive black cars bearing down on us. And Cleo... she managed to be both apoplectic and screaming at the same time. The other drivers leaned heavily on the horns and seemed to accelerate toward me! It was not one of my finest moments.

Femke, on the other hand, wisely and cleverly slipped onto a two-lane access road that ran parallel to I-60 and avoided the entire circular confusion.

"If I had known about this shortcut," I told her, half-joking, "My marriage might have fared much better than it did."

"What a strange thing to say," Femke replied. "If your wife left you because the state of the roads, you are well shot of her." She glanced at me. "Did I use that phrase correctly? Do you say well shot of her?"

"Yes," I said. "You said it perfectly."

"When I came here, to this country," she said, "I thought my English was at a very high level. And yet, every day I hear a word or phrase that is entirely new to me."

I gave a soft grunt by way of reply.

Once we were were past the cloverleafs and back on the straightaway, she commented, "I'm surprised that you've taken this drastic change so calmly. Do you know The Three Christs of Ypsilanti?"

"I don't think so. Is it a film?"

"Oh—" she was struck by the question. "I don't know. Maybe. It's a weird little book, in any case. I've never been able to finish it. Anyway, the author has a theory: he says that if you deny someone's identity, they go into a panic state, and if it continues, they can suffer psychological harm. But you—" she said, gesturing with a smile at me, taking her eyes off the road again, "—you seem perfectly calm. Serene, even. I'd think most people would break down and cry. Or fall into a fit of screaming, I don't know."

"What makes you think I'm calm?" I asked her, looking directly into her eyes. Her face registered a small shock. Then she returned her gaze to the road ahead.

"Femke," I told her, after a moment's reflection, "I don't mind your asking me questions. It's helpful, actually. But please don't try to goad me into a breakdown."

"Understood," she replied. "I'm sorry — that wasn't my intention."

"I might appear calm on the outside, but inside, I'm a nervous wreck. I'm scared to death and angry at — everything! — and I have never felt more... helpless." The last word, helpless, nearly choked me on the way out. I looked away from Femke and tried taking slow and even breaths. It seemed to help. Somewhat. The unsettling undercurrent was still there.

"Okay," she said, and reached out to grip my hand in hers. She held it for several moments, before letting go and returning her hand to the steering wheel.

After a mile or so of silence, she said, "Oh, listen, I almost forgot. At the center, try not to mention that Rowan is a policeman, okay?"

"Sure," I agreed. "Why is that?"

Femke laughed. She did a fair imitation of Rowan's voice and manner: "The thing is, if these processing-center people realize I'm a cop, they're going to want my badge number. They're going to want me to *write* a report, and *file* the report, and *send* the report."

"That's a pretty good impression of him," I complimented her.

She continued in his voice and made a facial expression that read long-suffering. "Do you know the one thing cops hate more than anything else?"

I laughed out loud. "I'll go out on a limb and say, writing reports?"

"Bingo!" she exclaimed, and the two of us laughed.

"So, Miss Merope — what kind of work did your Mr Charpont do, before he retired?"

"I, uh, he was a COBOL programmer."

"Cool. Now tell me: what's a cobol? What does a cobol do, when it's at home?"

"COBOL is a programming language," I told her. "It's one of the oldest. It's mainly used in business applications."

"Mmm," she said. "So it's like Python? My younger brother is learning Python."

"Is he now," I commented drily.

"Yep." Femke nodded for emphasis. "Anyway, the point is, if it is so old, do people still need their cobols programmed? Are they still being manufactured? Can you still make a living at it?"

"I should think so. Yes, definitely."

"Then you ought to be all set."

"Mmm. Maybe. I don't know whether employers would recognize my work experience as Anson. I'll ask at the processing center."

 


 

Most of the drive after that was spectacular. I mean, the highway was flanked with hills, and the hills were covered in trees. There were few evergreens; most of the trees were in the midst of explosive color changes. It was incongruous, being surrounded by all that incredible natural beauty while I was all torn up inside. I did my best to not let my inner turmoil ruin the scene around me. I felt my distress, my confusion, my pain. I couldn't make it go away, but at the same time, I couldn't help but drink in the kaleidoscope of autumn changes.

"Incredible, isn't it?" Femke said. "I've seen trees change color, but never on this scale."

"Right," I murmured.

"I hope we can find a gas station before we get to this place," Femke commented, in a bit of a non sequitur. "Rowan never seems to put gas in his car. Instead, he lends it to me."

"Do we have enough to make it there?" I asked.

"We can only hope," she replied. "He also never manages to wash his car, either. Can you understand? All it takes is to drive through a car wash, and this also I have to do for him."

As it turned out, we did have enough gas. The red NEED GAS icon didn't come on until we took the exit for the processing center. We drove about three miles before the GPS told us "You've arrived at your destination."

Femke kept going. "There's a gas station up ahead, and a Dunkin' Donuts. I think it's a good idea to take a break and eat something before we turn you over to the authorities."

"That sounds like a dismal prospect," I commented. "I mean the part about being turned over to the authorities." She shrugged.

Femke was right about the break. It was good to stretch my legs while we filled the tank with gas, and I felt much better about the world and my future prospects after eating a Texas Toast with cheese and bacon, along with a side of hash browns. Even the coffee tasted good.

"Ready now?" Femke asked me, and I nodded.

We drove back down the street to the address Rowan had copied off the government website.

"Where the hell are we?" I asked. "This can't be the right place."

The neighborhood was industrial. There were storage places, ancient factories with faded signs, a car wash that itself needed cleaning, carpet and tile stores, and a huge showroom full of inexpensive, unattractive, cheap-looking furniture. There was a handful of narrow houses in the mix: old, in need of paint, and seemingly uninhabited, with overgrown lawns and twisted, gnarly trees in the yard. One side of the street was bereft of sidewalks; the other side — our side — had sidewalks here and there, where the concrete hadn't broken, sunk into the ground, or been subsumed by moss and grass.

The processing center — if we were to believe that's what it was — looked like nothing more or less than a post office built in the sixties: it had that flat, boxy, angular design. One story, glass front, tan-color brick. There was no signage, and no sign of life inside.

Behind the building we found an empty parking lot, badly in need of repaving. The asphalt was cracked long ago by thick tree roots. Grass and tall, weedy saplings had broken through. Femke parked close behind the building, out of sight from the street.

Alarmed, I told her, "Femke, please don't leave me here! I mean, what if this isn't the place?"

She gave me an odd, almost amused, look. "I'm not going to leave you, zusje." She stepped out of the car, and opened the back door so she could retrieve her backpack. "Come on!" she coaxed. "We didn't come all this way for you to sit in the car!"

I stepped out of the car and walked around the tail to join her. "Wait!" she exclaimed. "Do you have a pen?"

I fished Merope's expensive pen from her bag and handed it to Femke, who bit on the cap and pulled it open. She grabbed my left arm and twisted it. As she wrote on my forearm, she said, "Here is my telephone number, just in case. You won't need it, but... just in case." The weird twisting she did before writing on me was so the number would read rightside-up for me. She closed the pen and dropped it back in my bag.

The two of us headed toward the street and approached the building's front door. Femke leaned on the doorbell. "Did you hear anything?" she asked. I shook my head. She pushed it again, long and hard. Still, no sound from within.

We waited maybe half a minute, then she rang again.

"I don't think this is the right place," I repeated.

"This is the address," she insisted. "Why don't we give them a call?" She held out her hand for my phone and dialed a number she read off the palm of her hand. After a brief conversation, she hung up.

"Someone's coming," she informed me. Then, "Oh, try to memorize my number, in case they have some crazy way of erasing it off you."

Whatever, I told myself.

Less than a minute later, a dude arrived. We saw him appear from somewhere inside the building, a shadow growing as he approached the front door. When we were able to make out his features, we saw his big toothy grin, his mass of towsled, light brown hair. When he opened the door, a strong odor of marijuana emerged, like a cloud that enveloped and followed him. He wore dark sunglasses, orange crocs, khaki pants, and a light blue polo shirt. His general vibe was rumpled. Around his neck hung an identification card on a white lanyard. The card was turned so we could only see the back.

"Can I help you?" he asked, in a tone that made it sound like a joke. His manner was one you'd expect from a California beach bum, though we were a long way from any kind of surf or ocean. This man was a slacker, a dude. He had nothing to prove to anyone. Apparently, his job allowed him to remain stoned all day long.

Femke gestured in my direction. "I've got a Switcher victim for you," she said.

The dude glanced at me, but only for a moment. His gaze returned and fixed on Femke. Slowly, thoughtfully, he raised his hand and shook his index finger at her. Ben je Nederlands? he asked.

She frowned, and almost scoffing, answered, Ja, en jij?

He guffawed loudly. "Naw!" he crowed. "I kicked around a few years in Amsterdam. Did my best to learn the language... a little of the language. I know enough to get around." He chuckled and shuffled his feet, immensely pleased with himself. Then, nodding, spoke to Femke. "I picked up on your accent. Anyways, are you a Switcher victim, too?"

"No," she replied. "I'm just looking out for my friend, here."

He nodded, taking this in. I should point out that the three of us were still standing in the doorway.

"We don't get many walk-ins," he informed us.

"Okay," I said, just to try to insert myself in the conversation, if you could call it that.

As if he had all the time in the world, the man took a deep breath, and gave an appreciative look at the wizened, ugly tree across the street. He raised his eyes to the sky. "Nice day," he said. "Nice day to be outside."

I waited a few moments, while he scanned the sky and the landscape. He took some extravagantly deep breaths as though breathing itself was a new, exciting, and unaccustomed activity. At last I asked him, "Can I go inside?"

He blinked his eyes a few times, nodding, showing the merest trace of a smile. "Of course you can! Your wish is my command." Holding the door open, he pressed himself to the side and let me enter. "Knock yourself out," he said.

When Femke tried to follow, the man held up his hand to stop her. "Whoa, whoa, hold on there! Where do you think you're going?"

"I'm staying with her," Femke told him, while pointing at me.

"No, no, that isn't how it works."

"If that isn't how it works," she replied, "I don't think you can say it's working."

He straightened up and blinked. Femke continued, "I am the closest thing she has to a family right now."

"But you can't—" he protested, albeit weakly.

"Why not? Why not? I have my own food—" she hefted her backpack to illustrate her point. "I can sleep in a chair. I'm not asking you to provide me with anything. Anything at all. I'm going to wait here until you release her."

"That could be days!"

"I'm ready for days!" Again she hefted her backpack. "I have food and drink for days. I have books to occupy my mind."

He spluttered and searched his mind for objections. "I— I— I'm not supposed to let you in," he protested.

"Then I'll sleep in my car," she said, with a shrug. To me, she said, "You know where to find me. I'll be parked out back."

"I can't let you do that!" the man exclaimed.

"You can't stop me from doing that," she informed him.

He scoffed in disbelief. He shook his head. Three times he began to speak, but couldn't get a word out.

At last he said, "Fine. Follow me, the pair of you."

We walked into the center of the building.

"Are we the only ones here?" I asked.

"No," he replied, laconically. He seemed surprised -- or amused? -- by the question. "There's a number of folks here at the moment: a handful are Switcher victims; the rest are staff."

"Is Anson Charpont here? One of the victims?"

He shook his head. He must have missed the second part of my question, because he said, "Name doesn't ring a bell, so I guess he doesn't work here. Maybe he's assigned to another processing center? I wouldn't know. Is he a friend of yours?"

I opened my mouth to correct his misunderstanding, but stopped myself. If my old name wasn't familiar to him, that was all I needed to know.

"I've got a question," Femke said, frowning. "If there are other people here, why don't we hear them?"

"Ah, yeah. There's a good reason for that: most of the building's underground. This used to be a secret government bunker. Bomb shelter. The Cold War, you know?"

"Everyone is downstairs?" Femke asked, confirming.

"Yup!"

"Then why are we standing here?" she demanded.

"Right you are!" he cackled, pointing at her for emphasis. "We can't hang around here all day! Come on, ladies, let's get our switcheroonie checked in." He shuffled around a corner to an elevator, and hit the DOWN button. There was no other button. The door slowly opened, creaking and groaning like an old man. The dude put his hand on the door to keep it from closing, and said after a thoughtful pause, "You know, I think you're the first walk-in ever. It's gotta be some kind of record."

I pushed past him into the elevator. If Femke hadn't spoken up, how long would he have had us stand there?

The elevator didn't have buttons for selecting a floor. It also didn't have an indicator to tell you which floor you were on. There was only a numeric keypad. With great deliberation, the dude punched four numbers, then the hash mark. The pad beeped three times and the door slowly, arthritically, closed.

He looked up as the elevator rattled, shook, and slowly descended. "This old gal might have been state of the art back in the fifties," he observed. "Or was it the sixties? Anyway, it doesn't break down that often, so we should be safe."

The trip lasted forever, it seemed, and once it stopped, it seemed to think for a while before deciding to open the door. Once it did open, I spotted a metal plate attached to the elevator doorframe that read L7.

"Heh," I commented, laughing, pointing — I couldn't resist. Half-singing, I chanted, "Hey! Don't take no chance! Let's not be L-7..."

Breaking out one of his widest grins, the dude replied, "Come and learn to dance!" and the two of us crooned in unison, "Woolly Bully!" He finished the musical phrase by softly saying, "Right." Femke looked at us as if we'd lost our minds.

"You're okay!" he said to me. "You're the absolute first to catch that, Miss Walk-in! Can you believe that? Bonus points if you can name the band."

"Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs," I replied, triumphant. "Who else could it be?"

"Ding ding ding!" he laughed. "We have a winner!"

Our conversation and laughter drew a scowling man from a nearby office. He emerged like a bear from his cave, unhappy at being woken from his long winter slumber. "What the hell's going on out here?" he demanded. He gestured a shaking finger at me and Femke. "Who are these people? There's no one on the schedule."

"I got a Switcher victim here," the man said, gesturing toward me. "Our very first walk-in!"

His scowl deepened. The grumpy man took a few steps toward me. He, like the dude, was also dressed in khaki pants and a polo shirt, but his shirt was canary yellow and freshly pressed. His shoes were slip-on Skechers. He was no slacker. He was more of a bureaucrat. "Walk-in? What do you mean, walk-in?"

"A friend of hers dropped her off. This friend, right here."

"I don't like the sound of that!" he told my escort. To me, he said brusquely, "Get in there," with a jerk of his head, indicated his office.

My new-found friend shrugged apologetically, said, "Good luck, sister. I'll catch up with you later." I glanced back at Femke as I headed for the office. The dude nodded to her and said, "This way."

"Where's she going?" the grumpy man demanded.

"Ladies room," the dude lied.

"After that, she's out of here," the grump commanded, as he turned his back.

"Yes, sir!" the dude replied. To me, he shook his head no, pointed at Femke, then pointed down, and mouthed the words, She's staying here.



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