Merope, Maybe : 6 / 19

 

Merope, Maybe : 6 / 19

[ Melanie Brown’s Switcher Universe ]
by Iolanthe Portmanteaux

 


"If you rely completely on protocol, you can become a robot."
— Margaret Trudeau


 

Matt glanced at his computer screen. He made a face. A prompt, an unfinished entry, reminded him that he'd been sidetracked.

"All right," he said, in a brusque, businesslike tone. "Let's get back to the process. We've gotten out of step here. We're doing things out of order. We need go return to the event. You didn't finish giving me your narration. In fact, you only got as far as the moment *before* the switch, if I remember correctly."

"Um..."

"You described the way your cell phone fell to the ground and bounced into the ivy. I take it the Switcher didn't notice."

"No, she had her back to me at that moment."

"And then what happened? You fell on top of him— or her?"

"No, I didn't fall *on* her. In fact, I never actually touched her at all." I described the way my fingers swept down, oh-so-close to her back, but not making even the slightest contact.

"Did your fingers brush her clothes, then?"

"No, my hand just moved through the air behind her. It was electric, though, full of energy, as if she had an aura."

He leaned forward to ask, "How close were your fingers? To her back? To her clothes?"

We went back and forth for a bit. He made notes both on the computer and on paper. He wanted to pin down, as accurately as he could, in millimeters, exactly how close my fingers were to the Switcher's body. He asked me a half-dozen times, in different ways, to make absolutely sure we hadn't touched. Finally, he asked me to demonstrate the distance by reaching my hand toward his computer. He measured the distance with a tiny ruler.

Then he paused the recording for a moment, and told me in an apologetic tone, "I realize this is tedious. Honestly, I don't know why this is so important, but the powers that be go absolutely nuts over this sort of technical detail, if you can call it that."

The next place where Matt wanted such excruciating detail was in my description of the injuries to Anson's body: he asked three times which ankle was twisted (the right one) and the location and severity of Anson's other injuries. It was odd: while I spoke about the scrapes and bruises, I could almost feel the impacts and abrasions as if they happened all over again. I checked the locations by touching myself lightly in the spots that I'd been hurt as Anson.

Matt laid a piece of paper with the outline of a man's body printed on it, and insets with five views of a man's head (left, right, front, back, top) — a generic body, a generic head — and asked me to draw the scrape I'd seen on Anson's face after the fall. He also had me mark X's on the points of impact I mentioned.

"This will help in the match-up... the verification. You know, the daisy-chain... when Anson comes in."

All that remained after that, was to tell him about the four cylinders. He asked the same questions Rowan had:

"Are you sure they weren't rolls of bills?"

"Did the cylinders have any markings or labels?"

"Did they rattle when he handled them?"

"Are you sure they were metal?"

I gave him the same answers I gave Rowan. Then I asked him a question: "Do you have any idea what those cylinders could be?"

"None whatsoever," he replied. "But we have a special channel for observations like this. What you told me will go up the chain once we've authenticated you."

"Authenticated me?"

"As a Switcher victim. I mean, once Anson or John Doe number one pop up, you should be in the clear, and at that point we'll pass this on. That's the protocol."

When Matt said That's the protocol, it reminded me of something my grandfather told me about his time in the Army: "The most important thing you can learn in the Army is that there's a right way, a wrong way, and the Army way. And you can never get in trouble if you do things the Army way."

"How do you know which way is the Army way?" I asked him.

"It's in the manual," he replied.

As a kid, I wanted a copy of that Army manual. I wanted it badly. I didn't like getting in trouble. Of course, I didn't realize that the Army manual only covered Army life. It didn't cover the vicissitudes of childhood and adolescence, or even civilian adulthood.

Even so, right now I wasn't particularly worried about being "in the clear." Unlike Matt or his awful colleague Paul, I already knew my status. I knew what had happened, whether they believed me or not.

Next, Matt went through the contents of Merope's bag. He put on a pair of nitrile gloves, spread a white cloth over his desk, and set the bag on it. He photographed the bag from five or six angles. Then he took each item out of the bag, one by one, set them on his desk, and handed the bag back to me. He grouped the tissues, lipstick, tampon, and sanitary pad, and photographed them. Then he turned them over and photographed the other side.

He handed me the four items, and cleared his throat nervously before saying, "I guess you'll need to learn about all this stuff. The nurse has a booklet that should help you. Feminine hygiene and such." He blushed, looking down.

"The nurse?"

"Yes, after we're done here, you'll need to get a check-up. A superficial physical exam. It's quick, and it's, uh, non-invasive."

His eyebrows went up when he handled the pen, but he photographed it without comment. The wallet and the wallet's contents came last, and in the end, he gave it all back to me.

When he counted the money, he commented, "Forty-seven dollars. So... the Switcher took those cylinders, but he left this money? That's interesting."

"Yeah, I thought so."

"I guess he's the one person on earth who doesn't need to worry about money. Or food. Or anything, as far as material possessions go."

"Guess not."

He examined Merope's drivers license closely. I worried at first that he was going to tell me that the license was fake, but instead he scratched his forehead, he looked up at me with an almost childlike expression, and said, "I've never seen a Nebraska drivers license before."

"Then this is your lucky day," I quipped. "Now we know they've got them there, too." He didn't laugh. He frowned slightly.

In any case, he put the license back in the wallet, along the forty-seven dollars, and handed it over to me.

"Did you spend any of the money that was in that wallet?" he asked.

I blushed. "Yes, I bought myself lunch at a place on Olduvai Street," I confessed. I told him the name of the restaurant.

"How much was it?"

"It was twelve and something," I said.

"So, um, forty-seven and... you don't have a receipt, do you?"

"No, sorry."

"Let's say lunch was thirteen bucks. That makes an even sixty, right? Do you think you started off with three twenties? Or two twenties and two tens? Sorry, but I have to record the breakdown."

"Two twenties and two tens, yes," I lied, feeling like a craven thief. I was definitely not cut out for a life of crime. My nerves would give me away.

Now that my bag was complete again, I asked, "Do I get to keep all this?"

"Yes," he said. "If you're Merope, it all belongs to you." He began to get up from his chair.

"Great." My heart was pounding, as if I'd somehow managed to slip out of a maximum-security lockup.

Matt clicked on his mouse, and the computer responded with a soft ding! Puzzled at first, he peered at the screen until he said a quiet "Oh!" He fetched a 3x5 card from his desk and after some clicking and typing, copied a string of letters and numbers from the computer to a yellow post-it note: 23-8HLFVLQRO4.

"What's that?" I asked.

"This is you," he answered. "By rights, you should have done this first: got your picture taken, got your lanyard. We can do that on the way to the nurse's office...

"Oh, wait, though!" Matt stopped, struck by a sudden thought. He sat back down.

"What about the stuff that's missing?" he asked.

"What's missing?" I cried, anxiously. My voice was a little to loud, a little too high. How could he possibly know?

"Don't worry," he laughed. "All I'm saying is that there are things you'd expect to find, in a woman's bag, in a woman's wallet, and those things just aren't there."

"Oh!" I exclaimed. Now I understood: I'd gone through this with Rowan. "Do you mean, like, photos, receipts, coupons... things like that?"

"Uh, yeah, sure," he agreed. "Was there anything like that in here? When you got the bag? You didn't throw anything away, did you?"

"No, of course not." I replied. "That's the bag, the way I received it."

"When I said things are missing I meant... you know, along the lines of: cell phone, car keys, house keys, membership cards, loyalty cards... stuff like that. I mean, my wife's bag looks like a recycling bin."

"There wasn't anything like that in here," I told him. Then I did an inner fact-check: true. None of the items he named were in the bag when I received it.

He frowned. "That's odd. And you didn't see the Switcher take anything like that out of the bag?"

"Nope," I replied. "Only the cylinders."

"Okay," he said, shaking his head. "Man or woman, the guy is a mystery."

"Oh, hey," I exclaimed, on a sudden impulse. "Speaking of phones, could you look up and see if Merope *had* a phone? And if she did, what was her number? And, um, her carrier?" I don't know why I asked such a thing. As soon as it occurred to me, I blurted it right out.

Matt's expression soured. "No," he answered. "I'm not going to do that. I'm not a private detective! It's not part of our protocol. If you're interested in the life of this woman, you can explore and find out for yourself."

I felt irritated and a little offended by his refusal. Matt's mood changes were confusing and off-putting. Still scowling, he got to his feet and told me that he was taking me to see the nurse. I asked, "Are the two of us finished?"

He gave no sign of detecting my disdain. He simply said, "Yes, we're done. Unless I happen to be the one who processes your exit from this facility."

I couldn't come up with any snappy rejoinder, so I kept my mouth shut and followed him into the hallway.

 


 

We took the elevator up to L1 — one level underground. This level was a little brighter, more up to date, less of the Cold-War, military ambiance. Compared to L7, it was downright welcoming. "Here it's a little nicer," Matt acknowledged. "This is usually where the Switcher's victims first land, and do their orientation. This is also where the families of victims come to meet their new family member and decide whether to keep them."

His description struck me as grim and functional. I couldn't help but comment, "You make it sound like they're choosing a pet. A rescue animal."

He gave me a look. He blinked twice. I think he wanted to agree with me, but couldn't unbend that far. Instead he commented, "If you want to put it that way. Just remember: it's your words, not mine."

"Do the families come in through the old post office, upstairs?"

"No," he replied, with a half-frown. "They come in through the parking garage — where *you* would have come in, if you'd called -- as you were supposed to."

My eyebrows went up. I scratched my cheek. Matt must have read the doubt on my face, because he added, "You'll probably see it when you leave... There's a nice entrance in there, specifically set up to receive people. There's always at least two people on duty there, and they're trained to make things easy for new arrivals."

I nodded. The unspoken message was clear: most people didn't drop into the middle of the process, the way I had. Still, it was hardly my fault. The man who met us at the door could have, should have, brought me to the beginning of things.

In any case, Matt handed me over to a young, rail-thin, energetic, smiling young man named Jason. "You need a lanyard," he told me, as if a lanyard would cure all my ills. "But first, we have to take your picture."

He stood me in front of a police line-up wall (the kind with bands that show your height), and snapped three pictures, mugshot style (one facing forward, one each facing right and left). He pulled up the photos on a console and at the bottom superimposed a white text box with MEROPE GODDARD, all caps, and below it my ID number, 23-8HLFVLQRO4. He took my fingerprints with an inkless pad, and swabbed my cheek for a DNA sample.

A little machine printed out a sticker (about the size of a credit card) that showed my photo, my name, and my ID number. Jason picked up the sticker and hesitated. He asked me, "We have a lot of empty rooms at the moment. Would you prefer to sleep on your own, or in the women's dorm?"

"Alone, I'm sure," I replied, with some surprise. "Does anyone choose to sleep in the dorm?"

"Oh, yes," he said. "Most of the people who come through here are pretty freaked out, and the last thing they want is to be alone. I mean, imagine: someone who's afraid they've lost their mind, finding themselves shut up in a windowless room, underground? Sounds like a horror movie."

In fact, when he said those words, afraid they've lost their mind, I had a moment of vertigo. Just a few seconds, but enough for me to see how easily my mind could slip its moorings and drift into boundless nothingness.

"Not many are cool and calm like you," Jason observed. "Very few and far between."

"I guess it's down to temperament," I told him. "I'm good in a crisis. I tend to freak out later."

Jason nodded. "You switched yesterday, though, right? So isn't it *later* already?"

I studied his face for a moment without speaking. Then I said, "Do me a favor. Don't try to talk me into flipping out, okay?"

He immediately backed off, with protestations of innocence. "No, no! That's not what I mean at all! It was... I was... I only meant it as a compliment! That's all."

"Okay."

He selected a magnetic key card from a bin on his desk. It had the number 317 on it. He touched the card to a reader. There was a soft ding! and the number "317" appeared on my record on the screen..

He pulled the backing off the sticker, laid it on the key card, and slipped the card into a plastic sleeve that hung from a bright blue lanyard.

"Wear this around your neck at all times," he said, "unless you're asleep or in the shower."

I draped it around my neck and bent my head to looked at the upside-down image of my new face.

Jason tapped on the card and told me, "That's an electronic key. It will open the women's toilets, the women's showers, the women's dorm — all the places where men aren't allowed to go." He smiled. "The rule about access is simple: if you're not allowed, you won't be able to. Or, if you're able to, it means that you're allowed. Is that clear?"

"Yeah, sure," I said, looking at the photo. "Simple."

"Don't worry about the picture," Jason said. "This equipment is slick, but the results are no better than passport photos. No one expects the picture to look like you. You're much prettier."

"Thanks."

"Oh, one more thing: there's one little downside to having your own room. Before you leave, you'll have to change the sheets, make the bed, clean the bathroom, and take out your own trash. There's a laminated instruction card on the back of the door to your room."

"That's fine," I acknowledged. "No problem."

"It wasn't always that way," he acknowledged, apologetic. "It's 'cause of budget cuts. We used to have people to do everything. And I mean everything. Just, like... for instance... there used to be two people who'd push a cart around to all the offices. Their entire job was making sure we all had coffee, tea, sandwiches, snacks... One of them would pass every 45 minutes. And they covered all three shifts, you know? Cool, right? Now, we have to shlep to the cafeteria, or make our own coffee at one of the little coffee corners in the hall."

I said huh in an encouraging way, so he continued: "At the start, this Switcher business was a bona-fide, hair-on-fire crisis. It was all hands on deck, the best and the brightest, every effort made, no expense spared — all those cliches... and they were actually true. For a while, anyway. Finally we've all realized: there's nothing we can do to stop this guy. So... we can't do literally nothing, but... We've ramped it all down to the absolute bare minimum. Sorry to say this, but the unwritten policy is to do as little as we can get away with." He suddenly caught himself, and looked at me in alarm. "Please don't repeat that to anyone," he said, with some urgency. His face had gone white. "I'm running off at the mouth. I'm sorry."

"Don't worry about it," I said, and made the gesture of zipping my lips shut. "I can see you're all working really hard. And that you're doing it with a skeleton crew."

"Yeah," he admitted. "We're a bunch of skeletons, running after a ghost."

 


 

Jason led me to the nurse's office. There was a small outer office, with a desk and computer, and two doors leading to EXAM ROOM ONE and EXAM ROOM TWO. Both doors were slightly open.

A woman with red, wavy hair sat on the desk. Under a long white lab coat, she wore loose beige pants and a floral top. A stethoscope dangled around her neck.

Gesturing toward me, Jason announced to the nurse, "Here is our famous walk-in, Merope Goddard." He gestured toward the nurse and told me, "And this lovely lady is Mrs Buckingham, our nurse." He handed Mrs Buckingham a couple of 3x5 cards printed with my picture, name, and ID.

Mrs Buckingham nodded at me with a slight smile, and said, "Welcome." She didn't reach out to shake hands (as I did), so I grasped my right hand with my left — as though that's what I intended all along. I nodded back. Jason exited without further ceremony.

I asked the nurse, "Is being a walk-in really such a big deal?"

She shrugged. "It's unusual. It's nothing bad, but... I mean, you saw the neighborhood we're in, right? What are the chances the Switcher would be wandering around up there? We're a long, long drive from anywhere. Most people who got touched by the Switcher don't get here under their own power, and generally they have no idea where they are while they're here. Usually, Switcher victims are brought here by the police. Sometimes, it's the FBI or Homeland Security. Depends on the circumstances. But mostly it's the police."

I smiled. "I suppose the police have to write a report then, don't they." I smirked, thinking of Rowan's aversion to report-writing.

She gave me a puzzled look. "Well, of course they do. It's part of their job. But you've skipped over that part, and started in the middle with us. So, yes, you shouldn't be surprised if people comment on your being a walk-in." She picked up a small plastic crate and stuck one of my 3x5 cards into a slot on the front.

She grabbed a hospital gown from a pile on a table and carried the gown and the crate into one of the exam rooms. I followed her in. She set the crate on a chair, and set the gown on an examination table.

"Take off all your clothes — underwear, shoes, everything — and put it all into this box. Put on the hospital gown, open in the back. When we're done with the examination, I'll give you something else to wear."

"Do I put my purse — my bag — in there, too?"

"Is there anything you want to keep in there?"

"Well, yes. Drivers license, a nice pen, a little money..."

"You should just hang on to it, then. They're going to do some goofy tests on your clothes. The tests are pointless, so it's fine if you want to hold something back. Oh, and if you like those clothes, and want to get *those* back, you'll have to make a point of asking for them before you leave."

"Okay," I acknowledged, nodding. "Um, what kind of tests are they going to do?"

"On your clothes?" She sighed. "Nothing serious, to tell the truth. In the beginning, when nobody knew anything about the Switcher, scientists tried every single test they could think of, looking for radiation, first of all. There wasn't any. Then gas chromatography. Again, nothing out of the ordinary. Once, after a mass incident, the FBI took bales of clothes from dozens of people, and ran them through every test on the planet, but in the end, you know what they discovered? Their official conclusion was that all they had was clothes. Ordinary clothes; just like any other clothes. The clothes didn't change. There wasn't any Switchy residue. There wasn't any magic." She shook her head.

I frowned, not understanding. "So, after going through all that, the FBI is still going to test my clothes?"

Mrs Buckingham laughed. "No, hon. That incident was the last straw, as far as the FBI was concerned. They won't test anything Switcher-related any more. It's a drain on resources. No, all our testing is carried out down here. We've got a little lab. They do a couple of tests. Nothing fancy. They fill out some forms. That's all."

"And they never find anything?"

"Nope. There's nothing to find!"

"Then why don't they stop testing?"

She smiled. "Have you ever worked for a government agency? No?" She shook her head. "I'm going to sound like a terrible cynic, but the problem is: if you don't spend every penny of your budget this year, you'll get less money next year."

I had no idea how to respond, so I just smiled. Probably a stupid-looking smile. It occurred to me that I had no idea what I look like when I smile. I'd have to check it out, first chance I got.

The exam was pretty unremarkable. She listened to my heart and lungs, shined a light into my eyes, looked in my ears, looked at my teeth...

"I'm just marking the obvious cavities. And... it looks like you had your wisdom teeth extracted. I'm no dentist, but I'd say that your teeth are in good shape, but you're overdue for a cleaning. Did you floss, in your former body?"

"Oh, yes, I was, uh, rigorous about it."

She nodded. "Try to carry over your good dental habits into this life, as well."

"I will." A thought occurred to me. "Are you going to do dental x-rays?"

"That would be nice, wouldn't it? For you, I mean," she said. "We used to do a full set of dental x-rays, back in the day," she told me. "But, budget cuts..."

"I hear you," I said.

She tapped my knee with a rubber hammer to test my reflex. She drew some blood (two tubes), and had me slip out of my gown so she could check for "distinguishing features": birthmarks, scars, tattoos. I had none of the above. She noted that my ears were "only pierced once."

"Is that bad?" I asked.

"No, of course not," she replied.

I slipped back into the gown. Mrs Buckingham exited, carrying my clothes in the plastic crate. Soon after, she returned with a set of anonymous white underwear, a pair of slippers, pants, and a t-shirt. They looked like army fatigues. "We have plenty of these," she told me. "You'll see cartloads here and there in the hallways. So change as often as you need to. They're meant to be worn while you're here, but if you want, you can keep a set as a souvenir."

After learning that I used to be a man, she gave me a book about women's bodies. It had big, balloon-like lettering on the cover, and cartoon-like illustrations throughout. Mrs Buckingham saw my doubtful look, and told me, "This is obviously aimed at a very young reading level, but in spite of that, it's surprisingly thorough. You'll find that it covers all the things you'll need to know. In some sections the cartoon facade is very thin."

"Okay," I acknowledged. I didn't mean to sound doubtful.

"It's a money-saving effort," she explained with a sigh. "Budget cuts. That's the story with everything here. We have to make do with one size fits all wherever we can. Luckily, this book works very well. Even young girls understand it without being bored, and adults who want and need the information are smart enough to ignore the way it's presented."

"Got it," I said, a little more confidently.

Oh — there was one more thing. I asked Mrs Buckingham if she could tell whether I'd ever had children. She had me hop up on the table and put my feet into the stirrups. She did a quick pelvic exam, which left me speechless. I must have made the strangest faces, because I could see *her* face twitching, struggling to not react (not to laugh) every time she looked at me. Afterward, when I covered myself and she washed her hands, she asked me, "How did that compare to a prostate exam? Better? Worse? More invasive? Less invasive?"

I wasn't sure whether she was poking fun at me or asking a genuine question. I didn't *think* she was being mean, but at first all I could manage to say was, "Um..."

After a while I offered, "I must have been making the wildest faces."

Her mouth twitched again as she tried not to laugh, and she said, "You could say that."

In any case... Mrs Buckingham assured me that I'd never given birth.

"Are you sure?"

"Beyond any doubt."

After I got dressed in the army fatigues, I stopped on the very threshold of her office, and asked, "Are you able to access Merope's medical records?"

"No, I can't," was her flat response.

"Budget cuts?" I quipped.

"Sure," she said, twisting her mouth a little sourly. "Let's go with that."

 


 

She must have called Jason while I was dressing, because he came trotting up the hallway, ready to show me to my quarters.

 


 

My room was a good size. It had a desk and chair, a double bed and a bathroom fitted with bathtub and shower. There was, of course, no window, and the only other piece of furniture was a small bookcase topped by a very plastic-looking bright-red rose in a dark blue vase, and a digital alarm clock with glowing red numbers.

The bookcase held old copies of Treasure Island, Beloved, I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings, Moby-Dick, Valley of the Dolls, and Look Homeward, Angel along with a handful of Harlequin Romances and three titles by Jackie Collins.

"There's a library, such as it is, next to the cafeteria," Jason offered. "You saw the signs in the hall: just follow them to the cafeteria. There's also a lounge next to the cafeteria, where you can hang out. Your badge opens your room. Only you (or the staff) can open your room, and the staff won't do that unless there's an emergency."

He pointed out that my room number was written on my access card. "Room ranges are indicated by signs on the wall," he explained. "There are phones at intervals in the hall if you need any kind of help, but I think you'll find you're better off figuring things out for yourself."

I remembered Rowan's warning to not expect too much, so I said, "Sounds fine."

Jason seemed relieved to hear my answer. He gave me a pat on the shoulder, told me I'd do "great," and left me alone in my cell-like room.

By "cell-like," I don't mean "prison-like." It was more monastic than penal. More basement than jail.

The mattress was firm but comfortable. The bathroom was perfectly clean, and there seemed to be abundant hot water, and plenty of hotel-sized shampoo, conditioner, and so on.

"And it's all free," I said out loud. There were certainly worse places to land.

But... there was no television and no internet. There wasn't even an AM radio.

So I took a walk to check out the cafeteria/lounge/library.

On the way I passed a door labeled Women. I stopped for a moment, and wondered if I dared.

It may as well have read Authorized Personnel Only, because the writing stopped me.

Then, after a moment, I realized, I am authorized! I am a woman! and I pushed on the door.

It didn't budge.

I held my keycard against the sensor to the right of the door. The lock clicked. The door opened.

Inside there were showers, toilets, sinks, all in a row. Ten of everything. It didn't look particularly feminine. The walls and the floor were covered in white tile squares. A built-in set of bookshelves was loaded with clean, neatly-folded white bath towels.

In the left wall, there was a second door. I opened it. It was the women's dorm: a room fulled with ten beds. Near each bed stood a small bedside table. Two women were in there, sitting on their beds, facing each other, talking intently. When I stuck my head in, they stopped talking and turned to look at me. I gaped, stupidly, not knowing what to do or say next. Clearly I was intruding.

"What the fuck do you want?" One of them demanded belligerently.

"Nothing," I muttered, and closed the door.

Back in the hallway, the next door also led to the dorm; the same dorm. It was clearly labeled Women's Dormitory.

"No thank you," I said, to no one in particular, and felt grateful that I'd opted to sleep alone.

After another left and a right I arrived. The hallway opened to a wide space where the light was a little brighter. It was a sort of entryway to the lounge on the right, the library on the left, and the cafeteria straight ahead.

The library was larger than I expected. From my vantage point in the doorway I couldn't see where the tall metal shelves ended. It reminded me a little of the used bookstore across from Rowan's place, although this collection of books didn't have the dust or the musty smell that characterized the bookstore.

I would have gone in and poked around for a bit if it weren't for the presence of a young, lanky guy with a blond crewcut. He (like me) was dressed in fatigues and slippers. If it weren't for his slippers and his bright blue lanyard, I would have taken him for a soldier. One big stealthful step backward, and I managed to slip away before he saw me.

It wasn't that he scared me, or that he gave off a weird vibe. Neither of those things. I just didn't feel up to an encounter with a random man. I've never been shy in social situations — at least when I was Anson, but as Merope? I still found it awkward; as if I was only pretending to be Merope, still in danger of being caught out.

The lounge was also a good size — there seemed to be plenty of it. A lively ping pong game was taking place at the far end of the room. One end of a pool table was visible, jutting out from around a corner, suggesting that there was a lot more lounge in that direction. There were plenty of armchairs and low tables around the room — some of them solitary, others in groups. The sound of a TV came from somewhere inside; I couldn't see where. It looked alright and felt alright — more open and public than the library shelves. The high ceilings helped give a comfortable, roomy feeling.

In the end, I took the third choice and wandered into the cafeteria. Like the other two public options, the cafeteria was capacious. There was plenty of space and plenty of tables: mostly tables for six. There were a few tables for four. The table tops were green formica, like almost every other horizontal surface in the facility. Best of all, there was no one there.

Against the leftmost wall was the line where food was served. As I watched, a young woman emerged from the kitchen and eased a covered stainless-steel food pan into the warming table. That done, she gave the counter a quick sweep with a clean cloth, took a deep breath, and wiped her brow with the back of her forearm.

She spotted me right away, and waved me over with a welcoming smile. In spite of her invitation, I felt a little tentative. I don't know why. Residual Merope awkwardness, I guess. The woman had a friendly face framed by a hairnet. Her uniform was all white: white cotton pants and a short-sleeved white cotton shirt, buttoned up the front. Her white apron was lightly spotted with food, fresh from today.

"We're not ready with lunch yet," she told me. "Give us another forty-five minutes. There's still plenty of breakfast though, if that'll do ya."

"Um, yeah, sure," I agreed. "Breakfast sounds great. Um..." I looked down the line, expecting to see a cash register at the end of it. "Um, where do I pay?"

"Oh, you don't pay," she said. "People gotta eat, don't they? This is one place the budget cuts haven't hit."

I nodded.

"Not yet, anyway," she added. "Help yourself." She waved her hand at the food-service line. "You can't see the coffee and drink area from here, but it's kind-of set into the wall after the end of the line. See?" She pointed and gestured. "Well, you don't see, but it's right down there."

"Thanks," I told her, and she returned to the kitchen.

I wasn't hungry, but I had nothing else to do, so I loaded my plate with a taste of everything: one pancake, one piece of french toast, a waffle, a little bit of scrambled egg, hash browned potatoes, a little wedge of a western omelet, two kinds of sausage, a tiny spoonful of corned-beef hash, a baked tomato, two slices of pumpernickle toast...

I hesitated over the eggs benedict. If only I'd seen it earlier! But there was no room on my plate, and I doubted I could do justice to the load I'd already taken.

The coffee was surprisingly good. Great aroma. Hot and fresh.

For some reason I took a seat in the center of the room. Maybe I liked having all the tables arrayed around me, like a fort. I poked at my food, taking little bites of everything, sawing off a triangle of pancake, a morsel of sausage... I picked up the waffle in my hand and bit into it. The only disappointment was the hash: it had a chewy, raw taste, as if the potatoes were simply ground up but still uncooked.

The raw-potato taste seemed to stick to my teeth. I ate a half slice of pumpernickle and drank most of my coffee to wash the sensation out of my mouth. Still, on the whole, the massive unlimited breakfast raised my spirits.

After wending my way through the tables, I was refilling my coffee when the soldier appeared at my elbow. I'd been turned slightly to my right; the door on my left. So I hadn't seen him walk into the room. It was the same blond crewcut from the library. He was biting his lower lip, glancing at me quickly then looking away, clearly nervous, maybe a little afraid. He picked up a coffee mug and fumbled, nearly dropping it. He sighed and muttered something I couldn't hear. Then he turned and gestured to my breakfast, back there in the middle of the room. "Is that yours?" he asked.

"Uh, yeah," I said. "I kind of went overboard."

He said, "Ha," like he was trying to laugh. Then he filled his coffee mug too full, spilling some. "Dammit," he said softly, as if it was the one last straw and he could bear no more. He gave up and set the mug down, abandoning it. Opening his eyes wide, the way you do to keep the tears in, he asked, "Hey, listen, do you— do you mind if I sit with you — for a bit, anyway? I'm— I'm— uh, I don't want to be alone."

I opened my mouth to answer. Selfish of me, I know, but I wanted to make some excuse and go hide in my room. Before I could make a sound or even decide what to say, he went on in a flood of words, breathless, "I'm not going to hit on your or anything like that! I'm a— I'm a Switcher victim. I used to be a woman, and now..." He heaved a heavy sigh. "Now look at me." His face fell as he stared down at himself, forlorn, then turned his eyes back up at me. His mouth twitched; his lips trembled. He repeated his question, "Can I sit with you? For just a little while, even?"



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