Merope, Maybe : 7 / 19

 

Merope, Maybe : 7 / 19

[ Melanie Brown’s Switcher Universe ]
by Iolanthe Portmanteaux

 


"The rabbit–hole went straight on like a tunnel for some way,
and then dipped suddenly down, so suddenly
that Alice had not a moment to think about stopping herself..."
— Lewis Carroll, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland


 

"My name is Laura," the boy with the crewcut said. Then he closed his eyes tight, balled up his fists, and hunched over, clenching his jaw. "I can't deal with this," she whispered, "hearing his voice come out of my mouth."

"I know how you feel," I told him/her, uncertain as to whether I should put my hand on his shoulder or go so far as to give him a hug.

She shot me a look of hot, scornful disbelief. "How could you possibly?" she hissed.

"I'm a Switcher victim too," I replied. I found myself speaking in a soft, gentle voice. "I used to be a man."

She cooled off a little at that, and after looking me up and down quickly, said, "At least things went the right way for you."

Did they? I asked myself, but I didn't say it aloud. Instead I asked her, "Tell me what happened."

Laura began by describing in great detail what she was wearing at the time. It was basically a simple outfit: a short flare skirt, a crop top that showed her belly button, and a pair of sandals. In spite of its simplicity, she was meticulous in describing the cut, the color, the fabric, the designs. Cute was the essential idea; the impression she meant to give. She described the three bracelets she wore, her three sets of earrings, and her three necklaces. "I love the number three," she confided. "It's my lucky number."

After setting the sartorial stage, she laid out the emotional setting.

Laura and her boyfriend Pete (who started off the night with the lanky build and the blond crewcut) were walking in the cool of the evening, in a park, not far from the river. Laura was struggling to engage Pete in a serious and difficult discussion. She had just turned eighteen, while Pete remained a month shy of seventeen. Earlier that day, a friend teased Laura about Pete's age, and jokingly accused Laura of "robbing the cradle." Laura, in her own intensely serious way, took the words to heart, and worked herself into a near panic. She developed a vivid mental picture of herself condemned to a life sentence in a federal penitentiary, denied of all but the most basic hair-care products, and reduced to a single wardrobe choice: an orange jumpsuit.

Pete let out a loud guffaw at the idea. He thought she was kidding, and even when he saw she wasn't, he found it impossible to take the issue seriously. He kept trying to tease, hug, and tickle her into a better mood. He failed to notice that his efforts to lighten the mood only pushed Laura further and further into a deep well of anger and frustration. It wasn't until she finally broke down in tears and inarticulate cries — inarticulate because she spoke and sobbed in the same breaths, leaving Pete with a string of syllables and sounds that didn't resolve into words.

Pete was a little slow, but he wasn't a total, gormless idiot, and once he finally began to actively listen, he quickly caught on to Laura's point. "He stopped with all the stupid tickling, and said Okay, then, what do you think we should do?" It was in those vulnerable moments, as Laura composed herself and Pete began to show his concern, that the Switcher accosted the young couple.

Of course, Laura and Pete had no idea who he was. Neither ever expected to encounter the Switcher, ever in their lives. They'd have no way to recognize him, in any case. At the moment, the Switcher was a young guy with light brown hair; a twenty-something... short, a little stocky, in obvious need of a wash. His feet were bare and dirty, and he was dressed in blue shorts and a black t-shirt. "I thought he might be homeless," Laura confessed. Then, after a pause and a deep breath, she added (a bit incongruously), "He was carrying a fanny pack." She frowned. "He walked up, with this smirk — I hate people who smirk — and he says, What a cute couple! Pete asks him, very politely, Hey, do you mind? We're having a private discussion here. But the Switcher just stood there looking at us, like he was trying to decide something. He doesn't go away.

"So Pete asks again, Do you mind? The two of us are trying to talk. The Switcher — he still doesn't move. Pete steps between me and the Switcher, because for sure something was coming — the guy was going to try something — and the Switcher says, I want to show you a cool move. He takes off his fanny pack. He sets it on the ground and shoves it with his foot, so it slides past Pete, past me, which was weird. Then he says, Watch this! and he laughs this evil laugh. He gives Pete a shove, so Pete falls into me, and I fall on my butt. But then—" Laura stopped, strangely quiet. After a pause, she continued.

"I saw myself get up off the ground. I saw myself pick up the fanny pack and run away, laughing. It was so confusing and disorienting... just to watch myself run while I sat there on the ground. Stupid me! All I could think was what a nice skirt I was wearing—" she blushed "—and that I needed to brush the dirt off the back... off the back of the skirt." She stopped again, staring as if she was watching herself run off.

"And then what happened?" I prompted.

"Then, behind me, the guy in the blue shorts says, Holy shit, Laura, what just happened? and I thought, How does he know my name? I looked at him and it was so weird. It was like I saw Pete's reflection in his eyes. I looked down at myself and understood what happened. I said Pete, that asshole was the Switcher! and he laughed and said, Well, now we're fucked because I'm not gay." She looked at me with big liquid eyes and asked, "Can you believe *that* was the first thing he said to me?" She stared, slack-jawed with disbelief and repeated, "He laughed!"

"He sure doesn't sound like the most sensitive guy," I admitted. Then, remembering Femke's remark to me on the drive here, and I repeated it to the crewcut girl: "I think you're well shot of him, Laura."

"Well shot?" she repeated, incredulous, loaded with all the easy scorn of youth. "Well shot? What's that supposed to mean?"

"It means you're... uh... lucky to be rid of him."

"Hmph," she grunted. "Maybe. But well shot? Nobody says that. It's old-timey and weird. Like guns or something." She shook her head. "It's weird."

"Got it," I told her in a strong tone, and she dropped it.

She shifted around in her chair. "Anyway, you're right. He's not very sensitive. At all."

What was weird to me, far weirder than any "old-timey" phrase, was the contrast between the loose, sinewy, obviously masculine body sitting next to me, and the sensitive, emotional female soul inside. I couldn't call her him. There was nothing him about her: Her movements, her facial expressions, the way she talked, the way she reacted when I talked... This was simply a teenage girl, sitting next to me. But, how many people, other than me, would see her that way and treat her that way?

I'd thought earlier that people who get switched into a young life are dealt a better hand than people who fall suddenly into old age and illness. But this girl... Laura... what kind of life was she going to have? Would she eventually adapt to her new physiology?

At one point, when we were talking later on, she asked me in a quiet, confidential tone, "Do you ever get used to the penis?"

"What — do you mean, get used to having one?" I asked. She nodded, and glanced around furtively.

"Well, I don't miss it," I confessed, "You do kind of always know it's there. It seems to have a mind all its own."

"Yeah," she agreed. "It doesn't fit. It's like someone stuck a sausage in my pants. I just want to pull it out and throw it away!"

"Don't do that," I replied, half-joking. "You *can* have fun with it, you know."

"Hmmph," she grunted. "This morning I woke up with a boner," she told me. "I was so embarrassed."

"Yes, it can be inconvenient," I agreed. She made a sort of grimace.

With a few second's delay, her phrase yesterday morning I woke up... lit a light bulb inside my brain.

"Hey, Laura," I drawled, trying to keep a lid on my excitement, "How many days have you been here?"

"Too many," she shot back, and then: "We got here late last night."

"You and Pete?"

"Who else would there be? The other me is still out there somewhere, running around, switching people."

I didn't bother pointing out that Laura's "other me" only had one switch in her: once the Switcher moved to his next body, Laura's "other me" would be stuck forever as some stranger. Instead, I asked, "So, you were switched on Friday evening?" This was exciting news: Pete and Laura were links farther down the daisy chain. The barefoot guy in the blue shorts probably came right after Anson. We were a step, or a few steps, closer to fitting me into the established line of victims so I could get out of here.

Laura frowned at me. A frown that asked, Are you crazy? "No, I got switched on Thursday night. Why would you think it was last night?"

"Because I got switched just after lunch," I told her, "yesterday."

"Oh, my, I hope you had a lovely lunch," Laura intoned, half-mocking me. "What does that have to do with me?"

"I figured that you and Pete are further down the chain than me," I explained.

Her eyes narrowed. "What chain?"

"The daisy chain... of Switcher victims. We're all in a line, see?"

She huffed. She said, "Whatever! They'd like you to think so!"

Her response threw me a little, but I didn't want to get sidetracked. I wanted... needed... to know where she stood on the chain in relation to me. I asked her, "Listen, when they interviewed you, did they accuse you of trying to commit fraud?"

Laura's facial expression turned hard. Her eyes and mouth opened wide, and she chanted, "OH. MY. GOD. Some asshole, some frat boy, said that to me, yeah. I couldn't believe it!"

"So, he must have explained—"

"I didn't let him explain ANYTHING. I started screaming and screaming. Every time he tried to talk, I screamed even louder." She shook her head. "After a while he got all red in the face and gave up. He walked out of the room and I never saw him again. Asshole!"

"Ah. Well, that'll do it," I observed.

"Yeah," she agreed. "Government creeps!"

"Okay," I said, tentatively. Clearly, I was walking on eggs at this point. "Um, so anyway, there's this chain of people, or a line of people that the Switcher switched—" I began.

She interrupted. "Why do you even care? And how do you know that's any of that is true?"

"True?" I repeated. I had be careful. I remembered my conversations with my son Herman when he was a teenager. How easily he'd abandon logic and facts. I needed to keep on track: stick to the daisy-chain. I told her in a clear, calm tone, "Because until they find the person I used to be, or the person who used to live in this body, they aren't going to let me leave this place."

She regarded me in silence for a long moment, then said, "I guess that means you're here forever, then. How could they possibly ever find those people? That is — if they even wanted to find them. They're all out there switching, right? They could be anybody by now."

"Uh... no," I contradicted. "It doesn't work like that."

She shook her head scornfully. She waved her hands dismissively.

"People say a lot of shit about the Switcher and switching," she told me, "but they don't tell you the truth."

The truth. Here she was, talking about "the truth" again. I figured I may as well indulge her. By now it was clear that she was farther *back* on the daisy chain — she and Pete were switched *before* Merope. Obviously, she'd have no idea what happened to the "other Laura" who ran off. There'd be no clue as to how many people stood between them and me on the chain.

So I asked her, "What truth?" I expected some bit of misinformation or misunderstanding... some uninformed version of how things are. What I didn't expect was a full-blown, hard-edged conspiracy theory, fueled by suspicion, resentment, and mistrust.

"The truth is, they could switch everybody back, if they wanted to. But they like things this way: all the confusion, all of us chasing our tails, thinking we're trapped — but we're not."

"No," I contradicted. "They can't switch anybody back. Not even the Switcher can switch us back."

"That doesn't make sense," she said. "They tell you that everybody can only switch once, but supposedly this Switcher is out there, switching seven times a day! That's impossible!"

"No — if that was possible, somebody would have switched back already, and we'd have heard about it."

Laura gave me a sly look. "How do you know nobody's switched back? Maybe they did... but they have to keep quiet about it."

"Why would they need to keep quiet?"

"Because the government would shut them up, real quick, and permanently."

"Oh, Laura," I sighed. "This is just a conspiracy theory! None of it is based on facts or observations!"

"How do you know?" she challenged. How do you know?

 


 

I've never met a conspiracy theorist of any stamp before, and after listening to Laura spill out her multiple theories, I never want to meet one again.

A few times I pointed out that her various ideas didn't hold together: some of them outright contradicted each other.

"If people who are switched can go around switching people, how come you and I can't do that?" I challenged.

"I don't know," she replied, undaunted. "But think about vampires: how come some people get bit and die, and other people get bitten and turn into vampires themselves?"

"I don't know the answer to that," I exclaimed, exasperated, "but vampires aren't real!"

Laura fell silent for a long while after that, but just as I was about to return to the idea of the daisy chain, she muttered sullenly, "It must be nice to know everything!"

Her teenage resentment made me feel guilty and sorry for her. I opened my mouth to speak, but she pre-empted me.

"I'm in love with him," she said in a quiet voice. I had to strain to hear. "I was in love with him. But now what? He's somebody else, and I'm him! How could it possibly be worse?"

I almost told her that things can always be worse, but doubted she'd find any consolation in the idea.

"Now he's being a dick about it. He's avoiding me! He's in the next room playing ping pong, as if nothing's wrong!" She sniffed, and wiped her nose with the back of her hand. I pushed my unused napkins in her direction.

"I want to call my parents, but they won't let me!"

"Protocol," I commiserated. She agreed with a scoff.

"Now I have to wait for Pete's parents to decide what happens to me."

"Why?"

"Haven't you been listening?" she accused. "I'm a minor now! Either Pete's parents take me in, or I end up being a ward of the state."

"And Pete?"

"Well, first they have to figure out who the hell he is. The homeless guy had no ID." She raised her eyes and watched the kitchen staff as they removed the breakfast items from the food line. "Why couldn't the Switcher just swap me and Pete? Things would still be weird, but at least they'd be simpler."

I couldn't help but point out that her proposal was simply impossible. "He can't swap two people. It's not possible."

"Why not?" she challenged.

"Because there are three people," I said. "You, Pete, and the Switcher. Imagine that each of you is wearing a hat. First, the Switcher swaps hats with Pete. Then Pete and you swap hats. How do you and Pete end up with each other's hats? You can't, because the first person has Pete's hat."

"Then me and the first guy swap hats," she observed. "It's simple."

I opened my mouth to object, knowing that as hats go, she was correct. But as for switching, it wouldn't work. That last switch couldn't happen, because each person can only switch once. But there was no point in arguing with her. I resigned myself to saying, "Nobody knows how the Switcher does it, or why it works the way it does."

"I don't believe that," she said. "The scientists must know. It's their job, right? A scientist created the Switcher—"

"—and the Switcher killed him afterward—"

She made a sweeping motion with her hands, as if smoothing sand. "What one scientist can do, any scientist can do."

"That's not true," I objected.

"They know," she insisted. "Scientists know. They could change us all back, if they wanted. But they don't want to."

"I'm not sure I'd want to go back," I told her.

She gave me a strange look, and said, "Then you'd be messing things up for someone else."

We fell into silence after that. My head had begun to hurt, and I felt tired. Very tired. Emotionally tired. I was about to make an excuse for returning to my room, but Laura beat me to the punch.

"I'm going to go watch the ping pong match," she informed me. "Maybe Pete will feel like talking."

"Good luck," I told her, and watched her walk away.

 


A Note of Caution, from the author to the reader:
Please keep in mind that virtually EVERYTHING Laura says
about the Switcher and the government is incorrect.
It's a conspiracy theory, with no factual basis.


 



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