Merope, Maybe : 11 / 19

 

Merope, Maybe : 11 / 19

[ Melanie Brown’s Switcher Universe ]
by Iolanthe Portmanteaux

 


"Did I shave my legs for *this*?"
— Deanna Carter


 

Femke, sunny and happy, leaned into Rowan, his arms wrapped around her. "I'm going to stay here with the boys, Merope," she told me. "I've never seen the inside of a real-life courtroom. I want to see my Rowan testify."

"That's fine," I said. "I want to go get Merope's phone."

"Do you know where it is?" Rowan asked, somewhat mechanically. His attention was clearly distracted by (1) his wet pants, (2) the need to get to back to court on time, and (3) Femke's affectionate (and uncharacteristic?) snuggling.

He probably wasn't listening, but I found myself replying anyway. "No — I mean, I'm going to go to her carrier and get her phone replaced—" but there I bit my tongue. If I continued, I would have explained about searching the USB drive for a recent phone bill, but talking about the drive would mean talking about Stan, since he was the one who gave me the drive.

I didn't want to mention Stan. Especially now that Femke was smiling.

Luckily, no one noticed anything I said (or didn't say). No one was listening; a fact demonstrated by Femke's immediate non sequitur. She laughed and waggled her finger at me. "Your first duty as a citizen," she cautioned with mock severity, "is that you wash your car with all due haste!"

"Yes, I'll do that first of all," I agreed, laughing as well, "I know a good place near my— um, I know a good place. They do a nice job of detailing as well."

Femke frowned detailing? and turned to Rowan. He in turn looked at his watch and gave her a tug on the arm. "Come on, we've got to go. This minute. Come on!"

"Seriously," Javier added. "I'm going to start walking."

Femke skipped a step away from Rowan and put her face close to my ear. "I won't be home tonight," she said. "Just so you know." I nodded in acknowledgment. She smiled and skipped back to Rowan's side.

When she and Rowan turned to walk away, Javier asked me in a quiet voice full of urgency, "Are you going to be okay?"

"Oh, yeah," I assured him. "Everything's fine right now. Don't worry. I'm a big girl now."

He nodded grimly.

"Seriously: Don't worry," I repeated.

He nodded as if he didn't believe me, and trotted after Rowan to the courthouse.

 


 

I watched for a few moments as the three of them walked away: Rowan with his wet pants, Femke desperately clinging to him, Javier hustling behind, hurrying them along, glancing at his watch every few seconds. He turned to look over his shoulder at me once or twice.

The little barefoot girl was still in the fountain, filling her little blue cup with water, and emptying on the ground. Her teenage babysitter stood nearby, tired but vigilant. She didn't want to apologize for any more unwanted splashes.

I turned away and followed the path, the long arc that leads to the parking garage elevator.

As I walked, my mind automatically did what it always does, what I always do: It planned. It made lists, and sorted the lists by priority. If I had a phone, I would be thumbing away, writing it all there. But that would have to wait until I had a phone.

Before I pushed the elevator button, I spotted a pharmacy across the way. I could do with a pen and paper, I told myself, and crossed the street.

I came out, armed with a handful of ball-point pens and a pair of tear-off pads of graph paper. They wouldn't let me buy just one of either item; they aren't packaged that way. I ripped away the plastic packaging and dropped it in a bin. Then I sat down on an empty bench and uncapped one of the pens.

Pens! I already *had* a pen: Merope's expensive, beautiful pen. Oh well. Save it for later.

With my cheap ball-point pen, I began to write:

Wash and detail car
Find phone bill on USB
Get new phone from carrier

After a deep breath I wrote:

Cleo

Yes, Cleo. What did it mean? Should I phone? Should I drop in? Should I call and ask if I can drop in? Should I make an appointment at her office?

That last idea seemed a bit passive-aggressive. At worst, she could take it to mean, the only way I can talk to you is if I make an appointment. At best, it could seem like I was seeking neutral ground, or wanted a meeting on her terms.

Should I hire an attorney, and have him or her arrange a meeting? Was that too heavy handed?

I held my pad on my lap, and when I shifted in my seat, the back of my hand brushed against my leg. I felt the fine hairs poking up. "Ah," I said aloud, and lifting the page so I could write on page two (where no one would see), I wrote

Shave legs? — ask Femke for suggestions

Then I lifted the second page and on page three wrote

QUESTIONS:
Did Merope shave her legs for something? for someone? out of habit?

"I should have gotten a notebook," I groused.

I sat there for a while, then returned to the top page and added

Job

Yeah, a job. I'd have to do SOMETHING to earn money. Soon the USB ought to tell me what Merope can and did do — at least I'd see her tax returns. Those would give me a clue.

Looking at what I had so far, the first thing I wanted to do was to get the USB drive and dig into it, mainly to find out about Merope's phone. I don't think I was obsessed with her phone; it's just that it seemed a key to unlocking her life. With her phone, I ought to be able to get into all her accounts, as well as see who was on her contact list.

Yes, that and — picking up my pen again, I wrote

her email

Which I could also likely get into through her phone. So, if I wanted to deal with the first thing weighing on my mind, I needed to go to Femke's and dig into the USB.

And that's what I intended to do, as I descended in the elevator and walked across the underground parking level. Here, underground, surrounded by concrete, I couldn't help but be reminded of the processing center. A creepy thought. Luckily, happily, there were plenty of people down there with me: people going to their cars, people leaving their cars, people trying to remember where they parked their cars. The presence of all those normal-looking people (none of them dressed in Army fatigues!) helped reduce the creepy factor.

In my mind, as I said, I was on my way to Femke's, until I saw my car for the second time.

I knew it was dirty when I first saw it, but I didn't get the full extent of it. When we arrived here, Femke and I were standing behind the car, so all I saw was the trunk and the butt end. When I walked around to the side, to approach the driver's door, I was appalled.

Did Merope never clean her car? Did she ever clean her car? The thing was filthy. I don't know what she could have done to reduce it to this state. I once visited a friend who lived in a high desert in Northern California, and it was that dusty. The roads were unpaved for the most part: packed earth. In the summer, when everything dries, the roads accumulate a layer of red dirt two inches thick. If you didn't drive at a super-slow speed, like five miles an hour, you would kick up an immense cloud of dust and dirt that would follow you and cover you and everything you loved.

I mention it because it's the only place I've ever seen a vehicle as caked in dirt as Merope's car. I was afraid to touch it.

I can't understand why she left it that way. A quick drive through a car wash: that's all it would take, but she obviously hadn't done it. If she'd ever done it, she hadn't done it for a good long while.

Naturally, it raises the question of why Rowan didn't drive it through a car wash. Even if *he* wouldn't think of it, Femke had told him to do it. Javier suggested it to Rowan several times. Rowan was driving this dirtball all the time we were up north in the processing center. Wasn't he embarrassed to be behind the wheel of such a dust bucket?

In the back of my mind I had an idea that didn't make it to my to-do list, and that was to search Merope's car. My intention was to carry out a *thorough* search. I was thinking along the lines of the search the trooper carried out on Rowan's car. I wondered how hard it would be, to pop out the back seat. Probably not too hard; the trooper did it in a moment. He popped it back in, too, like it was nothing.

When I saw my car, though, I had second thoughts about even touching the thing.

So... I wouldn't be conducting a search. Not at the moment. I'm sure if I worked over this car the way a thorough search would require, I'd end up filthy myself.

To the car wash, then!

With a long, straight arm I unlocked the door — without touching the door, of course. I only touched my key. Next, with the tips of two fingers, I gingerly pulled up the latch and opened the door. Carefully avoiding the door frame, I climbed inside and pulled the door quickly shut. A little dust fell inside, but I managed to dodge it. I rubbed the dirt off my fingertips on the carpet, then rubbed a little more with my thumb. I couldn't get them completely clean.

The inside of the car was free of clutter, at least. No old coffee cups or sandwich wrappers. It didn't smell of anything in particular; just a bit musty.

Looking around the car from the driver's seat, I didn't see anything of Merope's. No belongings, no traces of where she'd been, what she'd done, who she was. Maybe there was something in the trunk? I pictured the dirt, the MAAK ME SHOON Femke had written, and decided to leave the trunk-opening until after the car was cleaned.

Then it occurred to me: if I had the car detailed, the cleaners would gather everything they found and put it in a bag for me. They would do a much more thorough job of digging through the car than I ever would. Probably even better than the state trooper ever could.

I started the car. It sounded okay. No obvious bad engine sounds. I realized I hadn't looked at the tires. That, too, could wait until after the car wash.

I added to my list:

Get car checked
Check tires

I lowered and raised the sun visors: nothing tucked up there. I opened the glove compartment, and found, to my relief and satisfaction, a copy of the registration (with Merope's Omaha address) and her insurance. Happily, the insurance was current. I'd have to check whether her premiums were paid up. I added that to my to-do list.

It stood to reason that Rowan had already searched the car. I could probably *assume* that he had... but then again, I would have assumed he'd have gotten it cleaned, and put some gas in it. The gas gauge wasn't quite on empty; the NEED GAS icon hadn't lit up yet, but I've never like driving around with less than half a tank of gas.

When I left parking garage, and got out of the city center, I found myself on autopilot, driving home. Home! It wasn't home any more. After stopping for gas, I corrected course and soon arrived at Super Dynamic Bubble Shine, a car wash near to... near to Cleo's house. They do a great job and don't charge an arm and a leg for it.

This place is popular for good reason! I told myself to console myself. There were already five cars ahead of me, waiting to be cleaned. I didn't expect the place to be busy now, on a Monday afternoon. And yet, here it was in full swing.

Honestly, I've seen it worse: with a line going down the block. As I said, they're popular for good reason.

In any case, the line usually keeps moving. Cars go in, cars come out. The only bottleneck is the driver who doesn't use their time in line to decide which services they want. There are huge menus in four spots: you can't miss them. And yet, there are drivers who don't look at them. They pull up to the entrance and look around as if they've never seen a car wash before.

When the line didn't advance for a couple of minutes, I assumed this was the case. I didn't mind; I wasn't in a hurry. There wasn't any point in fussing.

And I was ready: I wanted the Super Deluxe Bubble Shine. It had everything: pre-soak, triple foam, hot wax, ultra shine protectant, ceramic coating, undercarriage spray, wheel cleaner, tire shine, and wheel brightener. There's more as well, but you get the idea.

I wasn't sure whether all of those items were real, actual treatments they did to the car, or just fluffy names. But I didn't care. The car would look like new afterward.

Speaking of "like new," I intended to add the Total Like-New detailing, which has its own list packed with items: they vacuum everywhere, they shampoo the carpets, they use compressed air to blow out all the dust, dirt, and debris. They clean the windows. They wipe down every surface with some kind of shiny protectant. To put it briefly, if there's a surface they can reach, they clean it. Afterward, the interior looks, smells, and feels like new.

Cleo and I used to give our cars the whole interior make-over twice a year. It costs a couple hundred dollars, but it's worth it. And this one was on Merope's dime.

Merope's dime... right. As I considered the prices, I realized that I had to make a budget. I added that to my to-do list. Merope left me a nice wad of cash, but I could easy burn through it in no time if I wasn't careful. I didn't want to live on Femke's charity, either.

With that thought, I got the glimmering of an idea for a job I could do... not that I wanted to, but I could do it...

I had another idea as well. I fished around, feeling under the seats and in the seat-back pockets, and found what I was looking for: it was a scraper and brush — meant to be used in winter, to clear snow and ice off the windows. Carefully, I opened the driver door, once again dodging a small fall of dirt. Then stepped out, shut the door, and swept all the loose dust away from the window, from around the window, and around the door. I tapped the brush on the ground to knock the dust out of it and climbed back inside.

Now I'd be able to roll down my window without bathing in dirt.

The line of cars finally brought me to the cashier. I rolled down the window and told him what I wanted.

He looked me over slowly, then ran his eyes over my car. He charged my card. I signed the receipt. He held on to it for a few moments.

"Wow," he said. "Just wow."

"Thanks," I answered, in a tone of irony.

"We ought to take a picture! Before and after, you know?"

"That's *two* pictures," I pointed out. He ignored my correction.

"This is the dirtiest car I've seen up in here! What — do you use this thing for off-road aventures? Is that what you do? Lady! Where did you go? What did you do?"

"Let's just say I've been on a long, long trip. Is that okay with you?" I replied.

"Heh," he chuckled. "Nebraska? That's not a long trip. It's not a dusty trip, either." He handed me my card and receipt.

"I took the long way around," I told him, and rolled up my window.

The conveyor took hold of my car and tugged it into the process. Jets of water shot all over my car, from every angle. The dust and dirt melted into a layer of mud, coating my car, obscuring my windows.

The lights inside the car wash changed to red and a carpet of blue foam flopped over my car, mixing with the mud. Heavy sets of cloth mats descended on mechanical arms and scrubbed my car. Jets of water washed it clean.

The lights changed to white and a thick coating of white foam covered me. I felt water pounding from beneath the car, and I pictured clods and clots of dried mud falling away.

The process went on, lights turning color at every step of the way. Different products were shot all over, rubbed with huge bristle brushes or massaged with heavy mats.

While the conveyor carried me through the cleaning process, all I could do was sit there, passive. My mind drifted inevitably to Cleo. Cleo and the new Anson. It bothered me. It bothered me a lot. How could it not? We'd been together twenty-five years, and lately it seemed we were drifting inexorably toward divorce, like a canoe heading for a waterfall. You watch the canoe — you know that even if it turns around, it'll still go over the cascade and crash on the rocks below. Cleo, for all her psychoanalytic powers, didn't seem to have any interest in fixing or healing whatever was wrong between us.

I don't want to rehash the way things had become. I don't want to get into how things got that way. All I'm saying is that Cleo seemed perfectly willing to toss our history over the side for the sake of man she barely knew. Or didn't know at all.

A three-part neon sign lit up, one phrase after another, to tell me that the various wheel and tire treatments were underway.

When Javier told me about Anson, he mentioned that Cleo had some consideration about insurance, but to me that seems an awfully thin reason for hitching her wagon to the man.

"What has he got that I haven't got?" I found myself saying. I knew it sounded stupid the moment I said it. What I meant was: What does he have that I didn't have? Here she was, going out of her way for this guy, when simply being civil to me seemed a massive effort.

I felt like an actor, forced to watch an understudy play his role. The new Anson was getting good reviews — at least if I could go by Javier's telling.

The conveyor pulled my car forward, toward the light of day. Big metal vents descended from the ceiling, drying my car with blasts of dry, hot air. I watched the water droplets fly against gravity, up my windshield and away. Already things were looking better: the hood was a shiny yellow, with nary a fleck of dust, dirt, or grime.

When I emerged, one of the workers signaled me to pull out of line, over to the left.

"You paid for detailing, right?"

"Yes. The Total Like-New package."

"Right," he acknowledged. "The kid didn't tell you, did he."

"Tell me what?"

"We're really backed up today. For detailing. He should have told you before you paid."

"Ah."

"I can do one of three things for you. We can make an appointment: you come back tomorrow. You give us an hour. That's the first option. Second option is you leave the car now, and you come pick it up at five. Or, you can wait in the waiting room. We got a TV in there. Or, there's Dunkin' Donuts." He pointed across the street.

"And the third option?"

"I give you your money back."

I considered a moment, then told him, "I'm going for option two."

"You're going to leave it now?"

"Yes."

"Okay, give me your phone number."

"Sorry — I lost my phone."

"Okay, be here at five. Okay? Five."

"Five it is."

I walked out, into the sunlight. I crossed the asphalt, where the cars emerge from the wash. Four teenage girls, dressed in t-shirts and tight shorts, were busy, towel-drying the cars. Strictly speaking, it isn't necessary, but it's expected. The girls watched me as I walked by, no particular expression on their faces. I got the feeling they were evaluating me, maybe as a possible future, weighing how they might feel if they turned out like that. Like me. I wondered how I measured up.

Maybe it was just my imagination.

I turned left out of the car wash. Four hours to kill, and my old house just over the hill.

 


 

In about fifteen minutes, I was "home." It wasn't exactly right around the corner, but it was in the neighborhood.

My heart pounded in my chest as I approached the front door. I didn't expect to feel so nervous. I had no idea what to expect; what sort of reception I'd get. I can always leave, I told myself. That will always be an option.

For some reason I knocked on the door before I rang the bell. Nerves, again?

Cleo opened the door, cocked her head and looked at me. "Yes?"

Embarrassed, full of uncertainty, I murmured, "Uh, sorry that I didn't call first, but I don't have a phone... yet... ah..."

Cleo tensed slightly. I saw she was ready to shut the door, so I quickly added, "Cleo, I'm Anson. Or I *was* Anson until the Switcher... met me."

"Ah," she said, nodding, and took a step back, allowing me in.

I walked straight through to the kitchen and sat down at the table, with my back to the door. Cleo sat at the head of the table, next to me. I took that as a good sign; if she'd sat directly opposite me, I would have taken it as confrontational. (A little tip that Cleo taught me.)

She looked me up and down again, and said, "Rowan said you'd gotten an upgrade, and it looks like he was right. Congratulations! I hope you're happy with the change."

"It could have easily been a whole lot worse," I conceded.

"When you consider that you've cut your age in half, your weight in half... You look healthy... you're good-looking... I guess..." She shrugged, as though the conclusion was inescapable. "What are you now, ten years younger than me?"

"Yeah, that too," I replied.

She offered a hopeful smile.

"So, yeah," I conceded. "I was pretty lucky. So... but... ah—"

"Rowan told you that he brought the new Anson here." It wasn't a question. It was a statement.

"Yes," I said, leaning forward a little. "What's up with that? I mean, you hardly know the guy!"

She didn't react, at least visibly. She ran her index finger back and forth in a small arc on the table. "You and I — how well did we know each other the first time we slept together?" She raised her eyebrows in query. "Not very well at all, wouldn't you say? Still, we had a good run. Didn't we?"

My jaw fell slight open. I gaped at her in disbelief. "What — are you saying you fell in love with this guy? Don't you realize what a liability he is, for you?"

"A liability?" she repeated. "Is that what concerns you? That he's a liability? Weren't you and I liabilities for each other?"

"The moment you told the processing people that you accept him as Anson Charpont, he became for all intents and purposes, legal and otherwise, Anson Charpont. In every way!"

She didn't respond. She only looked at me, watching my face with her psychological eyes.

"He is married to you now. Married! He could take half of everything you own, by law. Do you realize that?"

She hesitated a moment, then tossed her psychological stone into the pond and let it ripple. "Why, exactly, would that bother you?"

I stared at her, thunderstruck. "What kind of a question is that? It's natural for it to bother me!"

"It bothers you," she told me in an even, measured tone, "because you feel that he's taking it from *you*, not because he'd be taking from me."

Her statement deflated me. "Oh, Cleo," I groaned. "Sometimes when I talk to you, I feel like you are determined to not understand me." I took a quick breath that felt like a prelude to a sob. "Sometimes it seems that you make an active effort to turn whatever I say into something wrong." I tapped the table with my fingertips, and let my gaze travel around the room. "I shouldn't have come," I concluded. "There's no point to this."

I half-rose from my chair, when Cleo set her hand on mine and stopped me. "Wait," she said. "Please. We got off on the wrong foot here. I actually wanted to call you, but Rowan said you don't have a phone."

"Not yet. I will soon." I felt my anger, my offended feelings soften a bit at her conciliatory tone.

"I need your help with something. If you don't mind? Could you? I'm sorry, but it's something I know you can do quickly. If I do it, I'm sure I'll miss something, or mess something up."

"What is it?" I asked, sitting back down. Somehow, I was acutely conscious of the touch of her hand on mine. It was light, as if her hand weighed no more than a feather, as though its lightness expressed an emotion Cleo hadn't offered me in years. Was it kindness? Pleading? Simple need? When was the last time she ever asked me for help?

"I'm sorry," she said — rare words, from her. "I know this is hard for you, harder, probably, than I can understand. I don't want to step on your toes, or make things complicated for you."

I sniffed and coughed and nodded. "What kind of help do you need?" I asked, choking a little on the words.

"It's for Mukti — you know, the new Anson —"

"Let's just call him Anson," I cut in. "It'll be simpler."

"Okay," she agreed, studying my face, reading me. "Okay. You know that Anson got mugged, and they took his wallet, so we have to cancel all his cards and get new IDs, and all that sort of thing. You were always better at that stuff than me. Also, they're your accounts, you know, so... you have access and all..."

"Fine," I said. "It'll be easy. Um, could I go get my laptop?"

"Sure, sure," she replied, brightening. "You should take it, anyway, it's yours."

I left her sitting at the table and walked down the hall to my office. Was it weak of me? Was it stupid of me, to turn around the moment she asked for help?

I didn't know. I don't know whether it matters. At least she was talking to me.

I walked quietly, listening for signs of life from above. Was Anson in my old bedroom? Would he and Cleo resume the sex life we lost? Had they done it already?

When I entered my office, I felt both familiarity and unfamiliarity at the same time. Both feelings were strange, as if the feelings belonged to someone else, and I experienced them through an emotional telemetry. The room was mine; used to be mine, and I'd last been in that room only four days ago, but even so..., it wasn't mine any more.

I got on my hands and knees to unplug the computer from its power strip, and unthreaded the cord from behind the desk.

Cleo appeared at the door. "You know, after we do this thing with the cards, we should get a box so you can load up anything you want to take."

I looked around the room. "Yeah, maybe the mouse... the screen..." I touched a photo that hung on the wall. It showed Cleo, Herman, and me — back when I was Anson. All three of us smiling, sunny, glad to be there, with the Painted Desert at our backs.

"Heh," I chuckled. "Do you remember who took this picture? It was Rowan, of all people. That joker! The way he wheedled himself into that trip!"

"Yeah," Cleo laughed. "He turned out to be a good kid, in spite of all our worrying."

"Yes, he did," I agreed. I mused for a moment, then added, "I guess I'll be even more distant from Herman after this..."

"Don't say that," Cleo cautioned. "You never know. Stay open. Don't give up on our only child. He'll come around. And if he doesn't, you have to keep waiting. You're his dad."

I blew out a resigned breath, picked up my laptop, a pad and a pen, and returned to the kitchen. I'd left my own to-do pad in my car, and once again I'd forgotten about the pen collection in my bag.

It took less than thirty minutes for me to run through everything. I requested a new drivers license and health insurance card for Anson. I reported my old bank card and credit cards stolen, and contested a few bogus charges the thieves had added. Nothing big.

"Here's my email password," I told her, writing it on the pad, along with my other account usernames and passwords. "He'll be able to track the new cards there."

I looked through my password manager, to see if anything else came to mind. "Um, I have some routine medical appointments in my calendar. You or he should check. In any case, the doctor's office always calls to confirm a few days before."

"Thanks," she told me, putting her hand on mine again. When she did, something clicked in me. I realized that the entire time we were sitting there, while I worked on Anson's accounts, she must have touched my hand a dozen times or more. Every time she spoke to me, she touched my hand.

I'm not complaining! In fact, I liked it. I was like water in the desert, after several years of drought.

"Oh — another thing: you ought to change the locks," I told her. "You ought to do that today, since the muggers have all the keys. And keep my car in the garage for a while." I mused a moment. "You might check how much it would cost to change the car key as well." I thought for another few moments, taking inventory of the keys in my memory. "Really, the only keys that matter are the house keys and the car key. My car key, not yours."

She nodded, and scribbled a note on my pad: Cost of changing Anson's car key?

I sighed, looked up as I considered... then said, "I don't think there's anything else. If something occurs to me, I'll call you."

"Thanks," she said, with sincerity, and she kissed me lightly on the cheek. Then she stood up, so I found myself standing up as well.

She brought a cardboard box up from the basement, and together we returned to my office. I looked through all the drawers and shelves, but in the end I only took a few things: the family photo from the Painted Desert, a mouse, the screen, an external drive, the power strip... I only took two of my books for reference. That was it. I set the box down near the front door. Cleo looked out to the street.

"Where's your car?" she asked. "Are you getting it cleaned?"

"Yes — how did you guess?"

She rolled her eyes and laughed at the same time. "Rowan gave us a ride from the hospital in it. I gave him directions for the Super Dynamic, but I could tell he wasn't listening. His partner — Javier? told us Rowan wouldn't do it! He just won't go."

"Isn't it strange?" I agreed. "I don't understand how he could drive around in that dust bucket." I laughed. She laughed. We laughed together. It felt good; it was the first time I'd laughed with Cleo in a long, long time.

The sun came in through the front windows and lit her face. When I looked at her, it was almost as though I was seeing her for the first time. I saw the old Cleo in her face, the young woman I fell in love with. It gave me sense of nostalgia, of loss, of a glimpse into the way things used to be. She seemed... not exactly happy, but content.

It struck me, as we stood there, that our eyes were on the same level, and almost as an automatic thing I looked down at her feet. She was wearing sandals, just as I was. Our heels were about the same height. Cleo noticed were my eyes were going, and commented, "We're about the same height now. Funny, isn't it?"

"Yeah, I guess," I muttered, and found myself looking back at the stairs that lead to the second floor. Was it my imagination, or could I sense his presence? "Is he here?" I asked in a quiet voice.

"Yes, he's resting. He's got bruises all over, did you know? And a cracked rib, but that's the only broken bone. They kept him overnight in case he had a concussion. He was beaten pretty badly, but he was lucky: they didn't damage any internal organs. To my mind, the worst thing is what they did to his face! He has this horrible scrape—" she drew her fingers from her right cheekbone down "—it must have hurt. It still hurts, I guess. They must have pressed his face into the sidewalk!" She shuddered. "And his ankle is twisted." She recounted, sounding a little perplexed by that detail. "That must have happened in the fight, somehow. You know, he fought back. Of course, he shouldn't have, but he did." She gave a thoughtful shrug.

"The um, cheekbone scrape and the twisted ankle, that was me," I informed her. "It happened in the moments before I was switched."

"Oh!" she exclaimed softly. "Okay."

"Yeah," I said, "not that it matters... at this point, anyway." I felt a little uncomfortable, awkward. It must have been the business about the keys. So I told her, "Listen, Cleo, if you don't mind, if I'm not overstepping, I could replace the locks myself. I mean, whoever took his wallet knows where he lives, and they have the keys. It'll take maybe an hour. Is that okay with you?"

"No, yes, sure. That'll be fine," she agreed.

"I just need to get to the hardware store... My car will be ready at five, so..."

"I can give you a ride," she quickly offered. "and you can tell me about your adventure."

 


 

Cleo loves to drive. Even if I was driving, she'd direct me. (Pass this truck — I can't see anything! or Change lanes, we're not moving! or Why did you go this way? We always go the other way!) I didn't particularly care who drove, so as a rule, I always left it to her.

As we backed out of the driveway, she was already in the good mood that driving gave her, and she opened the conversation by talking about Mukti.

She began with the call from Matt at the processing center, and how on earth did he expect Cleo to know whether Anson had experienced a Switcher incident!? At first she felt angry, offended, upset, and confused, until she hit on the idea of calling hospitals.

"I don't know why hospitals — of course, I mean, being switched isn't really a *medical* event, is it." She took a turn a bit too fast, as she usually did. "But there he was! My first call, to Harmish Memorial. They didn't know the name Anson Charpont, so I described you, and right away they told me you were there! Well! They were calling him 'Mukti,' but he matched your description perfectly. I took a cab. I was too..." she fluttered her hands in front of her chest "...too emotional to drive. I mean, of course, I had no idea who I was going to meet!"

I don't know... I was glad to hear her talking so freely (for a change). I listened, but I didn't fully understand. There was an obvious question that I wanted to ask, but didn't want to ruffle her feathers. I mean, her "emotion" — what was it? It didn't want to make it all about me, but it didn't sound like she was particularly concerned about the man she'd been married to for two and a half decades. I managed to find a neutral way to put it: "You were curious to see who's living in my body now."

"Yes!" she exclaimed.

"So he got to the hospital first thing in the morning—" I offered, but she cut in: "—not first thing. He got there at nine or so."

"And didn't he check in with the Switcher processing people right away?"

"Oh, them!" she scoffed. "He tried."

"And?"

"Well, the hospital has ONE PERSON — can you believe it? One person, for that job, and it was her day off! They had to call her in. She had to come in. I got there around ten, and sat with him for an hour before the woman showed up. And even then, she wasn't ready."

"In the meantime, the two of you talked, I imagine," I prompted. "You and Mukti."

"Yes, he told me what had happened — and I was so impressed with his spirit, with how well he was taking it."

She turned to me, her eyes shining. We had arrived at the hardware store. "Oh!" she exclaimed, catching herself. "You, too! Of course! You seem to be dealing with it very well, yourself! Have you spoken to a therapist yet?"

"Um..." I hedged. We were approaching the hardware store entrance, and there were people milling about. In a low voice I told her, "There are no therapists."

"What are you talking about?" she countered sharply. "That's not possible! Of course there are therapists. Are you telling me you refused to see one?"

"Um, door locks?" I asked one of the employees.

"Aisle nine," he answered, pointing.

"I didn't refuse anything," I told her in a low voice. "The processing center doesn't provide any mental-health services whatsoever."

She clicked her tongue in disbelief. "That's ridiculous!"

"Did they offer a therapist to Mukti?" I challenged.

"Well, no, but—"

"And they didn't know that you're a therapist, right? So it's not as though they figured he didn't need one."

She stopped and looked up, adding it up in her head.

"Listen," I said. "I was in a huge regional processing center. They told me that there are no mental health professionals there. Not only that, but they don't provide any services to Switcher victims once they're processed. All they do is gather their data. As soon as their data is entered in the system, that's the end of it, as far as the government is concerned."

"I find that hard to believe," she persisted.

"They also told me that they've never done any kind of follow-up, to see how people are doing."

"Short-term or long-term?"

"Neither. None. Nothing. Never."

I picked out three of the best door-lock sets.

"Why three?" Cleo asked. "We only have two doors: the front door and the kitchen door."

"The basement door," I reminded her. "Don't worry, I can make all three work off the same key, so you'll only need one."

Cleo's mind was churning through what I'd told her. "At the very least, they've given you the contact information for a support group."

"Nope," I replied grimly.

She searched her mind for other questions, but came up empty.

As I paid for the locks, I told her, "Femke was scandalized to hear it as well."

"Femke? Rowan's girlfriend? Well, of course, she's a psychology student."

"Is she?"

"Yes — she's getting her master's at Amberlis College. They have some innovative programs over there." She scratched her neck, thinking. "Of course, I've given some lectures there, myself."

"Femke thinks I should start a support group," I informed her, half-joking.

"Oh, interesting," Cleo said in a non-committal tone. "I'm sure you can find lots of resource material."

She fiddled with her phone before getting back into her car. Then she turned it to show me a photo. "This was Mukti before." He was a good-looking young man. Kind face. Relaxed demeanor. "He looks like a yoga teacher," I said.

"He was!" she replied, as if I'd hit on it by accident. "Or... is. He's determined to yoga himself into shape, now that he's... you."

Once we were underway, I prompted Cleo, "So, when the processing woman finally arrived, what happened?"

"Oh," Cleo scoffed. "She wasn't the brightest peg, if you know what I mean. She had a list of silly questions. *I* could have answered for him, I'd been there long enough to hear it already. It was mind-numbing, honestly, the time she took to get from A to B."

"And then she asked you if you'd accept him as Anson..." I put it out there.

"Well! I told you she was slow on the uptake. First she explained the process to Mukti: that they would have to contact me, etc., etc. — as if I wasn't sitting right there! And then she turns to me, and starts explaining it all over again." Cleo shook her head. "I cut her short and told her that as far as I was concerned, he could be Anson to me."

I sat there blinking. I must have blinked eight or ten times.

We drove in silence back to the house. I couldn't talk. Cleo seemed to have finished her story. I got out and set to work on the locks. I did the basement door first, since the tools are down there. It took me a while, but after fussing my way through that one, the back and front doors went quickly.

I found Cleo sitting in the living room, reading an academic paper. "I finished changing the locks," I told her. "The old ones are on the workbench in the basement. The new ones come with two keys, and here are both of them."

I put it that way to make it clear that I hadn't kept a copy for myself.

"And these work on all three doors?"

"Yes."

"Thanks," she said. She took off her glasses and toyed with them, but she didn't say anything more.

"Okay," I said. "I'll be off."

"Okay," she echoed. "It was nice to meet you. Thanks for stopping by. Say hello to Rowan... and to Femke."

"Yeah," I said. "Sure. Take care."

She put her glasses back on and returned to her reading. I picked up the box of my things, which made my exit a little awkward, but that's how it went. I opened the door, set my box outside, closed the door behind me, picked my box up again and started walking. I still had more than hour before my car was supposed to be ready, but I didn't care. I wasn't going to hang around.

I don't know... breakups are always hard, I guess. I've had a couple, but they were so long ago I can barely remember. Maybe breakups are hard on both sides, but everyone knows, it's harder to be the one who gets dumped.

As you can imagine, I was deep in my feelings as I walked. I fumed, I despaired, I hurt, I wanted to hurt back...

So I didn't hear someone calling my name at first. "Merope! Wait! Merope! Merope! Wait!" When I didn't respond, the voice switched to "Anson!"

I stopped dead in my tracks and turned. It was me... or Mukti... It was the new Anson, calling me, limping as he tried to run.



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