Merope, Maybe : 12 / 19

 

Merope, Maybe : 12 / 19

[ Melanie Brown’s Switcher Universe ]
by Iolanthe Portmanteaux

 


"I don’t like the look of it at all,” said the King: “however, it may kiss my hand, if it likes."
— Lewis Carroll, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland


 

I stopped, of course. How could I not? The poor guy was limping! Honestly, I wasn't ready to talk with him, or even see him, but here he was. There was no avoiding it.

I walked back, meeting him more than halfway, and set my box on the ground.

"Hey, there," he said, thrusting out his hand. "Mukti Endecott. What would you like me to call you?"

He was dressed in a long-sleeved, untucked white cotton shirt and long, loose cotton trousers. On his feet were white socks and an old pair of moccasins I'd forgotten about. He saw me taking in his wardrobe selection, and told me, "These were the softest clothes in your closet. I guess you heard, I've got bruises everywhere. It isn't pretty; I don't want to alarm people."

"Uh, yeah," I acknowledged, shaking his hand. "Merope Goddard." He smiled. An open, sunny smile. I found myself smiling back. Okay, I'll admit — the guy is likeable.

Next, my eye hit upon my wedding ring, there on his left hand. "Oh, yeah," he grinned, holding up the hand. "It's funny, but the ring feels like it belongs there, you know what I mean?"

"Actually, I do. I'm so used to the feeling I keep thinking I've lost it somewhere."

"Huh," he grunted. "Well, I'd give it to you now, but unfortunately I can't get it off."

"That's okay," I said. "It's yours now."

"So, uh, you're walking to the car wash, huh? Mind if I tag along? Give us a chance to talk? I couldn't get ready fast enough to catch you back at the house, so..."

"Well... uh..." I looked at his ankle. "If you can get there, I can give you a ride back home. In any case, it's about a mile to the car wash. Can you walk that far?"

"How much time do we have?"

"An hour, give or take."

He calculated for a moment, then said, "I can do that, if you don't mind walking slowly."

"But doesn't it hurt? Your ankle?"

"Honestly, no, it doesn't. Is this something that happened to you? Or did it happen to the Switcher, when he was you?"

"It was me, in the moments before I was switched."

"So that was... when?"

"Friday afternoon."

"Friday afternoon. Four days ago. It's healing up nicely. Anyway, I've soaked it in epsom salts, and did some very intense massage on it. I yoga'd the hell out of it, and now it's all taped up. I'm fine. I'm not ready to run a marathon yet, but a slow-walking mile is just fine."

"Okay, good."

"*This* hurts, though," he told me, pointing to his cheek. "Did that happen to you, too?"

"Yes, I fell, at the same time as the ankle twist. I hurt myself here, here, here, and here—" (pointing to his wrist, elbow, hip, and knee).

"Ah, okay. Good to know. I wondered where those came from."

"And the bruises — how bad are they?"

"Well, they aren't a whole lot of fun, but they'll go away. The epsom baths and the massages help."

I picked up my box and we began walking. Slowly. Slower than I wanted to go, but what choice did I have? While we walked I studied the new Anson. He was different from me. I mean, he wasn't the same Anson that I had been. His posture was better. So well that each time I looked at him, I stood up a little straighter.

He also seemed more relaxed than I remembered myself. Absent was that hangdog, mildly depressed look that I didn't really knew I even had, until I saw it missing from Mukti's expression.

He actively looked around him as we walked, taking in all the sights and sounds. He didn't just breathe, he drew the air into his lungs as if it were food, and gently let it out again.

"Is it strange to see me — to see yourself walking around like this?"

"Well—"

"I imagine it's something like an out-of-body experience for you. I remember how odd I felt, seeing myself run off, after the Switcher took my body from me."

"It isn't like that for me. I don't see you as me. It's hard to explain. I mean, you're so obviously someone else. I can't bring myself to call you 'Anson'—"

"Neither can Cloe," he interrupted. "Would it bother you if I changed my name?"

"Uh, no — why? Why do you think it would bother me?"

A small smile played across his lips. Both of us could see that somehow it would bother me. I asked him, "Are you going to call yourself Mukti Endecott? What about the guy who's running around in Mukti Endecott's body?"

"Right. No, I'm going to call myself Mukti Charpont. It makes sense: I'm Charpont on the outside, and Mukti on the inside."

"Makes sense."

"But you're sticking with Merope Goddard, am I right?"

"Yes, I'm feeling more and more used to that name, to that being me."

"Interesting. Do you think changing gender made it easier to feel that way?"

I stopped for a moment to think. I shifted the box in my arms. It wasn't heavy; but it was inconvenient. Mukti held out his hands, silently offering. Then he took the box from me. It didn't look awkward in his arms... I guess because his arms are longer.

"I don't think it's that," I told him. "I met a girl at the processing center. Her name was Laura, and she was switched into her boyfriend's body. She couldn't deal with it."

"That does sound mind-bending. Do you think the Switcher did that just to fuck with them?"

"Yes, it sounded that way, from her telling it." My impressions of her replayed in my memory. "I hope she ends up okay."

"Here's hoping," Mukti agreed. "But you... you like the name Merope?"

"I do now. At first I thought it was weird as hell, but now — who am I? I'm Merope. I can't *not* be Merope, even if I changed my name. That's how I feel." We walked a few yards in silence. I asked how his ankle was doing; he said it was fine.

"Anyway," he added, "you can't very well call yourself Anson."

We both laughed.

"Ansonia," he offered. "Ansonette."

"No, thanks!" I chuckled.

Javier was right: Mukti does seem like a nice guy. Maybe Cleo *did* get an upgrade, I grudgingly admitted to myself.

 


 

After we'd walked for a minute in silence, I glanced at him. "Are you okay?" I asked. "How's that ankle holding up?"

"The ankle's fine; you don't need to keep checking. I'm feeling good, but I'm getting the distinct impression that you weren't very active, were you."

"No," I confessed, "and since I've been switched, I've felt guilty or — well, I wanted to apologize to whoever ended up in my body."

"Apologize? Why? None of us asked for this, and it certainly isn't your fault."

"Well, no, sure, but... I guess if I knew that I had to hand my body over to somebody else, I would have stayed in better shape."

"Ah," Mukti nodded. "I wouldn't worry about it. In my case, I'm glad. It's a challenge! It's a chance for me to live up to my words. As a yoga teacher, I've always told people that it's never too late to start. Now I have to prove it, in my own person. I'm looking forward to it."

"You know," he added, "I was talking to Cleo about collaborating on a blog, to chronicle this journey. On my part, a lot of the attention would be on the physical. Cleo could add the psychological dimension."

He turned to look at me, his eyes shining. "Would you like to get in on it? You could write a guest piece, whenever the spirit moved you!"

"Whoa, I don't know..." I cautioned.

"No stress!" he declared. "No deadlines! No censorship! Just you, whatever you want to say!"

"I'm not sure I want to say anything," I told him.

"You don't have to give me an answer now," he added, excited by his idea, "In fact, you can say no today and yes a month from now. No strings!"

"Mukti, I *can* give you an answer now. Right now. I don't want to. I want to stay under the radar, as much as possible. Can I ask you to keep my name out of this blog? Will you do that?"

Disappointed, he conceded. "Yes, sure, of course. Absolutely. Your privacy is your privacy." He made the motion of zipping his lips.

 


 

By now, we were about halfway to the car wash. I insisted on taking my box back from Mukti, to take my turn carrying. It was fair, sure, but I was sorry to be lugging that thing again. It wasn't heavy. It was just awkward, mainly because of the monitor screen lying across the top. Mukti, watching me adjust the box, shifting as I tried to find a good way to carry it, said, "Listen, Merope: why won't we divide the labor here. I can take the screen and you can carry the box, or vice versa. What do you say?"

It was a good solution. Without the screen on top, I was able to shift the box on my shoulder, where it seemed to weigh nothing. Mukti tucked the screen under his arm, as if it were an oversized book.

At one point, Mukti observed, "I can feel you vibrating."

"What does that mean?"

"It's like, I don't know, like a perturbation in the Force. You know, Star Wars? What I mean is, on the surface, you seem fine with all this, but I can feel that under the surface, you've got a lot going on: emotions roiling, buried feelings. Maybe some resentments? Unfinished business?"

I heaved a heavy, heavy sigh. This guy was the first person who realized that I wasn't as calm as I seemed; that I hadn't adapted or adjusted or "dealt with it" or whatever.

"Right."

"Do you want to talk about it?"

I looked at the ground as we walked. He had to ask me slow down a little. Then I got into it.

"There's Cleo. Our relationship was... not so great, the past couple of years. I often felt like we were about to go over a waterfall, but she didn't seem interested in preventing the inevitable crash. I felt... helpless. She was angry, all the time. Honestly, it didn't seem like there was anything I could do that didn't piss her off or offend her."

Mukti listened in silence.

"But then, you come along, and in a moment she throws away more than twenty years of married life! Just like that!" I snapped my fingers.

"Is that how it seemed to you?" he asked.

"Isn't that how it is?" I retorted.

"No, not at all. Not from my point of view," he said. "I think she helped me out when I was in a tough spot. As a stranger in your body, I didn't have any insurance. I didn't even have my credit card — Switcher ran off with it. I wouldn't have been able to use it anyway—"

"But she didn't just let you use my insurance!" I exclaimed. "She handed you my life!"

Mukti gave me a cautious look, uncertain about where my volatile emotions might lead. I think I scared him a little.

"Your life?"

"Don't you realize? The minute she told the processing people that she accepted you as Anson Charpont, you became Anson Charpont."

"Well, you might see it that way—" he hedged.

"No! It *IS* that way! My drivers license — yours! My house — yours! My bank account — yours! My wife — YOURS! Do you get it? Do you understand?"

For the first time, Mukti looked uncomfortable. "No, no, man. I can tell you that I don't see it that way. I'm sure Cleo doesn't see it that way, either."

"Fuck seeing!" I shouted. "I'm talking about facts! You're MARRIED now, do you get it?"

He moved his hands vaguely, but didn't speak.

"You're married," I repeated, in a more normal tone. "Cleo told me what happened at the hospital. She made it seem as though she did it just because the processing woman was kind of slow in the head, and it made her impatient."

In spite of himself, Mukti started laughing. "Yes, they did irritate each other. Cleo told her that she wasn't the brightest peg in the shed, or something like that."

"It isn't funny," I insisted, so he stopped laughing (out of consideration).

"Look," he said, "neither of us used the word forever, okay? We have no idea how this might work — as a partnership? as a friendship? as housemates? as a marriage? We didn't get as far as even uttering that word!"

I was about to object, but he gently held up his hand. "Look, we don't know whether this will work — at all! If we *can* make it work, we will."

"And if you can't? If it doesn't work?"

"Then I guess we'll get a divorce," he replied, and laughed again.

I stopped in my tracks. At first I was speechless, then I hissed, "And at that point, you'll walk away with half of everything!"

He cocked his head and looked at me, confused. "No I won't," he retorted.

"Yes, you will!" I countered. "That's how it works in this state!"

He tried to grapple with what I was telling him. He clearly had no idea. "If that's what's bothering you," he said, "I can split it with you. Or — or, give it to you, outright."

"No!" I exclaimed. "No, you can't!"

He frowned, puzzled. "How about this: we just divide everything in three right now? Or you take your half, right now?"

"We can't do that," I told him.

"Why not?"

I began to deflate, under the pressure of explaining. "Mukti, do you know what liquidity is?"

"No."

"Okay, well, right now, because you are legally Anson Charpont, you are entitled to 50% of the value of, well, just for example... 50% of the value of the house. The house you share with Cleo. Just suppose she wanted that 50% now, in cash. What would you do?"

"Sell the house?"

"Okay, sure, but then there are taxes to pay, and the house is gone. Neither of you will actually get 50% of the money, and besides that, where are you going to live?"

Mukti, with a look of great distress, set the screen carefully on the ground and rubbed his face with his hands. "Oh, man," he groaned. "You are making this SO complicated!" He pressed his fingertips over his eyes, and swallowed a few times.

"Can I say something?" he asked.

"Sure."

"I don't *care* about all that. I don't even understand what you just said." He took a deep breath. "I'm not in love with Cleo, and she is not in love with me. Okay?" He looked up, trying to gather his thoughts. Then, "Listen: a few moments ago, you wanted to apologize because I got stuck with your body, right? But now it seems like you're blaming me — or resenting the fact that I'm stuck with your life."

Hesitantly, he set his hand on my shoulder. When I didn't react or shrug it off, he let me feel the weight of his arm. It was somehow calming, I don't know how. In a soft, low voice, he said, "None of this is fair. None of this is right. I'm just beginning to see that the Switcher, even when he doesn't physically hurt people, he does a violence that sometimes has no remedy."

He let that sink in.

Then he added, "Whatever I can do to make this less unfair, I will do. Okay? Whatever that means, I promise."

"Okay," I agreed. "Sorry."

"Don't be sorry! We've been fucked over! Both of us! But we didn't land as hard as other people have. Am I right?"

"Yes, you're right."

"We've been pretty darned lucky, both of us."

"Agreed," I acknowledged.

He picked up the screen once again and we set off walking. After a block or two, he asked me, "Listen, if it's okay to ask, do you know what you're going to do for work?"

"No, I don't mind your asking," I replied in a chastened tone. "Um, I used to be a programmer. Actually, I meant to ask Cleo, back at the house, if she wouldn't mind calling my former employer and telling them that I am Anson on the inside."

"To see if they'll hire you back as Merope?"

"Yes."

"That's a great idea!"

"Will you ask her for me?"

"I have a better idea — I think. What if I come with you and the two of us explain?"

"Actually, that would probably be the best thing," I told him. "That's a great idea!"

"So... do you want to do that tomorrow? Tomorrow morning?"

"Oh, uh, tomorrow? No, I, uh, I need to get Merope's phone replaced, and dig into her life a bit. There's a lot I don't know about her. I mean, speaking of jobs, I don't even know her social-security number yet. Could we do it on Wednesday?"

"Sure. It'll be nice to get out and about."

 


 

Mukti walked the entire distance, all the way to the car wash, without any difficulty. He didn't pause, he didn't stop or complain, and he didn't move all that slowly. It took us a little over a half hour.

"We're a little early," I pointed out. "And I don't see my car. I hope it's done."

"I don't mind waiting," he replied, agreeably.

I wondered how Femke would react to Mukti's agreeable-ness. I didn't get very far in my wondering, though — a familiar ring tone began to sound. Mukti didn't react at first, but with a startled "oh!" he pulled a telephone from his pocket: a cell phone that I knew quite well — my old phone.

He turned the face so I could see who was calling: Cleo. He hit the green button and greeted her. I mimed to him that I would go inside, but that he should stay and take his call.

He was still on the phone when I returned with my key. I picked up my stuff and lugged it around the side of the building, to where my car sat waiting. He followed behind.

What a transformation! The car gleaming and shining, almost like new. I opened the trunk (which was empty) and dumped my box and screen in there.

Mukti hung up and smiled at me.

"Get in," I told him. "I'll give you a ride back."

After we climbed in and fastened out seat belts, he took a deep sniff. "Smells like new in here! Everything sparkles!"

"Yeah," I agreed, and started the engine.

"Hey, that was Cleo on the phone, obviously. How'd you like to stay for dinner?"

I gave him a hesitant look. "I don't think Cleo wants to see me," I answered. "And honestly..." I didn't finish the thought.

"It was her idea!" he exclaimed with a big smile. "And I'm cooking! It'll be something simple: just a stir-fry. Come on! Why not?"

I had several years of why not that made me disinclined. Nothing I wanted to share with Mukti, so I said nothing.

He kept on going, though: he cajoled, he urged, he reasoned, he hoped...

In the end, when I pulled in front of the house, I turned off the engine and followed him inside.

 


 

Cleo met us near the door. She put a generous glass of white wine in my hand.

"I'm glad you came back," she told me. I nodded to her and eyed the size of the glass.

"Do you want one, Mukti?" she offered.

"Maybe later," he said. "I suppose it's too early for dinner, right? But I could do the chopping, the preparation, and put out some cheese and crackers?"

"Sounds nice," Cleo agreed.

Their manner toward each other was, I guess, about the level of housemates: polite, accommodating. Nothing in their tone suggested lovers — or even friends.

Cleo reached around the doorway and picked up her own glass from a side table in the living room. To me she said, "Why don't we go in here?" — gesturing toward the living room.

She scratched her head and sat down. "Listen," she began, "this is the strangest thing that has ever happened to me. I don't know how I seem to you, but inside, I'm freaking out."

"You don't look it," I told her.

"Neither do you," she countered. "You seem to have taken this whole life-swap/gender-swap squarely in stride."

"Everybody keeps saying that," I said, "but I'm a wreck. All the uncertainty... I mean, this woman's life is a mystery. I know almost nothing about her!"

"Well, Mukti is an open book by comparison," she admitted, "but still..." She took a healthy sip of wine. "When you showed up here earlier, I was scared to death."

I frowned in disbelief.

"Aren't you going to drink your wine?" she asked. "It's one of your favorites — that Falanghina."

I sniffed it and took a sip. "It is good," I admitted. "But have to drive."

"You don't," she told me. "Do us both a favor and stay over tonight. It'll be easier to talk about... all this stuff... if you're not watching the clock and trying to not overdo."

I hesitated.

"We'll have Mukti here as referee," she pointed out, half-joking.

I gave in and took a good sip, savoring the familar flavor. Odd, though: it made me realize that my memories of taste and smell were transferred along with my consciousness. Interesting!

I took another sip and got right into it. "I have a question: are you in love with him?"

"No," she said. "That's an easy one."

She looked at me a few moments, considering. Then after opening and closing her mouth twice, she said, "I have a patient, a woman. She's having marital difficulties. One day, her husband goes to animal rescue, and comes home with a cat. Not a kitten, but a cat. A Maine Coon. It's beautiful; she showed me a picture."

"So what's the problem, then?"

"After a couple of weeks, seeing her husband interacting with the cat, she told me, I think my husband loves that cat more than he loves me." She paused, and with a slightly grim smile asked, "What would you have told her, if you were me?"

"That's easy," I replied. "I'd tell her that a relationship with a pet is simple: easy, uncomplicated. Especially compared to a relationship with a human being."

"Bingo," she said. "That's exactly what I told her."

"So what's the remedy? What's she supposed to do?"

Cleo shrugged. "You tell me."

"Okay. I'd tell her, Don't be jealous. Don't take it as a snub."

"That's what I told her," Cleo agreed, with a little laugh.

"Did it help?"

"Not at all."

We sat in silence for a few beats, listening to Mukti opening and closing the fridge, washing and chopping food.

Then she said, "I know that you and Mukti have been fucked over by this Switcher character, but keep in mind that I've been fucked over, as well."

"Point taken," I responded. By now we were both well into the wine. Mukti came in briefly to set out a tray filled with crackers, proscuitto, salami, and three different cheeses.

"What luxury!" I exclaimed, by way of compliment. He bowed and returned to the kitchen.

"I thought about what you told me," Cleo said, "about how there was no follow-up or counseling of people who were switched. I couldn't believe it. I assumed that you just didn't know. So, while you two were out, I searched for studies, for papers, for peer-reviewed articles in established journals... and I found nothing! Nothing at all!"

"Not even surveys?" I asked. "There must be some statistics, right? Like, for instance, how many Switcher victims went on to commit suicide?"

Cleo gave me a sharp look. "You're not considering suicide, are you?"

"Of course not!" I snapped back. "But it's a trauma... I'm not worried for myself, but..." I told her about Laura, and how deeply her situation affected me. Cleo listened in silence.

After that, the wine did its work, and the conversation became more... free-wheeling. We talked about anything and everything, past, present, and future. We consumed all the hors d'oeuvres, and carried the empty tray into the kitchen. Cleo pressed Mukti into taking a glass of wine himself, and he got to cooking — sizzling the chicken, vegetables, and leftover rice in a big wok he found in the back of one of our cabinets.

"It's basically chicken fried rice," he said apologetically, but it was perfect. It filled the bill, as the pelican says.

 


 

We did cover some serious topics, in spite of the wine.

Cleo asked me why I went all the way to the processing center. "Why didn't you go to the hospital? Or a police or fire station?"

"I didn't know you could," I responded. "And Rowan had no idea."

"Too bad you couldn't ask Javier," she commented. "He's a lot more plugged in than Rowan."

At one point — I can't remember apropos of what — Cleo proposed a toast, quoting Tennyson:

'Tis better to have loved and lost
Than never to have loved at all.

— which may sound heavy, but in the moment it passed like a paper boat launched among the breakers — there for a moment, then gone.

Cleo left the table so she could use the bathroom, and took a long time returning. We were just about to go looking for her, when she reappeared, cackling with glee, holding a tiny black backpack in one hand, and my bag in the other.

"Here you go!" she shouted, a bit too loud. I realized that I've very rarely seen Cleo drunk — or even buzzed. Not since we were much younger... I'm not sure when. But right now, she was definitely under the influence.

"Merope, Merope, Merope! Time for an upgrade! You need to toss that ugly old bag you inherited! Time for a new one!"

She pushed the plates aside and dropped the tiny backpack on the table.

"It's so little," I objected. She waved her hand dismissively, and turned my bag upside down, shaking it, spilling the contents onto the table. My keys, of course, fell out first, landing with a clanking bang! My fancy pen tumbled down with a clunk, while the lipstick and cheap ballpoints I'd collected rattled and clattered as they landed. My wallet and the envelope full of money dropped with a thud. Cleo glanced inside and shook harder. The little pack of tissues, the tampon, the santitary pad were the last to emerge.

Still Cleo insisted, after looking inside once again. She pressed the bag's bottom corners together and gave one final shake.

I was about to tell her to stop — not knowing she was at the end of her efforts — when, to my astonishment, a USB drive appeared and bounced twice across the table.

"What the hell is that?" Cleo demanded. "It looks like an electronic circuit."

"It's a USB drive," I told her.

"No, a USB drive is bigger," she countered.

"This is just the basic element," I informed her. "See, this is where it plugs into the computer. Most of what you see in a normal drive is packaging. This is the essential item. Where was it?"

"I don't know. It's so little, it was probably jammed under a hem or a fold of cloth or something. Admit it, you didn't really look."

"I did," I insisted. "So did Rowan."

"Are you sure it's a USB drive? It looks like electronic junk or a broken-off piece of something."

"Yes, I'm absolutely sure."

"Well, let's plug it in and see what's on it!"

"That's not a good idea," I cautioned. "We have no idea what's on it. It could have a virus or a trojan horse. We'd have to look at it on a air-gapped computer with—"

"Oh, screw that," she responded. "Mukti, go get my laptop—"

"I know where it is," he replied helpfully, and scurried off.

I knew I should discourage them from plugging in the unknown drive, but then I thought, Fuck it! If they don't care, why should I? It was irresponsible of me, I know, in my defense, I had been drinking.

We plugged it into her laptop. It contained three folders: DOCUMENTATION, CODE, SPECS. I looked into the code. It was some kind of embedded control system, but everything was so low-level, I couldn't get the big picture of what it was meant to do. Next I checked the specifications. They were diagrams for building a physical device.

"What is it?" Mukti asked. "I have no idea what we're looking at."

"Looks like industrial espionage," Cleo opined, slurring her words. I'm not sure whether she was joking, but I said, "That's what I'm thinking as well."

The outer shell of the device was a smooth metal cylinder: about three inches long and about an inch in diameter. In my mind's eye I replayed my encounter with the Switcher, seeing him once again (in my memory) lifting those cylinders from Merope's bag and dropping them into Anson's coat pockets.

"It's something like a battery," I read. "I'm not sure what this is. But I'm guessing this is what the Switcher came to town to steal."

"How boring," Cleo complained. "He came to town to steal something boring!" She kept playing with Merope's bag as she sat there. "Oh, I'm sorry, I'm sure it's dreadfully important." And she laughed. Her fingers played over the bag.

"Hey, what's this?" she asked herself, as she roughly pulled the bag inside out. She wagged her finger at me and said, "You didn't check for hidden pockets, did you."

"I did," I replied. Then, returning to the diagrams on the computer screen, I told them, "This is important. I think I need to call the FBI."

"Okay, fine," Cleo agreed. "But I'm sure they're sleeping now. You can call them in the morning. Look at this." With her fingers, she traced the outline of something flat, underneath the bag's lining. It looked to be about 3x5. "Look here," she repeated. "This side of the lining isn't sewn at the bottom. At least not all the way across." She worked the rectangle down toward the bottom of bag until a corner emerged. She grabbed it and yanked it all the way out. She gave it a quick once-over, front and back.

"Look, look!" she cried, almost cooing. "How cute! How absolutely darling! Look, Merope, this is you, when you were eight years old!"

It was a photograph of a young girl, kneeling on the ground, her left arm hugging a German Shepherd. On the back was written "Hal 2001" in blue ink. I scratched my nose. "Does she really look like me?"

"Oh, yeah," Mukti agreed. "That's you. Same face, same you. Yep."

Cleo exclaimed, "That's you! That's you, alright. And your doggie! What a cute little girl you were!"

I scoffed, but her teasing made me smile. "Hal... 2001... kind of weird joke to write there."

"Why is that a joke? The dog is Hal, and the picture was taken in 2001."

I shrugged and hemmed and hawed. I didn't really want to explain. If she didn't get it, the explanation wouldn't help.

"I better hit the hay," Mukti said. "I can clean up in the morning. Night, all."

"Night, Mukti. Thank you."

"My pleasure."

Once he was gone, up the stairs, Cleo's hilarity came down a few notches until she was calm. "I better get to bed, too. I need to work in the morning." She looked me over and said, "I'll get you some pajamas. Are you okay with sleeping on the couch? I mean, there's room in my bed, but it would be way too weird for me. Way way too weird."

"Yeah, I'm fine on the couch."

"Thanks."

She gave me a bath towel, a change of underwear, and a matching pair of cotton shorts and t-shirt. Then after a quick look in her closet, she pulled out a black dress with white polka dots. "You can wear this tomorrow. You don't have to give it back."

Cleo grabbed some bedclothes and helped me carry everything into the living room. She threw a sheet over the couch and tucked it in. She wrestled a pillow into a pillowcase, then spread a soft blanket over everything. She took the clothes and towel out of my hands and dropped them onto an armchair.

"Okay, I think you're all set," she told me, and gave me a sloppy, wet, drunken kiss, right on the mouth. I'm 100% sure it was just the wine kissing me.

"You're a lot nicer to me, now that I'm a woman, than you ever were when I was a man."

"Umm," she agreed, nodding heavily. "We were stuck," she said, "like two gears that are supposed to work together, but instead they got locked in place. Rusted, maybe. Frozen. Neither one of us could move or change. Now, the whole schema is broken — exploderated. Our patterns... have been diss-patterned. Oh, God, I'm so drunk."

"It's fine," I told her. "Just drink a lot of water before you go to bed. It will help."

"Oh, I have to work tomorrow!" Cloe lamented, to the air.

She turned, walked out of the room, and up the stairs.



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