Merope, Maybe : 14 / 19

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Merope, Maybe : 14 / 19

[ Melanie Brown’s Switcher Universe ]
by Iolanthe Portmanteaux

 


"I love you more than anybody in the world…
I love you for millions and millions of things...
[for] lovely hair and being dizzy and falling dreams."
— Dylan Thomas


 

Looking at the bottle of beer in my hand, I felt pedestrian. I felt like a lout: holding a bottle of beer in one hand, and the heartfelt expression of this Boyce character in the other.

I hadn't actually read his outpourings yet, but it was clear at a glance that Boyce had bared his heart to my previous...

My previous what? I couldn't call old Merope my previous incarnation. It was the opposite of an incarnation. The Switcher: *he* reincarnated, over and over. The same spirit moved from body to body. His victims, however — we were dispossessed. The old Merope was the previous occupant of my current body. There wasn't a simple, single word for it. Previous occupant might do, but it was unsatisfying.

Anyway... returning to the beer bottle... Now that I knew I was handling a love letter, I wished that I'd poured myself a glass of wine instead. Even so, it was a small bottle of beer, and I was already halfway to the bottom, so I decided to manfully swallow the rest. Once that was done, I could switch to wine, and give the love letter the atmosphere and attention it deserved.

Speaking of atmosphere, Femke did have a half-consumed candle, mounted in an old brass candleholder, sitting on a bookshelf. I took it, found a lighter, poured myself a glass of white wine, and set the three items on a table by the window, along with the love letter.

Then I set to work drinking the rest of the beer.

Weirdly, as easy as the first half went down, the second half seemed denser; more concentrated, more caloric. It felt as though I was shoving a meatball sub down my throat. In spite of the sensation, and what it might do to my waistline, I pushed through. I emptied the bottle, and dropped into the recycling bin under the kitchen sink.

Then — still under the heading of atmosphere, I cleared my laptop and notes off the dining table, and finally sat myself in the chair by the window. I lit the candle, took a small sip of wine, and held Boyce's epistle in my hands.

Femke chose that moment to arrive.

She took in the scene in a glance, and registered a slight frown. After running her eyes over the rest of her apartment, she asked, "Merope, what are you up to?"

"I'm reading a love letter," I replied.

Her eyebrows lifted. "Already? That Javier is a fast worker!"

"What? Javier? No — this is a love letter to Merope."

She made a gesture that said, Of course, that much is obvious! Aloud, she said, "From Javier."

"No. From someone named Boyce." As I spoke, for some reason Wayne came to mind, and my body reacted again, warming internally. I blushed — at least, I blushed inside.

"Who is this Boyce person, and how did you meet him?"

"I haven't met him. He is writing a love letter to the real Merope, the original Merope. The woman who used to live in this body."

Femke shook her head. "It's very early in the day to be drinking wine," she observed. "Have you consumed much of it?"

"No," I answered truthfully. "This is my first glass. I just took my first sip."

"Hmm." In spite of her judgmental observation, she poured herself a glass as well, and sat in the other chair, facing me at an angle. "I'm very confused, Merope. Are you saying that Javier has not written you a love letter?"

"No, he hasn't. Of course he hasn't. No one has written me a love letter."

"Did you spurn him?"

"Spurn him?" I echoed. "Do you mean, did I reject him? No, there's nothing there; there's nothing between us. He's not interested in me, and I'm not interested in him."

Puzzled, Femke scratched above her left eyebrow. "He comes from a very good family, you know. It's something of a mystery, why he ever became a cop, when his brother is a state senator. And there is every indication that he will become a *real* senator in the next election."

"Uh..."

"Also—" Femke continued, speaking a little louder to pre-empt my saying anything, "Also, he has taken an active interest in our adventures up north, in the processing center. I feel assured that he — with the help of his well-placed brother — will make something happen."

"Do you really think that Javier and his brother can overthrow Stan's little empire?"

Femke sighed. "I don't know. Of course, not alone. They will have to find allies. In government agencies and offices and all their bureaucracies, it comes down to who has the strongest lever. Javier's brother is supposedly well-placed, as I said, but does he have the right levers?"

"You make me think of Archimedes: Give me a place to stand, and I shall move the earth."

Femke nodded. She was on the same page. "Archimedes had a shopping list, though. He also needed a lever long enough and a — what is the word? Steunpunt?" She consulted her phone. "Fulcrum? Is that right? Is that a real word?"

"Sure. Fulcrum is a real word. It's the right word."

She cut me off. "Oh, Merope! You've thrown me off track! I was saying that Javier must be taking this interest — not on my behalf, but on yours."

"Oh, please!" I exclaimed, shaking my head and running my hands over my eyes.

"I thought you'd be happy to hear that," she told me, in an innocent tone.

"I'm happy that something might happen up north, to Stan and all his works," I replied. "I'd love to hear that the hammer is coming down on that asshole. On the other hand, I'm quite neutral about Javier, and I think you're wrong about his having any feelings toward me."

She sipped her wine.

"Be that as it may," she told me, sweeping aside the topic with a wave of her hand. "How is this love letter that you're holding? Do you feel that you'd like to connect with this — what is his name? Jongen?"

"Boyce," I corrected. I held up the card. "I feel obliged to point out that this is fancy stationery. See? Good quality paper. His monogram is embossed on the front."

"BRR," Femke read.

"Brrr!" I exclaimed, pretending to shiver. I opened the card and turned it for her to see. "He has nice handwriting," I observed.

"Too many loops and curly things." She waved her hand dismissively. "How can you trust a man who writes with such ornamentation?"

I shrugged. "I wish my handwriting was that... pretty. No, not pretty! Elegant! I don't mean pretty... I mean elegant."

"Let's hear this thing," Femke demanded, gesturing at the card a little impatiently.

I cleared my throat, took a sip of wine, and began to read.

Dear Merope!

I need you to know that my life began today, when you walked into my office. Were you aware of how stunned I was, how profoundly I was struck by how beautiful you are? I must have behaved like a perfect idiot. Did you feel the electricity I felt, when I handed you the Proof of Employability form and our fingers touched?

I attached my pen to this note. I want you to have it. I lent it to you — the first time I've ever let another living soul handle it. I couldn't help it; I wanted you to touch it. It's special to me. I wanted to share that specialness with you. When you handed the pen back to me, your touch was still alive on it. I felt your warmth still there. What an exquisite feeling! I'm giving you the pen to keep, and I hope you can feel my touch on it, the way that I felt yours.

More than giving it — I *surrender* it to you. Try to understand that it's not simply a pen that I put in your hands. I'm giving you my heart as well. And I never want it back. I only want to know it rested, at least for a moment, in your warm, beautiful hands.

I can't wait until I see you again. Tonight. And tomorrow. And forever.

All my best and strongest feelings,

Yours, Boyce

"Is that all?" Femke asked when I paused.

"Isn't that enough? But no, you're right — there is more. There's a postscript on the back: I think I would die, if you were to ignore me. A fool could see, just how much I adore you."

Femke pondered for a moment, her lips moving slightly. She asked me to read the postscript again. Then she grabbed her phone and punched away with her thumbs. After some scrolls and jabs, she laughed. "The Divinyls," she announced. "It's a quote from I Touch Myself." She laughed, then played the song for me.

"I don't know what to say," I told her, as the song played. "I feel guilty... and embarrassed — I've never read anyone's love letters before."

"A good love letter ought to be embarrassing!" Femke declared. "He's done very well there! He risks making a fool of himself to a woman he hardly knows. He lays his heart at her feet, knowing she could set her pretty foot on it."

"He gave her an expensive present, right at the start," I observed. "At least now we know where the pen came from."

Femke shrugged, unimpressed.

She abruptly changed topic. She was done with the love letter. "So, Merope: did you clean your car?"

"Yes, I did! Inside and out! That's how I found this little letter. I also got Merope's phone. I've gotten a lot done! Tomorrow, I'm going to try to get my old job back."

"Oh, yes — your old job. When you left, did you quit abruptly? Did you burn any bridges?"

"No, that's not my style. I simply retired. There are no hard feelings. I'm pretty sure they still need me. I ought to be able to drop right back into my old place."

"Programming cobols," she recalled.

"Pretty much," I acknowledged.

Femke took a thoughtful sip of wine and fixed me with her eye. "Tell me, something. Now that you are the new Merope, when you read that letter, are you feeling... are you pretending... that this Jongen has written to you?"

"Boyce," I corrected, then answered, a little irritated, "Of course not."

"Oh," she gently scoffed. "Do you think you're above all the silly, girlish feelings? There is the song: Everybody Plays The Fool, Sometimes."

"I guess," I admitted. "But not for Javier, and not for Boyce."

 


 

We talked about one thing and another. She told me about her visit to court, where Rowan and Javier were called to testify. She was impressed by the seriousness, by the plain decor of the courtroom, by the efficient and clear process, by the lawyers, and above all by the judge. "She admonished people," she recalled, smiling, "She used that word — and the people did exactly as she ordered. She had an officer, she called him bay—, bay-something—"

"Bailiff," I told her. "It's a court officer."

"Yes, I know. We have a similar word in Dutch."

She also enjoyed the precision involved, the level of proof that was obviously demanded, implicitly and explicitly.

However... she was soon bored, especially since Rowan was unable to sit with her. "He was not allowed," she explained, "because he had yet to testify."

I nodded. "Did you eventually see him take the stand?"

"Yes. I was quite proud of him. The defense lawyer grilled him, trying to find fault in every little thing. But Rowan stood up to it well. He didn't lose his temper or say anything foolish."

"That's the main thing in testifying," I commented glibly. "What was the trial about?"

"They didn't say," she told me. "At this point in the trial they were quibbling over details, so it was impossible to guess. It reminded me of the blind men and the elephant, even if I was one of the blind men."

 


 

We both finished our wine at about the same time, although I was a few steps ahead of her in terms of alcohol consumption.

"I'd suggest we have dinner, but it's far too early," Femke commented, after consulting her watch. "Do you have anything we could do together?"

"Uh, well, the next thing I should do is call the FBI about those cylinders," I responded. "But that's just a *me* thing, not an *us* thing."

She responded by touching her phone and saying, "FBI office near me."

The phone spoke back: "The nearest FBI office is 23 miles away, in Springfield. Do you want directions?"

"Let me see the phone number," I told her, and punched it into my phone. I put it on speaker so Femke could listen.

A male voice answered: "FBI field office, Springfield."

"Hello," I said. "My name is Merope Goddard, and I want to report some... industrial espionage. Can you help me?"

"I can take a message," he replied. "I'll make sure it gets to the right people here, and they'll get back to you, if they require further information."

"Great," I said. I told him I'd been switched, and how I'd seen the Switcher pocket the four cylinders; then later, how we'd found the USB with plans and programs on it.

He asked me when and where I was switched; when and where I found the USB. He asked whether I'd officially checked in with the Switcher processing center, and when I'd done so.

"The center told me that they'd pass this information through the proper channels," I told him. "So I expect that you already have this information. Except about the USB. That's new."

"I'll pass that along with your message," he responded. "By the way, do you know which company was involved in this... matter?"

"Which company?" I repeated, not getting his meaning.

"Who did the Switcher steal this property from?"

"I don't know," I told him. "I didn't see any company logos or copyright notices or anything like that."

"Okay," he acknowledged. "Is there anything else?"

"No, I think that's everything."

He verified my name and phone number and said someone from the office would be in touch.

After we ended the call, Femke observed, "He didn't sound convinced."

I shrugged. It hardly mattered; all the man had to do was pass the message along.

 


 

Femke helped me choose an outfit for my job interview. It was a peach shift dress and a pair of pale beige heels. It was comfortable. Casual, but classy, I thought.

The next morning I begged her to do my makeup one last time, but she refused. After some negotiation, she agreed to supervise while I did my face. Some doubtful looks crossed her face as I worked, but didn't give any real guidance or corrections. She only told me at the end, "You'll get better. Besides, there are only men in this office, am I right?" I nodded, so she said, "I'm sure that no matter how inaccurate your makeup, they will consider you the next Miss America."

Did that mean I'd done it badly? As far as I could see, it was fine.

"As with everything, there are tutorials on YouTube," was the only help she gave me.

 


 

At three minutes past nine I pulled up in front of Cleo and Mukti's house. Mukti was nowhere to be seen, but Wayne was there, walking his little dog. As if he hadn't moved since I last saw him, Wayne was wearing the same clothes as the day before, if you could call them clothes: red shorts, dark blue tank top. Again he was shoeless. He walked up next to my car and touched the door handle. His eyes fell on my legs. I immediately checked the hem of my dress. It covered me. Good.

Wayne opened the door. I put my hand on the doorframe, and climbed out. Wayne's face went through some dramatic changes, registering astonishment and unexpected pleasure. It all happened so quickly — too quickly for me to correct my movements. I gave him a clear and unobstructed view of my underwear. Somehow I managed to not blush.

Jumping up, I brushed off my skirt, though there was nothing to brush off other than embarrassment. I tuggled it down in back, even though it was already in place.

I almost apologized, but managed to bite my tongue.

"Hello!" Wayne greeted me, his face full of delight. "You've come back for more."

Right on cue, the little dog trotted up and licked my left ankle.

"Is that the... same ankle as yesterday?" he asked, pointing.

"Yes," I confirmed, pressing my lips tight together.

"I'd love to know what she's going for, down there," Wayne teased.

I shook my head to signify that I had no idea. Out loud I asked, "What's your dog's name?"

"Pom-Pom," he replied. "Kind of obvious. My mother was a cheerleader, long ago. Hard to imagine, but true."

Actually, it wasn't hard to imagine. Far from it. Wayne's mother was young, quite a bit younger than Wayne's father, and she was in great shape. As Anson, I'd admired her, and inevitably had fantasies about her. Of course, to Wayne, she was nothing but "Mom."

"You must have been a cheerleader, too, I'm sure," Wayne offered, giving me a playful nudge.

I hedged a bit, then told him, "Wayne, look. I told you: I was switched. I'm Anson Charpont. I haven't the faintest idea whether the person who used to occupy this body was a cheerleader, but I, as Anson, never was."

"Right," he responded, nodding slowly, still not believing. Then, as if I hadn't spoken, he said, "Listen, I believe that fortune favors the bold. Have you heard that? I'm going bold right now, so get ready. I feel we've got chemistry, right? You feel it. I'm sure you do. I mean, I know this: I like you and I'm pretty certain that you like me. And when I say we like each other, I mean..." Here he made a slow gesture with his hands, palms down, fingers slowly opening, palms slowly turning up. It wasn't a gesture with a real meaning, but I understood what he was trying to show me: it was energy. Energy unfolding. Energy inside each of us, warm, glowing, reaching out to the other. He studied my face as my thoughts flitted across, and he finished by stating, "You know what I mean, don't you."

"Yeah," I admitted in spite of myself, and involuntarily licked my lips. I mean, my tongue popped out and wet my lips. It wasn't as though I did some kind of gross circle with my tongue around the outline of my mouth. Even so, I shocked and embarrassed myself, but I had to admit, Wayne was right: I wanted him. I actually trembled slightly. But only slightly. I don't think he noticed.

"Listen," he continued, glancing up at my old front door. Mukti had just emerged. "There's a place on Olduvai called the Golden Farthing. Do you know it?"

"Uh, it rings a bell."

He gave a sly, sideward grin. "Perhaps you know it as the Golden Farting." He cackled at his own joke.

"Let's hope not," I muttered, feeling suddenly uncomfortable, aware that the ground was shifting.

"What do you say we meet there tonight? Say, 9:30?"

"Nine-thirty?" I repeated. Nine-thirty! It seemed awfully late. I never was a party person.

He took his eyes off me a moment to glance up at Mukti, who had almost reached my car.

"Great!" Wayne enthused. "It's a date!" He turned to lead his dog away and down the street. "Hey there, Mr Charpont!" he called, giving an over-the-shoulder wave. I very nearly waved back, like an idiot. "Mr Charpont," I muttered to myself.

Mukti, for his part, waved magnanimously to Wayne, grinning. To me he said, "Mr Charpont, huh? That'll take some getting used to."

"Tell me about it," I agreed.

"Oh, yes, and you! You'll have to get used to NOT being Mr Charpont, won't you!" he chuckled.

 


 

I had meant to use our time in the car to prepare Mukti: to give him the low-down on Leon, my old boss. I wanted Mukti to have a clear sense of who we'd be talking to. I didn't expect to be able to work out anything as exalted as a strategy, but at least we could get on the same page as far as our general approach and work out a couple possible tactics, depending on Leon's reactions.

Unfortunately, after being so thoroughly knocked off balance by Wayne, I hadn't yet recovered my equilibrium. Strategy and tactics were the farthest thing from my mind.

While I struggled to get a grip on my inner turmoil, Mukti took the conversational rudder.

He regaled me with the progress of his podcast, which was "getting underway" and "would soon be full-steam-ahead." He spent virtually all of yesterday calling around his circle of friends — other yoga teachers, students, and spiritual fellow-travelers — to update them on his having been switched. By Mukti's telling, they were uniformly charmed and delighted by the news. Not only was Mukti the first switcher victim of their acquaintance, he was a kindred spirit and happy to share the working out and working through of his experience. To each of his friends and acquaintances he mentioned the idea of a podcast. The idea was enthusiastically received, and as it turned out, a name came up: a friend of a friend, who had experience producing podcasts.

"Her name is Linda... Linda with a complicated last name. I'm embarrassed to say I couldn't grasp it on the fly. But I'll get it. Anyway, I've spoken to her, and she's all in. You see, Linda recently finished a series, and was casting around for a topic. See, she has the experience, the talent, to DO a podcast, but she was lacking the WHAT — the subject — the focus for the podcast to center on."

"Sounds good," I commented, silently kicking myself for getting more-or-less tricked into a date with someone ten years younger than me (physically) and forty years my junior (in life experience)! Even so (as Wayne had pointed out), the attraction was there. Oh God, it was there in spades. I knew I was being foolish, but I couldn't pass it up.

Still, while one part of me was shouting go, go, go! another part of me was analyzing the situation and metaphorically kicking myself for going along. I hadn't become a teenager, after all, so I couldn't blame hormones. Or could I? What did I know, really, about hormones. And then, what about pheromones? Adults can have pheromones; I was pretty sure. Could I blame pheromones? Are pheromones this strong? And if Wayne was blasting pheromones at me, could they possibly affect me at a distance? When he wasn't there? Did they stick on me, or infect me?

The mostly likely answer, though, was that I was overthinking it. That it came down to one simple thing: a strong physical desire. I was young again and I'd met someone whose desire keyed into mine.

Intellectually, I could tell myself that I was acting foolishly, but my body didn't find it a compelling argument.

I mean, it wasn't even a case of "the heart wants what the heart wants." It was the body that wanted what it wants. It was like being hungry or thirsty, or needing to use the restroom. It doesn't matter what your heart or head have to say in the matter. The body wins out.

Even if I *could* stop myself — and I wasn't sure I could — but even if I *could* stop myself, I knew I there was no way that I would. I knew I'd be at the Golden Farthing tonight. I'd probably get there early, in my shortest dress and my highest heels.

Dear God.

The worst part was that — as I said — I could feel the attraction, the burning, even when Wayne wasn't there. It consumed me. As Mukti and I got out of my car and walked across the parking lot toward my old office building, it was there: Wayne's presence... his influence... my almost palpable attraction for him. I could feel it, like a blanket, over my whole body. It made me clumsy and self-conscious. I almost tripped, stepping over the curb, feeling the effect of his touch, of his grin, of his little dog licking my ankle.

What was up with that, anyway? What it simply that the Pomeranian couldn't reach any higher?

Inside, in my head space, it was there. Like the boom-boom-boom of massive loudspeakers at a concert. It drownd out everything else. It was like swimming in the ocean. I had to make an effort to stick my head up and out of the water, if I wanted to think about anything else.

Mukti followed me into the building, into the elevator. Having gone this route every workday for decades, I moved on autopilot. We made our way down the hall, my steps progressively slowing as we grew nearer to the door. Once we reached it, I stopped dead and rested my hand on the doorknob. Mukti glanced at me, smiling patiently, benevolently. If I stood still, he stood still. If I moved, he moved, ready to go where I went, to follow and second anything I said or did.

"Mukti," I told him in an undertone — not wanting to be heard by anyone within — "if anyone tries to do more than greet you, if anyone tries to start a conversation or ask you questions, tell them to give you a moment, okay? Tell them you need to talk to Leon first, all right? I don't want to get bogged down. If we're not careful, we'll end giving the same explanation many times over. We'll lose control of the situation. It's best if we get to Leon first."

"Got it," he acknowledged.

"Leon's office is at the far end. We'll breeze through the code floor, get into Leon's office, close the door, and convince him."

"The code floor?"

"Yeah. That's what Leon calls it. It's just... where everybody works. That's all. It's just a group of desks. If I'm lucky, my desk will still be empty."

"Great."

"Okay, here we go." I took a breath, then paused again. "One more thing," I cautioned, sotto voce. "Leon is a nice guy, but he's very rigid. Very rules-oriented. Even though we're asking him to bend the rules, or ignore the rules — or maybe we're saying there are no rules that govern this — we can't actually say those words. He has to be able to pretend that everything he's doing is normal, usual, justifiable; everything on the up-and-up."

Mukti nodded. "Got it."

I opened the door and stepped briskly inside. Mukti followed, and closed the door behind him. He noisily fumbled with the knob, trying three times to make the door stay shut. This gave everyone at their desks a chance to give the pair of us a good once-over. Five sets of eyes glanced at me, then at Anson, then back to me again. I felt their collective gaze drag over me, from foot to head and aback again, like an X-ray scan.

No subtilty. As Femke had foreseen, they were all men, in an enclave in which women were rarely seen.

A little impatiently I signalled with my head to start walking. Mukti followed, but couldn't resist saying hello to everyone. He had a "Hey there" or a "What's up?" or a handshake for each person we passed. However, he behaved himself: he didn't dally; he didn't dither. He didn't start any conversations. He short-circuited every question by pointing ahead and saying, "Gotta talk to the big man. Later, right?"

Leon stood at the window of his office. He was young, in his mid-thirties. He spent an hour every morning in the gym, and it showed. His posture was perfect. His chest was a bit puffed out, like a rooster's, and his coif was perfect: never a hair out of place. His shirt was perfectly white with nary a winkle. His tie was Tiffany blue and looked as though he'd bought it that morning.

Leon was a static entity. He always looked the same, behaved the same. Only the color of his tie varied. If you asked him a question today, and asked the same question tomorrow, or two weeks from now, or two years from now, Leon would always give the same response.

We used to joke that Leon was the incarnation of a flow-chart. A flow-chart works something like this:

- Are you wearing a hat?
- Yes?
- Are you indoors?
- Yes?
- Take off your hat.

The point is, that if you needed something from Leon, you couldn't appeal to his intuition, to his sense of propriety or justice, or even to his common sense. You wouldn't get any credit for creativity from Leon. You needed to hit the right keys, and only the right keys; If you satisfied the rules in Leon's head, you got the desired outcome.

... which was a problem for me. I'm felt pretty sure that Leon's internal set of rules hadn't been updated to include the Switcher.

Another difficulty was that Leon was the only decision maker. Our company was small. We had no Human Resources department. Leon was the ultimate authority when it came to hiring and firing. Certainly there were powers and authorities above him, but they were distant, nameless, and far away.

Frankly, I didn't have a plan of approach to Leon. It would have been smart to discuss it with Cleo. She understands people — especially quirky people — and probably could have provided some practical advice.

Well... if this foray was unsuccessful, I could try running it by Cleo; see if she could give me a basis for making a second appeal.

At present, I figured Leon's ruleset regarding me ran this way:

- Does Anson want to come back to work?
- Yes?
- Is his old position open?
- Yes?
- Do you need another programmer?
- Yes?
- Hire him back.

My problem was that I needed to insert this equivalence:

- Merope equals Anson

I don't think he had any rules that could help me in that regard.

Regardless: step one was to get into Leon's office and close the door. I'd swept through the code floor: a set of six desks — one of them empty — past five sets of eyes strafing me as I passed. Mukti was close behind, waving, glad-handing, but not slowing down, not stopping.

So far, so good.

Until we hit two wrinkles. The first was that someone was in Leon's office. Someone was sitting in Leon's chair. I didn't see her until virtually the last minute, when she swiveled, turning the back of Leon's chair away, revealing a young woman with blonde hair that fell in waves to her shoulders.

The second wrinkle was Dave: the last coder on the right. He wouldn't let go of Anson's hand, and insisted on trying to engage.

Mukti did his best to protest, to free his hand. He pointed toward Leon's office. It did no good. Dave persisted. He didn't let go.

Impatiently, I turned. I grabbed both their wrists and pulled their hands apart. "We need to talk to Leon," I told Dave in a stern voice. "They'll be time for talking after."

"Jeez!" Dave protested. "Chill out, lady, huh?"

I turned, and Mukti followed me into Leon's office.

In that moment, I recognized the woman. It was Carrie, Leon's wife. She was about the same age as Leon. They met while getting their MBAs, and married soon after. She managed to keep an executive position with an investment firm while taking care of their two children.

I didn't actually know her. We'd met a handful of times, at office parties, or briefly when she brought the kids to visit.

In the present moment, she was a wildcard. I didn't know whether her presence helped me or hurt me. The fact that she was there might pre-empt me entirely. Leon could simply say he couldn't talk right now. He could force me to reschedule and lose the element of surprise.

"Anson?" Leon exclaimed, his eyes fixed on Mukti. "I certainly didn't expect to see you! Are you looking to come back to work?"

Carrie, comfortably ensconced in Leon's chair, oscillated slowly back and forth, and let her gaze play over Mukti and me. She had an interested, sly look — she sensed that a game was afoot.

"Well," Mukti replied, with a glance at me, "that's what we've come to discuss."

"We?" Leon asked, glancing at me. "And, who is this exactly?" He held out his hand to me.

"Merope Goddard," I said, taking his hand. involuntarily, I turned to look at Carrie.

Carrie fixed her eyes on Mukti. "It's good to see you again, Anson," she said with a smile.

"Ah, yes," he replied. "Always a pleasure."

"Look," I told them both, cutting to the chase, "Here's the situation: the two of us have been switched. A few days ago we each encountered the Switcher. Now I'm Anson Charpont, and he's Mukti Endecott."

Carrie, delighted, smiled. Her eyes sparkled. "I knew something was up! It's like Freaky Friday, isn't it?" she laughed.

"Well, yes, I guess it is," I admitted. "Except that I'm not his mother."

Mukti's eyebrows went up. "And we can't switch back," he added.

Carrie laughed. "This is just... precious!"

"Oh no, oh no," Leon said, raising his hand in a stop gesture. "I think I see where this is going." He pointed at me. "You want to work here, and your ploy is saying that you're him." [He pointed to Mukti.]

"He's quick," Mukti observed, in an aside to me.

"It's not a ploy," I protested. "It's a fact."

Carrie pressed her palms together, smiling, nodding, taking in the scene.

"A fact?" Leon echoed. "Can you... *document* this fact? Can you provide me with a... I don't know... a statement, an affidavit from one of those... what do you call them?"

"Processing centers," I offered.

"Exactly. Can they substantiate your claim that you are now... internally at least... Anson Charpont?"

"No," I replied. "They don't do that."

"Hmmph," Leon grunted. We'd already hit a terminal point in his rule logic.

"Look, Leon, I've been dropped into this body, but everything I know about Cobol, programming, compilers, clients — everything! — it's all in here." I tapped my head. "I need a job, and unless something's drastically changed in the past two weeks, you need me."

Leon stiffened and shook his head. "How could I possibly justify hiring you? Do you even have a resume?"

"No."

"Do you see my problem? You have no demonstrable experience, and yet you want a job. I suppose you think you can simply pick up where you left off — same duties, same pay?"

"Well, yes, of course! I'm the same person on the inside."

Leon's face was a mask of distinct discomfort. "I'm afraid it would stink of impropriety. I mean, a person your age, a new hire, earning more than some of the men sitting out there who've been here for... years!"

"Decades, even," I threw in. "Look," I challenged, "I can tell you everything about this business — the work we've done, what's on the roadmap for the year ahead. I can tell you the history of anything here. Give me some work to do, and you know I'll get it done."

Leon twisted and shifted as if in pain. "Yes, but who are you? I mean, look. Let's say I believe you — that you're Anson Charpont—"

"Come on, Leon," I pushed back hard, "You do believe me. You know who I am."

"Okay. Okay. I believe you. I know who you are, inside, let's say. But legally, on paper, how do I demonstrate that? Is there any other govenment entity, on any level, that can give me a piece of paper that I can shake in anyone's face to justify hiring you in your previous position?"

"No. Unfortunately no one will do that."

"Then, I'm sorry. I'm genuinely sorry, Anson. There's nothing I can do. My hands are tied. I could take you on as an intern..."

"An unpaid intern." It wasn't a question.

"To start."

Mukti gestured helplessly. He wanted to offer something, to say something, to give something, but he had nothing to give.

"Leon, try to see this from my point of view. Where else am I going to go? What else am I going to do? Work as a temp? As a typist?"

Leon shrugged apologetically.

"The problem is that I can't justify hiring you."

I searched my brain for another tack, another way to come at him, but drew a blank.

"Okay," I said, "I'm sorry."

"Maybe you could get some kind of training... or certification...," he offered, vaguely.

I straightened up. I was about to turn and go, when Carrie spoke.

"Anson, wait. Leon, what are you doing?" she asked.

"What do you mean, what am I doing?" he replied. "I'm doing what I have to do."

"No," she said. "Let's take a step back and ask ourselves: how many people are in Anson's situation right now? Or — Merope's situation? Mukti's situation? They have skills, they have histories, they have abilities and experience, but no one recognizes it."

"Naturally," he said. "That's the problem. The government could close that gap with a simple document."

"Forget what the government could or would or should do. The question is, what can you do? *You* could be the vanguard," she offered. "You could be the first. Leon, you complain that your company is invisible. That nobody knows you. Nobody knows what you do. Everyone believes that Cobol has had its day." She gestured at me. "Merope has given you a way to change that."

Leon scowled. He took a deep breath, but he didn't speak.

"If you take her back, exactly where she left off, think what that would mean."

He gestured helplessly.

"Think what a story that would be. What do we know about people who've been switched?"

He thought for a moment. "Nothing."

"Exactly! Nobody knows! What do you think happens to them? They go home, they go back to their old lives, and everyone says, I don't know you. Who are you?." She looked at Mukti and me. "Does that sound about right?"

"I think so," I answered. "I met one young girl in particular who is pretty messed up. I don't know whether she'll recover."

"So what are you suggesting I do?" Leon demanded.

"Give Anson her old job back!" Carrie declared.

Leon hesitated, looking at each of us in turn.

Carrie asked me, "Do you have your own social security number? and proof of employability? As Merope?"

"Yes."

"There you go!" she challenged Leon.

Leon groaned and sighed, as if in physical pain.

"Come on, Leon!" she coaxed. "You'll be a hero. Think about that."

He considered it. The muscles in his jaw worked the idea over. He heaved a few deep breaths. He didn't like being the vanguard. He didn't want to be a hero. And yet, he knew that Carrie was right.

"Okay," he acquiesced, grudgingly. "You can start tomorrow. Entry-level salary."

"What?" I exclaimed. "Are you asking me to do entry-level work?"

"Of course not!" he replied. Carrie gave him a cautionary look.

"Okay, okay!" he said. "Tomorrow, at your previous pay rate. Just... don't tell the others."

Carrie nodded, satisfied.

"Leon, you and I will have to talk about the PR aspect of re-hiring her." She looked at me. "Are you okay with that? With being a story? A face and a name people will see on the news?"

"Yes," I agreed. "If that's what it takes."

"We're going to hire a smart publicist," Carrie said to Leon. "Someone who knows how to manage a story like this, and make the most of it."

Leon looked as though he suddenly developed a case of indigestion, but he nodded.

"Good move, dude," Mukti assured him, resting his hand on Leon's shoulder.

Carrie smiled, and turned to Mukti. "Now tell us, what's your story?"

"My name is — or was — Mukti Endecott. I was a thirty-three year old yoga teacher." He turned to look at Leon. His heavy hand still rested on Leon's shoulder. He gave Leon a friendly shake. "I can help you with that knot in your shoulder, if you'll let me."

Leon sighed heavily one last time, and moved a little so Mukti could stand behind him. Turning to me said, "Do you remember the Borrow Borough? That's going to be your account." He made it sound like punishment. (And it was.)

"Looking forward to it," I told him, feeling like soldier assigned to the front.

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Comments

well, she got her job back

I am kind of worried about her going on a date with someone who she has such strong physical desire -she could end up pregnant!

DogSig.png

Identities: gender, societal, personal...

SammyC's picture

I love how you've elevated the Switcher Universe concept from primarily an exploration of gender and sexual identity to a broader and even more troubling exploration of our social and personal identities. The value of work, of a job that we go to five days a week (COVID made that clearer than ever) and the safety net of our personal relationships -- friends, family, colleagues. This is social satire in a science-fiction setting. I give it a 98. It's got a good beat and you can dance to it.

Hugs,

Sammy

Thank you kindly!

Iolanthe Portmanteaux's picture

Melanie Brown is very inventive. When she first unveiled the Switcher and opened the idea up to other writers, I started making notes of all sorts of things that could happen, such as accidental switches (like Anson's) or a group of friends who all shift over into the body of a spouse or friend (Minority of One).

This character, the Switcher, is potentially immortal, but at the same time is cursed as King Midas was, in that he can't touch anyone without switching with them.

So, yeah, starting from the rich matrix she set down, all I'm doing is running through a few ramifications.

Thanks for the high marks!

hugs,

- iolanthe

Think Girl

For the past two chapters I've been meaning to "warn" Merope that her desire to "fly under the radar" was incompatable with going back to her old job. I thought, inevitably, the word would get out. Now, with Carrie's involvment she can forget about blending in. There could be knock-on effects.

Then there's Wayne. The clear-headed Femke could see Javier's interest and the advantages of exploring that. Merope's head, on the other hand, has completely checked out where Wayne is concerned.

Merope's story continues to confound expectations.

Yes, the radar was tossed out with the bath water

Iolanthe Portmanteaux's picture

Yes, the next steps above the radar appear right away at the start of the next chapter.

You can see, though, that Merope is short-sighted. She was only thinking about herself, about how to make a living, and ventured Carrie's rather all-consuming offer against earning a paycheck again. She will come to see that her actions do contribute to the general good, to people switched out of their livelihoods and careers.

Partly this is due to the isolation of most Switcher victims. Something ought to be done!

As to Wayne: every time I think of this part of the story, I remember a description a friend gave of the book The Strange Life of Ivan Osokin (which I just borrowed a moment ago from the library). This guy gets an opportunity to live his life over again, and even though he's determined to avoid some mistakes he made, he finds himself compelled -- in the same circumstances as before -- to commit the same wrong acts.

How bad could it be, after all?

Muahahahaha!

hugs,

- iolanthe

Good Grief!

SammyC's picture

I mean Gurdjieff. It's notable that both Nietzsche in Thus Spake Zarathustra and Ouspensky in The Strange Life argue that "the cycle of eternal recurrence" could be broken. Otherwise, a lot of therapists would be out of work.

Otherwise, a lot of therapists would be out of work.

Hugs,

Sammy