The buzz of solar buses and the exhaust smell of older vehicles assaulted me as I climbed the stairs to my apartment. No cool spring breeze and no shade in this place. Sweaty after running six miles through the smoggy streets of Charlotte, I sank into a deck chair on my balcony and stared at a stack of application disks on the glass table. I booted my player and took a look. One stood out. Ms. Cheryl Hallford resembled my past customers. Thirty-ish. Alone. Wealthy. Sedentary hobbies. Plus, she listed walking for exercise, and had helped with an outdoor drama. Well-rounded, so to speak.
I pulled my sun visor more securely to shade my face and tensed at noises of the sawbots clearing hardwoods as I read. No whining from Cheryl about feeling faint and dizzy if she couldnt eat frequently, and no creative excuses for not exercising. Shed only listed Miracle Whip and Girl Scout Lemon Pastry Cremes in the half page of blank space left for "Foods I will probably not be able to give up."
Two days later, without responding to my sisters pleas for a timeout, I met my potential customer in Helens clinic. "Cheryl Hallford?"
A cute woman with a shiny, black pixie hairdo twisted her head to look at me, then hefted herself to her feet and waddled toward the door where I stood.
I smiled and said, "Hi, Im Reba Adams." I noted with satisfaction that Cheryl had not fudged about her weight. She was 125 pounds over ideal, as the scales soon verified.
Once inside the inner clinic, I shook her damp hand and gave her a look of encouragement. After introducing her to my sister Helen, I expected to leave Cheryl in the examining cubicle, but Helen ushered Cheryl back into the waiting room and insisted on speaking with me privately. My sisters sleek, perfectly coiffed auburn hair contrasted with her harried expression. I felt a twinge of impatience as I paced in Helens tidy office, its walls covered with framed diplomas, awards, and still-life prints in warm colors. The coffee pots aroma mixed with the clinics disinfectant smells. I tried to pay attention to Helen, and not look out the window at the forsythia bushes. Most suffered from severe pruning, but one had a few gently waving tendrils already starting to bud.
Helen said, "Joe Clark died."
"That Changer in New York."
"Oh, him. What a whacko. He wanted his clients to wear e-bracelets so hed know where they were at all times."
"Well, he did work in a megacity. And died."
"So? One person."
"He was 27. Younger than you!"
"Was there any proof his Changing was the cause?"
She sank back into her chair. "No, but this surgery... you know its rarely done more than twice in any persons life." I knew she was thinking of the sad cases she had dealt with of parents who asked to sub their brains for their children. Children whove had cancer or worse and have suffered through extreme disease treatments. Many of the parents were willing to die for their kids, but children had to be of a certain age and size. Thoughts of those with children too young for an exchange still haunted my sister.
I remained respectfully silent for a moment, then said, "Lets not analyze everything; this is the career of a lifetime for me."
"Reba, the January 21 Neurosurgery Update with the article on osteohypertrophic problems questioned repeated brain exchange surgeries stating--"
"Im perfectly fine and healthy. For heavens sake, the womans here. Lets get on with it." I glanced at Helen's face, tight with tension, and added in a calmer voice, "That journal has a bias against any quote unquote unnecessary surgery."
She relaxed slightly, as though shed wanted me to argue with her, and I understood. I was a key part of her livelihood now that she had reluctantly joined the rebel docs, those who had rid themselves of the third-party tar baby of insurance and management organizations.
Helen breathed deeply and said, "After seven years and twelve surgeries, its hard to know whats going to happen."
I hated any conflict with Helen. She was more a mother to me than our actual mother, who moved to Myrtle Beach after Dad died because she said it was the only place left that still had bleached white Kleenex. With a last look at the budding forsythia, I walked away from the window and said, "If something happens to me, its my problem and not your fault, OK?" Her silence and pained expression affected me more than I wanted it to.
After my sister examined Cheryl, I asked the woman to follow me through the physicians side door entrance and outside. We were greeted by exhaust fumes from presolar cars traveling too fast for city streets.
"Id like to take a brief walk, if thats OK with you?" I searched her face for signs of dread and found none.
"Sure, thats fine."
Despite breathing heavily, she had little trouble trudging the four blocks I requested. She broke a sweat, but made no comment about the weather being warm for March, as though she knew Id think less of her for trying to minimize her perspiring.
In the bright sunlight, she looked over at me and continued staring, but I expected this from the people who would soon inhabit my body. Eventually she commented, "Your hairdresser does an excellent job with your blonde frosting, or is that your natural color?"
I cleared my throat. "Thanks, its artificial. Speaking of hair, while working I prefer wearing caps and scarves to wigs, but if you want..."
"Oh, whatever you want to do is fine."
I considered pursuing this a bit, since Cheryl was from a small town. While working in Charlotte, I rarely got a second glance as a bald woman, but in Rockton wed surely run into all kinds of folks she knew.
For a rural person, she remained curiously undistracted by the garish advertising rectangles painted on the streets, the digital horns and yells of angry drivers, and whiffs of garbage and sewage. She looked at me with a frown and asked, "Ms. Adams, the material I read and the vid said only one week of in-patient treatment after the surgery, but how can it be so short?"
"Please, call me Reba," I said. "You may be aware of the new microsurgery technology? And the new treatments which eliminate immune reactions?" Cheryl nodded. "Actually, the inpatient care might need to be a bit longer in your case, since you live too far away for us to return to the clinic on a daily basis for monitoring."
"How much longer?"
"Theres about a week long period of intense follow-up, then monthly checks."
"So, wed be in the clinic for two weeks?"
"Thats a question for Dr. Adams, I suppose."
She looked at me intently. "It must be difficult on you, going through so many surgeries."
"Not really. Its very safe." Most clients had taken for granted the safety of the surgery itself and had focused on questions about living arrangements and the lifestyle changes I worked with them on during the six-month exchange period. I figured her background as a receptionist for her physician father, now deceased, had increased her focus on these medical areas. Her parents deaths had left her comfortably cared for, no longer in need of a job.
"Do you have any concerns about living arrangements?" I asked.
"Not at all. Itll be nice having someone else in that rambling house." Her voice had started out soft and tentative, but became stronger, more confident, as we talked.
"Any questions about the contract?"
"No, not really. It makes sense that youd want an extra fee if I gained too much while in your body."
At this point in the process, clients hadnt yet signed the contract, and most hadnt bothered reading it. I was impressed.
We paused to watch a Safetybot gather data on a bike collision, then moved on when blocked motorists started honking. Cheryl nodded, looking lost in thought. "So, we go everywhere together? So you can make sure I dont cheat?"
I gave her the answer she needed to hear, "Yes," so shed rid herself of any notion that she could get away with anything. After several months or so, I generally relaxed my accompaniment requirements. "Now, you may be wondering what contingencies exist for my not losing the guaranteed amount of 90 pounds?"
"Oh, Im not worried about that." She quickly looked over at me and smiled, as though the thought had never entered her head.
I was glad she was so upbeat, but I felt I should add, "Well, its never happened, but I suppose theres a first time for everything."
Helen snored softly in the passenger seat of my Merc as I sped past wooded hills and newly plowed fields on our way to Rockton for preliminary consultations. Cheryl Hallford lived 80 miles northwest of Charlotte in the foothills of North Carolina, and she wasn't on any transit run. Thus, Helen worried that she couldnt keep as close a watch on me and my customer as she wanted to. Also, this would be the first patient for whom she was not familiar with the referring doctor, though shed heard of him and had colleagues who knew him. I sometimes wondered how Helen could have any peace of mind at all, as much of a nitpicker as she was. No, this was not a perfect client situation, but I was ready to get out of Charlotte. Cheryl had told me of a lovely shaded walking path that meandered several miles along the Catawba River. One of her goals was to be able to complete the route and return without having to stop and rest. Stopping and resting were two things rarely on my agenda.
Helen stirred, coming awake as we turned off a winding country road and rolled into a gravel drive. She sleepily asked what time it was.
"Twenty of ten, were early," I replied.
A perfect white clapboard house rested among oaks and red maples. Birds chirped and trilled. I breathed in clean air imbued with the scent of boxwood shrubs that flanked Cheryls front porch steps, and felt an immediate sense of peace.
Cheryl greeted us warmly and gave Helen directions to Dr. Binghams office. Hed agreed to meet her there, though he did not work on Saturdays, but a weekend day was the only time Helen could come. I had suggested she simply do a phone consult, but no way. "Hes in the boonies, he probably doesnt even use a vidphone," shed said. "Ill telephone the personal references, but not the doctor." She reminded me that no precaution was too extreme for the serious business of bodychanging.
After she drove away, Cheryl and I discussed the contract; then she showed me around her home and grounds for a while. Bright and excited, she did most of the talking. My thoughts were distracted by the mountains in the distance, the sharp profile of Table Rock, the cherry trees and red maples in her pasture.
"No animals nowadays, so we just keep junk in the barn," Cheryl was saying.
"Everyone needs a place like that for extra stuff." I smiled at her and kept walking toward the weathered wood building.
She stopped and watched me for a moment, then offered, "Well, if you want to see inside it, I can go get the padlock key."
The whooshing buzz of an approaching car caught my attention. "Oh, thats not necessary."
Helen pulled into the drive, and we walked back to the house, eventually signing the contract and setting the date for the surgery.
The first inkling of something amiss was how truly awful I felt after waking in post-op. Im accustomed to the lethargy, the headaches, the throbbing scalp, and the dullness that I feel in the fat-draped bodies Im temporarily inhabiting. But after the surgery transplanting me into Cheryls flesh, I noted a weakness, a bloating, and stomach pain, which went beyond anything I had experienced previously. "Im just getting old," I joked with Helen.
"Um hm." Shed finished a session of poking and prodding, and picked up my chart. "Youre not showing anything out of whack on the tests we usually run, but you know Ill never let you leave here until weve figured out whats going on."
I had a sinking sensation, thinking of more exams and testing, and more delays in moving to the picturesque farmhouse in Rockton. "Look, let me be for a day or two. I just need more time."
Helen started to speak, then simply frowned. "OK, but if you dont feel better by tomorrow night, dont plan on leaving the clinic."
Later I learned Cheryl was a little anxious upon hearing I wasnt 100%, and confessed to Helen she had developed a stomachache the day before the surgery but thought it was just nerves and didnt want to tell anyone. Thanks a lot, I thought, but I understood. So, maybe I was getting the flu.
I fudged a little on how I felt, but I did improve some by the next night, and I convinced Helen that I and Cheryl, who had naturally recuperated from the surgery without a hitch, could go to Rockton as scheduled the following day. That night, I visited Cheryls room, and we saw each other for the first time. I get a big kick out of the post-surgery reaction of my customers. Cheryl turned out to be one of the more expressive clients Ive dealt with, laughing as she stood before the mirror, touching herself (myself) all over, and unable to hide the delight in her (my) face when she saw me. Sometimes, clients get depressed seeing their bodies and bald heads from the outside, but not Cheryl.
"What youre doing for me is so wonderful," she breathed, as though this was a favor, not a business transaction. I chalked up her zealous appreciation to genteel Southern manners. She grinned as she told me how nice it was to move all in one piece as she walked. I nodded and sighed as I lumbered toward her, feeling myself roll along in waves. Her hug was tight and happy, and in a few days, we would be in the quiet farmhouse in Rockton.
After lunch at the clinic on the first Saturday in April, Cheryl and I headed out. How nice it would have been if I could have let someone else do the driving, but with force of will, I made it, following behind Cheryl in her white Olds. As planned, we stopped by a small grocery store on the outskirts of Rockton (no Internet delivery services out here), but I asked her to go in without me and just get milk, bread, and juice. Wed do the rest later. She said nothing, but I noted her look of concern. At her home, I dropped my overnight bag on her living room floor, breathing heavily. She took this opportunity to apologize for not mentioning her flu symptoms prior to the surgery.
"No problem." I assured her. "Ill be fine. Im not accustomed to a long drive after the surgery, and I probably need to rest a bit." Shed be paying a price for lying anyway if she had to nurse me for a week.
Her expression showed helplessness, funny to see in my face. She wore gray sweats embroidered with a drug companys logo, one of several outfits supplied by the clinic. After a moment, she said, "Ill make you some herbal tea, and you can lie down in the bedroom, if you want." I decided then to delay my first-day ritual of menu planning and grocery buying, because bed rest sounded great. Cheryl carried my bag and led me to the back bedroom, where she had moved all her own clothing into the drawers and closet for my use.
Once in the room, I felt better simply being surrounded by delicate flowered wallpaper, Wedgwood blue carpeting, and the canopied bed done up in white. Ruffled curtains parted on two west windows aglow in mid-afternoon sunlight and showing a view of the former pasture, now a meadow coming alive with spring wildflowers.
Cheryl soon returned with a steaming mug of Sleepytime tea. I breathed in the soothing spearmint aroma, drank most of it, then undressed and got under the covers. I managed to mumble a weak "Thanks" when she returned later to refill the mug. Within moments, I was asleep.
I awoke in the dark feeling groggy, and saw stars in the sky outside my windows. As I pressed a button on my watch, the numbers 3:10 became illuminated, and my pulse showed 101, while an electronic voice told me, "Skies clear, 65 degrees, no rain forecast." With some difficulty, I raised my bulk out of the bed, and after visiting the bathroom as quietly as possible so as not to wake Cheryl, I returned, relieved I did not have to officially get up for hours yet. The mug of tea remained on the bedside table, and even though it was cold, I drank all that was left.
The next time I awoke was 4:30 P.M. the following evening, Sunday.
I lay there, not feeling like moving, for the longest time. With a heaviness that had nothing to do with my weight, I realized that if I didnt feel a lot better soon, Id have to call Helen. Perhaps this was the flu, but it might be something worse. Heaving myself up, I looked around the house for Cheryl, but she was not there. I made my way into the kitchen, and on the dark oak table pushed against the inside wall, I found a sticky note that said, "Hi Reba, hope youre feeling better. I didnt want to disturb you, but needed to run a few errands and will return soon." This would probably prove innocent enough, but she shouldnt have left to go anywhere without me. Sighing, I realized I had been out of commission all day. Of course, Cheryl had gotten restless. I shuffled around the kitchen pulling a plastic gallon of nonfat milk from the refrigerator and placing two slices of bread in the Ray-toast. I hadnt eaten since the day before, so I felt Cheryl would forgive me for not waiting for her for supper.
Although I never watch the Hi-D, I needed some distraction from my misery, so I plopped down in Cheryls large recliner after supper and clicked on her viewscreen. As usual, little worth seeing was on, and my mind wandered to the tasks Id soon have to do. I figured Id need to get Cheryl outside walking as soon as possible, even if I had to delay my own physical activity. She liked all kinds of fish, so wed experiment with some of those recipes at first. She could still eat her favorite foods, but Id work on the often foreign concepts of moderation and not putting things into your mouth for long periods of time.
Eventually, I began staring out the windows whenever a vehicle approached, expecting her to come home soon. When she had not returned by dark, I felt a trickle of nervousness. It dawned on me that her note had not given any time of day as to when shed left. Perhaps shed had a wreck? I checked but nothing showed up on the local news.
An annoyingly loud "brrriinnng" startled me, and with a racing heart, I reached to answer the phone, an antique dial thing that must have been in the house over fifty years. I muted the TV, then felt a mixture of anxiety and relief at hearing my sister Helens voice.
"So, hows it going?"
"Its an adventure."
"And how are you feeling?"
I decided honesty was the best policy at this point and told all. After an uncomfortable silence, Helen took a breath and calmly announced she was coming up, now.
"Oh, for heavens sake..." But shed hung up.
I had nearly two hours to speculate on what was going on, and whether Helen would make Cheryl and me both return to the clinic. Helen had asked me to call her when Cheryl showed up, but my client remained absent. A few minutes past nine, I heard the telltale noise of Helens old combustible engine Volvo pulling into the drive. I flicked on the flood lights as I stepped through the front door. Helen emerged from her car with her black bag and laptop, hurried inside, and went straight through the house to the kitchen, establishing herself at the table. Once rid of her jacket, she gave me a hug, and said, "Everythings going to be OK."
With a shaky voice, I said, "Not if my body is dead in a ditch somewhere."
"If you havent heard from the highway patrol, thats highly unlikely."
Helen began efficiently checking my blood pressure, temperature, sutures, and my heart, and reassured me that all seemed well. She plugged in the computer, opened Cheryls file, and then softly cursed. Glancing up at me, she said, "No after-hours telephone for her doctor." I handed her the Rockton phone disk, and she actually found it listed and called. "Dr. Bingham? Dr. Helen Adams. Please forgive me for calling you at home, but there may be a problem with our mutual patient...." She listened, then said, "Cheryl Hallford, a 33-year-old white female." She paused and frowned, saying hesitantly, "No. Im a neurosurgeon. You do remember our visit? When I met you in your office four weeks ago? On a Saturday morning?"
Helen met my eyes, then swallowed and turned away, mumbling into the phone.
After hanging up, she said in a wavering voice that Dr. Bingham remembered Cheryl Hallford because she had been the daughter of the physician hed bought his practice from. "He said my call was jogging his memory, he thought there was something about problems with blood tests shed had. He thought I was an... oncologist... and he didn't meet any other doctor at his office on a Saturday a month ago."
I began feeling a slow enveloping dread. A heavy-chested, trembling sweatiness.
Helen asked, "What exact time did you last see Cheryl?"
I swallowed. "Well, I didnt look in her bedroom in the middle of the night. Soon after we got here yesterday, maybe 3:00 or 3:30."
My sisters eyes fell on the sticky note, which she slowly pulled from the table. "This may have been here well over 24 hours. She could be anywhere in the world by now."
Helen led me to the living room sofa and held me while I went ballistic, then degenerated into a heaving wreck.
After a handful of tissues and a glass of water, my trembling and sobs subsided. When I could speak again, I convinced Helen we should call in a private detective and not turn to law enforcement. I didnt want to be in the e-bloids. She reluctantly went along with me for the present but left open the option.
Dr. Bingham had offered to meet us at his office within the hour. Helen set her mouth. "Its the same office I went to, so I suppose I can find it in the dark." I was numbed out for the duration of our visit and vaguely remember fluorescent lights and a thirty-something dark-haired man in complete agony as he conveyed his suspicion that Cheryl had ovarian cancer. Her mother and two aunts had died of it, naturally not mentioned on any of Cheryls documents we had seen. With the nearly four thousand patients he followed, he had not remembered to check back with Cheryl. Her last visit was in January. He and Helen exchanged remarks in hushed tones about C-125 II markers and stage four. Even with the massive paperwork and health management headaches his office dealt with, he couldnt understand how his usually efficient "girls" could have failed to tag Cheryls case for immediate follow-up, going so far as losing some of her test results and his notes. Helen mumbled a question to which he replied, "Why no, I havent changed the locks since I took over the practice from Cheryls father."
We stayed the night in Rockton, which required Helen to reschedule her morning appointments. She slept with me in the blue and white bedroom, not wanting to disturb anything else in the house, in case a clue turned up. Her warm hands held mine. "Lots of progress has been made with ovarian carcinomas. As soon as we get back to Charlotte, Ill call Minna Lee at Cancer Co-op. You may need surgery, then treatments could start immediately." She spoke quickly, with authority, but I knew ovarian was one of the worst malignancies around.
In as chipper a voice as I could manage, I said, "Well, at least I dont have to worry about my hair falling out."
Helen gave me a hug and rubbed my bare head. She began musing about how Cheryl had accomplished such a big scam. It got our minds off me, anyway.
Cheryl had obviously gotten some friend or acquaintance who knew his stuff to play the doctor. Helen sniffed. "He even looked like Dr. Bingham." Defeated, she admitted, "I depend so much on information from referring physicians... maybe if wed been more thorough...."
I said, "We thought she was healthy and seen regularly by her doc. Lets not beat ourselves up. This was a fluke."
Helen had called two of the personal references: Jim Sharp, director of the outdoor drama Cheryl had been involved in, and Rev. Bland, her pastor. "Shell burn in hell for that one," I said.
We both smiled. Helen shook her head and said, "Im sure no one knew Cheryls health secrets. To the pastor, she was simply a church member. He was new; I guess he didnt even know that her mother and aunts died of cancer. Shed not been actively involved in church, but he said shed been coming more often since Christmas."
Helen stared at the wall, then said, "There was something a little odd about the other reference."
"Maybe he was a phony?"
"No, I dont think so. But you know Cheryl had said she 'helped with a play. That outdoor drama. I envisioned her sewing costumes or painting sets or something."
"She was one of the stars." Helen gave me a haunted look.
"And a fine actress she is," I breathed.
My sister gave me something to help me sleep, but it must have been awfully weak. She found me in the kitchen the next morning.
Id puttered around and located a freezer-cab on the back porch with ten boxes of Girl Scout cookies. I experimented with the best way to thaw them and had hit upon placing about ten Lemon Pastry Cremes spread out on a pottery plate, warmed for seven seconds in the raywave. In my mouth, the sweet cream filling and its touch of tangy lemon blended with the soft cookie, transporting me to a different world. A cold glass of whole milk enhanced the effect.
"What in the world are you doing?" Helen asked.
"Having breakfast?" I offered.
"Oh, my God." She collapsed in the chair opposite me. "Now Im really worried."
On our way out the door, we saw a uniformed stranger walk to a mounted roadside box and place papers inside. Helen said, "Wow, mail delivery." Retrieving the stack of items, mostly junk, I saw a thick envelope addressed to "Reba Adams/Cheryl Hallford." Upon tearing it open, I saw she had given me the deed to her house. Whoopeedoo.
The Greeks, unfamiliar with modern medicine, had managed to write the perfect story about the next six months of my life. I felt like the fellow chained to the mountainside who gets his insides gnawed out by an eagle, then has them grow back every day just to be eaten again. On more than one night, I sat on the toilet, vomiting into a plastic wastebasket while my intestines released their runny contents at the same time. And those were the good days, after I was able to walk to the bathroom. The aide arranged by Helen helped clean up the splashes of vomit and worse that clung to my fat body and the myriad tubes hanging out of me.
I often spent nights in Helens clinic just being too weak to spit. On one of these nights, Helen walked in my room with a vase of carnations and marigolds.
"Sorry, no forsythias this time of year," she said. She smiled briefly, but I knocked out any attempt at cheer.
"Yeah, this is the time of year everything dies."
Shed been a solid rock for all the months of my treatments; yet tonight she kept silent, and her hair was actually mussed a bit as she pulled a chair over to sit close to me.
I said, "You know, Minna spilled the beans and told me about your request on that first day back from Rockton."
Helen had asked the surgeon if treatment could be delayed long enough for her to exchange brains with me. Helen was actually willing to go through this hell for me, her loser sister. We wasted a whole box of tissues that night. Minna had of course told her no way.
A few months later, I sat on my sofa dressed in a tunic and pants, not pajamas, as Helen and I awaited a visit from private detective Hal Bowen. The aroma of roasting beef and vegetable soup floated in from my kitchen, where Id been cooking. When Hal entered my apartment looking like a cross between Barney Fife and Ichabod Crane, I tried not to grimace. My sister assured me shed gotten excellent references for him, but I couldnt help but remember that Helen had made mistakes regarding references before.
Hal came over to shake my hand. "Hello, Ms. Adams. Its nice to finally meet you. How are you feeling?"
"Ill spare you the details. Nice to meet you, too."
He perched on the edge of one of my wing chairs with his briefcase on the carpet beside him. He cleared his throat.
"Ms. Adams--" he looked at Helen "--Dr. Adams. As you know Ive worked hard on this case and had several associates helping."
I squeezed my eyes shut thinking of the expense, which Helen had tried to pay herself until I fussed her out of it.
Hal continued, "We finally got into that padlocked barn. Dark, cluttered. No bad smells other than old hay, mustiness."
No dead bodies. OK.
"We did find a container of the drug she used to keep you unconscious for a day and night, and several computers with reformatted hard drives. And of course the biggest thing, her white Olds, so she must have had another car there that she used for her getaway."
He said all nearby airport parking lots had been scrutinized, and eventually, one car had emerged unclaimed after several months at the Atlanta airports remotest lot. "Um hm. It was registered to a false name at a Rockton PO Box. We checked the flights on that Saturday and Sunday and followed up on every one. She used a phony name, of course, but we had your picture and interviewed dozens of folks. There were a couple of unsuccessful leads, and we havent been able to find her. Im so sorry."
"What about the phony Dr. Bingham?"
Hal sighed. "We found him; hes one of the actors who was friends with Ms. Hallford. Dickie Jones, an out-of-work former health insurance exec. who was willing to do anything under the sun for money. We talked to him a bunch of times, and he admitted to pretending he was Dr. Bingham, but Im positive he has no idea where she is. Ms. Hallford never even had casual conversations with him about places shed like to visit or anything like that."
"Could he have covered up anything to help her?" I asked.
"Well, he was basically scared shitless and spilled his guts whenever we talked, so I dont think so. I know he was an actor, but Im kind of trained to tell about these things. And he offered to undergo micro lie detection, too."
In the silence that followed, I wracked my poor feeble brain to remember anything at all that might help. "Were there any flights from Atlanta to islands or coastal resorts?" Cheryl had said she loved all kinds of fish, after all. Maybe she had lied, I couldn't know, but she had told the truth about loving Girl Scout cookies.
Hal looked at me like I was mentally disabled and he didnt want to upset me. "Well, Ms. Adams, lots of flights went to places like that." He bowed his head, then reminded me that he and his associates had thoroughly checked out all the destinations. I sighed and finally got the message. She was gone.
Finding myself still alive in March of the following year, I drove up to Rockton to see the farmhouse. Dr. Bingham had volunteered to keep a check on it ("Its the least I can do"). Once upon a time, I would have taken the quick route, but this day I decided to drive through the main streets. Rocktons small-town beauty surrounded me. As I passed a cluster of dark red brick buildings that appeared to be more than a hundred years old, I saw dozens of brilliant forsythias. Nothing like the spindly plants I was accustomed to, these were each at least twelve feet wide and seven feet high, a sea of sparkling yellow. I caught my breath, watching them glisten in the afternoon sun. Maybe someday, Id move up here permanently. Ha, in my shape, maybe permanently would turn out to be next week.
Much medical rigmarole was inflicted upon me during the next year, and whenever between appointments Id had enough time to start thinking of something besides my illness, it would be time to get invaded again, have an anxiety attack, and wait for the results of tests. Toward the end of this period, I remember one day when Helen stopped by during lunch and refused to join me. "Ive got plenty," I insisted.
"I can see that," she snorted, as I removed two more slices of pizza from the box. "Ill stick with my apple bar and yogurt." Throwing the yogurt cups lid into the trash, she bent down in concentration over the garbage pail. Thinking of the contents of the garbage, I prepared for a lecture about recycling, but instead, she picked out an empty Bojangles bag to hold up in front of me, like an accusation.
I said, "Havent you ever in your life had a sack of baco-egg and cheese bites?"
What a food snob. I slid my hand from the barbecued potato chip bag and said, "Helen, you know I dont feel like exercising, and not very many foods are appealing to me."
"And I suppose the hormones you take just plump you up that much more?"
She sighed. "Are you eating to live, or living to eat?"
I hate it when she quotes me B.C. Before cancer. Before Cheryl. She rummaged around in the fridge, and I figured she was looking for bottled water. "If youre looking for something to drink, Ive got Calcium Coke and Reduced Sugar Pepsi with Fluoride."
"No thanks." She filled a glass with tap water, then set it in the flash-freeze. I noticed how emaciated she looked, just like the women on Hi-D. Had she always been this way, or was she working too hard? She insisted her work schedule was fine, thank you. She was no doubt having to see more patients or downsize her lifestyle, since I knew she hadnt tried to find any new Changers to replace me.
My microscan shows me clear of cancer, quite a milestone, and Ive made the decision to move. Helen cannot understand why I want to live in the farmhouse here in Rockton and be reminded of Cheryl all the time. I suppose thats a risk, but it cant be any worse than my daily existence in the womans actual body. My hairs a different color and style and I look a lot more ragged than she did two years ago, so no ones mistaken me for her yet, or if they have, they're avoiding me. (The word has gotten around that Cheryls been in trouble.) The greenway at the Catawba River is as wonderful a walking path as I thought it would be. I stop and rest a lot, but Im working myself up. Ive been doing some gardening, too, planting forsythias.
Not many fast-food places this far out of town, and no pizza places deliver out here, so Im cooking at home more. I was surprised this morning to notice how loose my black shorts were. I think Im getting some of myself back, a little at a time. I still fantasize about having my original body again, but my heart doesnt sink every time Im reminded of the past.
Ill find something else to wear for Hals visit tonight. Hes still on the case sort of unofficially and is bringing his byte board so we can design virtual pictures of the way a fatter Cheryl might look today in my body. He also wants to bring me a kitten.
I may relent and go public soon, something Hal has been after me to do from the beginning. Hes always asking, "Can you picture her face as she lies under some palm tree on a white beach opening up the newspaper to see this story?"
Yes, I think, maybe, though I dont often remember my face showing feelings of shock and fear.
Im on the porch and hear the gravel crunch as Hals car speeds into the drive, too fast, and skids to a stop. The door slams and Hals footsteps pound up to the house. Hes yelling, "We found her, we found her!"
My knees liquefy, and I slide down on my big behind to the painted wood porch floor. Ive never seen Hal so excited as he tries to pull me up.
In fewer than twelve hours, Hal and I are walking along an ancient, long-dead coral reef smothered with trucked-in sand. Key something south of Miami. Hal lined up law enforcement if needed, but he felt I should confront her first alone. I lumber up to the large woman reclining in a sturdy wooden chair, and Im wishing Helen were here, but she couldnt manage it on this short notice. She promised to come later today.
My hands shake only slightly as I slog the last few steps along the beach and stand at Cheryls--no, my feet. Dear God, it is me. More than a hundred pounds heavier. The hot sun contributes to my sweatiness.
I clear my throat. Cheryl opens her eyes. My heart thuds, but I meet her gaze.
"Hello, may I help you?" She pushes up the red scarf that covers her head and shades her eyes with her hand. She smiles, giving me a pleasant, quizzical look.
My heart stops. No way could she have known we were coming. She should be shocked out of her skin to see herself, not to mention see herself alive.
I blink and hesitate. "Cut the act, Cheryl. Its over now."
She frowns. "I beg your pardon? My name is Debbie--and my clients name is not Cheryl, either." She holds out her hand, but Im too numb to shake it. She hoists herself to a more attentive position awkwardly, as if still getting accustomed to this body. "If youve been referred," she says slowly, "I would be interested in talking to you, but Ive just begun a new job."
A job. "For whom?" I ask.
"Well, of course thats confidential. An interesting case, a Changer herself. At any rate, Id be happy to speak to you about a later time..."
"Where is she? Do you know where your client is?" Im blurting out the words, sounding like an idiot.
With a strange look, she says, "Of course. Actually, I havent seen her today because Im more tired than usual and resting a lot. She left me a note. Shes running a few errands."
Hal holds me, saying we found her once, we can find her again. Lush red hibiscus blooms catch my eye, but theyre no prettier than the forsythia in Rockton. It may be a while before I can go home, but Ill get there eventually.
Gwen Veazey, a native North Carolinian, lives in western NC with her husband and two teenagers. She is a freelance writer whose features, satire, and reviews have been published in Hickory Magazine, Creative Loafing, and the Charlotte Observer, among other publications.