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vol vi, issue 2 < ToC
Switchback
by
Carolyn R. Russell
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HiddenVlad’s Cat
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Vlad’s Cat
Switchback
 by Carolyn R. Russell
Switchback
 by Carolyn R. Russell
Averie dragged herself up a second flight of stairs, pushing against the nausea that had plagued her all morning. The small third-floor landing came into view, a welcome sight despite its bleak appearance. The space hosted a wooden door and a mangy brown rug that balanced a small round table on its uneven surface. On the wall, a bronze plaque identified the floor’s sole tenant: Sterling Timeshares, Ltd.

Averie’s queasiness surged and mingled with a new jolt. Panic. She bent and crouched close to the floor to steady herself. Down low, the aroma of disinfectant competed with a more seasoned mildewy smell. Miraculously, it cleared her head.

The sacrifice she was about to make would be well worth it. Just one lost week, and she’d be able to support herself and the baby no one knew about. There’d even be enough money to move to another city and start over, after the Unrest and the municipal lockdown was lifted. She’d design a new life for herself and her child; the orphaned and pregnant seventeen-year-old Averie would be transformed by Sterling Timeshares into a woman who could afford to raise a kid. And who knows? Maybe she’d be able to go back to school in a few years.

Averie straightened up and knocked on the door. Nearly instantaneously, it was opened by a young-looking man in a lab coat.

“Averie Rancourt?” the man asked, reading from a tablet.

“Yes. Rancourt,” said Averie, inflecting her surname with its traditional French pronunciation.

The man made no response. While his attention was on his screen, Averie studied him. Everyone these days looked some species of young, but even the finest cosmetic surgeries available and, her mother had always said, a culture that glorified a pathological fear of natural human ageing had their limitations. You could always tell if someone’s face had never been touched. The man before her was truly young.

After several moments, he flipped the tablet toward her. Averie placed her left forefinger in the DNA-ID slot and listened to its familiar five-note verification chime. The man shut the tablet down and waved at the white-tiled corridor behind him. He waited for her to pass, then followed Averie down its pale length to a dimly lit room. She turned and opened her mouth to speak, but the man was already moving soundlessly in the other direction.

Averie sat on one of the beige upholstered chairs pressed up against a gray wall. The room was plain, without artwork or windows to break up its monotony. One scraggly yellow plant listed in the corner, nearly doubled over upon itself.

Averie pulled her cotton cardigan tightly across her chest and forced its collar up, halfway over her face. She breathed deeply through the loose stitches knit by her mother during her final weeks. What her mother had called “blue sky days” had endured an uneasy truce with the bad ones until the very end, when it was all pain. But they had made the most of what time they had together, and those memories were a sweet place to linger when she could.

Her reverie was interrupted by the sound of her name. Startled, she located the source of the female voice, a speaker hidden discreetly in the ceiling.

“Miss Rancourt. Please proceed to the changing room on the right-hand side of the hallway. There you’ll find guidelines so that we may proceed. Thank you.”

Averie noted that her last name had been afforded its correct pronunciation; either the man who answered the door had mentioned it, or, more likely, the office was wired for sound.

The changing area was little more than a booth, with a flimsy curtain for privacy. Inside, there was barely enough space for Averie to undress and exchange her clothes for a green hospital gown; a poster taped to the back wall listed instructions accompanied by simple illustrations. She carefully sorted her things and put them in their assigned bags, labeling them in block printing with the black marker provided. There was also a single page to sign, which seemed to be a concise summary of the contract she had already agreed to. Finished, she left everything in a neat pile. Her always orderly mother would have been proud.

When Averie flung the curtain open, the young man in the lab coat was right outside; Averie realized he must have been waiting, mere inches away from her, the entire time. She shivered in her thin shift and took a quick step back. The man stared at her blankly before nodding and handing her a mug of steaming liquid.

“Please,” he said. “It’ll calm your nerves.”

Averie took the hot drink and cupped it between her palms. Its lemony warmth felt comforting, and she smiled at the man.

“Thanks. I’m sorry, I didn’t catch your name?”

For the first time something akin to an expression crossed the man’s face. Her question had been an unwelcome one.

“Ronald,” he said after a brief pause. He turned and walked briskly down the corridor. Averie glanced behind her and briefly considered leaving the building dressed as she was. But the weeks since her mother’s death had been hellish in their intensity of grief and despair, and this route, suggested by a friend, had emerged as her best option. She followed him.

Ronald moved quickly enough that when he stopped suddenly in front of closed double doors, she nearly bumped into him. The young man’s face stayed still as Averie clutched her tea with both hands and regained her balance. He pushed the doors open wide and gestured for her to enter. Avery looked over her shoulder, about to thank him, but he had left, already out of earshot.

The room seemed a place apart from what she had seen. A huge chandelier dominated the space, throwing silvery light against the floor to ceiling bookshelves that lined two opposing walls. Ornately framed diplomas and certifications decorated the other two. Glossy wooden floors showcased a large glass and nickel desk and chair set. In front of this arrangement was a half-moon of matching seating. Maybe a fleet of Ronalds stayed on-call to take notes from those chairs.

Averie gravitated towards a sofa near a window. She waited alone for several minutes before stretching out on its upholstered silk. She sipped her tea and waited.

*     *     *
Averie shuddered awake and instinctively recoiled. Six inches away hovered the smiling face of an elderly woman.

“I’m so sorry I startled you,” said the woman, her voice a whispery contralto. “It’s just, well, you’re so lovely, my dear.” She sat down next to Averie on the sofa.

There was another person in the room with them. Dr. Severance was behind her desk, shuffling through some tablet screens.

“The maiden is risen,” said the woman dryly.

Averie sat up straight and smoothed her paper gown across her knees.

“Hi, Doctor,” she said, and was appalled to hear the submissiveness in her tone.

“All seems to be in order. Miss Rancourt, please meet Mrs. Anne Theil. She will have the privilege of timesharing your organic structure during the first week of April. Which begins tomorrow. Your high school spring break, yes?”

Averie nodded and looked at Theil. The name was a familiar one; the wily heir to a pharmaceutical fortune, Theil was often in the news. Images of her were uncommon, though. Averie remembered a scrap of public gossip about the woman. She was said to be deathly afraid of the surgical procedures required to keep her face and body looking youthful. Staring at her now, Averie believed the rumors. In an age when just about every person of even modest means refreshed their appearance while still in their mid-thirties, a process they would then promptly replicate every five years for the rest of their lives, Theil looked reptilian.

She couldn’t imagine what it would be like to inhabit this woman’s body for a minute, let alone seven days.

“The procedure will take approximately four hours. Upon awakening, you’ll find yourselves in each other’s homes, in each other’s bedrooms. Is that clear? The process works best this way. You’ve had several virtual tours through these spaces, which ought to mitigate any understandable early confusion. And remember, you’ll also have the company of the medical assistants you’ve selected during the first 24 hours. We train them very well; they’ll be able to assist you with all aspects of your initial adjustment.”

Averie pictured her choice of companion, a vibrant young woman only a few years older than herself. Nina had made her belly-laugh within minutes of their first conversation, which counted for a lot. She was also over-qualified for the job; Nina was only a year away from completing her degree in intermorphic neurology. They had spent a lot of time together preparing for what the company called “The Reciprocation,” and what they called “the switch.” Their rapport had seemed to resonate beyond the boundaries of a business agreement. It would be comforting to wake up with Nina by her side.

Severance aimed her gaze at Theil. “Are we all set?” she asked, and Averie couldn’t help but notice the note of deference in her voice. That’s what Theil’s kind of money bought you, along with the nearly unlimited use of a young body. There were restrictions, of course: no unsafe sex, no toxic amounts of drugs and alcohol, no death-defying sporting activities. Theil didn’t seem to be the sky-diving type, but who knew what other shenanigans this woman might get up to in a delirium of restored youthful opportunity? That was, presumably, why the pay for this gig was so good.

Theil clasped her wrinkled fingers in her lap and nodded at Severance. Averie tried not to shudder at the old woman’s knuckles, large and scaly and unevenly distributed across the tops of her hands. Theil closed her eyes and smiled.

“I’m all set, too,” said Averie. Severance, frowning behind her tablet, didn’t look up. She closed the computer’s casing and pressed a button built into the top of her desk.

“Anne, do you need to return to the Green Room for anything?”

“I’m perfectly ready, thank you,” said Theil.

Green Room? A fancy suite for the high rollers, no doubt. Averie bit back a laugh. Probably there was a whole other lavish section of this office with a separate entrance; she, no doubt, had been directed to enter through the back door.

Severance stood and motioned towards the front of her office. Averie hadn’t heard a thing, but two women now waited just inside its entryway. Each stood behind a wheelchair, the machines incandescent in the room’s glittery light. One of them smiled encouragingly.

“Ladies, if you will,” said Severance. Averie rose quickly but faltered and had to steady herself against the sofa. “Your pre-op procedural has begun, Miss Rancourt. You may feel a bit odd. You’ll feel better again when you sit.” Severance met Averie’s eyes and answered her unspoken question. “The tea.”

Ah, yes. The tea. Averie nearly giggled. Her mother had always warned her never to accept food or drink she hadn’t either prepared herself or observed being assembled. Good thing she had already made up her mind to follow through with her plans when she came here.

Severance oozed from behind her desk and offered her arm to Theil. They moved together towards the wheelchairs in a slow, stately procession. Averie followed them, taking care to walk in a relatively straight line. Dizzy, she sank into the chair provided and allowed the aide, the one who had smiled, to help her into position.

“You’re going to be fine,” said the woman. “I’ve worked a lot of these. Believe me, it’ll be worth it. If I were twenty years younger, I’d do it myself.”

Averie reached up and patted the woman’s hand, thankful for her kindness. As they wheeled down the hallway, a flicker of movement caught Averie’s eye. Turning her head, she glimpsed Ronald, his gaunt figure spiky against a backlit doorway. He stared at her and put his hand over his heart. At least, that’s what it looked like.

*     *     *
The light wasn’t right. It was the wrong color and angled in from behind her rather than from across the room. She tried to rise from her bed, but a restraining hand pressed gently against her forearm. Nina was by her side.

“Easy does it,” Nina murmured. “Try to sleep just a bit longer.”

Averie lay back and breathed in a familiar fragrance. She located its source, a vase of arranged flowers on a nearby side table. They reminded her of her mother’s last hours, her struggle inextricably linked to the aroma of the blooms’ chemical preservatives. Averie closed her eyes and let herself drift.

*     *     *
Hours later, she awoke. Averie had to blink hard several times to clear her vision. She struggled to sit up and felt a hand smoothing her hair back.

“What? ... Mom?”

“Shhhh,” whispered Nina. “Give yourself a few minutes.”

“I don’t feel good.”

“It’s going to take a little bit of time to adapt, Averie. Here, have some water.”

Averie reached for the proffered cup and froze. The arm she had extended was foreign to her. It was thin and speckled, with pocked loose skin that rippled and trembled as it hung in the air. She gasped and withdrew it. To her horror, it stayed attached to her shoulder.

The scream began to build in the back of her throat. Averie clenched her jaw but couldn’t contain it. The high-pitched voice that burst through her lips sounded strange to her ears, reedy and frail. Her memory kicked in, and she began to shake.

“Shhh, honey,” Nina said. “This part is the worst. It all gets easier after this. I’m here, I’ll stay, I promise I’ll stay. Shhhhh ... Just rest, it’s all going to be okay....”

Nina disappeared for a moment and returned with a heavy quilted blanket. Averie hadn’t realized she was cold until she was pinned underneath its warmth. Nina sat close by, singing a lullaby that meandered from note to note, comforting in its tunelessness.

By the evening, Averie was able to sit up on her own. The bedroom had been darkened by thick draperies drawn close, but she could make out the mandala pattern on the textured paper that covered the walls. A painted ceiling seemed absurdly far away, lit from below by glass sconces that threw diamond-shaped light upwards.

Nina helped her stand and cradled Averie’s elbow as she hobbled towards the bathroom.

“Wash your face and brush your teeth first thing. You’ll feel like a new woman,” said Nina. Averie managed a weak smile.

Although she felt feather fragile and weightless, the joints in her feet and knees protested as she made her way across an expanse of plush carpeting. Assuring Nina that she was steady enough to go it alone, she opened the bathroom door and locked it behind her.

Vast and monochromatic, the room was like something out of a movie. It boasted an entire wall made of tiny windows of various shapes that fit together like a jigsaw puzzle. Everything shimmered with pale light, and Averie squinted to take it all in. The functional hardware was a rosy gold, finely wrought and polished. Tiny white, ivory, and yellow glass tiles covered all non-metallic surfaces, even the floor and bathtub. A cream-colored area rug looked like it had once graced some wild beast, and Averie avoided it as she approached a full length, tri-fold mirror. She undressed in front of it, carefully folding her clothes and placing them over the back of a tufted chair. She arranged its panels to reflect a multi-angled view of herself and stood still.

The body before her was unfathomable, its weather-beaten frame a shocking contrast to the glossy patina of the room. The hair on her head was fashionably cut, but dry and paper-thin. Averie ran a hand through it and watched as several white strands fell at her feet. Her arms and legs were stringy, their withered flesh bound to bone by ribbons of raised violet veins. Mottled breasts lay flat against her ribs; below, a small lump of dimpled belly rose above sharp hips. Then, a scar the shape of a canoe.

“You okay?” called Nina.

“Compared to what?” Averie yelled. She started to laugh and found she couldn’t stop, not until tears slicked her wrinkled cheeks.

She brushed her teeth and stepped into the shower. Out of habit she turned the water temperature all the way up but found the heat unbearable. She adjusted it downward, to what her mother would have called tepid, and lingered; the bathing area was larger than her galley kitchen at home and equipped with comfortable places to sit down. Maybe she’d ride out the week in here.

There was a pile of thick terrycloth bathrobes in the room’s walk-in closet; Averie chose a powder blue one from the middle. Her fingertips grazed a silky embroidered patch as she smoothed the robe around her body. A quick look in the mirror confirmed her guess: a monogram. Because the wealthy marked their territory. Well, maybe she’d do it, too. Maybe Theil would wake up next week to a full-color dragon tattoo etched across her ass. The thought was cheering.

“You’re probably hungry,” Nina said, as Averie entered the bedroom. To her surprise, a dining set had been wheeled in, and the table was groaning with food. It wasn’t until Averie sat down that she realized how tired she was. She leaned back and closed her eyes.

“It’s standard to feel exhausted right about now. And there’s a lot of drugs still in your system. You’ll hopefully be feeling more energetic when you wake up tomorrow.”

“Energetic for an 82-year-old,” said Averie, eyes still closed.

“For an 82-year-old, yes. But only for a week. And then, you can write your own ticket. I checked my tablet; we both have in-account receipts for the balances owed. And I have some news, Averie. Theil sprang for me to stay with you for the duration. If you’d like me to.”

Averie snapped to attention and grinned. “Yes. Yes! Oh damn, I feel better already!”

“I think she felt bad that she was leaving you here on your own with no servants or something; they’ve been given a vacation. Plus, I can cook. I said I’d be okay to clean, too, but I’d really rather not. It’s only for seven days, right? How much damage can we do?”

Averie held out her arms, and Nina walked into them. “I feel like such a baby! But I’m so glad you’re staying,” Averie mumbled into Nina’s shoulder.

Nina stood up straight. “We’re going to make the most of living in this glamshell. Only eight rooms because this is her tiny city place....”

“We’ll just have to adapt,” said Averie.

“Can you eat something?”

“Maybe some, but not enough to make a dent in what’s here,” said Averie, waving at the spread.

“Yeah, I guess I got carried away ... you were asleep for a long time. Try something light. The miso soup came out great. Your electrolytes will thank you.”

After their meal, Averie watched as Nina cleared their plates and stored the leftovers, sprightly as she moved between the bedroom and the kitchen. Averie didn’t offer to help; it would be a hollow gesture at best, and Nina would know it. She hoped she’d feel less helpless tomorrow.

*     *     *
The week unfolded slowly, time that seemed to thicken with each passing day. A routine grew around Averie’s care and feeding; she was astonished at how much of her and Nina’s attention was required to accomplish these simple pursuits and wondered how she would ever have managed on her own.

Anything other than the blandest of meals sent Averie’s digestive system into painful spasms. Sometimes even rice or cereal would send her into the bathroom for an hour or two. Nina’s tenderness, and her cheerful tolerance for the kind of caretaking reserved for newborns and the very old, made Averie feel less embarrassed than she might have been with someone else.

“Enchiladas soon, honey, just hang in there,” Nina would say after such an episode. The two shared a love of spicy foods, especially Mexican.

Theil’s medications were abundant and needed to be ingested on a strict schedule that Nina managed with nonchalant expertise. Theil suffered from a multitude of ailments, and Averie wondered what she would feel like without these drugs. Just the torture of moving from place to place in the apartment was sometimes overwhelming, even on the prescribed painkillers. Good thing that Nina was stronger than she looked.

Worst was the way her head felt. Her brain felt like it was wrapped in layers of cotton fuzz. Her thoughts seemed to swim around for a while before they became distinct. And it was hard to focus, sometimes, on the simplest of goals: brush her hair, finish her meals, remember the long game.

When Averie was up to it, sightseeing excursions around Theil’s lavishly appointed penthouse made for good low-energy entertainment. Theil was clearly an educated collector, eclectic in her tastes. Averie’s great grandmother used to quote a lifestyle guru, famous in her day for advising people to discard from their homes that which was not beautiful or useful, or which failed to “spark joy.” Theil’s furnishings and accessories were a mishmash of styles and eras, collected and arranged with an eye toward form and function. Great Grandma would have approved.

Best were the original artworks. At school, Averie had studied 20st century art, and was thrilled by a Calder sculpture here, an original Andy Warhol print there. She and Nina lounged whenever possible in front of Theil’s treasures. They became a backdrop for the stories they shared about themselves, the good, the bad, and the absurd.

Still, Averie kept her pregnancy to herself. She had an idea she was forming about surprising Nina with the news when her ordeal was over, about Nina maybe becoming a part of her and her child’s life. What might she think of the name she had already chosen? However the baby anatomically presented at birth, they would be called Renoir, after her and her mother’s favorite artist.

Occasionally, they plotted creative ways to spend Theil’s money. After all, Averie was legally Theil during the timeshare, just as Theil was legally Averie. Only good faith and the threat of post-Reciprocation judicial prosecution held the young folks back from robbing their elders blind. Intermorphic-related crimes were in a special category, and the penalties approached those given to murderers. Still, it was fun to talk about; the city’s lockdown wouldn’t last forever, and they let their imaginations roam. Averie wanted a mansion, a sailboat, and a mini-wombat. Nina wanted a resort in Belize to house her future medical practice. And a chocolate factory.

*     *     *
By day number five, Averie could barely be persuaded to get out of bed.

“Everything hurts so much,” she mumbled.

“Honey girl, we’re almost at the finish line,” soothed Nina. “You’re gonna give up on me now? I don’t think so.... Two days. Two measly days and poof! You’re set for a long, long time.”

Averie gritted her teeth and pushed back her blankets. The motion reminded her of her childhood; her mother used to have to talk her out of bed, too. She allowed herself to sink into those memories for a few minutes before she let Nina help her out of bed. Nina used the hem of her blouse to wipe away Averie’s tears.

“Hang in, Averie,” she whispered. “Two days.”

The morning of the switchback dawned gray and foggy, but the weak light that greeted Averie might have been fireworks. Her last day! She tried to stretch and felt the now-familiar misery as her limbs struggled to wake up. Well, by this time tomorrow Theil would be re-entombed in her own shell, and she and Renoir would be free.

Nina sailed into the room and twirled a couple of times, filmy tops and sheer denim in her arms.

“Surprise! I ordered this stuff one night after you passed out at, oh, maybe 7 p.m. We can invoice it under essential supplies, for obvious reasons.”

“Such as?”

“Such as, they were advertised as ‘must haves for the spring season.’ Who are we to dispute that kind of clear directive? Besides, by the power vested in me, I’m prescribing them for your mental health.”

“Excellent. Thank you!” said Averie.

“Shall we?” asked Nina, pointing to the balcony off the bedroom. “One last visit to say goodbye to that gorgeous skyline?”

During good weather, the two had enjoyed it, a wrought-iron float that featured an ocean view beyond the pointed city rooflines, and the crowded streets below. As they considered the vista a final time, Averie thought about the week she’d lost, and tried to imagine how Theil might have spent it. She couldn’t begin to guess.

Nina helped her pack up her things, her toiletries, the clothes she had brought with her, plus the new pieces Nina had purchased for her. Then Nina walked through all the rooms in the penthouse, checking to make sure that everything was in its place and in reasonably clean condition.

The tour didn’t take long; their tenancy had been marked by a delicate respect for their surroundings. The women moved to a loveseat that faced an oversized marble fireplace.

“It must be frustrating, to have to wait now, these last few hours. We have time for some food if you’re hungry. Some mashed bananas for the road, my love?” said Nina.

“Only if there’s no more Cream of Wheat,” laughed Averie.

“What’s going to be your first meal in your own body?”

“I’ve got it all planned. Me, you, and two gigantic chile rellenos. Plus, chips and margaritas under an umbrella at an outside table at Agave on Ocean Crest. Whadya think?”

“I’m all in,” said Nina. “Chihuahua cheese!” Nina groaned. “You’re killing me here.”

“So, when the switchback is done, this ...” Averie said, waving her hand between them, “this isn’t, right?”

“Well, that depends,” said Nina. “Will I ever need to wipe your butt again? Or put your green beans in a blender?”

“Not unless you want to,” said Averie, “and I’m thinking that’s a no.”

Grinning, they leaned back against the seat cushions. Averie managed to get one foot up on the inlaid mahogany coffee table, and Nina leaned in to help her with the other one before reclining in similar fashion.

Averie sighed. It was hard to not feel crazy impatient. But soon she’d meet with Theil a second time, and she would shed the skin she was in and return to her senses.

*     *     *
They took the elevator down to the ground floor, and Nina called for an autocar. As she gave the operator their coordinates, Averie took a last look around the lobby and waved to the young guy at the front desk. He was kind of adorable. Maybe she’d just happen by this place in a couple of weeks and ask for a glass of water on a hot day.

After Nina put their bags in the trunk of the autocar, the women settled themselves in the back seat. Averie checked the route on the screen mounted between them and pressed GO.

“This time I want to make a request,” said Averie. “I’d like to open my eyes to a coffee milkshake with a side of moisturizing cream and mascara. Doable?”

“Highly. Consider it done,” said Nina.

Fifteen minutes later, they were there. The office building was as Averie remembered it, sun-bleached and non-descript. They lingered outside on the sidewalk so Averie could have a moment; her breath had become raggedy.

“I can’t believe this week is finally over,” said Averie. “I’ll never be able to thank you enough, Nina. I know we’re not supposed to, but damn, the tales we’re going to tell!”

“Probably we’ll leave some things out, just so people don’t lose their lunches,” deadpanned Nina.

“But those’ll be the best parts,” said Averie. Nina laughed and took Averie’s arm. Heart pounding, Averie gave her friend’s hand a squeeze and they went inside.

Thankfully, the elevator had been fixed. The door wheezed open on the third floor, and Averie hesitated.

“This switchback thing probably isn’t going to be a picnic,” she said.

“Stay strong,” said Nina. “You got this.”

She and Nina stepped out onto the landing.

It was bare. No rug, no table, no bronze plaque. In slow motion, Averie moved towards the wooden door. She didn’t bother to knock this time. The knob twisted loosely in her hand and spun when she let go. She pushed against it and the door swung open.

The office was empty. That is, it no longer existed. Even the interior walls were gone. A few power cords lay tangled in a pile in a corner. On top was a note. I’m sorry was written in large black block letters. It was signed Ronald.

As if from a distance, she watched Nina rush past her, into the void. She spun towards Averie, her hands in the air. Nina’s face was flushed and crinkled and wet; Averie watched as her friend’s mouth moved soundlessly. Averie heard nothing but an echoed name.

Renoir, Renoir.

“I made a mistake,” said Averie.

She didn’t know she was falling until her knees hit the floor. Then Nina was there. Then, nothing.

*     *     *
Averie shuddered awake and instinctively recoiled. Six inches away hovered the smiling face of an elderly woman.

Her mother’s.

No.

Theil’s.

Nina leaned forward from behind the woman, her eyes anxious.

“Averie,” she said softly.

Averie reached for her and froze. The arm she had extended was foreign to her. It was heavy, sinewy with muscle and covered with hair.

“This isn’t really happening,” said Averie.

Nina clasped her hand. “You’ve been under sedation for quite a while; we’ve been worried. But physically, you’re fine.”

Averie looked from Nina to Theil.

Nina took a deep breath. “At the office, I thought I was going to lose you. Then Ronald shows up. Very emotional. Very....”

“Guilt-ridden,” said the old woman. “Severance didn’t tell me you were pregnant. I found out by accident. Not that that’s any excuse for what we did.”

“We used Theil’s money to get a new doctor to perform the switchback. Except with Ronald.”

“Before you say anything,” said the woman, “you should know I’m much older than you might think. I was in a very young man’s body when he died inside mine during our timeshare week. Most unexpected, truly. Aneurism. Unforeseeable. But please hear me. I’ve lived well and long. My only aim now is to make amends. I’m going to help you locate Anne Theil and your child. The lockdown has been extended for at least another six months, so she’s still in the city. We’ll find her.”

Nina propped up the pillows beneath Averie’s head and handed her a small mirror.

“Take it easy,” she said. “This is going to be maybe stranger than last time.”

Averie gazed at her reflection and ran her hand over her face.

“I need a shave,” she whispered.

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