Horror & Dark Fantasy

Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2017

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Fiction

Unfair Exchange

Unfair Exchange - illustrated by Sam Guay

Dear Future Me:

I haven’t been myself lately and neither have you.

I don’t even know if I’ll understand that or remember anything of what happened. TBI—traumatic brain injury—is dicey and unpredictable. Did you know you could fall down a flight of stairs, hit a concrete landing head-first, and after spending a week comatose in intensive care with a subdural hematoma, wake up bright-eyed and bushy-tailed with nothing more than some minor gaps in your memory and a tendency to get headaches in rainy weather? Or you could bump your head on a kitchen cabinet door, never lose consciousness, but stroke out two hours later and spend the rest of your life in a care home. The brain is a strange and temperamental organ. This is why it’s so dangerous for people to use magic—we’ve got a lot to lose.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Or am I? What do I talk about first—the necklace Grandma gave me—you—and my—our—twin brother Jesse? Or the fact that I was wearing it when the three kids broke into my downstairs neighbor’s flat? Or that I forgot I was wearing it when I charged in like Jools the Superwoman?

• • • •

After bumming around Europe for a few months after college, I knew London was the place for me. Haringey wasn’t a wealthy garden spot but that didn’t bother me. It had an energy that appealed to me on sight. It reminded me of our old neighborhood in Massachusetts, but where that area had been primarily Italian and Puerto Rican, here it was Turkish, Greek, both kinds of Cypriot, African, and Indian.

The main road, Green Lanes, was lined with small businesses—news agents (what we called candy stores back in the day), grocers, butchers, restaurants, dry-cleaners, locksmiths, and, here in the twenty-first century, internet cafes that advertised cell phone unlocking. The grand old pub on the corner was over a hundred years old and had been featured in the movie Chaplin. The Chinese restaurant advertised its food as both halal and kosher, Orthodox Jews from nearby Stamford Hill bought fresh produce in the Muslim-owned twenty-four-hour fruit and veg shops, and there were kids everywhere. Estate agents called it the inner city; I called it a working-class family neighborhood and managed to buy just before the housing market went completely insane. My clients warned me to keep my doors and windows locked and never go out alone after dark. Six months after I moved in, a twelve-year-old boy tried to mug me as I was on my way home with some shopping; he ran off when I said I knew his parents—a lie, but in that area, entirely possible. In the nine years since, that was my only brush with crime. Until that night.

Glass breaking downstairs woke me up. I’d been reading a book, winding down from a long day taking care of clients’ websites, and I don’t think I got through a whole paragraph before I nodded off. I knew by the sound it was either Mrs. Chodari in the ground-floor flat or the one next door. I looked out the window just as the light went on in Mrs. Chodari’s kitchen. Glass all over the sink and counter showed someone had broken in from outside, and it definitely wasn’t because Mrs. Chodari had locked herself out. For one thing, she was eighty-five, and for another, we had keys to each others’ flats for just that eventuality. She’d never needed my help, but I’m embarrassed to say she had to let me into my own place more than once.

I dialed the emergency number—and son of a bitch, it was out of order. I tried three times, then used my cell. Same thing. I couldn’t believe it. What a time for the phones to go down! The brave new world of the twenty-first century—screw the flying cars, why don’t the machines we already have work? Voices came to me through the window—two or three different guys and Mrs. Chodari, who sounded terrified. I ran downstairs, banged on the front door and yelled that the cops were on the way. Then I listened and when I couldn’t hear anything, I let myself in.

I wasn’t really thinking straight—my adrenaline was running but I was also still half-asleep. I stumbled into the front hallway just as two guys were dragging Mrs. Chodari into her living room. There was blood on her nightgown—a lot of blood—and I thought they were killing her. She was crying No, no, don’t!, and I heard one of the guys curse. Still not thinking straight, I rushed into the living room and grabbed the first one I saw.

He spun around and the next thing I knew, I was staggering backwards across the room. My foot caught on something and I fell, hitting the coffee table on my way down. You know all those fight scenes in movies where someone falls on a coffee table and it shatters into a billion pieces? Total bullshit. I bounced off the thing.

Mrs. Chodari started calling my name. One of the guys told her to shut up and there was the sound of a hard slap. I used the coffee table to pull myself up to my feet and launched myself at the nearest guy. I was just so furious that anyone would hit her that I was only dimly aware of a sharp pain in my side. Don’t ask me what I thought I was doing.

The two of us crashed into the credenza where Mrs. Chodari kept a lot of family photos in frames. The photos scattered but we bounced off the credenza—it was an even heavier piece than the coffee table, and it did more damage to us than we did to it. I felt like something was stabbing me inside, and the guy hit the floor with a cry of pain so gratifying I could almost have ignored the fact that I was having a hard time catching my breath. I figured I’d simply had the wind knocked out of me, and I kept trying to get up again to hit someone else, anyone else.

Somehow, I pushed myself to my feet and tried to straighten up, but my torso was full of molten lava, I still couldn’t catch my breath, and everything was out of focus. I remember a blurry image of Mrs. Chodari sprawled in a chair in her bloody nightgown, reaching one skinny brown arm toward me. Then something with pale skin and very blond hair rose up between us and the world ended in a massive explosion.

The world reassembled itself just long enough for me to see the kid bending over me and drawing back with my necklace in his hands. Then I was standing in the middle of Mrs. Chodari’s living room holding my necklace, looking down at my inert body.

Now I was wide awake and scared out of my mind. My first impulse was to put my necklace back. So I did. Everything went black. Then I was standing in the middle of the living room holding the necklace again. I tried a second time—same thing. This stupid kid had fixated on my necklace for some reason, maybe because I’d interrupted his home invasion and he wasn’t leaving without taking something from me. I don’t know. I’d have kept trying, but underneath the sound of Mrs. Chodari sobbing and the other two guys yelling, I heard the faint sound of a police siren. Someone must have heard the noise and managed to get through to the police.

The other two guys ran out the front door. I stood there like a dope with a vague idea of giving myself up when something hard hit me in the back. Mrs. Chodari had found enough strength to throw a paperweight at me. I ran outside, but a police car was already turning the corner at the end of the street. My own door was still wide open, so I slipped inside, closed it very quietly, and tiptoed up the stairs.

They sent us—Mrs. Chodari and “me”—to the hospital, but I stayed quiet until I was sure everyone was gone. Then I had to work fast—Mrs. Chodari would have told the police I lived alone, and she had to have given them my—his—our?—description. I packed a bag with my iPad, all my identification and important papers, a few small valuables, and anything else I thought might be useful. I took a moment to regret not grabbing my cell phone and then found it in my pocket. At some point the little bastard had managed to steal that from me, too. It was hard to be mad at him for that while I used it to call Jesse.

But I was mad at myself. I really had been more asleep than awake when I had sprung into action. Trying to call the police, I had automatically pushed 911 instead of 999. Almost ten years in London and I was still programmed with the American emergency number. I actually broke down and cried when I saw it on my cell. If I had just taken a few seconds to wake up all the way and think clearly, I’d have realized. The police would have arrived a hell of a lot sooner, and I would probably have waited for them instead of charging in. But even if I hadn’t, they’d have probably shown up before I got hurt too badly. And right now, I’d be back in my own home, working on clients’ websites in my daytime pajamas instead of hiding out in some juvenile delinquent’s body and writing letters to Future Me.

• • • •

Anyway, Future Me, I hope your head injury hasn’t affected your memory to such an extent that you don’t remember Grandma’s necklace. Or worse, Grandma—that’s our paternal grandmother, Grandma Blossom; Mom’s parents died young (in case you don’t remember). We were her only grandchildren, and she looked after us while Mom and Dad were at work. If you need help remembering, there are a ton of photos in the cloud. In some of the photos, you can see Grandma wearing it—the necklace, not the cloud—although she usually kept it out of sight under her clothes when we were really little and likely to grab dangly things. She didn’t like to wear it when she went out. Sometimes she would hide it in a Tupperware dish of leftovers in the refrigerator or, if there weren’t any leftovers, she’d put it in a bag of lima beans in the freezer. Burglars never want leftovers or lima beans, she said, and she was probably right. The three little shits who broke into Mrs. Chodari’s flat only found a bottle of white wine in the fridge, and they turned their noses up at it.

Anyway, just in case you—I?—end up with serious memory loss:

When Jesse and I—Jesse and you? Damn, I didn’t think writing to myself would be so complicated. Screw it.

When you and Jesse were ten, Grandma sat you down on the sofa in her living room and told you about the necklace. It had to be handled with care, she said as she took it off and put it in a small metal dish on the coffee table. Now it was safe for you to pick it up and put it on. So you did.

It was the first time you’d ever actually handled it. It was just an egg-shaped silver ball on a chain, and you were surprised at how heavy it felt. No, not heavy, exactly—I think dense might be more like it. You also thought there was a design etched into the surface, but on closer examination, it seemed as if any pattern that had once been there had been worn away. The chain was long enough to slip over your head without fiddling with the clasp. At ten, you were starting to get interested in jewelry; some of the girls at school had gotten their ears pierced, and you were considering asking Mom if you could, too, although you were pretty sure the answer would be no.

Jesse noticed what happened before you did. His eyes got big and round and he pointed. “How did it do that, Grandma? Is it, like, body heat?”

You looked down and saw that now there was a design on the egg, swirly lines and curlicues.

Grandma laughed, looking pleased. “Yes, in a way. You could say that. And as you get older and your body changes, that will change, too.”

You held it between thumb and forefinger and said “But I thought this was old.”

“Oh, it is, Julia honey.” You were always Julia with Grandma, never Jools. “It’s older than I am, even. It was old when my grandmother got it from her grandmother, old when it came to her from her grandmother.”

“So how can it do that, with the lines that appear and disappear?” you asked suspiciously. Jesse was the observant, wondering twin; you were the wary skeptic.

“I’ll get to that,” Grandma chuckled. “But first, take it off and hand it to me.”

You did . . . and suddenly the wary skeptic was gazing at herself through seventy-year-old eyes and aware of a faint twinge in her left wrist, a more pronounced ache in her right hip. “You” reached over to put “your” hand on Grandma’s seventy-year-old knee and said, “Stay calm and don’t make any sudden moves. I don’t want you to fall down and break my hip.”

Your heart was racing and you started to feel lightheaded. “Grandma—” you said, but in her voice. As everything started to brown out, little hands pried the necklace out of your grasp. A moment later, your vision cleared and you were looking at Grandma with your own eyes. She was sagging back against the cushion with one hand on her chest and the necklace safely around her own neck again.

“Woo,” she said breathlessly. “Next time I’d better take a Xanax first. I can’t handle that kind of adrenaline rush the way I used to.”

“Are you all right, Grandma?” Jesse looked from her to you and back again. “What happened?”

“I saw . . .” You almost couldn’t say it. “Me.”

Jesse went from wondering observant twin to wary suspicious. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

“I saw me—” You pointed at yourself, then moved your index finger in a straight line to the spot right between Grandma’s eyes. “From there.”

Now Jesse was completely baffled.

“And you’ll notice—” Grandma held out the silvery egg, still keeping the chain around her neck. “It’s not the same design on me.”

She was right, it wasn’t. The design was a lot more complex—it actually looked like several designs, one on top of another.

“What is it?” you asked.

“It’s an exchanger,” she said. “It exchanges.”

“Exchanges what?” Jesse asked.

So you and Grandma showed him, this time with Grandma putting the necklace in the dish again so you could exchange with him. He took it about like you had. It was weird but nowhere near as bizarre as it had been with Grandma, partly because you knew what was going to happen but also because of the twin factor.

“Who made that thing?” Jesse asked when everyone was normal again.

“I haven’t the slightest idea,” Grandma said. “Nor do I know how it works—the magic involved, I mean. Yes, it is magic, my little chickens. Absolutely supernatural, as in ‘should not exist.’ But it does exist and I am its caretaker. And when I’m gone, that responsibility will pass to you. Both of you. It always goes to twins.”

Grandma’s identical twin sister died before we were born. I overheard Grandma telling Dad that Mom’s having us made her feel a little less incomplete even though we weren’t identical. Biologically, fraternal twins are basically plain old siblings, only simultaneous. But being a twin is a lot more than that. Twins don’t come into this world alone and that’s a major variation in the human condition; it’s something no singleton can understand. I don’t know if it’s that way for other multiples. But we shared a single placenta, and I can’t help thinking that gives us a little extra-extra.

• • • •

Okay, Future Me, I’m gambling that you’re still with me and you haven’t decided this is some kind of put-on, or you’ve got multiple personalities or delusions or something. Jesse should be on hand to back me up.

As you’ve probably gathered by now, I am still in that little bastard’s body and he’s in yours. At the moment—I mean, right now, as I write this—your body is still in a coma and they still don’t know if/when you’re to wake up. Although Jesse told me that on his last few visits, the doctors and nurses have started saying when rather than if. But there’s another big if here, to wit: what if that little bastard wakes up before I can unexchange us?

Jesse says it would serve him right. He talked to the cops and they told him that they’ve got a heap of reports about a home invasion trio who target old people. They break into their houses in the middle of the night and rob them, and if the victims give them any trouble, they beat the shit out of them. Jesse says this guy deserves to feel the kind of pain he and his buddies have been dishing out—some of their previous victims are still recovering.

But, funny thing: except for that one slap, Mrs. Chodari got away relatively unscathed. All the blood I saw on her nightgown was from one of the other guys—he cut himself on the broken glass and, kind spirit that she is, Mrs. Chodari tried to stop the bleeding. The other two dragged her into the living room because she was fussing over him too much. I don’t know what they would have done to her if I hadn’t barged in. And they didn’t get away with much, just a few little things that have no value to anyone except, of course, to Mrs. Chodari.

Jesse says she comes up to the hospital at least once a week to sit by the bed and talk to “me.” It’s supposed to be relatives only in the ICU, but they make an exception for her. She tells anyone who’ll listen that I saved her from a gang of burglars. I don’t know what she’d say if she knew whose hand she was really holding.

I haven’t been to the hospital although I really, really, really want to. Jesse insists it isn’t safe, even though I’ve changed my appearance a lot—I cut my hair short and dyed it brown, and I had Jesse buy me some preppy crap to wear. But Jesse thinks that Mrs. Chodari would probably recognize my voice. I said fine, we’ll go when she isn’t there and you can tell the nurses I’m your nephew or something. But he still thinks it’s too risky for me to go out. Even if the police don’t spot me, there’s the matter of the other two burglars, who must be wondering where the hell I am. Not to mention the kid’s family, who have probably reported him missing by now.

I am so screwed.

• • • •

Hello again, Future Me.

I’ve decided Jesse watches too much TV. He had this idea to bring me to a hospital emergency room—A&E, I told him, that’s what they call it here—in a state of disorientation. Speaking in an American accent, I claim the last thing I remember was being at a party in New York City. Then someone gave me a weird drug and the next thing I knew, I was waking up face down in Trafalgar Square. I spent a lot of time explaining how many different ways this wouldn’t work. Jesse also doesn’t grasp what a surveillance society this is. I don’t think they even have traffic cameras out in the suburbs of Overland Park where he and Tracey and the kids live. Not to mention the fact that the police wouldn’t just accept whatever I told them regardless of the accent. There was a good chance that the little shit who’d taken my body already had a criminal record so his fingerprints would be on file. We’d both end up in jail—me for burglary and Jesse for lying to the police. Meanwhile, back at the hospital, as soon as the little bastard woke up in my body, he’d probably end up strapped down in a psych ward. Big mess, which would get a lot messier when I got released to the custody of my parents, unless they decided to let me rot in jail.

In any case, the kid and I would be stuck in each other’s body and Jesse would probably get deported, maybe even banned from entering the country again. I am so screwed.

Okay, Jesse says, then we just wait a few weeks. After the break-in, Mrs. What’s-Her-Name is happy to have me staying in your flat. We just have to make sure you stay out of sight. Then we’ll get you to the hospital when we know she won’t be there, and you can get Grandma’s necklace. If you really want to do that.

Why wouldn’t I? I ask him.

So he tells me a lot of stuff the doctors told him about traumatic brain injury and how I might never be the same. People with serious head injuries often suffer personality changes—a lot of them have anger-management issues. Worse, what if I’m lobotomized? What if I’m like a stroke victim? What if I never recover, what if I have to live in a home for the rest of my life? I don’t deserve that—he does. Whoever he is.

We still don’t even know his name—that kills me. If you’ll pardon the expression.

So I try to explain to my brother how the longer I’m in this body, the more uncomfortable I feel. For one thing, walking around wearing a penis just isn’t working for me—I’m not really a guy. I feel like part of me is inside out. And my reproductive organs definitely belong to a young guy—there’s a line in an Eddie Murphy movie about getting hard in a light breeze or something. This is an adolescent boy’s body, it has nothing to do with me, I just happen to be here. It’s like a dissociative state, which has to be unhealthy. At the same time, I feel positively indecent, almost like I’m molesting this kid. If I don’t get back into my own body soon, I’m going to have sexual hang-ups I never even imagined.

But even beyond that, there’s this pull to be back in my own body. It’s like homesickness, addiction, and OCD all rolled into one. I’ve never been out of my body for this long. Jesse and I exchanged a couple of times after Grandma gave us the necklace, but I don’t think it was even ten minutes before we switched back. It was too weird. We asked Grandma if she and her twin ever swapped. Sometimes, she said, but she wouldn’t talk about that, only warned us never to exchange with anyone but each other, and even that wasn’t a good idea. If something happened and we got stuck in the wrong bodies, bad things would happen. Because supernatural was unnatural.

“Even in the most virtuous hands, magic has always been dangerous,” she told us. “More so now because its standing in the material world has been revoked in favor of the natural laws of science. It’s a serious breach for the explicable to behave in an inexplicable manner. Which is a good thing. The sun doesn’t shine only for those who know a ritual but for everyone; it rains on the just and the unjust. We get the things we want by working for them, not wishing. Crops grow because of better cultivation techniques, not human sacrifice.”

At the time, I remember wanting to ask her, in light of news about the latest famine, if she was really sure about that last.

• • • •

Okay, Future Me, this may be the last message you get from the you that was.

Jesse has been in the flat for almost a week and a half. We used some tanning stuff to darken my skin, dyed my hair an even darker brown, and introduced me to Mrs. Chodari as his nephew Rickey, who’s been over here as an exchange student in Liverpool, now here to help out with Auntie Jools. As near as I can tell, she bought it. Maybe it’s the American accent or the change in wardrobe. In any case, if we fooled her, it’s safe for me to go out. Good thing, because I’m going nuts cooped up in the flat. This body is restless; it’s used to a lot more movement.

Today, we’re going up to the hospital to see “me.” The doctor phoned Jesse to tell him that “I” finally woke up last night, and it was pretty much the shitstorm I thought it would be.

I listened in as the doctor told Jesse that his sister is very disoriented and seems to believe she is somebody else entirely; they have no idea why. This isn’t how trauma usually manifests, but the brain is a funny organ; you can never be completely certain about what might happen, and no two people are ever affected in the same way.

“It could be that your sister is refusing to accept her deficits,” the doctor said. She sounded like a really nice person.

Jesse asked what the deficits were.

“We’re not really sure,” the doctor said. “She can’t walk as yet—when the nurses got her on her feet, her knees gave out, and she has some trouble talking. She asked a nurse for a mirror and then got so hysterical when she saw her reflection that we had to sedate her. She also complained of being castrated, although that’s probably just the catheter bothering her. We’re going to send her for a brain scan this morning, so perhaps we’ll have more to tell you by the time you come up this afternoon.”

“Wow,” I said after he hung up. “Maybe we’d better go now. Before ‘I’ get worse.”

“They might let me in but probably not you,” he said.

Then I had an inspiration. “Maybe I shouldn’t go as your nephew. Maybe I should masquerade as a porter or a janitor, sneak in, and put the necklace on her. Problem solved.”

“Isn’t that how you got into this fix in the first place?” Jesse reminded me of what I’d told about switching back and forth during the robbery.

“Oh, right. Well, this time, I’ll tell him what’s going on. And he’ll be looking right at himself.”

“I’d rather you were with me. Then we can both talk to him and I can keep him from undoing everything. Or re-doing everything. Or re-undoing everything. If you really want to go through with this.”

“Don’t start that again,” I said. “I thought I explained it to you.”

“Yeah, and actually, I get it,” Jesse said. “I don’t remember much about the times we swapped except that it felt wrong and I couldn’t wait to swap back. Maybe because I felt castrated.”

Men.

• • • •

Okay, this next part you could probably have seen coming even if you weren’t Future Me. I don’t know why I didn’t.

I think I felt it happen on the way over in the cab. All of a sudden, I felt incredibly nauseated, like I’d been punched in the stomach, but without the physical blow. I thought it might have been the damned speed humps in the road. They put them on a lot of side streets in London to keep the traffic slow. Cabbies take these routes to avoid congestion on the main roads, but you end up having this awful ride where they accelerate for ten seconds, then suddenly slow down and bounce over the humps, accelerate again, then suddenly slow down, bounce, over and over, ad literal nauseam.

Anyway, when we got to the hospital, the doctor was sorry to tell us that Jesse’s sister had had a hysterical episode where she ripped out her IV while trying to escape. But she forgot about the catheter (oh, ugh). She fell down and hit her head. She didn’t even hit it that hard, but after the previous injuries, it was just too much. She’s in a coma again, and the doctor says we shouldn’t expect her to come out of it.

I am so screwed.

• • • •

We sit with “me” for a while and then go down to the cafeteria on the second floor, where Jesse starts talking about looking up death notices from fifteen to twenty years ago in the county where he lives, for kids who died in infancy or toddlerhood. Then he can send away for a birth certificate, which he can use to get a US passport. For me.

Leaving aside the fact that I’m not sure this is even possible—would they really send someone’s birth certificate to any random person who asks?—not to mention how we’d explain a US citizen living in a foreign country without ever having had a passport in the first place as well as a hundred other things I haven’t thought of, I cannot imagine why he thinks I would give up and go home in this body.

“If you—your own body—isn’t expected to live . . .” Jesse looks pained.

“All the more reason I’ve got to switch back,” I say.

Jesse’s eyes practically bug out. “Are you crazy? Do you really have a death wish?”

“No, I don’t. But if that kid dies in my body, we don’t know what’ll happen.”

“I do,” Jesse says staunchly. “Karmic justice.”

“Karmic justice? Let’s see—the kid’s troubles will all be over, but I’ll have to re-do my late adolescence, go back to university to get a degree in shit I already know, and pee standing up for as long as I live. Yeah, that would serve me right.”

Jesse gives me a look. “Hey, a lot of people would think it’s a pretty good deal.”

“Yeah?” I give him my own look. “Are all of them guys?”

He dips his head a little sheepishly. “Being a guy is not so bad.”

“Maybe in twenty years I’d finally get used to it, but you can get used to hanging. It wouldn’t mean you liked it. I’m not a guy. And most importantly, I’m not this guy.”

“Okay, can you sit down?” Jesse says. I keep getting up and pacing back and forth. This body goes running. To keep in shape for all those quick getaways, I guess.

I force myself to sit down again. “You know what Grandma said about never exchanging with anyone else.”

Jesse nods reluctantly. “I figured it was to make sure it stayed in the family.”

“It’s more than that,” I tell him. “She said it always goes to twins, remember? Twins exchanging aren’t as unnatural, especially identical twins, who have the same DNA.”

“Not to be Captain Obvious but we’re not identical,” Jesse says, frowning.

“That’s why it was uncomfortable for us. You felt castrated. I felt—” I shake my head. “I don’t want to talk about it. Shit.” Just thinking about having a penis wakes the damned thing up.

“Yes but is this really so bad that you’d rather die?” Jesse asks me. “Because those are your options—this, or die in a coma.”

“Those are my options if I don’t switch back,” I tell him. “This body doesn’t like me. It doesn’t want me. And if I don’t get things straightened out soon, it’s going to reject me. And then my troubles will all be over.”

Now my brother looks terrified. “What do you mean?”

I thump my breastbone with one fist. “I’ve got this feeling of impending doom. Right here.”

“You know that’s low potassium. You need a banana. I saw a fruit bowl—” He starts to get up and I pull him down again.

“It’s not low potassium, it’s a completely different sensation. It’s more like—like if I were in an interrogation room at the police station waiting for them to come in and tell me my prints are a match on the murder weapon.”

Jesse takes a breath. “That’s pretty neurotic.”

“I’m in someone else’s body, I think I’m entitled.”

He takes another breath. “Suppose we swap? Right now.”

I swivel on my chair and bend over for a few moments. Jesse wants to know what’s wrong. “The idea of being in a second wrong body makes me want to be sick.”

“Okay, okay,” Jesse sighs. “I just can’t stand the idea that this little bastard gets to live his life while you—”

“While I die?” I say when he can’t. “Maybe I won’t if I’m back where I belong.”

My brother’s expression goes from hopeful to skeptical, back to hopeful and back to skeptical, several times. “I don’t know if that would be enough to bring you out of a coma,” he says after a bit. “I mean, there’s physical damage to your brain.”

“The brain is a strange and wonderful organ,” I say. “Once I’m back, it could turn around.”

“And you’re willing to take that chance?” my brother says.

“Yes. I am.”

“I wish I could talk you out of it.” He slumps, looking unhappy. “Remember all the things the doctor told me? You’re risking a lot more than just memory loss. The personality changes can be pretty serious. It’s not just anger issues—people with serious head injuries often come out with poor impulse control. They do things that they wouldn’t have done before—”

“You said already. I have to put this right,” I say. “Grandma would back me up on that. Look, Jesse, we agreed I should take custody of the necklace after you and Tracey had the boys to avoid any weird incidents with them. This happened to me. It’s my life so it’s my decision. Now, have another cup of coffee while I finish this last message to Future Me.”

• • • •

It worked!

Less than twenty-four hours after I was back in my own body, I woke up. I was pretty foggy for the first couple of days and there was a little memory loss, but only a very little. If I hadn’t written to Future Me, who is now Current Me—or, as I like to call me, me—I wouldn’t have remembered how I’d gotten into Mrs. Chodari’s flat. But I remember everything else.

Jesse said the kid ran off immediately. I really wish I could have been around to see his face the first time he looked in a mirror and saw the makeover I gave him.

My brother wanted to stay for another week at least, but I told him not to. In the past three and a half days, I’ve improved a lot, and they said they’d take me out of intensive care by the end of the week, which means my friends can visit. I told Jesse, “you get hardly any vacation time in America and if you use it all up on me, there’ll be nothing left for Tracey and the boys.” That finally persuaded him and he got a flight home yesterday.

Then I put the necklace in a box of tissues and settled down to bide my time. Fortunately, I didn’t have to wait long for the nurse that evening. The nurse, I mean, the good-looking one who’s so rude. I asked her for something to help me sleep. That stuff knocks me right out so she was only too happy to oblige—one less pesty patient pressing the call button. After she injected it into my IV, I begged her for one more teeny favor—please put my necklace on me, it’s an heirloom from my grandmother, it means so much, blah, blah, blah. I wasn’t sure she would—she’s so rude. If it didn’t work, I was planning to try again tomorrow. But I guess I caught her in a weak moment and the medicine kicked in so quickly, she barely had time to look surprised before her eyes fell shut. It was so easy, I can’t help feeling a little guilty.

Okay, more than a little. It was a dirty trick no matter how rude she is. By the time she wakes up, I’ll be in France, and from there, I’m thinking Australia, or possibly New Zealand—it looks gorgeous in The Lord of the Rings movies. As I’m no longer in possession of the necklace, I’m free—no more homesick/addicted/OCD/being-in-the-wrong-body blues for me! I figured that particular detail out when we were kids, but I never said anything to Jesse and I guess he never noticed.

Of course, when “I” wake up and start claiming to be somebody else, the hospital will call my brother again and tell him his sister’s taken another turn for the worse, and he’ll know. But I doubt Jesse can afford another trip to London, and of course, he’ll never be able to tell them the truth. After I decide where I’m going to settle down, maybe I’ll contact him and tell him how I managed to run off with someone else’s body after all. I’ll tell him how rude the nurse was. Maybe he’ll still think the kid deserved this more than she did. But if he ever ends up in an intensive-care ward, he’ll understand.

Or maybe he’ll feel I’ve betrayed Grandma by getting rid of the necklace. Grandma obviously took the whole caretaker-of-the-necklace thing very seriously. But then, she had someone she didn’t mind exchanging with—Jesse and I didn’t. For Grandma and her twin, the necklace was magic; when it passed to us, it became a hazard. So the hell with it. I didn’t ask for the responsibility of an exchanger, and I don’t want to spend the rest of my life worrying about someone stealing it from me or trying to find a pair of twins to pass it on to. I mean, I don’t plan to have kids and I know Jesse’s stopping at two. So what was I supposed to do, wander the earth with a lantern looking for a pair of honest clones? Forget it. All that stuff about it only passing to twins is bullshit. Identical or not, one of them gets stuck with the burden and one is free. So I don’t think it matters if it’s some singleton’s problem. She is so screwed. And I’m not. At last.

And what the hell—you have to have some brains to be a nurse. If she’s smart enough for that, she can figure something out.

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Pat Cadigan

Pat Cadigan has won the Locus Award three times, the Arthur C. Clarke Award twice for her novels Synners and Fools, and the Hugo Award for her novelette, “The Girl-Thing Who Went Out For Sushi.” While her novels are all science-fiction, she has also written two nonfiction movie books and several media tie-ins, and her short fiction runs the gamut from lighthearted fantasy to hard-edged horror. A former Kansas City resident, she lives in gritty, urban North London with her husband, the Original Chris Fowler.