Claudia Campbell shifted in her seat, clutching her oversized pocketbook closer to her chest. She released an audible huff. With all the automation these days, why couldn’t they move things along faster?
She dragged a digital magazine off a nearby table, catching the gaze of another woman. She was probably a decade younger than Claudia’s ninety-two, though it was increasingly difficult to tell how old people were these days.
For Claudia, age-retarding pharmaceuticals, surgery, and gene therapy had come too late. She was stuck being old.
She swiped on Full Life: The Digital Magazine for Seniors and began flicking through pages filled with ads for precision medications, comfort living, designer foods, cyber companions, etc., etc., etc. Nothing new here, she told herself. Move on.
Nearby, a man sniffed loudly. With sagging skin, pores the size of pennies, and hound dog jowls, he looked at least a hundred. When he coughed, Claudia could envision micro-flecks of sputum hurtling toward her. She tutted quietly.
Waiting for a doctor today was no more desirable than it had been during the last century. True, the natural light and greenery were pleasant, even if they came courtesy of VR. And the cool aqua-toned seating was attractive and comfortable, with sizes and configurations to fit any patient.
But waiting was still waiting.
She returned to the magazine. On the eighth page, an unbelievably handsome holographic figure popped up. Okay. Claudia would stop to savor a piece of eye candy.
“Ever wonder how it would feel to be someone else?” the man asked in a drawn out, sexy tone. Claudia unconsciously leaned in. “Would it change the way you experience the world or relate to others? Would it make you a better person? At Switch, our VR will take you places beyond your dreams.” The hologram looked directly at Claudia. “Come. Try Switch. The world will never look the same.”
“Claudia Campbell? Is Claudia Campbell here?” a robotic receptionist called out. Its voice was neither high nor low. Its androgynous body was dressed in blue hospital scrubs. Claudia’s lips pursed at its flawless skin.
She pushed herself up. “Yes. I’m here. I’ve been here for almost an hour.”
“Excuse us for the wait,” the robot replied, “Physio Caretaker #4 will see you now.”
“Hey, Grams,” Claudia’s grandson called out from the other side of the short wall that separated the living room from the front door. A second later, she heard the thump of his satchel as he shoved it onto the seat of the antique hall tree.
Next came a whump as Jerrod pushed the door shut against its weatherproofed seal. That sound was Claudia’s daily reminder of how much the ranch house had changed since she and Dan bought it back in 1965 as newlyweds. When Jerrod moved in five years ago following the death of his parents, he’d insisted on modernizing.
Claudia strained to greet Jerrod pleasantly. A twenty-eight-year-old had better things to do than spend his life watching over his grandmother, waiting for her to die. The least she could do was welcome him home with a smile.
She was thankful Jerrod didn’t treat her like the RoboDoc had earlier. Afterwards, she’d felt like a waste of time, space, and resources. Like the planet would be better off without her.
She’d broken down in the exam room. “My back, my neck, and my joints ache so. It’s relentless. Can’t you do something? Please! You’re supposed to be the best Physio Caretaker in the city.”
“Now, Claudia,” RoboDoc said.
S/he or it (Claudia never knew how to refer to the unisex care provider) always did that. Called her by her given name.
“First, I’m not the best. Every Physio Caretaker is the same. New models are coming, but we’ll all be updated.” It tilted its head to the side in a gesture of concern. Claudia wanted to whack the thing over the head with her purse.
“Second, I told you the last three times you were in that your chronic pain is a malfunction in perception. It began with one complaint and, because you didn’t deal with that properly, it has continued, spread, and escalated. Your brain is now addicted to the pain. If—”
“Addicted to the pain!” she yelped. “Who programmed you, anyway? People are addicted to things they enjoy, at least at the beginning. I have never enjoyed being in pain.”
“I’m sorry, but you’re mistaken,” he answered. Impassively. RoboDocs were infuriatingly emotionless. “As I was about to say, if you continue to feed that addiction, it will continue to grow. My advice? Calm down. Think of something else; occupy your brain with other thoughts and the pain will release its hold on you.”
“You know,” Claudia stood as indignantly as she could with the nagging cramp in her foot, “back in the days when we had real doctors—human ones—they were compassionate. They would have found some way to help.”
“Back in the days when you had human doctors,” RoboDoc answered, “you probably would have been taking fifteen different medicines, none of which would have done a thing besides bankrupt you and interact dangerously with each other.” He opened the door. “Don’t come to see me again about this issue.”
As she rode home in the driverless cab, Claudia brooded. She hated robodocs. Human doctors and nurses could commiserate and touch you with warm skin, assuring you that someone cared.
She had resisted going to the Physio Caretaker because of the cost. Politicians still hadn’t figured out how to make medical care affordable and Claudia didn’t want to weigh Jerrod down with bills. But he had seen her pain and insisted she go. What a waste.
At home, swirling, grimy, depressing thoughts twined around her. Her hope of relief had shattered. What was left? Maybe it wouldn’t be such a bad idea if she scheduled a medical suicide. Plenty of other elderly people did it.
But she was too pathetic, too scared, to take that route.
“Hey, Grams,” Jerrod repeated as he rounded the corner into the living room.
Claudia could barely find the strength to meet his gaze.
Seconds later, Jerrod was at her side. “Hey, what’s wrong?” His voice was gentle as he knelt by the recliner, her daytime perch for a dozen years. He laid his hand on her shoulder. “What happened? Bad news from the doctor?” His face was still boyish, round, with hair that fell across his forehead and sometimes into his eyes. Their deep blue was so like his grandfather Dan’s seventy years ago. She wished Jerrod would wrap her in his arms and draw her close. She ached to inhale his hope.
She shook her head. “No. Not really. Just no help.”
His hand slipped onto her wrist. Jerrod was kind. She only wished that, occasionally, he would caress her cheek and hold her hand. But then, her dry, prune-skin face and knobby hands didn’t exactly welcome touch.
She shrugged resignation to her fate.
“You know what?” His grin was Dan’s. How could she choose medical suicide with this memory of her late husband around? “I have a surprise for you!”
She forced a tiny smile.
“Oh, this will make you a lot happier than that!”
He raced to his room at the end of the hallway, returning less than a minute later.
“Happy birthday!” He bowed smartly at the waist and extended his hand like a butler.
Claudia laughed aloud. “It’s not my birthday.”
“It will be. In a week. But you need this now.”
She eyed the reusable envelope, “guaranteed not to crease, stain, or tear.” Claudia was sick of high-tech.
“Open it, Grams. You’re gonna love it!” He slid back onto the couch.
She drew out a picture of the unnaturally handsome man she’d seen in hologram form earlier. His words were printed this time. “You are the lucky recipient of a Switch session. Book a time today. After Switch, the world will never look the same.”
Claudia didn’t look up. She didn’t want to see the disappointment in Jerrod’s eyes when she refused the gift. She thought he knew her better.
“Great, isn’t it?”
“I… Jerrod, I can’t do Switch. It’s for young people.”
“No, no,” he protested, slipping onto the couch next to her. “This is for anyone. Everyone. Switch has a great track record, Grams. People up to one-hundred fifteen have entered Switch. Wait a second; I’ll call up their testimonials.” He slipped on a pair of MR glasses and began manipulating a virtual screen with his fingers.
Claudia pulled his hand down. “Don’t bother. I’m not interested. I dislike video games.”
“This isn’t a game. I’ve done research on it. I’ve even talked with Switch clients. No one regrets it.”
Claudia grew rigid and clenched her jaw. “Even if you spoke to a hundred people, it means nothing. I’m sure there are just as many with the opposite view. Besides, I’ve heard about Switch, too. They knock you out with drugs. I don’t use drugs. At least, not non-medicinal ones.”
“It’s not like that. It’s more like what they do when you have an operation.”
“I don’t care to be knocked out!”
“Consider it a nap, then!” He sounded annoyed. “You’re always complaining about how you can’t sleep.”
“It’s not the same!” She was yelling now. Her voice sounded like one of those old biddies she used to mock years ago. When had she turned into one of them?
“Listen, Grams.” Jerrod stood and loomed over her. “I forked over half a week’s salary for this. All I ever hear from you is, ‘I can’t do this. I can’t do that.’” His tone was merciless. “I’m sick of your complaining. All I’m asking is that you give this a try. It’s not like you have anything better to do. Can’t you think of anyone else for a change?”
Then he marched off to the kitchen.
As Jerrod clanged and clattered dishes and silverware, Claudia doused herself with self-pity, brushing away tears. How could he be so cruel? His grandfather had never acted that way.
No. Not true. Dan regularly had bossed and bullied her around, especially when she resisted him. In the end, she always complied.
She just didn’t expect such treatment from Jerrod.
“Dinner’s ready.” Was that disgust in his voice?
Please, she inwardly begged, don’t be angry with me. She bit back the urge to cry.
“Coming.” Her voice was shaky.
She’d do as he said.
Claudia lay on a gurney in a clean room, her breasts and lower body the only parts covered. Two twenty-something techno-medics worked over her, one a woman with a nametag that read Tania, the other a man named Gopal. Probably Switch thought they were doing clients a favor by providing human techs. For this, Claudia would have preferred a robot.
She clamped her eyes tight while they glued adhesive sensors to her arms, on skin shriveled like a dried streambed, then to lumpy flesh that sagged into rolls on her stomach. To think, Jerrod had paid for this humiliation. Tania and Gopal would probably go home and laugh their heads off at her age-spotted skin.
“So,” Tania said, her eyes on the alcohol pad she was swiping Claudia’s arm with. “I saw that you chose to enter Switch as a six-year-old girl. At a birthday party in 1946, right? How fun!”
Claudia didn’t want to hear friendly banter. With stinging eyes, she turned from the girl.
“Okay, Mrs. Campbell,” Gopal said after the IV was in place. “You’re all set. You’re in for a fantastic experience.”
He settled a mask on her face. “Easy breaths. Now count to ten for me.”
Before she reached two, Claudia was out.
“Smile, Louise!” a woman urged.
Claudia-turned-Louise blinked, confused. Where was she? Who was she? Who were these people?
“Smile for the camera, honey!” the woman said.
To Louise, the woman looked like a stranger. Except for her cotton button-up dress with tiny ruffles down the front. And her hair, parted to the side and bobby-pinned away from her face. Around her ears, frizzy curls blossomed. Oh! It was mommy.
A man holding a black metallic cube to his face peeked at her around the box. “Show me a big six-year-old smile!” His own smile, wide in a thin face, revealed a missing top molar on the left side and another on the bottom right. His white button-up shirt hung large and his belt cinched tightly, creating an elastic-looking waistline. Louise’s daddy.
She giggled at her silly confusion and he snapped her. A small pop of the flash created a snowy glare in her vision.
Everything was as it should be: a crisp white tablecloth set with good china and silverware. Her baby brother bouncing and slapping his dimpled hands against a highchair tray smeared with smashed peas. Her older brother, wearing a smart plaid suit, honking a noisemaker. Balloons on the table, ruffled sheers on the window, and—Louise reached to make sure—a cardboard crown for her, the birthday girl.
The kitchen door swung open with her grandma singing and carrying a carrot cake decorated with piped rosettes along the top edge and chopped walnuts on the side.
“Blow out the candles and make a wish!” Mommy encouraged.
“Yeah. Hurry up so we can eat cake!” That was her brother.
“I wish I never had to grow up,” Louise said.
“Hah! She wants to be Peter Pan!” her brother mocked. “Only now she can’t, ‘cause she said it out loud.”
That bothered Louise as she ate her cake. And again, when she opened her gifts: a pretty dolly whose eyes opened and closed, soft knit slippers, and a red sweater Grandma had knitted with pearly Scottie dogs as buttons.
“Did you have a good birthday, sweetheart?” Mommy asked at bedtime.
“Yes,” Louise said. “Except for…”
“Except for what?” Mommy pulled the satiny bedspread up to Louise’s chin.
“I don’t want to grow up. Now I have to because I said it.”
“Not grow up? I thought you wanted to be a mommy.”
Louise’s brow wrinkled in plump ridges. “I do want to be a mommy.”
She woke the next morning with her new doll, a dove cooing outside her window, and a call from downstairs.
The first thing Louise-turned-Claudia noticed as she groggily woke was the odor. A familiar, greasy, old cut-grass scent she couldn’t identify.
“Hey, Mrs. Campbell,” said an unfamiliar voice. “Welcome back.”
Two questions collided in her brain. Why was this stranger urging her from sleep? And where was that disgusting stench coming from?
The woman nudged Claudia’s shoulder. “It’s time to wake up.”
Claudia’s eyes fluttered.
“That’s it. Welcome back to the world.”
Claudia opened her eyes partway. The lights were blinding. And the woman was dressed in white. Had her mother changed her clothes?
Claudia lifted her hand to cover her eyes. They bolted open at the hand coming toward her, shriveled and covered with spots, protruding veins, and swollen knuckles. She lurched upward, only to fall back immediately.
She groaned. Why did her neck feel as though she’d wrenched it?
“No, no.” The woman in white—most definitely not Louise’s mother—held her down. “Rest a bit. Give yourself time to transition back.”
“What? What are you talking about?”
Ten full minutes passed before Claudia’s mental fog cleared. Then it all came back, crashing over her like a tsunami.
She was back in the real world.
And that smell? It was her.
“I’ll admit I was skeptical about it,” Claudia told Jerrod as the taxi whisked them home. The physical contact she’d had inside the program made her crave it again. Why did Jerrod have to sit so far away?
“But you’re not now?”
She turned her stiff neck toward him. “It was wonderful to be young again. You have no idea.”
He smiled and set his hand on her shoulder. “I’m glad you liked it, Grams.”
Her awakening in the clean room after her Switch session didn’t return to her fully until the next morning. “Don’t worry,” the attendant named Destiny had said as she handed Claudia her glasses. “A little confusion is normal, especially after your first session. I’m just glad you’re not waking up like the guy last week. Said his whole life had flashed before him.” Destiny shook her head. “His Switch session was as a racecar driver. Our medical techs pulled him out of the simulation just before his car crashed. They’re very careful to bring people back at any sign of distress. We promise our clients safety, after all.” She lifted Claudia’s wrist to feel her pulse and nodded a few seconds later. “The only exception was with the guy who signed a waver that said he didn’t want to be pulled out early no matter what happened.” She leaned forward and said in a hushed voice, “He’d chosen a scenario where he disarmed landmines in a combat zone. He was clearly looking for death by Switch. You know, like people do with police?” Destiny straightened. “The bosses don’t allow those types of scenarios anymore.”
Claudia often replayed her day in Switch (though, by some computer magic, she knew it had only been an hour in real time). The warmth of her family there. Their closeness. Why had such feelings vaporized in today’s world? What was wrong with people these days?
Sometimes, to relive the feel of the red sweater her Switch grandmother had knitted, Claudia closed her eyes and rubbed with withered fingers the afghan draped over her chair arm. But it wasn’t the same.
For her birthday, she insisted Jerrod buy her a carrot cake decorated with walnuts.
“Carrot cake?” he answered, like she was requesting bugs. “The only kind of cake you’ll even touch is dark chocolate.”
“I ate it in Switch and have decided that variety is the spice of life.”
“All righty, then,” he said, holding his hands up in surrender.
She wished she could return to the program to recapture the sensations. To inhale the complex scent of her mother’s perfume. Well, Louise’s mother.
One day, while Jerrod was at work, Claudia ordered sample vials of fifty vintage perfumes in search of the scent with floral and woody undertones but also powdery and musky. She found it: Lanvin My Sin. One whiff transported her back to the mother that wasn’t hers and yet, oddly, had become hers.
“Grams! It smells like an airport duty free shop in here,” Jerrod said when he returned home that evening.
She felt like he’d doused her with ditch water.
His brow furrowed. “What?”
She waved him off. How could she explain?
She recalled Louise’s downy, unblemished skin and perfect child’s body, unmarred by life. Limbs that didn’t ache. Eyes that saw without the need of magnification.
As the days passed, Claudia squelched those musings. What a waste of Jerrod’s hard-earned money! It was make-believe. If Claudia wanted to pretend, she could read a book or watch TV. That world, that life, that girl—Louise—was merely a construct of computer programmers. How many other people had lived through that exact memory?
Then she remembered. Each Switch scenario was unique; computers designed them based on pre-set parameters, but the program responded to clients’ reactions. “When a client acts or speaks, the program goes off in a new direction,” the hostess at Switch had explained. “It’s never the same, no matter how many people use it.”
Which meant the memory of that day and life was Claudia’s alone.
Claudia spent most of Thanksgiving Day mourning the family that had been hers for but an hour in the real world.
“What’s wrong, Grams?” Jerrod asked.
The lump in her throat made it too difficult to croak out an answer.
She rubbed her throat.
He fetched her lozenges.
The most frightening days—there had only been three—were those when Claudia couldn’t stop thinking about reentering Switch. The desire possessed her. Switch could restore to her joy, youth, and connection to people she inexplicably but genuinely loved. She wanted those things so badly she thought her brain might explode if she couldn’t have them.
“What’s the matter with you, Grams?” Jerrod asked once “You’re so irritable.”
I’m wishing I could have a life again, she thought. I’m tired of my body and feeling helpless and useless.
“Just these old bones getting me down,” she said. Her attempted chuckle sounded more like a choke.
“I’m sorry,” he said. As though the fault were his. “Work’s been crazy. The boss says it should slow down after the holidays. Then I’ll be around more.”
“I’d like that.”
Christmas was near, and Jerrod was feeling guilty about being gone so much. Claudia knew exactly what he could do to assuage his guilt.
“Aren’t you going to ask me what I want for Christmas this year?” She pushed aside the lemon cream salmon cannelloni prepared by L’Ultima Chef, Jerrod’s favorite kitchen bot. The dish sounded good, but was nothing compared to the home-cooked fare in Switch.
“Ya gotta eat more, Grams,” Jerrod grumbled as he scooped up her plate then scraped it into their home composter. When he clicked the button, the machine commenced humming loudly as it began grinding the materials before mixing them into the compost-in-progress. He checked out the temperature inside the device: a bacteria-loving sixty-five degrees Celsius.
Returning to the table, he plunked down. His usually bright eyes were ringed heavily and his face looked drawn. “So, what’s this about Christmas? You never have ideas.” He ran his fingers through his hair so that it stood straight up for several moments before settling into a style Claudia thought oddly reminiscent of the beehive look of the 1960s. “I haven’t had time to think about tomorrow, say nothing of what’s coming in two weeks. I’m sorry Grams.”
“Don’t worry. I’ve reconciled myself to long periods of isolation.” She heaved her shoulders.
Jerrod’s face flushed. “Hey, you’re not being fair, Grams. This isn’t my fault.” The deep vertical line between his eyes deepened. It had begun as a shallow depression but had grown more pronounced over the past six months. “How about I check into having a Home Assistant come to spend part of the day with you?” He shook his head miserably. “They’re expensive, though.”
“I’m not interested in a babysitter!” Claudia snapped.
“How about a senior day care center then?”
“Jerrod Cameron Campbell. Listen to me. I’m bringing up Christmas because I have a suggestion for you.” Claudia slid her hand across the tabletop. “I wouldn’t mind another session at Switch.” She made her voice light and nonchalant. “Maybe three hours this time.”
Jerrod’s jaw dropped.
“You don’t have to look so surprised. It’s not as though I’m asking you to do something illegal.”
“No. I mean, of course not.”
“I enjoyed it the first time, that’s all.” She added softly, “It’s hard being old and alone.”
“Aw, Grams. I understand.” He scraped his fingers through his hair again. “Three hours? Whew. That’ll cost a lot.” He stared silently at the table for several moments. “Are you sure that’s what you want?”
She thrust her chin up. “You’re always asking for ideas. Now I’m giving you one.”
Jerrod shook his head. “Let me think about it.” He pushed himself up from the chair. “I gotta get to bed. I need to be at work early again tomorrow.”
Two days after Christmas, at the first opening available, Claudia once again lay nearly naked on a gurney in a clean room while two techno-medics attached electrodes to her skin. She squelched her discomfort. She had forgotten what it felt like to have young eyes look at a body she could barely stand the sight of.
Stop it! a voice inside scolded. So what if they see you? In a few minutes, you’ll be in Switch.
Claudia couldn’t wait to be young again. Not a child, though. This time, she would be living inside the body and mind of a newlywed woman. The time frame she’d chosen was different, too. More suited to an adult. What would it be like, she’d wondered, to assume the life of a new wife after the dawning of the sexual revolution? After men understood they could no longer expect their wives to bow to their every demand? After they saw them as equals?
She had considered the 1960s. Then the 70s. In the end, she’d settled on 1975. There, Claudia could enjoy decent music. She’d grown to dislike almost anything new. Disco had been bad enough, but then came heavy metal. And rap? It was the genre she used to measure all others in terms of horridness. Then came electronic, skewed, and now atomic. Dreadful. All of it.
Uncharacteristically, she’d acted spontaneously and ticked “mystery” on the list of elements she wanted in the program.
Claudia ignored the girl technician’s friendly banter, choosing instead to daydream about the scenario she would soon enter.
At first, she’d wanted a groom who would resemble her actual husband, Dan. Then she decided she’d like someone different. Someone like Mel Gibson’s character in Forever Young.
Switch promised authenticity, not enjoyment. What if she ended up with a chauvinistic bigot like Archie Bunker from that old show, All in the Family? She eventually decided that even he must have had some endearing qualities in the beginning.
Besides, anyone Switch matched her to would be exciting; she’d be a newlywed, not someone who’d been married fifty years.
For the dozenth time, Claudia clenched long unused muscles in anticipation.
“Okay, Mrs. Campbell,” the male tech said after the IV was in place. “You’re ready to enjoy three days of adventure!” His eyes were reassuring. Did Switch only choose employees with pleasant personalities? “When I place the mask on your face, I want you to count to ten. Real easy now.”
After “one,” she was out.
“I want you to see what I see, Peggy,” the man hummed into her ear.
Claudia-turned-Peggy opened her eyes to the reflection of a couple in a full-length mirror. His hair of rich caramel was slicked back. Fawn-colored eyes beneath heavy, straight brows bespoke openness; honesty. Though his face was angular, almost sharp, his lips were full. Exquisite, and somehow more so because they surrounded slightly crooked teeth. His white shirt, opened at the collar, set off tawny skin. In front of him and reaching only to his chin, a somewhat younger woman lifted her gaze. Shy eyes, blue-violet and a trifle too deep-set, contrasted with generous curves beneath a two-piece periwinkle dress, closely fitted. An intricate auburn chignon bared her neck. The cast-iron mirror frame, painted cream and embellished with delicate scallops and intricate vines and leaves, captured the pair like an image in a gallery.
Claudia-turned-Peggy squinted for the briefest moment, trying to place the couple before bursting into a full smile, shaking off the feeling of waking from a dream. This was her, Peggy, with Jack Michaels, the man who had, a few hours ago, promised to be hers and hers alone for as long as they lived.
“Just look at you.” Jack stood behind her, wrapping her in his arms. One hand caressed her breast while the other gently pressed and spread over her pubic bone. “You’re mine now, Peggy. All and only mine.”
She glanced at her own hand, at the finger which held proof that what they were doing was all right. No. Right. And good. For the first time, she could do what she’d been waiting, wanting to do with this man every day for the past six months. She closed her eyes and leaned back into her husband.
As a railroad shipping clerk and his secretary, Jack and Peggy had meager resources for a fancy honeymoon. “We’ll go to San Francisco. Stay in a pretty inn. Eat out a few times. Take in a show, maybe,” he’d promised her before their wedding. Which was fine with her. All Peggy wanted was to be with this man.
Soon the mirror, bay window, fireplace, and four-poster bed faded away and there was only Jack and how he was touching her, as though his hands, fingers, and mouth were made for her and nobody else.
Later, barefoot and wrapped in a bedspread that draped behind her like a heavy train, Peggy scampered across the chilly floorboards. Light from a full moon slanted through the tilted blinds, casting the room in stripes of blue-gray. Peggy clicked on a lamp, showering the floor with a wide yellow arc. “We should have started a fire.”
For the first time, she noticed a small fruit basket on the table by the window.
“I’ll warm you up. Come back to bed.” Jack propped himself up on an elbow.
“Jack! I’m hungry.”
“I am, too.” He twitched his brows Groucho Marx-style.
Peggy bit into a green apple. “This is so nice. Do they leave fruit for everyone, or just for newlyweds? Oh, wait. Here’s a card.”
With apple still in hand, she broke the envelope’s seal. A moment later, the apple rolled down the bedspread and thunked onto the bare floor. The covering slid to her waist and her face twisted in confusion.
“What?” Jack threw back the blanket and padded toward her.
Peggy barely noticed that he was naked. That the skin along one of his sides was peppered with dozens of maroon scars. That he was ready for her again.
“What’s wrong?” He wrapped one arm around her and grabbed the card with the other.
Johnny, it said, Your new wife very pretty, but she know about Linh and Johnny Jr.?
“This is a mistake.” He released her to rip the card and toss it into the fireplace. “It has to be. Who’s Johnny? And who’s Lin? Or however you say that name. Get back in bed, Peggy, and I’ll build a fire.”
“It’s mistake, honey. Trust me.” The way he kissed her, carried her to the bed, and made love to her again made Peggy almost forget the note.
Later, when they left for dinner, Jack slid the fruit basket onto the reception desk. “There’s been an error,” he said. “This is someone else’s.”
“But, sir,” the manager protested, “someone left it specifically for you,”.
“It’s not ours.”
The next morning, Peggy spotted a bakery and Jack a fruit cart at the same time. “Let’s surprise each other,” she suggested. “You buy fruit. I’ll buy pastries.”
“Perfect,” he agreed. “We can eat in the park.”
The selection of freshly made breads and doughnuts kept Peggy in the shop longer than she’d planned.
Finally, balancing a rough cardboard holder for their coffee cups in one hand and a box with enough treats for three days in the other, she swiveled to exit.
Through the window, she spotted Jack with a strange woman.
The small bell above the door tinkled as she pushed it with her shoulder. Jack, several feet away, shot her a glance then hissed something to the woman.
The stranger—some sort of Oriental, Peggy thought—peeked around Jack and sneered at her with such venom that Peggy gasped. The coffee holder wobbled precariously in her hand.
“… sister know… you… must care…” The woman’s voice was harsh but indistinct.
As Peggy warily approached, the stranger bustled away, weaving through pedestrians, hustling to their daily grinds.
“Who was that?”
Jack shook his head. “Just a beggar. There are lots of them here.”
“But what did she say? Why were you talking to her?”
Jack goggled at Peggy as though she’d accused him of a crime.
“I-I mean,” she stuttered, “I was just wondering.”
He smiled, but not warmly, then pressed on the small of her back a touch too firmly. “Let’s go and eat.”
Jack was wonderful, mostly, for the rest of the day, and possessive and intense that night. “I love you so much, Peggy. You. Only you,” he told her two, three, four times.
Her timid, “I love you, too, Jack,” after the last time brought him to tears, though he tried to hide it.
“You’re mine and I’m yours. No one else’s,” were his last words that night.
The sights as they hopped off the trolley the next day—signs featuring “imperial,” “Chinese,” and hanzi characters alongside tall buildings topped with pagodalike roofs—made Peggy glad her aunt had suggested Chinatown. Here they’d find coconut buns, egg yolk almond balls, mooncakes, and who knew what else.
The air vibrated differently here. The fragrance of unfamiliar spices wafted from shops and mixed with crisp, precise music with odd rhythms.
Tomorrow they would drive home. The next day, it was back to work.
Peggy didn’t want to miss a thing.
Outside the Far East Café, she decided to use the restroom. “Find a shop we can visit,” she said. “I’ll be quick.”
When she reemerged, Jack wasn’t waiting by the door. She scanned the sidewalk to her right, then to her left. No sign of him. Her stomach clenched. What if she couldn’t find him?
But that was silly. Jack would never leave her.
She gazed across the street, in the direction of Fisherman’s Wharf, already bustling. After a jangling trolley passed, she spotted Jack. Again, with another woman. Was it the one from yesterday? He extracted the wallet from his pocket, glanced nervously around, then handed the woman money.
What was he doing? Why was he with her? And why was he giving her money?
Peggy stepped off the curb onto the street, furious, aware of nothing but Jack.
A horn blared at her.
A car screeched, then plowed into her, throwing her to the ground.
The driver jumped out and cursed her. People stopped to watch.
The next moment, Jack was there.
And then he wasn’t. Peggy-Claudia was out of Switch.
“Hey, good morning, Grams!” Jerrod clicked off the burner and pivoted from the stovetop, where he was whipping up his favorite weekend concoction: scrambled eggs with garlic, scallions, and jalapenos.
He flicked off the virtual comp display on the table, opened to the news.
“How did your Switch session go?” he asked as she settled into her chair. “I peeked in on you last night when I got home, around nine, but you were already asleep.”
“It was good.”
“Good. That’s great. Would you like some eggs?” He scooped his breakfast onto his plate.
“With hot peppers? No thank you.”
“I can make the kind you like.”
“No, no, sit.” She tapped the table with her fingers, noticing how gnarled they were. So different from yesterday, inside Switch.
Why did she have to return? To wake every day in a ninety-two-year-old body? To constant swollen ankles. To teary eyes. To hauling one leg over the other with both hands, as though performing a herculean chore. To shriveling skin and the inability to stand erect.
Her shuffle down the hallway seemed a trifle longer every day.
What did life offer her besides more pain, more loneliness, and more hopelessness?
Switch delivered her from all that. Her brain stored Switch experiences just like real ones. In fact, memories from Switch were fresher and clearer. That didn’t mean she forgot actual people and events from her past. But her Switch family as a child… Her marriage to Jack… How he reinvigorated sensations in this old body of hers… It was squirmingly delightful.
The truth? Claudia had been awake last night when Jerrod came to her door. She’d been reliving Jack’s breath on her cheek and neck. His fingers on her skin. The way he possessed her.
Dan had never made her feel like that.
Jerrod handed her a mug of coffee with a splash of coconut milk. “So, tell me about your adventure.”
“It was… lovely.” She almost cringed. She sounded like such an old lady.
He chuckled and slapped his palm onto the table playfully. “Come on, Grams. Details, please.”
Claudia felt her face redden and lifted the mug to her mouth. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d blushed and that thought almost made her blush again. She sucked in a breath. “Okaaaay. This time I visited San Francisco in 1975.”
Jerrod nearly choked on a mouthful of juice. “Are you kidding? I’d love to see Frisco before the earthquake and wildfires destroyed so much of it.”
“So, take some time off work.”
“Grams,” he groaned.
She waved a hand at him that resembled a bundle of twigs.
“What did you do there?”
Hmm. What was she supposed to say? That she had enjoyed the thrill of first-time sex for the second time in her life? About being smitten with Jack? No. Definitely not. She’d improvise.
“I met a young man. And his wife. Newlyweds.” She leaned into the table edge, flattening her saggy breasts. “They were lodging in the same guesthouse, and—”
“Oh. What was the guesthouse like?”
“Lovely, dear, but that wasn’t the interesting part.”
Jerrod rose to clear his plate. “More coffee?”
He refilled his mug and resettled onto his chair. “You were saying?”
“Well, this husband—we’ll call him Jack. And his wife, Peggy.”
“What was your name?”
What? Claudia fumbled for a second. “Jill. I was Jill.”
“Ha! You shoulda been married to the guy. Jack and Jill. Funny.”
Claudia’s face warmed again. “Are you going to talk or listen?”
“Geez, Grams. Go on.”
Claudia told about the fruit basket, Jack’s reaction to it, the whispering woman, and finally the money exchange.
“What were you, a spy? How did you find out about all that?”
“I, um, Jill, I mean Peggy, was my sister. She told me.”
“You didn’t say you were sisters.”
Claudia huffed. “It’s a story, Jerrod. That’s all. I’m just trying to figure out why Jack was hiding information about the woman from his new wife.”
Jerrod’s eyes narrowed. “I have a feeling you’re not telling me everything.”
Claudia threw her napkin at him.
“Okay, okay. Maybe he was a Vietnam War vet. The time was right. Maybe the strange woman was Vietnamese, not Chinese. The sister of a woman Jack had met in Vietnam. Maybe they married and had a son. ‘Johnny’ could be a nickname for ‘Jack.’ That would fit. When the war ended, Jack had to leave the country, his wife, and his child.”
Claudia stared at him. “That must be it.” Her brow furrowed. “Jack had another wife.”
Jerrod shrugged. “Don’t be too hard on the guy. Soldiers get lonely during wartime.”
Claudia sighed. “That’s true.” She pushed herself up from the chair.
“Wait, Grams. Aren’t you going to eat?”
She swung her hand behind her. “I’m fine.”
But she wasn’t fine. Imagining Jack with another woman shook Claudia. Why hadn’t he said anything? She would have understood.
She thought she would, anyway.
Halfway to her room, she froze. Jack was not her husband. Not really. He had been a character in a computer simulation. That’s all.
Claudia slumped against the wall. But it’s not all. Jack was my husband. Those things happened. They were real.
By the end of the day, one thought pummeled her: she had to return to Switch, to Jack. She couldn’t bear never seeing him again.
“I’m sorry, Ms. Campbell,” the woman said. On the virtual screen, she looked pleasant enough, but she was inflexible as a broomstick. “What you’re asking for is impossible.”
These people had promised a customized experience. Why were they now unwilling to keep that promise?
“Our programs are not reproducible,” the woman went on. “I’m sure someone told you that. To work within program parameters, our technology cannot recreate the kind of details you want.”
Claudia’s shoulders drooped. She did remember that. “You mean,” she asked in a tiny voice, “I’ll never be able to go back to my husband?”
“I mean, my Switch husband.”
“Oh. No. I’m sorry.” Later, this woman would probably laugh at Claudia for believing in the world and life Switch had created for her. Right now, she sounded compassionate. “Please allow me to make up for the confusion. I can offer you a special deal: one week inside of Switch for the price of four days. You can choose a program similar to the last, if you like. How does that sound?”
It would have to do. “Okay. Mark me down for a week from today.”
As she disconnected, the awful truth washed over Claudia. She’d never see Jack again. Never inhale his Old Spice. Or lie by his side. She’d never find out his secret—or tell him she forgave him for keeping it from her. And her lips would never feel his again.
She touched her lips with her fingers, closed her eyes, and saw Jack’s kind face. He seemed to be speaking to her. Telling her to move on.
Could she? If she married again, it wouldn’t be as though she’d lose Jack. He was in there to stay.
Over the next hours, Claudia’s mind created a new wish list for her next Switch session. This time, she’d visit a later timeframe: the 2010s. She wouldn’t tick off “mystery” in the story elements. She hated not knowing—never knowing—the truth about the Asian woman. Jerrod might have been right in his conjecture, but he might also have been wrong.
This time… This time… Ohhhhh. Yes! This time, she’d spend her honeymoon in Paris. And this time, she would opt for a man with an “intriguing” side to his character. She clenched the muscles she would use to satisfy her new husband and laughed out loud.
Instantly, she slapped her hand over her mouth, forgetting for a moment that Jerrod was at work. Then she laughed again. She could fantasize as much as she liked.
By the end of the day, she had only one problem: where would the money come from? The session would cost a full month of Jerrod’s pay and he’d never agree to taking out a loan. She’d figure something out.
“Grams, you’re awfully chipper tonight,” Jerrod said at least four times that evening. The last time, he followed the comment with, “So, are you going to let me in on your secret?”
No. Absolutely not. The poor boy would probably die of shock. “I’m just happy, that’s all.”
The next evening, the door clicked open. Jerrod stepped in. “Hey G—” Silence reigned for two seconds. “What?” Five seconds more, and he was around the corner, staring at her.
Claudia glanced up from the electronic book she’d been reading. A trashy romance—the kind she used to consider obscene. Now, it fueled her imagination.
The line between his eyes deepened as Jerrod fisted the hair at the top of his head. “What happened to the hall tree?”
Claudia had expected this. “Well, hello to you, too, dear.”
He slipped out of his sleek winter jacket and held it in one hand, letting it drape to the floor as his gaze fixed on her.
They make everything so lightweight these days, Claudia thought, blinking. When she was a child, she remembered piling on so many layers she’d end up clomping around like Frankenstein.
She swiped her book close.
“Where is it, Grams?”
Her shoulders lifted slightly then dropped as she sighed. “I sold it.”
“What?” The jacket slipped from Jerrod’s fingers.
“I sold it. It was a monstrosity. Besides, it didn’t fit in with the rest of our furnishings. You know that. It was old.”
Jerrod collapsed onto an easy chair. “I can’t believe you did that. Why? What were you thinking?”
Claudia shrugged and turned instead toward the front window. It was dirty, streaked and splotchy from bugs and rain. She’d noticed that earlier, as the sun set. When had it last been cleaned? Years ago. She never would have let that happen in her younger years.
The sharpness of his tone made her jerk. She twined her fingers together like grapevines coiled into a wreath.
“That was mine! You know that. Just because it didn’t come from your side of the family doesn’t mean it wasn’t valuable to me. It was the only thing I had of Dad’s grandparents.”
She shrugged again. “It was ugly, Jerrod. The mirror was blackened in the corners. And those claws meant to hang coats on? There were ridiculous.”
“It was an antique! If the piece were restored, it could have sold for more than this house is worth.”
“Maybe. But it wasn’t restored,” she snapped. “I was sick of looking at it.”
“So what? I put up with this dust-infused living room set of yours. You don’t even sit on it! You perch yourself in that La-Z-Boy like it’s some kind of throne.”
Claudia supposed he didn’t mean to sound so nasty. Still, his words hurt.
After a long pause, she mumbled, “Buy something modern instead. Something you’ll enjoy.”
“I enjoyed that. It gave me a connection to the past. Now, tell me what you did with it so I can get it back.”
Claudia barked out a laugh. “I have no idea who the buyer was. He didn’t leave his name or contact information. I’m sorry.”
Jerrod pounded the arm of the chair, sending up a thin mist of dust. “You’re not sorry at all!” He bolted out of the chair, swiped his jacket off the floor, glanced around as though trying to find something, then threw it back down. With his back toward her, he said, “You still haven’t told me why.”
Claudia fiddled with the edge of the arm cover on her chair. It was old, like her, and frayed. Not good for much. “I needed the money,” she said, her voice only barely above a whisper.
“What?” He turned slowly.
His tone flipped something inside of Claudia.
“I said I needed the money.” Now her voice was defiant.
“For returning to Switch, if you must know.”
He gaped at her. “You just had a session at Switch.”
“Well I need to go again. The woman offered me a great deal: a week for the price of four days. I couldn’t pass it up. I’ve already booked a session for next Monday.”
Jerrod’s head flinched back. “You’re going for a week? How long is that in Switch time?”
“Roughly six months.”
“Six months? Are you crazy? Why?”
She swung her head to the side. “You wouldn’t understand.”
Jerrod said nothing for a long time, but she could feel him gaping. As though she’d just grown horns. Then, shaking his head slowly, he said, “Okay. I won’t stop you. Just don’t sell any more of my stuff.”
That evening, Jerrod ate in his bedroom, Claudia in her La-Z-Boy.
I’ll make it up to him, Claudia vowed to herself before drifting off that night.
When Claudia emerged from her week-long Switch session, her eyes sprang open and she surveyed the wake-up room. Within a half a minute, she understood who she was, what the thirty-something male watching over her was doing, and that she was out of the program. Safe.
“Whoa there, Mrs. Campbell,” the man said as she jostled to raise herself up on her elbows.
Cursed old age. It was a bother more than anything. There were more important things to do in life than sit around, watching other people live. That’s what Damian, her Switch husband for the last six months, used to say. For several moments, the room and attendant vanished as Damian’s image filled her inner vision: movie star handsome, dressed in edgy haute couture, holding a champagne glass. And there she was—as Rosa—by his side. Also beautiful. Also dressed in the latest fashion and firmly ensconced in the high life. Wearing a three-carat blue diamond ring, studded with twists of black and white diamonds.
The attendant gentled Claudia onto her back. “Give yourself a little time to readjust. No one’s chasing you, you know.”
But they were!
Or, they had been. Since Rosa and Damian’s honeymoon in Paris, life had become a game of cat and mouse with INTERPOL.
On their wedding night, Rosa had learned that Damian was a fraud artiste (he loved calling himself that; “con man” was too plebeian) and lived luxuriously by scamming people. He mixed both targets and methods frequently to avoid capture. Damian concealed his occupation from friends by claiming to be the obscenely rich heir of a powerful Bulgarian family.
At first, Rosa was horrified. After seeing Damian in action, though, she slowly warmed to his tricks. Soon, she joined him.
The law, never far behind, provided an unending source of adventure.
Their lives together vaporized when she reemerged from Switch.
How could she bear to return to her mundane reality, sitting around, waiting to die?
“Well, your vitals look remarkably good for someone who’s been in an induced coma for a week. How do you feel?”
Miserable, she thought. “As well as a ninety-two-year-old can expect, I suppose.”
“Grams, what’s the matter?” Jerrod helped her sit up against the headboard and set a decades-old breakfast-in-bed tray in front of her.
Her lip curled at the black metal surface, decorated with a painted floral design, long-ago faded. Years of dust, miniscule crumbs, and spilled liquids, never thoroughly cleaned from its crevices, made it slightly tacky and thoroughly gross. They should have thrown it out long ago. How could she ever have thought such a cheap, unsophisticated item was charming?
For that matter, how had she lived so long in such an unattractive home, surrounded by things Damian and Rosa would have scorned? The high life was the only life for the person Claudia had become.
She stared at the Saturday morning meal her grandson had prepared for her: a poached egg, fruit bowl, fresh croissant, and steaming mug of coffee. “It looks wonderful, dear.” Her voice sounded as bereft of enthusiasm as she felt.
Jerrod scooted the table over a bit and sat on the edge of her bed. She hadn’t laundered the sheets, hadn’t even changed out of her nightgown for a week. Since her return from Switch.
She must reek. But what difference did it make?
Nothing appealed to her anymore. She dreaded the thought of beginning each day in her drab bedroom, on this old-fashioned bed. Dreaded opening her eyes to another chapter of boredom and pain.
Switch was all she wanted, all she craved. The only thing that could satisfy her.
Jerrod cocked his head to the side and lifted her shriveled hand. No, that thing isn’t a hand; it’s a jumble of bones, she thought. She wiped the corners of her eyes, pretending to be doing what she needed to do dozens of times daily because of her annoying runny eyes.
She was so sick of life.
“I blame myself for your… What is it, Grams? Depression? You haven’t been the same since you returned from Switch. You’re wasting away. Sometimes I think a stranger has taken over my grandmother’s body. What did they do to you?” He was growing agitated. Angry. “Or was the program they plugged you into upsetting? Please! You haven’t told me anything.”
She smiled at him. Sadly. How could she tell her grandson that she’d embraced a life of crime with a handsome man who was more exciting, more alive than anyone she’d known in real life? That all she wanted was to return to him, knowing she never could?
Jerrod would never agree to fund another Switch session for her. In a way, he was responsible for her current state. It was no use telling him that, though. He wouldn’t understand.
Claudia’s mind flung back to the scene on Rosa and Damian’s wedding night as they strolled along a tiny Paris street, alive with bistros and brasseries, toward one of the city’s most elegant restaurants.
“Wait here,” Damian had told Rosa, who was too surprised to object.
He trotted a half block ahead of her, looking like a model in his well-fitted suit. After crossing the street, he wove around passersby until he reached the sidewalk seating area of a bistro. At the first table, he smiled and, in perfect French, asked if the couple was enjoying their meal. “Oui, oui monsieur,” they answered. He bowed his head and moved on to two other tables.
At the third, the dining couple had yet to pay the bill, left in a guest check book on their table. “I hope madam and monsieur were satisfied with their meal and service.” “Oui, oui.” “Excellent. I’ll take this for you.” Within three minutes, Damian was at her side again with the man’s credit card in his pocket, several hundred meters beyond the restaurant.
Rosa had been mortified.
Damian slowly wore down her objections. “I never hurt anyone,” he assured her. To prove it, after paying for their dinner with the stolen card, Damian melted it.
The second scam didn’t seem quite as bad to her.
Soon, Rosa was helping Damian conjure up ways to defraud people. Neither of them wanted to destroy people’s lives. Their goal was to pilfer only the money people would have wasted anyway.
“I… I’m sorry to worry you, dear,” Claudia told Jerrod now. “I’ll be okay. Just give me a little time.”
Claudia had considered several ways to take money from Jerrod. Scruples weren’t the problem; she mainly feared being caught. Plus, well, he was her grandson.
It wasn’t until that evening, exactly seven days after her return, that Claudia figured out how to reenter Switch. This time, she’d order the longest session available. And she wasn’t going to waste it on a quotidian scenario. This time, she’d really live.
Again she lay on a gurney in a clean room while two techs bustled around, attaching sensors to her nearly naked form.
She focused on the program ahead. She’d opted for the year 2030, when regular people began skydiving from the edge of space. She’d chosen the program because of its risks, but thinking about them now scared her. She squeezed her eyes tightly.
“Everything all right, Mrs. Campbell?” the young woman asked.
She was going to do this. “Yes, I’m okay.”
“Almost there,” the young man said. Months ago, Claudia would have considered him a boy. That was before she married Jack and Damian.
She shifted her gaze to the wall and again her thoughts raced. Did she really want this? She could be facing a puncture in her jump suit that would create gas bubbles in her bodily fluids. Her blood would literally boil. Or she could end up in a flat spin that would whip her around up to 250 rotations a minute, stealing her breath away or even bursting her eyeballs. A collision or blackout could also take her life.
Actually, a blackout didn’t seem so bad. That would be okay.
She hated leaving Jerrod with no explanation. At least she’d met him in the hallway that morning, rising to wish him a good day—a good life, really, though she couldn’t say that without alerting him to her plan. She’d set her left hand on his arm. “Don’t worry about me, Jerrod. I’ll be fine.” Thankfully, he didn’t register the absence of her wedding ring. Before she sold it, she hadn’t taken it off since her wedding day. With the money, she bought a two-week session, which meant a year inside Switch.
“Okay, then,” the young woman said. “You’re all set.”
Claudia inhaled deeply.
“Hope this is your best experience yet.” The woman settled the mask on Claudia’s face. “Please count to ten for me.”
Claudia-turned-Rochelle’s eyes opened slowly, as though awakening after a long sleep. After half a second, they popped wide, like a goby fish. Her lips parted to scream, but something was clamped over her mouth, her nose, her chin. Even pulling her head back was impossible.
“Hey, Rochelle. Everything okay?”
Who was Rochelle? And why was a man’s voice inside her head? Her focus turned from the visor in front of her face to the view outside. Her heart stopped, or skipped a few beats, or did something else abnormal, because the voice was back.
“Rochelle! Speak to me.”
She shut her eyes to block the panorama beyond her face mask: the curvature of Earth; its azure painted with cloudy swirls.
Then her mind cleared. “Um, yeah Phil. I’m fine. I was disoriented for a second. I’m all right now.”
Phil was twenty-two-year-old Rochelle Moreau’s jump team leader on this, her first dive from near space. This suit, the helmet, visor, gloves, and special boots were her protection from one of the planet’s most dangerous climates.
“You’re falling at four hundred miles per hour already.”
Phil’s staccato ha-ha-has made her smile.
Despite her speed, Rochell’s jump—which she remembered now had begun at 135,000 feet above the Earth—felt calm.
“You’re up to 600 mph now,” Phil said a short time later.
Now Rochelle laughed. This was amazing. She shifted her orientation with a slight movement. During freefalls at lower altitudes, this was easy. Out here, so far from the Earth’s surface, it felt different. Her throat constricted at the passing thought of being stranded in space. That was impossible; she wasn’t out nearly far enough.
As she plummeted, Rochelle could make out mountains and large bodies of water.
She jostled to the right to try to identify a shape, then something went wrong. An invisible force shoved her. The next moment, she was spinning. No, no, no. This was bad. Very bad. If she didn’t get herself under control, she’d soon be nothing but sausage in a fancy coat, splatting onto the frying pan of the New Mexican desert floor.
Fear enveloped her. How many rotations a minute was she up to?
“Push against the spin, Rochelle!”
I can’t, she thought. I’m gonna die up here.
“Spread your arms and legs into a layout position,” Phil barked. “Do it now!”
Rochelle obeyed. Almost instantly, her spinning slowed. Soon, the ground was in focus again.
Good thing Phil was such a hard-ass.
She heard him exhale.
“How fast am I going?” Her record before was 500 mph.
“You’ve reached 800 mph.”
She wanted to laugh. Spread-eagle, she spotted fields and rivers below. Then buildings and roads came into focus.
“You’re at four minutes, Rochelle. Ten thousand feet. Time to open the chute.”
The sudden yank, which always felt gentle at lower altitudes, felt like a punch after freefalling for so long.
Soon, the toe of Rochelle’s right boot touched down. She loped clumsily for ten gigantic steps, then threw her arms into the air before falling onto her knees, crying.
She had to do this again.
At the completion of twenty-five successful jumps, Rochelle became a record-holder in the world of space-chuting. By then, she felt invincible.
On her twenty-sixth jump, 363 days after her first, Rochelle Moreau slammed into a flock of migrating Greater Sandhill Cranes at 6,000 feet.
She did not survive.