Switching on the Skinny Yellow Train

I had no trouble jumping on the skinny school train going in the wrong direction for my house. It ran atop the utility poles to the nearest regular light-rail station. I was now just one of two guys making their way home after school to hang out and do some homework looking down on the busy city streets below. Even the school train’s bodyguard only made sure we looked like kids jumping aboard the set of tandem seats, every other one facing backwards, before sliding into his own spot at the caboose, his thick arms pressing against either side of the train from the inside. Hiro sat in the one facing backwards in our pair of low hard-plastic seats, but this was my first experience body-sharing being a boy, however. If we’d we’d been a boy and girl in these seats, we’d likely be called a couple.

The jump between bodies had been strange. Going into a curtained spot at the nurse’s office, having our implants had swapped consciousness at the signal from the school admin earlier, and becoming a part of the experimental intervention program meant to thwart the soaring suicide rates in our prefecture. Crazy! A simple call down to the school counselor for what had seemed like a scheduling issue for next trimester, and then on the way out asking about why I was no longer wearing a skirt, but simply being handed a normal looking pamphlet titled, “So you’re now the trapped in the wrong gender?” The most helpful thing in there was the simple advice to sit down to pee and let your natural bodily instincts rule whenever there was a question as to how to behave to do something unfamiliar. So far, so good. No puddles in the panties, or was is all just “underwear” now?

Hiro let the way onto the main train platform and our arrival behind the gates to pay meant not needing to scan our school IDs for entry. The bodyguard himself was joining us and watching the automated school train zip on ahead empty.

Hiro sat at bench while we waited. “So, what do you normally do to relax after school, Tanaka?”

“I like taking a long soaking bath with some classical music.”

His slight surprise made me question how normal that might be. “Personally, I usually get into some MMO games.

“How can killing things relax you after school?”

“I’ve gotta have success at something, especially after that last test score posted. I’m not that good at the shooter ones, but last month I did find one that was all about finding the right set of bombs and booby traps to fight with. I can do those. There were even some cool islands and abandoned towns to explore.”

“How do you chat with others—isn’t that what an MMO is all about, right?”

“So far it’s more been finding others lurking as they try to beat you to finding things and making sure you place the booby traps in the right places to keep them away from zones you’re about to go looking in.”

“I bet you could have a lot more fun if you just started talking with them. Imagine what you could do as a squad to cover newly opened areas if you had someone watching your back.”

Our train pulled in. We stood.

“Yeah, that could really be something. I’ll let you work the keyboard while I do the controller.”

I follow him up the train car to an open row facing the middle. “I normally have dinner by 6:30. Will we still have our project for tomorrow done by then?”

“My teacher said you’d be picked up after dinner about 8 pm, so we’ve got plenty of time.”

“I wasn’t told anything.”

We sit and the doors close. With a lurch, we move off along the building’s third floor roof.

Hiro is casually glancing out the window watching some trees roll past when he suddenly freezes and looks back at me. “Wait! You’re part of this new experiment, right?”

I blush. “Why would you think that?”

“I think it’s the coolest thing. We all have these implants that boost our memories and stuff, but getting yours hacked for a psych experiment sounds way awesome! Is it pretty trippy?”

I glance around to see if anyone is paying attention to us. When I look back to Hiro’s kid-in-a-candy-store look he’s still completely lit. I nod slowly. “Yeah, pretty trippy is right. This is all they gave me to explain stuff.”
I hand him the pamphlet. He avidly reads it, looks confused, then rereads it slowly and checks to make sure nothing was hidden on some back panel. “This sounds like a gender fluid thing.”

“Fluid gender you mean.”

He freezes thinking about that. “Yeah, you’re probably right. It sounds pretty gross the other way.”

We exit a few stops later. He points out his place as one of the cheap two-story walk-ups that ring his entire block, not one of the cool rounded towers that stick up from the grassy tree-studded courtyard in the middle of the block. In his room, he dumps his school bag on his bed and powers up his system. He hands me the keyboard and sits on one side of his giant bean bag chair with his controller. I join him, kneeling with my feet to the side, but pain stabs at my waistline in front when I forget to keep my knees slightly apart. Hiro notices none of my shock! I tentatively do some medium-level man-spreading with one leg straight out in front of me instead.

Hiro is very into his game. The handful of text lines at the bottom of his screen stream updates as he manipulates his avatar through a portal, some abandoned buildings, picking up some objects, searching some rusting green military desks, and flipping through some inventory pop-up menus. I see some other players entering the servers on the updates, so I start typing.

Hiro85: Yo, what up?

Kinga67 has entered your zone.

Hiro85: Anybody wanna team-up?

Kinga67: Sure.

A new strip of black jumps up on the bottom of the screen with menu options. Hiro picks some options for sharing certain inventory and map things. Another Avatar slides through a portal on the screen.

Hiro85: We are new at working together.

Kinga67: We are too. We love the chance to try it though, Precious.

Hiro pulls up the map and scans for some strategic places. He points to a few. “If we can set up a perimeter here, it’ll open up exploration over into this area.”

Hiro85: We think you can take the first set to the west on the map and block that passage while we do the valley to the east.

Kinga67: Looks like a natural bowl in the middle full of interesting buildings. Let’s do it.

 

The afternoon quickly became a blur of two story abandoned buildings with amazing tropical island views out every window. Each room needed a sweep. Each building had random doors to clear and often hidden basement trap doors that might connect to the other structures in a compound or just to neighboring houses with a hidden lounge that seemed like both families were meant to hole up in during storms or even just for a movie night. We worked steadily through those and a few other areas, then made plans for when we could work together again with Kinga67. After signing off, Hiro sat back and looked at me over his nose.

“You really are a girl. I’ll need you next week on the keyboard when Kinga67 signs on.”

“Fat chance. I’m back to skirts by the end of the week.”

He looked like he wanted to ask another question, but wasn’t going to.

The door banged open. His mom had some egg stoodles on a tray with napkins. “Hope I’m not interrupting some hard studying.”

Hiro jumped up to take the tray. I ducked out of the way to let him. When the stroodles were obliterated, but he homework was only half done, I remembered the look Hiro had of wanting to ask another question.

“Before your Mom came in, it looked like you wanted to ask a very personal question.”

“I can’t do that unless it’s a fair trade, but you probably don’t have any questions. That pamphlet was pretty comprehensive.”

We both laughed. “How about teaching me about how to work a fly. Skirts and simply dropping panties is so easy. Fingers don’t really have to do anything. A fly has two layers, a zipper, and stuff that shouldn’t get caught in either one.”

He looked up towards the ceiling in thought, as if he hadn’t thought too much about it before. “When I was a kid it was kind of a big deal, but I never bothered even learning how to work the fly on the underwear myself. Too much work. Much easier to just open everything up with a pull down from the top. Plus there’s a proverb type thing, ‘No matter how you shake and dance, the last three drops go down your pants.’”

“Yuck! No wonder boy’s bathroom are always so gross. If you can’t even keep your clothes from being peed in regularly, then you obviously don’t care that much about the rest of the room.”

Hiro simply shrugged and copied over another math problem to solve on his tablet. “So which one were you in this little experiment: the one volunteering to switch to help another kid out, or the one needing an intervention?”

It was my turn to stay silent and copy down another math problem. My handwriting was super sloppy, though. I huffed in exasperation.

“Maybe you’re just left handed in this body.”

It went fast with the left hand! Maybe there was something to the “let the instincts direct” advice.

When he looked up, I met his eyes for just a bit before looking down again. “What do they really think makes a person ‘at risk’ for the experiment? I don’t really know, but I’m pretty sure nobody simply volunteered for it. Everyone highlighted is already volunteered to participate just by the fact that the school paid for the implants. We’ve got no say in it. I’m not in your class, if your worried you’ve got a jumper in it. I’m definitely not a popular type, or winning any awards for best-dressed or prettiest. I’m not a girl you would ever take much notice of. Even the other girls barely notice I’m around.”

“My Dad tells me boys before college are often too intimidated to even let the girls know what they think, and it comes out in weird ways. Either we like a girl so much we end up acting as if we don’t care about her, or we get super macho trying to prove things and acting tough. We really don’t care that much anything other than our own egos and ideas about needing to act like real men before we really grow up, and that almost never happens until well into college.”

“What does all that even mean? Aren’t you a real male by just being a guy?”

“I couldn’t tell you were a girl in a boy’s body until we started talking more and doing things that needed action. Do you really feel like a girl, even in this body?”

“It’s probably the confidence thing that tips it one way or the other. Even when a guy isn’t very confident, he’s still a lot more ready to to imagine he can do something at least passably and give it a try. My Dad is always so bull-headed even when he knows he doesn’t have a clue what he’s talking about. Mom, however, is always acting like her opinion and ability might not be the best, even when she’s ten times better than anyone else present. She often still takes charge, despite how low she might rate herself.”

“That sounds like what I’m talking about. Does your mom still get the hots for your dad when he’s being that bull-headed?”

“She ruffles his hair, but changes his mind easily when she wants to. Probably part of her being a CEO or something. I’ve got some little boys that live next door and are always wrestling with each other. Do you think it’s not just because they’re twins?”

“Depends on the guy. A lot of guys like that sort of thing. I never got much into it, but I think that’s because my older brother is already done with college. You do what you’ve seen done. With my brother it was more like having a young uncle around even when I was little.”

Strangely, the light outside the window dimmed. Hiro slid the window open to the empty shaft light-well and stuck his head out into the space between the other units. I joined him. Above him the skylight had gone dark. Below him, the first-floor’s skylight showed only the yellow glow of their dining room lights. By the time we made it to his front door, the sun had come out again.

“Mom, we weren’t scheduled to have an eclipse were we?”

“No, probably just a really thick cloud.”

Her stacks of paper on the dining room table were lined up like battalions ready to go into the reports she was generating on her laptop. Before I could even follow Hiro back to his room, she already was moving another one to the side for her strategic plan of engagement.

Hiro led the way back to his room. We worked on the last few math problems before getting back online to watch some videos. An alarm went off  a half hour later, and he hit the kitchen to start dinner without a word.

After a quiet dinner with polite smiles and little conversation, Hiro excused us and we went outside for a walk before it got too dark. He ran for the few blocks down to the ocean retaining wall. I easily matched pace and pulled ahead when it seemed obvious he was heading for more open spaces. My legs sang with glee at being allowed to run! Even my lungs settled into an easy rhythm as my body greedily ate up the distance. I looked back and Hiro was way behind. I pushed on a little bit more and spun around a light pole, blasting back towards him with even more speed. I was just starting to feel winded by the time I got back to Hiro, but he was the one wheezing and leaning on his knees.

“Remind…me…not…to…race the…boy…whose…body you’re…borrowing!”

My ear-to-ear grin felt wonderful. “You’re not kidding! This guy must be an incredible athlete. You’d be the one waiting for me if I was in my normal body.”

The sky still had a good amount of glow to it, but it suddenly went black. Even the stars were missing. After a few minutes, it all came back.

Hiro looked a little anxious, but he played it off like it hadn’t mattered. He wanted to show me an old temple on the edge of a development that was pretty cool. I followed him, but the last thing I wanted to be around when the sky was doing weird things was some creepy and possibly demonic thing full of ghosts and spirits. The park wall held back the forest nicely, and where the temple was the wall simply moved back into the forest to go behind it for a hundred yards. The manicured trees and bushes in the temple area made the small little dog-house sized things a little quaint.

“I thought these might be creepy or something, but you weren’t kidding. They are pretty cute.”

“Do you think this guy’s body your in was also suicidal? I didn’t think good-looking athletic types had major esteem issues. Isn’t that the sales pitch for all the spending on sports?”

“I might not think these shrines are exactly creepy, but let’s just keep moving before it gets any darker.”

“I wonder if he was having some gender fluid issues or something.”

“Gender dysphoria or fluid gender, not gender fluid. That’d be like saying ‘sex fluid.’”

Hiro looked at me in surprise. Both of us were blushing before we burst into a laugh.

When we were most of the way back to his house, Hiro cleared his throat. “Before you trade it back in, you probably should take it for a spin. Almost nobody gets the chance to try out what the other team experiences.”

I slapped him on the shoulder. “Are you saying I should expect to return to borrowed goods?”

His blush and mortified look as we entered was almost noticed by his parents who had pulled out a game of go at the table, but we quickly moved past them into his small bedroom. At my suggestion, we spun up some music videos to watch together until my ride came.

I waved. “Bye. Probably see you tomorrow.”

Hiro tried to act macho and do a two-fingered point and wave.

I rolled my eyes as I headed for the unmanned transport.

In the transport I was shocked to see my body already waiting for me in the back seat. In the front bench seat that faced backwards, the school counselor was taking notes into a tablet.

“Hello. How’d it go?”

I sat on the front bench to close the door. “It was good.”

From here I could see all my zits and the terrible haircut, the long black hair drooped forward to a ragged edge just below the chin that was entirely too sloped. Even the folds in the neck and amorphous unflattering shapes under the unbuttoned sweater made me cringe. The person behind the wheel and eyes was obviously new to being a girl, the man-spreading sprawl on the seat was ridiculous in a school uniform pleated skirt.

The car lurched on. “I have a few questions about your experience, but then you need to decide if you need to switch back for the night or not. Giving each other the key details for how to handle being a doppelganger in a strange home would be critical to staying under the radar for at least a few nights.”

We both spoke at the same time, “Nobody will notice.”

My stomach dropped. He was just as ignored at home? I probably wouldn’t have had a crush on this body I was in, but it wasn’t half bad. No way would I have thought myself good enough to date him.

I pushed the knees together to one side and adjusted the skirt as I switched to the other side. I pulled open the purse and found a barret. I ran my fingers through the hair that used to be mine and clipped the hair back on one side.

“I’m going to record our conversation. It is the twelfth of April, 2031 and this is day one with subjects Tanaka Yoshida and Sakoshi Tamura. Did you feel this experience was positive or negative so far? Let’s start with you, Tanaka.”

“Positive.”

“And why was that? Was there a particular experience or person that helped?”

“Yes. Hiro probably wouldn’t have been ok with my hanging out with him without the switch.”

“What activities do you do?”

I filled them in. Sakoshi snorted in derision. When asked if he would have enjoyed those activities, he was a definite no, including swear words. We talked about home routines, covered how we were planning to do things for the rest of the week. I assured him the body he had wasn’t due for a monthly cycle for another two weeks. He looked shocked to even imagine having to deal with that mess, and very relieved at knowing he wouldn’t have to. Everything seemed in order. The only instructions he thought I needed was to be sure to enjoy the goods and not be late to baseball practice Tuesday and Thursday, but he just rolled his eyes like if I simply didn’t go that would actually be better.

It was strange dropping him off at my house. Knowing he was going to wake up in my bed to my alarm, and try to live my life for me for the week. Hiro’s place had been a small single level apartment with one bedroom, but mine was at least a two floor row house. I wondered what Sakoshi’s place was going to be like.

I was not expecting to turn down a long paved drive into the woods and roll past several temples and arrive at a darkened sprawling home. Had this belonged to a local war lord in the Meiji period? A servant met us and silently walked me in down many halls just past a full western style bathroom to my room with a view onto a swirl-combed rock garden lit with moon light. The servant had somehow picked up some folded clothes and robe along the way. Those were set just inside the room and a matt was rolled out and bedding expertly tugged into shape over it in a matter of seconds. Without a word, the servant held up a charge cord for my phone in one hand, the other patiently waiting for me to hand over my phone. I pulled it out. The cord was inserted and an alarm was set for me with a demonstration of the sound to listen for. Then the servant vanished into the dark hallways with a slap of the rice paper door closing. I slipped into the robe, hit the bathroom, resisted the temptation to stand up to pee, and went to bed.

The dreams I had included some odd memories from before this body had me in it. Simple stuff, though. Nothing worth noting, other than the jerk comments, the bad feelings about them, and some shadowy feelings of shame from an upset parent. Other than the smell of the shadowy feelings, they were very similar to the ones I normally carried. How was living someone else’s messed up live and dealing with their depressing crap supposed to help anything?

The morning came too soon. I showered and dressed. The memories of where my hands had lingered too long with the soap were hard to push away, but thankfully things had quieted enough to be soft. The hamper in the bathroom seemed to be the place to put worn clothing. By the time I tried to check back in my room for anything I might have missed, the silent servant was there holding out my school bag with my tablet in it charged and ready. The servant shoved the phone directly into my front pocket. When I hesitated to take the bag, too, it was deposited at my feet. I watched the servant stride purposefully towards the front of the house. A wall portion was open on its upper half, revealing a pair of shelves where a side table might be to hold a few things. A raw egg on steaming noodles and a small protein drink were waiting with a pair of chopsticks. The servant paused with arms crossed and a look of challenge. I strode over and stirred the egg into the noodles. Before I had taken a second bite from the bowl in my hand, the servant started tapping their foot in annoyance. The feel of being an athlete gripped me. On impulse I drang the noodles down and chugged the thick shake thing with a faint vanilla flavor. The servant spun on their heel and strode towards the front door. A single-person drone awaited. The moment I sat in it, it fired up its propellers and automatically dropped me at the nearest train station. It was very early still. Mists and roof tops barely outlined in the early pre-dawn glow made a nice view before the train blocked it and the doors slid open with a pressurized hiss.

At school I saw only athletes on the track. Evidently I missed the memo that some of practice was also before school. I looked for Sakoshi’s locker in the boy’s changing area, dropped my bag in there, and put on the sleeveless shirt and shorts hanging in there. I used my phone to access my implant and put on an exercise music channel. A mild blush rose on my cheeks when the corner of my eye caught another kid strip completely naked, stretch a bit and then put on the exercise clothes without anything underneath. All the athletes seemed to just be doing laps around the school track. I let instincts take over. Thankfully the music matched my pace and occasionally pushed me a little faster. Soon I was flying past most of the others. Even my arms seemed to revel in the counterbalance swings that seemed to pull me along if I let them be violent enough. When the music switched to something a little more violent and driving, I started doing just that.

I was lost and loving it for over forty minutes.

“Hey, Sakoshi!”

I did another lap and high speed, loving the edge of a burn finally creep up on me.

“Sakoshi!”

I tapped my sub-dermal mute. The track was empty. The coach was on the side.

“Save some for practice. The bell already rang. Also, I was told to give you this. Not sure why you need a reminder of your home room this late in the year.”

I took the slip from him. It was a schedule of my extra class rooms and lunch schedule for when I wouldn’t be in the main classroom, but it included even the home room number and what assigned seats I had in each hand-written in the margin. I hit the shower and trotted off to class with wet hair. By lunch I felt like I was getting things. Nobody seemed to know me, or at least care if I didn’t hang back with them when things shifted rooms. At least that wasn’t new. In science, however, I noticed the teacher was a little distracted and anxious about something. She had us work on some busy work for the entire second half of the time block. I saw her slip into the lab work zone behind some wire-strengthened glass as soon as she could. I jotted down enough on the digital worksheets to get a passing score, but then slipped to the door to her smaller work area door. I opened it carefully and listened in to what she was talking about on the phone.

“I know it was only two minutes. But it happened twice and for identical amounts of time. Those black outs were not just space aliens messing with us. They were deliberate dark matter triggers like I wrote about in my paper a decade ago.”

Then a pause.

“No, I don’t think I need your fancy University equipment to verify the results. What I need are some government contacts to find out what country was messing with this. The last thing we need is a cascade event by some sloppy calculations.”

Then a pause, again.

“No I am not just looking for a grant. You of all people should know that I do actually enjoy working with high school students, and I don’t need prestige, unless that’s all you care about to think I’m speaking the truth about what my numbers show.”

She slammed her phone down a minute later. She made another call, but with a lot more polite appeal to whoever was on the other line. She set an appointment time to drive up there and use their array.

I slipped the door closed and went back into the room before she could hang up the phone. That stuff was way over my pay grade as a student. No way I could be involved in a save-the-world scenario. Way too many power brokers with nuclear weapons that were unwilling to listen to the little people.

The rest of the week went smooth, especially with Hiro to hang out with everyday after school. Even practice after school was easy, as if the coach had been given a note to keep me benched and doing just the physical training parts that didn’t even need me to swing a bat or throw a ball. Only on Friday did the same special ride happen again. I entered the car, but sat with a demure and half-way presentable version of my old body sitting on the rear bench seat this time, knees modestly swung to the side, but with a straight-backed confidence I had certainly never felt.

“Hello. How’d it go?”

“It’s been a great week.”

Even Sakoshi was smiling in agreement.

“I’m going to record our conversation. It is the sixteenth of April, 2031 and this is day five with subjects Tanaka Yoshida and Sakoshi Tamura. Did you feel this experience was positive or negative overall, and why would you or would you not want to do a repeat of it in the future? Let’s start with you, Tanaka.”

“Very positive.”

“And why was that? Was there a particular experience or persons that helped?”

“The cold silent servant at home was not a help, but the chance to experience a similarly depressing, but very opposite set of life routines was way cool. I would definitely participate again if given the choice. I had no idea the boost mentally that being physically healthy would be.”

Sakoshi leaned forward, “I have to ask, did you molest yourself even once?”

I looked at the floor and turned red as a beet.

“And you, Sakoshi. Did you feel this was a positive experience? Do you have persons to note as key to why it was so good?

For a moment the big smile on what used to be my face seemed the picture of lewd perversion, but then it sobered to modest mirth. “Yes it was positive. The angry mother figure and ghost of a father were only a little better than the cold servant I have at home, but the loyalty of some of the friends at school were very surprising to be a part of. I had no idea that much conversation happens in the bathrooms!”

He looked at me with genuine admiration. “Knowing what guys typically talk about, that’s probably a good thing.”

“And would you want to be a participant for a similar project in the future?”

“Most definitely.”

“Any last questions either of you has for us?”

I could see my house drawing close in the light of the street lamps.

On impulse I thought of my science teacher’s concern and mention of a cascade event. “So we’ve had a few sky black outs. What do you know about dark matter triggers or a cascade event?

The shocked look was quickly masked. “That sounds like a conspiracy theory and not related to our current situation. Unless there are other questions I will now end the recording.”

She paused for a response before tapping her tablet. She then leaned forward and spoke quietly, “You didn’t hear this from me, but there is a distinct possibility your high scores at success and compatibility with this swap will put you onto a short list to help out with that exact issue. Imagine a spy that could swap bodies as easily as a hacker uploads a worm.”

She leaned back and pulled up another app on her tablet and then looked at us as we pulled to a stop outside of my house. “Just lean back as if you’re about to nap and don’t want your head to roll against the side. Ready?”

We nodded. She hit it. The two second fainting spell put me on the other side of the seat. And back into my old body. Immediately I felt like I’d eaten a box of doughnuts, and maybe I had. My limbs were familiar, but very heavy and sluggish. I grabbed my stuff and got out. The breezy feel of a skirt again was familiar, but somehow still new. I opened my purse and unlocked the front door. When I looked back, Sakoshi was smiling conspiratorially out the back window as they drove off.

A cold feeling overtook me. I immediately went up stairs and took a shower. Nothing seemed amiss until the next day when I pooped out some cotton and marbles that clinked into the toilet.

Saturday night, I felt a pang of loneliness and messaged the first girlfriend that came to mind, Yuko.

Thinking of you.

Yuko messaged back right away, Your antics this week were great!

I wasn’t really myself.

Hope that continues! 😀

I don’t remember much about this week. Fill me in?

LOL

I wanted to throw the phone across the room. I wanted to go pick a fight with my rage-issue mother. I knew it would be easy and that I’d done it a million times in the past. But no. I didn’t want to be my old self anymore.

They tell me I can be a spy and take over other people’s bodies. What are you up to?

A picture came across a minute later. Shadows, curves, some porcelain, and a peace sign with two fingers. I had no idea what I was looking at for several minutes. When I saw a bit of curly hair I suddenly didn’t want to figure it out anymore and tossed my phone on the bed. But I couldn’t leave it at that. What all had changed inside just this one week? When I looked at my message logs, I was shocked at all the crazy pictures that seemed just as cryptic as the one from Yuko. I scrolled further. Even Hitomori?? When did I get her number? Wasn’t she too good for us and an artist-snob? When did that change?

Somehow the thought of Monday rolling around and blindsiding me with stuff I wasn’t ready for seemed crippling. The memory of having take-charge instincts and running the track at school kicked in.

Wanna get ice cream?

I checked the train schedule for the one that could run me two stops up to her station. Five minutes, if I walked the two blocks now.

You know it!

Five minutes.

I grabbed my purse and slipped out my window onto the back porch thing. The train arrived just as I was clearing the pay reader. It felt crazy! It felt like the tipping point of a roller coaster’s first hill. What am I doing? As I was putting my pass back and the doors were closing, I noticed a copy of the same pamphlet that Hiro and I had laughed about. The one wedged in my purse was filled with notes in the margins. I only had time to read two before my stop came up, but those were enough. Sakoshi had obviously figured out the right hand thing only after writing half of them, and the words were near impossible to make out.

Yuko met me in the shadows at the bottom of the stairs. Even in the street light, she seemed a lot happier to see me than I remember her ever having looked in the past. Playing along with things might just be my first lesson in being a spy!

“Sakoshi!”

Huh? “Are you still Yuko?”

She leaned back and acted smug. “I haven’t been given an assignment yet, but you never know.”

We looped arms and started off down the street to the coin-operated Cherry Berry we had been to a million times.

“Did I tell you about the big empty house that nobody is allowed to talk in?”

“Yes! It sounded awful. I especially liked when you were summoned to the red room. That was almost too horrible to hear about, but it was all just a story, right?”

I raised my eyebrows. “I don’t really know. I just got switched back to being Tanaka again. Sakoshi is back to that house in the woods surrounded by shrines. We can catch up with him in class 3-7 on Monday, though, if you want to ask him about it.”

“I’m game if you are.”

This felt right somehow. Fluid gender, that was the stuff of spies and fugue identities, right? I let my body slip back into the instinctive sway of hips that went with a lower center of gravity and no tennis ball space to avoid squishing in front. I pulled out the pamphlet.

“What do you make of this?”

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