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Stand Still, Pause Clocks

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The first numbers con my dad ever taught me is called the Short Count. I couldn't pull it off until about high school, when people start to trust that you'd be nice enough to care about their change. They're too suspicious of kids. You see this one in movies, sometimes. You can read about it on the Internet. It's amazing it still works at all. You'd think the mark would see it coming.

They don't.

Here's how it goes: You go to a gas station with a ten-dollar bill and a bunch of ones. Buy something cheap, something less than a dollar. Offer to pay for it with your ten. Then, while the cashier's handing you your nine dollars in change, smile. You're being nice. You don't really need all those ones, you say. The cashier needs them more, you say. They need them to make change, don't they? Here, you say, you'll give them ten ones for a $10 bill. So they hand you a $10.

This is the trick: Hand them nine ones and their ten.

They're nice. They want to be helpful. You probably weren't paying attention. They'll tell you that you've handed them $19. No problem, you say. You'll just give them a buck, make it $20, and get a $20 back. Congratulations, you've gotten them to swap $20 for $10.

I got good at this one. The trick is in the patter. I couldn't work them to make them like me, or work them to make them forget me, but I could talk the talk, good enough for them to buy it and me to be $9 richer. It's even better with higher denominations.

Sometimes I wonder, though, how the mark feels. They're earnest. They want to make you happy. They trust that you know what you're doing when you hand them the money. Sure, they're confused, a little off-balance, but they're going along with it because basically they trust you. Then at the end of their shift the drawer doesn't add up and they'll never know why.

Sometimes I think that's what it's like, being with Lila.

"Come on," Lila says. "Come on already, don't you want to try it?"

We're standing in a dingy motel bathroom looking at our reflections in the mirror, under the harsh fluorescent lights. We look... older, somehow. After everything. Maybe I'm imagining it. I don't know.

The worst thing is, I do want to try it, even though it makes no sense. I'd be the one getting the blowback. Twice. And if I'm going to turn us into anyone, I should pick someone else. A stranger. Steal John Smith's wallet. Be John Smith.

"Yeah, but," I start to say, and Lila gives me one of those looks, a stare like she could work me just by looking.

"You can't tell me you've never thought about it," she says, and the stare turns, just like that, into a smile. Coaxing. I'm the mark. And I know it, and I like it, and I'm pretty sure I shouldn't be happy about that, but I am.

What the hell. We're gonna do it. "All right," I say. "Clothes off now. They won't fit when you're done."

So Lila stands there and wriggles out of her clothing, until everything she was wearing is in a heap on the tile and she's still there, pale and naked. You'd think she'd look embarrassed, maybe, since it's not like I've really seen her naked that much. Or you'd think, hey, we just started being, well, together, maybe she'd try to look sexy about it. But she's still staring like, even though she's naked and unarmed, she knows she can break me.

She could, too. Her gloves are one of the things in the pile. I could have nightmares for a week if she hated me. Or the rest of my life.

I'm looking at her anyway, though. I'm going to need to remember this.

Hastily I pull my own gloves off and stuff them in a pocket. Then I step forward, close my eyes, and put my hands on her face. Her skin is warm under my fingertips, and it's weird. This is what it feels like to touch someone. I'm always feeling fabric. Then I feel the flesh mold under my hands, and I remember what I'm doing.

This one's easy. I know what she's going to look like.

When I open my eyes, I'm staring at my own face. Lila stares at me, then at the mirror.

There are two of us.

She reaches a hand up to her -- my -- cheekbone and her eyes are wide. It's not a face I've ever seen myself make.

I smile.

Then the blowback hits and I'm on the floor. The tile hurts, and my arms stretch out in front of me, only I don't think they're arms anymore, long and liquid and flowing down over my body like that painting with the clocks and I wonder, stupidly, if Salvador Dali ever knew a transformation worker. Then I must not have eyes anymore because everything goes black.

When I can see again, I'm on one of the motel beds, staring at the ceiling, covered in sweat.

"That was intense," says Lila, with my voice. "Every time?"

I look over and she's helped herself to a pair of my pants and one of my shirts. They fit. Of course they do. It's not like I don't know what size I am. She didn't get my gloves, though. Those are still in my pocket. I don't think she would have wanted them anyway.

I shrug, like I'm cool with it. "That's blowback for you."

She bites her lip. I've never seen my own face do that. It's so... Lila. She's thinking about telling me no, I realize. Telling me to stop. Somehow it's easier to read her when it's my face.

"I'm good," I say. "My turn."

She gives me a strange, toothy grin and watches me strip out of my clothes. I'm bigger, so it would have been less of a problem, but it will probably be more comfortable this way.

Then I close my eyes, drop my hands on my bare thighs, and work myself.

This one's almost as easy. Easier than the governor, for certain. I know what she looks like. I've spent years picturing her, after all.

When I'm done I look up at her, and I know I got it right. She doesn't say anything, but her eyes are wide again, wider than before -- God, I look almost terrified, like that -- and she nods.

It doesn't take more than a few seconds for the blowback to hit again. Worse. At least the bed is soft. I think this time I'm a tree again.

I come to lying on my stomach. The sheets are twisted around me. I set thin, pale hands on the covers and push myself up. I'm a little weaker than I thought and-- whoa. I go to sit upright and my balance is way off, like everything is too low. I stare down at myself. I've got breasts. Huh. I mean, it's not a surprise, because I made them, but -- yeah, okay, it's a surprise.

Lila is staring at me with my face. "You forgot something," she says, finally, and her voice is hoarse. My voice. When do I ever sound like that?

I look down again, worrying now that I've made some stupid mistake. I know what she looks like. I ought to know. What have I gotten wrong?

"Cassel," she says, and I sound like I'm going to cry or something. So I look up at her, and she's holding a hand to her neck. "My-- your--"

I put my hand on my throat. It feels the way it always looks in my dreams. Perfect.


Oh, no.

"I'll change it," I say, my stomach twisting, but she reaches out barehanded and grabs my hand away before I can work myself again. Before I can add the ashen scar.

"No," she says, softly. "It's all right. Keep it. It's a good look on you."

I think she had some kind of plan before that. Maybe we were going to go out, pretend to be each other, or maybe we were just going to stay in the motel and try out our bodies, which, let's be honest, is the first thing you'd do, wouldn't you?

But she just looks at me, and she doesn't say anything after that. She goes to bed. Still me.

I'll never know if she worked me to dream it when she touched me, then, but that night I dream it was a bright, hot summer day, like one of those days you have when you're a kid and you think you could do anything. I'm lying in a field with Lila next to me, and I'm happy. We're happy.

In the morning she asks me to change us back, and I do.

It doesn't matter if she gave me the dream or if I did.