Chapter 17 - 2018
Cassie breathed in the early fall air. She closed her eyes, imagining the smell of smoke wafting from chimneys and the sweetness of her mom’s apple pie fresh out of the oven. She took a step. Leaves crunched underfoot on the sodden earth.
“You made the best pies, Mom,” she whispered. “And to think...if I only tried harder, I could taste one again. What are you doing now? Are you baking?” Or is that imposter in my body plotting a way to end your life?
She shivered as the cool breeze tickled her skin. She tried to suppress her greatest fear, going back to an innocent time, a simpler time, a time when she didn’t question the laws of nature. A person was born with a body, with a mind that resided into that body and lived out his or her days in it.
Her mom wore one of Grandma’s aprons, the one with apples on it. She chopped and cored apples at the counter.
Cassie sat at the table, eating a juicy Golden Delicious.
“You could help me, Cassandra,” her mom said.
“I picked the apples, Mom,” ten-year-old Cassie said. “That’s more than Evan did.”
Her mom set the knife down and turned. “How about some cider? I could use a break.”
Her mom retrieved a half-gallon jug from the fridge and poured them each a tall glass. She joined Cassie at the table. “Evan can only reach the bottom branches, and he’s sleeping through all the work.” A teasing smile decorated her face.
“Yeah, but he gets to enjoy the pie after dinner tonight.” Cassie took a long drink. She wiped her mouth with her sleeve.
“You were three once. You had your time for naps, dear. Now, if you really want to learn how to make the best apple pies, you’ll need to watch what I do.”
“Didn’t Grandma win best pie in the fair for several years when you were growing up?”
“You bet your bananas she did.” her mom poked Cassie’s side.
Cassie giggled. “You’re so weird, Mom.” She took another drink, then sighed. “I miss Grandma.”
Her mom’s eyes softened. She leaned in and half-hugged her daughter. “Me, too, sweetie. Me, too. But that’s why it’s so important to carry on these family traditions, to remember our loved ones.”
Cassie’s eyes watered. “Do you think she’ll be able to smell the pie from heaven?”
Her mom laughed, giving her a squeeze. “I’m sure she will.”
Cassie blinked, coming back to the present as she gazed at the sky. Low-lying clouds stretched as far as she could see. Then her eyes fell on the tall fence that surrounded the grass. Barbed wire finished off the top. She didn’t need to look at the imposing brick building behind her to be reminded of where she was. She had a precious few minutes to enjoy her time outside before the staff rounded the patients up and took them back inside.
She scanned the area for Randy. She’d kept away from him since her attempt at talking to him on the sofa several days ago. She felt the eyes of every staff member on her whenever she entered the common area. Dr. Winslow hadn’t mentioned anything further about a transfer.
If only I could switch places with the doctor to prove the truth to him. He’d have to believe me. Then Cassie wondered what would happen if she found herself stuck in the doctor’s pudgy body. She had no control over her newfound ability.
Could I convince Randy if I swamped with him? She shook her head. No, he already thinks I’m some heartless murderer who framed him. If there’s one thing he doesn’t doubt, it’s that I’m not in the right body, either. Still, I can’t put off talking to him forever. I need to convince him...without it harming him more.
Then she saw him standing with his face to the sun, his eyes closed.
* * *
Randy stood in place with his eyes closed and his face toward the sun. Rain threatened behind him. The passing time ticked away his chance to enjoy a moment of peace. He wasn’t about to waste it.
He wondered how much more torment he could endure.
“Randy?” asked a soft voice, a voice he recognized as his when he used to talk to Danielle.
He jumped, snapped open his eyes. They landed on his old body. “What the hell do you want? To give me a heart attack? You nearly killed me last time with your assertions.”
The other man kept at a safe distance. “I didn’t mean to scare you. I haven’t seen you around much. Are you okay? What happened after, you know…?”
“After you told me about Danielle and losing our baby? How do you think I’d be?” Randy spat the words like bullets, but with each utterance, his voice shook. Something died in him a little more, for his bullet-words sank into his own heart. He collapsed and buried his face in his hands. “Just go away. Let me in peace. You owe me that much.”
He had blacked out upon hearing about his darling wife and unborn daughter. They’d named her Katrina Grace and buried her in the cemetery next to the church where they’d been married. Randy didn’t know what had come over him, except that, he supposed, those words had finally undone him. He’d fainted, the doctor in the medical wing told him. After being monitored for a day, he returned to his regular room and had only left to eat and use the toilet.
How much is one man supposed to take? Oh, Dani… Danielle… I just wanna die and be with you again. I’ve had enough of this hell, of these lies.
When he thought his former body relented, the gentle voice persisted. “I know what it feels like to have no one believe you. It’s isolating, scary...enough to drive anyone crazy, but I don’t think you’re crazy, Randy.”
Randy withdrew his face from his hands and glared at the other man. “Why do you torment me still? Isn’t it bad enough that you’ve taken my wife, my job, my friends, my freedom, my family, my life away from me? Must you take my memories, too? Why don’t you just kill me, then? End it all? Why didn’t you just kill me, too? Oh, that’s right. Killing my body would’ve meant you had no place to go, Jimmy.”
* * *
Cassie closed her eyes, a tear streaming down her smooth cheek. She’d returned to shaving when she came out of the medical wing, if only to feel a little more like the young woman she was.
“I have minutes. We have minutes.” She noticed the clouds overhead. She opened her eyes and glanced behind her.
Some of the patients were already going back inside. The staff was rounding people up.
“What are you talking about? Haven’t you heard a word I said?” asked the old man. He didn’t try to get off the ground.
“I know what it’s like to be you.” Cassie forged ahead. It has to work. It’s my only shot. She closed her eyes, allowed Danielle to come to her, to kiss her. She folded the auburn-haired beauty in her arms and stroked her hair. Show me the way, Dani. Show me how to get to Randy’s heart. I want to help him. Help me help him.
She didn’t know if she was talking to Danielle’s ghost or her memory...or if her silent pleas were a prayer. She hadn’t talked to God in weeks, then months since her life was flipped upside down. A brightness unlike anything she knew on earth enveloped her, the warmth penetrating every pore, filling her to the core. When she opened her eyes, she stared back at the face of Randy Davis. She held up aged-spotted hands. And smiled.
“It worked,” she said in a raspy voice.
* * *
Randy was looking at his face one moment, and the next, he blinked, staring at the old body he’d resigned himself to for the past two years.
“What?” he breathed, examining his own hands. “I-I’m--”
“You’re yourself again,” the old man said.
Randy opened his mouth, but nothing came out. To be back in his own shell again, it was like slipping on a pair of old shoes that fit just right! A laugh of disbelief released, but as soon as the elation came, it fled. Something wasn’t right. There was a pebble in his well-worn shoes. He couldn’t quite pinpoint it, but the taste of apple pie on his tongue, the chhh-chhh of a saw blade, the laughter of a younger brother, the feel of a father’s arm around his shoulders as he took him for ice cream, the face of that little brother as a newborn… I am Cassie Meadows, whispered a voice from deep within.
Randy gaped at the old man. “You...you’re Cassie.”
The old man’s--Cassie’s, he supposed--face broke into a wide smile. “You believe me.”
Although the voice was laced with years, the hope of a young woman shone through. Randy heard Cassie, knew her voice from the whisper in his mind.
“Yes.” His heart thumped. “I-I don’t know what to say.” He reached toward her--yes, her, for Randy could no longer look upon the wrinkled face as Jimmy. Whoever Jimmy Williams was, he wasn’t here and must have been another victim.
A raindrop landed on Randy’s nose as an orderly approached them. “Inside now, guys.”
There was so much to talk about, yet Randy couldn’t find the words. He exchanged a look with Cassie, who nodded and walked beside him. The orderly moved on to corral the last of the patients.
“I’ve never switched like that before,” Cassie said in a low voice as they entered the building, “just so you know. It’s not that I haven’t tried. The only person I’ve been able to switch with is, well, my old self.”
The staff paid them no heed as Randy and Cassie filed in behind the other patients into their wing. Randy supposed their conversation wouldn’t alert anyone, as they weren’t causing trouble. If anyone overheard them, they would be dismissed as crazy anyway.
Once they were in the community room, Randy asked, “Do you wanna, um...go somewhere more private to talk?” His head spun more than the drowsiness of the medication ever caused. Still trying to digest this new information, to believe he was back in his old body, he stared at Cassie.
She screwed up her face, grimacing and closing her eyes.
Randy reached toward her. “Are you okay?”
* * *
An unknown force pushed in from all sides, had been since Cassie woke in Jimmy’s body.
It knows I don’t belong, that I pushed my way in, she thought, just as whiteness flashed and enveloped her.
“Are you okay?” asked Randy.
She couldn’t answer until she was looking at Jimmy’s face again. The old man’s mouth gaped. His shoulders slumped, and he dropped onto the sofa.
Once again in Randy’s body, she joined him. She debated whether to touch him but kept her hands at her sides. “I’m sorry.”
He shook his head. “Tell me what happened, from the beginning.”
Something about his tone admitted defeat. Cassie wondered why he didn’t press her to flip-flop their minds again, but the bigger concern was in his simple request. Yes, I need to tell him everything.
“Come to my room,” she said. “We’ve got a couple of hours before dinner.”
Randy nodded and followed her. As they ambled down the hall, a couple of patients and staff members cast looks at them. Cassie was grateful no one questioned them, as anyone with half a mind around here knew that Jimmy Williams and Randy Davis weren’t exactly the best of friends.
Cassie sat on the edge of her bed and ran her hands through her hair, sighing. “I’m exhausted.” She lifted her gaze to Randy, who stood just inside the door. She forced a smile and patted the mattress. “You might as well sit for what I have to say.”
He eased into the room with care and sat at the foot of the bed, leaving a gap between them. “I’m sure this is the kind of news worth sitting for.” The edges of his mouth inched up.
Cassie’s smile widened at his attempt at humor. “I’m sorry I couldn’t keep you in your body.”
He shook his head, waving her off. “Assuming you’ve been through as much as I’ve been, I don’t blame you. I just wanted to say… I’m sorry for attacking you before. If I had any idea--”
She held up her hand. “There’s no way you could’ve known. Like I said, I wouldn’t believe me either in your shoes. As I told you, I’ve only ever switched my mind back to my old body.”
“Then why aren’t you there now?”
“It happened when I was asleep, without my control. I had no clue I could even switch like this...until I woke in a strange bed with an older, tattooed man. When I realized I was back in my body, I couldn’t believe it. I was elated but also scared. Whoever’s been in my body has changed it: tattooed it, pierced it, dyed my hair blond. And she--I’m guessing it’s a she--was sleeping with a guy I’d never in a million years spend my time with. Hell, Randy, I’ve never seriously dated a guy before!”
Randy frowned. “How old are you?”
“Jesus,” he breathed. “You’re just a kid. A girl! And I nearly killed you!” He ran his hands through his hair, causing it to stick up in all directions.
“It’s not your fault,” Cassie said hastily, stilling his hands with hers.
He relaxed some, letting his hands flop to his sides.
“I’m curious, though. How did you know for sure who I am?”
“It’s hard to explain. When I was back in my body, it’s like...like something wasn’t quite right. I had these vague memories that weren’t mine, and then I heard a voice. It said, ‘I am Cassie Meadows.’”
“Whoa,” Cassie breathed. “So...I guess it’s like I left an imprint by being in your body.”
He shrugged. “Must be. I wouldn’t know. And you have access to my memories, too?”
Cassie nodded. “I didn’t realize it when I woke in your body, but they came to me. Slowly at first, then more and more quickly, until I was flooded with them, could recall them as if I were thinking about something that happened in my own life.”
“That’s...something.” He frowned, running his hands through his hair again. Cassie could tell he was nervous, agitated, and wondered if he had such a habit all his life. “I never had an experience like that. Never once in this old man’s body have I seen what his life was like. No imprint of him, either, like with you. All I know is I was myself one minute, and then I woke in his body, my hands covered in blood, holding a baseball bat. I...I saw two dead people sprawled and beaten to bloody pulps on the bed in front of me. I had no idea who they were, but all I knew was the body I was in had murdered them, not me.
“I thought I’d lost my mind, kept hoping and praying I’d wake up from this nightmare and find myself in bed with Danielle again. I ran outside, disoriented and screaming like an idiot. Probably not the smartest move, as I must’ve been overheard by a neighbor. Sirens came minutes later to arrest the deranged old man who had blood on his hands.”
Cassie’s eyes filled with tears. “I’m so sorry you had to go through that.” Relief also surged through her. “But I have to tell you again… To have someone who understands exactly what I’m going through, someone to talk to...even in here, well, it’s a small miracle.”
Randy’s face hardened. “There’s no such thing as miracles.”
Cassie wiped at her face and pulled back. “I’d like to believe there still are if it’s all the same to you. I don’t have much to hope for right now.”
* * *
Randy’s throat tightened as he stared at Cassie. “I’m sorry. I don’t mean to sound like a jerk.” She’s just a girl, you idiot.
Cassie nodded. “It’s okay.” Her smile seemed forced, like her face would crack if she pushed it too far.
“I’m probably a fool for asking, but I need to know. What was your experience like waking up as me?”
Danielle’s nearly severed neck...her vacant expression…her eyes that accused after her death…the bloody bathtub water overflowing...the taste of vomit...the smell of metal and death… Cassie’s mind whirled as the images flashed. She squeezed her eyes shut, shaking her head. “No, no...I-I can’t. You wouldn’t wanna see her like that.”
Randy stared at his hands in his lap. “No, I guess you’re right. Sorry for asking. I know what happened, obviously, even if I don’t have all the details.” His heart thudded as his stomach knotted.
I love you, Randy, Danielle whispered into his ear, laughing. We’re going to have a baby. I know it this time. You’ll see. She had shared the good news of being pregnant shortly before he was whisked away from his life. He’d been cautiously optimistic that the pregnancy would hold this time, that they’d been through enough. The loss of their daughter left a void that could never be filled, but what if? What if?
“And you…” He swallowed past the lump in his throat. “Do you have memories of what things were like for Danielle in the end? Of what became of my body after I was shoved out? Assuming you wound up in my body when Danielle was...was murdered, that’s about two years since I was accused as Jimmy Williams of murdering his elderly neighbors.” Do you know what happened to the baby? he longed to ask. But he knew. He knew.
“I’m sorry. I’m afraid I don’t.” Cassie eased closer, close enough to place a hand on his forearm.
The warmth of her touch sent a shock through him. He almost pulled away, wanting to ball himself up and weep or bolt out the door and pound for his release from this hell. Instead, her gentle connection said, I understand. You’re not alone.
He couldn’t, wouldn’t meet her eyes. It was all too much. Too much. Tears leaked from his tightly closed eyes as his mouth twisted downward and opened, a low, choking moan escaping. He crumpled in the first welcoming arms he’d known in more than two years.
* * *
Cassie watched as Randy seemed to half-die. Before she knew what she was doing, her arms wrapped around his shuddering, bony back. His face buried in her shirt, but she had not a moment to ponder the emotion that clutched her. They shared pain, and if that’s what brought them together, then Cassie would embrace it.
After a couple of minutes, Randy withdrew to the end of the bed, hugging himself, trying to put on a brave face. Cassie wondered why men, even in their worst brokenness, felt the need to be, well, manly.
“I’m sorry,” he whispered, not looking at her. “I should probably leave you alone.”
“No.” The word fled from her mouth.
Only then did he meet her gaze. “This is all too much all that once. I need some time.”
Cassie nodded. “I get it, but promise me one thing.”
“What’s that?” He furrowed his brow.
“Please, don’t close yourself up. We need each other to get through this.”
“Get through this?” He stood. “What are you expecting? We’ll live out our days in here, that is, unless you can convince good old Doctor Winslow otherwise. Maybe you can with your mind-switching trick, but me? You should get outta here while you still can. Hell, you said you could get back in your old body! Why don’t you figure out how you did that and go back to your life?”
Cassie stood, the poke of a red-hot dagger striking her core with his words. “And then what? Just leave you and everyone else here with that--that thing who’s responsible for this? Let her just go on killing people? No, Randy, this has to end!”
“And how are we supposed to do that? You’re the one with the special power.”
“Please don’t call it that. And I already told you, I can’t control it.”
“Seems like you could control it just fine when you used me as your guinea pig.”
Tears sprung into her eyes. “That’s not fair!”
A nurse appeared outside the door. “Is everything okay in here? I heard yelling.” Her eyes fell on Randy. “Mr. Williams, why don’t you return to your room and leave Mr. Davis in peace?”
“Don’t worry,” Randy said, glaring at the nurse, then at Cassie, “I was on my way out.”