Cassie watched Randy go.
The nurse remained in the doorway, a strange look on her face. She crossed her thick arms over her ample bosom and sighed. “Was he bothering you?”
“What? No, Nurse Doris, it wasn’t like that. Ra-- I mean, Jimmy and I were just talking.”
“It didn’t sound that way. Another nurse said she saw you two together outside just a little while ago. You know the staff has been placed on alert to keep an eye on you two. Things never go over well when you come together. It’s like waiting for a bomb to explode.”
Cassie’s gaze drifted to the window, where raindrops streamed down the glass. The steady sound of the pitter-patter helped calm her. “I know what it looks like, but we really were just talking. I thought we might even become friends.”
Doris raised her eyebrows. “Just be careful, Mr. Davis. Mr. Williams is easily provoked. You may be new around here, but you should’ve learned that by now.” She left without another word.
Cassie shook her head. “Easily provoked, right,” she muttered. “The rest of you have no idea. How would you feel being trapped in someone else’s body and locked up for a crime you didn’t commit?” She sighed, running her hands through her hair. The length was longer than it had ever been, and Cassie didn’t plan on cutting it. I guess we’re not actually criminals in the same sense as if we went to prison, but this is hell enough.
She shivered, realizing her gesture mirrored Randy’s when he was agitated. She almost laughed at the absurdity, until she remembered her mom running her fingers through her long locks. Cassie flopped back onto the bed, closed her eyes, and went back to a better time.
“Can you French braid it?” nine-year-old Cassie asked. “Most of the girls are wearing them for the tournament tomorrow.”
Her mom laughed. “Of course. Just let me get the brush and a tie.”
Cassie turned, watching her mom go to her vanity to retrieve the necessary items. Her mom joined her on the bed and smoothed down her hair with the brush. When Cassie’s hair was untangled, her mom worked her steady fingers through the tresses, crisscrossing the hair into a French braid.
“Mom?” asked Cassie in a longing voice of an unsure child.
“Yes, sweetie?” Her mom finished the braid, secured it with the tie, and kissed the top of her head. “There, done.”
“If I mess up on the balance beam, you won’t be disappointed, will you?” Cassie had been nervous about that part of the gymnastics tournament for weeks. The balance beams had always been the most challenging part.
“Of course! We just want you to have fun and be happy. Do the best you can. That’s all we ever ask.”
“It’s just…” Doubt filled her as Jessica Quillen’s words hit her. You’re such a klutz, Cassie!
“What’s the matter?” Concern laced her mom’s tone and twisted her eyebrows down.
“It’s just that Jessica never falls off the beam. She likes to brag that she’s the best at everything, that she’s been doing gymnastics longer than me.”
“Girls like Jessica are insecure, Cass. Deep down, she’s worried that you or someone else might do better than her one day, and she won’t know how to take it. Always do the best you can. The only person you should try to be better than is the person you were yesterday.”
The memory faded, and Cassie snapped open her eyes. “Mom…” Tears pooled and streamed down her temples, losing themselves in the pillow. Her heart ached that if she didn’t do something fast, she might never see her mom, dad, and Evan again.
Always do the best you can. Her mom’s words echoed across time.
I will stop whoever’s responsible. I’m gonna be better, do my best. I swear it, Mom. And Randy believes me. That’s a start.
* * *
Randy returned to his room and collapsed onto his lumpy mattress. He sighed and closed his eyes, thoughts of everything he’d just found out swirling through his mind.
She’s just a kid. A kid. This is so wrong on so many levels. Why did I have to go and cry like some awkward, emotional teenager?
He knew his words had been daggers as he left, but how else could he cope? When she held him, he’d felt something he hadn’t in years. As much as he was coming undone at the seams like a battered rag doll, Cassie had sewn parts of him back together...yet had torn him apart just as fast.
“Danielle,” he whispered. “Would you hate me for the man I’ve become? To have found security in someone else’s arms?”
He tried to remember what it was like to be comforted by his mama, but those memories were as faded as an old photograph. From the glimpses of Cassie he’d received, he knew she had a loving family.
Go back to them, you foolish girl. Figure out your mind trick and leave this place. Why should you care about what happens to me or the rest of us loonies in here, so long as you can have back everything you’ve lost? Don’t you think anyone would choose to have their life back if given the choice? That’s what I’d do. What I’d give to have Danielle in my arms again, to have hope that if I could do it all over again, we’d have a baby, too.
“Everyone else be damned,” he said between clenched teeth. “I’ve suffered enough, damn it. I did nothing, nothing to deserve this!”
Randy bolted to sitting and slammed his fists into the mattress on either side of him. As soon as rage filled him, it fled. All-consuming loss and sadness took hold, and he fell back to the bed, pulling the covers over him as he sobbed into the pillow.
He didn’t fall asleep, as much as he would have welcomed such an escape--the only way into Danielle’s arms again. Perhaps to have tasted the familiar flavor of being back in his old body had been more of a curse than a blessing. It was like having known love and having it snatched away being more painful than having never known love at all.
Sometimes I think it might have been better that way...maybe if I hadn’t worked so hard to overcome the pain of my childhood, to build an empire, to amass a fortune, to live the good life, to love a wonderful woman…
His thoughts faded.
He was back at the graveside as his mama’s casket was lowered into the ground. Chilling wind ripped dying leaves from branches, a reminder that winter was coming with its claim on death, that life was fleeting.
Randy shook away the memory. He understood how deep death ran its course, how its skeletal fingers wrapped themselves around beating hearts and squeezed all the life out of something once beautiful.
A nurse making rounds and announcing dinner snatched Randy from his reflections. With zombie-like eyes, he ambled from his room, his feet dragging to the canteen. He pulled up a chair and picked at the food, not making note of what was on his plate.
“Can I join you?” asked a soft voice. He almost hear her voice, the girl she was.
* * *
Cassie held her tray, standing next to Randy. He stared at his plate but didn’t pick up his utensils.
“Are you sure that’s a good idea?” he said to his mashed potatoes.
“Maybe not, but I can think of nothing more important.” She breathed in slowly through her nose and exhaled through her mouth. Just do the best you can. She felt everyone’s eyes on her. She hoped an orderly or nurse wouldn’t request she sit elsewhere.
Randy edged his chair a few inches, making room for her. “I’m not really in the mood to argue, so if you insist…”
“Thanks.” She took a seat next to him. Cassie picked at the potatoes, moving the concoction around in her mouth. “This is nothing like my mom can make. This is boxed, for sure.”
Randy snorted. “You expected them to peel, cut, boil, and mash them?”
“Not really. My mom always said anything that looks like flakes out of a box will taste like cardboard. She’s right.”
Randy spooned some of the white mess from his plate. He put it in his mouth. “Your mom likes to cook?”
“She’s the best,” Cassie said. “You’d have envied our Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners.”
“I can’t even imagine.” Randy smiled sadly. “I was usually with Danielle’s family. My family--”
“Yeah, I know.” Images of Randy’s drunken ass of a father and his mama’s too-early death flashed through her mind.
He stiffened. “I wish you wouldn’t.” His words barely carried over the general drone around them.
“I’m sorry. I can’t help it. I didn’t ask for this. I can’t imagine what it’s like to have your privacy invaded.”
The guy next to Cassie gave her a questioning look but just as soon returned to shoveling food into his mouth. Relieved that no one was trying to start anything, Cassie turned to Randy. “I’ll try not to, you know, bring stuff up like that.”
Cassie took his terse reply as a signal that he was done talking. After dinner, they issued out of the canteen. Most of the patients went to the community room to play board games or watch TV. Some attended the evening art therapy class. Since it was still raining, that ruled out the courtyard. Standing on the edge of the community room with Randy, she looked over at him, surprised he hadn’t returned to his room.
“Let me guess,” he said in a tired voice. “You wanna talk.” He ran his hand through his hair.
“If you don’t mind.” She forced a smile.
He scowled. “The first thing I want to know is…”
* * *
“...are you trying to turn me into a girl?”
“What?” She laughed.
“First the beard...gone. Now that hair… I’ve never worn my hair that long since high school.”
“My hair was halfway down my back. Excuse me for missing it. I’m just glad you have hair, unlike half of the poor guys in here.” Her eyes landed on the bald spot of an older man playing chess by himself.
Randy chuckled. “You know, you have a habit of driving me crazy, but there’s something about you that I like. Okay, we’ll talk, but I’m not sure I’m gonna like what you have to say.”
“You owe me! You owe me big time, you bastard!” came a shout from across the room.
Randy and Cassie turned their heads toward the source of the noise. A large, bald man with a tattoo on his forehead that read HELL raised a chair above another patient--a smaller, older man. Before anyone could act, the bigger guy brought the wooden chair down on the other guy’s head, smashing him in the face with the back of it. The defenseless man dropped to the ground. The tattooed man made to attack a second time, but a male nurse and two orderlies grabbed him, pinning him to the floor. The chair dropped to the side, its clatter echoing across the room.
“Holy shit,” Randy gasped. He took a step toward the hustle.
Another nurse pushed her wearable alarm and called code. Sirens blared and lights strobed.
Cassie joined Randy, grabbing his arm. “There’s nothing you can do. They’ve got it under control...I think.”
Randy watched the scene unfold. Patients gathered around, but the staff held them off. Nurse Doris tended to the injured patient while they waited for the paramedics and police to arrive. Staff members shouted over the cacophony, mixing with the voices of several patients, some of whom were whooping and laughing.
“I hate when this kind of crap happens,” Randy said, trying to hear himself over the sirens. “It’s enough to drive anyone, well, crazy.”
“Everyone in their rooms, now,” said a nurse approaching the area where Randy and Cassie stood. “Nothing nobody needs to see here.”
Randy knew it was part of protocol, but he exchanged a look with Cassie as they parted. He went to his room like the good, well-behaved patient he was and lay down. The door closed and locked as the staff put everyone in lockdown.
This is a prison. These fights remind me of the scraps I’d get in as a kid in the trailer park...although it was nothing as bad as this. It’s just another reason why Cassie needs to get the hell out of here.
A little while later, the sirens stopped. The door unlocked and opened.
He sighed and stepped out, only to plow into Cassie. “Jeez, are you anxious enough to talk to me that badly?” He frowned.
“Sorry. I just… As soon as I could get out of my room, I did. What was that all about?”
“Gambling, mostly likely. The guy with the tattoo is named Zane. He always thinks someone owes him, that others are cheating him. The poor bastard who got his face smashed in is a quiet old guy named Richards. Richards would never stiff anyone. Poor guy hardly talks.”
“Will he be okay?”
Randy beckoned Cassie to enter his room. “Might as well sit if this is where this conversation is headed.”
She stepped in but remained standing, shifting from one foot to the other. “I can’t stand to stay here. This kind of stuff happens too often.”
He snorted. “Did you just notice?”
She crossed her arms. “You don’t have to be an ass.”
“Okay, okay, fine.” He held his hands up. “Look, I don’t know. I don’t know if Richards will be okay. He was hit pretty bad.”
“And what about the other guy?”
“Zane? He’s in the restraint room for now. He might be arrested. An investigation will happen. A lot depends on how serious the injury is to Richards.”
“What if Richards dies?”
“Well, even if that’s the case and Zane gets sent to prison, he’ll likely wind up right back here.”
* * *
Cassie’s stomach lurched. She thought she might lose her dinner. The linoleum swayed in front of her, so she grabbed the doorframe to steady herself.
Randy came to her aid and guided her to the bed. “I told you to sit.”
Cassie eased onto the edge of the mattress, resting her head in her hands. “But why? Why would he just come back?” She met Randy’s eyes and saw defeat glistening in them.
His face hardened. “Because that’s the way it goes around here. Stay here long enough and you learn that. That’s why I’m telling you to get the hell out while you can.”
“Is that what you really want, for me to turn my back on you? Not to mention everyone else in here I’d be endangering?”
Randy stared at her without speaking.
Cassie blew out a frustrated breath, her bangs rising and flopping onto her forehead. She pushed the hair out of her eyes. “Look, we know that whoever’s responsible for putting our minds in other people’s bodies has a thing for murder. She’s gonna kill again if we don’t stop her.”
“There you go saying we again. What am I supposed to do?”
Cassie threw up her arms. “I-I don’t know, okay? I’m trying to figure that out. The point is, her next victims will be my family if I don’t stop her, and if I push her back into your body, she’ll find a way to kill people here. Which could mean you, too.” She raised her eyes to his face in a challenging gaze.
“Then let her. Kill me, that is. Let her kill all these psychos in here and rid the world of more wackos. Who’s gonna miss them? Who’s gonna miss me? Everyone already thinks I’ve killed the only woman I loved, not to mention I drove my company into the ground and had sex with everything with two legs and boobs.”
Cassie’s clenched her hands into fists at her sides, resisting the urge to hit him. She swallowed hard, choking back tears. I’m not gonna cry. I’m not. “How can you say that? What’s the matter with you?”
Randy sneered. “Take a good look around you, sweetheart. These walls hold the scariest, the worst sort of people. I hate to even call them people half of the time. My life was over the moment I saw that fucking report on the news that Danielle was murdered. You’ve still got your loved ones, and you’ve got the ability to go back to them. If you were smart, you’d run with it and not look back.”
Cassie swiped away the tear before Randy noticed...at least she hoped he didn’t see it. “You really don’t care about your life, do you?” Her insides were hollow, like someone had sliced her open and gutted her.
* * *
Cassie’s words cut him open and threatened to spill his insides, exposing the soft interior Randy tried to hide.
“Why do you care so much?” His voice wavered.
“Because--and I know you’ll hate me for bringing it up--I’ve seen you, Randy. I feel like I know you almost as well as I know myself, and damn it, you’re a good man, one of the best. You can’t let this break you.”
“And what if it already has?” The moment the words leaked from his mouth, he wanted to reel them back in. You idiot, you coward. You’re just as weak as Father always told you you were. He was past caring that Cassie saw him like he was transparent. I have nothing else to lose.
The gentle warmth of a hand on his forearm snapped him out of his whirling tunnel down into a bottomless abyss. “I don’t believe that. I’m asking for your help because I don’t want to do this alone. I don’t think I can. You’re the only other person who knows firsthand what this monster is capable of.
“Think about it. Even if I could switch back to my body and manage to stay there, to keep her out, not only will she kill in here, but what’s to stop her from swapping minds with someone on the outside and murdering more out there? Who knows how long she’s been at this? Who knows how many lives she’s ruined? All this and more is why she must be stopped, for good. It’s not just about your or me or Danielle or my family. It’s about something bigger.”
“The greater good?” Randy asked sarcastically. “You sound like some kind of blasted saint. I’m sure you can figure it out on your own.”
“No, Randy, no. I can’t. Please, I wouldn’t be asking if there was any other way.”
Randy couldn’t look at her, couldn’t bring himself to see the young woman with such heart and spirit. She’s too much like Danielle. Too loving. Too kind. And I don’t deserve her. “She was pregnant when I left,” he whispered. His gaze landed on the window, the black sky beyond it. The rain hadn’t let up. The darkness closed in. “When does the nightmare end?”
“It ends with us.” Her hand remained on his arm. She drew closer. “There was no child in that house. I-I’m sorry. Let’s do something to put right all that’s gone wrong.”
He stared at his lap, then lifted his eyes to her. “You remind me of Danielle.” He licked his dry lips, his tongue rough on the skin. “Fuck. I’m really crazy. I’m crazy because I’m actually going to say yes.”
* * *
Cassie wanted to hug him. She pulled back her hand and clasped her fingers on her lap to occupy herself, the moment of giddiness a small victory.
He raised an eyebrow and said dryly, “You’re far too enthusiastic about this.”
“Can you blame me? Until today, any time I tried to talk to you, you nearly killed me.” She laughed, wondering if she was losing her mind. Just as soon as the thought entered, she banished it, coming back to the reality of where they were, of the seriousness of their situation.
“And can you blame me?” he shot back. “What was I to think when I saw you walk in here?”
Cassie wiped any traces of a smile off her face. “Okay, okay. So, here’s what I’m thinking… When it’s the middle of the night, I need to try to go back into my old body. She should be asleep then. It’s less likely she’ll realize what I’m trying to do.”
“And if she isn’t asleep?”
“I have to take that risk.”
“You said you’d been inside your old body twice before. Did she...it...whatever...know you switched?”
“Yeah...she, um… The second time, she was definitely awake. She forced me out. It was like… I can’t even describe it, except to say it totally consumed me. I had no control. Whoever she is, she’s a whiz at this. She knows exactly what she’s doing and how to control it, which is what makes me think she’s been at this for a long time.”
“What makes you think it’s a she? Did you get any inkling of who she is when you were back in your old body, like I received when I was in yours?”
Cassie sighed and shook her head. “No. I wish I had. It was all so fast. I was too confused the first time it happened. The second time, I was preoccupied with trying to reach out to my mom. She was right there, Randy! Right there. I was trying to warn her, but then I got kicked out and haven’t been back since.”
“What I don’t understand is why or how I was able to get just a brush with your memories when I was back in my old body. I never experienced that with this old body.” He gestured toward Jimmy’s form, his craggy face frowning deeply.
“I’m figuring all this out myself, but I think it has something to do with the fact that I can switch bodies. You’re a victim of it, not able to control it. I can, if only I can learn how, and I’m betting whoever is killing all these people hasn’t come across someone else who has the same ability she does.”
“So...when I was briefly back in my old body, I could only know a bit about you because you’re, what, special?”
Cassie huffed. “I’m not special. Stop making this sound like some sort of super power. Besides, it’s your body. Your mind must’ve had an intuition that someone else had been living in it.”
“Yeah...it was like that.” Randy scratched his jaw in thought. “Then you need to try to learn more about this other person who’s been in your body.”
“Exactly. Just talking about this out loud with someone who gets it helps.” Cassie gave him a small smile.
He averted his eyes. “Right. So, what’s the plan? Are you going to try to get into your body tonight?”
“The sooner, the better...for all our sakes.” Cassie shivered. “I don’t think I could sleep if I tried, so that’s to my advantage. I need to be awake.”
Randy yawned as a wave of exhaustion hit him. “You may be able to stay up all night, but this old body seems to make its demands known. Of course, it could be from all the excitement today. It’s not every day you find out who’s been living in your old body.”
“Randy…” Cassie bit her tongue. Don’t make promises.
His wary eyes met hers. “Yeah?”
“If-- If this works, I want you to have your body back.” So much for not making promises.
He stared at her with such hollowness that she lost herself in his eyes. It was like looking through a telescope and a microscope at the same time. She saw the smallest pieces of him, yet she could grasp what he held miles away.
“I should go,” she whispered and fled the room.
* * *
Randy watched her go, like a deer fleeing from a predator. It dawned on him that she was a young woman in the presence of an older man. Of course, she was surrounded by men here, yet Cassie was unnervingly strong for her age and gender.
He snorted, realizing how sexist that sounded. And I really am a dirty old man, even older in this form. But jeez, her resolve. The last thing she is is weak. If I’m honest, Dani, she’s way stronger than me. I can’t help but admire her.
He hated the old bones that cracked and popped, arthritic joints and leathery skin. He would need to take his evening medication, so he couldn’t fall asleep yet. Although the drugs made him drowsy, since he always felt that way, he got used to it. The side effects had become part of the background, but now, Cassie woke him up...and that scared him.
Nurse Nora stopped outside his door. “Good evening, Jimmy.”
“Nora…” He sat up. “Hello.”
“Did I just see Mr. Davis leave your room?”
He nodded and shrugged. “We were just talking.”
She raised an eyebrow. Her southern drawl thickened. “Oh, really? It was my impression that you and the new guy weren’t on speaking terms.”
“We’ve worked past that.”
“I see. Well, I wanted to check in as I made my rounds.”
“Thanks. And, Nora?”
She turned, about to go. “Yes?” She whipped her head around to stare into his face.
“When I told you that you reminded me of my mama, I meant that. I don’t remember much about her, but other than her, my wife was the only other person I knew who was that special to me. You...you take the time to actually give a damn about us here, to treat us like human beings.”
She studied him, her mouth slightly open. Randy was sure she was too stunned to speak. As he thought she might leave, she said, “You are human beings. Contrary to what you might think, the staff does care about your welfare. There’s times when I’m talking to you when you seem almost…” She stopped, biting her lip and shaking her head. “I’m sorry. There I go, getting carried away again.”
“Right, breaking the boundary between patient and caretaker.” He sighed, more defeated than offended. He was too tired, too worn to take offense anymore, especially since Cassie revealed the truth. “I wanted to make peace, I guess, before…” He knew something huge was on the horizon. Everything hung on whether Cassie succeeded in stopping the murderer. But what was Nora about to say? I’m almost normal, lucid, not crazy?
Nora furrowed her brow. “Before what, Mr. Williams?” Her voice was guarded.
Great, now I’ve done it. She thinks I’m planning on killing myself. “Nothing like that. It’s just...I’m not getting any younger. I’ve already lost so much, and I--” His eyes misted over. He drew them closed, turning from her.
A hand rested on his upper back. “Jimmy, I’m terribly sorry for what you’ve lost.”
“You know you aren’t supposed to touch me,” he whispered in a wavering voice.
“Rules be damned,” Nora hissed. “Sometimes rules are meant to be broken.”
He pivoted to face her. “Thank you.”
Her hand dropped when he turned. She gave him a small smile. “Goodnight, Jimmy.” She left.
Randy sighed. Talking to Nora was much easier than spilling his feelings to Dr. Winslow, but for all the good any of it did, he pressed his mouth into a firm line and dashed the tears off his grizzled cheeks.