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SOMETHING WAS different.
Great! he said brightly. A date sounds much more fun than the hospital. Comb your hair and fix your makeup. And—mind your manners, Missy.
It wasn’t new, exactly.
It was the absence of an invader, one which long ago had welded itself to the very cells of his body.
Torturing the thinning neurons of his age-addled brain, it had grinded his soul down, replacing the discarded fragments—until at last it seemed something inborn, innate to his being, indivisible, inescapable. But now …
It came without effort, almost without thought. With each intake, oxygen flooded every cell—bright, vital, virile.
His joints … he flexed his fingers and gasped. The way they moved! Where was that frozen, stiff ache? Where was the perpetual dull agony?
The pain ...
The pain ... was gone.
He remembered thinking of climbing into bed as he walked towards the door that opened to the short trek that would take him to the rectory and his warm, firelit room. He remembered thinking about that idiot Danin. And then ...
Something had crackled through his chest like a lightning bolt. There had been no words, no thought, no time. Nothing but the sharp retort of the hard floor as his cheek slammed onto it, and Mrs. Naling crying out ...
... Now this.
Am I dead…?
Was it a heart attack? Is this Heaven?
Praise the saints and the gods! It’s about bloody time!
He groaned and opened his eyes.
It sounded funny.
He was flat on his back on the floor, staring up past rows of books at a textured ceiling. Some kind of steady white light buzzed softly down from above.
It didn’t look heavenly. And it wasn’t the soup kitchen.
Great. How long have I been away from the desk? Madge is going to *ing kill me—
He froze halfway to sitting up. Huh?
“That wasn’t my thought,” he muttered.
He clamped his hands over his mouth.
That wasn’t my voice either!
It sounded more like Miss Goodsoul than him!
He pushed his glasses up his nose, smoothing his hair, pulling it back.
He patted his hands over his face. Smooth skin, small bones—soft lips.
This didn’t feel like his body at all!
He glanced down.
He’d certainly never been buxom before.
The “huh” was alien—expressed in the same voice that had spoken aloud—the same that had commented privately on “the desk,” whatever that was.
Of COURSE it’s my body, it went on, fighting to stay just ahead of an avalanche of concern. What a terrifying dream! I was old … so old. So much pain—bleeping miserable.
No, no! he exclaimed. That was me! That did happen! That wasn’t a dream; that was my life!
Breathless, he actually felt it—the gears inside his mind—her mind?—spooling up, her—their?—muscles tensing. The avalanche was bearing down.
The heart thumping beneath his ribs!—so youthful, so vigorous, fluttering like a bird’s—
His exhilaration was a jarring counterpoint to her mounting panic.
Her. Who was “her”? Was there someone else here with him, inside his head? Or was he in hers? Was this her body?
He examined his hands, his eyes widening. They were so soft! Not a single wrinkle or mole or liver spot besmirched their flawless beauty. The nails were immaculately lacquered (pink with blue tips and little stars). His hair—he ran his fingers through it again, luxuriating in its softness, moaning with sensuous thunderstruck relief.
Young! Young again!
He—she?—squeaked. It was involuntary—at least for him.
She opened her mouth—their mouth!—and startled him again.
“Father Dumb?” she asked incredulously.
He groaned internally—quite literally. Don’t tell me I actually think of myself that way now.
It’s pronounced ‘DOOM,’ he corrected her with an angered sigh. What in the nine hells is this? Am I dead? Is this a dream?
The gears spinning in his (her?) mind abruptly locked. The tension didn’t dissipate. It shifted, focusing.
Ears ringing, he climbed stiffly to his feet—only he didn’t will it. He felt energetic blood enlivened with adrenaline surging powerfully through his body. His dainty feet began a purposeful quick march that matched the cadence of her (their!) heart.
He’d never been to this place before. (Obviously.) Those steady glowing-buzzing white tubes overhead were utterly bizarre. It was clearly a library of some sort, albeit a painfully unimaginative one, rather shabby and depressing. It was fantastically alien, but it felt almost mind-numbingly known. He had no doubt that he could find any volume in the collection with his eyes shut.
Have I reincarnated or something?
He’d once heard a theory that there was only one person inhabiting the entire universe. That eternal soul supposedly transmigrated from body to body, from life to life, until it had been every man, woman, and child in existence.
Had someone forgotten to kick the previous occupant—or the previous version of himself (herself?)—out of this body? Had they started him in the middle? Was this some kind of divine mix-up?
Melissa—Melissa?—tipped a fat volume off the shelf.
Now how did he know her name?
We’re in each others’ minds somehow! Or I’m in her mind, or—
She slapped the heavy tome down on a table. Deliberately unhurriedly, she pulled out a chair, then seated herself with absurdly measured poise, as though the avalanche hadn’t utterly buried her. Her pulse galloped like a runaway stallion.
“It’s not a ‘tome,’ ” she disparaged quietly in a holier-than-thou tone. “It’s called a book.”
He read the title. Psychology: Plumbing the Depths of the Mind. 4th Edition.
Young lady, that is most definitely a tome.
This disjointed word was accompanied by a quick snobbish sniff. Was she talking to herself—?
Flipping open the cover, she turned each page patiently, methodically, breezing past the title, author, and dedication.
You are kidding me. You can’t actually believe your own fake calm act—
She brushed her finger over the table of contents.
Chapter 39: Schizophrenia … p. 308.
This was an extraordinary situation, one of earthshaking, groundbreaking metaphysical significance! Of all the possible reactions …
How can you pretend I’m not here? he demanded, and dropped his jaw in indignation, or rather tried to. His—her—facial muscles didn’t even twitch. You know damn well that I am!
His mind was empty, but he could feel something ticking away inside. At long last:
You can’t swear; you’re a priest.
“HA!” he blurted aloud—in her voice.
She jumped in her seat. Patrons across the way regarded her with annoyance before going back to their books.
You know I’m a priest! Therefore you admit I exist!
She jammed her fingers in her ears.
He laughed. She refused to let it out, merely coughing as though from a head cold, a near-manic hold on her larynx.
“De-LOO-zhen,” she murmured aloud with supreme concentration when she felt confident he wouldn’t try to appropriate her mouth, and then very quickly: “Noun. A psychotic false belief about the self or reality maintained in spite of incontrovertible evidence demonstrating that said belief is not true.”
He tried to speak. It was intensely difficult. His—her—tongue jammed, her vocal cords unresponsive. It was like trying to free himself from the sticky, suffocating web of sleep paralysis. Finally—
“INCONTROVERTIBLE EVIDENCE!” he erupted. “I AM incontrovertible evidence. Maintaining that I do not exist is a psychotic false belief! You’re the one with the DE-LOO-ZHEN.”
“Shhhh!” she hissed at herself. The patrons across the way were holding up fingers to their mouths and doing the same too. She forced her voice low: “Madge is going to find us and she’s going to be so angry—”
“Madge is a—” he started. Her throat went tight again, cutting him off.
“A what?” she grunted through her teeth. “Keep it down!”
You know what.
“How do you know?” she whisper-hissed-growled. The patrons were now looking at her as though at a lunatic.
Because I’m inside your head! Why won’t you just say it?
Melissa assumed a jaw-clamped silence.
He sighed. Madge is a …
Tug-of-war. When the word finally came out, he wasn’t sure whether he’d wrenched it out or she’d caved in and said it.
He (she) smacked the table with satisfaction. The patrons jumped. One, clearly irritated, stood and began making her way to the front desk. Probably to complain. To Madge.
His muscles tensed involuntarily. She was getting up.
Where are you going?
“I am going to the front desk,” she replied, straightening her glasses smartly. “I am going to go do my job—or at least try to keep it! You are going to fade into oblivion. You don’t exist.”
Just what do you think I am?
“Some kind of stress reaction,” she rationalized, stomping down the aisle. “My mother would say I’m having an ‘episode.’ ”
You are an unimaginative solipsist, he shot back, not bothering to fight for control of her voice. I am most definitely real. I’m a librarian actually. Just like you. I used to run the reference section of our church collection. At least they found me a job I know how to do.
“MY job,” she growled.
No, MY job. My job, Missy, because you are stuck with me.
MISSY? She cringed. TELL me I don’t think of myself that way!
Aren’t we a pair? Now, whether I’m stuck with you … that remains to be seen.
What’s that supposed to mean?
Huh—? She halted curiously.
Bathroom, he said, jerking their shared head at an open door with a stylized female pictogram. I can see in your mind that that’s what that symbol means. Let’s go.
But I don’t have to go.
Good thing too. Well … His chuckle had a nasty tinge to it. We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it.
But I need to explain to—!
She didn’t finish, instead devoting herself entirely to maintaining control of her person. It was the closest she’d come to acknowledging that he was a separate person since they sat up off the floor.
Wait a second—why were we on the floor?
She stopped struggling. What do you mean? She must have looked ridiculous.
Why were you on the floor? When I woke up—when we woke up—we were on the floor. Did you fall?
This stopped her cold. She clutched a hand over her heart. A new panic-avalanche bore down on her.
“The pain—!” she whispered in horror.
You remember! How is that possible?
What are you talking about? Of course I remember! It happened to me! You don’t exist—
But this proves something happened! he reasoned. Don’t you see—?
All it proves is that something is medically wrong with me!
Her heart drummed wildly with the memory of the heart-attack-that-wasn’t.
Your heart, he started in fascination, it’s so ...
… strong, came her quiet voice, suddenly clouded over. The twinge in her tone was something he recognized, something so intimately familiar he could never mistake it.
Oh yes. His pain. Not the lighting bolt in the chest, but the ceaseless oppressor that had sapped the life out of him for over a decade.
You remember that too. You know what it was like being me. How can this be? Are you me in another life or something?
Shut UP. I know what it’s like being you because you’re my de-LOO-zhen!
She resumed her forward march.
Again that oppressive feeling like he was clawing his way through the crushing weight of sleep paralysis, clambering for physicality.
He reached out and grabbed the nearest shelf, upsetting three haphazardly propped books.
Bathroom, young lady. Now.
Somehow he managed a psychological kick in her rear. Reacting as if it’d been physical, she exhaled “Oof!” and tripped through the open door to the ladies’ room.
Don’t like that much, do you?
What a hideous space. The tiled floor was white, the tiled walls were white, the sink was white, even the cold, baleful light issuing from the strange glow-buzz tubes was white. So alien ... yet so mundane.
“No shadows,” he grumbled aloud in her voice, which echoed in here. She must have shared his opinion, because she made no attempt to shut him up.
Bending over, she checked carefully under the stalls.
Satisfied we’re alone, Missy?
“You can’t be alone with someone who isn’t here!” she hissed. “Even if you were real—which you’re not—you have no physical presence!”
He chuckled. She fought it. The result sounded as though she was choking on week-old turkey.
I’m all physical presence, young lady. Thanks to you. Speaking of which—
He tried to make a turn toward the mirror. She resisted—hard.
What? he demanded.
Her feet were rooted to the floor. She’d locked her torso and neck.
“What is your problem?” he barked aloud. It sounded silly, like she was scolding herself.
“YOU,” she returned.
It was a lie. He could feel the seed of it rooted deep. Whatever it was, it had germinated a long time ago.
“Uh-uh, young lady. This is something else. This has nothing to do with me. What is it?”
She whined. She was losing ground. He could feel her slipping. Grabbing the reins, he wrenched her full towards the mirror.
Her eyes were limpid blue, almost gray, narrowing catlike and piqued under thin, creased eyebrows. Thick-framed glasses perched imperiously on a dainty, feminine nose over soft lips. Her brunette hair fell just past her shoulders, dark and smooth and almost ludicrously perfect. He couldn’t spot a single tangle despite the fact she’d just been lying on the floor.
Her body—well, he couldn’t see much of that through her dark green turtleneck and heavy olive sweater.
She was still trying to jerk her eyes away.
“You can’t look at yourself in the mirror? Why? You look fine to me.”
(And feel fine.)
He smiled, but Melissa’s mouth wouldn’t budge.
Now he thought of it, he didn’t have to see her body in the mirror—his body now!—to know what it looked like, or what it felt like being inside it: graceful, ample—
That had come from her.
Are women always this conscious of their breasts?
Gross. What are you, like eighty-five?
Eighty-six, he answered sulkily.
I know what you’re thinking. Eww. Seriously, no.
He chuckled without any effort to use her vocal cords. But what you’re thinking about … I can see that too—
He could. Eyes that had the sea in them, that squinted and sparkled when their owner smirked—but beneath that twinkle was a ready and lurksome underscore of darkness. This guy’s features were so perfectly chiseled that they looked like they’d been carved by a master artisan. The gods must have sculpted that jaw. And that accent!
“Who’s the guy with the unshaven countenance?”
She hadn’t tried to stop him from using her mouth. He could feel her frustrated fatigue.
“Some guy,” she responded unhelpfully.
“Came in the other day,” he mentioned after more rummaging through her memories, somewhat astounded at how easy they were to spot. “Asked you out for a beverage called ‘coffee.’ You turned him down.”
Her gut brewed with a mixture of contempt, anxiety, and bitterness.
He had never been attracted to a single man in his life. Yet with this guy, he got it. Which must mean …
“Ah. You like him,” he accused with a laugh that sounded much like his own. “You do! Very much, in fact!”
She snorted. “I liked the way he made me feel,” she amended. “Or could—if he were somebody else. I mean, he didn’t seem like a nice guy. It doesn’t matter that his cute accent made me all weak in the knees, does it? I’m not that shallow. He probably is. Just some bleeping loser.”
“You never like anyone though, do you?”
“Because you don’t like to see yourself through other people’s eyes.”
She gazed at her shoes.
“No—” That wasn’t quite it. Dig deeper … Ahhh. Found it.
“You don’t like to see yourself at all. You hate your body. Being with somebody—well, that’d require being with yourself too.”
“SHUT UP, THEODOSIUS!” she blurted, and for the first time, he felt a real flare in her temper.
A chink in her armor! He could work with that ...
“My name sounds good coming from your mouth, even when spoken in anger,” he offered. “But back to you. You hate your own body. Why? Are you crazy?”
“Shut UP. Shut UP! I am NOT CRAZY.” She gripped the counter, her head spinning. Unshed tears pressed up on her cheeks like pressure building behind a dam. “I’m not, I’m not. I am not having some kind of identity crisis. I’m going to the hospital!”
“Just what do you think is going on here? A concussion? A brain tumor? Sudden onset psychosis?”
She crushed her eyes shut.
“I’ll tell you what I think. You have something you don’t deserve. Which is why you’re not going to have it much longer.”
He laughed, prying the flaming chink open. “You’re so disconnected from your flesh I can feel you shrinking into the distance. Soon you’ll be nothing more than a dark little memory in the cellars of my mind. You’ll cry out now and again, just a plaintive little whimper—but the rest of the time, you’ll be silent. Oh, Missy, Missy, Missy. Out of sight, out of mind, like a good little girl.”
His chest seized up. Melissa slammed her fists on the counter. He could almost see her mental armor clanking useless to the bathroom floor. His appropriation of her vocal cords was over.
“W-What kind of priest are you?” she bawled.
The kind who spent a lifetime in groveling devotion and mindless self-sacrifice to the pitiable downtrodden—which is finally, thank the gods, being rewarded. Sacrifice, he spat through her tears, sacrifice. Slaving away for the needs of others.
“B-But doesn’t it feel good to h-help others?”
Of course it does—in the beginning. But you give … and you give … and you give—until there’s nothing left. Because there’s always someone pulling at you, always some needy soul clambering at your vestments, tugging you down into the pit of their misery, demanding you exchange your place for theirs. It’s a bottomless drain. Don’t for a moment believe that a lifetime spent in service to others is anything less than a total emptying out of everything you are. You drain your soul in the coin of charity until you are a wasted, desiccated shell of a human being. This isn’t cynicism, Melissa. Just the unyielding price of good works.
But you, he went on, you, young lady, are a wasted, desiccated shell already, and you’re still young. Ha-ha! No wonder the gods have rewarded me by offering me your body. It’s not like you’re using it.
“I’m going to the hospital! Right now!”
He could tell she wanted to shriek it, but she kept her voice down to a strangled squeak. Madge could bust through that door right now ...
He grinned malevolently. Inexplicably, her muscles chose to respond. Her lips pulled back, her eyes darkening with bile. The person grinning back in the mirror she almost didn’t recognize.
“You’re a monster,” she whimpered.
“I? You’ve relegated me to nonexistence. From where I’m standing that’s pretty damn monstrous. You’re not crazy, but they’ll tell you that you are. Doesn’t matter though, does it? You already believe you’re nuts. You just don’t want anyone else to see.”
Bloodshot eyes blinked in the mirror under a nest of now-frazzled hair. “You’re wrong, you’re wrong, you’re wrong!” she cried, pounding the countertop.
“Oh yeah? And what about that guy?”
“What about him?”
“What about any guy?”
As before, information flooded into his brain—much more this time.
“Clothes in the mall … nope, skirt’s too short, must keep it no more than two inches above the knee. That swooping neckline? No way. Hmm—but how would I look in that?” He waggled his mental eyebrows when his rampage through her memories landed him in the middle of skimpy lingerie.
“But ... I’m a good girl,” she interrupted weakly.
“—Let’s get another turtleneck,” he went on. “Sex toys in the catalogue—definitely not! Let’s keep those sheets tidy and white. Don’t dance in the club; don’t go to the club. Don’t dance, full stop. Carrots. You organize your carrots? You’re Little Miss Neat. Can’t be neat and vulnerable.” He sneered, twisting her face and bloodshot eyes into something she’d never seen before, and felt genuine horror seeing it. “Too bad you’re vulnerable now. O-ho!—you do like being inside this body sometimes—but it hurts that nobody else wants to get inside it too. Now there’s a dirty little secret.” He snickered. “But I got inside. Sex is bad, but this is worse—far worse. You couldn’t be more vulnerable than you are now. This certainly gives a new meaning to taking a confession.”
“SHUTUPSHUTUPSHUTUP!” she exploded. “I’ll do it! I’ll motherbleeping do it!”
“WATCH YOUR LANGUAGE, YOUNG LADY.”
“I’ll do it! I’ll ask him out. The next time I see him. When he brings back his DVDs.”
“I don’t believe you,” he sang.
“Try me,” she snarled. She swept her wild hair back, stuck her nose in the air, and once again wrested control of her vocal cords from him.