Hinahon didn’t belong in that hotel.
On that Monday, she should have been at her apartment on East Bradford Street preparing to meet Natalie at a cozy restaurant downtown. It was their two year anniversary, and she was expected in a few hours. But instead of trying on potential outfits for the evening’s dinner, she boarded the elevator of the Red Run Hotel, a single overnight suitcase in hand, and jammed the button for the fourth floor with her thumb. The elevator doors slid closed, and the numbers above the door blinked as the elevator ascended. When it stopped, she retrieved a keycard from her pocket and exited. She hesitated right outside the doors, glancing right and then left with a frown. The suitcase in her hand felt heavy, even though there wasn’t anything substantial inside, and she readjusted the handle in her hand, gathering the energy needed to force her legs to move.
Taking one trembling step right, Hinahon proceeded. Checking the numbers as she went past, she eventually reached the door of the appointed room, but just to be sure, she reached into her pants pocket for a familiar business card. Sure enough, the same room number was written in black on the upper right of the well-worn cream card. She’d made it.
With clammy hands, she slid the keycard through the door’s card reader, and the light on the mechanism blinked from red to green. The door clicked open, and Hinahon turned the knob and pushed open the door.
The room she entered was done in pale pinks and oranges, and the cream-colored comforter on the bed looked plush and soft, reminding her of the handmade paper Natalie kept stocked in seemingly every place she occupied. The sheer curtains shifted in the breeze. The tiny, square window was cracked just enough to let in a tiny stream of humid Georgia air. There was even a vase of flowers, fresh-cut tulips, on a small table near the window, and altogether, the aspects of the room made for a lavish scene.
It wasn’t a bad place to die.
Hinahon removed her simple black heels, placing them beside the door. The sunlight filtering in illuminated the whole space, coming in through the curtains, and somehow, the brightness of the room amplified the uncomfortable feeling that had settled throughout Hinahon’s entire body. Still, she pressed on, forcing herself to unzip the suitcase. It was too late to stop now, she reminded herself over and over. Inside her case, there was a navy blue dress in a clear garment bag, a plain black purse, and a zipped travel bag. She ignored those items in favor a small, stab-stitched journal tucked into the side pocket of the suitcase.
Leaving the case, she went and sat on the bed, flipping the book open. Almost every page was full of notations, all in her own barely-legible, slanted handwriting. The scale of the notes varied from page to page, and some pages were completely filled with runny black ink while others were done in pencil. Every now and then, she caught a glimpse of writing done in bright red or ugly, faded violet. Some were a horrible, mismatched combination of multiple pen inks and pencil, and in some parts, lines of text were scratched out so thoroughly that there were little trenches in the paper. The organization, Perennial, had offered a data pad to hold all her personal information, since that was the easiest and fastest way to do things, but Hinahon had refused.
Natalie had given her the book for their six-month anniversary, and almost every element of the book bore evidence of her girlfriend’s touch, from the pressed violet blossoms embedded in the heavy paper cover to the handmade paper within. Sometimes Natalie ordered her papers from another papermaker, to save time, but for Hinahon, she had done them herself. She had even sprayed each individual page with her preferred brand of perfume, some celebrity-inspired scent Hinahon couldn’t hope to pronounce, and even after all the writing she had done in the past year, the scent of Natalie lingered, heavy and real on each sheet.
Hinahon loved the gift, even if writing in it sometimes made her sick with guilt, and she felt the least she could do was put it to good use before the end.
Now each of the two-hundred some pages was full to the brim with every fact Hinahon could think of about herself. Perennial had sent over a rough list of things to include, and thus, the first few pages were filled with the basics — facts about her family, her schooling, her childhood. From there, the focus was less concrete, more about Hinahon’s personal relationships and feelings than the facts. There were anecdotes from her childhood, and stories her parents had told her numerous times. She spent pages and pages talking about Natalie, carefully detailing all the things she loved about her. All the fights they’d ever had. They were all necessary to know, and she had carried the book with her almost everywhere, never knowing when she’d think of something that might be important. Thirty pages, front and back, and she’d forgotten how to be shy. For this to succeed, the book had to be an extension of herself. It had been painful to carry a reminder of what she intended to do, but it was worse to do nothing at all and continue on.
Hinahon flipped through the pages, never pausing long enough to read a complete thought. In truth, she’d never really gone back to reread any part of the book. Each word made her feel raw and embarrassed, and she hated the look of her writing, all the mistakes crossed out in black. In all her other journals, she’d try to keep the journals perfect. She tried to sound deep, tried to make her letters small and uniform. Whenever she made a mistake or complained about something she later thought was trivial, she’d tear the page out. But the rough edge of the paper inside the journal she could never fully remove, the evidence she always screwed up and never had anything interesting to say, always kept her from continuing a journal through to the end. Instead, she’d buy another journal, and the cycle would repeat. Natalie had admitted, four months after gifting the book to Hinahon, that she was a little upset that Hinahon wasn’t using the book after all the hard work she’d poured into it. But it had been too beautiful to screw up, and Hinahon still hadn’t had anything interesting to say. It had seemed wrong to use such a beautiful gift when she didn’t have anything important to put in it.
She sifted through the pages until she heard the click of the door unlocking. Hinahon closed the book, and her eyes turned to the opening door. Ford, their representative, entered wearing a charcoal suit with no tie, and he carried a stocky brown case, though its weight didn’t appear to be a burden for him at all. Ford’s dark hair was short and neat, and he walked and smiled without a care. He and Hinahon had spoken on the phone a few times, discussing terms and procedures, and it had been clear by his laidback demeanor and their conversations that Ford had been in the game for a while. He had anticipated each of her questions, and Ford always seemed patient when answering her nervous questions.
Leigh, a grey-haired woman, walked through after Ford, her steps slow and careful, and her brown eyes darted about the room as soon as she entered, cataloging each detail. She was a head shorter than Hinahon, but she stood tall and straight. Her gaze became stuck on Hinahon when she first caught sight of her, and Hinahon stared, unable to summon a smile.
“You’re here,” Leigh blurted out. She flushed and looked embarrassed as soon as the words left her mouth. “I’m sorry. It’s just, on the phone . . .” She let out a frustrated breath. “You sounded like you were reconsidering.” Leigh wrung her hands as she spoke, a nervous smile spread across her face.
Hinahon was trembling, so much that it was noticeable in almost every line of her body. She wanted to lie; it would have been easier — probably nicer, too — to deny any of her doubt, but it didn’t seem fair to Leigh. “I was,” she admitted. “I’ve never really been great at making decisions.” Hinahon smiled, feeling the sudden beginnings of an urge to cry bubble up in her chest. Her fingernails dug into the cover of the book in her hand to anchor herself.
Leigh’s mouth opened, the smallest of noises exiting before she closed it again. She swallowed. “But you’re here,” she said. Hinahon knew what she probably wanted to ask but felt that Leigh was afraid what her answer might be. Ford had relayed a bit about Leigh’s background to Hinahon and more importantly, her enthusiasm at the idea of starting over on a-not-quite-blank slate. Wealth couldn’t cure old age, and Leigh was a driven woman. One lifetime hadn’t afforded her enough opportunities, but this was her chance to start again, in a world that Leigh described as more “progressive” than her own.
“Yeah,” Hinahon said. “Yeah, I’m here; I’m still in.” Leigh looked even more uncomfortable with that lukewarm answer, and she shifted her stance and pursed her lip. Her eyes darted to Ford as if seeking guidance; however, the man was taking the lamp down off of the bedside table to make room for his case and didn’t seem to be paying attention to the women’s conversation.
“Are you?” Leigh asked, her eyes tired but not unkind. Her words were patient, but there was an edge of disappointment to them, as if she was waiting for Hinahon to chicken out. Ford had admitted, without much pressing, that close to fifty percent of their clients didn’t follow through. Perennial, therefore, refused to touch a client’s payment until the full service was rendered. They refunded up to sixty-five percent, depending on the reason for the failed transition.
Hinahon was tempted. She could go home to her apartment, could even go to dinner with Natalie and celebrate the past two years. She could pretend everything was fine. Apparently, she hadn’t done such a terrible job. No one suspected anything was seriously wrong with her. She could forget about the Red Run, Leigh, and Ford. Despite everything, Hinahon could leave, but she had the book, and even if she got rid of it, she’d still have those mornings, the ones where she felt so sick of herself that she couldn’t bear to get out of bed. She’d have those days where she cried over nothing, days where Hinahon’d tell Natalie she was too sick or too busy to see her because she couldn’t deal with anyone seeing her. There was no reason for it. No explanation. She had fantastic parents and a close circle of supportive friends. Natalie was far from perfect, but she was wonderful. They were happy together, on Hinahon’s really good days. Hinahon had done well in college. Her job at the Customer Service department at the local phone company sucked, but it paid the bills. All and all, there was nothing. But sometimes, that made it feel even worse.
“Hinahon,” Leigh said, stepping closer. “It’s okay.” The tone of Leigh’s voice suggested it wasn’t okay at all, but Leigh didn’t sound angry. It was almost as if she was expecting this outcome. “This is a little crazy to begin with, and you’re still really youn —”
Ford butted in: “What’s this? You thinking of opting out, Miss Bird?” The man had opened his case, but after hearing their line of conversation, he stopped his set-up process and turned to Hinahon. He still smiled, even though Hinahon might be seconds away from telling them she was too scared, too guilt-ridden to continue.
Swallowing with a grimace, Hinahon tried to calm her breathing and think. It occurred to her that Leigh should be pissed at her for doing this, for being indecisive at such a critical point. Leigh had paid, and it was obvious she really wanted her second chance, one she would only get through Hinahon. They had an agreement, and Leigh, from the very beginning, had been very accommodating. She had promised to move in with Natalie, to continue her monthly visits to her parents in South Carolina. Hell, the woman had promised to continue her tutoring gig at one of the local middle schools early each Saturday morning at least for another quarter.
“No,” she said, forcing the word out before she could talk herself out of it. Leigh jumped at the volume of the word, and Ford stared, eyes examining her face hard for a few minutes, before he turned back to his case. He began working again.
Leigh stared, too. She still appeared unsettled, but she was no longer wringing her hands. “If you’re sure,” she said. “This is really what you want?”
“Yeah,” Hinahon replied, speaking before Leigh could finish her question. Leigh’s eyes narrowed, and she clasped her hands in front of her. She looked as if she wanted to argue, but Hinahon shut her down. When she continued, she tried to sound decisive and confident. “I want this.” She took a deep breath, fussing with her hair absently. “I mean, I’m not jumping for joy about this or anything. This is way beyond screwed up. But I want it.” She took a shuddering breath, feeling a little of the tension leave her body. “I don’t want to be like this anymore.” Hinahon covered her face with one of her hands, disgusted that she had started to cry, and turned her face away from Leigh.
“You won’t be like anything anymore,” Leigh whispered.
“Why’re you trying to talk me out of it?” Hinahon muttered, smearing the tears into her skin in an attempt to wipe them away. “If I back out, you lose everything. Shouldn’t you be trying to convince me rather than —”
Leigh took a half-step back. “I’m not going to talk someone into committing suicide!” She shook her head, the gray strands swaying at the movement, and began to wring her hands again. She looked pale, and there were drops of sweat on her face and neck. Hinahon, in turn, scrubbed at her face with her palm. She didn’t trust her voice. Hinahon suspected that if she tried to speak at all, she’d probably start to cry for real, and she had promised herself she wouldn’t let anyone see that, especially not before she died.
Ford clucked his tongue, interrupting their emotional debate, “We avoid that word.”
“What do you call it then?” Leigh asked, frustrated. There were splotches of ugly red coloring her face.
Ford answered, “Consensual body snatching.” He sounded serious.
To Hinahon’s surprise, Leigh laughed. But it was a short, shocked thing that suggested Leigh didn’t find the comment humorous. Still, Ford continued on despite Leigh’s reaction, more playful now, “Well, I call it that anyway. Company policy is to call it a ‘substitution’ or a ‘switch,’ but those always make me think of the Parent Trap.”
“What difference does it make what you call it?” Leigh said, hands sweeping her hair up above her ears. She took a deep breath, eyes fluttering closed. “I’m encouraging someone to commit suicide for me. That’s what this is.”
Ford shrugged, “This was never a very moral arrangement, just a consensual one.” He was now taking a set of headpieces from inside the case. “Hinahon wants to die. You want a new life. That’s it.” He turned from his work and smiled at Leigh, his white teeth visible. “It would be best for both of you to stop thinking beyond that. You’ll be a lot happier if you do.”
“I imagine the money has nothing to do with it either,” Leigh said, disgust permeating each word.
Hinahon shuddered and cut in, “Stop. Let’s just get on with it. Leigh, we’ve been talking about this for over a year —”
“We never discussed why you were doing this,” Leigh said. “I was told I could only ask you in person, and even then, Perennial . . . advised against it.”
Hinahon wiped at her eyes and patted the dampness from her cheeks. She was exhausted; she wasn’t supposed to have to explain this. “What’s the point?” she interrupted. “It’ll just make you feel shitty about the whole thing, and there’s no point.” She took a deep, shuddered breath. “Worry about tonight. You’ll be having dinner with Natalie at seven-thirty. Please don’t ruin this. I mean, how many chances are you going to get to be twenty-seven again?”
The room went silent save for the sound of Ford shifting his machinery.
Finally, Leigh spoke, sounding ashamed, “Y-yes. You’re right.” She exhaled. Inhaled. Her eyes did not meet Hinahon’s.
“Why don’t you tell Hinahon what you’re going to do for dinner,” Ford prompted. “I’m almost ready.”
So Leigh laid out the scene. Hinahon would arrive right on time to find Natalie seated, smiling in their favorite booth in the back of the restaurant right under that god-awful neon sunset painting. There’d be a kiss, a slight clasp of hands, fingers soothing Natalie’s tired hands. Then they’d sit, side-by-side in the booth, legs touching and hands entwined until the food came. Hinahon would order her usual, the restaurant’s specialty soup, a seafood dish that came piled high with fresh cilantro and hot peppers. Natalie would order something new but would take her peppers since Hinahon had always refused to eat them. They’d eat and talk, and because it was their two year anniversary, they’d talk about themselves — Hinahon and Natalie. One happy little unit.
At the end of dinner, Hinahon would give her gift and finally say “yes.” She had danced around answering the question of sharing an apartment for a long time, citing one excuse or another. There was no way she could have kept the switch a secret while sharing a living space, and the idea of being in such an intimate arrangement with anyone — even Natalie — made her sick with nervousness. Natalie had seemed put off by Hinahon’s reluctance to give a straight answer, but also seemed to understand how important the idea of living together was to Hinahon. Lately, she barely mentioned the notion at all, leaving it up to Hinahon to bring up the subject again. And tonight, she would.
Or rather, Leigh would.
While Leigh described dinner, Ford set up his workstation. The brown case he’d brought in was open on the nightstand, and inside was a mess of wires and lights with tiny, almost illegible labels beneath them. The wires were all coiled around a central mechanical structure — a small silver dome with a slot at the top for a memory disc.
Hinahon never glanced at Ford’s case; her attention was fixed on Leigh, on the way she described the night ahead of her. The more Leigh talked, the faster and easier the words came. She looked more at ease, and she wore a small smile now. There was no more trembling, and Leigh’s bubbling excitement for her new life made most of the cold dread flee from Hinahon.
“Sounds like it’ll be a charming night,” Ford said. The man was still smiling. “Are you ready, Hinahon? You’re up first.” He had removed his suit jacket and had rolled up his sleeves. He was still in high spirits despite the near-meltdowns he’d almost witnessed, and his casual, almost playful attitude made it easier for Hinahon to proceed, to push past any lingering negativity that still existed inside her. She glanced away from Leigh and turned to Ford.
“How do you want me?” Hinahon said.
Ford let out a snort of a laugh before replying. “Lie on the bed — but keep your head close to the edge. The cords they give me are always too damn short.” Hinahon did as she was told, and as if entranced, Leigh moved to the other side of the bed, hesitating before sitting at the other edge. She reached forward, her movements sluggish, before resting her hand on Hinahon’s shoulder. The headpiece Ford had in hand were not unlike the old style headphones. Instead of speakers, however, flat stems curled outwards, and each stem had a tiny metal pieces attached at the end of one side.
From his pants pocket, Ford retrieved a bottle filled with translucent fluid, and he loaded the syringe neither woman had noticed on the nightstand. Without speaking, Hinahon offered her arm. She didn’t need to know what it was. In a little while, it would be Leigh’s problem.
“We used to do this without medication,” Ford said, massaging the area he intended to inject with calloused fingers. He paused and tilted his head, as if thinking about how to continue. With a brief smile, a flash of almost menacing teeth, he let out a huff and shook his head. “Let’s just say things go much smoother with meds,” he finally said.
“How long does it last?” Hinahon eyes flickered to Leigh, concerned. There wasn’t a large window of time for mistakes.
“If all goes well, she’ll make the dinner,” Ford soothed.
Hinahon nodded once and turned her head towards Leigh. “Please, don’t screw this up,” she begged, grabbing Leigh’s arm and squeezing with all her might. “I know I’m asking a lot — especially since you’re the one paying — but . . . please. Just stick to what you promised.” She stared up at Leigh, her eyes wide and keen, and her nails bit into the old woman’s flesh even through the sleeve of her plum-colored jacket.
“I will,” Leigh said, patting the young woman’s hand. “I don’t break my promises.” Hinahon stared at her for a few moments before drawing her hand back. Her other hand, which had never stopped clutching her book, stretched out to Leigh.
Hinahon smiled. “It’s everything,” she said. “Don’t know if it’ll make sense, but hopefully it’ll help, at least a little.” She laughed as Leigh took it into her hands, her eyes bright. The drugs had kicked in. “Sorry ’bout the later stuff. I tried to write so you’d understand, but my thoughts were all over the place. I just wanted to get as much down as possible, you know? I couldn’t really keep up with my head so it’s all very messy. Sorry.” Hinahon didn’t sound sorry, but Leigh nodded, her smile disappearing and reappearing. The wrinkles on her forehead seemed to multiply, and she squeezed the book in her hand.
Ford spoke, “We’re clear to start. Say when, Hinahon.”
“Leigh,” Hinahon began before pausing. Her eyes closed, and her mouth crinkled with glee. “Hinahon,” she amended. “Happy anniversary.”
Ford laughed, “That all? I’d hate for her to miss her dinner because you wanted to chit-chat all night.” His fingers hovered over the main switch that would start the process of downloading Hinahon’s memories onto the disc.
A pink-faced Hinahon nodded and the switch fell. The three were silent as the machine began its work. From what Hinahon understood of the process (which wasn’t much), it downloaded from the brain in sections. Sight memories, audio memories, tactile memories. The device downloaded them to a disc to make way for Leigh. Lights flashed on and off, too quick to keep track of. One green light fell steady. Hinahon’s body seemed to sink further into the bed, and her eyes ceased moving, glazing over.
She drifted through thoughts of those education films in high school, the ones that went through the signs of depression. One sign, she had always remembered. Someone who’s suicidal might say something like, “I want to sleep forever.” Hinahon had laughed with friends about that one, at the campy actors and overdramatic reading of the line. The actor, a boy around fourteen or so, had worn a red and white striped shirt, and his eyes were downcast. He had clung to his book bag as he admitted to his mom that he was tired. “I just want to go to sleep and never wake up,” he had said, his lip trembling. It was so blunt and obvious; Hinahon had never understood.
Another light stopped blinking — then another.
Hinahon knew the feeling at twenty-seven. There was heaviness in her limbs when she went to bed nowadays, and she dreaded closing her eyes sometimes because it seemed like she could never sleep enough to keep her body and her mind satisfied. There was too much to worry about when she was awake. But now, despite the guilt lingering, she felt something like peace settle over her mind. She was aware, in an abstract way, of her breathing — its steady, constant rhythm. The worries that plagued her disappeared into the fog, and Hinahon found herself lulled to sleep by the quiet, by the expanding emptiness.
Eventually, there wasn’t enough in her head anymore; she didn’t think or feel anything. Instead, she slept, knowing there wasn’t anything to worry about. There would be no painful mornings spent wondering if she could find the strength to get up. Finally, it was done.
The last few lights took twenty minutes to calm, and at last, there was a high-pitched mechanical beep that signified the download was done.
Leigh broke the quiet, “She’s gone?”
“Not yet,” Ford answered. He pressed the release on the memory disc slot at the top of the dome. “I have to destroy the disc first.” Leigh nodded and waited for him to do so. Instead, he gestured for her to come to his side of the bed, and he took a second headpiece into hand. “It’s best to do this fresh. You understand how this works, right? Same initial procedure — but I upload your disc into her body.” He tilted his head in the direction of Hinahon’s empty shell as he spoke. “Then, dinner.” Leigh nodded more times than necessary, and Ford’s amusement seemed to intensify.
“No injections, doctor?”
Ford shook his head, “If I was a doctor, we wouldn’t be doing this in a damn hotel.” Leigh started but didn’t speak. “Now just sit there next to Hinahon and make sure you lean away from her. This should go rather quickly.” He set the headpiece on Leigh’s head, and they went through the same sequence. The lights went solid, and the old woman went still. Then, she pitched sideways, her body falling away from Hinahon, onto the bed. Ford prepared, in blissful silence, for the second phase.