Soul Protector - first few chapters...


       I opened my eyes and the restaurant came back into view, but something was different.  Something was very wrong.  I’d been facing the main door before, I was sure of it, but now I was turned towards the kitchen.  Even that seemed insignificant.  It was a far more disturbing situation causing my heart to thump erratically.  In the blink of an eye Lydia had gone.  In her place, the face staring back at me was my own.

CHAPTER 1: First Time

        The invitation was pretty; metallic swirls on crimson paper, spritzed with an exotic perfume.  I leant on the kitchen work-surface admiring it for a few moments before sighing, folding it in half, and placing it on top of the recycling pile.  I knew Lydia wouldn’t really expect me to go to her birthday dinner, but I made a mental note to phone her with a fabricated excuse to make us both feel better about it.  And then, as usual, I procrastinated.  Every time I wandered into the kitchen, the brightly-coloured paper caught my eye, and my stomach would flip-flop as I remembered I still had to make the call.

On the Thursday afternoon leading up to Lydia’s ‘do,’ she caught me off-guard by popping into my workplace unannounced.  I’d been lost in proof-reading a long and boring article, trying to work out why a particular paragraph didn’t flow right, when her familiar voice cut through my focus.  I’d looked up sharply.  She was smiling at me; a small, tight smile that didn’t quite reach her eyes. 
“Oh, wow… hi, Lydia,” I said, managing to freeze my face into a pleasant expression.  “What a nice surprise.”
Her smile dropped, but she managed to keep her tone casual.  “I was just passing, and I remembered you haven’t told me if you’re coming to my birthday dinner, or not.” 
She leant on my desk as she waited for an answer and I remember feeling heat creep up my face.  I opened and closed my mouth, praying for my brain to scramble a decent excuse, but before I had a chance to come up with anything tangible, she launched into a lecture. 
“Gracie Reynolds, stop being so selfish.  You can’t just abandon your friends.  One day you’ll want a social life again, but when you look around there’ll be no one left to hang out with.”
Well, she had a point.  Desperate to quieten her in front of my colleagues, I’d had no choice but to take a deep breath and commit myself.
“Lyd, don’t be silly.  Of course I’m coming to the restaurant.  I’m really looking forward to it.” 
A small look of victory flashed across her features as she nodded.  Then she smiled again, a genuine one this time, and sashayed out the office.  Every male in the open-plan area watched her leave.   


On the night in question, I trudged up the slope towards Westow Hill.  The combination of wind and rain was proving too much for my old khaki jacket and I felt the force of nature through every tiny gap and button hole.   High-heeled boots had been another mistake.  I thought longingly of my tatty trainers abandoned at the bottom of the wardrobe.  It took every ounce of resolve to stop myself turning round and heading back to my warm, cosy flat. 
I rounded the corner and saw the neon sign outside the Italian restaurant.  The green and red lettering of ‘Vertoni’ looked dazzling against the night sky. I took a quick glance at my watch and chewed my lip.  They’d all be inside; Lydia, her friends, and their perfect lives. 
At least Kerry will be there, I reassured myself.  Kerry, my oldest friend, would know exactly how I felt.  When I’d called her after the Lydia visit, she’d told me it was a good thing.  She was pleased I was finally getting out and about again, and she promised me everything would be okay. 
Like a fool, I believed her... 
As soon as I entered the restaurant, the warmth and atmosphere hit me. The place was abuzz with people engaged in lively conversation, while the background music struggled to be heard.  The aroma of a garlicky dish wafted over and my stomach rumbled with recognition.     
I wiped my boots on the coconut matting, my heart thudding as I scanned the dimly-lit dining area for Lydia, Kerry and the others.  My chestnut hair, (some people might call it ginger), which I’d spent half the evening spritzing and straightening, was now plastered against my scalp, exposing my ears which stick out a tad more than I’m happy with.  I discreetly flicked my fingers through the sides to cover them up again - a nervous habit of mine which I do automatically if I feel out of my depth.
After a few moments I spied Kerry in the far corner waving her arms wildly in my direction, her dark, curly hair bobbing up and down with the motion. I swallowed hard and made my way over to the table.   
“Gracie,” she squealed, leaping up to greet me.
 I leant over to give her a hug, and felt her flinch as my damp hair swept across her cheek.
“Eww, you’re soaked.  What did you walk for, you daft mare?  Anyway, don’t worry.  I saved you a seat next to me. Get rid of that soggy coat and come and sit down.” 
Confident and bubbly, Kerry always talked at three hundred miles an hour.
 “Just let me say hi to Lydia,” I said, peeling off the wet jacket and draping it over the back of my chair.
“Finally, Gracie’s here, we can order food.” 
I turned, pleased to see Joe, Kerry’s on-off partner. 
“Hey, Joe.”  I leant over to plant a kiss on his stubbly cheek, and enjoyed the citrusy smell of his aftershave. “It’s good to see you, stranger.”
“It’s good to be back,” he said, giving me a cheeky wink.
Sitting next to Joe was Lydia. I hesitated before approaching her.  As usual, she was styled to perfection; her make-up was immaculate and her long blonde hair fell in glossy waves down her back.  The cut of her designer dress, although tasteful, was showing just enough cleavage that most of the men in the restaurant were getting angry reminders from their other halves to stop gawping. She was definitely an alpha female though, and whilst men liked to look, most were too afraid to approach, an unwritten rule declaring her out of their league.
I took a deep breath and bent down to give her a hug.  
“Happy Birthday, Lyd.” 
As I straightened up, I saw her eyes flick down to her designer watch. 
“Better late than never, Gracie.”
“I know… I’m sorry... um… I got you a little something.  It’s not much.”  I fumbled around in my handbag and pulled out the gift-wrapped package which had somehow managed to stay dry.
Her face brightened.  “Aw, hun, you shouldn’t have.”
She took the present out of my hand and began tearing the pink wrapping paper at one end.  I watched as she peered inside and tugged at the shimmery material, pulling it out only halfway.  She studied it for a full two seconds before her smile dropped and she pushed it back inside, folding the paper over the top. 
“A scarf, thanks,” she said, promptly tucking the package under her chair.
I managed to keep the smile going, despite my disappointment.  I really thought I’d cracked it.  Clearly I just didn’t have that natural instinct telling me if something was great… or not.
“Yo, Gracie,” Lydia’s boyfriend, Phil, acknowledged me.  ‘My Phil’ is how she always referred to him, and so did Kerry and I, but only when Lydia was out of ear shot. 
“Been keeping out of trouble?” he teased.
MyPhil was definitely a match for Lydia.  Tall, well-built, with sandy hair gelled to perfection.  He exuded charm and charisma, putting it to good use as Director of his own PR Company.  When he asked her out, he knew he was boxing within his weight.  That was over a year ago and they were still wrapped up in each other now.
I flashed him a smile, cringing inside as I felt my cheeks flush - not because I fancied him, but because I always felt a bit unworthy of his attention.  I tried to think up a witty retaliation, and instead left an awkward silence.  He raised his eyebrows expectantly before giving me a parting grin and turned round to carry on his conversation with Joe.
I smoothed hair over my ears yet again, took a deep breath and went over to my seat next to Kerry. I nodded a quick hello to the other people at our table.  I recognised the two girls, they were Lydia’s colleagues, but I’d never seen the guys before.
Kerry picked up a bottle of Rioja that was sitting idle on the table and poured some into my empty wine glass.
“You okay?  It’s a bit couply around here,” she said in hushed tones.
“I’m fine.  Honest.”  
She gave me a sad smile, and I realised my words had come out too spiky to sound genuine. 
“You’re better off without him, Gracie.  There’s plenty more fish in the sea.”
I rolled my eyes. “I know.  Why does everyone keep spewing clichés at me?”
“Sorry,” she said, pulling a grimace.  “I just don’t like seeing you down.  I know it must be hard for you after what happened, you know, with Mike and Michelle.”
Oh, well done, Kerry.  After promising beforehand not to mention that very subject, she’d managed to bring it up in the first five minutes. 
She studied my face, waiting for my reaction, but I wasn’t in the mood for picking over my relationship trauma.  I lifted my glass, took a big gulp of wine and deflected the conversation away.
“Lydia looks stunning in that dress.”
Kerry ignored my statement.  I could feel her gaze lingering on my face, but there was no way I was backing down. 
I gave her a determined look and raised the volume in my voice.  “It’s gorgeous, isn’t it?”  I moved my head purposefully to look towards Lydia, and on the edge of my vision I saw Kerry shake her head gently before turning to follow my gaze.
“Yeah, it is,” she sighed.  “Lydia looks great as usual.  She’s in peacock mode tonight though, full of her promotion, so get ready to nod in all the right places and tell her how wonderful she is.”
I looked back at Kerry and smiled.  Not because of what she’d just said, but because she’d dropped the subject of Mike and Michelle.  She had a very stubborn ‘make things better’ reflex.  If something was wrong, she made it her mission to sort it out, and I knew it was killing her not being able to fix me.
I spent most of the meal passively listening to conversations going on around me.  Kerry, who’d been chatting about hairstyles with one of Lydia’s colleagues, began lifting up sections of her dark, curly hair and draping it over Joe’s shaved head.  Fuelled by alcohol, the others found it hilarious, laughing until tears streamed down their faces.   
I made an effort to laugh along with them, but at that point it hit me just how disconnected I’d become.  I felt lost and alone.  I knew I shouldn’t have come.    
In-between courses, Kerry moved her chair closer to mine and gave my hand a squeeze.  “I’m so happy you came out tonight.  It hasn’t been the same without you.” 
She topped up our wine glasses and took a big gulp of hers.  “Life’s more fun when you’re around.” 
I raised my eyebrows. 
“Well, it will be, when you’re back to your normal cheerful self.  But at least you’re making progress…”  She hiccupped and spilled some wine down her top. 
“Oops,” she said, pulling the material up to her mouth and attempting to suck the red wine.   “Anyway, what was I saying?  Oh yeah… ‘cause girls our age shouldn’t spend Saturday nights sprawled on the sofa in PJs, with only Sky box office and a jumbo packet of Doritos for company.  You were one knitting pattern away from buying a flock of cats...”  
“Erm, I think you mean clutter...”
“Do I?” she said, another hiccup taking her by surprise.
“Yes.”  I picked up a napkin and began mopping her spilled wine off the table.  “It’s a flock of birds and a clutter of cats.  Or actually… is it a clowder of cats?”
“Erm, Gracie, does this get interesting or can I stop listening now?”
“Sorry,” I said and bit my lip.  “Conversation skills take a bit of a nose-dive when you only leave the house for work or Tesco’s.”
“Aah, don’t worry.  That’s all gonna change from now on.  You’re not a hermit anymore, right?”
I wasn’t convinced, but I nodded anyway.  “Thanks for putting up with me while I’ve been so grumpy.”
“Hey, s’not your fault.  If the guy I loved dumped me and then declared his undying love for my little sister, it’d knock the stuffing out of me too.”

After our dinner plates were cleared, two waiters appeared with champagne and glasses for everyone.  There was the scraping noise of a chair being pushed back, and MyPhil stood up.  I assumed he was going to make the obligatory birthday toast to Lydia, so I reached out and slid my glass towards me in preparation.  
MyPhil raised his hand for silence, and I was surprised to see it was shaking.
He cleared his throat, and looked up to face everyone.
“I just want to say happy birthday to my beautiful Lydia.”
We all raised our empty champagne glasses in Lydia’s direction, and managed a synchronised ‘happy birthday.’
MyPhil swallowed hard and turned to face her, his voice wobbling as he continued. 
“Since I met you babe, you’ve rocked my world.  I love you with all my heart and I want to spend the rest of my life with you.” 
He fumbled for something in his pocket, and started to get down on one knee.  Shocked, I glanced around at our table and noticed everyone looked as surprised as I felt.  As the other diners caught on, the whole restaurant grew quiet with anticipation. 
When there was complete silence, MyPhil reached out and took hold of Lydia’s hand. 
“Lydia McKenzie, will you do me the amazing honour of becoming my wife?”
I held my breath as Lydia paused, her expression unreadable.  I could feel all the little hairs on my arms beginning to stand on end. 
After a few long seconds her face broke into a broad grin, and she squealed, “Yes, Phil, I’d love to!”
Right on cue, a waiter popped the champagne cork and the whole restaurant exploded into cheers and applause.  A euphoric MyPhil pushed the ring onto Lydia’s finger, then jumped up, picked her up off her feet, and spun her around. 
I forced a smile and joined in with everyone else, clapping as hard as I could.  I looked at the happy couple, positively sparkling, and felt overwhelmed with sadness at my own situation. 
What was wrong with me?  One of my best friends had just got engaged, and instead of being thrilled for her, I was eaten up by jealousy.  It was almost too much to bear.  
I knew I should get up like the rest of my table and offer the happy couple my congratulations.  As I moved my chair back to stand up, I felt tears threatening to fall.  I tried not to blink.  Crying would take a lot of explaining and I didn’t want to spoil the moment for Lydia and MyPhil
I walked over to where they were standing and Lydia beamed at me.  I could see pure elation reflected in her eyes.  I opened my arms to embrace her. 
“Congratulations, Lyd,” I managed to croak. 
She leaned in and squeezed me back. 
It was awful.  I wanted to share in her joy, but all I could think was how unfair life was, and how much I wanted to swap places with her and her perfect world.  I wanted to be happy, I wanted to be successful, and more than anything, I wanted to feel loved.  I was so jealous it was like a physical pain. 
A traitorous tear escaped my eye and I began to feel dizzy.  There was a buzzing in my ears, and for a second or two I felt like I was going to pass out.  I squeezed my eyes shut to try and get rid of the giddy sensation and a sob inadvertently escaped.  Lydia released me from her grip and I shakily straightened up, aware of a wet sensation on my cheek.  But I couldn’t work out why my eyes were dry.  I realised she must have been crying against my face.  Tears of happiness?
I opened my eyes and the restaurant came back into view, but something was different.  Something was very wrong.  I’d been facing the main door before, I was sure of it, but now I was turned towards the kitchen.  Even that seemed insignificant.  It was a far more disturbing situation causing my heart to thump erratically.  In the blink of an eye Lydia had gone.  In her place, the face staring back at me was my own.
I squeezed my eyes shut again.  When I opened them slowly, I was horrified to find I was still looking at myself and a gasp escaped from my lips.  Standing in front of me, my mirror image returned my gaze with one eyebrow raised.  I noticed she was discreetly wiping a tear from under her eyelashes. 
Paralysed with fear, I couldn’t speak.  Any moment now everything will go back to the way it should be.  I felt my heart hammering in my chest, as the blood rushed in my ears. 
I glanced around, surprised that everyone else was carrying on as normal.  Why aren’t they shocked there are two of us?  It didn’t make any sense.  As panic overwhelmed me, I began to feel woozy, and my vision started to close in...

The next thing I remembered was lying on the floor, and MyPhil kneeling by my side, supporting my head.  He was talking to me, but the words sounded like they were coming from far away.  I felt a glass being pressed against my lips.
“Here you go, Lydia.  Just have a sip for me.” 
What?  Why is he calling me Lydia? 
“Come on, darling.  You just passed out for a minute.  Have a sip and you’ll feel better.” 
I did as I was told, and the icy water felt cold against my dry mouth, crashing me back into the present. 
“Thanks,” I croaked, my voice not sounding right.  I tried again, “I think I’m okay now.”  What the…?  That really doesn’t sound like me
I lifted my hand to my face to wipe away some water which had spilled down my chin, and as I did, I caught a glimpse of my ring.  In fact it was Lydia’s new diamond ring, but it was on my finger.  Embarrassed, I scrabbled to get it off, but as I clawed at my finger, it was no use.  The ring wasn’t budging.
“What’s wrong?” MyPhil asked.  His face was pulled into a worried frown.  “Do you want to sit up?”
 “Yes, I think..,” I couldn’t get used to the higher pitch of my voice.  “I think I should go to the Ladies.”  I needed to get away from everyone and sort myself out. 
“Let me help.”  There was my voice, but it was the other Gracie who had formed the words. 
She reached over to put an arm around me.  I shrugged her off.  “I’m fine, really.”  I didn’t want her help.  She was freaking me out. 
Panic was making me hot and sticky, causing my perfume to intensify and take on a different aroma.  All I wanted was to get away from everyone so I could try and figure out what was going on. 
I grabbed my bag, turned my back on their bewildered faces and made my way over to the toilets at the back of the restaurant.  As I walked across the room, I felt different – taller.    
I was aware that some of the other diners were staring at me, so I focussed down at the wooden floor.  That’s when I caught a glimpse of my feet.  The boots that had been excruciating earlier were gone, and in their place was a pair of elegant black shoes I didn’t recognise. 
I opened the door to the ladies and saw several others in there, washing hands and applying lippy.  I quickly made my way into a cubicle, and as I turned to shut the door, I caught a glimpse of myself in the mirror – but looking back at me was a tall, attractive girl with long blonde wavy hair.  It definitely wasn’t my reflection.  This one belonged to Lydia.
I banged the door shut, and sagged onto the toilet seat.  This can’t be happening.  I took in a deep, shaky breath, and blew it out slowly.  Reaching into my bag, I pulled out my pocket mirror.  I flipped it open and sure enough, staring back at me was not the face I’d had reflected back all my life – I really was looking at Lydia.  Beautiful brown eyes stared back into my own. I shot a hand up to my face and, trembling, I traced Lydia’s features.  I touched her long lashes, neat nose and full lips.  Everything felt alien.  This is insane
I closed my eyes and shook my head.  There had to be a logical explanation, I just couldn’t think of one.  My mind was racing, and it was a struggle to order my thoughts.  But the more I tried to focus the more I became aware of a ringing sound in my ears.  It was a bit like hushed voices, but there was nothing I could make any sense of.
From outside my cubicle I heard another voice loud and clear, my voice.
“Lydia, are you in there?  Is everything alright, hun?” 
Damn, ‘Gracie’ must have followed me in.  But I was Gracie and if I was in Lydia’s body, was she in mine?
“I’m okay,” I said, trying to erase the panic from my voice. 
I needed to talk to her to try and understand what was happening, but I didn’t want to start sounding like a mad woman in front of these other people. 
I stood up, praying my wobbly legs would support me, unlocked the door and walked out of the cubicle.  I could see she was looking at me with concern, but she definitely wasn’t at the same level of panic that I was. 
“You took the wrong bag,” she stated simply, holding out Lydia’s bag towards me.
I looked at the bag I was holding, my bag, ‘Gracie’s bag.
“Come on Lyd, Phil’s getting worried.  He’s going to take you home,” she said, holding her other hand out towards me. 
I reached out to grasp it with just one thought.  I wanted the nightmare to end and everything to go back to normal.  With this in mind, I had that weird disorientation thing again.  Dizziness overwhelmed me, and I could see bright lights.  I really thought I was passing out again.  I squeezed my eyes shut and waited for the buzzing tone to disappear.  And when I opened them, everything had gone back to normal.  Just like that.  I was facing the other way now, looking at Lydia.  She was staring into space, like she was in a daydream.  The other women were carrying on as normal, putting on their make-up and chatting.  Not one of them seemed to have noticed something extraordinary had just occurred. 
I flicked my eyes across to the giant mirror above the washbasins to confirm that I really was me again.
“What. Just. Happened?” I asked, fighting to keep my voice calm. 
Lydia snapped out of her daydream and met my gaze.  “What… Oh, the fainting thing?”
She took in my serious expression and laughed.  “Don’t make a big fuss, Gracie.  I think it was the excitement of my Phil proposing.  I felt a bit lightheaded and I guess I just passed out, but I’m fine now.  Come on let’s go back to the table.” 
I exhaled sharply.  Unbelievable.  It was as if she had never left her body.  What’s wrong with her?  What’s wrong with me? 
We made our way back to the others, and everyone started fussing around Lydia.  She refused MyPhil’s attempts to take her home and played it all down.  She said she was fine, maybe too much wine or something. 
But I wasn’t fine, I was completely traumatised.  I decided to say nothing on the subject for the time-being.  I had a thousand questions running through my mind and my head was throbbing, so I passed on dessert, made my excuses and left early.  No one was too concerned.  They were all still worried about Lydia.
The whole walk back to the flat, the body-switch thing played through my mind on a loop.  What the hell was all that about?  I went over and over the details, but I couldn’t find a logical explanation. 
I let myself into the flat and replied to Kerry’s text to let her know I was home in one piece.  Unable to shake off the surreal feeling, I decided to try and sleep on it.  I told myself things would seem better in the morning - they always did.  I grabbed a glass of water and made my way to the bedroom, convinced I wouldn’t be able to switch off my racing mind.  Minutes later, I fell into an exhausted sleep.

The Daily Grind

Sitting at my desk on Monday morning, I couldn’t concentrate on the ‘woman in work’ feature I was supposed to be pulling together.  Instead, I sat staring into space, gnawing on my pen.  I was wondering if I had sanity issues. 
The previous day had been torturous.  After only a few sips of wine at the restaurant, I’d had a day-long hangover.  I’d spent hours curled up on sofa, eating Hobnobs and drinking gallons of water, googling anything to do with body-swapping or switching.  All I found were links to films, books and hoaxes.  It wouldn’t have been as bad if I could actually talk to someone, but if I did, I was sure they’d call the men in white coats to cart me away.  My whole world had tilted and I had to keep it to myself, at least for the time-being. 
I jumped as a door banged and my boss, Camille, came out of her office.  She approached my desk, and threw some more work into my in-tray.
I noticed her appearance had changed.  When she’d sauntered in late she’d had the au naturel look.  Now her face was fully-made up, and her long hair, which had previously been scraped back in a ponytail, was straightened and glossy.  Also there was the distinctive smell of freshly-applied nail polish.  That explained why she’d had the blinds to her office pulled down for the previous hour.
“Right, stop whatever you’re doing, Gracie.  These are more important.  I need them by lunchtime.” 
I gritted my teeth and nodded.
She gave me a sickly smile, turned on her heel and disappeared back into her office.
I wasn’t exactly enjoying my job at Elevate ‘the magazine to elevate your small business.’  My previous supervisor, Mel, had been lovely.  But a couple of months before, like so many others, she’d migrated to a more glamorous magazine.  Camille had just moved down to London from Leicester and fancied working in the magazine trade.  Conveniently, she was the Editor’s niece, and hey presto, Uncle Donald gave her the job.
Apart from the fact I had utilities to pay, the main reason I could stomach working for Camille was that a position had come up in-house as a writer.  And I adored writing articles.  I often got asked to do a feature if it was a lean month, and some of the official writers asked me to polish their articles before they submitted them.  In order to get the promotion, all I had to do was keep my head down and work hard.  D-Day was coming…
I finished the work Camille had thrust on me, and then tried working through lunch to catch up with the article I should have done earlier, but it wasn’t happening.  I was again consumed by the events of the previous evening.  And it was like I had two memories.  One was from being Lydia - of waking up with MyPhil trying to get me to drink the water, and the absolute shock of finding myself in her body.  But I also had another memory from my own point of view.  I remembered seeing Lydia fall to the floor and feeling concerned about her, but definitely not under the impression that any body-switching had taken place.
I heard a deep grumble as someone nearby cleared their throat.  I looked up to see Arthur, the guy I sat next to, peering over the top of his privacy board.  I loved Arthur to bits.  He had snowy white hair that stuck out in wisps above his ears, and glasses that sat perched on the end of his nose.  He probably should’ve retired years ago, but I was glad he hadn’t.   
“Heavy night last night, Gracie love?” he asked, smiling at me. 
I knew what he was insinuating.  “I am working Arthur, I’m thinking through my research.”
“Ahh, that’s why you looked miles away then.  I thought maybe you had something on your mind.”
“No, no,” I said trying to shake off any hint of anxiety.  “I’m fine.” 
“That’s good.  I was going to suggest tackling whatever the distraction was first, so you’d be able to concentrate on your article.  Won’t be necessary though,” he said, winking. 
Did I mention Arthur was incredibly perceptive?  He was right of course.  I knew if I didn’t confront this thing head on, I was going to drive myself crazy. 
I tried to focus on a way forward.  The only other person who’d been involved was Lydia, so it was obvious I had to speak to her again.  There must have been something unusual she remembered.  It didn’t matter how small or insignificant, I just had to find out if there was anything at all. 
I turned to my PC and tapped out a quick email to see if she was going to be home that evening.  A message pinged back a few minutes later to say her car was at the garage and MyPhil was away on business, so she’d love some company.  She’d added the code for her secure parking spot, so I scribbled it down on a Post-it and stuck it in my bag.  As much as I hated the drive to Greenwich, it was still better than taking the tube.
The rest of the working day I achieved the square root of zero.  I still had the ‘woman in work’ feature to finish, and in order to get the promotion I knew I had to make a good job of it.  I popped my research notes in my bag and resigned myself to finishing it off at home before coming in early the next day to print it off - my punishment for wasting time.  At five-thirty on the dot I switched off my computer and tore out of the office.

Exactly thirty-five minutes and one argument with a security guard later, I pressed the buzzer at Lydia and MyPhil’s loft apartment building.  It was in a converted warehouse, and while it may have only been a few miles away from my flat in Crystal Palace, with its exposed brickwork and steel beams, it was worlds away in price and style. 
Lydia’s face appeared on the video screen in front of me, “Come on up, Gracie,” she chirped, buzzing me in.
When I came out of the lift, Lydia was waiting with the door open.  Her hair was tied in a loose knot and she was wearing cream sweat pants, a long cream cardigan and slouchy beige boots.  She looked stunning.  Only Lydia could do couch-potato chic that well. 
“Green tea or cappuccino?” she asked, leading me through into the pristine purple and shiny steel kitchen.  I pulled out a stool at the granite work surface.  “I’d love a cappuccino, please.”
I heaved myself onto the seat, and twisted it round to look through the large balcony windows.  Across the river, the lights of Canary Wharf twinkled against the backdrop of early evening sky.  
“Cookie?”  Lydia asked, emptying a packet from the bakery up the street and taking a chocolate chip one herself.  Where does she put it? 
“I’m supposed to be on a diet, but why not?”  I shrugged and helped myself to one with plenty of chunks.
Lydia fixed our drinks, and pulled out a stool next to me.  I took a good look at her, studying her expression.  Nothing seemed out of place. 
“Lydia,” I said in a low voice.  “On Saturday night, before you fainted, did anything weird happen to you?” 
“Weird.  Like what?” 
“Well, did you have…sort of… an out of body experience?”
Her eyebrows shot up, and she started to laugh.  “It was amazing that my Phil proposed,” she said, giggling, “but I wouldn’t call it an out of body experience.” 
“So, apart from fainting,” I carried on, “nothing strange happened… at all?” 
“Gracie, what are you going on about?” The smile faded from her lips, and the next words came out snippy.  “Saturday night was fab.  I had a little too much wine, a little too much excitement, and I fainted.  It happens.  I wish everyone would just stop going on about it.”
“Okay, I’m sorry.”  I sagged.  “I won’t mention it anymore.”
Lydia took a sip of her drink, and her face brightened again. 
“Did I tell you my Phil is taking me to Brighton at the weekend?  I’ve got a day off tomorrow so I’m going clothes shopping for it.  I can’t wait.  I’ve got my eye on a new handbag...” 
As she spoke, I sat quietly sipping my cappuccino, occasionally wiping froth from my upper lip.  I was only half-listening though, my mind was elsewhere searching for other options.  Should I come clean and tell her I was in her body the other night?  No, absolutely not.  I could hardly bear to imagine the conversation in my head, let alone say it out loud.  My stomach muscles tightened as I thought how it would go.  Something like, ‘Hey Lydia, you know when you passed out on Saturday night?  Well the reason for that was because it was me controlling your body, and I fainted from the shock of it all.  Don’t worry though, I managed to switch back again, so no harm done.”  It was just too ridiculous for words. 
As she carried on, unaware I wasn’t really listening, an idea struck me.  If I could make it happen again, I would know for sure if I was right, whether it definitely had happened.  The more I thought about it, the more I knew I had to try.  But how did it work?  I closed my eyes for a moment and tried to visualise myself crossing into Lydia’s body.
Lydia raised her voice and cut through my thoughts, “Gracie, are you listening to me?”
“What?  Oh yes.  Sorry, Lyd, carry on.”
I kept my eyes open this time, as I imagined my inner self transferring to her body.  I held my breath and tensed every muscle in my body.  Nothing happened, so I drew in a deep breath, and tried again. 
Several attempts later, it was obvious it wasn’t working.  I kept my eyes focussed on Lydia and drained the last of my cappuccino.  I had to work out how it happened before.  I thought back to Saturday night, to the exact moment I switched, and then later, to the switch-back.  My heart beat faster as something clicked in my mind.
“I just remembered, I have to go,” I announced, interrupting her mid-sentence. 
She stopped talking and stuck her bottom lip out in exaggerated disappointment.
“Sorry Lyd, it’s a feature for work and I've got to hand it in by tomorrow morning.”  I hopped off my stool.  “Thanks for the coffee.” 
“Oh, fine then.  Will I see you soon?” 
“Of course.  Sorry for rushing out on you.” 
I’d remembered exactly what happened on Saturday night and I had to act before I lost my nerve.  I leaned into Lydia, and hugged her tight.  I closed my eyes and wished with all my heart that I could switch into her body.
            A few strange moments passed, and I had to hold onto the work-surface to steady myself.  Then, hardly daring to open my eyes, I found myself in the familiar position of looking at my own face.

Second Switch

           Yes!  Switching is real.  I was relieved the world had gone crazy, and not me.  I paused to consider how I’d weathered.  My legs felt a bit wobbly and I was breathless, like I’d just come off a rollercoaster or something, but apart from that, I was okay.  I wondered if it was because I’d been expecting it that time.

‘Gracie’ returned my gaze with one eyebrow raised. 
I knew what she was waiting for, and I really wanted to give her confirmation, but I was scared to say the words out loud.  Last time Lydia hadn’t remembered me being inside her head, only the actions.  I wished I’d thought of a signal beforehand to confirm the swap had happened.  There was nothing I could do, even if I got the message across without Lydia realising, I didn’t know if she would think rationally, or start jumping around the room like a mad woman.  That, Lydia would remember.
‘Gracie’ heaved a sigh, and a resigned expression settled on her face.  I couldn’t take my eyes off her.  It was all so weird.  Usually, when I looked at myself, my reflection imitated my movements precisely.  But this version was independent.  She looked different from my usual reflection as well.  I noticed the little scar on my cheekbone was the other side to where I usually saw it, and one of my eyes looked fractionally higher than the other.  But this was my true self, how my friends and family saw me as opposed to the mirror image I was used to seeing.
“Better crack on with this report then,” she said in a flat tone, making her way towards the door. 
I hesitated, wondering whether I should take the opportunity to hug her again and switch back, but I quickly decided the main crime was switching in the first place, not the length of time I stayed.  I had to try and find out something, anything, to make sense of the whole body-hopping drama. 
I focussed on my next move and became aware of ringing in my ears again.  It sounded like disjointed whispering rushing around against a background of white noise.  I put a hand up to press against my ear, and screwing my eyes tight, I tried to make it go away.  It was only when I opened my eyes that the volume decreased. 
‘Gracie’ was watching me and she narrowed her eyes, trying to read my expression.  She looked like she was about to say something.  I flashed a smile, hoping to disarm her and swiftly leant across, opening the door to let her out.      
When I was on my own in Lydia’s apartment, the euphoria faded.  I knew I’d violated Lydia by switching into her body and it made me feel anxious.  I tried to shrug off the bad feeling as I wandered into her living room and plonked myself down on the leather sofa.  I pressed my fingertips together in a prayer like pose, and came to the conclusion I would give myself one hour to fathom out what was going on, and if I was none the wiser after that, I would go home and switch back regardless.
The leather felt cold beneath me.  I leant behind and pulled the fake zebra-skin throw off the back of the couch and tucked it around me.  It smelt of Lydia’s vanilla perfume. 
For the next hour or so, I sat absent-mindedly picking nail varnish off Lydia’s perfectly manicured nails, while my thoughts went round in circles.  I had established I wasn’t going mad, and I had worked out how to switch into other people’s bodies, but what I couldn’t understand was whyWhat was the point of it all?  I wondered if it was completely random, some kind of weird phenomenon that I would never truly understand. 
I toyed with the idea of telling someone.  But what then?  They’d want me to prove it, and I didn’t know if that was even possible.  And if I was able to prove it, would I be carted away to some secret Government location and subjected to all kinds of invasive tests? 
The whole time I was thinking, I had to compete with the funny sounds in my ears.  I remembered Kerry’s granddad used to complain about something similar.  He called it tinnitus.  It was strange Lydia never mentioned she suffered from it as well.  Well, she had my sympathy, it was exhausting.

Lydia’s silver tabby, Chloe, extended her claws through the throw and buried them into my thigh.
Disorientated, my eyes shot open and I was surprised to see daylight streaming in through the horizontal blinds.  The fog cleared from my mind and I remembered why I was on Lydia’s sofa.  My heart raced. 
I picked Chloe up and placed her against my chest, stroking her fluffy body while she rattled and purred.  It had a calming effect on me.
“God, Chloe, I’ve been asleep for hours.  I hope your daddy’s not due home any time soon.”
Chloe stopped purring, stuck her back leg out, and began washing herself.  I knew I couldn’t just lie there, so after a few moments I picked her up and plopped her on the floor.  She looked up at me in disgust.
“I’m sorry, puss.  I need to go home and switch back.”  Saying the words out loud highlighted how absurd the whole thing was.
Chloe chose to ignore me, and sprung back onto my lap.  I slumped back, stroking her head.  “You’re right, you know.  If I switch back now, I’ll have achieved nothing.”
I tried to come up with a plan.  The tinnitus made it difficult to concentrate, but I remembered Lydia’s car was in the garage, so I decided my best bet would be to go into town as Lydia had intended, and collect it.  It was the least I could do for her.  I would use the time in-between to try and pick up any clues and work out what was going on.  If I didn’t discover anything by the time I switched back, at least I’d know I gave it my best shot, and made up for sleeping on the job. 
I had a small battle with my conscience as I hunted in Lydia’s handbag for the diary she kept in there.  Her life was highly organised, and I knew that diary was the centre of her universe.  Rummaging amongst the expensive make-up and perfume, I found the black leather-bound book I was looking for.  I slipped it out of the bag and flicked through it.  I found the garage details scribbled down under the date.  She had added, ‘pick up after five-thirty.’   
Next, I wandered through to her en-suite to freshen up.  I decided against showering, it just didn’t seem right.  Instead, I washed my face, cleaned my teeth and prayed that deodorant and perfume would suffice.  In her wardrobe, on the left hand-side, was an outfit already pulled together.  I took it off the hanger and climbed into the floaty top and linen trousers.  I pulled on one of her jackets and finished it off with the scarf she’d looped round the same hanger.  Looking at the finished ensemble in the mirror, it was perfect.  Perfect on Lydia’s body, anyway.
I grabbed her bag off the work-surface and after double-checking her car keys were in there, I walked out the door.

I sat on the bus heading into town and felt paranoid that everyone knew what I was up to.  I could feel myself starting to sweat and tried to slow my breathing down to make me relax.  I had to keep reminding myself there was no need to feel self-conscious.  Nobody knew this wasn’t my body, so to them I looked completely normal.  All I had to do was act it.  I folded my hands on my lap and looked out the window, breathing in through my nose for a count of four and then out through my mouth. 
I didn’t know if I was imagining it, but I couldn’t shake the feeling of being watched.  After a couple of minutes the feeling of eyes burning into the back of me became so intense, I couldn’t bear it any longer and glimpsed over my shoulder.  I had been right.  Sitting two rows behind was a plump woman with an orange glow above her head.  I assumed it must be coming from the skylight.  My eyes connected with hers and she gave me a discreet smile and nod, before looking away.  I smiled back, too late for her to see, and faced forward again.  See Gracie, nobody knows, so stop panicking.
The bus pulled in at the station and I hopped out of my seat and followed a line of passengers down the stairs.  As I stepped off the platform the smell of diesel hit me, causing a wave of queasiness.  When I thought about it, I realised it might not just be the fumes making me feel ill.  Lydia hadn’t had anything to eat since that cookie the night before.
I managed to dodge a motorbike on the zebra crossing as I headed towards a small cafe across the road.  A man on his way out stopped in his tracks, beamed, and held the door for me to enter. 
“There you go, babe,” he said, his eyes twinkling.
“Oh, thank you.”
He looked me up and down.  “The pleasure is all mine.”
Inside, it was warm and cosy and the smell of freshly roasted coffee was a pleasant contrast to the diesel fumes.  I walked past the little wooden tables and chairs towards the counter. 
There was a young lad serving.  He was tall and wiry with pale blonde hair and fresh acne scars.  He looked up and did a double-take.  He knows.  His cheeks went red and he stuttered as he asked for my order.  I felt my own cheeks go red and wondered if I should make a sharp exit, but instead heard myself order a tuna-melt Panini and a skinny latte.
He turned to the unit behind him and as I watched him place a glass under the coffee machine, I tried hard to slow my breathing down.  I had to keep reminding myself there was no way anyone could know I was in someone else’s body.   
He walked back, scooped up a Panini from the display and placed it on the toaster.  His eyes flicked in my direction and he gave me a shy smile, before turning back to fiddle with the coffee machine.  As it whirred and spluttered to life, the real reason for his reaction clicked into place and I felt relief wash over me. 
I’d seen the same reaction happen on numerous occasions before but never to me personally, and that was what had thrown me.  It had nothing to do with me and everything to do with the way Lydia looked.  My breathing went back to normal and when toaster guy looked my way again, I smiled back to try and put him at ease.
I batted away guilty feelings as I peeled a ten pound note from Lydia’s purse, making a mental note to somehow pay her back without her knowing. 
There was a table free next to the window, so I walked across and put my latte down.  I unfolded my napkin and placed it over the sticky patch left behind from someone’s cake, before sitting down and biting into the warm tuna and melted cheese.
As I chewed I peered around at the other customers.  There was an old couple sitting nearby, sharing a pot of tea and a cheese baguette.  Neither of them seemed interested in me.  They were more interested in the woman sitting opposite, trying to encourage a fidgeting toddler to eat his sandwich.
My attention was drawn to a young couple sitting in the far corner who appeared to be in the middle of a domestic.  The girl was narrowing her eyes and shaking her head, but it was the guy I couldn’t take my eyes off.  He was the spitting image of my ex, Mike.  He had the same surfer dude style going on, all tanned skin and scruffy blonde hair. 
I watched Mike’s double trying to placate the girl opposite him, and my heart sank as a memory of mine and Mike’s last night together popped into my head.
  It was a few months earlier and I’d thought we were ticking along okay up until then.  We’d shared a takeaway pizza and some wine, had a play fight which ended with us falling into bed as usual, fumbling to get each other’s clothes off.  Our lovemaking had been clumsy and fast, but I didn’t mind.  I was happy if Mike was happy.  I’d drifted off to sleep contentedly wrapped in his arms, but as daylight dawned I was aware of being watched.  I gingerly opened one eye to be faced with Mike, leaning on his elbows, staring at me.  His blonde hair was all messed up and his fringe was flopping into his eyes. 
“Gracie babe, I think it’s time for a break,” he’d said, matter-of-factly. 
In my half-asleep confusion, I honestly thought he was talking about a holiday, or maybe a weekend mini-break in a nice hotel somewhere.  A lazy smile had started to form on my lips, but froze in its place after the next killer line. 
“I think if we end this now, we’ll have great memories between us, but any longer and we’ll just end up hating each other.” 
“Wh-what?”  I’d whimpered pathetically, my mind catching up with his wild statement, “I couldn’t hate you, I-I could never hate you, I thought we were happy?” I felt my chin start to wobble.  “Did I do something wrong?” 
I sat up and raked my fingers through my hair, pulling it over my ears.  Why is he telling me this now?  How could I put over a good case for him to stay with last night’s make up smudged down my face, and morning breath? 
He rolled over, got off the bed, and turned to look at me with pity in his eyes.
“Gracie, it’s over.  I’m sorry.” 
I watched him pull on his white boxers, the Calvin Kleins I’d bought him for his birthday in July, and felt my emotions start to run away with me.  It all got a bit messy after that.  To my great shame I remember crying and begging him not to leave, but he had been firm.  “Don’t do this babe, don’t embarrass yourself.  You deserve someone better than me.” 
He was right of course, but I couldn’t see it then.  I even struggled to see it when I found out he’d been sleeping with my younger sister Michelle, while we’d still been together.  The final nail in the coffin was when Michelle moved out of Mum’s, and into Mike’s bedsit.  
I’d tried to put on a brave face and tell myself they weren’t worth my tears, but I was a fool to think I could control my emotions.  If I didn’t keep my brain occupied at all times, the raw feelings would come from nowhere and overwhelm me.  No matter how bad it was having my heart broken by Mike, the betrayal I felt by my little sister had knocked me sideways. 
As children we’d endured more than most, and the result had been a bond so strong, I thought nothing could break it.  How wrong could you be? 
My confidence was in tatters and, bit by bit, I’d withdrawn into my shell, turning down Kerry’s relentless offers of nights out and the odd blind date.
After things settled down a bit, Michelle began turning up at Mum’s when I was there.  It was far too often to be a coincidence.  As soon as I saw her walk up the drive, my heart would sink and I would begin planning excuses to make a sharp exit.  For Mum’s sake I tried to keep things civil, and even managed some polite conversation, but the words were forced and awkward, with Mum jumping in every other word, trying to jolly us along.  It was pitiful. 
I sighed and picked up my latte.  I had to stop torturing myself by raking over the details.  It didn’t matter how many times I thought it through and tried to make excuses for Michelle, nothing could change the fact that she slept with my boyfriend behind my back.   
I closed my eyes to concentrate my thoughts, and jumped when the tinnitus started up again.  Louder this time, noises rushed furiously inside my head.  In the background there was another less distinctive sound.  It was the same whispering sounds as before, but I couldn’t pick out actual words.  My head started to thump, so I opened my eyes and felt relief as the volume dipped sharply. 
    My stomach wouldn’t stop churning, and I only managed a couple more bites of the Panini.  I dropped it back on the plate, and finished off the latte instead.  Then I stacked the glass on my plate, and looked round to say thanks to the guy who had served me.  He’d been staring and his cheeks flushed with colour.
Back on the street I felt a trickle of sweat run down my spine.  It was guilt.  Using Lydia made me feel dirty and I longed to switch back into my own body and forget the whole thing.  I don’t know what I’d expected to discover parading around as Lydia, but I was no closer to finding anything out than when I’d been in my own body.   
Amongst the crowds of people walking along, I spotted a man with an orange glow above him.  It reminded me of the woman on the bus earlier, but clearly there were no skylights around this time.  As he drew closer I saw the orange glow was actually a mixture of colours; different hues of red, yellow and gold, pulsing and swirling together to form the orange light. 
The man stopped walking and stared directly at me.  I gave him a half-smile as I tried to fathom out what was causing the strange effect above him.  He didn’t smile back.  In fact, his face fell into a frown and he jabbed his finger towards his wrist.  I checked behind to see if he was signalling to someone else, but there was no one obvious.  I looked back at him, shrugged apologetically and carried on walking. 
After a couple of hours spent aimlessly wandering, I checked my watch and felt relieved it was time to head to the garage.
I didn’t know the area very well, but I had a rough idea where all the big garages were.  I headed away from the hustle and bustle of the main street, towards a side-road that I thought would lead me to the street I needed. 
I began walking up a gentle slope, towards some shabby-looking industrial units at the top.  After a few steps, as usual, I doubted my sense of direction and turned to look behind me.  I squinted towards the sign and caught my breath.  Standing at the bottom of the hill was the man with the orange glow.  He was watching me, and he looked furious. 
I turned round, fixed my eyes forward and quickened my pace.  Beads of sweat formed on my brow and upper lip as I panted, walking as fast as I could without actually running.  I was sure if I did break into a run, he would too.  All the while I listened for his footsteps behind me.  
After a few metres, I checked over my shoulder to see if he was following.  Relief washed over me when I saw he hadn’t moved.  He had his hand up to his ear like he was talking to someone on the phone.  I was too far away to hear any conversation, but I could see he was still watching me.
As I drew level with the first warehouse, I could just make out a garage on the corner up ahead.  It wasn’t the BMW one I needed, but I knew they were all clustered together, so at least I was in the right location. 
I tried to shake off the panic.  Obviously being Lydia wasn’t all it was cracked up to be.  I usually wandered along anonymously, blending into the crowd, but she managed to bring out strong feelings in people. 
I jumped as without warning a car screeched to a standstill beside me.  Before I was fully aware of what was happening, someone had jumped out, forced something over my head and bundled me inside.  I felt the vehicle speeding away before the person who grabbed me even shut the door.  Strong hands pushed my head down into the seat.  I was too shocked to make a noise.


The material over my head was rough and scratched at my face.  It was hard to breathe with my face pressed down and all I could manage were fast, shaky gasps.  His hands squashed me into the seat for what seemed an eternity, although in reality it was probably just minutes.  I submitted completely.      
“Just up here on the left will do.”  The voice next to me was deep and smooth. 
“You sure?  Shouldn’t we go straight to the office?” came another voice.  I assumed this was the driver. 
“There’s no time, we have to do this now.” 
My breathing became erratic and my heartbeat increased until I was sure it would burst out of my chest.  I wondered if I was going to be raped, murdered even?  This was Lydia’s body, not mine and I had no right to be in it.  I was going to be responsible for whatever happened.  I wondered if it would result in both of us losing our lives, two for the price of one.
I felt the car slowing down as we turned off the road.  There was the crunch of tyres on gravel and the car eased to a stop. 
The pressure released as the man removed his hand from my head.  I stayed where I was, curled into the foetal position, silently praying. 
Daylight cut through the darkness as the sack was ripped from my head.  I automatically put my hands up to cover my eyes. 
“Please don’t hurt me,” I whimpered.  My throat was so tight I could barely speak. 
“Who are you?”  The smooth voice held a menacing tone. 
I was too scared to answer him.  After a few moments of silence, he grabbed my shoulders and forced me to sit up.  I opened one eye and his face came into view. 
I blinked a couple of times trying to reconcile the image in front of me, which was a complete contrast to the one I’d been expecting.  I’d imagined an older guy with a shaved head and covered in tattoos.  The one in front of me looked around his mid-twenties.  He had dark hair, deep brown eyes, and I noticed he was also sporting a glow above his head.  This one was yellow.
Hardly daring to breathe, I turned my head away from him, staring straight ahead.  He leant closer, positioning himself so his face was only inches from mine.  When he spoke I could feel his breath warm against my cheek.
“Tell. Me. Your. Name.”  The way he said the words sent an involuntary shiver down my spine.  Panic and confusion flooded my mind, and I tried to think rationally.  If I told him the truth, he wouldn’t believe me anyway.
I dared to look back at him and saw his jaw muscle flexing.  I was terrified of making him more agitated. 
“Lydia,” I heard myself answer. 
“Lydia.  And that’s your primary name?” 
“My, my what?” 
“Don’t mess me about,” he practically spat the words out, “were you born Lydia?” 
My hands were shaking so violently I had to sit on them to try and make it stop.  
“N-No, Gracie.  Gracie Reynolds.”
“Reynolds?”  He looked thoughtful for a moment, and I saw him form the word again silently.  I noticed the driver shaking his head in the front.
“Okay, have you ever had a different surname?”
“Um, yes, it was N-Nicholls.” 
The driver turned his head towards us.  “Haven’t heard that one either.”
My interrogator frowned and carried on.  “So Lydia is the body you’re switched into at the moment?” 
Whoa!  He knew about the body-switching thing? 
I swallowed hard.  “Yes.”   
“And how long have you been switched?”
I couldn’t think clearly.  “I-I’m not sure.” 
“It’s important.  I need to know how long.”
Terrified tears started to build behind my eyelashes.  “I-I don’t know exactly.  Since about six o’clock last night.” 
“Damn.”  He squeezed his hand into a ball.  “Where’s your primary body now?” 
Too scared to ask, I guessed he meant my own body.  I looked at my watch, and forced my voice to stay level.  “At home, I-I think.” 
“And where is home?”   
I paused, not sure whether to lie, and decided I had nothing to lose by this point. 
“Harold Road, Crystal Palace.”
The driver turned and nodded to the guy next to me.  “Straight there, Dan?”
So that was my kidnapper’s name.
“Yeah, fast as you can mate.”
As we drove, Dan ceased his interrogation.  He shifted away from me and I felt my anxiety recede a little.  I shot a sideways looks at him.  His features were pulled tight as he checked his watch, obviously deep in thought. 
I replayed the previous couple of minutes in my head, and was amazed that so far I had come out unscathed.  He’d been so wound up, but he hadn’t hurt me.  Surely if his intention had been to cause harm, he would have done it while he was angry with me. 
Bit by bit, cautious relief flowed through me and I began to think more rationally.  He obviously knew stuff about this whole body-hopping thing, and I desperately needed answers. 
I took a deep breath, it was now or never.  “Um, h-how did you know I wasn’t in my own body?”
He turned to look at me and flicked his eyes above my head.  “Your aura.”
I watched him and it hit me how handsome he was.  Not in an obvious pretty boy way.  It was more to do with the arrangement of his features; the definition of his cheekbones which gave him a look of determination, the pout of his lips and the way his dark eyebrows gently slanted up at the outside edge.  I was disarmed and looked away to try and pull myself together.
I sat reflecting on his answer and when I turned back I had another look at the yellow glow above his head.  That was an aura?  My mind raced to catch up.  I thought of the man and woman I’d seen earlier with orange glows.
“So, are there other people who can switch bodies?” I asked, feeling braver.
“Yes, loads.”  He sounded irritated again.  “Why are you asking?  You know this.” 
From nowhere, I felt anger flood my system.  He had snatched me off the street, scared me to within an inch of my life and then interrogated me.  I was at least allowed to ask why.   
“I don’t know anything.” I snapped, and it all came spilling out.  “None of this is making any sense.  I switched bodies for the first time on Saturday.  I didn’t know what was happening and it’s completely freaked me out.  I thought I was the only one who could do it and I’ve been trying to find out why it’s happening to me, anything to make sense of it all.  Then you guys just… grab me off the street and kidnap me.  So no, I don’t already know.”    
Dan had turned to face me full on.  He was wearing a puzzled expression, and his eyes were searching mine to see if I was telling the truth.  I felt my chin wobble as I tried to hold back the tears. 
I turned my head to look out of the tinted window, trying to focus on car headlights speeding along in the opposite direction.  I used the back of my hand to bat away the tears as they started rolling down my cheeks.
After a few moments, I became aware of him gently touching my arm.  It made me uneasy, and I twisted to face him.  He looked different now, softer, and his eyes were full of concern. 
“Gracie, are you telling me you honestly don’t know you’re an SP?” 
I wrinkled my nose.  “A what?”
“An SP, a Soul Protector.”
I gave him a blank look and he moved his hand away. 
“Jesus, you really don’t know, do you?”
I shook my head.
He took a deep breath.  “Listen, I’m sorry.  We wouldn’t have grabbed you off the street like that if we’d known.”  He ran his fingers through his dark hair.  “We thought you were corrupt.  If you knew what you were… a Soul Protector, you’d have been half expecting it.”
 Dan looked from me to the driver.  “You ever heard of this happening before, Steve?” 
The driver, Steve, nodded.  “Yeah, someone was talking about random cases just the other day.”
Dan took a deep breath and shook his head, “I’ve never met anyone who didn’t know.” 
 “Well I didn’t.  Sorry.”  There was more than a hint of sarcasm to my voice.
We sat not talking for a couple of miles, deep in thought.  The only sound was the drone of the car engine.
After a while, Dan shifted in his seat and took a deep breath. 
“Gracie, there are things you should know.  Being a Soul Protector... well it changes everything… who you are, what you do, what you can do.”
I nodded.  “So tell me about it.  Please, I need to know.” 
He cleared his throat.  “This is going to sound far-fetched, but I guess from what’s been happening, you’re not going to have any trouble believing me.”
He got that right.
“Okay, in basic terms, being a Soul Protector means you have the ability to enter another person’s being.” 
He stopped for a second to check my reaction.  I nodded furiously, desperate for him to continue. 
“Your mind splits in two, and your conscious thoughts become prominent in the other person’s body.  It’s important to remember, you never really leave your primary body, that’s what we call your own body.”
I must have looked confused, because he tried to simplify it.
“It’s a bit like watching one movie live and recording another. Part of your mind transfers to another body, while your primary body carries on as normal, but you won’t know what thoughts and feelings your primary body’s been having until you switch back.” 
I chewed my lip as I nodded. 
“While your mind is in another person’s body, if you focus, you’ll be able to pick up that person’s thoughts and feelings, and you have the power to influence the way they think.” 
The intermittent bouts of tinnitus, they were Lydia’s thoughts...  
  “But you must only enter another body for the greater good,” he carried on.  “Only vulnerable people need our help.”
“Like who?”
Dan slouched back in the car seat.  “Well, it’s hard to define, it could be someone struggling through a rough patch, someone suffering from depression, or maybe coming to terms with bereavement.  It could even be a victim of crime, or an addict of some sort.   Then it’s okay, well it’s our duty really, to switch into them and help them heal.
“But how are we supposed to do that?”
“Each case is different, but you need to try and influence them to a more positive mindset, or help them make better choices.  It’s not an exact science, but we’ve got a high success rate.”
I sat and digested what he told me.  It felt good to finally get some answers, but I felt uneasy knowing I’d crossed a line, switching into Lydia when she was the last person who would ever need help.    
“When you leave a body, do they know someone else has been interfering with their mind?” I held my breath as I waited for his answer.
“No, they won’t remember you’ve been there.” 
I sagged with relief. 
“And we need to keep it that way,” he carried on, “can you imagine how people would react if they knew about us?  We’d be ostracised, or locked up or something.  You must never tell anyone what you are.”
That was going to be hard. 
“I can’t believe no one has ever found out?”
“Well, people who have been visited usually have a feeling that something has happened, but they can’t quite put their finger on it.  They might wonder why they were inspired to go to a certain place, or why they impulsively changed a major decision, leading to positive events.  That’s when you’ll hear the phrase, ‘it must have been fate’, or ‘an angel was watching over me.’  Mostly that’s us interfering, in a good way of course.”  He smiled as he said this, and I was surprised by the effect it had on me, causing my cheeks to flush.
“Basically, when we leave their body, they usually feel like they’ve been daydreaming, but hopefully they’ll be feeling more upbeat and positive than before.  We’re like band-aid for broken spirits.” 
“So Soul Protectors are good people?” I was starting to get a good feeling about it all. 
His smile faded.  “No.  Not all good.  Like any organisation, there are tainted characters.  We have plenty of corrupt Soul Protectors.  That’s what we thought you were.  Steve and I are monitors and it’s our job to make sure people are switching for the right reasons and not abusing their gift.” 
“We’re like Military Police,” Steve interjected from the front. 
Dan carried on.  “You’ll recognise monitors because we have yellow auras instead of the usual orange.  Monitors can switch for longer than regular Soul Protectors. 
“Oh.  Why do you switch though, I mean, if you’re not helping vulnerable people?”
Because it’s only when you’re switched you can see another Soul Protector’s aura.  I only switch with other monitors, and it’s with their express consent.  I would never joyride,” he said, grinning. 
I wasn’t sure if he was mocking me, so I chose to rise above the comment.
“Are you arresting me?”   
He shook his head, “No, we don’t arrest people.  We just make sure they do the right thing.  In your case, we need to get you switched back as soon as possible.”
“Of course,” I said, relieved.  “Is there anything else I need to know?”
He nodded and his smile dropped again.
“The colour of another Soul Protector’s aura is important.  If it’s orange, then you know that person is a Soul Protector who’s switched for less than eight hours, which is fine.  If the aura starts to go dark orange like yours, it means they’ve been switched for too long.  It’s not ethical or safe to inhabit another body for a long period.” 
My cheeks started to burn.  I didn’t think it was possible to feel any more ashamed of myself. 
“The longer you stay in another body, the more dangerous it is to switch back into your primary body,” he carried on.
“Why, what happens?”  I could feel my pulse start to speed up again.
“When you switch into someone else, your mind stretches, because essentially it has to split in two.  Then, when you switch back to your primary body, you’ll feel the effects.  You’ll be exhausted, and feel like you’ve got a hangover.  If you do it for too long, the hangover becomes more acute.  Your whole body can go into shock, and depending how long you’ve been switched, it can be really...” he paused, searching for the right word, “serious.”
I felt the blood drain out of my face.  What had I done? 
“What about Lydia?”
“She’ll be fine.  It’s you we need to worry about.”
“Oh thank God.”  She didn’t deserve to suffer.  I was the one who’d been reckless.
“When you switch back, the effects will come on almost instantly,” Dan continued, “try not to worry too much, I’ll stay with you and do everything I can to help.”
He put his hand on my shoulder and fixed me with a look.  It was a mixture of pity and determination.  “We have to do this by ourselves though, Gracie.  You can’t see a doctor. They’ll have no idea what they’re dealing with, and anyway, conventional medicine can’t help you.” 
“But Lydia will be there, if it’s that bad, she might call a doctor.”
“Once you’ve switched back, you have to get rid of her immediately. We can’t risk her calling an ambulance.”

An ambulance. The butterflies in my belly whipped up to a frenzy as my mind scrambled for reassurance.
 “Erm, if someone decided to stay permanently switched. What would happen then?”
“Well, apart from it being completely immoral, you’d eventually get a dark red aura, which would alert other Soul Protectors that you’d taken over someone else’s body. They would inform the monitors, because we know once you’ve gone to the red stage you’ve got no intention of returning to your primary body.”
 “But you said you can switch for longer. How do you do it without your body going into shock?”
“It is possible to teach your mind and body to cope for longer. You know you’re safe when your aura goes yellow instead of dark orange. But even monitors can’t go to the red stage.”
“So would it be possible to teach me to cope for longer?” I asked, biting my lip.
As Dan looked at me, I saw only pity left in his eyes.
“No, not without intensive training, it takes months for your body to adjust.”
“Oh, right.”  I managed to sound calm but inside I was in turmoil.
We spent the next couple of minutes in the car deciding on how to get rid of Lydia as fast as possible after the switch-back. Dan said there would be no time for lengthy explanations. I would just have to be blatantly rude and tell her I didn’t have time to see her. He was going to sneak into my flat through the fire exit at the back, so he would be ready to help me the minute my body went into shock.
For the last part of the journey, Dan coached me how to erase the kidnap from Lydia’s mind. I had to go back to the memory immediately before I was bundled into the car. I thought back to the man with the orange aura, glaring at me while on his phone. Dan said I should bring this image to the forefront as vividly as possible. Then, I had to think of the kidnap in a light-hearted way, not easy when you’ve been scared to within an inch of your life, and convince Lydia’s mind it was all in her imagination, an image she conjured to pass the time of day. I did as I was told, but was sceptical about it working.

The Recovery
As we pulled up outside my flat, Dan grabbed his backpack and we climbed out of the car.
“Good luck, Gracie,” Steve said, putting the car into gear. The look he gave me was far from confident and as I watched him pull away, I felt a fresh sense of doom.
Dan came and stood next to me, putting his hands on my shoulders. I had to crane my neck to meet his eyes. He was a good six foot one I’d guess.
“Gracie, I’m going to get you through this. Can you trust me?”
I gulped, and nodded firmly. I had to trust him. I was in way over my head.
After giving him some inside information about breaking into my flat, he gave me a parting wink and shot off round the back of the building.
I took some deep breaths, walked up to the intercom and buzzed my flat.
“Hel-lo,” there was my voice again, but the other Gracie was using it.
Good, she was home. I blew out a shaky breath.
“Hi, Gracie, it’s me, erm, Lydia. Can you let me in?”
I heard a click as the door unlocked. I opened it and practically ran up the familiar stairwell, stopping outside flat 3. I knocked on the door, and ‘Gracie’ opened it. It was so surreal. Without giving her a chance to talk, I reached forward and embraced her, remembering to wish I could switch back.
After the familiar giddy sensation, I was back in my own body and immediately could tell I was in trouble. I opened my eyes to be faced with Lydia who was staring into space. I felt shaky and weak, ready to collapse, but I had to act fast to get rid of her. I gripped hold of the door handle hard, aware I was losing the feeling in my legs.
“Lydia, I’m sorry I’m really busy right now,” I blurted out. “I can’t talk, but I’ll catch up with you tomorrow.”
I felt myself spiralling out of control, and had to slam the door in her face. I knew she’d be livid, but I had no choice. As soon as it closed, I crashed to the floor. I had a blinding headache and felt unbearably hot. Sweat was pouring off me. I was vaguely aware of Dan appearing at my side, [CHAPTER 5 CONTINUES...]