Her heart nearly stopped.
She swung her head around and expected the room to be empty, that the image she saw was imagined, a play of light and dark, a figment of her imagination, but she was wrong. A tall woman in a nurse’s uniform stood in the doorway, garbed in an outfit straight out of the fifties or early sixties: crisp, pointed cap; white dress; pale nylon stockings; heavy-duty shoes; and tiny red cross earrings. In her hands, she carried an old-fashioned clipboard and a medical chart, and she ignored the computer monitor mounted near the bed. The thin scent of smoke followed her into the room.
It was all weird as hell.
“You work here?” Cassie asked, not completely sure she wasn’t dreaming. What was this? The nurse was almost ghostlike in appearance, her skin pale and sallow, her eyes buried so deep in her skull their color was in question.
Staring down at Cassie, she didn’t try to take her vital signs or offer medication or anything.
“Who are you?” Cassie asked, and her fingers moved on the bed rail to the nurse’s call button as she searched the snowy uniform for some kind of name tag. None was visible in the half-light.
“Your sister is alive.”
“Your sister..” The woman’s voice was flat, her face with its deep-set, haunted eyes expressionless. “She’s not dead.”
“How do you know?” God, this had to be a dream. Allie had been missing since the time she hadn’t shown up for the final shot of Dead Heat. “Have you talked to her? Seen her?”
Cassie asked, “Where is she?” And when that didn’t garner a response, added, “Of course she’s alive.” Allie had to be okay. She just had to. No way would Cassie let the doubts creep in, the doubts that had been shouted across the tabloids, screamed in all those horrid blogs, discussed on fan-based chat and message boards, regurgitated over and over again in celebrity news media that Allie Kramer, one of Hollywood’s brightest stars, was missing and feared dead. Speculation ran rampant that she’d been kidnapped or committed suicide or been murdered, or come to some deadly fate, but it was all just gossip. No one knew where Allie Kramer was, least of all Cassie, and she felt miserable about it. Allie who had been such a sweet, sensitive child until the monster had come. Long ago, in one of the coldest winters on record, their world had been shattered and Allie had never recovered. Nor, she supposed, had she. Now her insides shivered and she twisted the blanket in her fingers.
Cassie’s mind wandered a bit. She’s alive, she thought, before suddenly coming back to where she was. The nurse, if she had ever really been standing near Cassie’s bedside, had left, slipping quietly away on her crepe-soled shoes.
Cassie’s skin crawled.
That terrible little voice that taunted her at night started nagging again.
The nurse was all in your mind, Cass. You know it. No one dresses like that anymore except in the old movies you’re addicted to. Nurse Ratched—that’s who she was. “Big Nurse” in Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Right. All just your imagination running wild again. It’s not the first time you’ve seen someone who wasn’t there, now, is it? Or had a blackout? It’s not as if you haven’t “lost time” or seen someone no one else has. Ever since you were kidnapped, nearly murdered, you haven’t been completely able to sort fact from fantasy or even know what you may have done.... Remember the sleepwalking incidents? Of course not. But they happened. The hospital has the security footage to prove it. You’re losing it, Cassie . . . all over again, and God only knows what you’re capable of when you’re “out.”
“Stop it!” Cassie hissed, then glanced wildly to the door. On the other side the nurses convened at a wide desk and they might hear her talking to herself again, or worse yet, to whomever or whatever was just here.
You idiot, no one was here. No ghost. No apparition. No nurse, for God’s sake. Pull yourself together.
She struggled, her brain at war with her senses. But she knew this time was different from the others, the hallucinations that had landed her here in this mental ward. Didn’t she still smell the odors of cigarette smoke and perfume?