Art by Ling Xu
Writing by Sophie Nadel
The first time I see her it is only for a few seconds. It is another silent dinner with the same people it has been for months, on the same cracked plates, same cloudy silverware. I drop my fork on the plate, clatter ringing through the empty air. No one reacts, glassy-eyes bent over plates of Chinese takeout stinking of disinfectant wipes. After wiping down the take-out container, we moved the food into ceramic plates and threw the wooden chopsticks and plastic forks in the trash, but the hospital taste clings to my tongue. We have all eaten the Clorox—it is mixed with the sauce and stir-fried with noodles. Particles of it are in our systems, marking the days on our intestines.
I excuse myself for the bathroom without a word. There isn’t any reason to talk anymore.
When I return, I find that I am already back. I am sitting at the table like I had never even left, swirling Lo Mein on my fork, oblivious of the me standing just steps away.
She is an exact copy, from the frizz in her hair to the mismatched socks on her feet (who cares about mismatched socks if no one’s going to see), one gray and one white. My family eats as I approach her, moving through a dream. Forks clink, mouths chew, and I hear it all, louder and louder the closer I get until it is the only sound in my ears, blocking out my own heartbeat.
“What are you?” I say. She turns—too quickly—and bores into me with my own eyes. My head lolls. I feel filled with helium. The room spins, faster and faster, and she is at the center, and I am not. I am part of her periphery, rotating with the room.
I close my eyes. When I open them she is gone, my fork and knife lined up neatly beside my plate. I tremble into the chair and look down. My food has been devoured.
“Where did she go?” I say.
Now I’m noticed. The sound of my voice disrupts the melody of tapping forks and gnashing teeth. They put down their utensils and look. After so many months at the same table, their gazes drift through me.
“Who?” Says my brother.
My eyes shift between them. They’ve stopped mid-chew, eyebrows raised and eager, hoping I’ll say something to break the routine. My fork scrapes across the edge of my plate, screeching. I don’t know how to explain it.
“Me,” I say finally. They go back to eating. They don’t understand. They didn’t see her come, and they didn’t see her go.
Not long after that (though who is still counting time), she comes again. It is the middle of the night, two or three a.m. I wake up drenched in sweat and parched. The last vivid fragments of my dream melt into the pillow, and the only thing I remember is dreaming about her. I drag myself down the hall for water, checking for her behind every door. I peer into the sink. I open the mirror cabinet. I pull back the shower curtain. It might be the dream, but I feel her nearby.
I walk down the hallway paranoid, but she does not appear. I return to my room relieved. I dismiss her as a nightmare, a hallucination manifested by my pacing mind. Only when I lie down do I feel the clammy skin of someone else there, someone still sleeping in my bed. I stifle a scream and leap out, exhaustion cured with terror. I throw on the lights.
There she is, soundly under the covers with the same bright pink T-shirt I wear every night to bed. It is as sweaty as mine, with the same tear in the shoulder where my dog likes to grab it. She doesn’t flinch when the lights come on. She stares at the ceiling, frowning like I woke her up. Her eyes are green, like mine, wide and bloodshot.
“Who are you,” I say, barely breathing. She doesn’t move. Maybe she is asleep. Her eyes—my eyes—are unfocused. Some people sleep with their eyes open.
That’s why I flinch when she answers me.
“Who are you?” She says in my voice. I step closer, shaking.
“Why do you look like me?”
“Why do you look like me?” She echoes. I lean over her so the bottom of my hair brushes her chin. She looks me in the eyes.
“Are you real?”
A speck of crimson falls onto her cheek. Another follows, and it rolls down the side of her face. I touch my own face, draw my fingers back, and find blood. I wipe my eyes; blood on my wrists. Even with my eyes shut the blood squeezes out of my eyelids and streams down my face, warm like tears but stickier.
I wake the next morning up on the floor, my bed empty. Dried blood smears my hands.
The last time I see her might be a day later. It might be a week later. My brother and I are watching a movie in the basement, more focused on the clock than the movie. Everything just feels like waiting now. Twenty minutes pass.
“Do you feel like popcorn?” He says. He hits pause. I go upstairs to make it.
A few minutes later, carrying a freshly-popped bowl, I stop at the top of the stairs. The movie is playing.
“Are you watching it without me?” I say. Popcorn overflows on the steps. No response. I descend, crunching popcorn underfoot. The basement flickers in the glow of the TV screen. I can make out two figures on the couch. I drop the popcorn.
She is demonic in the TV light. Her eyes, swimming with the movie and dug out with dark circles, resemble sockets in a skull. Everything about her—her slouch, her bored expression, her fingers tapping the couch cushion—is me.
“What’s she doing here?” I’m not sure who I’m asking between her and my brother and even me, but nobody answers, Nobody acknowledges me. I step closer to her. “Hey,” I say, laying a hand on her shoulder. “What are you doing?”
The vision doesn’t respond. My brother does not stop the movie. My breaths shorten. I grab the apparition by the shoulders and shake her. Her body rocks under my grip, but her expression never breaks. She doesn’t notice me.
“You’re not real,” I say, shaking harder. “You’re not real.” For a second, I see myself from her eyes. I am the one on the couch, convulsing at the hands of a panicked mirror image.
And then she is on the couch, and I have my hands on her shoulders. She touches her mouth and chews. A bowl of popcorn sits between her and my brother.
I block the TV and wave my arms. I shout. I kick the bowl of popcorn and it spills on the carpet. Their hands dip into the space where the bowl was. They chew popcorn that isn’t there, that I can’t see.
Am I real? I back away, my foot brushing the popcorn I had spilled across the floor. Is it even there? I can touch it; I can eat it. Am I the only one? Am I already gone?
I slap my brother in the face. His body moves with my hand and then he returns to his position like foam. Did I even hit him?
Upstairs. If I just go upstairs, my parents will see me. I was there just a minute ago, popping popcorn. Did they see me then? I back away and break into a run, taking the steps two at a time. My foot lands in the bowl instead of on a step. I fall.
I land on my chin. I barely register the pain as my neck snaps. I fade…