By Nancy Bach
It was a steamy Chicago night when I pulled the thread of her unravelling.
I squatted beside the dumpster in the alley, my eyes glued to the back door of the gallery where I had worked for the past five years. A car’s headlights chased shadows across a brick wall, and I shrank back, but the vehicle passed by, turned out of the alley and onto the street.
I relaxed. A little. Ten minutes more, I thought, consulting my watch. The guests at tonight’s show had already faded into the sweaty darkness, the catering staff had packed their truck and left. Even Janine, the gallery’s owner, had climbed into her Mercedes and gone home, four-inch heels clacking on the pavement as the metal fire door to the Gallery de las Palmas clanged shut behind her. Soon the bitch who had stolen my life and the woman I loved would come out that back door, too.
I knew the routine, you see. Knew every step of it because it used to be my routine until that stranger who looked exactly like me had taken over my life.
It was June when I first spotted her. A glimpse of someone with my curly auburn hair and a pair of embroidered jeans just like ones I owned passed by, her on the way out and I on the way in, to the laundromat I used. A week later, I saw her again, in a cab with someone who looked like my friend Cal, as I was hoofing it to the El one afternoon for my shift at the gallery. Soon after, an acquaintance I’d known in art school ran into me, asked me how I’d enjoyed my dinner at the Italian Village the previous Friday. I told her I hadn’t been there, and she’d looked at me like I was crazy.
“But we talked,” she said. “You were with that crazy musician we used to hang around with back in the day. Chet something?”
I shook my head, told her she must have made a mistake, but I wondered. I’ve heard that everyone has a double somewhere. Clearly, mine lived here in Chicago. It was weird, but I put it out of my mind. I was helping Riley Kincaid, a young artist on whom I had a huge crush, set up her first art show. I had more important things to worry about than some look-alike. I went back to my quiet life, in my tiny efficiency apartment on a backstreet. When not working on the new installation at the gallery, I spent quiet evenings reading and eating Chinese take-out.
Nine more minutes. Sweat made slick the grime on the back of my neck. Four days since my last real shower and I wasn’t sure whether I or the dumpster I crouched beside smelled riper. Traces of spoilt bananas, some decomposing thing, dog shit and other foul odors wafted past me as a faint breeze stirred the rank air of the alley.
I gritted my teeth, anger nipping at memory’s heels. June became July and things got weirder. I stopped getting texts from friends and when I saw them to ask them, they acted odd, told me they knew who I really was and I should stop trying to impersonate my sister. I had no sister. Two weeks later my debit card stopped working. The bank manager told me he would call the cops if I came in again, and to get a job and leave my sister alone.
Last week, my boss locked me out of the office and called our security company. I was escorted off the premises and threatened. As they led me away, I could see a woman through the glass front door, watching me, smiling. It was me. Only it wasn’t.
Three days ago, the manager of my building changed the locks on my apartment. The only thing I had left was my car and the clothes on my back.
Finally, yesterday, as I spied on them having a picnic in Grant Park, I saw my double propose to Riley. The kiss Riley bestowed upon the creature who had stolen my life belonged to me.
Seven minutes. Rage coiled in my belly like a hissing serpent and my blood throbbed in my head. I straightened out of my crouch. Stretched. My back and shoulders ached from sleeping the last two nights in my car, the only thing of value in my life the bitch hadn’t managed to claim.
Five minutes. She’d be locking up the office now, setting the alarm on the front door. Riley had left just after the caterers, and I’d watched the two of them linger at the back door, kissing. The bitch’s hand was under Riley’s thin summer blouse, massaging Riley’s small breasts. I’d dug my fingernails into my palms to prevent myself from interrupting them. I had to be patient.
I rolled my neck. The black shaft of the tire iron stuck to the sweaty palm of my left hand.
Silence. The sounds of cars on the street beyond. The occasional sound of chatter or laughter far away. More silence.
The back door snicked, pushed open and the other me stepped out and turned to make sure the door was secure.
I would have hit her then, I had the chance. But I needed answers.
“Why?” I stepped up behind her, planted my feet, my left hand held down in the shadows behind my leg.
The other turned. There was no surprise on her face and I felt cheated. “Why? Why what?” Peach tinted lips crept upwards. Her hair was stylishly cut in a bob, her clothes more boho than my own. She wore just a touch of make-up. She was me. Only better.
She shrugged. “You wished upon a star for a clone. Someone to do all the things you didn’t have time to do.”
Butterfly memory fluttered past. A night under the stars, a rare walk in the park with my friend Chloe, in the spring, after Chloe had been dumped.
I made this happen? No. “That’s not possible,” I said.
Another shrug. “Your wish, my command. You weren’t doing anything with your life. With your friends. With your job.” She smirked and pointed. “With your hair. So I did.”
Something inside me burst, like a pressure cooker exploding. I raised the tire iron and swung. A crack, wet and dull, and the other me crumpled to the patched pavement of the alley.
Eyes the same green and gold as my own stared in fixed astonishment in the general vicinity of the dumpster. Blood pooled beneath short auburn curls, reflecting in ruby the lights of the alley.
My heart pounded. I squatted down, prepared to strike another blow, but the thing was finished. She was finished.
I moved quickly now. First, I wrapped the still leaking head in cling wrap, then pulled the tarp I had scavenged that morning from some painters out of the dumpster and rolled the body onto it. I used my key fob to pop my trunk and dragged the body to my car, parked a little further down the alley.
It took all of ten minutes for clean-up. There would be bloody drag marks and that little lake of blood, but it was due to rain later, and my hope was that at least some of the blood would wash away into the sewer grate.
My hands shook and my teeth chattered as I got behind the wheel of my Jetta and pulled carefully out into traffic. Thirty minutes later I was idling near a deserted stretch of the Cal-Sag Channel. I climbed out, and opened the trunk again, reaching in to wrangle the body out.
I froze. The tarp was still there, but lay there like an empty burrito, all flat and lumpy. I touched it, felt around in the dark. No matter where I laid my hands, I could not find the body. It was gone.
No. No, no, no, no. Damn it, she’d been dead. I was certain of that. Nor was there a way she could have gotten out of the trunk, even if some how she’d still been alive.
Frantic, I gripped the tarp, yanked, unrolled it. The gruesome plastic wrap was there, where the head had been. A pair of black dress pants, a peasant blouse, stained dark with gore rested inside the canvas. Shoes too, and a small straw purse on a long strap, inside of which was a wallet. What wasn’t there was that damned woman’s body.
I picked up the blouse and a quantity of gold dust, like glitter, sparkled down from it onto the tarp. I leaned into the trunk, ran my hands along the bottom of it. There was more of the glittery stuff, little piles of it like sparkling sand.
My chest constricted and my vision tunneled. I dropped into a squat, lowered my head until that sense of receding passed. I sat there, resting on my heels for maybe ten minutes, trying to piece it all together. I’d made a wish. Now I’d undone it. She was gone. Nothing now but stardust.
I sucked in a shaky breath, grinned. At least there would be no body to wash up later.
When I was sure my legs would hold me, I retrieved the purse and the wallet, reclaimed my debit card, the new key to my apartment, and the cell phone. The tarp, the tire iron, and the clothes, shoes included, I dumped in the canal.
Rain spattered as I closed my trunk. Drops fell, got fatter and faster. I raced around to the front, climbed back in and eased along the canal towards the gravel area that led up to the road before the road got to muddy and I got stuck.
My thoughts raced along with my engine. I’d need a haircut, I thought, and a shower before I dared to go see Riley. But I’d worry about that tomorrow. Because there would now be a tomorrow. Many, many more tomorrows. I wouldn’t waste a one of them.
The stars blazed against a black-satin sky. The desert air was dry, the vault of the heavens high, as Riley and I sat on the hood of my Jetta on a scenic stretch of the road through a park just outside of Santa Fe. It had been a year since our move. Riley hadn’t been keen on it at first, but now she loved it here. The Muse, she said, spoke to her more clearly in this place where the sun shone and the stars burned brightly.
Her hand shot out, pointing towards the deepening dark of the Sangre de Cristo mountains. “Look! A shooting star!”
I followed her gaze, shuddered. Turned away.
Her eyes were starlit. “Let’s make a wish.”
My heart thundered in my ears. I leaned towards her, pressed my lips to hers, capturing her mouth as well as her attention.
I relinquished her lips a few moments later and slid off the hood of the car. Beckoning her with a grin, I said, “Let’s go home.”
“But we didn’t make our wish.”
I tugged her off the hood, pulled her close, tucked my hands in her back pockets. “No need for wishes. I already have everything I could ever want.”
Somewhere to the east, the shooting star fizzled out behind the mountains. It left a trail of stardust behind.