By Dustin Engstrom
“I hate to tell you,” said Dr. Clay, “but I don’t think you’re a real person.”
“I’m sorry?” said the patient. She sat on a paper-lined exam table facing the doctor, who sat upon a stool. “Did you say I’m not real?”
“I don’t know what to tell you,” continued Dr. Clay, flipping pages on the chart in his hand. “I can’t find anything on here that would confirm to me that you exist.”
The patient, a woman in her 20s, slipped off the examination table and began to gather up her things. She pulled up her sweatshirt, slung a purse over her shoulder, and said, “Well, maybe you’re not a real doctor.”
“What?” said Dr. Clay.
“I asked if you realized you are in the wrong exam room?”
Dr. Clay turned to face the door. A medical assistant stood in the doorway holding a chart. “You’re supposed to be in exam room A. This is C. The patient has been waiting for fifteen minutes. I thought maybe you had stepped out or something.”
Clay swiveled back to the exam table. There was no one there.
Dr. Valdis Clay was having a weird day. He started lunch in his office at precisely 2:00pm and finished by 2:20pm. A decent but unfinished turkey sandwich from the café in the lobby. At 2:21pm his phone rang. He answered to his sister complaining in a strained voice that their mother had taken another fall. Only this time their mother seemed perfectly fine afterward, informing his sister that she had seen God and God told her she wasn’t finished with her life yet. There was still something she needed to do. His sister was frightened, even though he told her that delusion was common at her age and not to worry. His sister ended the call with an angry declaration that he didn’t do enough, and he was a doctor for Christ’s sake.
At 2:40pm, the time of his next appointment, he took the long way around to the exam rooms, to avoid seeing anyone who might impede him from his end-of-day appointments. His cell phone buzzed. He took it out and saw it was his sister calling again. He didn’t have the energy, tapped ignore, and returned it to his pocket.
He entered what he thought was exam room A to find the patient already waiting inside. She was a mousy-looking woman, with messy auburn hair, and a worried expression over her rather unextraordinary face. She looked as if she’d been in a hurry dressing that morning. A black and tan sweatshirt with a hood hung off her shoulders. Her white athletic shoes were untied. To Dr. Clay, she looked like a petulant teenager about to express her feelings of existentialism and depression. Her watery hazel eyes looked up at him as he came into the room.
The next thing he remembered was an MA telling him he was in the wrong exam room. No one else was in the room with him.
“What happened to the girl who was just here?” asked Clay of the MA.
“What girl?” asked the MA in return. “I thought you were in here recording notes.”
“Notes…” mused Clay, scratching his head. “Of course. This isn’t exam room A?”
“No. Dr. Clay, are you all right?” asked the MA.
Clay noticed the MA’s tight mouth and narrowed eyes. The very same look his sister gave him every time the topic of their ailing mother came up. He saw something of his sister in the MA’s eyes. A worried sort of skepticism and panic.
He looked down at the chart he thought he held in his hands but there was nothing there. “I’m fine,” he said, spreading out his hands. “Maybe a little tired.”
“Here,” said the MA, handing him a chart. “Exam room A. Down the hall.”
“Of course,” said Clay. He stood and straightened up. “I know where it is.”
His cell phone buzzed and buzzed inside his pocket, but he didn’t even feel it.
Later, as he sat in his car in the parking garage, he began to unpack the situation. He was tired, had been tired for several days. Maybe he needed a break. So, was that it? He was just tired? It was an isolated incident. He wasn’t having delusions like his mother.
The thing was, he could still see the girl clearly in his mind. And he’d spoken to her, he was sure of it. He couldn’t quite remember what he’d said. Something about her not being there. No, that wasn’t it. About her not being real. Yes. And she told him he wasn’t a doctor.
It was strange for him to realize that he’d remembered an experience that clearly couldn’t have happened. He was rational to the point of boring. Everything in his life needed to be neat, ordered, understood. It was one of the reasons he became a doctor. To fix things, fix people. Help them understand their suffering and do his best to alleviate it. He understood human physiology. He enjoyed problem solving. If it isn’t this, it’s that. And if it isn’t that, it’s this. He worked hard to create a dependable work ethic and trust amongst his staff and patients. And in time, people came to respect him as a doctor. Calm, patient, direct. A smile here and there for the truly troubled person. It went a long way.
Perhaps he’d been daydreaming. Perhaps he had fallen asleep in the exam room. And the MA had woken him. He was tired. That had to be it. A dream. Just a dream. Nothing to worry about. People have them all the time.
With a deep breath, he felt everything explained. He started the car and began to pull out of his parking spot. He drove maybe six feet when he stomped on the brake. The woman from his dream had just jumped in front of his car. Her hands were out in front of her. The worried expression on her face he remembered from the supposed dream was heightened even further. She rushed around to the passenger side of the car and pulled the door open.
“Please, you have to help me,” she said and hopped inside. After closing the door, she turned to Clay. “Go. You must hurry. They’re coming.”
“Who’s coming?” said Clay. “Who the hell are you?”
“According to you, someone who doesn’t exist. Look, it doesn’t matter. I’ll explain on the way. Please just go,” panted the woman. She held her purse close to her chest.
“On our way to where exactly?” asked Clay. He was having a difficult time rationalizing what he was undergoing. How was this happening? He blinked, hoping the vision would go away.
A shot rang out from somewhere behind them. It echoed loudly throughout the garage. They both winced at the sound.
“What the hell was that?” said Clay, turning his head to look out the back window. He saw nothing but shadows looming over concrete.
“It’s them,” said the woman. “Look, you have to go. I promise I’ll explain. But please, if we plan to get out of here, you have to go now!”
The noise came again, this time closer. His cell phone buzzed in his pocket, but he ignored it.
“Okay, what in the hell?” said Clay. He turned to his passenger and weighed his options. He could kick her out of his car and leave the delusion behind him. Or he could really find out what was going on, delusion or not.
He pursed his lips, having made his decision. “Put on your seatbelt.”
He tore out of the garage, his tires squealing like charging pigs as he turned up a ramp and into the fading daylight. He weaved into traffic behind a train of cars waiting at a stoplight.
“We can’t sit too long out in the open, doctor,” said the girl. “We have to find somewhere they won’t look for us. Somewhere we can hide.”
“And where do you propose we do that?” asked Clay.
The light turned green and the cars began to pull ahead, Clay following.
She turned to him, eyes dark and red. “Somewhere safe. Somewhere hidden.”
The perfect place popped into his head and he began to wonder if this delusion had been leading him back there all along.
Ten years past, when Clay was thirty years old and fresh out of medical school, he bought a house in Madison Park. A box of books came in the mail his first day on the property, which was undergoing renovation. Workers in white overalls tore down walls and measured dimensions. Clay had put most of his things into storage, so only a few belongings made their way to the house. He found it strange then to open a box of books, something he surely would have put into storage.
He split the tape covering the top of the box with his car key, opened the flaps, and found a note sitting on top of the books. It was a note from his mother, writing he barely recognized, as her youth was apparent in the strokes, strong and smooth upon the faded paper.
My dearest Valdis,
Tomorrow is your third birthday. I know you won’t read this letter for some time yet, but I thought it best I get it out now, before I can no longer contain it, or explain it rationally. Your father has been restless these last few weeks, and my mother is now, as I write this, being put into a nursing home. It breaks my heart. I think it is too soon, but everyone – and I mean everyone, Valdis – has convinced me it is the right thing to do. But I have my doubts.
All that aside, and despite what I’m about to relay to you here, I love you. You have the sweetest, most honest face, and I know – I don’t know how – but I know you’ll grow up to be a good man. A man I will proudly call my son until my final days. And soon, you’ll be joined by a sibling. I haven’t told your father yet. But I believe he is beginning to guess.
I shall get to it then, as they say. Valdis, your grandfather saw ghosts. Not the specters you see in films, nor the way it is described in almost every gothic novel. Ghosts that conversed with him and told him their secrets and their histories. He went with them across the country, helping them, delivering messages to their families, long-lost lovers, and friends. He knew that something about his gift was genetic. He spoke of it often. He confessed, the first time he saw you in my arms, that you would have the gift too.
He died only last spring, but I see him in you now. Not just because of what he told me of your fate, but you have his smile. A smile that can make the snow melt.
There is a place he kept in Chinatown. He never sold it, and when he died, he left it to you in his will. I’m only just beginning to understand the details as the lawyers have explained them to me. When you reach the age of thirty, the age your grandfather believes you will inherit his gifts, you will come into possession of this house. I have never once set foot there. I know very little of it, besides the address.
I don’t know what will await you there, Valdis. I don’t know whether I truly believe all of this, but I cannot keep it from you. I believe that would be a mistake, though I can’t quite articulate as to why. I trusted my father and loved him deeply. I never felt he lied to me. I know he really believed in the stories he would tell. And that he really did believe you would one day become like him.
The house will be there when you are older. Waiting for you. I don’t know what will come of me in twenty-seven years. It seems ages from now.
Valdis, I trust you will go there, if not for your grandfather, then for me. Find whatever he meant for you to find and then decide on the validity of it all. I know you will figure it out. Whatever it is.
I love you always, mom
Underneath the letter was a deed to the house and papers listing who to get into contact with to obtain a key. The address was a mystery to him. He didn’t know that part of town. The letter was a mystery as well. At that time, his mother seemed robust and sane. She lived in a one-bedroom townhouse near his new home on Lake Washington. He visited her every Sunday for brunch. Never once had she ever mentioned any of the contents of the letter. Not once had she ever made mention of her father.
Contained within the box were books from his childhood. Books he hadn’t set eyes on in years. Inside every flap was written, in almost unreadable script, Valdis Clay.
A week later, once he set most of the affairs concerning his new house in order, and he’d reread the letter a dozen times, he set off to Chinatown to find his grandfather’s mystery house. Rather than drive, he took the light rail. As he rode the escalator into the half-light of the neighborhood, he was inundated by the sweet and spicy bouquet of Asian food mingled in a misty morning air. He walked up a hill and then another, to a shaded area only blocks from the restaurants and din of the neighborhood’s residents. He turned a corner and another, watching the numbers on the houses, waiting for his grandfather’s house to appear.
When it did, he almost didn’t believe it. He reached into his pocket and pulled out the address and read and reread it. He looked up at the house before him with matching numbers. He pulled the key from his pocket, which he received in the mail only the day before from the estate agent and walked toward the crumbling old ruin.
The house, he decided, must have been something to behold in its prime. A two-story mansion, its white exterior peeling with a dusty yellow, gave off the kind of southern charm one would expect to see on the streets of New Orleans, not just blocks away from downtown Chinatown. Two stately pillars stood on either side of its entrance. The door was red, but worn, and upon it was a large, rusted ring door knocker the size of Clay’s head. The shaggy fir and jutting maple around the house kept it almost hidden from the street.
Clay climbed the steps and shoved the key into the lock. It shifted with a hesitant click. Stepping inside, he felt as if someone brushed by his shoulder. He turned around but saw nothing and no one.
The house was, at first glance, considerably empty. The entry was small but open. Before Clay wound a massive staircase made of more peeling white. It curved upward and to the right. To the left and right of the ground floor were large rooms cluttered with piles of broken furniture.
He decided to take the stairs. As he took each new step, it creaked beneath him painfully, as if the house’s steps were teeth in cavity-stricken pain.
At the top of the stairs directly to the right against a wall, amongst shadows and dust motes, stood a giant cherry wood cabinet. An ornate Oriental relief pattern was woven into its exterior.
Clay approached, his heart skipping in his chest. He reached out and opened the cabinet. It yawned like a whining kitten. But instead of shelves, a brick wall stared back at him. Clay touched the cold wall with his palm and sighed.
The rest of the house was much of the same. The place was nearly cleared out. There was nothing for him to find.
Ten years later, Clay returned to his grandfather’s moldering mansion. This time he wasn’t alone, or at least it didn’t feel as if he was alone. He still hadn’t decided who or what his passenger was or at the very least, was to him.
They didn’t speak as they drove into Chinatown. It took Clay a few wrong turns before he remembered the way. He parked a block away from the house and they both climbed out of the car and up the hill.
It was getting dark by the time they reached the house. As they came to the front, Clay was shocked by how it much worse it looked. The two pillars were licked with furry moss and the side of the house was tagged with a rainbow of unintelligible graffiti. The paint was mostly gone and so the house looked like a shell of what it once was; a forsaken carcass decomposing little by little. The streetlamp cast a wide berth of diffused light over the front walk and steps of the house, but the house itself remained crouched in shadow.
“Why have you taken me here?” asked his companion.
“It’s a place we can hide, and you can explain to me what’s going on,” said Clay. “I think there are some candles inside. Come on.”
He still had the key attached to his key ring. Through the years, he refused to sell the house or the property. And yet he didn’t do anything to bring it back to life. Just last month, the city began to call and complain. They told him they were forcing an inspection, believing it to be a condemned property. He didn’t know why, but he couldn’t let it go. It still held the slightest mystery for him.
Inside the house a few minutes later, Clay rummaged around in the back of one of the front rooms until he found a few candles. He set them above the mantel on a fireplace covered over by plywood. When the candles were lit, he turned over two rickety chairs, and motioned for the woman to sit.
Once both seated, Clay began his questions. “Who are you? Who’s after you and for what purpose?”
The girl turned to face the window. As he watched her, Clay noticed something familiar in her face. Memories swept over him and he was overcome with a chilling sense of déjà vu.
“I’m no one,” she said.
“That’s obviously not true,” said Clay. A sense of terror began to grip him. A dreadful understanding. He believed he already knew the truth.
“Oh, isn’t it? I bet he didn’t tell you anything, did he? And if he did, it was a lie. Made me tell you, am I right?”
Clay’s back straightened as if someone had shoved a rod up his spine. “What are you talking about?”
“Oh, God. I mean, look at this. This place is rotting. I know who you are now, who you must be. My son. A doctor. Well, that’s something new for me to learn. You see, he doesn’t let us know much. Just sends us on errands. Picking up his God damn messes. I’ll never get to know you, doctor. I’ll never get to see you grow up. Only she did. And by this time, I imagine your mother is dead.”
“You’re…my mother is not…”
An icy hand clutched his heart. He reached into his pocket and pulled out his phone. Seventeen missed calls and one voicemail. He played the voicemail on speaker and his sister’s voice wobbled into the air, “Valdis. I didn’t want to do this. I didn’t want to tell you this way. But you’ve left me no choice. You won’t answer your phone. I’ve called the clinic, your housekeeper. No one knows where you are. Valdis, call me. Please. Mother is dead. She died soon after we last spoke. Valdis… Please… Let me know you’re all right.”
The phone slipped from Clay’s hand and thudded against the dirty wooden floor. The girl stood now with her back to him, staring out the window. She whispered, “And a daughter… He didn’t tell me. The bastard.”
“You’re my mother’s ghost?” said Clay. Tears touched his cheeks like little stretching fingers. “My grandfather really did see—”
“No,” said the girl, turning to face him. “Not ghosts, Valdis. Hmph. That was his father’s name, you know. A German immigrant who came here with nothing. How often he reminded me. I loved my mother, Valdis. But my father…”
“Hold on. You have to stop and explain all this to me, I don’t understand,” trembled Clay. She shimmered behind his tears like a vision. Someone he still doubted was real.
“I’m an echo of your mother. One of many versions. I can fade away at will, but my father’s instructions were to find you. Keep you safe until…”
“Until?” asked Clay, stooping down to pick up his phone.
“Until they came for me. And you escaped,” said the girl. She faced him and smiled. He was dumbstruck as to why he hadn’t recognized her. The way her eyes narrowed, the way her smile curved up to the right side. Her voice strong yet soft around the edges. He stared at her. Watched her every slightest movement. The way she held her hand to her face, the way she stood. Like a taller, younger version. It couldn’t be faked or emulated. This was his mother. And as scary as that was to contemplate, it was also somehow comforting.
“They come for me.”
She turned back to the window. “And I can feel them. The lost, the angry. Their anger is like a shot, it’s what you heard in that garage. I haven’t much time now. Time…” She smiled again and nodded toward the stairs. “The wall behind the cabinet. If you are my son, you’ll be able to walk through it. The answers you seek are on the other side.” A shot echoed outside on the street. Clay stood, sliding his phone into his pocket. He saw a dozen or so young women, who all looked and dressed like the woman before him, sweep up the steps to the house like a surging wave. “Go, doctor. You can’t be here for this. You don’t want to be. Go!”
She rushed at him and pushed him toward the stairs. He backed up a couple steps. The door swung open and the women were suddenly upon her like wild animals. The sight was like watching dreams enfold upon themselves. The different versions of his mother shot up and down, sideways and diagonally. They shook and shimmered and compacted. All the while, at the center, was the girl who he’d met. Waiting. Light seemed to unfold from inside and around them, like a star brightening. The scene shuddered as if he watched a film skip.
Having collected their prize, the group sprang forward like a ribbon of lights, and shot past Clay up the stairs. He felt their presence leave the house. And he didn’t know how, but he knew they needed to make one last connection.
Before he could regain his composure and digest what he’d just witnessed, someone put a knife to his throat.
In the time it took him to realize what was happening, Clay’s sudden captor pulled him backward up the stairs. When he spoke, he spoke in mutters and whispers and threats. It didn’t register to Clay that the voice sounded eerily like his own. Of course, as all of us know, the voice we hear when we speak is different than the voice the rest of the world hears. So, perhaps he either didn’t want to believe it, or it sounded only slightly familiar for that reason.
The only tangible emotion he felt was fear and loss. It was as if he’d lost his mother twice in the matter of minutes. So caught up in his emotions, he failed to see that they stood before the cabinet on the second floor until his nose almost touched its front.
“Open it,” said the man at his back.
Clay turned to face the man, who held up the knife. He pointed the blade toward the cabinet, his face obscured in shadow.
“There is nothing behind this cabinet but a brick wall,” Clay said. “What do you expect to find, if I may ask?”
“Just open it,” the man repeated. “I can’t go through again, but you can.”
Clay shook his head, wondering at the validity of everything he’d experienced up until that moment. The day had gone from strange to stranger, and his eyes felt old and tired and strained. He opened the cabinet, looked blankly at the brick wall, rolled his pained eyes, and put his hand upon the bricks.
“See?” he said.
“Give it a minute,” growled the man.
Clay sighed and waited. After a few moments, he felt his hand tingle. Soon, he felt it begin to sink into the brick. Soon after, his arm was through and then his shoulder. Before he knew it, he tumbled into the unknown.
Clay heard a match scratch alight in the darkness. He turned to see his doppelganger close beside him, holding the lighted match aloft. It had been mere seconds since he’d come through the brick doorway, his twin clinging to his shoulder like an anchor.
“It’s dark,” said his twin. “Something’s not right. The room is getting farther and farther away.”
“Who are you?” asked Clay, trying to find something to hold onto to get his bearings. He felt a sickness rise within him. It took nearly all his strength to push it down.
“I’m you. Or I was. I don’t know what I am anymore. Looks like you’ve aged some. I must be you some…what, ten years ago? Are you a doctor? Did we do it?”
“Yes,” managed Clay.
“Of course. You’re a different timeline. This is so… Give me your wallet,” demanded the doppelganger.
“My what?” said Clay.
“Your wallet. Give it to me. Now,” said the man, his hand out.
Clay pulled out the wallet from his back pocket, handed it to the man before him, and blinked his heavy eyes. “Are we going to meet him? Our grandfather?”
“Yes,” said the man. He opened the wallet and pulled out his ID. “This will do. Come on. They will follow. Once they catch up to you, you are a part of their journey back to the first.”
The man pushed Clay forward into the darkness, lighting a new match every couple minutes. The darkness around them felt like a cavernous sort of dark – inky and wet and cold. He looked down to try to ascertain what was beneath their feet. All he could make out was a swirling darkness, as if they walked atop giant snakes coiling through an infinite deep. He decided he wouldn’t look down again.
After a few minutes, the movement forward felt like a rhythm. Clay thought about his mother and a pain pinched his chest. He wanted to ask his captor questions but swallowed them every time Clay heard the man light another match and swear under his breath.
After what seemed like twenty minutes, Clay could no longer hold in the questions. “What did you mean when you said you couldn’t go through the wall, but I could?” he asked.
“We doppelgangers can only go through so many times before it closes off to us. Don’t know why. Our illustrious grandfather has found the doorways between parallel universes. Isn’t that great? He just can’t get the times right,” said his twin.
“What does that mean?” asked Clay.
“Time is fickle between worlds. One day, you might walk through a doorway and end up in ancient times. Another, the future.”
His twin’s match puttered out as they came to a door. It looked like any other two-paneled white door. Clay’s twin pocketed the knife and knocked. “We’re here,” he said. “There’s nowhere else for you to go.”
“I suppose not,” said Clay.
An old man appeared from the other side of the door, holding it open wide. He coughed a haggard, wet cough, and signaled the two men inside. “Hurry, before they catch up to you.”
Clay and his twin rushed through door. It closed with a loud snap. Clay’s grandfather turned to face them. “So,” he said. “You’ve made it!”
Standing there on the other side of the door, Clay realized he’d never even seen a photo of his grandfather before. The man before him looked like Santa. He wore a puffy white beard, and his hair was mostly gone, with the exception of some white tufts along the side of his head. His eyes were small, the color of a dark sea, and shifty. And his face, although wrinkled, was still tight due to the roundness of it. The smile on it appeared as if to be pulled by a string. His mouth was always on the move, ever shifting and changing its mind. His hands, wrinkled and veined more than his face, trembled like a drinker’s. He wore a shabby gray suit that was one size too big.
“Come on, come on,” he said. His voice sang like a creaky door, high and sharp. “In in in…”
The room Clay swiveled to take in as he stepped forward was a replica of a room in his childhood home. The study in which his father had spent many hours reading and working. Books lined two walls. Along another sat a large wooden desk. He remembered his father’s to always be neat and organized. This desk was piled high with papers, maps, and technological equipment Clay didn’t immediately recognize. There were tall lamps on either side of the desk, creating the only soft light. The room he remembered displayed windows that looked out into their garden. Here the windows were covered over in layers of old newsprint.
“Answers, you’ll want answers,” said Clay’s grandfather.
“You know what I want,” said Clay’s twin.
“Yes, yes. Go go go,” said the old man. The twin gave Clay a hard look and left through a door Clay hadn’t yet noticed was there. “He’s lost his way. Upset with me. They all are!”
“What is this?” asked Clay. “My mother…”
“Yes, yes. I will explain quickly, as you must go back.” He moved to the desk, pulled out the chair, and sat down. “I am old, Valdis. But I have discovered something truly remarkable. Something most scientific men only dream about. I have collected many versions of you and your mother to help with my experiments. Each time they cross a doorway, a part of themselves split off. You probably didn’t notice another version of you splinter off when you came through. But it most assuredly did. Anyway, the point. The point is… You, my grandson… You are the one who brought me here. You. At this age and at this time. And you must do it again. It’s right. I know it is. I’ve done the math, gone over every scenario and situation. It took me a long time to get to the right you. But you are him. When you go back through, you will come to the time when you were young. A toddler. You must find me and bring me to the house. Take me through the wall.”
Clay listened to his grandfather prattle on in his shrill lofty voice and thought of his mother. He could see his mother again. If this really was happening. His head swam in the apparent nonsense of it all, trying to grasp whatever slippery part of it could be true.
“And then what?” said Clay.
“Then what? Do I go back to my life?”
His grandfather shifted in the chair. “Yes. Of course, of course.”
“Why? Why are you doing this? Why not go back and tell the world your discovery? Why do you stay here, sending us on your endless errands? It makes no sense!”
Clay found that his back trickled with sweat. He felt a rage bubble up within. He hadn’t time to process everything, let alone his mother’s death. He thought of his sister, sitting by the phone, waiting for his call.
“Valdis. There isn’t time for this…”
“I thought we had all the time in all the worlds? Isn’t that what you’re claiming?”
“Please… you must go. You must find me…”
Clay couldn’t stomach looking at the man any longer. A man who had played with time and worlds and people’s lives. His mother, and now him. He wanted to be gone from the room, away from him, and away from this bad dream.
“Oh, I’ll go.”
He didn’t look back. He didn’t wait to see if his grandfather stood up or tried to speak or stop him. He dashed through the other doorway as fast as he could muster, the strength seeming to drain from him as he did. Once on the other side, he shut the door tightly behind him. What he saw was the same room. Only it was how he remembered it.
After a minute of taking the room in, he heard a voice in the hallway. “Come on, Valdis. Time for a bath!”
His mother. Bath time. He’d done it then. He’d crossed over to the time when he was two or three and his grandfather was still there.
But was he in the right universe?
The door swung open and his grandfather stood in the doorway. Visibly younger, almost a twin of himself.
“Dad?” said a voice down the hall. His mother came closer. “What is it?”
“Nothing, sweetie. Just tripped is all. I’ll be just a minute.” He came into the room and snapped the door closed. “Who are you? Quickly.”
Clay was about to tell the man to go to hell, but something stopped him. The sound of his mother’s voice. He wanted to see her one last time. And if that meant playing this game, then so be it.
“I’m your grandson, Valdis,” said Clay. “It’s hard to explain. But you sent me here. You want me to take you to a house. Take you through a wall. I know that doesn’t make sense, but…”
“Where is the house? Chinatown?” asked the young grandfather.
“Yes…how did you…?”
“Let’s go. Just give me a moment to make sure my daughter isn’t here. This would alarm her. You look like me.”
He opened the door a crack. Clay could hear giggles of laughter and the glee of splashing water. The young grandfather nodded at Clay and stepped into the hall. Clay approached the door, but his grandfather stopped him. “Please, wait here a moment while I collect my things.”
Clay, watching through the door, saw the man turn a corner. Clay slowly pulled the door open and began to make his way toward the sounds of splashing water in the opposite direction.
“Okay, let’s do your hair,” he heard his mother say. “Come on, the sooner it’s done, the sooner it’s over.”
Clay remembered when she would say that. Anytime Clay didn’t want to do something, his mother would shell out this pearl of wisdom. He smiled. He positioned his head around the corner of the bathroom doorway. He saw a boy in the bath playing with a toy boat. He saw a woman with mousy hair pour shampoo into her palm, and then rub it into the boy’s hair.
“I know you’re there, dad,” said his mother. “I can hear you breathing.”
She turned her face to look upon him. Clay smiled. “Hi, mom…”
Her face turned to ice. “You’re not my father,” she said. “I hate to tell you, but you aren’t here. You’re not real.”
“What?” said Clay, his heart sinking.
“I told you to wait!” said a piercing voice from behind him.
The scene shifted and melted and flickered into something altogether different. Clay now looked into the wide eyes of a patient in one of his clinic’s exam rooms. The patient appeared nervous, rubbing his face. “Dr. Clay?” he said. “Are you okay?”
Clay looked down and saw he wore his white lab coat and the tie his sister bought him for his birthday, a bright tangerine color. He found he sat on a stool, holding a chart in his hand.
“Um…Mark, right?” he said, scanning the chart, his eyes fuzzy.
“Yeah…” said the patient.
“Who… I mean, um…”
His brain pounded. He felt he might be sick. He doubted his sanity. He stood and all the blood rushed to his head.
“You look faint, doctor. Shall I find someone?” said the patient.
Clay nodded, holding his head. The patient rushed from the room. The heavy door closed with a slow whoosh. But he didn’t hear it click. He turned to face the door and saw himself standing there.
“You have to come with me. We have to find him,” said himself.
“Find who?” said Clay, his eyes watering. He wanted to scream.
“You,” he said. “Before you do it. Before you bring our grandfather over.”
“But that’s what I was meant to do,” said Clay.
The man in front of him laughed. “You’re not really him, you know. You just think you are. You’re just an after image. A mirrored copy. With his memories. Come on. There’s little time.”
A patient an MA didn’t remember checking-in approached him in a panic. Something was wrong with Dr. Clay. Hurry, hurry. This way. Exam room A. The MA opened the door to find nothing and no one. “I swear,” said the patient, stepping inside. “He was right here.”
The MA entered the room and picked up the chart sitting upon the exam table. Scribbled at the bottom were the words: I wasn’t really here.
The MA and patient exchanged puzzled looks.
“What am I doing here?” asked the MA to the patient.
“I don’t know,” said the patient, shaking his head. “Was I being seen by a doctor?”
“Come on,” said the MA. “Let’s go check you in with Dr. Lee. Weird.”
The MA turned out the lights, and the two of them left the room.
About the Author: Dustin Engstrom lives in northern Washington state with his husband and their two cats. He writes mostly crime and speculative fiction. His work has appeared in The Colored Lens, The Dark Sire, BOMBFIRE, and Rock and a Hard Place Magazine.
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