Doubles, by Holly Riordan
“You throw me in there, you kill me,” I said, twisting my wrists as if I could actually wriggle myself free.
We were standing in front of a one-way sheet of glass. I could see the portal inside the tiny room, swirling and sizzling. Apparently it was turned off, but it still looked like it was breathing.
I’d heard about the whole process from message boards and news shows, back before I had a spot on my record. Some people thought the portal worked. That it would actually transfer anyone who stepped through it into an alternate universe. The president had even given a bullshit speech about it, where he’d said, “There are thousands of universes, and the portal always opens up to a different one, so it’s not like we’re clogging up one world. We’re just cleaning up ours.”
I didn’t buy it. I assumed the portal was a code word for incinerator, where they’d throw criminals like me inside to watch us char.
“Oh, you’ll be fine,” the female officer, who had ushered me toward the room, said. “We take off your cuffs before you go inside. We let you change into street clothes. And we give you a gun.”
“What am I supposed to do with a gun?”
“Aim it. And shoot.”
At who? My doppelganger in the alternate universe, so I could assume her identity? Or at anyone who figured out I didn’t belong, so I had a chance to run? Being sentenced to the portal didn’t mean I was a murderer.
Well, technically I was, but that didn’t mean I’d shoot some random person to save my own ass.
Of course, that was considering that the alternative universes were real, and I still didn’t buy it. “Why would you waste money giving guns to all of us criminals if we’ll never be able to return them?” I asked.
She fiddled with the keys on her belt until she found the one she wanted. “Well, we’re not spending money on boarding you or on your food for twenty-five plus years. So at the end of the day, we’re actually saving money while making the public believe that we actually care about you lot.”
With that, she unlocked the door and shoved me inside. “There’s a dress on the wall. A gun on the opposite wall. After you get changed and grab the weapon, I’ll turn on the suction and the portal will work its magic.” She paused for a second as she undid my cuffs. “If you don’t get changed or if you try to grab the gun first, out of some rebellious streak, I’ll turn on the portal anyway, and you’ll be stuck in another universe in a prison jumpsuit. Got it?”
Even though I had the urge to ignore everything the woman had said, I edged myself along the wall as slowly as I could get away with until I reached the tacky dress. Blue and red horizontal stripes with a pair of flip flops. Killing me wasn’t bad enough. They had to make me look fat in my last hours, too.
After I stripped off my uniform and replaced it with the sundress, I stepped toward the gun. A semi-automatic pistol. It would’ve been discreet if they’d bothered to give me a pocket to stick it in.
After making sure the safety was on, I lifted my dress, purposely flashing my ass at the one-way glass, and slipped it into the back of my granny panties.
I couldn’t see the woman anymore, but I knew she must’ve flicked a switch, because the portal broke into a low hum. It didn’t look like it was doing anything, but I could hear the sound amplify and feel the air drain from the room until if felt like I was suffocating. Then, after ten excruciating seconds, the portal went dark. Blinked like it was restarting.
I expected to be sucked into the hole and tossed through an acid trip tunnel of blues and pinks and purples. Instead, I blinked along with the machine and was in another world. Outside, standing on stiff grass and looking up at a blotchy blue sky.
Was I actually in a parallel universe? Or did the portal just knock me unconscious? Maybe it sprayed out a chemical that induced hallucinations?
“It’s another one. They’re cranking them out like bullets now,” I heard a man say, but I couldn’t spot him. It almost sounded like the voice was coming from a speaker.
After twirling around like an idiot, looking to my left, right, up, and down, I realized I wasn’t going to find him. But I did realize that the sky was blotchy for a reason. Some of the color was chipped, like paint on a wall. And the grass at my feet was too green, like the type I’d buy to roll out across my grandmother’s dead grass back when I lived with her. The only home I ever had besides a jail cell.
After taking out my gun, I picked a direction and ran. No time for thoughts or assumptions or plans. Just step after step. Foot after foot.
It took less for a minute for me to hit a wall. Concrete. The impact bruised my nose, ripped apart my knee, and made me collapse onto my back.
Somehow, I was trapped in a box. An elaborate replica of the outdoors.
I still had the gun in my hand, so I fumbled to turn the safety off, but before I could get my shaking hands to do the job, three men hovered over me. One put a foot against my chest to keep me down and then used his hands to twist my wrist until I released the weapon. Another one grabbed it and stored it in his jeans.
“I didn’t do anything,” I said, mimicking the words I’d used after the cops caught me with blood drenching my pajamas back in my world.
“Don’t lie,” the third, and youngest looking, man said. He helped me up, but it was only so the other two could put cuffs on me.
“I don’t know how I got here,” I said. “I don’t know where I am.”
“Really, don’t lie,” the young man said. “We don’t have the same laws as the place that you came from, so it won’t do you any good.”
I paused. “What are you going to do to me?”
“We’re going to fingerprint you to get your identity. Question you to evaluate your mental state. And put you on trial.”
Trial? If they knew what I did, how I used a knife to make a slit in my aunt’s stomach, and followed it up by slashing my little cousin across the throat, they wouldn’t even need a trial. I’d be given a life sentence all over again.
In order to reach the building where they wanted to question me, we had to walk through a city with filled streets. Everyone, even kids in single digits, had a pistol tucked into their jeans. Some of them even wore ammo belts. It looked like a political cartoon for gun activists.
No one blinked when they saw me in cuffs. Some of them even nodded out of respect or camaraderie. Maybe I wasn’t screwed after all.
As we walked, the young man ushering me said, “Judging by what our past travelers have divulged, our technology is a bit more advanced than yours. We’ve been aware of AU traveling for decades. We’ve even managed to redirect the portals on other worlds toward the routes we want.” He put his hand on my lower back as he helped me up a set of concrete steps. “Once we realized that your world was sending away “criminals,” we decided to direct them all toward our world. Make a stronger society.”
I didn’t want to end up ruining the tough reputation that the portal had spat me out with, so I kept my thoughts lodged in my head. Better to say too little.
“We aren’t brutal,” he said, swiping a keycard to gain entrance into a metallic building. “We won’t go around murdering random citizens. But if a better model ends up coming along, we’ll replace the original.”
“You’re talking about my doppelganger?” I asked, unable to keep my lips together. “You’re going to compare me to her?”
“Well, we can’t have two women with the same set of fingerprints walking around, can we?” He gave a tight smile. “But yes, that’s what the trial is for. To see whether you or your double get to live.”
Compare what, exactly? Our looks? Our health? Our mental state? Before I could ask if I even stood a chance of surviving, we reached the room where I was meant to be interviewed. Posters advertising “Defense Training” covered the door. When we entered, pamphlets for the same institution were fanned out across a desk.
When I saw the woman behind that desk, my eyebrows flashed. The doppelganger of the female officer in the prison. The one who had sent me here. If she looked exactly the same as the woman back home, I wondered how similar my own double looked.
After I sat in the metal chair opposite her, she folded her hands and asked, “What did you do? To get thrown into your world’s jail.”
I hesitated. Sure, everyone walked around with guns, but that didn’t mean they wanted their citizens to dump bullets whenever they got pissed. But it did look like they valued violence. Or at least cold-heartedness. Detachment.
That’s why I took a breath and told the truth. “I murdered two of my family members.”
“Was it premeditated?” she asked, no hint of judgment in her body language.
“I had it planned for a while. I was originally going to kill one and frame the other, but I settled on offing them both at once. That worked pretty well. Obviously the escape part didn’t.”
“Why’d you do it?”
“You wouldn’t like the why.”
She nodded. A long, slow movement. “Would you murder your double if you needed to?”
I didn’t want to kill someone innocent. Let alone someone who shared my reflection. But I’d do it if it felt right. That’s why I didn’t hesitate before saying, “Yes.”
She flipped through her clipboard. Made a few checkmarks with her pen. “Normally, we would go through a trial,” she said. “But in your case… Your double is an objector. Refuses to keep a gun in the house. Won’t sign up for the monthly Defense Training that men and women are supposed to take every year between ages ten and forty, so that they’re prepared in case of an attack. You belong in our world more than she does. So…”
She rummaged through the drawer that popped out of her desk, cleared her throat, and placed a gun on the table.
I picked it up, turning it over in my hands. “Aim and shoot, right?”
The alternate universe wasn’t much of an alternate universe. My double lived in the same house that my grandmother back home had lived in. Had the same blue shutters and daisies on the porch. The same hole in the wooden steps.
I sucked on my nail as I stood next to the young man, who was a mixture of my chauffeur, babysitter, and bodyguard. I would’ve stayed there all evening trying to gain the energy to knock, like a skydiver lingering before a jump, but the man went for it right away.
It only took my double thirty seconds to slide the door open wide enough for one eye to peek through. When she did, she said, “I told you. I already filled out the proper paperwork to get out of the Defense Training. I’m not paying anyone off. You can go screw yourselves.”
The young man didn’t say anything. Just grabbed the door handle and yanked it until she could see me.
Her buckteeth bit down on her lip the same way mine did when I was nervous. “Damn it,” she said. “Fucking… Damn it. Ugh. Guess us Bennetts have trouble with the police in every world. Great.”
Our matching features didn’t freak me out. Neither did her voice. I was too focused on what I could see through her doorway. Spread out on the loveseat in her living room was my dead grandmother. She looked frail, but still beautiful. Gorgeous, even.
“So you’re here to set a trial date?” my double asked, making circles on her temple. “Just give me the papers and leave. I don’t want you on my property.”
“I’d actually like to talk to you,” I said, and she flinched the moment the words fled from my tongue. Hearing her own voice must’ve bothered her. “We can talk without him, though. We should.”
That part made her relax. Her shoulders lowered and she said, “At least we’re on the same page about that.”
The young man didn’t seem to mind. He just patted my ass, in the spot where my gun was stored, and said, “Welcome to the neighborhood.”
I nodded, the same way the strangers had nodded at me in the street. Then I walked through her door, right past my double’s grandmother. I wanted to say hello, to kiss her on the forehead, to let my tears drench her sweater, but instead I said, “Can we talk in the kitchen?”
“Sure. Of course,” my double said, and led me through rooms I already knew. She took a seat at the table, but I hovered by the cabinets.
“Have you ever heard of APS?” I asked.
Everyone knew about CPS, Child Protective Services, but they always forgot about the elderly. They let it slip their mind that grandparents got abused by the people they’d birthed and raised and loved.
My aunt and cousin had somehow fooled APS into believing they were suitable caretakers (and by fooled, I meant bribed), even though my grandmother was covered in scrapes and bruises. When she died, not of old age, but of “suspicious causes,” somehow they fooled (bribed) the judge into letting them go free.
But they couldn’t pay me off.
“Adult protective services,” my double said, uncrossing her legs only to cross them on the other side. “What about them?”
“They didn’t help her. Didn’t save her.” I swiped a hand through my hair, hitting sweat I didn’t know existed. “My version of her. My grandmother.”
I didn’t regret killing my aunt and cousin. I regretted killing them so late. I should’ve done it before my grandmother had died. I wouldn’t have been able to take care of her from a jail cell or from another world, but at least somebody else would’ve. Somebody who actually treated her right.
My double’s mouth melted into a frown. “She’s dead in your world?”
I found the energy to nod. “I just need to know you can stop that from happening here. Can you honestly say that you’ll be able to take care of her?”
“Of course. I won’t let anyone with a gun near her, in case she gets ahold of it. I won’t sign up for Defense Training, because I’d have to leave her with someone else while I was away, and I don’t trust anyone else.”
Even though the young man was outside, a concrete barrier between us, I lowered my voice. “They think you’re an offender. You have to prove that you aren’t. Otherwise, you’re going to die. They don’t even want to hold a trial. They just want you gone.”
Instead of asking why I cared about what would happen to her, she just asked, “How the hell am I supposed to do that?”
She looked defeated. Destroyed. Undone. The way I felt when my grandmother had died. “You don’t have to worry about that. You just have to focus on taking care of her,” I said, walking toward the drawer I kept my silverware in, hoping she kept it in the same spot. She did. “As long as you take care of her, it’ll all be okay.”
I removed a knife from the drawer. Pressed it against my wrist. And sliced.
“What the hell are you doing?” she asked, almost tumbling backward on her chair. She grabbed the table to steady herself, but she couldn’t get up in time. I was already grabbing her wrists, rubbing my blood onto her shirt.
“Calm down,” I said, weaving my hips to avoid her kicks. “It needs to look like you did it. Then they’ll leave you and your grandmother alone. They’ll think you belong in the community.”
“Look like I did what?” she asked, still trying to shove me away.
I took a few steps back, lifting the gun from my pocket. I could see the back of her grandmother’s head from where I was standing, and that’s what I focused on as I twisted my hand and pressed the barrel against my chest. It would’ve been easier to stick it in my mouth, but I needed to make it look like she had done it.
I had sent my aunt and cousin off to Hell for my grandmother.
I had no trouble sending myself there for her, too.
Holly Riordan has a Bachelor of Arts from Stony Brook, where she minored in Creative Writing, and writes articles for several woman’s websites. She has also had her short stories published by Strange Musings Press, Reading Plus, and Popcorn Press.
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Tags: family, Holly Riordan, identity, mistakes, murder