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My name is Adam. I know, it’s not very exciting. Nothing about me is particularly exciting, to be honest. I live in a two-person apartment with my girlfriend, Chrissie. Unlike me, she’s a fascinating, beautiful person. I like to think I know her better than I know myself. Truth be told, I probably do. I met her a few years ago in our first year at college. We became close very quickly – she saw something in me that even I don’t see. Maybe she knows me better than I know myself, too. She has green eyes and hair like a cascading, golden waterfall. But… I digress. I could spend hours talking about her, but that wouldn’t be much of a story.
I’ve already explained that I’m a pretty boring person. I work as a journalist, and I’m pretty good at my job. Despite that, I hardly enjoy it. Every day I feel like I’m ignoring the issues that matter in order to sell some pointless stories that people would rather buy. It’s surprising how many people would prefer to read about some celebrity’s latest relationship than the horrors going on in other parts of the world. In my spare time, I mostly hang out with Chrissie. She gets home from her waitressing job a few hours later than me, so I have awhile to myself. During this time I usually twiddle my thumbs, browse the internet, and think about what I’m going to do when Chrissie gets back. I know, it’s pretty pathetic. She’s basically my reason to live, and she feels the same way about me. She used to be really depressed, but after being with me for so long, she finally started to feel more optimistic and happy about things. I am her world, and she’s mine.
It was 8:15 PM. Exactly 15 minutes after she had finished work. She should be home in another half hour or so. I sat back in my seat and smiled to myself. I had bought a bottle of wine, and made dinner for her. It would be ready soon. There was no special occasion or anything, I just wanted to surprise her. Besides – every minute we got to spend with each other was special as far as I was concerned. After a little while of daydreaming about our plans for the evening, I rose from my comfortable lounge chair, and went to the set of draws that rested beside our bed. I leaned forward and pulled open the third draw down. This contained a few keepsakes and miscellaneous items that I was particularly attached to. An old watch that belonged to my mother, the remnants of a chess set I’d been given for my fifth birthday, and the functional pistol I kept for self-defence. I wasn’t interested in any of that. Hidden beneath a neatly folded sweater that my grandmother had knitted for me when I was a child was a small, black box. I smiled, gently took it, and opened the lid.
Inside was a ring, fashioned from gold and set with diamonds. It would only be a few more days… I admired the engagement ring for a few more moments before softly closing the box, and returning it to its hiding place. Chrissie wouldn’t look in here in any case, she respects that what I choose to keep in this draw is my business. I went to check on the meal, and turned off the oven. Now I simply had to count down the minutes until my beloved girlfriend returned.
The apartment was lonely without her, almost eerie. On the ninth floor, we had an excellent view of the dreary streets below. Sombre and grey, even on the best of days. At this time of the night the pavement below me was illuminated by the frail yellow light of streetlamps that should have been replaced months ago. The window was glazed with a faint sheen of rainwater. It was drizzling outside. Nothing to worry about, it wasn’t very heavy – and Chrissie had an umbrella in any case.
As I stood at the window, gazing down at the hazy street, my thoughts again wandered to Chrissie. She’d greet me with a smile and a kiss, and ask with a slightly teasing tone what the delicious smell was. I’d inform her that tonight’s special was Moroccan lamb stew – and she’d laugh affectionately and kiss me again. Despite being together for so long, it felt like hardly anything had changed between us. We were still feeling the enchantment of fresh love.
My thoughts turned to the day of my intended proposal. She would spend at least an hour getting ready to go out, meticulously ensuring that she looked as beautiful as possible, and fretting about what dress she should wear. We would drive to a picturesque forest out of town. I’d been there before, it was like something out of a fairytale. We would eat lunch in a glade, and I would probably fumble with the box as I sunk to one knee. I know it’s not a very inspired idea by today’s standards, but it seemed natural. Besides – I don’t like the idea of public proposals, it places unnecessary pressure on the person being proposed to. Such sweet thoughts… I wondered if she’d say yes.
And then I heard my cellphone ring. Because I have so few friends, it was quite strange for me to be getting a call, and the sound snapped me out of my trance immediately. I couldn’t help but feel anxious. Chrissie wasn’t home yet… I rushed to the phone. Sure enough, the call was from my girlfriend. “Chrissie?” I could tell my voice had traces of panic in it already, even without having any further information. I have to admit, I worry too much for my own good. What I heard on the other end of the phone, though, caused my heart to hammer in my chest. Frantic, terrified breathing. “Adam!? Oh thank god. Please, I’m on Lewis Street – come quickly, please!” There was desperation in her voice. Without stopping to put down the phone, I tore toward the stairwell, not stopping to put on a jacket, or even shoes. I heard muffled scraping and shuffling on the other end of the phone. “Chrissie! Are you still there?” There was a long, ominous pause as I sprinted down the stairs. Finally, blissfully, her voice came again – slightly less shaken this time. “I’m… It’s okay. I think… There was a man following me. Really closely…” I heard the shudder in her voice.
“Just stay put!” I half-shouted back, bolting out the front door and hurrying down the street like a madman. I didn’t care what people thought, although I must have looked a strange sight… A tall man in jeans and a t-shirt charging down the road without shoes. She spoke again. I could tell she was feeling guilty for scaring me. “It’s okay darling… If you want me to wait for you, that’s what I’ll do.” She was trying to be strong, but I could still hear undertones of fear in her voice. I knew she wanted me to come for her.
I found her on the corner of Lewis Street, eyes darting in all directions. Was she keeping an eye out for me, or the man who had been following her? Probably both. As soon as she saw me she approached me immediately and I embraced her tightly. She was clinging to me, burying her head in my chest. I hadn’t seen her this vulnerable in a long time. We just stood there, in silence, for at least a minute before she finally spoke.
“A man was following me… Far more closely than I was comfortable with. Just after I called you, he… Grabbed me. From behind. Pushed me up against a wall.” She was shaking. I could tell she was still affected by it.
I grit my teeth. “I’ll kill him. What happened next?”
She took a few moments, and then said with a little more confidence, “Somebody saw it. I guess I got lucky… Hardly anyone uses this route.” My eyes scanned the street. Sure enough, it seemed to be completely deserted.
“Did the guy who grabbed you leave straight away?” Chrissie nodded.
“Yeah. He just… sprinted off – I didn’t see which way he went.”
I held her even more tightly. “Come on, honey – it’s alright now. Let’s go home.”
Her hand was wrapped firmly around mine as we returned to the apartment. She still seemed to be in shock about what had happened. She wasn’t her usual good-natured teasing self at all, although that could hardly be expected. Her behaviour did seem slightly out of character, though. Whenever she’d been scared or hurt before, she always did her best to put on a brave face, even to me. This was a side of her that I hadn’t seen even when we had first started dating. She actually seemed really vulnerable. Of course, that’s what one would expect after she’d just gone through an ordeal like that. I guess I just knew her so well that it was just surprising to see something new in her. I didn’t mind, though. She was being intensely affectionate, which I attribute to her desire for protection. I decided I quite liked this new side to her, and thought nothing more of it.
Over the next few days, we both managed to forget that night’s incident. I was getting more and more nervous. Tomorrow was the day I would be proposing. Chrissie was just as lovely as ever, albeit slightly clingier. She was always looking at me, watching what I was doing. She smiled a lot, and seemed to be paying more attention to me than ever.
“So hey, I was thinking we could go for a walk tomorrow.”
Chrissie blinked, and then grinned. “That sounds amazing – where were you thinking?”
I smirked. “It’s a secret, you’ll find out soon enough.” She was sitting beside me, on the couch – and she leaned her head against me.
“Somewhere private I hope,” she murmured tenderly.
“Why do you say that?” I replied teasingly. “Want to get me alone so you can have your way with me?”
Her eyes flickered mischievously. “Of course,” she purred. “That sounds very exciting, don’t you think?”
Call me crazy, but there was something in her tone that gave me pause. First of all, Chrissie had never really been one to enjoy… that sort of thing outdoors. Secondly, while she could be charming when she wanted to be - she never really made much of an effort to be seductive. There was a sweetness and desire to her voice that seemed out of place. I knew her better than I knew myself, surely I wasn’t mistaken. “Adam?” Her voice had a slight hint of concern to it. “Is something wrong? If you just want to walk, that’s totally fine…” Hell, maybe I was just imagining things.
That night, as she slept beside me, I thought back on the events of the last few days. On the surface, nothing seemed out of place; but I knew Chrissie extremely well, and she’d been acting in a way that was just ever so slightly odd. I hardly noticed it. I find it hard to believe that anyone who didn’t know her as well as I did would ever have picked up on it. Maybe she herself wouldn’t have picked up on it. But… I couldn’t shake the feeling that there was something different about her. Maybe it was her increased desire for intimacy. Perhaps it was her uncharacteristic attempt at seduction which seemed just a trifle overdone. Perhaps it was the fact that she showered for a few minutes longer, or that she fell asleep much more easily than she used to. Then again, perhaps it was just my imagination. Whatever the case, I was uneasy. This was the first time I’d ever felt like I didn’t truly understand her.
The next day, I was resolute. This was the day. I felt like there were hundreds of little winged insects fluttering about in my gut. I went to the set of drawers beside the bed. Third draw down. My hands were trembling slightly as I opened the draw. Chrissie was in the lounge. She hadn’t taken long to get ready, so now she was patiently waiting for me. I quickly stowed the object in the inside of my coat pocket, and went to get Chrissie. We’d be ordering a taxi, arriving at the forest in a couple of hours, and then spending another few hours walking. I had everything planned out.
The walk was so pleasant and refreshing that I had almost forgotten my concerns from the previous night. As we sat down in the middle of a sun-touched clearing, and I unpacked the food, everything seemed calm and normal. “You’ve gone to quite a lot of effort,” Chrissie said with a smile. I nodded, feeling the nervousness return. I hoped this was going to turn out okay.
“Do you remember that time we went swimming in the river in the middle of winter?” I was gazing at her, beaming as I asked the question. She grinned back at me.
“Of course. It was freezing, but we did it anyway.” Her voice was rueful, as if reflecting on the courage of our youth. My heart was starting to beat faster. I offered her my hand. She seemed slightly confused, but took it all the same. This was it. It was now or never.
“Chrissie…” I began, releasing her hand as I did so.
She cocked her head slightly. “Adam?” I shakily smiled, but rather than dropping to one knee, I took a step backward.
“No, we didn’t. You swum alone.” Her smile faded.
“What do you mean?” she asked, confusion evident in her voice.
My heart was racing now, and I spoke quickly. “You wanted me to swim, but I was too scared. You teased me about it afterward.” Her eyes narrowed, and she let out a long, disappointed sigh. I took another step back, but she made no move to follow me. “Who are you really?” I growled. Instead of replying, she turned her eyes toward me and looked me straight in the eye. As we made eye contact, I gasped in shock, and almost fell backward in fear. Her eyes were clouded, and pale as milk – devoid of any expression or emotion.
For a moment, I stood stock still, paralysed with fear. And then all of a sudden she – no, it – lunged forward. I regained my composure just in time to leap to the side, but it was faster than any human had the right to be. It turned with lightning reflexes and charged toward me, ramming into me and using its momentum to slam me up against a tree. The force of the impact left me bruised, and gasping for air. And then I felt its hands around my throat. Those perfectly calm white eyes bored into mine as it squeezed, tightening around my windpipe and choking the air from my body. One of my arms was free, but I wasn’t in a good position to land an effective punch. Adrenaline surged through my body. I was terrified, but I knew what I had to do. I fumbled around in the inside of my coat, and my hand tightened around something solid. I was starting to see points of sharp white light now, felt the burning pain that came with my lack of oxygen. Desperately, I tore the object from my coat pocket, and pushed it up against the creature’s hip.
I pulled the trigger.
My name is Jenna. I like to consider myself as a pretty ordinary person. I live with my father, and have a job as a receptionist at a local hotel. I’m not really all that close to anyone, except for dad. He’s always been there for me. I know it’s kind of sad that I still live with him, but every time I think about moving out I remember that I’m all he has left. Mom died six years ago, in a car crash – along with both of my brothers. I’m all the family he has, and he’s all the family I have. When I remember that, moving out doesn’t seem like such a big deal.
Tonight, I’m at a restaurant for dinner. Dad’s running late, which isn’t usual for him. He’s quite punctual normally, but it is his birthday – so I’m not about to criticise him for it. Who knows, maybe he’s finally found a partner. I’m not sure how I would feel about that. I want him to be happy, but that might mean he’d have no time for me anymore. Maybe it’s about time, though. That would give me an incentive to find a boyfriend, I guess. I’ve had a couple in the past, but it never seemed to work out. Dad would often ask suspiciously if I’d been converted to Christianity, and was opposed to that sort of pre-marital stuff. But no, I’m just as much of an atheist as he is. I suppose I just wasn’t all that serious about it.
Finally he arrives. As he enters, and sits opposite me, I smile. “Twenty minutes late. I think you might be getting a bit old.” He grins ruefully and shrugs.
“Now, now – none of that. I just got held up by traffic.”
Of course, it’s rush hour. Fortunately the hotel I work in was close enough to walk from, dad would have had to drive from across the city.
“I’ve already ordered for you. Lamb shank, right?”
He chuckles. “You know me too well… and how about my beer?”
I throw him a disapproving glance. “Apple juice. Remember, you’re not supposed to be drinking – the doctor said it was bad for your blood pressure.” Dad waved that away.
“Alright, alright – I get it. Fine. Apple juice it is.” He exhales deeply. “Good to be finally done with work and sharing a meal with my wonderful daughter.” I roll my eyes, but can't keep the smile off my face. It's good to be spending some quality time with my father. Sometimes he's so busy it feels like I never got the chance, even though we live together.
Halfway through the meal I remember I left his present at work. I feel slightly guilty, but it’s only ten minutes away – so it’s not really a problem. After we finish the main course I clear my throat. “Hey, do you mind if I just go out for a few minutes? I’ll be back really soon, I just need to get something.”
Dad just smiled, as if he knew exactly what I was doing, and nodded. “Alright, Jenna – be quick though, you wouldn’t want to miss dessert!” I smile gratefully back at him and hurry out onto the street.
Luckily it’s a clear night. This part of town is pretty wealthy, so I don’t need to worry too much about being robbed or worse. The street lights are bright, and illuminate the area in a warm, luminescent glow. As I hurry back towards the hotel, I start to feel a prickling feeling at the nape of my neck. It makes me distinctly uneasy, like I'm being watched. I turn sharply, and see a tall man wearing a long black coat trailing behind me. He has dark brown hair, and hazel eyes. His face is grave, with heavy circles under his eyes that suggest he hasn’t been getting much sleep. He possesses an air of brooding intensity that is oddly magnetising. He is looking directly at me, indicating that I have captured his interest. I pause, and weigh up my options. There are lots of people around, so it’s not like he’d be able to attack me without being seen. Besides, if he's trying to stalk me, he's being laughably obvious about it.
He catches up to me about two hundred metres from the hotel. “Please listen to me.” He growls, with an edge to his voice that could be desperation or madness. I turn my head quickly. He’s beside me now, walking forward with his hands in his pockets and easily keeping pace with me.
“What do you want?” I ask, with a confidence in my voice that I don’t feel.
“I want to help you,” he replies. “What I’m about to say sounds insane, but I need you to at least hear me out.” I pause. Something about his tone causes me to stop. For some reason… I’m inclined to believe that this man is serious. “You’re in danger,” he tells me pointedly. I frown. I’ve read enough stories where a mysterious stranger shows up and tells the main character that they’re in danger to know that I probably shouldn’t ignore him. But then… those are just stories, right?
“What do you mean? How am I in danger? From who?” I need to find out as much as possible, determine whether he’s telling the truth, or just crazy.
“That man... the one who sat down with you in the restaurant back there, that isn’t your father.” That settles it, he’s definitely insane. I look at him incredulously.
“Is this some kind of a joke, or are you seriously just that mental?” He grits his teeth and growls with frustration. There’s something haunting about his gaunt face and dark demeanour. He doesn’t… look crazy. Just stressed. Afraid, maybe. Perhaps this is just a social experiment, I mean – stranger things have happened.
“Listen, if I say too much you’ll almost certainly think I’m insane. Just… watch the way your father behaves. Look for yourself. See if you notice anything different, anything out of place. Ask him questions from your past. That’s the best way to figure it out.” He pauses. “And if you do decide that I’m right, do not reveal it to him under any circumstances.”
I’m still in disbelief. This encounter is so strange that I really can’t take it at face value. And yet… there’s no harm in just observing dad, maybe bringing up a couple of things from the past. Surely there’s nothing wrong with just playing it safe. The man interrupts my thoughts. “If you come to any conclusions, please contact me.” He hands me a slip of paper, with a string of digits on it. “Good luck.” Before I can react, he picks up speed and strides past me.
“Wait!” I cry out. He pauses. “What’s your name?” I would at least like to know that much, to put a name to that troubled face. He is silent for some time.
“My name is Adam,” he says finally. “Don’t mention me to your father.”
After I returned to the restaurant, any of my trepidations were soon put at ease by the normality of the discussion with my father. I was quite quickly convinced that he had to be the dad I knew and loved. Just a normal person. I consider bringing up something from the past that only he would know, but I feel kind of bad about it – as if it’s proof that I don’t trust him. And it’s not like I have any reason to distrust him, just the word of some mysterious man on the side of the road. Still, maybe it would be nice to reminisce on the past in any case. It’s not like I’m just doing it to try and catch him out or anything, we could go over the experiences we shared when I was just a kid – back when mum was still alive.
“Do you remember when you made me a swing? You used to push me. It was really a lot of fun.” I smile at the memory. He nods, his own eyes glazing over as he thinks back on the past.
“Oh yes, those were the days.”
“Back before – “
“Your mother died,” he finishes sadly. Suddenly the mood at the table becomes pensive and sombre. “She’ll be in heaven now, along with my two darling sons.”
As soon as dinner was over, I made up an excuse for why I had to head back to work. Dad seemed to understand, and even gave me money for the bus fare home. As soon as he was gone, I began to shiver. My entire body was quivering. I’d been holding it in for the past hour, and now I couldn’t stop myself. The first warning sign had been when he’d mentioned heaven. Father had always hated the idea that our souls were either rewarded in heaven, or damned in hell for all eternity. After that… I had tried to ask as many questions as I could without giving anything away, and finally reached the conclusion that the man who was sitting across from me was not my father.
Apprehensively, I pull my phone from my pocket and dial the number Adam had left for me. After several seconds I hear his voice. “Who is this?”
I paused. “Jenna. We met just over an hour ago.”
Finally, he replies, “What was the first thing I said to you?”
I pause, and think it over. “You wanted me to listen to you…?” I hear an audible sigh of relief from the other end of the line.
“I’m staying at the Grand Admiral hotel on Lieutenant Street, about half an hour from that restaurant. Tell the staff you’re with me. I already requested they let you in. I’ll be there as soon as I can. In the meantime, don’t trust anybody.” He sounds paranoid. Still… I suppose he has every reason to. He hangs up.
The hotel room I find myself in is small, and sparsely furnished. It must have been cheap. I wait there, nervously, for several hours. Looking out across the city. The dancing lights serve to make it appear quite beautiful. Then again, I’ve learned that appearances can be deceiving.
There’s a knock on the door. It gives me a jolt, and I hurry to see who’s there. “Who is it?” I ask nervously.
“It’s me, Adam.” I breathe a sigh of relief and open the door. He looks just as haggard. Perhaps a little calmer. He walks in, and sits down on the bed, watching me with sad eyes. “I’m happy I could get to you before it was too late. I’ve been tracking that thing down ever since it…” he trails off. I decide not to respond, and give him some time to think. It isn’t long before he speaks again. “I shot it, but it didn’t seem to do much more than stun it. It bought me enough time to escape.”
“How did you figure out what it was?” I inquire curiously.
A strangled silence ensues.
“I knew her better than I knew myself,” he says finally. “That… creature couldn’t deceive me.”
I nod my understanding, and work up the courage to ask the question that’s been plaguing my mind. “Does that mean my father…?” The look he throws me is almost pitying.
“He’s already dead. I’m sorry, I couldn’t get to him in time. This creature seems to watch people, figure out how they act… then it kills them and replaces them. I don’t know why. I don’t know how. It’s monstrous.”
“Oh.” I expected to feel intense grief and sadness. I thought I’d be screaming in this kind of situation. My father – the only family I have left – he was murdered by an enigmatic monster that I can’t even begin to understand. I just feel numb. Like my body is detached, separate from my mind. “What were you doing just before? Before you met me here, I mean.”
Adam grimaces. “I thought that the monster would die if I hit it in the heart or the brain. Somewhere vital.” I let those words sink in.
“So you confronted it?” The man nods gravely, so I press on. “And… how did that go?”
His eyes sink to the floor. “Badly,” he admits. “It seems I was wrong.” I blink rapidly. Does that mean…?
“Then… how come you’re standing here right now?”
Adam’s eyes slowly rise from the carpeted floor of the hotel. No… not eyes. Clouded pools of white. I am staring into the void itself. He makes no reply, but a knowing smile creeps across his face. He stands. I jump to my feet, looking for any possible form of escape. Nothing. Just the window, high above the streets below. “Who are you really?” I scream, backing up against the wall as he slowly advances, the calm smile still on his face. His fingers wrap easily around my throat, and he begins to squeeze.
“The answer to that is simple. As far as you and everyone else is concerned… my name is Adam.”