Patricia’s eyebrows knot as her gaze flits from me to one corner of my living room to the other. Cautious, she leans forward from where she sits on my sofa and places her drink onto the coffee table. She looks back at me with a quizzical expression I’ve never seen from her.
I inhale deep in response to a knot in my stomach and repeat, “I don’t have a sister.”
“Then who’s the woman at the pond?”
“I thought it was you,” Patricia says, apprehensive. “After I got out of my car, I was going up the walkway and there was a woman standing at the pond. So, I walked up to her, put my hand on her shoulder and said, ‘Hi there, Chris!’ She turned around and I saw it wasn’t you. I laughed and said, ‘You’re not Chris!’ and she smiled and said, ‘No, I’m Connie -- Constance, actually, but I go by Connie. I’m Chris’s sister.’ I told her I work with you and I was here to see your new townhouse. She was nice. I thought she’d be joining us.”
I haven’t breathed. It takes several moments to inhale, to think.
“She said she’s my sister?”
“Yes! She looks like you!” Patricia exclaims, her eyes fixed on my face.
I bolt to the kitchen, grab my keychain from its hook and before I can finish my raised, “Let’s find her!” Patricia has dashed to my front door.
We scurry to the pond, but find no one. We explore the grounds, the pool, the spa, the Sunday afternoon near-empty parking lot. We encounter no mystery woman, no doppelgänger. The only people we find are an elderly couple taking an afternoon stroll who smile and say hello.
We return to my townhouse and collapse onto the sofa. We say nothing for a minute or so until Patricia says in a hushed, halting voice, “That’s weird.”
The hair on the back of my neck and on my forearms raises. I hesitate, but still dare to ask, “What?”
“The mantle — the pictures.”
I turn my head, slow, certain I’ll see what I’ve seen before.
Yes, the same as the others -- the mantles at my parents’ house, my former apartments, and now here, my new home.
Three framed photographs are turned to the wall. Two are my parents individual engagement photos, the third is their wedding portrait. Two other framed photos on the mantle face outward, undisturbed. One of them is me as a toddler with my parents, and the other is me in a cap and gown, my college diploma in hand.
“Oh, my God,” a panicked Patricia whispers. “Is somebody in here? Did somebody get in while we were out?”
“I don’t think so,” I say with deliberate calm. I reassure her by looking into each room, into closets, under beds.
We return to the living room and as Patricia drops onto the sofa, I go to the mantle and rotate the three photographs. Out of the corner of my eye, I see Patricia studying me.
“You know what?” I venture, sounding casual when I turn to face her. “I bet I turned those photos when I was dusting before you came and forgot to turn them around again. You just didn’t notice before we went out. Sorry,” I add a comic shrug.
It works. Patricia gasps and laughs loud. “Oh! Oh, thank God! That scared the daylights out of me!”
Now we can enjoy our cocktails as we gorge on Patricia's housewarming gift of gourmet cookies. So what if I need to lose a little weight?
There’s almost a minute of pleasant chatter before Patricia interrupts. “I’m sorry Chris, but with what just happened, there’s something you should know. It happened a couple of Fridays ago, at work. It’s something that happened to Diane."
Diane -- our steady, capable, unflappable administrative assistant.
Patricia commences telling me about that afternoon a couple of Fridays ago. An almost frantic Diane rushed into Patricia’s office, closed the door and locked it. She had to tell someone what occurred moments before in the women’s restroom.
When Diane opened the restroom door, she saw a lone woman standing motionless at the last sink. The woman stared into the mirror, her face expressionless.
“Why?” I ask.
“She thought it was you, but Diane had come out of your office after talking with you only seconds before. So, Diane said out loud, ‘Chris?’ The woman turned, stared at Diane and nodded ‘no’. Diane said the woman looked exactly like you, was dressed exactly like you, but she was very thin.”
“And?” I prompt Patricia.
“Well, Diane managed to go into a stall, but when she came out the woman was gone. The odd thing was Diane didn’t hear footsteps walking away or the restroom door open or close. To make sure it wasn’t you, she walked by your office and saw you sitting at your desk exactly like before."
Patricia pauses to see my reaction, but I'm sure my face is a blank.
"Then, Diane walked fast down both hallways, but she didn’t see the woman or anyone else. When she passed your door again, there you were still sitting, still absorbed in your work. But the woman in the restroom, the woman almost your double? Vanished, like she disappeared into thin air.”
“That’s bizarre,” is all I can say.
Patricia levels her eyes with mine. “Exactly! Well, the woman at the pond, the woman who said she’s your sister? She could be your double too except for being very thin, way too thin. It’s the same as Diane said about the woman in the restroom.”
“You mean thin like anorexic?”
“I’d say so” Patricia confirms. “You really don’t have a sister?”
After I nod “no,” Patricia worries aloud.
“A stalker? Could you have a stalker? Why did the woman at the pond know your name? Why would she say she was your sister?”
“I don’t know.”
“Are you scared?”
“Of what? The woman in the restroom — that could be coincidence. Maybe the woman at the pond could be some kind of coincidence too?”
“Well, they say everybody has a look-alike. It’s bizarre, but at least the woman at the pond seemed nice.”
I can and do reassure her. I tell her my townhouse is in a safe area and I have nice neighbors. Nothing has happened to me, I add, nothing to create any real concerns about my safety.
Later, as she prepares to leave, Patricia walks over to the mantle. “Your parents are lovely looking people. What are their names?”
“My mother is ‘Claire,’ my Dad is ‘Charles,’ goes by ‘Charlie’.”
“All ‘C’ names — you being ‘Christine,’ ‘Chris’.”
“‘Chrissy’ to them,” I confide.
Patricia’s eyebrows raise. “‘Connie,’ ‘Constance,’ — a ‘C’ name — what the woman said her name was. ‘C’ name — what do you think?"
“Don’t know,” I shrug. “Do you want me to walk you to your car?”
“In case she’s out there?’
“No. But if I see her, I’ll yell. You and everyone will hear me.”
“Okay. See you at work tomorrow, thanks for the super decadent, super delicious cookies.”
“And thank you for the booze. God knows, we needed it.”
I stay at my front door to watch Patricia leave. It’s the beginning of twilight. The greenway and the pond in front of my home is serene and only a mild breeze stirs the trees.
The workweek proceeds as usual. But, it’s life in my new home making me mentally revisit Patricia’s reports of too-thin women resembling me. There are recurrences of my finding the same trio of photographs on the mantle turned to the wall. And there are nightly impressions of odd little sounds in other rooms. In my half-asleep state I attribute the sounds to hazy dreams or the townhouse settling, but I don’t quite believe it.
Memories of my school years surface like long submerged objects in lakes or ponds. They pop unanticipated into my awareness, especially when I’m still. Classmates resurface, even a college professor. They each told me they had walked up to a brunette, certain it was me. They had called her, even tapped her back, arm, or shoulder only to have a stranger turn around to nod "no". Each of them told me the stranger looked like me, except for being “thin.” I also recall my handy carefree response, “Guess I'm generic!”
Friday night I go to bed earlier than usual. A sound jerks me awake, something lightweight fallen, but I’m too tired to get up. I glimpse the bedside clock: 3:14. Three to four a.m., ‘witching hour’. I close my eyes and a dream resumes: two little girls in identical dresses, face-to-face. One of the girls smiles at the other and places her finger to her lips: shush — don’t tell.
Saturday morning I rotate the three photos on the mantle before I see what fell during the night. Next to the bookcase is a hardcover book splayed open on the carpet: Helen, by Euripides. It’s one of the few books I chose to keep from my college days. I pick it up and see yellow highlighting on a page. A highlighted Greek word, “eidolon,” appears near my handwriting in the margin: “eidolon — spirit-image of a person, ‘ka’ in Egyptian mythology, a ‘spirit-double’ having same memories & feelings of a living person.”
I skim the book during breakfast. I remember my obsession with the spirit-double of Helen. This ancient tale had fascinated me, a spirit-double of Helen created in revenge to fool Paris of Troy.
I change my mind when I return to the bookcase to re-shelve the book. I’ll take Helen to Mom, she enjoys the classics.
“About time you’re here,” Mom semi-scolds as I walk into her kitchen and see her preparing lunch. Dad is away on a fishing trip.
As we eat, I describe Helen to her. She’s intrigued and says she’ll read it.
The mood shifts when I ask, “Did I have an imaginary playmate when I was little?”
Mom is a bit startled at my blunt tone. “Why do you ask?”
I describe my repetitive dream of late, of the little girls, the playmates. I don’t share the shush — don’t tell gesture before the dream’s fadeout.
“Yes,” Mom answers after a pause, her voice slowed. “You wouldn’t answer when we asked who you were speaking to or what made you giggle out-of-the-blue. You never did tell us about your invisible friend.”
“When did I stop playing with this invisible friend?”
“When you were five — it stopped all at once.”
Mom casts her eyes down at her plate, her reluctance obvious, painful. Moments later, a rushed admission: “The photos, the cedar chest.”
I’m breathless and lightheaded within a second.
“The one time I forgot to lock it,” she proceeds, rushing. “The photos — they were overwhelming. We tried to explain, but you were so little. We’d been advised to wait till you were older, but then you saw them, saw them when you were only five. It should not have happened, I’m sorry.”
She takes me to the guest bedroom where a cedar chest resides opposite the foot of the bed. She has me sit on the bed and wait while she leaves and after a minute or so she returns with a key in her hand.
She sits besides me and tells me of the high risk pregnancy both of us survived. I know this: I was premature, born several weeks early by emergency C-section due to her life-threatening pre-eclampsia. I also know I spent my first weeks of life in a neonatal intensive care unit.
“Of course we noticed you playing with an imaginary friend. Your father and I wondered if the name ‘Constance’ or ‘Connie’ would come out of your mouth."
She rises and approaches the chest. With her back to me she cannot notice I flinched and have started to tremble. I feel my face pale and the familiar knot in my stomach has returned.
She unlocks the chest, lifts its top, and with delicate movements reaches in and retrieves an item. It is a small pink satin photo album.
“You weren’t alone,” she says, standing in front of me, my eyes affixed to the singular pink rectangular album she holds at waist level.
“You’re a twin, an identical. You’re from a single fertilized ovum and a single placenta. We were so looking forward to two girls, but as time went on the ultrasounds showed your sizes differing more and more. You had the larger share of placenta and nutrients — you grew to almost twice her size.”
I manage to ask, “How long did she last?”
“A week. Near the end, the nurses removed all the equipment, all the wires, and your father and I could finally hold her. The nurses took photos for a keepsake.”
She opens the album to a page which has two pink and white cards. Written on each card, data: name, birthdate, birth time, weight, and length. The letter “A,” for firstborn, appears after my name on one card, the letter “B” after my twin’s name on the other.
“These two photos are what you accidentally saw,” Mom says, turning the page. The first photo is my twin’s frail face, her eyes closed, her mouth open. The second photo is of us
swaddled in white flannel. We lay side-by-side as a pair, two premature infants, one so much larger than the other.
Her tiny raised left hand is positioned beside her face. My small right hand is also raised and positioned beside my face. The fingers of her right hand and the fingers of my left hand touch each other.
Having us touch each other was something the nurses thought of, Mom discloses with a catch in her voice. She lowers her head, rests her face upon my shoulder and sobs.
I’m back home, sitting in my car in the garage after I closed the garage door and turned off the ignition. Here, alone, I weep for my sister. I weep for my parents for the daughter they lost. I weep for their cautious, often anxious, protection of me. The night is fully dark when I go inside. I see the kitchen light is on and it casts enough light into the living room to have me walk to the mantle.
“Enough,” I say rotating the three photos to face outward. “This is disrespectful to my parents.”
“Our parents,” a voice several feet away says.
I see a form in shadow by the bookcase. The air in the room is palpably different. There is an energy, a subtle yet distinctive electricity. I am not alone.
“Come into the light,” I finally say. The shadow steps forward. The light from the kitchen reveals my very thin double, her eyes large, luminous.
“Constance,” I acknowledge.
“I fixed you a snack — come,” she instructs as she turns and enters the kitchen, her footsteps inaudible.
I stand alone in the living room for a few moments before I follow.
The table is set with a small plate of ginger biscuits, a sliced pear, and a glass. She waits for me to sit before she gets the milk carton out of the refrigerator. She pours the milk into the glass, places the glass by my plate, and sits across from me.
I ask, “Have you been the one turning the photos?”
“Did you drop the Helen book?”
She nods yes and adds, “It’s tiresome to be denied.”
“It’s not so much you’ve been denied as I’ve been protected — too much so,” I tell her. “Don’t blame our parents. If anything, it’s my fault.”
“What happened before, my taking advantage. I’m very, very sorry.”
She shakes her head. “No. It was a fluke. I yelled about it, though.”
“What do you mean?”
“After I surrendered, the overseers relented. I was allowed techniques to remain, to appear off and on. It’s matters of vibrations, adjustments.”
“You grew up with me?”
“You were the playmate, you were at school, the restroom, the pond?”
Her nods for yes as well as her smile are slight.
Her smile grows when she says, “I’m ‘Constance,’ after all, aren’t I?”
“As in ‘constant,’” I understand. “What a coincidence you have that name.”
“Maybe not,” she replies.
She gestures at my plate. “Eat up, you’re hungry as usual.”
“You don’t want some?”
Now Constance’s smile is full.
“You forget,” she admonishes. “I don’t eat.”
BIO: Maureen Griswold served with the Army Nurse Corps and specialized in NICU and pediatric nursing. She was editor of a California nursing magazine and later worked as a medical writer. She lives in northern California.