CW: Illness, Death
It came to me on the sixth night of my sickness, when the suffering had ceased to be new. I had been lulled into those familiar throes which, now that I was accustomed to them, deceived me into thinking that they were kinder. In came something—and I was so ill I thought it at first to be a hallucination, then, blinking, a mirage transposed over the body of the aid come to tend me, and then, despite its impossibility, a dream.
Standing in the doorway of my darkened bedroom, lit by the dull light of the streetlamp which shone through my window, was my own image. It was myself: in body, in face, in hair and gait. In every aspect it copied me perfectly, even mimicking that curious reversal that occurs between the mirror and the photograph. I might have dismissed it as unreal had it not included this detail, but since it went to so much trouble, I thought believing it was the only polite thing to do.
It approached my bedside, expression not malevolent or benevolent but exactly indifferent. Only the slightest hint of curiosity touched on its lips, and even then I sensed the pendulum would quickly swing one way or the other; it was my duty, I understood, to ensure this twin would think of me kindly. Sick as I was, I did the only thing I could: I patted the blanket at the edge of the mattress, inviting it to sit with me. Its head tilted slightly, its lips quirked in a smile, its eyes shone with a sudden fondness—perhaps it was chance I did quite the right thing, but if this stranger was truly myself doubled, of course it would find care in the same places I would. “Do unto others as you would have others do unto you”—the adage never fit so aptly as I found it to then.
It sat where I bid it and gazed down at me with that same charitable look. I found it in me to smile back, and at that moment I wished that in my years I had spent more time in front of a mirror making all sorts of faces, so that I might recognize this expression as my own. I wanted more proof of this figure’s perfection; strangely, I wanted it to be me, in the same way all people at some point wish for someone who understands and accepts them in entirety.
“I don’t recall requesting a dark visitor on this quiet night.” There was nothing to my voice but a wisp, and after every few words I had to stop and pick my way around the tickle of a cough. Kindly, my picture waited as long as it took for me to finish, and would continue to do so every time I spoke.
“I fear the night someone requests a creature like me,” it replied. Its voice was mine in good health, though I found, curiously, I did not envy it.
“So you are something of darkness, then?”
“I’m not sure. I haven’t had the opportunity to consider it; I am only moments born.”
“A choice, then?”
“More accurately, I believe, a reaction.”
There have been stories of twin strangers, seen at a distance or occasionally approached. I was not so dim as to ignore them; all fables spring from old truths, and it’s an arrogant specimen who dismisses them out of hand. The accounts vary, the superstitions differ, but the one whispered to me in my childhood was the version that has since remained, and it did not frighten me. And perhaps that made all the difference.
“So you have become a gentle harbinger, but you are a harbinger still.” It inclined its head, and I pressed forth. “Am I that ill, in truth?”
“I could not say. This is only my first visit. Ask me thrice, and perhaps on the third occasion I will be able to answer.”
“I would think that your coming thrice would be answer enough, would it not?”
It smiled. “So it would seem. But miracles occur. I am only here to warn; I come unarmed, and you have my word I will do nothing to hasten the ending. It would not occur in the instant my foot crossed the third threshold.”
“The ending,” I mused. “As though I am some storybook.”
“Would you prefer I say it with less tact?”
I thought on it for a moment. Then, with a bitter smile, “Best not.”
A brief silence descended between us, and I listened to the gentle quiet of my house. Confined only to my bedroom, it had become as though I was no longer the building’s true owner; instead I was transformed into a squatter, some vermin in hiding, praying it would not be ousted. Worse, it was as though I was lost, undesirable, unworthy of being visited and taken care of; it had been some days since friends or family came to call.
“Keep me company?” I begged.
“I can do no else.”
“It has been ever so lonely. I have only one aid.”
“Do you not converse?”
“Only regarding my medication. In all other aspects I am isolated.”
“I’m sorry.” It said so with genuine feeling, and when I met its gaze—my own gaze—I saw in its eyes my own compassion; looking there, it was as if the emotions had been transferred to me, and I found myself sympathetic for my double, for a perceived loneliness it had not named. I believed it was genuinely sorry, and for that, I felt true gratitude suffuse me.
My shadow reached out to me, and despite myself I flinched. It pulled away immediately, but did not seem offended—rather, its expression I recognized in feeling if not in sight: it cringed at having reached out at all; it should have known better. At the sight, I pressed my hand to its forearm and communicated all the apology and tenderness I could through that touch. Its eyes softened with understanding, and I started at my own fondness—realized again that a transferal had happened between us; in the moment I endeared myself to my copy, so had it endeared itself to me.
“Might I call you a friend?” I asked, wary of the lightening hour—I’d had restless sleep for some time; my shadow had come to me quite deep into the night—and hoping to ascertain this, at least, before it went and I would be left to await the second warning of my death. It smiled softly, and this time when it reached out, I welcomed its touch; our hands clasped together perfectly, as mine do on their own—warm and familiar. Funny, that this figure would be as warm as any true flesh and blood.
“I would be honored,” it said. “Would it be too presumptuous to call you one in return?”
“No, never.” I gripped its hand all the more tightly.
Dawn crouched at the hills.
“I must go.”
“Stay,” I urged. My double shook its head.
“I can’t. I’m sorry.”
Again, its sorrow was real. Again, I took its sympathy as my own, or we shared it, or it was copied onto me; I understood its regret and its duty. With reluctance, I removed myself from its grasp, not looking at its expression; I imagined for my own sake it was as hard to release me as I found it to be released.
The mattress shifted, as if stood from, and when next I peered upward, my doppelganger was gone.
A week from its first visit, it called again.
My condition had not improved. I had not expected it to—more than the fate my double portended, the people in my life had begun the motions of death: when they visited, if they visited, they did so quietly, slowly, as if any sudden movement or noise could edge me over that precipice. Friends began to bring flowers, sit at my bedside, hold my hand, regale me with the goings-on at workplaces and dinners and mundane daily life. They stopped asking how my illness was progressing. Family, when they came—my interpreters of the doctor’s words, for I rarely saw him myself—stopped telling me how my illness was progressing.
Death occupies a strange niche in the psyche. It is at once a terror and a comfort, a taboo and an indulgence, and above all it occupies. Death lingers deliberately in our collective periphery; we, defined by life, recoil from our truest opposite and yet walk toward it with each step. It is an inevitability to be certain, but an inevitability we are dragged toward bodily; some of humanity’s greatest leaps have been backward, away. I was no stranger to this aversion; as all mortals do, I feared death. Most of all, I feared cessation.
It has disturbed me since childhood that death is an absolute end. It steals everything from a person, save the flesh. Their very essence of personhood halts and dissipates, leaving behind a container wearing but the remnants of personality, preference, taste. I wondered how everyone wasn’t wholly terrified of it—how could any person stand the thought of ending? Your thoughts, experiences, likes, revulsions: all rendered irrelevant, uncommunicable? It is a terror that begets nihilism: what matters, in the face of it? If I will die eventually—if I will cease, become nothing, leave behind nothing that life will remember—what has ever mattered?
In the week since my doppelganger first appeared to me, I slowly convinced myself the whole affair had been a dream. It had been late. I was not well. I was lonely. I could not be faulted for imagining an inoffensive companion in a weak moment.
But no—a week from its first visit, it called again, that mirror, standing shadowed in my threshold, fondness upon its face, and for the second time I welcomed it inside.
It was night, again.
“My dark visitor,” I greeted with a rasp. It smiled, melancholic.
“So we meet again,” it said, both a greeting and an acknowledgement.
Seeing my twin stranger, musings of death and cessation still pricking at my mind, I realized suddenly and softly that, for all the stories I had been told since childhood of the mirrored ghosts, no one had ever explained to me what happens to them after you die. What then? Do they take on another’s visage and portend eternally the same fate, becoming someone new in threes? Or, like us, do they die? I wondered: could a double, like I do, fear cessation? Could it fear at all?
I, afraid, could not ask. The thought of it arrested my throat.
“How have you fared, in the days since?”
“Oh—here. I have just been here. Visitors trickle in and out.” I gestured to the flowers on the nightstand, yellowing. “They leave me flowers antemortem.”
My picture lifted a hand to the petals. Callously, I expected them to fall, dead, at a single touch—but no. Its fingers gently caressed the petals, and nothing changed but for the memory that I recalled: that its hands, when I held them, had been warm.
“What good would they do posthumously?” It sounded genuinely curious when it asked. “Better to appreciate them now, is it not?” At that, I shook my head, a sudden exhaustion weighing on my neck. My shoulders bowed forward; I felt myself curl into an ugly sitting position, but I could not care.
“Each flower is given with death already in mind.” I reached out to the same flower it had touched, curling around its head like a claw, threatening it. “They are all only waiting. They are telling me to hurry up.” I made good on my threat. The flower crumbled, and I did not bother brushing its remnants from my palm. Upon looking up, I found my double sad, and the feeling was given to me; I grieved, suddenly, for the flower I had killed, despite that it might have been a mercy—that, cut, it was slowly dying regardless.
“Are you certain that’s true?”
“Does it matter?” I surveyed the room, so much more now a prison than my home. “I am alone here still. I am dying, and the best anyone has offered is flowers, as if my nightstand is a headstone.”
Only then did my twin sit beside me, comfortably reassuming the vigil it had sat just a week ago, reaching out to take my hand once again. “I cannot offer you even that much,” it said to me.
Our grip—so impossible it was to distinguish between its hand and mine, our skin identical, our feelings transferring between us like heat between bodies—soothed me in a way no other visitor had managed. Perhaps I was biased. Perhaps I was just wanting, and only I—that indefinable I, the piece of myself that wants indiscriminately, wants in a way that cannot be pinned down and named—was able to respond, to give.
“It does not feel that way,” I whispered, admitting I could name no tangible thing which my double had given, and yet that something was given all the same.
A brief silence overtook us, which I drank in; it was so different from, and much more tolerable than, that cacophonous quiet which joined me in loneliness.
“Few would respond as you have when faced with their own end,” it said.
“Still with such tact, are you?”
“You requested I keep it.”
“Forgive me for such evasions. I must, if I am to continue to respond so amiably.”
There is no possible way to describe what it was: being with someone, another person, who is also yourself. It is you; you are it; you are separate, entwined. To be so deeply understood was intoxicating. That there had always been a limit made it all the more so—that it would leave with the dawn, that I had only three nights to know it.
“Do you believe what I foretell?” it asked me suddenly.
“I have never been one to trust in miracles.”
Its other hand came, then, to where ours were clasped, and its grip enveloped me completely. “I shall hope for one regardless,” it said, and it was that word—hope—that made all the difference. You can disdain a thought. You can doubt it, ignore it, laugh at it, revile it—but, insidiously, without your conscious allowance, you might still hope for it. It’s involuntary; it’s survival. We can’t help it.
“I must go.”
“So soon, again?”
It smiled. “It is your fault for staying awake so late into the night.”
“No—yours, for coming so late.”
It laughed, and I missed it already. I wanted—I wanted—
“Once more, you will see me,” it promised. I knew that, of course. We had both known it from the start. “I promise to come earlier then.”
“I’ll hold you to keep it,” I said, clutching its hand. Then I looked away, allowed my grip to unfurl, allowed it the privacy to go, to disappear or unravel or simply walk away; whatever doppelgangers do when they are not harbinging.
Despite my dismissal, for a moment it lingered. Its thumb brushed gently over the back of my hand. And then it stood, our hands slipping from each other, becoming distinct again, and when I next gazed to my right, the room was empty, and once more I was one, alone.
It would have been easier, to be certain, to loose my belief and let it run into dream. Twice, however, is near enough a pattern, and my illness was not of the mind. Thus, I spent the week following my twin stranger’s second visit waiting for it to return again, eager with the waiting, wanting for nothing but its presence once more. I was in honeymoon, obsessed, agonized with loneliness. I was afraid—certainly, I was afraid—but, too, I was consoled: how kind of life, how gentle, to offer me a companion as I went forward into cessation.
Ultimately, its arrival was simple: I closed my eyes briefly to rest, early on in the evening. I was alone, as I often was, save the aide, sleeping then in the guest room down the hall. I—perhaps awake, perhaps in the early moments of sleep—was startled by the dip of my bed. And then I opened my eyes, and it was there: me, a reflection of me, a recreation. And with it, I felt a great, swooping relief.
“Hello again, my darling.” The words tripped and stumbled their way out of me as they always did at these meetings. As it always did, my double listened patiently until they righted themselves.
Its eyes crinkled with the slightest, sweetest smile. “Am I finally rid of darkness, then?” It was a nothing jab, without venom, calling back to my greetings of before. It reassured me; my mind was not failing; I remembered it; it remembered me.
“You are like light, here with me,” I said truthfully. Then, glancing at the clock, I continued, “You kept your promise.”
“I could not deny you this on our last meeting.” It spoke lightly, but with an unmistakable sorrow. “Although you must know not everything waits for the dawn.” I looked away, both in denial and because I could not bear it if that sorrow I had glimpsed were to make its way into me. I had dealt quite enough with sorrow by then. I wanted only companionship. Only to be cherished.
It spoke again, seeing my disturbance. “I am sorry.” Again, that sorrow.
“No—please, save your apologies.” I reached for it without looking, staring at the quilt, and it met me, our hands entwining, fusing as they had before. “You have brought me the last great comforts of my life.” Following this, for a moment, my double did nothing but sweep its thumb across the back of my hand, squeezing every now and again. It was curious how in moments like this, the thick silence that falls, anticipating being broken, became something of a friend, a companion in its own right.
“You have accepted it, then?” it asked quietly.
Acceptance is not quite the feeling.
Still, I replied, “What else is there to do, my shadow, but die?”
Anything can become a friend if you hold it close enough. Illness had taken to my body like warmth, spreading within me, embracing my limbs and stomach and mind until all I could feel was its influence, its heat, sweet and sickly. The weakness in my muscles had become gentle pushes back into the comfort of my bed. The fever had become a second pulse, beating hot and cold, echoing my heart; we had become one: sickness as person, body as sickbed, and so on, endless mirrors. I had wondered, lying there in the in-between, if ultimately I might find a friend in death, too—if to be sick is life’s rejection, shoving me forth into death’s waiting arms.
“You are alone,” my picture observes.
“Why? Did you not expect me?”
“Of course I did.”
“I would have thought you’d desire for company, on tonight of all nights.”
I regarded it for a moment. Its concern was so genuine, touchingly human—it was mine, my care, and yet it had diverged from me. My reflection was built from myself at a moment where I was healthy, unjaded. It could not know the sludge that had begun to ooze in my mind, the resentment, the unvoiced pleas.
“I have never been one to beg,” I said quietly. “Regardless—is that not what you are here for? Company?”
“I have only one purpose.” Its response was hesitant.
“It was I who asked you to come earlier in the night, wasn’t it?” I squeezed its hand, tried to send it my conviction, my relief. “I should think that’s desire enough.”
Its lip quirked upward, yet its eyes remained so sad. “Am I truly the better companion?”
Even then, even beneath the sorrow, I could feel the original fondness we shared, the sensation that enticed me, twice, to beg it to stay.
“There is no longer anyone else who truly loves me.”
Its eyes widened, just slightly.
“Is it love, to come with a warning?” it wondered quietly, its free hand coming to trace the skin of my arm.
“What else could it possibly be?”
I was not wealthy, but I had some money put away. I wrote a will long ago, a simple thing: distribute my assets evenly to my surviving family members. I never bothered to change it and never bothered to conceal its contents. I was not the kindest person, nor the most patient; I argued and postured and judged. I was not a bad person—I never went out of my way to be cruel—but gazing backward, being visited as if already dead, I regretted every misstep. I wished only to double back, to do things over, to be nothing but gentle. And I couldn’t. And, when he visited, my brother would not meet my eyes. My niece would not hold my hand. My mother—that old bat, still strong on her feet—refused to relay what the doctor told her.
My shadow’s gaze flicked downwards, but it did not let go of me.
“Aren’t you afraid?” it asked softly.
“I’m terrified.” My gut had been roiling with dread since my double arrived. Had I the strength, my fingers would be white with how tightly I gripped its hand.
“I’m sorry. I wish I were something more kind.”
There it was again: that sorrow, regret, so thickly transferred between us it was impossible to tell who it originally belonged to. Still, I could think above it: still, I thought, there is little that I would consider kinder than a warning; to warn is a kind of love; to love is a form of kindness. It was easier to face death braced for it.
“What will happen to you, when I go? Will you become someone else?” I paused. “Or—do you, too, end?” Considering the question, it swept a thumb across my forearm. The touch was light, absentminded.
“I know less about myself than you do. I am certain only that I am here as a premonition: a possibility, a fear.” It squeezed my hand tighter. “And that I will not be here for the end, no matter how much I might wish to.”
“You did say so.” Since that first night, its words had haunted me, however gently. “You said to ask again tonight, if I am that ill in truth,” I said then, but did not ask.
For a long moment, it only watched me. “You said you don’t put stock in miracles.”
“No,” I whispered.
“I’m sorry,” it said again. Endless apologies, and I recognized them: there was the regret again, seeping into everything, halfway the desire to offer support, halfway that selfish notion: please don’t go.
The night slid forward through hours. My double stayed throughout them, as it promised, and I told it everything. I ran out of breath often. I sat up, talked with my hands, confessed to it, embraced it; we were the same but distinct; the night gave way to us, stretched its seconds into minutes and its minutes to eons. I forgave the hours their prior quickness; I forgave the harbinger what it foretold; I forgave myself the fear of death and death its natural terror. I stopped leaping backward. I stopped aching for someone to hold me. There I was being held; I was doing the holding.
“What do you think happens?”
“I don’t know. I couldn’t say.”
“Guess—it can be anything.”
Silence, that friend. And sorrow again.
“I hope we’ll see each other.”
Hope, sneaking back in, indomitable.
“Yes. I hope so too.”
Hands held, indistinguishable.
Did it ever really matter? Distinguishing them?
An excerpt of this piece first appeared in the 2022 edition of Long River Review. The above represents the full version of this piece.