Doppelganger - By David Stahler Jr


He had been watching for most of the day, watching the far mountains as they faded in and out of clouds, then the trees closer by as they came and went amid the mist as well. Later he began watching the strip of gravel road that wound its way up to the cabin, waiting for her to get home so she could feed him. He was hungry. He’d been hungry all day, and yesterday, too. In the end, he settled on watching the rain patter against the glass, watched the drops as they puckered and trickled, splitting up or drawing together in patterns he couldn’t understand. Then finally, as even the drops began to fade against the encroaching darkness, a pair of headlights at the corner, and soon a station wagon pulling up to the house. It was a new car. She usually came back with a new one.

He left the window, ran behind the chair, and crouched in the darkness. A minute later, the door opened. There were footsteps—six slow ones—followed by light in the cabin, causing him to pull back, blinking, even further into the shadows. Footsteps again, closer now. Then the face, illuminated by the overhead light as she bent down to stare into the hollow place behind the chair.

“It’s not much of a game if you always hide in the same spot,” she said.

He didn’t reply. He just pulled his knees in tighter to his chest and studied the face.

It was a full face, smooth and pale, with the slightest hint of a double chin. Its eyes were round and blue, and its hair was yellow like the sun. He liked this face better than her last one. The last one was old. Old and mean, with squinty eyes and a cruel mouth. This face wasn’t mean. It even looked like the face of somebody’s mother, one that could be warm and kind if the wearer wanted it to be. And maybe with a face like that, the wearer would want it to be.

Still, even though he liked it better, he didn’t move. He never moved when she first came back, until she made him. She thought it was a game, but it wasn’t—he just had to be sure.

“You can come out,” she said. “Come out of there.”

He shook his head, stubborn. She looked away, sighed, and then looked back. There was a twitching along the corners of her jaw and hairline, followed by a ripple, as if her face were a pool into which he’d thrown a pebble. For a moment he could see the old eyes, lidless, round and cold; could see the gray skin and nostril folds. It both comforted and terrified him.

She turned away and went over to the woodstove.

“The lights were off,” she said. “Were they off yesterday, too? Did you never turn them on?”

He crawled out from behind the chair and shook his head, even though she wasn’t looking.

“It’s freezing in here.” She opened the stove door and peered in. “You let the fire go out.” She glanced back at him in disgust. “And after I showed you how to do it.”

“I wasn’t cold,” he said. It wasn’t true. He was cold last night.

“Well, I’m cold, and it’s only now getting dark. Sit at the table. You probably didn’t eat, either.”

He sat at the table and waited while she built a new fire. Soon it was warm in the cabin again, and his mouth watered at the smell of the bacon she was cooking to go with the beans.

When she finished, she put the food before him and sat at the table watching him eat. The rain had stopped throbbing against the metal roof, and the quiet, coupled with the warmth of the fire, had coaxed a cricket out of hiding, and then another. He’d listened to the pair the night before, sometimes chirping together, but usually taking turns. Lying alone in the house, he’d wondered if they were trying to outdo each other or if they were just talking. Now, as they set to chirping once more, he smiled vaguely at their song.

“You’ve got to do a better job taking care of yourself,” she scolded as he shoveled beans into his mouth. “Otherwise you’ll never survive.”

“I’ll try harder next time.”

“Do,” she said.

She left the table for a while and came back as he was finishing up, opening her hands to set the two crickets on the table. He watched them take a few tentative hops. They’d stopped chirping, suddenly shy.

“Dessert,” Copyright 2016 - 2021