Doppelgänger

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I’m late. By the time I reach the High Street I’m fighting the flood of playground mothers with pushchairs and straggling kids in tow. They give me that not one of us look they save for single dads.

The tide has gone out on the playground. A jumper hangs on the gate like seaweed. Maddy stands by the railings, hands pulled inside her sleeves. Alone.

Her eyes are bright with tears and I feel a wrenching inside. I catch myself before running out in front of traffic. Look both ways. I’ll wrap her up in a hug and tell her I’m sorry. Promise myself I’ll never be late for her again.

I step out between parked cars.

For the space between heartbeats there’s only falling.

Then the ground knocks the wind out of me. It’s cold to the touch and smooth. Hard. Unforgiving. Black like a marble worktop. It’s not Kensington High Street.

My heart flutters in panic.

I get my legs under me. My body feels like my head is on loose. For a moment I think the ground is coming up to meet me again. I take a few breaths, finger my bruised chin through my beard. My thoughts slosh about.

Maddy.

Panic drags me back. Where’s Maddy?

The space feels like a cave but isn’t. Dim and echoing. The walls have the glow of a cathode ray tube just shut off. Dark but not dark, depth but no depth. Shapes ghost across the marble. The back end of a London Bus slides around me and splits into kaleidoscope reflections, a thousand diesel engines sighing and clearing their throats on the school run.

This is what unconsciousness feels like, I decide: the awareness of unreality as everything telescopes. I cling to the thought of Maddy, waiting for me. Depending on me. I try to resolve the cacophony into one image, try to pitch myself towards my little girl.

Glass stops me.

Through the glass I see her, holding onto the school railings. Hands white-knuckled from gripping so tight. Staring at where I stepped out.

I’m not sprawled under a bus, I’m just not there.

I’m here instead, surrounded by countless reflections of Kensington High Street, each slightly different: the sun is out, it’s raining; the bus is crowded or empty; I cross in front of it or wait for it to pass. In every one of them is an echo of me, like me but not me, except for the one I came from. The one where I’m not, where I’m missing.

I’m not dead. I’m here instead…outside…or between…all these possibilities, like I’ve fallen through a crack.

She looks past me.

I slap and hammer on the solid air between us. Search for purchase, for the crack I’ve fallen through. Claw the glass till my fingernails throb. Shout till my voice is raw and my vision blurs with hot tears.
I try another High Street, and another, and the next and the next until I know hours have passed and I feel weary to my bones but I can’t stop. Maddy is waiting for me.

I slow and press my face to the images. Look at her drawn up in her bed, holding out a storybook, eyes bright with anticipation. I reach out to take it on instinct, to snuggle next to her and watch her fingers trace the words reverently as I work a magic she’s beginning to understand.

But another man takes my place. Like me but not me. Clean shaven.

Not me.

I slap my hands on the glass, yell out. Watch Maddy lean her little head against his shoulder. Her hair is darker. A different Maddy in a different universe, I know, but I don’t care.

“Get your hands off my Maddy!” I thump the glass. My hand meets nothingness and I nearly lose my balance.

I reach for the impostor. My fingertips brush his sleeve.

I grab for the bedside table to pull myself into the room and take him upside the head.

Reality distorts. Feels solid and insubstantial at the same time, like I’m pushing the north poles of magnets together. Somehow there’s glass between me and everything that’s not him.

I lunge for the impostor. My fingertips graze the back of his hand. His reading stalls. He looks past me, brushes away the draft, returns to the story.

My mind races with possibilities.

I know what I have to do.

I’ll wait till the bedroom light is out so she won’t see.

Quick and quiet, she won’t have to know. I’ll have to shave.

My heart is pounding. My hands leave sweaty impressions on the glass.

The impostor closes the book, kisses my Maddy goodnight. Stands.

I’m ready to leap. To grab him round the neck. To wrestle him out through a crack in the universe, take his place and be with Maddy.

He stops in the doorway, his hand on the light switch. Maddy snuggles down, little arms wrapped around her bear. She looks at me as her eyes close.

She’d know.

She’d know I was different. She’d know something in her Dad had changed, was…wrong. Went away one night and never came back.

She’d see it in my eyes.

“Love you Daddy,” she says, thick with sleep.

I can’t do it.

My heart breaks. I feel it kaleidoscope, fracture into roads untaken, countless possibilities branching into the future. My atoms tug apart.

The last thing I know is that somewhere, in one perfect facet of the universe, I will always be with Maddy.

About the Author: 
Sally Davis is a writer and rocket scientist.