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The Dupes

by Jack Alcott

part 1 of 2

Doug Blake had always believed that you could never really know what goes on in the secret soul of another individual. But what if that other person was you? What if you came face to face with your twin, your double, your duplicate in every way? Would you have some intrinsic understanding, some unconscious blood knowledge of each other; a kind of completeness shared by no other beings?

Or would you not even like each other?

Doug and all the others who’d ever wondered about that particular puzzle got their chance to explore its possibilities on a brilliant April morning, one of those days that dawns with all the sweet earthly fragrance of spring on the way.

It was a few minutes past 7 a.m., and Doug had just stepped out the front door of his home with his black and silver mini-schnauzer, Schnapps, on a leash so his pet could relieve himself on the holly bush out by the driveway.

Doug was still in his bathrobe, and while only an occasional car was zipping by he didn’t really want anyone to see him looking so frumpy and disheveled — so uncool — and he tried to get Schnapps to hurry up with his business by gently yanking the dog’s leash. Now schnauzers are tough little terriers and they don’t like being pushed or tugged around, so Schnapps dug in and took his time picking just the choice spot to let go on. Which of course made Doug more impatient, especially when he heard a car approaching and saw an image of himself with his crummy robe and flyaway hair through the driver’s eyes.

“C’mon, c’mon, let’s go. Hose that baby down,” he urged the dog as he tried to shield himself from view behind the holly bush as the car came closer.

Then there was a flash and a white sheet of light that seemed literally to explode in the plastic lenses of his glasses. Momentarily blinded, he simultaneously thought he’d just witnessed an apocalyptic aerial explosion, or — the more logical choice — sunlight had just glanced off the windshield of the passing car and sent its fiery reflection straight into his eyes.

“Ow! What the hell?” he said, ducking his head away. Schnapps also reacted to the flash, first with a squeal and then with his more characteristic gruff bark.

Doug took off his glasses and rubbed his eyes, all the while thinking about the coffee perking in the kitchen and how he needed a cup or two to clear his head.

“That was freaky,” he said to Schnapps as he put his glasses back on. That’s when he found himself staring at his house — the innocuous and ordinary ranch-style suburban home he’d lived in for three years. Except something extraordinary had now happened, because the house wasn’t where it was supposed to be but was across the street, where previously there’d been an empty lot. Or maybe he’d got switched around somehow after the flash. Right, maybe? But how? How’d he get over here? He didn’t remember walking that far. What?

Disoriented, he looked around as a cold and queasy sense of unease slopped around in his guts like the pint of cheap liquor he’d drunk the night before — and maybe that’s what it was, delirium tremens. Since his wife had left him a few months ago, he’d taken to cuddling up with a bottle at night. Probably a good time to cut back, he thought.

Then he turned and saw that his house was once again in its rightful place, his front door only a few yards away and not across the street. Bland and boring as usual, it was nonetheless a welcome and comforting sight and he was happy to see that everything was as it should be, and in its place.

And then he looked back across the street, and there it was, the other house exactly like his. Same poured concrete stoop with three steps up to the same white door, yellow vinyl siding, picture window on the second floor, gravel driveway, holly bush... The same.

Except. The driveway was on the wrong side of the house. And wait... so was the big flat, featureless pane of glass that was the picture window. And the holly bush was in the wrong place, too.

He noticed all this with a numb but growing disbelief and anxiety, looking quickly from his home to its duplicate across the street, and then back to the original again. Exactly, precisely the same, except... except... and again a slippery, drunken chill slipped clean through him; they were mirror images of each other. Right was left, left was right. Mirror images.

He watched in open-mouthed fascination — and not a little creeping horror — as a furtive, disheveled figure in a lumpy brown robe emerged from behind the “other” holly bush across the way. Behind him, a black and silver schnauzer lifted its leg.

The guy in the robe stared directly at him with what Doug imagined was the same stupefied expression on his own face. But then the other “Doug” squinted and stumbled toward him dragging the schnauzer, who was whining with fear — as was Schnapps at his own side. The whole tableau reminded him for a moment of that Marx Brothers routine where Groucho and Harpo face off in a doorway as though it were a mirror, with Harpo mimicking his brother’s every move — until he was out of synch.

Doug’s duplicate certainly wasn’t conforming to his every move. In fact, he started walking faster and then to jog toward Doug, who hadn’t twitched since he laid eyes on the guy. Whether from a muscle-freezing terror or something supernatural, Doug couldn’t move but stood fast as though glued to the ground even though he wanted to run away from this guy and his dog who were now charging at him, coming across the street, the belt of the ratty brown terry cloth robe flapping behind him, his dog resisting and whimpering while his own Schnapps was also whining and trying to run the other way.

Then the guy, the other Doug with the same flyaway, thinning sandy hair was practically on top of him and Doug finally got control of his reflexes and jumped back about three feet, falling sideways onto the drive and scraping the palm of his right hand on the bluestone gravel.

“Dammit,” he yelled, looking at the blood in the middle of his hand where a small blue chip of stone had embedded itself under his pink skin.

“What the hell is going on?” the other Doug said in what can only be described as an awe-filled voice as he ran up to him. “Who are you? What the hell is this?” He had stopped just a few steps from where Doug sat on his ass in gravel, and he made no effort or offer to help him up. Which was okay with Doug, who’d seen enough science fiction movies to know that if he was anti-matter or something and they touched, they’d explode.

So Doug just looked squarely at him expecting the worst, like maybe he’d morph into a reptilian alien invader or some kind of bug-eyed monster and swallow him whole. I mean, he thought, what else could one think when faced with such a bizarre situation?

Neither of them said anything for a full three seconds or so, but just stared at each other, absorbing all the details, seeing each other as others always saw them, as separate, physically defined individuals. One of the first things Doug thought, seeing himself, was that he was actually kind of a funny-looking guy, which was something he’d always suspected, based on what he saw reflected in the mirror every day. But even the cold, metallic glassiness of a mirror didn’t convey the entire truth the way seeing yourself in 3D on a sunny morning in a crappy robe did. He didn’t like what he saw, but it was what it was, and he couldn’t glance sideways at himself the way he did in a mirror.

The two Dougs still had their pale blue eyes locked on each other when the sirens started screaming and whooping and wailing from every corner of the sky, as though nuclear Armageddon was imminent. Both schnauzers went nuts, howling like miniature wolves at the godawful and unnatural racket as two red-and-white sheriff’s cruisers shot past on the road with their sirens blasting, blending into the din that was growing far and wide around the town, the county, the state — and maybe the world, for all Doug could tell.

“Stay back!” Doug shouted over the sirens as he scrambled to his feet, careful to move further away from the other Doug, just in case the anti-matter thing really was an issue. “Don’t come any closer, we — both of us — might be in danger. I mean this is crazy, what is going on?”

“I don’t know,” the other Doug said, looking around at the sky and the ground and Doug’s house on one side of the street and then Doug’s house on the other side, too. “It seems real, like it’s really happening, like it’s not a dream. Not a hallucination. I mean, everything’s doubled, right? “

“Yeah, doubled,” Doug repeated and glanced around at the new, changed, oddly duplicated world. “What the hell is going on?”

Neither of them expected an answer, and as the sirens reached for even higher crescendos they held each other’s blue stare one more time — and then both turned tail and ran back to their respective and identical homes, where they burst through their front doors, grabbed for their remotes and punched on their exact same Samsung flat screens to CNN.

Outside, the muffled sirens blurred into one horrendous sky-filling scream.

Inside, Anderson Cooper was on the air, pacing back and forth, his silver hair more mussed than usual. He was excitedly narrating live video footage that showed two Federal-style brick houses side-by side somewhere in the Georgetown section of D.C. Out in front, several pairs of twins were engaged in what appeared to be a dispute. One pair of elegantly and identically coiffed women started slapping each other, and in the next instant were flailing about on the ground as their twin husbands tried to separate them.

“It’s not clear what this phenomenon is,” Cooper was saying, his voice higher and shakier than even some of his combat reports live from Afghanistan, “but we’re hearing from scientists that it’s some kind of breach in the ordinary physics of the universe. Now I know that sounds crazy, but that’s how they’re explaining it so far, and some are pointing to experiments earlier today at the Large Hadron Collider near Geneva, Switzerland. We’re hearing that researchers there had finally found the mysterious Higgs boson particle — and then all this happened.”

He gestured at the screen where the two look-a-like hubbies had just disentangled their cookie-cutter wives, only to have them leap on each other again in a whirl of skinny kicking and smacking limbs. “Reports are coming in from all over the country of these random duplications of people and homes. They only appear to make up a small percentage of the population, and are actually few and far between, but wherever the doubles — or doppelgangers, as scientists are calling them — occur, there is of course chaos. There are also reports coming in from other countries and I’ve just been told we have exclusive video from Russia, where the doubling effect is causing problems at the highest echelons of government.”

A new amateur video, apparently shot on a smartphone, appeared behind Cooper. In it, two Vladimir Putins stared with astonishment at each across a stage at a political rally in Moscow. The crowd before them surged forward amid anguished shouts and cries in Russian, and then party banners and giant posters of Putin fluttered and fell as the video blacked out.

The camera cut back to Cooper, or rather his profile as he spoke to someone just off screen. His voice was alarmed and it became clear why as a second Anderson Cooper suddenly sauntered into the picture frame. “This is surreal,” the first Anderson Cooper said. “I’m dumbfounded and I’m not sure what to say about this latest, strange development, except that obviously it has something to do with the doppelganger effect worldwide.”

“Well, I’m here to help keep our viewers informed about this this world-changing event,” the second Cooper chimed in, and he seemed as comfortable and as much in love with the camera as the other one. “What are your thoughts as you come face-to-face with yourself,” number two earnestly asked number one.

It was all too much for Doug, and leaving Anderson Cooper to interview Anderson Cooper, he fled from the family room into the kitchen where he had a bottle of Old Forester bourbon stashed in one of the cabinets.

* * *

Across the street, Doug number two wasn’t drinking bourbon, although he’d considered that a couple of shots of the sweet brown fire might settle his nerves. But no, he had too much thinking to do and couldn’t fuzz it up with alcohol. This was about survival, physical and psychological.

He was standing in his family room, staring around at the walls and furniture as though seeing them for the first time. But try as he might, he couldn’t keep the illusion going; it was all so familiar to him, everything had an intimate history that he could not forget. The Burleigh lithograph, circa 1887, of his hometown that hung over the fireplace mantle was right where he’d put it. His wife had given it to him on his last birthday, nearly a year before she left him.

He certainly remembered the pain of that breakup, and he certainly hoped she’d come back. Then there was the fireplace itself and all the good smoky, flame-flickering blazes he’d stoked among the oak and maple logs from trees that had come down in his yard and that he’d split and chopped.

He remembered it all, maybe not every moment — who does? But enough to know that he’d lived that life, that it was his, that he’d been there and that he wasn’t the cosmic simulacrum that CNN would have the world believe. No matter how he got here, this was his world, too, and he was staying. Even as he thought about his current status as a doppelganger — and somehow in his bones he understood he was the new iteration of Doug — he realized what he had to do next. He had to go to work!

Doug number two knew that the original Doug was an environmental writer for the local daily newspaper covering the crowded bedroom communities north of New York City. The Indian Point nuclear power plant on the Hudson River, less than an hour from downtown Manhattan, was the focus of many, if not most of his stories and columns.

But when he wasn’t reporting about nuke shutdowns or strontium-90 in Hudson fish, he was writing about weird weather, coyotes attacking children in suburban backyards, or hazardous waste spills out on Interstate-84. Pretty much whatever was new and dangerous in the environment. If a cataclysmic torquing of the universe with doppelgangers popping up everywhere wasn’t an environmental story, he didn’t know what was.

The instinctive newsman inside Doug No. 2, as he now thought of himself, said “Page One.”

Within minutes he was in his dinged-up Honda Civic headed down the highway to the paper, his smartphone in his hand as he drove.

* * *

Proceed to part 2...

Copyright © 2012 by Jack Alcott

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