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“A Doppelganger. Something that’s neither a spirit nor a creature. Nearly human, yet still far from it. Stories of our look-alikes date back to ancient times. Some claimed that they are bad omens, that those who caught sight of their mirror images were doomed to death or illnesses far worse. Others believe they are spirits who failed to inherit the physical body you were born with. Thus they take your form, follow you, observe your every move, and when the time comes, they rid themselves of their temporary shells for your everlasting one.”
Amira's eyes scour the page as her fingers trail the grains of the paper. The book captivates her unlike any other, and she ponders the possibility that somewhere in this universe was her doppelganger. Would they look just like her? Talk like her? If they replaced her completely, would Mama and Papa even notice?
The library is colder now. Amira gathers the end of her large overcoat so that it covers her legs and pulls the gas lamp closer. She digs into her bag, fishing out an unfinished croissant and shoving it into her mouth. In the ceaseless silence of the library, Amira’s soft chews ring like bullets down an alley. Perhaps it is the lonesome moonlight casting through the stained-glass window or the quivering shadows casted onto the wall by the lamp, but Amira is suddenly aware of how alone she was. How long has she been the only inhabitant here?
She lifts her gaze, scanning the walls for an indication of the time but finds none.
Somewhere down the hallway of bookshelves and shadows comes the faint sound of wheels, raising every hair on Amira’s neck. As the sound amplifies, she deduces that they haven’t been oiled in forever. Scurrying to grab her book, she sits crossed-legged on the rough carpet, pretending to immerse herself in the reading.
The squealing gets closer, now accompanied by the unmistakable sound of footsteps. Where is the sound coming from? From her left? Her right? Behind her? No.
In front of her.
She lifts her gaze through her thick frames of lashes to find a woman staring down at her. Amira knew better than to judge one’s appearance, but the woman looks, for lack of better description, morbidly unpleasant. The heels of her shoes had broken off, and her unembellished brown dress strained against heavy layers of fat. What unsettled Amira the most was her eyes, hidden behind a pair of intricate goggles. Carved out of gold, it shields the woman’s eyes with obsidian lenses. With wrinkled hands on a trolley full of nameless books, she looks towards Amira, her opaque lens momentarily catching the reflection of Amira’s lamp, conjuring an illusion of glowing eyes. They are unraveling Amira’s secrets, tearing away each layer. It is like a dream, a nightmare perhaps, as she pulls her eyes off Amira, grabbing a handkerchief from the back pocket of her dress. She dabs at the thick sheen of sweat on her forehead, and Amira shuffles uncomfortably.
“Why are you still here at this hour?” she huffs, wiping at her forehead as it was coated in a new layer of precipitation already. Amira’s eyes dive down, noticing the pocket watch the librarian wore around her neck. Eleven-twenty-eight. Its clicks signal the impending end of the night. Amira brings her eyes back to the old woman and contemplates a lie.
She tells the truth. “I wanted to stay and read.”
“Read?” She scoffs. While the gas lamp burns the woman’s shadow seems to grow across the wall, cornering Amira’s to the edge. “Do you wish to die?” Her goggles flashed violently as she edged closer.
“Sorry.” Unsettled, Amira begins gathering her belongings. “I’ll be leaving right away, please don’t hurt me.”
“Hurt you?” A pulse of confusion strikes the old librarian’s features. “Do you know what day it is?”
Her mind turns like clockwork then, working out each outcome she would endure for each action she could take. “What day is it, Ma’am?” She chooses compliance.
The librarian leans in closer with an ominous air. “The day.”
“The day.” She repeats.
The answers strike her.
Why there wasn’t a soul in the library other than the librarian who resides here. Why the silence on the streets were louder than screams. Why it is so cold in here that Amira realizes it wasn’t purple lipstick on the librarian’s lips.
Terror floods Amira’s features. The rustling sound of chains draws her attention towards the librarian, who had pulled off the pocket watch around her neck, tossing it to Amira.
She catches it.
“Go, you have half an hour.”
Grabbing her bag and lamp, Amira runs, catching one last sight of the librarian’s face, a shallow depth of wordless sympathy. The heavy doors shut behind her as she threw herself into the ruthlessly cold night. It’s an unfamiliar scene. The barren streets are washed in an aegean glow under the light of the half-masked moon. Sprinkles of white dust collect on Amira’s lashes as she gazes down to check the pocket watch.
Midnight is drawing near, and Amira’s running out of time. Wasting none, she pulls the watch over her neck and flies down the frosty stairwell.
It took no time for Amira to arrive at the closest trolley station, a lone platform marked by a wooden billboard displaying the times of arrival. She hurries up the stairs towards the billboard, hands on the watch ready to match the time. Amira’s heart sinks upon reading the large words painted across the billboard.
No trolley services, Dec. 31.
No trolley services.
A sudden numbness creeps up Amira’s legs, and she falls onto a step of the wooden stairs, crossing her legs under her coat.
Of course, everyone would be home by this hour and trolley drivers were no exception. No one with half a mind would linger around as the day nears midnight. It’s a shame Amira had been so absent minded.
She cranes her head towards the heavens that showers her with the ruthless cold. She wonders then, why she must get home before midnight. Mama’s words have been exact, absolute, every year.
“Be home before midnight on the last night of December.”
She wonders what it is about today that makes her mother quiver as she speaks her warning. What is it that makes her lower her voice, drawing Amira closer to repeat those words yet again? What consequence could be bad enough to allow a strong woman like her to tremble with fear?
“Terrible, unspeakable things,” Mama’s words etches into her mind.
The ceaseless ticking of the pocketwatch drew Amira’s attention back to the gadget. The bronze second hand was making its way back to XII, another minute would fly by then. “Terrible, unspeakable things,” Amira whispers.
She thinks of Mama’s eyes, gentle but strong like the fire burning on a yule log every Christmas. She thinks of Papa, who works in their shop from daybreak to dinner. She thinks of the day before this one, when she sat on the carpet in the shop with outstretched legs, hands fiddling with the newest clock Papa created.
It’s her life. It’s the day before and the one after. It’s Mama and Papa. Some things worth running for.
She stands then, a girl in a dead town, wanting to live. Leaving the lamp on the platform, Amira runs as fast as she can. There is 15 minutes left, and she prays to God that it is enough.
It is painful, the cold pierces her face like many needles. Her legs are stiff, as if one wrong step would break them in half. It hurts, it hurts, it hurts. But Amira must keep going, she must return home. So she keeps running, squinting her eyes so the tears in them wouldn’t freeze with the air. The world is drenched in blue, silent except for the sound of a girl racing against time.
Amira checks the watch once more. 10 minutes left. Up ahead, she sees the church, the mechanic store, and the bakery she passes on her way to school. Her surroundings fade into familiarity and a tingle of hope nestles in her heart. She is close, she is going to make it.
5 minutes left, and Amira was closer than ever. It all comes back, the narrow streets leading to her neighborhood, the stone walls framing them, the little antique shops at each corner. She could see it now, Mama and Papa running to her as she enters her townhouse, crying and thanking the universe for her safe return. She’ll head to bed then, falling asleep to the sound of her mother’s singing, safe from the terrors she broke free of.
In the midst of the snow, she sees it. Her home, right in front of her. It is strange, seeing Papa’s shop, once bustling with lights and happiness, be a void of darkness. It is her home nevertheless, and she has made it.
Running to the door, Amira reaches into her pockets for the key. When her hands came out empty, she released a strap of her backpack from her shoulder, swung it to her front, and prods through it. Books, the croissant wrapping, some lose coins.
Amira’s blood runs colder than the night.
Grabbing the whole bag, Amira turns it upside down, scattering its contents over the frozen ground. “No, no, no.” She repeats the words over and over as her fingers scaled through every object, none of which were the item she so desperately needed.
Amira cries. The truth has dawned now. Somewhere, back at the library, was her key to survival, and she had left it behind unknowingly. Time is slipping by, and there is no way Amira can retrieve the key before the looming end.
Amira rises, rushing to the door. She slams her palms against the glass, heart hammering. “Mama! Papa! I’m home! Open the door!” She pleads. “Mama! Papa! Please hear me! I’m right here!” Her demanding cries are loud enough to wake the silent city, yet no one listens, no one will. As the night finishes, Amira’s fate is sealed. The hour hand is now joined by the minute, as the second hand continues it’s eternal travel.
Fat tears roll down Amira’s face. It was time.
She makes her way over to the large dumpster in the narrow alley by her townhouse, settling down on a pile of snow. Folding her legs up to her chest, Amira gazes at the swathe of white around her.
“Once the clock hits midnight, it’s over.” Her mother’s reminder plague her mind.
Amira shrinks further into the comforting shadows provided by the dumpster, though she is terrified. It’s a crime to speak of what happens to those who disobey the rule, for those who are truly obedient will return home by midnight and be saved from the punishment. While her mother had sent countless warnings without revealing the repercussions, Amira has failed to obey the rule. For such a sin, she must endure the consequence.
Somewhere down the road, a pair of lonesome footsteps makes their way through the snow. Heart pounding, Amira presses herself against the brick wall, hands flying to her lips to stifle her breathing. They do not dwindle, as if they knew where she was hiding already. Amira closes her eyes, dreaming of death and the better days that would never come.
It nears once more, by the second, imperceptibly. Gripping the stopwatch, Amira mutters one last prayer, before the footsteps come to a stop.
In front of her.
Amira lifts her gaze, meeting a pair of obsidian void. Her eyes widen.
It is her. Same dark hair that fell short above the shoulders. Same freckles scattered on her cheeks like constellations. Same smile that weaves tales and speaks mystery. It is her, she is her. She is Amira.
No, she’s not Amira. I am Amira. Not the imposter with the same features, with the only distinction being those hollow sockets where eyes should be. Amira gazes into those spaces, devoid of her own viridian eyes. The abyss she finds there is petrifying, swirling of death and everything beyond.
“Who are you?” Amira braves.
A smile cuts through the imposter’s lips, elated and threatening. She comes forward, grasping Amira’s face with one hand, reaching for her eyes with the other. “I am you,” she rasps.
Like the last dying streetlight that had prevailed through the night, Amira sees the last sliver of light, before falling into a world of darkness.
The sun rises unlike the way it did before. There’s an air of uncertainty encompassing the town as light strikes the Earth, awakening every soul. It was the first day of the year, just like it had been 365 days prior. Yet something is different, the air has stirred, and no one feels settled enough to leave their homes.
In a small community at the edge of town, the walls awaken. A silent understanding passes through the neighborhood. All inhabitants keep their doors locked and lights dimmed, speaking in hushed tones as they peered out their windows with perilous curiosity. The wind comes, taking the last leaves off the lonely branches. As they settle on the snow-covered ground, a door opens.
They all stare.
A girl, wearing a large brown overcoat and leather boots, emerges from the local clockworks shop.
“I’m off to the library!” She turns and calls towards the unlit shop, before descending down the steps. With a croissant in hand and eyes gleaming green with glee, the girl skips down the road and hums a tune forgotten by time.
Besides her building, a truck parked in front of an alley is loading a large black bag into its interior. There, on the passenger door side, marks a pair of words, printed so small it was as if they did not want to be seen, to remain a secret only known by an unfortunate few. Yet, as the engine roars to life, the onlookers all understood.