The hot summer sun beats down with unrelenting intensity on a humid summer day. It is so hot that the shriveled stalks of grass along the road seem to sweat, even in the sparse shade provided by the trees with their brown-edged, parched leaves. A slight breeze is blowing, rattling the leaves and making them look as if they are shivering. If I could get my mind off of the heat and the reeking hot pavement, I could possibly enjoy watching the scenery pass by, drab as it is. The road is so heated from the baking sun that it appears as if there are small puddles of water between the slight dips and hills. I slow my Ford Escort as I approach these hazy mirages. Even though I know better, I always believe what my eyes tell me; I feel genuinely surprised when the water turns out to be an effect of the heat. Without taking my eyes off the road, I attempt to crank the air conditioning up even higher to combat the sweat dripping from my forehead. To my dismay, the air is already on full blast. I have never liked the heat. It always makes me feel suffocated and anxious. The hotter it gets, the more I feel as if I am genuinely going to go crazy and start ripping off my own skin or something. I try to enjoy the meager air conditioner, though, as I know the heat will only rise when I have to leave the car.
“Are we almost there?” Sam asks sleepily from the passenger seat. I glance over at her. Her eyes are still closed as they had been for the last four hours or so, but her eyebrows are raised questioningly.
I don’t answer right away. Instead, I focus on driving, speeding up as I come out of a slight curve. I make a conscious effort not to slow this time, as I come upon another heat mirage on the asphalt. I quickly peer down at the air conditioner to make sure I had turned the knob all the way. “Not quite, Sam, but we’re close,” I mutter.
“I’m probably not going to see my mother again before she dies,” Sam says suddenly. I whip my head towards her, concerned, but her eyes are still closed, and her face looks so peaceful that she appears to be sleeping again. For a moment, I wonder if I had imagined my wife’s outburst, but then her dark eyebrows draw together and she opens her eyes. “I mean it.”
“Why do you say that?” I ask, staring straight ahead at the road. Eight years together and her candor when speaking still makes my palms sweat a little. As a born peace maker, I hate confrontation and bluntness.
“Because it’s true,” Sam replies.
“She’s getting old, Brighton, and we’re moving four hours away,” she says, her voice getting higher. I immediately recognize that particular tone as her becoming more stressed.
“We can visit on holidays and some weekends,” I suggest, soothingly. Sam does not reply, merely closing her eyes once more and sinking into her seat. I put my right hand on her leg, rubbing the top of her thigh comfortingly and keeping the wheel steady with the other. “She’s not dying anytime soon.” The words sound harsher out loud than they did in my head. Funny, I think, that a writer could never say the right words at the right time. Sam doesn’t respond and I drop pursuit of further conversation on the matter. Instead, I put both hands back on the wheel and focus again on my driving, watching the drab scenery pass by.
The pale, brittle grass still hasn’t changed in color. The widely spaced trees don’t grow closer together or show many signs of life. I haven’t seen an animal, not even a bird in the sky, for a long time now. The road weaves on, curving around a hill-like mountain every time I seem to reach the speed limit of 55 miles per hour, forcing me to slow down again. I had never been this deep into West Virginia before, and the sheer number of mountains in the distance strikes me as beautiful. Sure, Ohio has mountains, but they are more like looming hills. The mountains in West Virginia seem more as if they come from a faraway land full of adventure and nature. Yes, this could be a perfect place to get away for my writing. Without warning, I suddenly feel struck with embarrassment from my greedy thought. The fresh mountain air will do Sam a world of good, too. She hasn’t been going outdoors much at all these past few months, especially since she lost her job. Instead, she's been keeping inside. I think she knows what happens when she leaves the house. I glance nervously at my wife, who has not changed positions since the last time I looked, and I wonder if she really will like the new house. I hadn’t been there since I was a small child, probably five or six, visiting my grandparents in Bradshaw for the holidays. My family was never very close and we hardly visited my grandparents or any other family. I don’t remember ever going to West Virginia other than five or six holidays. I try to conjure up an image of the house, but my memory is hazy at best. I remember it was a big house, white and very spacious. The memory is infused with the smell of food cooking: ham, potatoes, gravy. Other than that, I just remember the house being huge.
I feel guilty again, this time for being excited about a house that my grandfather can no longer maintain on his own. Since my grandmother’s health has been failing over the past ten or so years, her husband was forced to sell the house in favor of a smaller, more manageable home for the two of them. My grandparents desperately wanted to keep the property in the family, urging my parents to purchase the place for an insanely low amount. When my parents refused the offer, they offered to lend the house to me for free, other than taxes I would have to pay, and I jumped on the opportunity. Sam and I were growing tired of our cramped living space, and the promise of a rent-free house was too unbelievably good to pass up. Though I have been steadily publishing collections of children’s poems Sam recently lost her job, forcing us to reconsider our financial situation. A four hour move hardly seemed like a bad thing compared to losing our apartment. After talking it over, we had decided that the move might be exactly what we need to alleviate some of the stress in our lives, and the offer was too good to pass up. My guilt over taking the house quickly melts away into joy over the fresh start I can have with Samantha, now that the impostor will no longer be bothering us.
The road begins to wind like a coiled snake, around and around the hills, and I have to slow down yet again to avoid driving off the side. Quite suddenly, the road begins shooting upward, and the drastic change in altitude makes my ears pop. I feel my Escort slowing down, so I push the gas pedal down farther, and I begin to feel myself moving back as if I were on a roller coaster, slowly climbing that first nerve-wracking hill. Glancing at Samantha, I notice that she looks uncomfortable, but she makes no indication of any sort of discomfort other than with her expression. My head begins to ache in a way that is all too familiar to me. Recently, probably for a couple of years now, I’ve been prone to getting terrible headaches once a week or so. This one came on so fast that I wonder if the sudden change in altitude somehow triggered it. The road rather suddenly plunges into a thick forest of spruce trees, their green needles a stark contrast with the yellowed stalks of grass that blanketed the roadside moments before. I reach for the driving instructions that I printed off that lay open, draped over the emergency brake between mine and Samantha’s seats. Glancing at the map and simultaneously trying to focus on the road takes me a moment to get used to, but I find the place I had left off at the last time I checked the directions. Just as I thought. I put my hand on Samantha’s thigh again and pat it excitedly. “We’re almost there now,” I say. The enthusiasm feels half forced to me, but sounds believable.
“How much farther?”
“Just up this road a little ways.”
“Where’s the moving van?” Sam asks, looking in the rear-view mirror.
“I think they got stuck at a red light back in town.”
“Don’t worry they won’t get lost,” I assure her. Sam doesn’t say anything, and I can‘t help sighing. “You’re stressed out about this move, I can tell,” I say before I can think about how much I hate talking things out. “But I’m sure you’ll love the house.”
“I don’t know any of the neighbors,” Sam says flatly.
“Sam, there are no neighbors.”
“Oh.” Again. I try to ignore her apathy and force a smile. Only years before, Sam had never said “oh” to anything I had to say to her. Nowadays, it seems as though that is her default response when she doesn’t feel like giving a real answer. Ever since the impostor started visiting, Sam has become--I hate to say it--depressed, I think. I’m no doctor, and I think they over diagnose that mental stuff anyway, but she has been showing signs of depression. She doesn’t get out anymore, doesn’t do things that she used to enjoy. She’s nowhere nearly as happy as she used to be, and I don’t know why. So I try to help her out by being as positive as I can. Maybe it will rub off on her.
“Town’s not too close, but it is close enough to drive when we need something or if you feel like shopping around,” I assure her. “I’m sure you’ll make some friends at one of the stores.”
Sam doesn’t have time to reply--even with another “oh,” as we both notice the house coming into view, sitting in a clearing in the woods with the sun illuminating it with a sort of natural spotlight. I pull into the driveway and begin driving towards the house. The gravel path is considerably longer than that of a house in town, but not so long that the house can’t be seen from the road. The first thing I notice is that a tall white privacy fence has been added around the property. I don’t recall there being a fence here when I visited as a child but I shrug it off, assuming I could have easily forgotten it over the years. However, the size of the house stays true to my memory. It is two stories and almost twice as long as it is high. The walls look cracked, and the shingled roof appears as if it had not been mended in quite a while. I see a thick ropy ivy growing up the left side of the front of the house, choking the peeling wood. Hanging from the roof is a fuzzy green moss tinged with brown at the ends from the scorching sun and, I’m guessing, the recent lack of rain. The side of the house with the ivy protrudes from the rest of the house, and as I creep closer to the end of the driveway at the right side of the house, I notice a covered porch nestled against the extended left side.
A small set of stairs leads up to the porch from the right side of the house. As I park my car at the end of the driveway, I see that a hound dog has claimed the top step, which was slightly larger than the other three, as its own personal napping place. It doesn’t move and appears to be dead save for the slight rise and fall of its chest. The dog is thin--much too thin. It looks to me like a basset hound mixed with a bloodhound or something. I figure a dog like that should weigh twice what this one weighs. The fact that this dog has seen better days reminds me of the house’s outer condition. I know the inside will be better, though. I open the car door and begin to get out, and the dog lifts its head and opens its small, sleepy eyes. I’m cautious as I approach the animal. I hear Sam getting out of the car.
“It’s nice,” I hear her say.
“You can’t be sure,” I reply, keeping my eyes on the dog. “Could have rabies.”
“I mean the house, silly.”
I whirl around and see that she has walked around to the driver’s side of the car and is standing a few feet behind me. I see a sparkle in her eye, one that I know Sam lost long ago. This isn’t my wife. “Where’s Sam?” I yell at the impostor. The sound of my voice must have startled the dog because it jumps to its feet but remains on the top step.
“Bright, it’s me,” she says flatly.
A clever guise, but I know who she is. This woman, who looks exactly like my Samantha, has been following me. Sometimes when Sam leaves a room, the impostor comes back in her place. I know it sounds crazy, but this woman is an exact copy of Sam. But she isn’t Sam. I can just tell that she isn’t the same woman as my wife. I know when she is playing her tricks. Worst of all, Sam doesn’t know what is going on. Whenever I try to explain to her, she denies that another woman is taking her place. “What did you do with Sam?” I ask. The dog barks once as if punctuating my question.
“Maybe she went in the house,” the impostor says. I search the face of this familiar stranger for any signs of foul play. She seems to genuinely think that Sam may have gone into the house, so I humor her.
“You stay there,” I say. “You’re not allowed in here.” She doesn’t say anything, and I head towards the stairs, eyeing the dog as I approach it. It wags its tail and opens its mouth in a happy pant. I feel more at ease with the beast now that it is acting like a normal dog. I stand at the bottom of the stairs and put my right hand out, palm downward, and the dog walks over to me stiffly as if its legs are cramped. I notice its joints are inflamed as if it has arthritis, and I wonder how old this dog is and whom it belongs to. I notice it is wearing a bright orange collar. It is the breakaway design with a plastic buckle that could come loose easily if caught on something, so I assume that maybe it is a hunting dog. I pat it on the head and check the collar. It has no tag, but on the back, I notice the word “Esteban” is embroidered into the nylon collar. No phone number. No home address. Just Esteban. Who names a dog Esteban? I wonder. I rub the dog’s neck as I step around him and onto the porch. I take out the key to the house and unlock the door. It creaks open, and I step inside. “Sam?” I ask, doubting that she had somehow managed to get in without a key.
“Here,” I hear Sam behind me.
“Oh there you are,” I say, relieved that it isn’t the impostor playing tricks on me. “You ready to look inside?” I ask. She nods, and I lead the way, flipping the light switch on the wall as we enter. I make sure Sam’s double doesn’t try to get into the house. She’s nowhere to be seen. She never shows herself when the real Sam is with me, probably so she can convince me that she is Sam. The house is empty and very clean. Whoever helped my grandparents move must have cleaned the whole house. Good, I think, that’s a lot less that we have to do. The living room is the first room from the door, and we begin looking it over. Sam immediately goes to the fireplace to check it out.
“It’s fake,” she groans.
“We can still decorate it for Christmas,” I suggest. She smiles faintly for a moment. I smile back, turning to take a look at the rest of the room, and my headache makes itself known again. It had receded to a dull ache but now it is pounding, right behind my eyes. I close them, hoping to relieve the pain, but to no avail. Opening my eyes again, I try and forget about my headache. “How do you think we should arrange this room?” I ask. “You’re better at that sort of thing than I am.”
“The couch could go here,” Sam suggests, pointing to a wall. “And the TV here,” She points across from the couch wall to a corner that has a small square window at the top of the wall. “We’ll have to put a curtain over it to prevent a glare,” she says. I nod in agreement. I don’t mind where our things go as long as they all fit comfortably into the room. “I’m not sure about the bookshelves, though,” she says with a puzzled look on her face.
“Want to look at the rest of the house?” I offer. She nods, and we head into a small room that branches off the side of the living room next to where the couch will be. The room, though rectangular, is given a rounded effect by the large bay window that takes up the entire wall facing the front of the house, giving a huge view of the glaringly white fence outside, the trees peeking up above it.
“This is pretty,” Sam breathes, running her hand across the seat under the bay window. “I wish I could see the trees, but maybe I could put some plants here.”
I nod. “That’s a good idea.” I begin to wonder why that fence was put up, as it obstructs the view and there are no neighbors around for miles. A knock at the door startles me before I remember it is the movers. “I’ll let them in if you want to look around.”
Sam stares at me for a minute. “I’ll grab some boxes for the living room first,” she says. I shrug, and we head towards the door. After the In and Out Movers had introduced themselves, they go to retrieve the large furniture, and Sam and I decide to help unload the moving van to make sure we stay on schedule, as we had only paid for two hours of unloading time. I move faster than Sam and by my third trip inside, she is on her third trip out. When she comes back in, she is on the phone with her mother.
“Yes, Mom…uh-huh, we are doing that now.” She pauses for a moment while her mother speaks, then she laughs. I set my box of books we kept in the living room down on the floor. My headache stings my temples, and I sit down on the couch, that had been brought in first, for a moment.
“Yeah, it is nice, Mom,” she says. I look up at her as she walks past the couch, and she casts a worried glance at me. I’ve caught her!
“What are you doing in my house?” I ask, loudly but not yelling. “Didn’t I just tell you to stay away?”
The impostor stands there, phone still to her ear, staring back at me. Dumbfounded. “Mom, I’ll call you back." She hangs up. She knows that I have once again picked up on her flawless masquerade. She thought she could outsmart me, but I can always tell when she is sneaking about, pretending to be my wife. The movers come in at that time, and the impostor and I watch them carry the washing machine through the living room before we continue.
“You’re right. I’ll go,” she says, defeated.
Inside, I’m laughing. You’d better go. I’m getting real sick of you. “Bye,” I say simply, waving in a mock gesture of friendship. She knows I’m not being friendly, and she sets the small box she had been carrying on the floor by the couch. As she heads out the door, I pick up the box. It’s more books, but the one on top catches my eye. It’s a photo album. So she must be trying to study up on Sam’s and my memories. I take the photo album out of the box and stuff it under a couch cushion just as Sam walks in. “You just missed her,” I say flatly, sitting on the cushion of the couch that hides the photo album. I hear a muffled crack as the binding is broken on the thick book, but I ignore it. Sam goes back outside to get another box. She must have forgotten to get one the last time she went out. The double picked up on this fact and had brought one in as Sam should have done. Always trying to be more Sam than Sam.
The movers help us haul our boxes and furniture to the appropriate rooms in just under two hours. Other than some problems getting the refrigerator to fit through the door (they had to bring it through the back door), the move went without a hitch. Sam and I were feeling pretty accomplished by the time we had everything in the house. Then they left, and we sat on the couch, exhausted, and begin to realize how much more we have left to do. Looking out the small window above the television, I notice that it is starting to get dark.
"I'm exhausted," Sam says, with a sigh.
"Yeah, me too," I agree. "But we still have so much to do. How about we unpack a little before bed?" I notice a look of exasperation on Sam's face. "So that we don't have as much to do tomorrow," I finish quickly.
"Fine," Sam says, standing up grudgingly. "How about the kitchen? We can make something to eat first." I nod, and we head to the kitchen, where all the boxes marked with a "K" are stacked neatly against a wall. The kitchen is much bigger than our old apartment kitchen, and less awkwardly shaped. I walk over to where the movers put the stove, and I bend down to check if it is plugged in. It is not, so I push it forward a little and plug it in then I push it back and stand back to admire my handiwork. I can feel Sam watching me from behind even before she speaks.
"Look at Mr. Handyman," she says sarcastically, with a slight chuckle in her voice. I place my hands on my hips and turn around, my head raised triumphantly. My goofiness gets a bit of a chortle from Sam before she cuts it off abruptly and goes straight back to her usual poker face. Grinning at her, I bend down to a box and open it. It's a bunch of silverware. Opening another box, I find a jar of peanut butter, a loaf of bread, and some canned foods. We make some sandwiches, not bothering to find plates, and open a case of bottled water that is sitting beside the refrigerator. As I eat my sandwich, I find the drawer organizer and put it in the drawer on the far right side of the sink, filling it while Sam goes through some boxes and pushes them around the kitchen with her feet while she eats.
"They're not gonna unpack themse-elves," I say in a sing-song voice before taking a huge bite of sandwich. Sam shoves me lightly as she walks past me, gently kicking a small box. I grin smugly, my mouth full, and finish putting the silverware away. As I turn to head back to the pile of boxes, I almost trip over a box of pots and pans that Sam had put by my feet. I maintain my balance in a heroic display of catlike reflexes and crouch down to put the contents of this box under the sink while Sam rolls her eyes at me.
After the kitchen is taken care of, save for a few wall hangings that can wait until tomorrow, I realize we will need the bathroom set up for the morning. I groan, as I am exhausted from the move, and I'm sure Sam is, too. "We should really do the bathroom, too," I say. "So we don't have to when we wake up."
"I can do it," Sam says.
"We both can."
"No, it's alright," she says, her voice a little off. "There's not room for us both to be moving around in there, besides, it won't take long."
I draw my eyebrows together as I look at her, but I don't disagree. "Okay," I say. "Have fun." I leave her to unpack the bathroom, and I wander into the living room. Piles of boxes tower around me, and my head begins to pulse from the thought of all the unpacking we still have to do. I decide some fresh air will help clear my head, and I head out the door, flicking the porch light switch before shutting the door behind me. The lightbulb must be dead, I realize too late, and I stumble into the darkness and trip over something big. A blood chilling howl echoes from the porch as I land hard on what I tripped over--Esteban! That hound dog is still on the porch! He whimpers, and I roll off him so he can stand up. The old dog gets to his feet much quicker than I would have thought possible for a dog in such rough shape.
"Poor bastard," I mutter as I stand up, rubbing my temples. My head is throbbing now, and my heart is racing from the surprise. As my eyes begin to adjust to the minimal starlight, I look around for the old creature. I spot him standing by the stairs, and I take a few blind steps towards him. He turns to me as I crouch next to him, and I reach my hand out as a peace offering. He leans forward, touching his cold wet nose to my hand, sniffing the traces of peanut butter that must be lingering. I ignore how gross he is and pat his muzzle. He seems to like it, so I sit down and begin petting his huge head. "Aww you wove pets, don't you?" I croon softly in that goofy voice one reserves solely for dogs. I feel a flea jump onto my arm, and I swat it away. The dog shies away as I do so, and I wonder if he has been abused by a previous owner. "Aw come back, Teb," I say, instantly creating a nickname for Esteban as per usual. I always end up calling animals anything but their intended name. The dog responds to my voice and creeps forward again. I hear a rhythmic thumping sound as he begins wagging his tail. I reach out and pet him once again, this time scratching under his collar. "You must be itchy from all those fweas!" I babble. I pet him on the head and stand up to go back in. As I walk back towards the door, Teb follows me. I open the door a crack and slip in, keeping my leg out to shoo him away. "You're not allowed in, buddy," I say, shutting the door an inch from his nose.
As I walk into the living room, Sam walks out of the bathroom. "Good timing," she says. "I just finished putting everything away in there. Wanna see?"
"Sure!" I say enthusiastically. We head into the bathroom, and I look through the cabinets to see where everything is. All my stuff is on one shelf while hers is strewn about the other five or so shelves. This suits me fine, as she has way more bathroom stuff than I would ever know what to do with. "Looks great, Babe," I say. I rub my temples, frowning. She flashes a quick smile, and we brush our teeth, find some gym shorts to sleep in, and head around the corner to the bedroom we chose to use. There are two more upstairs, one that will serve as my writing room, and the other will be for storage and the exercise bike that Sam uses about once a month. We lay down in a bed surrounded by boxes, and I begin to feel excited about unpacking my office because of the room's layout. It is wide, much wider than it is deep. A huge window fills the back wall, overlooking some trees in the distance. The perfect view for my writing room is marred by that claustrophobic fence and I begin to resent it. The more I think about it, the more I doubt that it had been there when I visited as a child. I remember this room, though, always locked when we visited my grandparents, probably to keep the kids out of things. The other room is deep but narrow, the exact opposite of the writing room, with a tiny high-up window on one side of the back wall. Not nearly as inspired-looking as its counterpart.
As I lay there in the darkness, I begin to wish that I had turned the air down just a few more degrees. It's a bit stuffy in the summer night heat, but I'm too exhausted to get back up for only a few degrees. I open my eyes and turn towards Sam to see that she is already out like a light. I have always envied her ability to fall straight to sleep every night. I spend most nights lying awake for hours, thinking about all kinds of things. It's sometimes productive for my writing, so I keep a little notebook beside the bed at all times, but I usually just end up trying too hard to sleep and failing. I stick a hand down my pants, an innocent habit I never broke as a child, and it helps comfort me for whatever reason. I close my eyes and begin to picture the different ways I can arrange my books and such around my desk in the writing room. The ending of a stressful day, combined with my exhaustion and my pounding headache, pushes me into a hazy sleep that comes much quicker than expected.
I'm standing in the woods, by a wall of rock. It's raining lightly, and it's chilly outside. I zip my jacket and stare up at a large hole in the side of the rock. All the other boys had climbed up and into the hole, but I couldn't make it, so they left me behind. I hear them all laughing and shouting up above, and I feel the sting of being completely excluded. I begin to cry warm fat tears that gush out of my eyes and fall down my face. I always was a crier, just like my mom. "Momma's boy," Mikey, my older brother, had always called me. Mean names like that always made me cry. Suddenly I hear the sound of shoes crunching the leaves behind me. I turn around quickly, as nobody else had gone with us. I was the only one who couldn't make the climb, and Mikey and my cousins surely wouldn’t help me up. I'm surprised to see Sam standing over me, her eyes bright with a crazed look that I recognize immediately as the impostor. She takes a step towards me, menacingly. I get a sinking feeling in my gut. "What have you done with Sam?" I demand. My voice comes out in a childish pitch.
"What are you talking about?" the impostor asks with a devilish grin, her voice warped and distorted. "I am Sam."
"No!" I yell, this time surprising myself with my deeper adult voice. "NO!" I lunge forward but slip on the wet leaves and crash to the ground. I thrash around, bound by some invisible force that keeps me down on the ground.
"Brighton!" the impostor calls. "What's wrong?" I ignore her pathetic act and continue to thrash and flail, trying to break free. I open my eyes and realize I am sitting on the floor, wrapped in a blanket, surrounded by boxes. It was all a dream; the memory of the cave, the impostor—or was it? I sit there listening, and I hear the familiar voice again. "Bright?"
I carefully remove the blanket from my legs and stand up. "Get. Out," I say through clenched teeth. "I am sick of you invading my space and ruining my life. Get OUT!" My head pounds as fast as my heart beats, pushing against my skull.
"Babe, it's me," the impostor pleads, but I see right through her lies. I can't quite place it, but I can always tell when she's slipped into Sam's place. There was something off. Something dark. And I wanted no part of it.
"GET OUT," I yell loudly, tossing my balled up blanket at her face. She looks hurt and sulks away through the door. I follow her, and she walks quicker. She heads out the door, carefully avoiding the towering stacks of boxes in the darkness, and I watch as she leaves. I think I hear her crying, but it doesn't bother me. Maybe now she won’t come back. I go back to the bedroom and see that Sam is still gone. I sit on the bed, cradling my pained head, wishing for it to stop pulsing. It feels as though my brain will break through my skull and shatter it to pieces. I wonder briefly where the medicine box was placed and remember it is in the kitchen. I shuffle towards the kitchen, bumping into the wall. I put my hands out in front of me to find the doorway to the kitchen and I walk in, avoiding the light switch because I don't want to blind myself. I feel around on top of the refrigerator and find the old shoe box. Pulling my cell phone from my sweatpants pocket, I feel a bit stupid for not using the light to find my way in the house. I push the unlock button on the phone and find the flashlight button that utilizes the camera’s flash. Using this light, I root around in the box and find the familiar large bottle of extra strength headache formula and take two pills out, swallowing them with just my saliva. I hesitate and take two more. I shove it back onto the fridge and quickly make my way to the bedroom, the trip made much easier by the flashlight. When I sit on the bed, I notice Sam has come back, lying with her face in her pillow. I pull the blanket back off her shoulder and lay my hand flat on the side of her face. It's wet. "Sam, you okay?" I ask.
"Mhm," I hear her voice, muffled from the pillow.
"Baby," I say gently.
She turns and looks up at me. I can't quite tell in the darkness but I think she has been crying. I run my hand down her hair, running my fingers through it. "Don't worry, baby," I say softly. "That impostor is gone, hopefully for good this time." She says nothing, and I pet her hair for a little longer before lying down. It takes forever for both of us to go to sleep this time.
I wake up and glance at the clock. 10:53. Sam is gone. I stretch my legs and yawn. My body is covered in a slick layer of sweat, and I notice the room is much hotter than it was the day before. I can't stand it anymore, and I climb out of bed, groaning when my head begins to pound again. I make my way groggily to the bathroom and take a quick, cool shower. On the way back out of the bathroom, I check the thermostat. It's turned on. I dial it down a bit and make my way into the living room. Sitting on the floor is Sam in a pair of pajama shorts and a t-shirt, with her hair up in a messy ponytail. "Hey," I say sleepily. Startled, she looks up at me.
"Oh I didn't hear you come in," she says. "I unpacked some stuff."
I look around and see that the shelves are in place on each side of the entertainment center, and they are filled with books that were not there the night before. She has also put some knickknacks on the shelves and entertainment center. Of course she would decorate before other, more important stuff is finished. I chalked it up as her being a woman, and I smiled, remembering how barren the old apartment was before she had moved in. The only decorating I had ever done was to keep fresh flowers in a vase on the table. "Looks great," I say with a grin. Even the slight movement of my mouth hurts my head, and it pulses menacingly, like an animal's warning growl. I rub my forehead to alleviate the pain, but it continues.
"Are you okay?" Sam asks, concern in her eyes but an emotionless expression on the rest of her face. I nod, but the growling in my head turns to a roar as the pain shoots down the sides of my neck, and my head feels as if it might explode again. Sam jumps to her feet and helps me to the couch and then disappears into the kitchen. When she returns, she hands me two pills and a cup of water, and I take them gladly. I wish she had brought me one or two more pills, but I say nothing, not wanting to sound like an addict or something. She sits cross-legged next to me on the side of the couch where I had stuffed the photo album. I stare blankly at her feet until the pain recedes into a muted growl once more.
"There is a cave," I blurt out, suddenly remembering my dream. "Out in the woods a little way."
"You've been there?" Sam asks.
"Yeah," I say, massaging my temples. "Well, not in it, because I was too little to climb up. But I think I could find it again."
"That's pretty cool," Sam says. She pats my leg and stands up, sorting through a box. "Speaking of the woods, maybe you could go for a walk to get some fresh air before you help me," she says.
"That's a great idea," I say. I suddenly have an overwhelming desire to visit the cave in the woods. "I could bring Teb."
"Esteban," I say quickly. When she stares at me in confusion, I point towards the door. "The dog."
"Oh. Yeah, I guess you could."
I get up slowly to avoid setting off my headache again, and I head into the kitchen. I find the loaf of bread and some peanut butter. I see that the case of water is gone, and I find it in the refrigerator. I take a bottle and make another peanut butter sandwich on the counter. As I eat my sandwich, I search the pantry for something to feed to Teb. I find a bag of teriyaki beef jerky and stuff a piece of it in my mouth before shoving the bag in my sweatpants pocket. I finish my food and put the half drank bottle of water in the refrigerator before opening the back door to head out. I realize before I step outside that my shoes are by the front door, so I pull the door shut and head to the living room to get them. As I make my way through the dining room, I hear Sam's voice.
"He's getting worse, Mom."
I pause and listen.
"Well, he's" she trailed off, pausing a moment. "He's acting strange more often." Another pause. "Yeah, it's like he doesn't realize." She turns to a book shelf and takes a thick book from the middle and sets it on the coffee table.
I frown. What is Sam talking about? Is she telling her mother about my headaches? Because I definitely realize those are happening. Maybe she thinks it's something worse than I realize?
"Not all the time, but more often than he used to—yeah, once we get the Internet hooked up, I'm going to search online and see if I can find anything. Then I'll show him and try and get him to go to the doctor or something—yes, I know, Mom." Her voice cracks a bit at the end.
I'm not quite sure what I'm hearing at this point. I walk into the living room, and Sam tells her mother to hold on a moment. "Hey," I say, not sure how to start. I hate going to the doctor. It seems like a huge waste of money to me, so I don't want to bring up my headache.
"I-I thought you left," Sam says, her eyes wide.
"Need my shoes," I say, nodding towards where they rest beside the door. I wait for her to mention what she had been discussing on the phone, but she says nothing. I slip my shoes on and head out the door.
It's hot and very humid outside. The grass is dried and rustling in a faint breeze, reminding me of the drive up here the day before. For a moment, I wish that I had put on shorts instead of sweatpants, but I remember that there are a lot of ticks out this time of year, and I'm thankful for the long pants. As I near the edge of the porch, I see Teb has perched himself on the top step just like yesterday. I reach into my pocket and take out the jerky, and he immediately jumps to his feet and walks to me, tail wagging. His wrinkled, sagging mouth is pulled back in what looks like a smile, and his tongue hangs out of his mouth as he pants from the heat. I open the bag and feed him bite-sized pieces slowly, giving him time to swallow. As I feed the poor old animal, I begin to wonder about Sam. She knows I am aware of my headaches. Maybe that's not what she was talking about? I sigh and feel my head pounding against my skull. I realize I've had more headaches since yesterday than I had all last month. I wonder again if the altitude has anything to do with it. I decide to try and ignore the pain as I feed another piece of jerky to Teb before stuffing the bag back into my pocket. "Where's your owner, boy?" I ask the dog in a high-pitched voice, giving him a little neck rub. I inspect the bright orange collar again, but it's just as I saw yesterday. Nothing but the name Esteban.
"Come on, Esteban," I say, patting my leg. The dog drools a bit and follows me off the porch and through the yard, his legs stiff. We go through the fence gate and head for the trees, and the dog begins to run ahead of me, invigorated by his recent meal. When I make it to the shade, I feel a noticeable drop in the temperature. I try and remember the way to the cave, and I head down a steep hill, digging the heels of my sneakers into the soft crumbling ground as I walk. I make it to the bottom of the hill, and I look around for Teb. I see a flash of rust-colored fur up ahead as he darts through the trees. How does this dog run so fast when moments before, he had been stiffly walking on inflamed legs? I walk a few feet before the ground makes a sudden incline, and I find myself holding onto tree trunks to pull myself up the hill. Huffing a bit, I haul myself to the top of the hill and look around from my vantage point. The trees block my view of the area, but I can see a rocky hill to my right, so I head down the side of the hill, trying to keep the rocks in view. A rustling comes from the undergrowth and I whirl around to see the dog, wheezing from the effort of running, burst from the trees. He is panting hard, and he walks towards me calmly and plops down at my feet. His sides heave as he catches his breath. He is slobbering and panting at an alarming rate, and I begin to wonder why he is following me out here if he has trouble walking.
As I start to turn around, I realize that the cave is almost right in front of me. The rocky wall is choked by several different kinds of clinging plants, and the entrance is almost completely hidden by the vines. It's not as high up as I remembered, but it still takes me several minutes to figure out how to arrange my hands and feet to make it to the first opening that is several feet off the ground. As I pull myself into the hole, I peer around the darkness for a moment. It's nothing spectacular, just a hole in a rock wall that is about four feet high and twice as wide. It only goes back a little way, and I can see a thick, dark green moss growing in the back of the hole. I crouch down and shuffle towards the right wall of the cave, where another hole yawns open a few inches higher than the first opening. Turning around to the trees, I see Esteban looking up at me, his tongue hanging from the side of his mouth. He prances a bit as he watches me, and I take the bag of jerky out of my pocket. Taking out a huge piece, I dangle it over his head and he jumps straight up, missing the food. I pull it back from him and coax him into the cave with me. It takes a minute but the dog leans back and jumps into the cave with me, his feet scrambling for a hold as he lands. I feed him the jerky, then I turn to look into the cave opening, and it is pitch black. Taking my phone out of my pocket, I turn on the flashlight, and I hold it up. I can now see a few feet ahead, and I step into the second opening, still crouching. The ground is slippery with mud—at least I hope it's mud—and I carefully shuffle into the rocky hole. I feel a bit silly walking around in this tiny cave. As a kid it seemed so exciting. Now it is just a pain in my neck and actually quite boring. Still, a curiosity that I never settled as a child gnaws at me, so I continue deeper.
The wall was dotted with small holes that looked like little shelves were carved out to make the cave look like a home. I amused myself with the idea of a person living in the cave and decorating the little shelf-like holes with adorable handmade knickknacks. The air cools and is almost chilly as I walk along the stone passage. As I make my way slowly into the dark hole, Teb comes into the small ring of light that my phone flashlight produces around me. The dog yawns, a high-pitched whine echoing throughout the cave, and stares up at me, wagging his tail. I feel an odd sensation as my head begins to pound harder, but I ignore it and keep walking. Teb suddenly races off ahead of me, barking fiercely. He disappears from my phone’s meager light and I hear his footfalls grow distant as his barking echoes around the cave. Suddenly, far ahead, I hear a rustle and the sound of a struggle. A high-pitched yip echoes loudly around me and then I hear a wheezing sound. I stand still, frozen in fear, my shaking hands causing my light source to shake and reduce visibility. What had just happened to the dog? Racing footfalls come rushing towards me and Teb bursts into my sight, skidding to a halt in front of me. His eyes are wild, his tail erect, as he pants and drools. I feel uneasy as I stare down at the animal and a nagging feeling forms in the back of my head. I'm not sure what it is, but I feel a bit paranoid and goosebumps raise up on my skin, perhaps from the chill of the cave? Maybe it's being out in a cave in the woods by myself? I've never been one to go out alone where I could get lost. I try to shrug it off, convincing myself that I'm not that far from home, and I head farther into the cave. The dog stands up slowly and walks a few paces behind me. I stare at him, trying to figure out what freaked me out. I almost decide it was nothing when I realize he isn't wearing the orange hunting dog collar that I had noticed on him earlier. I feel a shiver down my spine, and I suddenly wish I had not come out here.
As I crouch in the cave, I hear the sound of water trickling around me and a faint pulsing sound. Squinting, I try to find the source of both sounds. It doesn't take long to see that the sides of the cave have little bits of water coming from cracks along the top of the wall, running down the sides and onto the ground near my feet. It's barely a trickle, but the quietness of the cave makes it seem like the roar of a river. The pulsing gets louder, but I can't find even the direction of the sound's origin. It seems all around me, in my own head even. I begin to feel panic envelop me as the dog's toenails clack on the stone faster and faster. I genuinely begin to wish he would leave, when I would normally revel in the company of a willing animal. Curiosity gets the better of me, as I feel a need to find the source of the pulsing sound that permeates the cave. I travel even more quickly than before through the dark tunnel, my head bent down, as I keep glancing behind myself uneasily at the dog. Something about him seems off.
My mind races. Why does the dog seem to be almost running? Is he trying to catch me? Will he hurt me? Did he lure me here on purpose? My heart feels as if it will burst from my chest, but I can barely move through this cave with my back and legs bent the way they are. I am moving as fast as I can in the cramped area, being chased by a dog. Suddenly, without thinking, I hurl my phone backwards as I continue onward into the dark, roaring cave. I hear a loud yelp as the phone connects with the dog, and the sound of his toenails on the stone stops for a moment but, to my dismay, picks up more quickly than before as he races towards me. I push on as fast as I can, breathing heavily. The cave walls seem to push back, surrounding me, suffocating me. How long does this tunnel continue? Does it lead to another tunnel? Does that tunnel lead to another tunnel? Will I ever leave this place?
Does it lead to a dead end?
To my horror, I realize what has been nagging me. I realize the dog in the cave with me is not Teb. He is some sort of grotesque replica of the dog who had been on my porch. Grotesque in the way that he was a perfect visual match to the real thing. Deep inside he is a twisted, bad version of the gentle dog I had met a day before. Only I know that there is a difference. Even his owner, if there is such a person, could probably not tell. Only the lack of a collar would hint to the dog being different, but maybe another person would reason that the collar broke off in the cave when he raced off. Maybe they would think there is an animal up there that attacked him? But I know better. Nobody else knows. In a panic, I wonder if the impostor has anything to do with this new dog. This evil dog.
Huffing, I realize that I can't keep this up much longer. I feel as if I can’t breathe in the enclosed space. I stop suddenly, slipping a little and catching myself on the wall of the cave. The roar of the water and the pounding in my head are two separate orchestras, battling against one another for dominance. Over this noise, I hear the dog's feet slide on the ground as well, but he doesn't stop as suddenly as I do, and he slides into my legs, almost knocking me over. I stumble, having just recovered from my last slip, and I crack my head on the wet stone wall. My head explodes with pain and my headache reaches an intensity I have never felt before. I reach out to the cave wall to steady myself, and my hand becomes damp. I slowly turn around, still bent over from the low ceiling. Then, without thinking, I grab the dog by a leg, I'm not sure which one, and haul him up into my arms. The dog struggles, unsure of what I'm going to do. Even I have no idea what I'm doing as I grab at random parts of him, unable to see in the darkness. I fight to maintain my grip on the animal as he panics and kicks at me. My heart races; my head roars; the cave roars back. Everything is a jumble of sounds and heightened fear as I grab onto a warm, soft spot on the dog's body. The dog wheezes. I wheeze. The cave continues to roar. The sound of the cave drives me into a fury, the same anger I feel when that damned impostor mocks me, pretends to be my beloved wife. I feel the anger pulse through my hands, hear the dog's kicking and wheezing come first quickly and then slower and slower. My body feels as if it may explode with rage, and I roar back, my cracking voice silencing the cave for a moment before it picks back up where it left off. I hear my heartbeat in my head; I can feel the blood rushing through my veins. The roaring is in my whole body now, and I throw the dog to the ground with a thud. Another loud roar starts in my stomach and works its way up through my whole chest before bursting from my mouth. It bounces around the cave walls longer than the first time, and the roar of the cave lowers in volume to a dull background sound. The trickling separates from the roar in my head, now reduced to a slight pounding that slows with my heartbeat.
Panting and drenched in a cold sweat, I slowly lower my body into a crouch. Feeling around the ground with shaking hands, I find the dog's unmoving body a few feet away from where I stood. I run my hand down his side and linger on his chest for a moment. It's not moving. My fingers slide up to his throat, damp from the water on the cave floor. No pulse. My hands shake more intensely, and I step over the animal's corpse and slowly walk back towards the entrance of the cave. My lungs are stinging; my legs are sore; my brain is numb. I have no idea what just happened. I remember fear turning to rage and the roaring in the cave suddenly stopping. And the dog is dead. Something happened to Teb, and I can't quite figure it out. Every time I try to focus, my head pounds, and pain shoots through my head. As I blindly navigate the narrow tunnel, I see a faint glow in the distance. As I grow nearer, I realize that it is my phone. I shuffle towards it for what seems like an eternity and pick it up. Examining the screen, I see that it has a small curved crack in the lower left side. Other than that it isn't damaged. Just a little damp. Using the light to guide me, I manage to crawl out of the tunnel into the first cave. I slide to my bottom and stare down at the drop that is only about a yard before pushing off and landing on my feet. I shield my eyes from the sun as its harsh light engulfs me, and I feel the warmth return from my limbs. I didn't realize that my fingers and toes had grown sore from the chilly dampness of the cave until I was in the heat outside.
In a daze, I look around the unfamiliar trees and walk stiffly in the direction I think is homeward. My mind is cloudy, my body is sore, my headache pulses, and I feel utterly lost. I remember coming down a hill to get here--or was it up a hill? Maybe both? Nothing looks familiar here, though I am sure I was just here before I was in the cave. Did I come out a different way? There's no way, as I grabbed my phone on the way out. Still, I don't recognize the stone wall, the trees, the hills. I pull myself up a hill regardless, leaning on trees to make the climb. I don't know how long I spend in the woods before I finally see a clearing. It couldn't be too long, as the sun is still high in the sky when I emerge from the trees.
When I leave the woods behind me, I feel the warmth of the sun in its full intensity. No cave and no trees to shelter me from the heat. I wipe sweat from my upper lip and struggle across the flat span of grass. I stare up at the house in confusion as I draw nearer. Were those vines always covering that much of the house? Weren't they on the other side before? Where did that disgusting moss come from? Surely I wouldn't move into a house that looked that gross. I near the house, and my unease from before returns with full intensity. I hear the roaring echo from the cave once more growing in intensity. Where is the sound coming from? My head throbs, and I stop suddenly.
This isn't my house.
This is not my house. I would know my house. This isn't it at all. It looks very much like it, yes, but it is different. It's as if my house were a part of a house display where you can see all the different combinations of parts and someone had swapped the parts of my house only subtly to suit his fancy. And that white fence. Where did that come from? My memory did not recall anything about a fence. No, someone must have replaced my house with some sort of impostor house. Mocking me. That's it, the impostor was mocking me by replacing my house with hers, surrounding it with a glaringly white fence as if to hide it away from me. I will show her. I'll go in her house, show her how it feels to have an intruder in the house. The roar screams in my ears, and it takes everything in me not to scream back. My blood rushes once more, and I feel the anger manifest in my body. I walk across the gravel driveway and up the stairs. Teb is gone. I wonder where that old mutt went off to.
I feel the roar in my head reach maximum volume as it explodes in my skull. I feel the anticipation race through my entire body and I suddenly feel very fatigued, both mentally and physically. I stumble across the porch of that impostor house, and I'm sickened that I am even near it. Opening the door, the roaring stops immediately, and the silence is almost louder than the noise that had been in my head. My heart lurches. By some impossible coincidence, the house's interior looks almost exactly like mine in the midst of my move. Boxes are strewn about the living room, and more items are put away than when I had left my house. This house is not mine, though, and I shut the door quietly, wondering where the impostor has gone off to. I feel the rage pulsing in my veins, I want to scream with fury. I have an eerie feeling that I could navigate this house as easily as my own. I shiver violently, my skin pricks, and I feel a cold chill rip through my spine.
Angry and tired, I slowly lower myself onto the sofa. The coffee table has a bottle of water, condensation sweating off the bottle and dampening the pages of a thick blue book titled "The Bipolar Disorder Survival Guide." I lean forward to investigate it, but stop when I hear a faint crack underneath me. I move over to reach under the couch cushion. I pull out a medium-sized yellow book with a broken spiral binding. A photo album. I immediately feel very strange and, with a feeling of dread, I open the photo album and find a picture of Sam with a faintly familiar young man inside. Flipping through the album, all the people in every picture are my loved ones. Uncle Bill, my brother Mikey, my grandparents. But, in several pictures, that man from the first page pops up. I feel as if, somewhere in the back of my mind, I know who he is but my head is cloudy and oddly empty. I can place a name to every face except his.
Suddenly, the sound of a toilet flushing comes from the direction of the bathroom, breaking the eerie silence, making my heart leap. I whip my head to the left where the bathroom door is shut. I hear the turn of the doorknob, as the door opens and someone emerges. The impostor? No!
"Sam?" I ask, dazed. Silence settles back in as the toilet finishes flushing.
Sam walks towards me, head bent down as she types away on her phone while she walks. She looks up, startled to see me standing there in the middle of that eerily familiar, yet different, house. "Brighton!" she exclaims, surprised.
"What's wrong?" She asks. I realize I am probably visibly startled. The confusion is probably as noticeable on my face as it is in my mind. My heart races, and, in the pure silence that surrounds me, I can hear every beat as clearly as I hear Sam speaking. "What happened to you?" She continues. "You've been gone a while, I was wondering—"
"Sam!" I call, frantically. My mind has gone blank just as quickly as the silence had started.
"I thought maybe something happened to you," Sam says, her voice raising in pitch. She is getting worried, but I have something important I need to ask her straight away. She is the only familiar thing in this strange impostor house. Nothing else is the same but Samantha. Nothing. The panic in my body reaches an all-time high, and the roar bursts into my mind once again with a sudden stab of pain so intense that I stagger backwards and almost topple over.
"Sam," I gasp hoarsely. Her eyes are wide, and she has a panicked look on her face. She must finally realize what is happening here.
"What?" she asks, almost a whisper.
"What did you call me?" I ask, as calmly as I can muster as my headache pounds intensely.
"Huh?" she asks. I stare back at her. "Brighton?"
"Sam." I stare her deep in the eyes. "Who is Brighton?"