Static crackled in my ear.
– I just wanna know who wrote the story, Sean. I’m not after an address or a phone number.
– Yeah, right. I give you a name, you grab a phone book. You’re like a bull in a china shop when you’ve got a chip on your shoulder.
– Come on, Sean, whatever happened to all for one and one for all? I mean, what if the guy robbed me, for Christ’s sake?
– If you think he robbed you or stalked you or whatever, then call the police. If they come asking, I’ll tell, but until then, I don’t give out the details of contributors.
– God damn it, Sean, you’re always grinding that old axe. Give it up already.
– Hey, don’t forget who you’re talking to. Anyway, it’s not like I’m going to cut you off. I just won’t publish that particular manuscript. End of story. Let it go.
I was getting sick of Sean’s lip service. He didn’t know what it felt like. It wasn’t his work that’d been stolen.
I sighed. He wasn’t going to budge.
– Fine. I’ll cook up something new, I said.
– Great. Hey, I have to go. Good luck, and don’t sweat it. It was probably just a freak of nature.
There was a click, then a series of beeps, then nothing. The phone told me what Sean meant to say.
– Fuck off.
I didn’t know what to do. I could’ve cried. I could’ve cursed. I could’ve thrown something out the window. I felt like I’d been burned.
But I didn’t.
And I hadn’t.
Sean was right. Nobody had broken into my apartment, nobody had been following me, and a telescopic lens seemed like a lot of trouble to go through to spy on a talentless hack. It was a coincidence. It had to be. And Sean hadn’t abandoned me. He was still willing to do business.
Was I crying wolf?
I collapsed into the sofa. Perhaps it didn’t matter anymore. Perhaps I was being too emotional. I could pass the manuscript around to other magazines. But then, Sean had already printed this mysterious doppelganger version, and from what I understood, it was identical to mine. Verbatim. I couldn’t sell it even if I tried to. The industry at large didn’t care about that sort of thing, as long as lawyers weren’t involved, but the arts community reviled it.
I’d lose face.
I’d be unpublishable.
No, I had to move on, accept it for what it was. I’d write something new, something better. I’d show this copycat exactly what I thought of him and his derivative prose. I don’t know how he got my manuscript. I don’t even know how he got it to Sean first. But I was going to beat him down and mop him up.
Yeah, that’s what I’d do.
The manuscript was rubbish, anyway. I couldn’t even believe Sean liked it. It deserved to be swept under the rug, erased from history, forgotten. My next tale would be a masterpiece. It would finally get me noticed.
I went to the cupboard to find something to celebrate with. As always, my apartment was a pigsty. I’d been in the throes of creative ecstasy for the past two weeks, and the bed bugs were practically nipping at my heels. Dirty dishes littered the sink. Clothes crept like fungus from the bedroom. The smell of rotten damp, like the one you might discover in the ducts of an abandoned warehouse, rose from the carpet. In the bathroom, a broken faucet played the steady rhythm of dripping water.
Yes, my apartment was a cavalcade of disgusting odours and annoying sounds, but it was my cavalcade of disgusting odours and annoying sounds. I still kept all my hats on a coat stand in the corner, and they weren’t going anywhere. I swept aside the collateral; expired tins of soup, half-eaten packets of crisps, a strange collection of flavouring sachets I swear I’d never seen before. All of it was trivial. I needed my writing aides.
Wine, spirits, mixers; I was like a kid in a candy store.
What did I want?
Ahh, a sweet moscato, that’s what I needed.
Maybe two. After all, if the glass was only half-full, then I wasn’t doing it right. I extricated my finest chipped tumbler from the mountain of mess I called a kitchen and planted myself firmly before the window.
City lights. Bright ideas.
It was time to swallow my pride, and maybe even my tongue.
I poured a glass.
I drank it.
I repeated this simple action for most of the night.
* * *
I was living like an animal. A sloth. Maybe a badger. With hardly a penny to my name, I had to persevere on a regime of dehydrated noodles and powdered taco sauce. What money I did spend went to essentials like electricity and data. I watched the world go by like a slideshow of changing shapes and colours while my laptop flickered gently in the background. I sat on the floor, knees crossed, eyes blank. It was night, but the lights were off. The TV was off. The fridge was… off?
Oh, there it goes. There were too many sounds, now, from all over. I didn’t even need to listen to hear them.
Water dripping in the bathroom sink, or somebody thumping their boots on the floor above?
Wind caressing the window, or the sustained rush of cars lost like rats in a maze?
What was I doing to myself?
I fell back on the clammy carpet. I felt like I was chasing a dangling carrot, but the bastard who stole from me was probably at the bank right now, laughing as he cashed yet another blank cheque from some poor mark. That’s what he got from Sean.
Wait, what the Hell? God, six days of solitude and I was already losing it. I looked at the laptop. I’d written two paragraphs in six days. Two measly paragraphs, and I didn’t even know where they were going. It was all shit. I was trying to get blood from a stone. I could do better, but I needed to get it done.
I could always…
Take a few pieces…
Just some snippets from other stories…
Nobody would notice.
Nobody important, anyway.
Don’t pick the low hanging fruit! It never falls far from the tree.
Everybody would notice.
Build the better mousetrap.
Get the bar, and the spring, and the trigger, then hook the trigger to the spring and –
Something was vibrating.
– Hello? Hi! Hello? I said, excitedly.
– Uh, hi. Are you okay? replied a voice.
– Hi Gianna! Yes, I’m fine. I’m just kinda sorta in a writer’s funk, y’know? Sugar and wine. Things get a little weird.
– Ah. Okay then. Anyway, I heard Sean rejected your manuscript.
– Yeah, he says someone beat me to the punch.
– And he gave you the cold shoulder?
– He wasn’t just whistling in the dark, if that’s what you mean.
– Well, you’ll love this, then. I know who your Trojan horse is.
– A guy rang the office yesterday looking for Sean, but he’s been sick. Said he was working on a manuscript and wanted Sean’s opinion. He described it for me so I could pass on the message, and sweetie; it reminded me of the stuff you write. Like, a lot.
What should I say? I didn’t know.
– Did he leave an address, a phone number?
– Just his name.
– Which was?
– John Smith.
I sat up, looked over the window sill. Vertigo. The concrete jungle. I should’ve been thrilled, but I felt nothing. John Smith. The name I’d been desperate to know did nothing, meant nothing. Six days, and nothing.
I found myself sitting on the fence, when just one week ago, I would have done exactly what Sean thought I might; grab a phone book and start a witch-hunt.
– Well, thanks, Gianna. I guess.
– Wow. Don’t wig out or anything. Just thought you’d want to know.
– Oh, I did. At least, I thought I did. I’m just – I’m working on something new. I want to turn it into a serial. Y’know; give it the whole nine yards, see if anyone picks it up. So I guess I’m not thinking about the other story anymore. I glanced over at the flickering laptop, my two pitiful paragraphs, and the laughing cursor.
Did I just tell a lie or a bad joke?
– Okay, well, I’ll let you get back to work then. Don’t burn the midnight oil for too long, you got me?
– Sure Gianna. I’ll have something for you soon, don’t worry.
This time, I hung up the phone. I didn’t like hearing the beeps. Too many noises. I glared at my laptop. John was there. Somehow, he was there. Out there, in here, everywhere. I closed the lid. Switched off the power. I went to my closet. It was time to go old school.
My first typewriter sat on top of a pile of junk. It always made me feel like someone else, like the words I typed with it were echoes of something greater. I only ever used it when the sky was dark, the city’s skyline was out, and I wanted to lose myself in the millions of threads weaving the ultimate tale in the urban wasteland before me. I’d catch that usurper, that john-in-the-box everybody smith.
He was nothing, a rat just like everybody else, and mine was the ultimate mousetrap. John would become part of my story. It would be an everyman’s story. It would be a meaningless story. John would be the star, the epitome of emptiness. I was back to square one, but that was okay. I carried the typewriter to the window, poured myself another glass of wine. I kindly asked the world outside to bring it on, and typed my first word.
* * *
Sean’s voice twitched. Seriously, it twitched. Right through the damn phone.
– Are you having me on?
I blinked, but Sean couldn’t see it.
– Are. You. Having. Me. On.
I blinked again. I think my communication skills are degrading.
– What on Earth are you talking about?
Pupae hatched in my stomach, probably literally. I’d spent another two weeks imprisoned in my cell of seclusion to reach this point, hammering away at my ancient keyboard like a demon. I hadn’t read a book. I hadn’t surfed the net. I was tired and malnourished. My hygiene had gone to Hell, probably in a fetid handbasket lined with cockroaches. I’d lost my toothbrush on day fifteen and hadn’t bothered to buy a new one. Instead, I searched high and low for a packet of cigarettes, and when I eventually found one under my mattress, I turned off my smoke alarms.
A diet of smoke made the smell of my breath bearable.
I was at the end of my tether; unhinged and unsettled. It was on the nineteenth day I realised I’d become something not even a mother could love and would have to emerge from my own cocoon soon. So, I sped my writing up, drank nothing unless I laced it with caffeine. My eye sockets were bruised. My hair was matted. I was a disaster, but by the time I called Sean, I was getting better. It was morning and I was awake, for starters.
Anyway, I would fix myself soon; I just had to deal with Sean. Sean and his scathing words.
– This is exactly the same manuscript I received yesterday. Word for word. Typed. With a typewriter.
I was silent for a very long time.
– Are you trying to be funny? Because I’ll dump you quicker than a New York minute if you’re not on the level.
– Sean, I don’t even know what you’re on about! I haven’t been outside my apartment in weeks! I haven’t seen any –
Then it registered.
– I’m going to go out on a limb here. Did John give you a manuscript?
There was a sigh followed by a thud. For a moment, neither of us said anything. Then:
– Don’t bother calling for a while.
The everyman had beaten me. My mousetrap had failed. Who was I? What was I? John was not the epitome of emptiness. I was. I looked at my typewriter. It had betrayed me, turned me into a true echo. But John Smith wasn’t better than me. He was the same.
I went to the kitchen. I rummaged through my draws. I found a rolling pin. I placed my phone on the benchtop. My arm was raised, poised to deliver the fatal blow and shatter the little prick that let Sean’s voice in, when it vibrated.
Gianna’s name appeared.
– Ovrhrd convo. Sean/John meet 12 noon today @ cafe on 1st & 3rd. Thank me l8r 🙂
* * *
I had clothes somewhere, but there was no time to find them, so I just grabbed what was on the floor and left the apartment. It was already eleven thirty, and if my window was any indication, the city was drowning in rain. The streets would be a bleak collage of umbrellas, honking cars, and frustrated people. It would be stifling to move amongst them, around them, through them; I would be like a blunt needle in a stack of blunt needles. If I didn’t move now and move fast, I wouldn’t make the corner of First and Third in time.
I took the elevator.
I held myself in the cold and shivered, breathing in the miasma of tobacco and body odour that surrounded me. The heating was off, and the foyer’s lights flickered churlishly at the dirty linoleum floor. Someone had scratched the names off the mailboxes, the buzzers didn’t work, and a vending machine in the corner had the words “out of pr0n” spray painted on its Coca-Cola façade.
I swung open the doors like an escaped convict sprinting for freedom. The legion marched past, oblivious to my presence, oblivious to the jungle. It was a small world to them, a city full of smoke and mirrors. Their existence slipped through fingers wrapped around coffee mugs and briefcases, the forest of life discarded in favour of a few trees.
Work, money, and status. There was nothing else.
My world was infinite. Words were my trees, and as long as they kept forming, my forest would keep growing. I pushed my way through the noise and the steam, making at best a snail’s pace. Yet I knew the place like the back of my hand. Not once did I feel lost or alone. Not once did I look back or to the side wondering if I should tempt fate and take a shortcut. I was already travelling as well as the crow could fly in a labyrinth. I knew where I was going.
I stuck to my guns and arrived at the corner of First and Third just after twelve. I hoped I wasn’t too late. It was a Starbucks, of course, just like every other café in the city. I strolled passed quickly, glancing through the window. I realised I didn’t know what John looked like, so I looked for Sean. I saw him in the corner, deep in conversation with a scraggly muddle of a man with greasy black hair and a pale, sunken countenance. It took me a second to recognise him as a person and not my reflection in the glass. I crossed the street as casually as I could manage and found a place to stand while I waited.
I could see them both, Sean and John. The window wasn’t tinted. They seemed to be arguing, so I watched. In the cold. In the rain.
A fool to a folly.
After a while, Sean stood up. He threw his hands in the air and stormed out like the loose cannon he could so often be. John followed, but Sean waved him away, made directly for his car. I turned, hoping he wouldn’t see me. He didn’t.
The car raced off down Third.
John sipped his coffee, stood beneath the café’s awning, and lit a cigarette. He seemed to wait for the dust to settle, then left on foot in the opposite direction. Still no closer to solving my mystery, I decided all bets were off.
I followed him.
* * *
Something didn’t feel right as I opened the door to John’s apartment building, and it wasn’t the fact that I was stalking him. My telescopic lens theory held no water; there was no way he could see my home from where he lived. He couldn’t have stolen my manuscript by hacking my laptop, either, nor had I shown it to anybody. So how could we have written the same thing twice? Sean had convinced me to accept it as a coincidence the first time, but for it to happen again was inconceivable. But here I was, all possible explanations exhausted. My mind was reeling. I had a headache, and I knew why something didn’t feel right.
Someone had scratched the names off the mailboxes, the buzzers didn’t work, and a vending machine in the corner had the words “out of pr0n” spray painted on its Coca-Cola façade. The heating was off, and the foyer’s lights flickered churlishly at the dirty linoleum floor. I held myself in the cold and shivered, breathing in the miasma of tobacco and body odour that surrounded me.
I took the elevator.
An intrepid guess told me which floor I needed.
I arrived, and searched for a familiar number. I found it at the end of the hall. I tried the handle, but it was locked. I pulled out my key, made another bold assumption.
One size fits all.
The door creaked open. The apartment was a pigsty. In the bathroom, a broken faucet played the steady rhythm of dripping water. The smell of rotten damp, like the one you might discover in the ducts of an abandoned warehouse, rose from the carpet. Clothes crept like fungus from the bedroom. Dirty dishes littered the sink. John had clearly been in the throes of creative ecstasy for the past two weeks, and the bed bugs were practically nipping at his heels.
Yes, his apartment was a cavalcade of disgusting odours and annoying sounds, but it was my cavalcade of disgusting odours and annoying sounds.
He even had my hats on a coat stand in the corner.
I took in the collateral; expired tins of soup, half-eaten packets of crisps, a strange collection of flavouring sachets I had definitely seen before.
A sweet moscato.
Two; and I’m sure there were more.
Fresh pages ready to perform.
I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. I couldn’t understand. I stood still, breath baited. What was I? Who was I?
– Who the Hell are you?
I looked up. It was John. Obviously. Wasn’t it?
– I, uh –
– I’m waiting.
– I’m Jane. Jane Williams.
He looked at me, gave me a smoker’s cough.
– Well, Jane, I think you should get out of my apartment before I call the cops, yeah?
– But this is my apartment, I whispered.
– No, I’m quite sure this is mine, said John, and he raised his cell phone to show me he wasn’t kidding. He began dialling.
– Wait! Please. I – I just.
I nodded at the typewriter.
– Olympia, right? Feels like you can be anyone when you use it, doesn’t it?
– Do you look out at the city at night? I asked.
– You’re Sean’s other source, aren’t you? he countered.
– No, you’re his other source. I’ve been his friend for years.
– I think I’d know you if you were.
I could feel my face getting warmer.
– Why does my key fit your lock?
– Is that how you’ve been stealing my manuscripts?
– I haven’t been stealing your manuscripts. From what Sean tells me, you’ve been stealing mine.
I fought to stay calm.
– Sean’s full of shit, and so are you! I haven’t been outside my apartment in weeks, it’s the only way you could’ve stolen anything!
I must have been going red. His stare rankled me. His insistence that nothing was amiss sent bolts of furious energy into every fibre of my being. John just shook his head.
– Look, I’ve had enough.
I clenched my fists and stood there, shaking violently. There was nothing I could do. Nothing I could say. I had no proof of any wrongdoing. He was innocent. I was innocent. Faced with the everyman, I realised I might as well be looking in the mirror.
For a brief moment, for the slightest of seconds, I abandoned reason.
I knew that nobody had stolen anything, and that everything was possible. We were conduits, nothing more and nothing less. We were the same words written on the page of a larger story, a reference to one another, and somehow, despite the chaos of the tale separating us, despite the misgivings of the author, we had found one another.
My anger softened, spurred by a subtle shift in my perception. I looked at this husk, this shadow of a man, and regarded him as another version of me. We were twins; kindred spirits cut from the same cloth.
I shouldn’t be angry.
I couldn’t be angry.
I was him.
He was me.
I took in the apartment one more time; the mess, the empty bottles, the coat stand, the Olympia.
– Are you getting the same feeling I am? I asked, tentatively.
– I think so.
I returned his smile, his warmth.
This encounter was something unique, something to be treasured.
– Get the fuck out of my apartment right now.
I was, after all, standing in some stranger’s apartment getting excited over two empty bottles of wine and an old typewriter. I backed out slowly and he followed me to the door.
– Goodbye, Miss Williams, he said, closing it.
* * *
I could never get published after that. Sean stopped returning my calls and all I received from other magazines were rejection slips. It felt as though John, both my saviour and adversary, had supplanted me somehow; stolen my ability to share my work with the world. I ruminated on the whole affair for months afterwards, retracing my steps, reliving the moment I stepped into John’s apartment and found it a replication of my own. Our lives, just like our fiction, were identical, our assemblage of it indistinguishable, yet his was regarded by other eyes and mine was not.
I watched the everyman publish many more pieces after that. I knew they were his because they were also mine. Of course, I learned very quickly not to make this fact a point of conversation. I went out with Gianna on the following weekend. She was the first person I saw after John. I divulged everything; everything I said, everything I saw, everything I felt. I couldn’t stop myself. It was a new story forming in the moment.
In return, she gave me a punchline.
– So you weren’t after a sexual relationship. Just an intertextual one, she quipped through an idiotic grin.
Nevertheless, she was right. I put the doppelganger out of my mind, got a job. At a Starbucks. Obviously. So, I’m subsisting. My apartment is still a juxtaposition of creativity and destruction. My hats are still hanging on a coat stand in the corner. I’ve even made an effort to contact friends and family. But I’m still writing.
I’ll always be writing.