SEEING HIMSELF OUT by Peter Hankins (3rd place, Oct21)

It didn’t seem odd at first that there should be someone in David’s bedroom. There was a faint shuffling noise, which must have been the thing that roused him, but he had not completely woken up yet and he was still slightly confused. With the curtains drawn the light was dim, but David could see well enough. The man was standing with his back to David, looking through the odds and ends on top of the chest of drawers. He picked up David’s old magnifying glass and briefly sighted through the lens before putting it down.

‘Hey!’ said David, sitting up in bed. The man turned and looked at him.

‘Oh, hello,’ he said. ‘It’s OK. Go back to sleep if you like.’ He spoke with great confidence; for a moment David almost accepted this reassurance.

‘What are you doing in my bedroom?’ he demanded. The man nodded, somehow suggesting that this was a silly question but entirely predictable.

‘Well, it’s my bedroom too really, isn’t it?’ he asked. At that point a certain strange familiarity about his face resolved itself. It was David’s own face, more or less. There was a subtle difference about not seeing it in a mirror, but there was no doubt: this was his twin or doppelgänger.

‘What the hell is going on?’ demanded David.

‘So, I suppose I’m haunting you. I’m the ghost of you from the future. Hi.’

‘How can I haunt anyone? I’m not even dead.’

‘No,’ admitted the double, ‘but I am.’

‘But how… this is absurd!’ said David. The double flapped one hand dismissively at him as though he really couldn’t be bothered just now, smiled, and disappeared. Just like that. David was left feeling slightly shaken and very puzzled. After a few moments he decided the double had most likely been a waking dream of some kind or a sort of hallucination. He decided not to worry about it. Without thinking about it, he gave the same dismissive hand-flap his disappearing twin had used.

Two days later when he came into the bedroom for a clean handkerchief he found his double sitting on the bed leafing through his copy of Watchmen.

‘Oh, hi,’ said the double, ‘what’s the date today?’

‘Uh… The fourth of March?’ David answered automatically.

‘Aha. So you haven’t got too long to go, then,’ said the double. ‘Shame.’

‘Too long to go until what?’

‘Until you kill yourself.’

‘You think I’m going to kill myself?’

‘Well I did,’ said the double. ‘Like an idiot. Ergo, you’re going to do it too. Completely stupid and unnecessary, but there we are.’

When am I going to kill myself? And how?’ And why, for Heaven’s sake?

‘Oh, I never tell you exactly,’ said the double, putting the book down and scratching the back of his neck.

‘Why not? Is there some rule about not telling people when they’re going to die?’

‘Not so far as I know. I just don’t give you any details. I remember that very clearly. I found it a bit irritating when I was in your shoes, as I recall, but I’m afraid there’s nothing to be done about it, because that’s just what happens.’

‘Can’t you exercise free will and tell me anyway? What’s stopping you?’

‘Nothing really. But I don’t, so I’m not going to. It’s not really mysterious. Can I ask you a favour?’

‘What?’

‘Would you bring your old Spectre comics up here? I’d like another look at them.’

‘So you won’t give me information that might save my life, but you expect me to provide you with comic books?’

‘Oh, come on. I hoped we were more mature than this.’ David snorted.

‘Can’t you come downstairs?’ he asked. The double looked surprised by that.

‘Hmm,’ he said, ‘I don’t think I can. I’m sort of where I am, you know?’

‘And when you’re not here – where are you, exactly?’

‘Oh, the question of location doesn’t arise.’

‘What does that mean?’ demanded David. ‘“Doesn’t arise”? Has death somehow made you wilfully obscure?’

‘Oh no,’ said his double, ‘you were always like this.’ And, perhaps feeling he wouldn’t get a better exit line than that, he vanished.

Not for long though. He started appearing in the bedroom every day. It wasn’t exactly scary, more disorientating, but it began to get on David’s nerves. He was no longer sleeping well and felt anger towards his alleged future self. After about six weeks, he decided to try to talk to an exorcist.

That turned out to be much easier than he had imagined. He had a conversation with his local priest, who addressed the whole business with admirable professionalism, as though it was a regular item of business like weddings and funerals. He gently checked David for signs of mental illness, left a polite suggestion that more regular appearances in church might be beneficial to his spiritual health, and referred him to a specialist approved by the Bishop.

This was Father Jacob, a saturnine old priest with shaggy eyebrows, who smelled of pipe tobacco. He appeared at David’s door unannounced and immediately took control, examining the bedroom and questioning David much more brusquely than the parish priest had done.

‘You see, Father,’ said David, ‘apparently, it’s me – my ghost, that is….’

‘There’s no ghost, David,’ said Father Jacob firmly.

‘But Father, you know I have seen this person who really does look like me, and he claims to be my dead self, come back from a future time when I’ve killed myself?’

‘Well, David, that’s nonsense,’ said the exorcist, ‘the spirits of the dead don’t travel back through time. No. Of course you’re suffering visitations; I don’t doubt that at all, but it’s not a ghost. This is a wicked spirit which is presenting itself in your outward form, the better to guide you towards self-destruction. Pay no attention to what it says; of course you know that the Devil is a liar.’

Father Jacob arranged to return in four days to perform the exorcism. As soon as he was gone, the double reappeared, in David’s hallway.

‘So you can come downstairs?’ said David.

‘I don’t call this coming downstairs,’ said his double. ‘Honestly mate, I don’t really have much of a clue what’s going on here. But you know I’m not an evil spirit, don’t you? Mucking about with that old fool is a waste of time. In what possible way am I “guiding you to self-destruction”?’

‘Either you help me, or it’s exorcism for you,’ said David firmly. His double sighed.

‘I can’t help you. You’re going to get yourself killed, quite soon now. No-one can stop you.’

‘Why not?’

‘Because it’s a fact that you do kill yourself. But it’s a fact about the future, and of course you’ve got difficulties dealing with that. It’s all part of the mental limitations involved in being alive.’

‘What do you mean?’

‘Well, look at it this way. If killing yourself were a fact about the present, you’d accept it. See, it’s a fact that you’re in this hallway now. You don’t imagine you could change that and be somewhere else now, do you? Oh, you could have been somewhere else. You will be somewhere else in the future. But you can’t make yourself be anywhere else right now. Because it’s a fact that you’re here. And it’s a fact that you’ll kill yourself. Deeply regrettable, but there’s nothing to be done about it. If I could stop you, believe me I would.’

‘Oh, sure,’ said David bitterly.

‘I don’t know why you think it’s my job to prevent you doing it anyway. If you don’t want to die, just try not to, OK? Maybe you can change your own destiny. I don’t think so, but you’re the only one who can try.’

‘I am not in any way suicidal,’ said David, irritably.

‘Well, that’s not what the coroner’s going to say,’ said his double, ‘he will say he is obliged to take into account the possibility that the balance of your mind had been disturbed by recent events.’

‘Meaning you,’ said David.

 

The day before the exorcism was due to take place, the double appeared in the hallway again while David was picking up a parcel that had been negligently left on the doorstep.

‘Well, I suppose it’s goodbye,’ said the apparition, waving.

‘You’re finally popping off, then?’

‘Not me. But you won’t see me again.’ This time the ghost, if ghost it was, departed by the radically unconventional means of going out through the door and walking down the street. David came out to watch himself receding into the distance.

‘Well, good riddance to that, whatever it was,’ he said.

He stepped out into the quiet road to get a better last view of the double, and was hit from behind by a truck going much too fast; he died instantly.

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