The Beginning of the End
There's a story my brother told me when we were little.
We were sat around a campfire, its hot flames licking our marshmallows, as Elliot held a torch beneath his chin. The luminous light stretched across his face, distorting his usually soft, child-like features and transforming them into something sharp – something deadly.
The wind carried the clink of our parents' champagne glasses and their laughter wrapped around me like a warm blanket, but even that wasn't enough to calm me.
Not for as long as Elliot was speaking, anyway.
Beside our little camp was a lake – Crystal Lake, we called it. In the summer, my cousins and I would dive off the pier and take turns to see who could hold their breath the longest. But at night, it looked different.
The blackness swallowed everything it touched, covering the lake in its shroud. Mosquitoes buzzed above the water's surface and, as I looked into the darkness, I swore I could see things moving within. But, cocooned inside the fire's light, I knew I was safe. At least, that's what I thought.
The story Elliot told was about doppelgangers. As we grew older, like most things, it evolved – but it always got scarier. No matter what.
'We all have one,' he whispered, his tiny voice rising sharply against the flames. He leaned forwards, his blue eyes flickering between my cousin and me. 'They watch us,' he continued, 'hiding in the shadows as we walk our dogs or go to school. Sometimes, they even take our place. I could be my doppelganger right now, and you wouldn't know any better.'
I bit my lip, every nerve in my body ignited with fear. I knew what doppelgangers did; Elliot's story was engraved in my mind. They watch you for a while in back alleys, learning your habits and traits until they can finally take your place. The thought that there was someone out there who could take me away from my family, just like that, terrified me.
Across the garden, my Mum stretched out to see us. Her small, delicate fingers unfolded into a wave and I smiled, waving sombrely back. I had to pretend I was enjoying myself because if she knew what Elliot was saying, she'd be angry and I wouldn't be allowed to come here again.
I'd been having trouble sleeping in the last few weeks, waking up in the middle of the night screaming from nightmares. Mum boiled it down to Elliot's storytelling, but because I couldn't remember what I dreamt of, I wasn't so sure.
The sound of wood popping brought me back to the fire. I watched the black smoke rise in threads towards the sky as Daisy, my cousin, scoffed and pulled her marshmallow back. It dripped like wax to the floor.
Daisy's pink lips were pursed, eyes burning with the heat of a thousand flames. Nothing could fool her – not even my brother, who was three whole years older than us. If you knew her, you'd understand.
She was smart and brilliant, even at the ripe age of seven. You name it, and Daisy was. Everyone in our school loved her (that's all for Elliot, at least), and I was lucky enough to be her family. Otherwise, I'm not so sure she'd have noticed me.
'Haley,' she said, eyes glued to Elliot, 'don't believe a single word. Mum says it's rude to call him weird, but between me and you, he's especially off in the head.'
I tried to laugh, but I couldn't. My palms were clammy and my heart pounded against my chest. If Elliot's story wasn't true, then why could I see shadows moving in the trees past Crystal Lake? I didn't want to appear scared in front of Daisy, so I lifted my chin. Inside, I was on the verge of crying.
'I'm not weird,' Elliot snapped, eyes wide in that ten-year-old way. 'Just you wait. You'll see. When you think you're looking into a mirror, but it's really your evil doppelganger.'
Daisy smirked. I wanted to be as brave as her, but I knew I never would be.
'I wish yours would just get on with it, then,' she said. 'I'd rather him than you. He'll be more fun, but it's not like that's hard.'
Looking back now, as sirens wail outside my dorm and strangers dressed in uniform unroll police tape across every door of Building B, I know that this was just child games. Completely harmless, even. Elliot wanted to scare us all those years ago – and, more often than not, he did.
For years afterwards, I'd have nightmares of walking in alleys only to be confronted by someone who looks just like me. And yet, here I am, sitting in the common room of Woodcreek University as Eden Walsh sobs into my shoulder. Her tears seep through my pyjama top and her breathing comes in ragged fragments, each one more broken than the one before.
Now, I think silently, I know for sure.
It's not our doppelgangers that we should be afraid of, but ourselves.
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Dead If You DoMystery / Thriller
When Haley Bell is offered a scholarship to study at the exclusive Woodcreek College, famous for moulding the world's brightest thinkers, artists and inventors, she jumps at the opportunity. Except when she arrives, the murders start. In a campus h...