There's a story my brother told Daisy and me when we were little.
We were sitting around a campfire, its fiery flames licking our marshmallows as Elliot held a torch beneath his chin. The effect made white light stretch across his face, distorting his soft, child-like features and transforming them into something sharp – something deadly. 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 sooth the goosebumps raised on my arms.
Not for as long as Elliot was speaking, anyway.
Beside our little fire 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. It was a summer paradise, but at night it looked different.
The shadows swallowed everything they touched, covering the lake in its shroud. Mosquitoes buzzed above the water's surface and, as I looked out into the darkness, I swore the darkness stared back. Things moved inside those shadows – I would have sworn it on my life – shifting into shapes they didn't teach us in school. But, cocooned inside the fire's light, I knew I was safe.
That's what I thought, anyway.
The story Elliot told was about doppelgängers. As we grew older, like most things, it changed. But it always got scarier – no matter what.
'We all have one,' he whispered, his tiny voice rising sharp against the crackling fire. He leaned forward, 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 doppelgänger right now and you wouldn't even know.'
I bit my lip, every nerve in my body ignited with fear. I knew what doppelgängers did; Elliot's story engraved itself into my mind from the very first time he told it. They watched you in back alleys, studying your habits and traits until they can finally take your place.
Looking back now, I think it was the idea that someone could take me away from my family that scared me more than anything else. It's silly, when you think about it. Back then, I couldn't imagine anything worse than losing the ones I love. Now, it's all I know.
As the moths buzzed around the fire, Mom stretched out from the patio to see us. Her small, delicate fingers unfolded into a wave and I smiled, waving back, trying to ignore how stiff the movement felt. I had to pretend I was enjoying myself, because if she knew what Elliot was saying, what words he twisted, she'd be angry and I wouldn't be allowed to come here again.
I'd been having trouble sleeping since turning seven. Waking up in the middle of the night screaming from nightmares I couldn't remember. Mom 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 grey 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 our senior. If you knew her, though, you'd understand.
Daisy was smart and brilliant, even at the age of seven. Everyone in our school loved her (that's all but 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's mischievous face, 'don't believe a single word. Mom says it's rude to call him weird, but between us, he's really off in the head.'
I tried to laugh, but my throat was too tight. My palms clammed up 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 despite my eyes that strung with unshed tears.
'I'm not weird,' Elliot snapped, eyes narrowed in that ten-year-old way. 'Just wait and see. One day, you'll think you're looking into a mirror, but it's really your evil doppelgänger.'
Daisy smirked. I wanted to be as brave as her, but I knew I never would be. Even if my grades last year moved me up to her class, she would always be five steps ahead.
'I wish yours would just get on with it, then,' she said with an evil smile. 'I'd rather have 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 our building, I know that this was just child games. 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 College as Eden 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 doppelgängers that we should be afraid of, but ourselves.
YOU ARE READING
Dead If You DoMystery / Thriller
A campus thriller: suspense, murder & one handsome roommate. ***** When Haley Bell is offered a scholarship to study at the exclusive Woodcreek College, famous for moulding the wo...