Gwen woke up with yet another bruise on her leg. Knowing her mom would freak out again, she quickly threw on some jeans. After fumbling around in search of a bra and sweater, she remembered her glasses and stumbled downstairs for some breakfast.
Gwen was basically a clone of her mom Hannah, minus the fact that her hair touched her jawline instead of her back. They shared the same dirty blonde hair color (minus the gray hairs that Hannah tried to hide), the same hazel eyes, and even the same freckle pattern. Remarkably, they both shared the same duo of freckles located right in the corner of their left eyes. If it wasn’t for the age gap, they’d be twins.
“Gwen, did you wake up with any more bruises?” Hannah asked.
“No, I checked,” Gwen mumbled as she grabbed some waffles from the freezer.
“Should I check your back in case you missed any?”
“No, I would’ve felt it. Besides, it’s been three days. I think it’s over now.”
For about two weeks, every other day, Gwen would wake up with a bruise that she didn’t remember getting. Fearing self-harm as the cause, Hannah had her daughter stay over. Fortunately, Gwen worked from home as a writer, so it didn’t mess up her schedule.
“Gwen, I worry about you,” Hannah sighed. “I think you’re putting too much pressure on yourself. Why don’t you take a break from your book? Or maybe you could write another short story instead?”
Short stories. That’s all Gwen had written. Although her work had been published and received plenty of praise, she was ready for something bigger and better. Under the Floor of the Sea was set to be her debut novel, and she was dead set on making it perfect.
“I’m never this stressed, Mom. You know that I’d never hurt myself, especially over a book.”
“Is this about Beatrice?”
Beatrice was Gwen's ex-girlfriend, who was left behind in their old college town when Gwen moved for a job opportunity in the big city near where Hannah lived. They tried, but they just couldn’t make a long-distance relationship work. Despite the fact that Beatrice would often treat Gwen like a therapist and was jealous of her accomplishments, they two still checked up on each other. Or rather, Beatrice would keep bugging Gwen to complain about how much her life sucks compared to Gwen’s. It was no wonder that Beatrice kept making her way into Gwen’s novel as the protagonist’s love interest.
This isn’t about you.
“No, Mom, this isn’t about Beatrice,” Gwen answered. “We’re just friends, and everything is fine.”
“Will you be ok if I run some errands and visit a friend? It might take all day.”
“Yes, Mom, I promise I’ll be ok.”
After double-checking three more times, Hannah agreed to finally let her daughter stay home and work as she went out for dry-cleaning and cocktails. Gwen let her mom kiss her on the forehead several times before she pulled out her laptop by her bedroom window. For as long as she had lived in that house, she’d always gazed at the oak tree outside her window as she wrote. It was almost as if each branch held a story to be told.
Gwen settled on the branch directly in front of her and decided that it was going to hold her story. With some soda and a bag of pretzels on her right, she was ready to explore a little underwater hideout in Under the Floor of the Sea.
A few hours passed as Gwen took a mental dive into the world of her book. She had already reached the halfway point, and it had everything; a woman held captive under the sea, an evil octopus, the friendliest shark in the world, and another woman in a submarine who tries to communicate with the woman being held captive. Just when things were hitting a romantic climax, Gwen noticed that she was out of pretzels. As she got up to get another bag, she saw something flying by the branch outside her window. It appeared to be an emerald green drone, but she couldn’t be sure. What she was sure of was that it dropped something off at the door and then flew off.
By the time Gwen got to the door, the drone had disappeared. Sitting on the doormat was a little brown paper package tied up with strings. The only people who’d wrapped up presents for her like that were Beatrice and her late dad. That obviously ruled out her dad, but she didn’t even tell Beatrice that she was staying at Hannah’s. To make things weirder, the handwriting that spelled out her name and mother’s address on the package looked awfully similar to hers. Oh, and there wasn’t a return address.
Obviously concerned about the mysterious package, Gwen’s first instinct was to throw it across the lawn in case it contained a bomb. Maybe Mom had secretly told Beatrice as a way to cheer me up, she thought. Leaving the package outside, she tried calling Hannah several times and texted her, but there was no answer. Finally, her curiosity got the best of her, and she retrieved the package a solid fifteen minutes later.
The tiny package contained an envelope and a little doll. The doll itself had been crudely sewn up with mismatched button eyes, yellow yarn for hair, no mouth, and limbs that weren’t even the same length. Gwen recognized it as the type of doll that she used to make as a child. She’d give them to the neighborhood kids, only for them to turn away in disgust. Her daddy encouraged her to keep them as temporary friends until she could make some real ones. There was something else he told her to do, but she couldn’t remember it at all.
That’s when she opened up the envelope and read the letter;
Dear Gwen, I understand that you’re going through a rough time. I’ve sent you this little friend to assist you. In order for her to help you, you must open the window before bed, kiss her and say, “You are my friend for now, and I need you to be my guide.” Good luck!
That was exactly what Gwen’s daddy told her to do with her dolls. Unsurprisingly, she was hesitant to do it. Her dad was dead, and Beatrice wouldn’t know about any of this unless Hannah had told her. This had to be a trap.
Suddenly, Gwen felt a pain in her cheek. She hurried to the bathroom and saw a bruise on her cheek. She still had no idea why any of this was happening, and she could only hide it for so long. Maybe, just maybe, this package could provide an answer for the bruising.
It was nine o’clock, and Hannah still wasn’t home due to her friend’s tendency to keep visitors in her house for so long. Gwen took it as the opportunity to pull out the doll. She wasn’t sure if she needed to fall asleep in order for it to work, but she went ahead and opened her window before climbing into bed. She tucked her little friend into bed next to her and then kissed her.
“You are my friend for now, and I need you to be my guide,” Gwen whispered.
Her eyes weren’t even closed for five minutes when she heard a noise downstairs. She knew it wasn’t Hannah because she’d always announce her arrival, even if people were fast asleep. Finding nothing but a pen nearby to use as a weapon, she tiptoed down over to the door. Carefully and quietly, she left her room and hid in the one next to it.
Someone passed Gwen’s hiding spot and went straight to her room. Knowing that the door was the only exit other than the window, she hurried over and pulled the door closed. The intruder tried to pull it open, only for Gwen to push it back and slam it directly in the stranger’s face, knocking them backward. As they struggled to stand up, Gwen gasped.
The intruder was more qualified to be Gwen’s clone than Hannah was. She had Gwen’s hairstyle and hair color, eyes, and freckles. She even had the exact same duo of freckles located right in the corner of her left eye. Unlike Gwen, she was worn out, as if she had been traveling for so long without rest or refreshments. She had dark circles under her eyes, a cut on her cheek, and some cuts on her arms.
“No need to ask me who I am,” the familiar stranger said.
“I see,” Gwen said as calmly as she could. “You’re me from another world, aren’t you?”
“Oh, I’m so much more than that,” the stranger smiled. “I’m the Real Gwen.”
“What are you talking about?” Gwen asked, holding onto the pen for dear life.
“You’re just an alternative version of me. You’re the person I’ll never be. Happy. Successful. Accepted.”
“What do you mean?”
“Your mother loves you dearly,” Real Gwen grunted as she made her way to the bed. “Mine can’t stand me. She blamed me for her divorce after I came out as gay and threw me out of the house. I’ve been hopping from roommate to roommate until I ended up on the streets. During that time, I’ve been too busy surviving to write any of the stories I wanted to tell.”
“What happened to your body?” Gwen asked.
“I’m not done yet!” Real Gwen snapped. “I’ve known about you for some time. When I finally decided that I was done living in my cruel little world, I decided that you don’t deserve to exist as I suffer. Unfortunately, the harm I cause to myself doesn’t result in the exact same harm for you. The cuts on my body only give you bruises.”
“So, that’s where those bruises–”
“I said I wasn’t done yet! This isn’t about you!” Real Gwen grew even more unhinged by the minute. “Since cutting myself didn’t cut you, I knew that I couldn’t kill you by killing myself. I have to make sure that you’re gone before I go.”
“This isn’t fair!” Gwen shouted. “I don’t even know you!”
“Not fair, you say? You were given everything on a silver platter. Your mother loves you, and so did your father before he died. You’re free to love whomever you want and you are a successful storyteller. How come this all has happened to you and not to me? Tell me how any of this is fair!”
“How did you know about the doll?”
“My daddy told me the same thing your daddy told you,” Real Gwen growled as she held the doll. “Our lives are almost parallel. I honestly thought that you’d be dumb enough to fall for my trick immediately, but I noticed you hesitating. That’s when I cut my cheek, bruising yours. I knew that you’d get some sort of connection and bite the bait. It was the key to transporting me to your perfect little world”
“And the drone?” Gwen asked as she slowly slid to the door behind her. “How did you get that over here?”
“I think I’ve told you enough, Little Miss Perfect,” Real Gwen said as she stood up and moved with the gracefulness of a snake. “I can’t rest in peace until you rot in the dirt.”
Real Gwen lunged forward, but Gwen was quicker. The door flew open for Gwen and then slammed shut on Real Gwen’s arm. The screams echoed throughout the house as Gwen ran down the stairs. She ran to the front door, which was clearly unlocked, but it wouldn’t budge.
Gwen turned around and bolted for the kitchen. Replacing her pen with a butcher knife, she then ran on her tiptoes to the living room. A red armchair in the corner had enough space for her to hide behind it, so she took her chances. Minutes felt like hours as she held her breath.
“Gwen, I’m home!”
The scared daughter didn’t move a muscle. Is the other me playing a trick? Is she standing nearby, ready to attack once I come out? Is she only here to harm me and will leave Mom alone? Will Mom be ok? Fear had almost paralyzed Gwen as she struggled to come up with an option.
“Gwen!” Hannah called from upstairs. “Are you still here?”
Gwen shuddered as her phone went off. Did she seriously forget that her phone was in her pocket the whole time? She quickly pulled it out and hung up on her mom. Knowing that the light on her phone could give her away in the dark room, she quickly texted a simple message:
Get out now.
The door opened and shut once more, possibly meaning that Hannah got the message and bolted. Knowing that Real Gwen was possibly still in the house, Gwen carefully crept out. After sending another quick text to her mom telling her to call the police due to an intruder, she was ready to finish the job.
“Come on, Gwen,” Gwen called out. “I’m the one you want. Come and get me!”
There was no hesitation as Gwen ran back upstairs to her room. Now it was Real Gwen’s turn to be quiet and hide. How was Gwen going to lure her out? That’s when she noticed the doll on the floor. Thinking quickly, she stomped on the doll.
Screams ripped out from behind the bathroom door.
“There you are!” Gwen screamed. “Now come out and fight me!”
That’s exactly what Real Gwen did. She sprinted right out of the bathroom, only to get sliced in the belly by Gwen’s knife and get tossed right out of the open window.
At a loss for words, Gwen peeked out the window. After about fifteen seconds of being motionless, Real Gwen started moving her muscles again. Clutching onto her knife for dear life, she made her way downstairs to the front door. Slowly and carefully, she opened the door.
A copy of Gwen’s face came into view, causing the writer to panic and slash her knife at the hand at the door. A finger and a half fell to the ground as the person screamed. They looked just like Gwen. That is, except for the fact that their gray-streaked hair had been tied up in a low ponytail, making the hair length appear much shorter than it already was.
“Mom!” Gwen screamed as she held Hannah close. “I’m so sorry! I...I pushed the intruder out of the window and thought you were her!”
“What?” Hannah gasped as she tried to process the loss of her fingers. “I didn’t see...Honey, no one fell out the window.”
“But I threw her out of the window! She attacked-“
“Gwen! Oh, Gwen! What happened to you? My baby, you’re bleeding!”
As police sirens grew closer and closer, Gwen looked down and saw that her belly had been sliced open.
The beeping machines bored Gwen to tears as she lay in her hospital bed. The stitches on her stomach made it hurt for her to get up to go to the bathroom, so she just sat there as she struggled to find anything good on TV. Even when she did something worth watching, she kept hearing the same thing play in her head over and over again.
“This isn’t about you!”
That was what Beatrice said to her when they broke up. She was always trying to make Gwen’s decisions for her, but it was just too much. Gwen drew the line when she was basically demanded to drop everything and move back to the small town that she had no intention of moving back to. She tried to explain why she felt more comfortable being near her mom and needed the perfect space to finally work on her debut novel, but then Beatrice just had to throw in the “this isn’t about you” card one last time. That’s when Gwen decided that she was tired of being Beatrice’s therapist.
Gwen’s phone rang. It was Beatrice. The conversation would’ve played out like this; Beatrice would say that she somehow heard about what happened. She’d ask Gwen how she was doing, but then she’d spend half an hour talking about her problems. Even if she didn’t know that Gwen was in the hospital, she’d go on and on about how she’s stuck in the college town with no future. Gwen wasn’t in the mood, so she ignored the call.
There was a knock on the door.
“Come in,” Gwen croaked.
“Excuse me, Gwen,” said the pretty nurse who came in. “I'm just letting you know that your mother’s surgery went well and she needs to rest for a bit before you can make plans to go home. She was asking about you. Is everything ok in here?”
“Yes. I’m just bored.”
“Sorry I can’t offer much entertainment. Would you like to order dinner now?”
As the nurse listed the options, Gwen noticed a little doll on the table against the wall under the TV. It was crudely stitched with button eyes, yellow yarn hair, and limbs that weren’t the same length.
“Excuse me,” Gwen said. “Where did that doll come from?”
“I don’t know, ma’am. Maybe someone left it when they came to visit you.”
Gwen lost her appetite.