This story is by Kaitlyn Murphy and was part of our 2021 Spring Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Arius sat quietly on the train, newspaper folded open to the crossword. His blue pen stood at the ready.
Fifty across, nine letter word for replica.
He nodded to himself, filling the tiny boxes with capital letters.
Twenty-three down, six lettered Parisian dwelling. He thought back to the classes he and Ella took in college so they could order potatoes dauphinoise and bouillabaisse like locals on spring break. He remembered his favorite foods but had to dig up the word for house.
Ah, yes. Maison.
A tiny smile blossomed at the unlocked memory of French classes followed by French kissing with Ella, his petite amie turned épouse. Arius smiled out the window, face glowing golden in the early morning sunshine.
He turned back towards the train’s shadowy innards, readying his pen. M-A-I-
An awful shriek from the rails came first, the sound of brakes trying desperately to jump into action. The lights flicked off and WHUMP the train lurched, throwing bodies against doors and snapping necks against seatbacks. Arius braced himself on the table. It dug into his stomach, hard. When he stood up, the pen leaked blue ink.
The police took statements. Arius omitted the screams of travelers with broken bones still reverberating in his head.
The EMT pointed to the nasty bruise forming on his ribcage. “You’re a lucky guy. A little roughed up, but no signs of cracked ribs.”
They talked about their kids while she took his vitals.
“My daughter would love to be here,” Arius said. “She pretends to drive an ambulance around the house, saving people.” He pictured Rosemary sitting on the sink, asking to clean her own cuts.
“Ari!” Ella arrived and rushed over, brown hair swinging. Arius sucked in his first full breath since leaving the train. If Ella was here, even disaster was fine.
“Gosh, I was so worried about you.” She wrapped him in a hug.
“Oof El, watch the ribs.”
“I’m sorry!” She turned to the EMT. “Is he okay? Is everyone okay?”
Arius didn’t share Ella’s depth of concern for strangers, but this kindness was the thing about her that he loved most. He saw so much of it mirrored in their daughter.
The EMT assured her that he just needed rest.
After its traumatic start, the rest of the day was calm. They picked up Rosemary from school and ordered takeout. At night, Ella stroked his hair until he drifted off.
The next morning, Arius woke to chatter. He showered and dressed, careful to avoid the bruised rib, and trotted into the kitchen.
“Heya gals, what are you making down here?”
He pulled up short before the last step and made a choking noise.
“What the… Who the hell are you?”
Two strangers stood by the stove, the little girls’ blue eyes saucer-wide in response to the swear word. She looked Rosemary’s age, but he didn’t remember her from preschool. The woman glared, her blonde bob swishing over her shoulder.
“Go feed the fish in the living room sweetie. Only a little pinch.” She handed the girl a plastic bottle of fish food before turning her attention back to Arius.
“Jeez, Ari. Don’t use that word in front of Rosemary. You know she’s like a sponge.”
Seeing his alarm, she softened. She walked towards him and rubbed his arm. He flinched.
“Honey, are you alright?”
Arius stood still, flabbergasted.
“Who are you? Where’s Ella?”
“What are you talking about? Oh, damn.” She broke her own rule. “Does your head hurt? I knew I should have checked on you last night. I think we should call the doctor.” As she reached for her phone, Ella’s wedding ring gleamed in the sun.
This woman didn’t have Ella’s voice, or Ella’s body, or even Ella’s hair color for goodness sake, he thought. What if he had amnesia? Or a brain bleed? Is this how brain injuries worked?
He had to act quickly. He couldn’t let them cart him away that easily.
“No, no. I’m fine. Sorry I am just a bit… off,” Arius lied. He plastered on his most sincere smile.
Blonde Not-Ella put her phone down but eyed him suspiciously.
“Okay, well do you have a headache? Do you feel dizzy?” Her concern seemed genuine. Either she thought they were married or this woman was a great actress.
“No, I think I just need something to eat. And some… some more water.”
“Daddy, Mommy and I made you a special pancake!” The little girl wandered back into the kitchen, pointing to a heart-shaped pancake now burning on the skillet.
He swallowed. “Thanks, Rosemary. That was sweet.”
All Arius wanted to do was run far away from the imposter and her tiny accomplice. They wouldn’t try to drug him, would they?
He sat at his usual spot at the table and ate, then escaped to the yard.
Arius spent the day outside, cycling through worst-case scenarios and falling deeper into psychosis. He ate dinner with the substitutes and went to bed early with claims of rib pain.
He popped Ambien and willed himself asleep.
Arius awoke groggy from the drugs. Each exhale sent brown strands floating from the face of the woman sleeping next to him. Ella tended to snore when stressed.
Like fog, yesterday’s memories rolled in. Arius sprung up, peeking over the woman’s back. Still not Ella.
He rushed to his daughter’s room, tiptoeing to inspect the face of the sleeping child. When he got close, he stifled a scream. A new stranger lay in his daughter’s bed.
Where was Rosemary? Where was Ella? Where were the strangers he had met yesterday?
He heard a creak behind him. The woman from his bed stood in the doorframe.
“Aw, Ari, it’s Sunday. Let her sleep and we can do the crossword together.” Her voice was raspy and she stood three inches shorter than his wife.
Maybe if I keep playing along, someone will let me in on the prank, Arius thought.
“Sure, meet you in the kitchen in a sec.”
Brunette Not-Ella smiled. He stared into the sleeping face of his not-daughter, repulsed. Acting was not his strong suit.
Every day was filled with new strangers. There was shaved-head Not-Ella, freckly Not-Ella, goth Not-Ella, and other versions of women who behaved as if they were his wife. Every morning meeting a new stranger, Arius felt like screaming. On good days he drove to work, putting distance between himself and his fake family. Many mornings, he contemplated driving into the guard rail during his commute and ending it all.
The pictures on his desk always matched the day’s imposters. He found subtle ways to ask if anyone else was affected, like showing off family photos to coworkers. He asked his in-laws to send video for a birthday surprise he was planning for Rosemary. They emailed over clips of Arius pushing that day’s daughter on a tire swing.
To the rest of the world, nothing was amiss.
After weeks in his new hell, Arius had a new idea. Maybe he could push the reset button. It had all started on the train; maybe that’s where it would end, one way or another.
He had been driving since the accident, but on this day he bought a train ticket. He sat and opened up the crossword, willing himself to focus on the answers despite feeling electrified.
Arius’ hope and the miles to their final destination were dwindling when it happened. The deafening screech of the rails. The screams. Even though he was prepared, Arius let himself be flung forward. He groaned, smashing his head against the table. His crossword pen pushed into him with immense force, puncturing one of his lungs.
Arius woke in pain. The same EMT was pushing the gurney.
“Welcome back! You’re a lucky guy,” the woman said as she checked his vitals. “We lost you there for a while but you’re stable now.” He fell back asleep.
Hours later, Arius lay in a hospital bed. He was awake before they let his family visit.
“My doctor teddy has a stethoscope just like that,” he heard Rosemary announce proudly from the hallway.
“He’s right in there,” a nurse said.
“Thank you so much, I really appreciate it.” Ella’s voice.
And then the door swung open, revealing his actual wife and his real daughter. Finally, he had them back.
I have never been happier to see two people in my entire life, Arius thought. I will never forget how much I love them.
“Oh. I am so sorry.” Ella stammered. “They told us this was the right room.”
She fumbled for the door handle.
Arius found that he couldn’t speak.
“Yeah, sorry!” Rosemary chirped as the door closed.
He watched them back into the hall, the door latching behind them. As they walked away in search of another room, he heard the last of their conversation.
“Mommy, do you think that man’s family will visit him?”
“I don’t know honey, I hope so.”