I stumbled through the door, half a bottle of vodka sloshing around in my stomach. Somehow I managed to make it past the living room, past the same photographs that had been hanging on the wall since I’d moved into the house, and into my cramped bathroom to remove my contacts.
But as I bent over the toilet, pushing back my glasses to keep them from plopping into the water, I realized something. Those pictures. I hung them myself. Took some of them myself. Looked at them every single day after work (or late nights at the bar) to remind myself of the family I rarely got to see.
After wiping the vomit from my purple painted lips, I retreated to the living room, just to prove that I’d been seeing things, that the alcohol had been messing with my mind. But no… When I looked at the twenty-year old family portrait, one of my mom and dad and me, I saw an extra face hovering in between my parents. A face that didn’t belong there.
He looked like he was around the same age as my dad, with the same red hair and overload of freckles. The same round glasses and the same suit. Even their facial expressions matched. They were completely identical…
I must’ve been seeing double. I saw two door handles on the way inside and two toilet rolls in the bathroom. I’d drank half my body weight in liquor, after all. What else should I expect?
Without bothering to brush my teeth or slip out of my little red dress, I threw myself onto the couch. I needed sleep.
The sun greeted me along with a headache, one big enough that no amount of Advil could cure it. It took all of the effort I had to pull myself up in the hopes of making a cup of coffee that tasted as good as mom used to make. But on my way out of the living room, I paused to look at the picture that had spooked me last night.
Or, at least, I tried to look at the picture. The damn thing was gone, missing from the frame. There was only plastic and an empty piece of cardboard stuffed inside.
The rest of the photos were all intact. I had fifteen of them covering the walls, in rows of five, and they were all right…
No. One of them was different. It was there, but different. It showed me and my cousins sitting around a tree at Christmas. We each had a present in our tiny hands while all my aunts and uncles, who were standing behind us, held glasses of Eggnog in their hands. But there was an extra face in the photo. A face that looked like my father’s.
My dad had been around when I was a baby, when we took the family portrait I loved so much, but he left us for a while. Had a fling with some waitress when I was a toddler and then came crawling back when I was in my teens.
I didn’t care how long ago that holiday photo was taken or how shoddy my memory was. That was not him. It couldn’t have been. No way in hell.
But I called my mom to make sure. I asked her if she had any contact with dad during their “break” and she went off about how she wouldn’t have answered any of his calls, even if he would’ve bothered to make them. She went on and on about what an asshole he’d been for twenty minutes before I found an opening and told her I’d call her back some other time. They probably fought that night, because of me.
But I would’ve rather heard their arguing than what I ended up hearing. When it was time to end my day with a bottle of wine (that I could’ve sworn I hadn’t opened yet but already had the cork removed), I heard the noises. Creaking and squeaking and groaning.
Instead of getting up to investigate, my wimpy ass just pulled the covers closer to my face and forced myself to sleep.
In the morning, before I ate breakfast or even checked Facebook, I checked the wall of photographs. The picture from yesterday, the one from Christmas time, was missing. Just an empty frame dangling from a hook.
I slid my eyes over to the next photo in line. It was one of me as a preteen with my old terrier at the dog park. We were the only ones, just him with his tongue flopping out and me with my lips against his furry forehead. I thought it was done, that my mental lapse was over, but then I leaned closer.
There actually were more people, the size of pins, bustling around in the background. And right over my shoulder, standing on the grass with a Labrador, was my father.
This time, I called him instead of mom. I told him he was appearing in my photographs, one by one, and he chuckled and made a dad joke about how I was seeing his face everywhere I went, because of how badly I missed him. And then there was another joke about how everyone must’ve been copying his style, because of his incredible fashion sense.
When I hung up with him, I felt better, believing his promises about the house being safe and that there must’ve been a rational explanation for everything. But those promises didn’t stop the creaking and squeaking and groaning when I went to bed.
Two weeks. Two weeks of hearing eerie sounds on my way to bed. Two weeks of finding my father’s face in photographs one day and then finding the picture frame empty the next day.
I considered calling the police, but it would’ve sounded like a ghost story to them. No way they’d believe me. My friends didn’t even believe me. I asked my BFF if I could crash at her place, or if she’d at least stay at my place to see for herself, but she refused. Told me to lay off the alcohol.
I did. So when the very last picture disappeared, I had a panic attack in place of a tequila shot. I felt like the wall was a calendar, counting down my last days, and now they were all up. I was so convinced that I would die that I actually thought about searching for more photos, just so I could hang them up and buy myself more time. But what was I buying time from?
The house didn’t want to kill me. My father didn’t want to kill me. There must’ve been a reasonable explanation.
But I found none.
That night, the night when the walls were empty for the very first time, I heard something different than the usual creaks and squeaks and groans. I heard footsteps. Faint ones, leading into my room. And then I heard the door.
“Dad?” I whispered, but it couldn’t have been him. He was a planner. He would’ve called me up weeks ahead of time, asked me for help booking his flight, and then asked me to pick him up at the airport. Even if he wanted to surprise me, show up out of the blue, he would’ve knocked like a normal human being.
And—not that I believe in the supernatural—but it’s not like he was dead, dying, or even sick with a cold, so it couldn’t have been a ghost.
But… I saw a face smiling in the slit of light my curtains let in, and it was his face. Paler and thinner. Much, much thinner. But it was him.
He moved closer with small, tight steps and all I could do was strengthen my grip on my blanket. I’d stuck a knife under my pillow when the picture fiasco started, but I couldn’t find the courage to reach for it. I could only stare.
And when he dropped something on me, I flinched. My imagination tricked me into thinking they were maggots or guts or razor blades. The worse, the more believable. But when I peeked my eyes open, I realized it was only my photos.
“I edited them,” he said. His voice sounded strained, like a deaf man who paused at the wrong moments. “I just… I didn’t know how to tell you I was here. I didn’t want to scare you. I wanted to give you hints. You always liked hints. Whenever we would play.”
I didn’t know if I could speak. I didn’t want to try.
“Do you really think I left you?” He was on the edge of my bed now, reaching out to brush a strand of hair out of my face. I flinched, one eye opened and the other closed.
“That man,” he continued. “The one you spoke to on the phone a few weeks ago. The one that came back for your mother. The one that raised you. That wasn’t me. I’m your real father.”
“Yeah?” I rasped out, finally finding the strength to reach under my pillow and paw for the knife’s handle.
He nodded. “I was kidnapped. By him. He popped out of the backseat of my car as I was driving home to you eighteen years ago, and he… He kept me locked up. Hardly any food. Zero social interaction. For decades. He said he was my twin, but I don’t have a twin. I know I don’t have a twin.”
My fingers brushed up against the blade, sliced my pinkie.
“I don’t know where he came from. What created him. But he stole everything. He stole my life. And no one even noticed.”
My fingers finally curled around the knife’s handle. I slid it out, as slowly as I could to keep him from noticing, but the noises stopped me. Creaking. Squeaking. Groaning.
I was looking right at him. At my supposed birth father. He wasn’t the one making the noises. At least, not those.
“Oh no,” he said. “No, no, no, no, no, no, no.”
Before I could speak or move or breath, I heard the door again.
A woman walked through this time. My age. My height. My weight. My hair. My eyes. My smile. She looked just like me.
Like my twin.