I clutched the golden string and tugged, lifting the blinds to my picture window. On the other side, a little girl pranced across the porch, green eye shadow splashed across her lids and chunky slippers hanging off her feet. Playing princess. Ordering the stuffed animals balanced on the railing to meet her for tea at high noon.
I placed my free palm against my heart and let myself pretend. Pretend I’d given birth to that sweet girl in a sweaty hospital room three years earlier and, my God, wasn’t she growing up fast? Pretend my husband sat on an unseen chair, right out of view of the window, sipping lemonade from the personalized cup I’d bought with a picture from our first dance printed upon it.
I released my left hand from my heart and released my right hand from the string, letting the blinds fall closed. Letting my dreams of motherhood dissolve to mist.
When I reached sixty seconds, I yanked the string to reveal a new image. This time, a teenage boy sat on the edge of his unmade bed, packing his bong. I pretended to be his aunt, stumbling in without knocking and catching him in the act. Pressing a finger against my lips and promising not to snitch in exchange for a few hits myself.
I released the string, counted, and tugged again. Now, a Yorkie padded through the grass, a cone wrapped around his mop of a head.
Release. Wait. Tug. An oversized man stripped down for his shower, dropping his uniform onto the tiled floor.
Release. Wait. Tug. A kid stood on his father’s feet and helped toss hamburgers on their gas stove.
Release. Wait. Tug. An elderly woman clutched her chest. Sunk to the ground. Writhed and shook and gasped.
With eyes wide enough to hit the brows, I waited for somebody to help. A grandchild. A caretaker. A neighbor, even.
Minutes ticked-ticked-ticked, but no one came to the old woman’s rescue. Her jaw sagged. Her forehead twitched. She looked fragile, dying, dead.
I stroked my fingertips against the glass of the window. What would happen if I unclicked the latches, wrenched it open, and stepped through to the other side?
I had never tried to enter a scene before. Not even when I had spotted a woman who looked identical to my deceased mother, sleeping soundly on her couch in the same hand-stitched pajamas I used to own as hand-me-downs. Not even when I had caught my ex on top of his trainer in her canopy bed, thrusting between her muscled thighs. When I had called him out on it, he’d denied it, swore he loved me, and offered to switch trainers to make me more comfortable — but I’d called his bluff. I’d called off the relationship.
If I succeeded in climbing through to the woman, what would I even do to save her? I never majored in medicine or went to CPR training or even read those heimlich posters stapled to restaurant walls.
I considered picking up the phone and calling the police, but without her address, I would have nothing to say to them. The only way to save her would be to wiggle between the glass, bolt outside to check her house number, and then dial.
I found myself doing exactly that. I pulled the golden string to the right and let it catch so the blinds hung on their own. After tugging the window wide, I threw my head and elbows through the empty space and pressed my bare feet against the walls for leverage. Bouncing off the sheetrock, I pulled my knees through, then my legs and feet, forcing myself to tumble inside.
I landed on the deep red carpet with a thump. The woman had collapsed only a few feet away from me. Close enough to touch.
Instead of checking her pulse or whispering to unconscious ears, I pushed myself up and rushed outside to search for the address. No numbers hung above the entrance, but I spotted a 390 painted in white on the wooden mailbox post and a green sign on the street corner.
I bolted back inside, dialed the police, and offered up the information.
Once they promised to send an ambulance, I retreated to the window, figuring I would watch the rest from the safety of my home.
But when I glanced inside, instead of seeing the pale blue walls of my living room, I saw an overgrown lawn, an untrimmed hedge, a broken paneled fence. A single rocking chair sat on the grass, its legs eclipsed with green.
I climbed through anyway, maneuvering my head and elbows and stomach and legs, hoping the scenery would change when I fell through. That the grass would morph to white wood, that the rocking chair would transform into a leather loveseat.
No such luck.
I landed in the long stretch of grass, but my shoulder slammed against a piece of drainpipe that must have fallen with either age or a storm. I cursed beneath my breath, loud enough to send a flock of birds scattering.
“Clarissa?” A bald man with a salt-and-pepper beard stood on his pool deck, looking across the fence and down at me. “I didn’t know you knew Mrs. Maples.”
“I… I was just checking on her.”
He lifted the skimmer over his shoulder and smacked out the mush. “If you have some time, why don’t you stop over for a beer? And I have hotdogs left over from the bonfire you bailed on last night. Couldn’t fit one more party into the schedule, huh?”
My mouth open and snapped shut again. Did he mistake me for someone else? He pronounced my name right, but got the rest wrong.
My wild days had ended when my mother went missing, body never recovered. Friends had accompanied me on search parties and dropped baked goods off on the front stoop for a full year. They’d continued reaching out to me for a few months after the case officially closed, invited me to screenings and showers and galas. But after getting rejection after rejection, after hearing my excuses about being too tired and too busy and too suicidal to see them, their emails and drop in visits had stopped.
“Maybe when I’m finished here,” I said, hoping to shake off the conversation. “Give me a few minutes.”
“Front door is open. Walk right through when you want.”
I felt a rush of relief when the stranger slipped inside, out of view of my antics. He might have called the police to the house a second time if he saw what I was about to do, climbing through windows like a criminal.
I crossed myself, praying that passing through the opposite way, from outside to inside, would work. I ignored the twang of common sense that reminded me I could still see the living room with the collapsed woman, and climbed through.
When I plopped onto the red carpet, I spit out a few more curses, then reached for the blind cords and let them eclipse the sunlight. After counting aloud to sixty, I opened them back up to the same view.
I slammed the window shut and peeled it open. Shut. Open. Shut. Open. Shutopenshutopenshut.
My exercise did nothing except pass the time — and I wanted to be out of there before the police barged through the doors. If they questioned me about my relation to Mrs. Maples or asked how I’d entered the house, they might mark me down as suspicious. Throw me behind bars for the night.
After borrowing a pair of slippers perched by the sliding door, I stepped over the poor woman’s body, walked out the front door, and beelined toward neighbor’s house. I could listen for the sirens while he made small talk. When the ambulance left, I could sneak over and try the window one more time.
“Clarissa,” the man greeted when I stepped from his white wooden porch into the brown wooden foyer. He held out the last vowel like a note. “Sit. Tell me how you’ve been.”
“Good. Been good.”
“Not great, though?” He stared at his phone, not me. His finger danced up and down the screen, scrolling.
“My head is a little foggy.”
“Still hungover from last night, I bet.”
“I haven’t drunk in years.”
A laugh escaped from his lips. “Fine. I’ll play detective if you don’t want to talk.” He tapped on the screen. Scrolled and tapped. Scrolled and tapped. When he finished, he looked up with rolling eyes. “Really? You could’ve admitted that. I don’t judge.”
He twisted his wrist so the screen faced me. In the middle of his feed sat a picture of me in a crop top jamming a beer funnel down my throat. A tattooed twenty-something in a muscle shirt held the other end.
“Almost as cute as my man,” the neighbor said. “Did you sleep with him last night or are you seeing him again tonight?”
I swiped the device from his hands. Clicked on the profile attached to the photos. My name. My face. My identity. Aside from a few adjustments on my education and friends list, the profile matched up with my life. Some stranger made a fake account, pretending to be me. She stole my identity.
I clicked on the most recent photo album to scroll through, wondering where she found certain snapshots I swore I’d never took in places I swore I’d never been.
A younger photo of me and my childhood dog snuggled on the couch. A photo of me and my mother sipping Sangrias. A photo of me and the bearded neighbor on what looked like his wedding day.
I scrolled back to the photo containing my mother. In it, she looked older than I had ever seen her. Older than the age she had lived to see.
“Did you photoshop these?” I asked. “Where did these come from?”
His eyes scrunched into pancakes. “Clarissa. Did you take something? Are you on a trip right now?”
The girl in the photos could have been a lookalike. A doppelganger. A coincidence. But with the same first and last name? With a mother that looked identical to mine?
My professor had taught us about alternate universes in the philosophy class I’d taken first semester of college. She’d explained how some of the unlimited universes contained vastly different people and places, unrecognizable to us, and some contained virtually the same people and places with only minor differences.
If the golden window gave me glimpses of new worlds instead of my own town, that meant my ex had never cheated. I had broken up with him over nothing. Over a mistake, a mirage.
“Can I borrow your car?” I asked the neighbor, and I guess we were close in this universe, because he said yes without hesitation.
After tapping my address into the GPS connected to the car, I drove down highways and side streets, double lanes and single. Fifty-five minutes later, I arrived with hopes that my AU lived in the same house. The house I grew up in. The house with the golden window.
I pulled up to a pebbled driveway instead of paved one that sported hedges outlining the property instead of a white iron fence. The house sat on a small plot of land, a single story with cardboard covering every window.
I assumed that I picked the wrong house, that I would have to do some internet digging to find the real address, but then I spotted a woman gardening. A woman with brunette hair down to her ass and olive skin that glistened with sweat.
Me, from behind.
“Hi there,” I said after crunching up the path. “Have a few minutes?”
She twisted her torso, shielded her eyes with one gloved hand to block out the sun, and swept her gaze over me. “Oh, wow, okay. You’re here.”
“You know about me?”
“We can talk around back,” she said, rising from her crouch. “Mom’s inside. I don’t want to upset her.” She led me around a corner and toward a set of broken strapped lawn chairs. “I actually hoped you’d come. I keep having this daydream. It sounds horrible, but I wanted you to come and swap lives with me. Make me rich. Guess you wouldn’t want my life though, right?”
“Mom is really inside?”
“She wouldn’t want company.” Her tongue slapped against her lips. “Why did you climb through the window anyway? You know there’s no way back, right?”
When I had first tumbled onto the carpet, I had a feeling that was the case. That I had taken a trip through a one-way window without a return ticket. I had been ignoring the idea, too terrified to consider it.
Of course, now knowing my mother was alive in this world, knowing that I could have a relationship with her again, I would be comfortable staying here. It would be a better life than back at home, even without the gold and jewels.
For five years, my mother was the missing piece in my life. The reason I’d lost my friends. Lost my job. Lost my enthusiasm to live.
With her, I would feel okay again.
“There is a way back,” I said, itching my neck the way I did during lies. “I can show you. We can swap if you want.”
Her eyes doubled size inside their sockets. “You’re being serious? Can you give me a day? Give me a chance to pack and take care of some stuff?”
I nodded, accepted the money she gave me to cover a night in a motel, and drove to the first one I could find.
I spent the night on the complimentary computer in the lobby, searching for information on alternate universes. If I could find a way to return, I could convince my double’s mother to come with me and resume my mansion-and-gold life alongside her. Or, if she refused to join me, I could actually follow through on my promise and swap lives with the double.
The morning came with strange looks from motel staff, wondering why I’d spent over twelve hours on their computer.
All that time and I accomplished nothing. I downloaded e-books about string theory and brushed up on alternate universes and even time travel, but found nothing about windows. No practical advice on how to transfer back and forth.
I needed to meet my double soon, so instead of continuing my search for a way back to my reality, I thought of a way to erase her from this reality.
I would show up at her house, drive her to a secluded area that I claimed was the portal back to my world, and beat her to death with the iron bar I found in the borrowed car. As long as the first hit to the head toppled her, the rest would be easy. Physically, at least.
However, my plan fell apart during the first step. When I knocked on the rusted door, my doppelganger’s mother answered, holding something long and wooden in her hands.
She looked like my mother, from the flecks of green in her eyes to the freckle on the tip of her nose to the scar on her left shoulder blade. Aside the added wrinkles and age spots, no differences existed between this woman and the one who raised me.
“I don’t want you here,” she said, her voice cracking as much as her skin.
Did she mistake me for her daughter? Or did she know about AUs too? Maybe my double told her about me. Maybe she hated me for wanting to split them apart.
“Don’t give me that look. I did what was best for me. That’s what everyone always says to do, isn’t it?” Her slender fingers shook around what I now realized was a shotgun. “Raising you rich turned you into a brat. I needed to get away. I disappeared on a whim, but I left you an entire house. A mansion, really. Millions of dollars. A maid. And you had plenty of other family. A nice boy to marry. I figured you’d be fine.”
Slivers of my past punctured my memory. The police regretting to inform me they found no leads, no evidence of my mother’s kidnapping or murder. My ‘friends’ casually suggesting she might have taken off on her own. Me dismissing the idea because none of her cars were missing, none of her credit cards had been used. I had sworn she’d gotten taken. I had planned a funeral. I had buried an empty casket.
Meanwhile my mother, my real mother, kept speaking above my thoughts. “The Clarissa here was raised right. Her mother died during childbirth and grew up inside a foster home. She was excited to meet me. Excited to hear fairytales about my old life. I could tell she was jealous of you, but I never dreamed she’d want to take off on me.”
My chest heaved. My fingers clenched. “But it was okay for you to take off on me?”
“You were a troublemaker. You stole from my checking account. You dropped out of college after your second semester. You cheated on that nice boy who would have done anything for you. You were a mess, Clary.”
I should have lashed for her throat in anger, but I found myself nodding along. Before her disappearance, I treated her like shit. I blew money on cocaine. I showed up to work late or not at all. They only kept me employed because of my family name. I only had friends because of my money.
Maybe everything she put me through was for the best. Maybe it helped both of us grow. And maybe the window brought us to the same alternate universe for a reason.
“We can live here together,” I said, forming my first smile in half a decade. “This was meant to happen. We’re supposed to be here. Together. Don’t you think so?”
I waited for her to drop the gun and wrap her arms around me, to squeeze me tight and apologize for putting me through so much pain, but she positioned it toward my chest and gave me a bullet as her wordless goodbye.