A stack of neon chemistry textbooks weighed my hands down to my crotch. I slugged toward the double doors and shouldered them open, but the wood refused to budge.
Weird. They never locked the library. It stayed open an hour before first period to an hour after eight.
I peeked through the fingerprint smudged window. My friends hovered at their usual table, the first one on the left with four chairs circled around it. One of those chairs should have been empty, waiting for me, but a blob of red hair flowed down the back of it.
The mystery girl seesawed back and forth, the same way I tipped my chair when studying.
I rested my pile of homework on the floor and jostled one door handle, then the other. Nothing and more nothing. I pounded on the door. The librarian quirked her head, squinted at the windows where my fist hit glass, and shrugged the sound away.
With a combination eyeroll-and-sigh, I fished my phone from my crossbody purse and texted Karine. Outside the library. Be a doll and let me in? An explanation point appeared on the screen. An error message. Unable to send.
I copied and pasted the message to John. Then Julie. Same results. A bright red explanation point mocked me from my screen. For my last attempt, I clicked on Facebook Messenger, but my phone decided to be stubborn and refused to open the app.
With no other way to access to the library, I attempted to text my mother. Coming home a little early today. See you shortly! The message sent with a swoop.
What the hell? Why would one message send and not the others? Did my friends block me? Would error messages pop up when that happened? I had never gotten blocked before. I had no idea.
My stack of books wobbled on my way to the car, a red Camri with double doors and a scratch down the center of the hood. I blasted an angsty MCR playlist on the drive home.
After my mother plopped a dinner of boxed macaroni and cheese onto a paper plate, I attempted to study at the kitchen table, but got distracted by the lack of notifications on my phone. Even if my friends hadn’t blocked me, wouldn’t they have been texting to ask where I had been by now? We met every Monday after class since freshman year.
I accordioned the pop socket from my phone and typed a group message.
ME: Did you even notice I was missing today? Or did my replacement distract you?
KARINE: I don’t get your jokes sometimes.
JULIE: So how do you think you’re going to do on the chem test?
ME: No. We’re not switching the topic. Who was that redhead?
JOHN: Okay. I’m confused too. What are you talking about?
ME: The redhead. In the library.
KARINE: You’re the only redhead in the school. It’s why you’re always talking about wanting to dye your hair, isn’t it? Because you hate being the only one?
I balanced my phone on the table, unable to believe they would lie to me, especially as a group.
ME: I literally saw her. Who was at the library table today then?
JOHN: Nobody? Just us. The four amgios.
ME: All four?
JULIE: Oh no. If you’ve lost your ability to count, you have no hope in chem.
KARINE: Maybe you need sleep, Clarissa. You’re overtired, I think.
JULIE: Yeah, you seemed out of it during our study session today.
The term ‘gaslighting’ came to mind. We learned it in sociology class. It meant manipulating someone into questioning their own sanity.
Either my friends collectively decided to screw with me (for fun? as a prank? for a grade?) or someone else posed as me well enough to fool the people who knew me better than anyone. The latter seemed more unrealistic, which meant my friends might not be such good friends after all.
The following morning, I expected the worst from school. I drove through traffic in silence because my mind rumbled too loud for music, but the day ticked past as normal. John and Julie paused their hallway make-out session to escort me to homeroom in the morning. Karine looped her arm through mine in PE while we walked the track. We all shared a table during lunch. The only hiccups were literal ones, when I scarfed down my reduced-priced meatloaf too fast.
The weird part came after my arrival home when I noticed the front door locked tight. I shuffled through my keys and popped the right one into the lock, but a click never came. The bolt remained in place.
“That’s bizarre,” I said, trudging through bushes to reach the kitchen window. My mother had planted shrubbery around the circumference of the house to keep out intruders, which took climbing through the window off the table, but at least I could peek inside.
When my eyes refocused from the sun to the darkness of the dining table, I saw a burst of red hair with lips the same shade, a spoon dangling from her mouth like a lollipop. She looked so similar to me I could have sworn it was a reflection.
Was she the same person who stole my seat in the library? How the hell did she break into my house? How did she manage to make it passed my mother?
At least one of my questions were answered when my mother walked over and patted the girl’s shoulder. The redhead looked up at her with the same lopsided smile I saved for picture day.
Rocketing into defense mode, I grabbed a rock from beneath my feet and lugged it at the window. It bounced off, not even leaving a dent. I grabbed a handful more and chucked them at the glass, one by one, failing each time.
I bet sending my mother a text would result in a blaring red exclamation point, so I screamed for her instead. I screamed so loud my voice cracked and my throat burned. I worried the neighbors would call the cops, but nothing happened. Nothing. Not even a glance toward the windows this time.
At least in the library, it felt like only my friends were ignoring me. Now, I felt completely invisible. I felt like I was fading away.
By the time the redhead vanished and the house permitted me inside again, the sky glinted with starlight. It felt like a time jump. Like blacking out drunk and waking up in a stranger’s bed the next morning. Not that I had ever had a sip of alcohol myself.
The frantic conversation with my mother began with me babbling about copycats and clones and collapsing.
It ended with her saying, “You know, your grandfather was schizophrenic. According to the family gossip at least. Back then, they didn’t put labels on things the way they do now. But he would have hallucinations and problems with his short-term memory. If we had insurance, I would get you set up with a real psychiatrist, but… Your school should have some sort of program. Do you want me to call them and check or would you feel more comfortable asking a guidance counselor yourself?”
I walked into first period late. I had spent the morning writing the same question (who are you?) on thirty separate post-it notes and sticking them in random places. On my desk. On my mirror. Inside my diary. Inside the interior of my car. And once I arrived at school, inside my locker.
Since the redhead never occupied the same room as me at the same time, I hoped I could get a written answer from her.
“Clarissa,” Julie singsonged in between second and third period. “So are you going to ace this chem test or miss out on your chance at Harvard and live in a cardboard box trading bacon scraps for blowjobs?”
Joking around was the last thing I felt like doing, but if my copy could play the part of me, I could play the part of a functioning human being. At least for the length of a school day.
I had a quick, last minute study session with Julie before chemistry started. I passed notes with John the old fashioned way during sociology. I even beat three pairs of boys in badminton with the help of Karine.
After our winning streak, I dropped my stinking sneakers at my locker. The same pink paper square sat inside, so I almost overlooked it, until I noticed the first two words crossed out, leaving only the last one: You.
Her answer to WHO ARE YOU was YOU.
I grabbed the sheet and scribbled out more questions against the bumps of my locker, but it turned into paragraphs too long to fit onto such a short scrap of paper. I crumbled the note into a ball and peeled off a new one that said, “Listen to the voice memos.”
I extracted my phone and recorded a voice message, saying, “I don’t get it. When you were with my friends, I couldn’t get to my friends. I couldn’t get through the door to the library and I couldn’t text them either. And when you were with my mother, I couldn’t get inside the house to her. Why can’t I contact anyone while you are with them? Why can only one of us be in the room at a time?”
After storing the phone in my locker and twisting the lock, I avoided the temptation of checking back between every period to give the redhead time to access the messages.
“Why the hell are my texts unread?” John asked when we seated ourselves front-to-back in history. “Are you ignoring me on purpose or are you accidentally breaking my virgin heart?”
“I left my phone in my locker.”
“Why don’t you get it? Ask for a bathroom pass.”
“I left it there on purpose. I didn’t want any distractions.”
His eyes rolled toward the ceiling. “I know you’re an A plus plus student, but you’re taking this college admissions thing too far. Relax a little. You’re going to start seeing things.”
I did see something. When I opened my locker after the final bell, I grabbed my phone to scroll through the voice memos, and I saw a recently added message.
I inserted my tangled headphones and pressed the play button. After a two second hesitation, a voice that sounded identical to mine said, “You only exist when I’m not around. It’s like a dream. The dream-you only exists while you’re sleeping. When you’re awake, the dream-you is useless. You can argue that dream-you doesn’t even exist during waking hours because no one can see her. They only see you.”
She paused, giving me a second to digest. My first instinct was to show someone, everyone, as proof. But they would call me crazy. They would say I recorded it myself.
The voice resumed: “Maybe that’s not the right way to put it… You’re taking chemistry. You know there’s three phases of matter in liquids. Solid. Liquid. Gas. It’s the same with humans. Three phases. The solid, concrete phase you’ve had for most of your life, the one you consider normal. A liquid-like dream phase, which is what you’re experiencing now that I have arrived, where you’re half there and half not. And soon you’ll reach the last phase. The gas. The mist. The nothingness. You’ll evaporate. I’ll be the only thing left.”
I heard her words, the graceful lilt of each syllable, but the entire time I was thinking about what my mother had said about my grandfather and about what we’d learnt about schizophrenia in health class a few years prior. Most people were diagnosed in their teens and early twenties. They suffered from delusions, like that they had superpowers or that the FBI was following them. They also suffered from hallucinations, like seeing nonexistent faces or hearing ghostly voices.
My cheeks burst with color as I shuffled toward the guidance office and introduced myself to the secretary. She scribbled down my name and asked my reason for visiting.
“I just have a quick question for my counselor regarding, uhm, psychotherapy. I was hoping I could make weekly appointments.”
Her round face nodded. “Her shift ends when the school day ends, but she’s still rustling around in her office. I think she could fit you in quickly. Take a seat and I’ll see.”
I sat facing the hallway. I never believed in the stigma against therapy. Karine went twice a week. My father went before he died. I would have considered going years ago if our insurance covered it, but mom had been working off the books with paychecks that barely covered the mortgage.
Just as I was growing comfortable with the idea of spilling my heart to a shrink, something caught my gaze through the rectangle of a window. A burst of red hair. She was back. She was close. And when she came close, I became invisible.
I knocked that thought from my mind, reminding myself of its ridiculousness, but when the secretary returned with the counselor she scanned the room like she didn’t see me. “Sorry about that,” the secretary said to her counterpart. “I guess she changed her mind.”
When I returned my gaze to the window, I saw my copy smiling.