I should have known when the squad car pulled into the run-down police station that something wasn’t quite right. The building looked old and abandoned. The police insignia lay crooked in a bed of tall grass, the letters “PO” were missing from the display above the main doors, leaving only “LICE” in their wake, and graffiti littered the outer walls. If not for the two other vehicles at the very back of the lot, I would have thought we’d pulled into the wrong place. The squad cars were in as pitiful a shape as the station. Their emblem and motto – “To Serve And Protect” – were faded with age and coated in dirt, their tires were deflated, and one of their tail lights had shattered. Yeah, warning bells definitely should have gone off in my head, but if you can’t trust the police, who can you trust? I attributed the building’s poor condition to budget cuts. Since they could not go on strike, officers frequently and openly protested the city’s cheap financial support by wearing mismatched socks and all sorts of inappropriate pants, ranging from army print to clown stripes.
Two officers escorted me inside. If the main lobby was any indication, then the interior was as poorly maintained as the exterior. I waited by the reception desk on an old schoolhouse chair. Its green and cracked back did not match the colors of the other two next to it. While the officers traded a few words with the woman behind the desk, I couldn’t help but notice how very much alike they were. It wasn’t just the uniform, either. The three were the same height, had the same hair color and style, carried themselves in the same posture, and shared the same build.
“Excuse me,” I interrupted, walking over to the trio.
One of the officers who’d brought me in turned towards me.
“What?” he asked.
I motioned to a chipped mug full of pens, “Can I have one?”
“Yeah, sure,” he replied, his tone barely registering emotion.
I pocketed the pen happily, and took a seat once more. If I was going to be stuck here all evening, at least I’d get a souvenir. The three continued to talk while I waited in the humid lobby. Couldn’t they at least open a window to get a breeze rolling? The air was so thick and tasted so bitter that I could barely breathe.
Once the officers sorted everything out, they lead me down a dirty corridor. Dried leaves littered the ground, crunching under my feet as I walked. Surely, they could find room in their budget for a janitor? As we moved through the station, I began to notice more and more issues: missing doors, broken windows, and even a hole in the roof. Frankly, I half expected to see a family of raccoons scurrying about. There also seemed to be a surprisingly small roster of officers on duty in the station. We seemed to pass the same two guys almost everywhere we went.
“In here,” said one of the uniformed men, motioning to a set of doors, “we’ll come get you when it’s time.”
I nodded and stepped through the double doors. The smell on the other side was even worse than in the lobby. It was a mix of sweat and the unique odor of slightly-burnt skin after a few hours under the sun. Unsurprisingly, the room was full of men with very similar features to my own. Aside from one old man in the corner, we also looked about the same age.
“Guess we’re all here for the lineup, huh?” I asked, in an attempt to break the ice.
The others averted their gazes. The situation wasn’t ideal, but I saw no reason to be sour about it. It was our civic duty, and being grumpy wouldn’t change a thing. We’d all been cherry-picked to act as distractors in a police lineup. I hadn’t been particularly thrilled when the police officers stopped me on my way home from work telling me I matched the description of a violent mugger, but I calmed down once they reassured me that I was not the suspect — merely a decoy. I was missing the season finale of my favorite show for this, but at least I was doing something useful for society.
The old man’s head rose slowly, “Son, you won’t be leaving any time soon,” he warned.
When I saw his face, I nearly gasped. He was old, yes, but his facial features were remarkably similar to my own. We had the same green eyes, curved nose, and similar cheek bones. If we were to walk around town together, people would surely assume he was my dad.
“Oh, that’s okay. I’m not in a rush,” I answered cheerfully.
My gaze shifted from the old man to the others in the room. We all shared a remarkable likeness. Whoever the victim was, he’d have a hell of a hard time identifying the attacker. No one stood out. Even I would have trouble telling us apart. I thought the others would be as amused as I was, but they all kept to themselves. Unable to find a conversational partner, I took a seat so I could wait for the officer to return. The silence started making me nervous, as though everyone knew a secret I wasn’t privy to. Every now and again, I caught them glancing at me from the corner of their eyes. It was unnerving.
Silence…it was so quiet that I could hear the hum of neon lights all the way down the hall. They played in peculiar unison, like instruments in a Beethoven orchestra.
The door creaked open. The others cringed and recoiled as an officer stepped inside. I honestly couldn’t tell if it was one of the two that had driven me in, or a different officer altogether. It was only when I saw him next to the other men in the room that I realized something: he, too, could pass as one of us. The eyes, the cheekbones – he looked like me. Like us. My skin crawled at the eerie realization that everyone I had seen in the past hour or so looked just like me. How had I not noticed sooner? I tried to shake the unsettling feeling away with a forced shiver, but I was only half successful.
An officer lifted his hand, his index finger pointing to six of us, “You. You there. You two…you, and you, by the wall,” he commanded.
I got up and walked over, while the other five gasped and groaned. They reluctantly approached. Though I did not understand their gloomy reactions, part of me felt the same way. Still, the quicker we went through the line-up, the quicker we’d get to go home. I, for one, was glad I’d been chosen to be part of Group 1.
The officer handed out numbered boards. My board, #5, looked ancient. Its corners were rounded with wear, coffee stains coated the surface, and yellowing tape kept portions of it in place. The others took their boards with as much enthusiasm as a kid handed a plateful of steamed broccoli. I’d never seen grown men quite manage the childlike look of disgust and accompanying pout until that day.
Once we received our numbers, we were brought to a suffocatingly narrow room with doors on both ends. I could hear the door locking behind us, which made me wonder if the mugger was in the room with me. Fortunately, I was at a police station. If there was one place a violent mugger wouldn’t try anything stupid, it’d be in the middle of a police station. The back wall was decorated in faded height lines like those seen in mug shots. They made me realize that, strangely enough, we were all the exact same height, right down to the half-inch. In front of us was a large glass pane through which we could see a pair of identical-looking police officers sitting on stools, watching us. That’s odd, I remember thinking, Don’t they usually use double-sided mirrors?
“Not me … not me … not me …” murmured No. 3, his voice quivering with fear.
He wasn’t the only one acting strangely. No. 1 and No. 4 were huddled in the corner, facing away from the window. No. 2 and No. 6 were fidgeting and whispering beneath their breaths. Grow up, I thought. Why were they all so nervous? Was I missing something obvious? Could we get in trouble if we were mistakenly identified?
The victim walked into the room on the other side of the glass. Even though he held his head low, I couldn’t help but notice the similarities. He had my build and my haircut, though his body was covered in bruises and blood. I felt a chill run down the back of my neck, filling me with the same anxious dread as my fellow distractors. A feeling in my gut urged me to run away, yet I found myself paralysed with unexplainable fear. This was silly. There was no reason to be afraid, or so I hoped. My nervousness increased with every step the victim took. He looked pretty banged up. There was no reason to think he hadn’t been attacked by a mugger, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that something else was going on.
The victim’s head turned upwards.
“Oh, god …” I whispered.
I was looking at myself. He wasn’t just a crude look-alike like the others. No, he was definitely me. Even through the swollen lip and black eye, I recognized every square inch of my face: the placement of my freckles, my childhood scar along my hairline, my right eye, which was slightly smaller than the left. He had them all. I didn’t have time to fully take in the phenomena before the doppelgänger lifted his arm, an accusatory finger outstretched. I knew before he even did it. I knew he was going to point to me. I knew, yet it didn’t, spare me the shock when he did it. It felt like being smacked in the face by a stray baseball. He pointed straight at me, an electrifying feeling surging through my body as he did so. If that wasn’t bad enough, the others in the lineup suddenly calmed down. They looked like they’d just dodged a bullet, which sent me into a panic.
When I saw the police officers rise from their seats while looking at me, I knew I had to run. I bolted to the emergency exit. The door was locked. I could hear the sound of a key jingling in the door on the other side of the room. There was no doubt in my mind that the officers were coming for me. With a fair dose of adrenaline fuelling my actions, I grabbed a fire extinguisher and smashed it against the doorknob. It took three tries to get it, but it finally broke off, allowing the door to swing open just as the cops came in from the other end. I could vaguely hear them shouting, though I could not make out a word of what they were saying over the combined sounds of my heartbeat and blood gushing to my head. I ran as fast as my feet allowed, feeling myself drowning in unexplainable fear.
Lost…I was lost. Lost in the building, lost in fear, lost in desperate and unshakable panic. An alarm went off, practically paralysing me with its piercing shriek. More than ever, I wanted to escape the endless maze of run-down hallways and broken light fixtures. I could barely hear the officers’ footsteps over the mechanical warning call, but my senses were just sharp enough that I could safely evade them.
I ran for what felt like hours, but could have been minutes. I ran until my chest burned with exhaustion and my muscles cramped. I ran until I came across the waiting room from where I’d been in earlier. Hoping to warn the others, I stepped inside.
The room was empty, but for the old man in the back.
“Hey!” I shouted, “We’ve got to get out of here!”
He didn’t answer.
I walked closer, and noticed something on his head. My scar. That’s impossible… I thought, gasping in shock. I placed a hand on his shoulder to try and shake him, but he’d gone cold. His skin had become dry and pruny, like a tomato left out in the sun for too long. I recoiled in terror, a loud scream escaping my lips. Suddenly, I felt a pair of fingers digging into my shoulder with the strength of a crocodile’s jaw. Again, I shouted, desperately swatting at the captor’s hand. By twisting my shoulder uncomfortably, I managed to break free of the vice-like grip and turn around, only to be confronted with my bruised doppelgänger. A look of bitter contempt had found a permanent home on his face. I never realized how unsettling that look was when I gave it to others. My lookalike deliberately blocked the exit, ensuring that escape would not be easy. When he made a move towards me, I acted on instinct and felt my arm flying towards his face. The sound of broken glass erupted from him as my fist connected with his already damaged eye.
Pain. Sharp, blinding pain…
I stumbled to the side, holding my throbbing right eye. It thumped and prickled with a thousand needles. My vision became blurry, but not blurry enough to keep me from seeing the other “me” run towards me. I had to defend myself. I punched, elbowed, and jabbed at him. Few of my blows actually connected – I’m not exactly a martial arts expert – but the ones that did sent pain flooding into me. My frantic blitz came to an end when I went for his stomach. The pressure nearly took my breath away. There was no beating him: I had to run. I shoved him aside, fully expecting him to try and grab me. To my surprise, he fell to the floor and didn’t try to get up. Had I hurt him more than I thought?
My relief was short-lived. As soon as I stepped back out into the hallway, I ran into a pair of officers. Their expressions were strangely blank. An thought came to mind when I realized that I was covered in bruises. What if they thought I was the “victim”?
“He’s in there,” I said, mustering up every bit of calm that I could manage.
The officers, without hesitating, ran into the waiting area. I didn’t know how long my ruse would work, so I took off towards the entrance. When I reached the lobby, the receptionist from earlier stood up and turned to me. I only looked at her for a moment, but my eyes caught sight of my scar on her head. What the hell. There was no time to think or try to understand. She started chasing after me, so I ran out the doors as fast as I could.
The air outside smelled so fresh, devoid of the stagnant aftertaste in the police station. It was dark out, and I remember feeling hopeful that I could blend into the night and escape. I heard stomping footsteps behind me, saw beams of light pointed at me, and could hear sirens blaring in the distance. I recall running, but I confess, I don’t remember how I got home. I have no recollection of reaching my apartment complex, unlocking my door, or getting in bed.
But I must have.
I woke up this morning safe and sound in my bed, albeit quite sore. When I got up to brush my teeth, my reflection sent a shiver down my spine. My face was bruised and swollen. The wounds were identical to the ones I saw on the victim at the police station. The busted lip, the black eye, and the cut on his cheek … they were all the same. My heart raced wildly, blurry after-images dancing in my head. Running. Police officers. My face. My face everywhere. As I leaned back, I felt something in my pocket. I reached for it and retrieved the pen I’d taken from the police station, inspecting it closely. The city police motto was written on it, though half of it was scratched out. It read: