Sunlight is creeping through my window. I feel its warmth on my face and see it red through my eyelids. I am awake, but I have yet to stir. It’s quiet, serene. The air coming through the window has a sluggish quality, a sleepiness that means the day has yet to start. It’s too early. My body’s clock has betrayed me.
Beep. Beep. Beep.
My alarm goes off a few minutes after I awaken. It’s one of those sickening digital alarms that fill you with dread at the mere thought of their ring and I’m furious already. My first instinct is to smash it with my fist for another ten minutes of slumber. My arm responds. My fist crashes down. The alarm is silent.
My second thought is one of confusion. I rarely ever use an alarm, and when I do I use my phone to play a song from my favorite childhood videogame. That means I’m not in my own bed, nor my own apartment. Where am I? Javier’s couch? No, he doesn’t use an alarm either, so I must be somewhere else.
Eyes snap open. The sun’s light streaks across an otherwise dark room. I can see that the roof is bare and pink and that the walls are covered in posters of cats. It’s dim, but they’re in-your-face and easy to make out. Housecats, tigers, leopards, cheetahs, Meowths, Hello Kittys. I could go on, but I’ll stop there. I am surrounded by images of cats. I’ve always hated cats, but these cats, I find them… cute, and in the early morning hours it makes my skin crawl. As I’m looking around I notice a pile of cat stuffed animals in the corner. They are on an old rocking chair. They stare at me and I stare at them. I’m not one to judge, but the guy I slept with last night must have been different, to say the least.
I’m on my feet a moment later. Each step is tentative; someone with this many fake felines must have a few live ones kicking around.
The door opens with a light touch. The bathroom must be around here somewhere, and I’m in desperate need. I find it just outside and to the right of the bedroom and it dawns on me that this apartment has the same floorplan as my own. So, I’m still in my own building just not my own apartment? I quickly run through a list of men I’ve seen in the halls, trying to find the most likely and giving a slight chuckle when I decide who this one is. Next time I see him in the hallway it’s going to be awkward. After seeing all this, I might have to move from the embarrassment.
The laminate floor in the bathroom is just like my own. The light switch is where I expect it. I flick it on as I walk in, instinctively casting a glance at the mirror on my way to the toilet.
My heart stops. My mouth hangs open with what’s left of my scream. There is no more need for the toilet; the floor is suddenly soaking wet.
The face that stares back at me is distraught, though vaguely familiar. The blue eyes are at once both surprised and terrified. The mouth is agape. The skin is pale. The hair is blonde.
Except, my eyes are brown and my hair is black.
“What in the hell?” I mutter, looking down at my hands, which are also light and freshly manicured, with a cartoon kitty cat on the nail of each ring finger. I turn my hands over in front of my face like it’s the first time I’m seeing a hand and I’m wondering how they work. They’re small, dainty. The wrists are slim and weak. The calluses I’ve built up over years of hoisting myself up cables and the sides of buildings are completely absent.
Back to the mirror. I can barely breathe, struck by what I’m seeing. I do that thing where I slowly move and watch myself in the mirror to confirm what I’m seeing is real. Slowly to the left. Slowly to the right. Quickly up. Suddenly down. The image follows me at every turn. It is inescapable; I am not me. I am some white woman who seems to be the exact opposite of me in every way. I barely even notice the Hello Kitty pajamas I’m wearing.
“Who the fuck are you?” I wonder aloud.
A faint voice responds. Who the fuck am I? Who the fuck are you?
I spin in a circle. “What? Who said that?” I look down the hallway and then back into the bedroom. “Where are you?”
Where do you think?
It takes me a moment. I close my eyes to focus on the sound, my heartbeat thumping in my chest. “Inside my head?”
“What in the hell?” I look back at the mirror to check my eyes—this woman’s eyes. They look normal. A little red, perhaps, but sane. “Am I going crazy?”
“What’s going on?”
There’s grunting on the other end. I feel a slight twitch in my forearm that I itch away. I haven’t the faintest idea, she says. Her voice is cold and abrupt, but its overconfidence masks a tremor, one I would guess is of fear.
“What are you doing?” I ask, unable to stop staring at her in the mirror. “Are you hurt?”
Hurt? No. The twitching comes back but then ebbs. Now give me my body back.
“Wait, are you trying to—?”
Give me my body back!
She grunts in my ear but the spasming does not return. I suppose if I’m being charitable, a few hairs on the back of my neck might twitch, but nothing more.
My gaze scans from my eyes to a paper note I’d missed before. It’s taped to the mirror.
You’re not welcome h—!
“Shut up, there’s something here,” I say, pulling the paper from the glass. The handwriting is large and all-caps, scratched into the page more than written on top of it. The note reads:
“Good morning, Jennifer Wilson. This is your new God. Sadly, your neighbor Victoria went missing last night and you are the prime suspect. Do you hear those sirens? The police are already on their way. You’d better run if you want to live.”
Memories flood back. It’s gut-punch after gut-punch. I’m hunched over the sink. The gem. The rope. The goateed man. The crowd. The guilty man in the back. Javier. The pain of whatever the goateed man did with the glass orb—or the ‘anchor’, as he called it. The gleam of the revolver. The dark circle. The muzzle flash.
My knees buckle. I stumble forward against the countertop and let out a low-pitched, hoarse growl, as though my body is rejecting the mere thought of everything that has transpired. There’s a sudden urge to vomit, which I hold back by slamming my dainty little fists against the countertop, smashing everything in sight. The pain rushes up my arms, which only strengthens the fury.
Hey! Watch my stuff, you lunatic!
“Shut up!” I bark.
There’s silence on the other end. I lean against the wall behind me, sliding down until I’m sitting on the floor in my own urine, my jaw clenched so tightly I can feel the veins popping out of my forehead.
The note is in my hands. “This motherfucker…” I moan as I read it once more. What else is there to say? I tear it to shreds. The momentary satisfaction this brings pales in comparison to the dread that sets in just after.
Sirens are off in the distance. They’re faint, but I can tell they’re getting louder. I have no idea what’s going on, but it doesn’t seem possible that they wouldn’t be for me. There’s no more time to waste on this new body. All I can do is just run and figure it all out later.
The thought is no sooner on my mind than my feet are moving back to the bedroom. I rip off the soiled underwear and pajamas and rifle through Jennifer’s dresser for anything that will cover my legs, finding nothing that isn’t covered in cats.
“Shit, lady, is this what you wear to work? Do you have any normal clothes?”
Closet, middle section, she grunts. I’m not crazy.
I pause to consider her situation. She doesn’t deserve what’s going on here. Hell, I don’t deserve it either, but at least I’m the primary target. She’s just an innocent bystander, losing control of her body, getting the police sent after her, having some random woman criticize her love of cats every chance she gets. If there were any time, I’d feel bad for her.
I throw on the first pair of plain jeans and shirt I can find and then run to the living room in search of athletic shoes. After rifling through her desk for a few paperclips, I’m out the door in the next breath.
The door slams behind me. I give it a glance. Room 304.
“Jenny. I remember you.”
You do, huh? Who are you?
“Victoria.” I’m sprinting down the hall. There’s an elevator, but I pass it. It’s always been slow and creaky. This is no time for slow and creaky. “We passed each other in the hallway every once in a while. I remember always thinking you were scared of something.”
Sounds about right, she sighs in my ear.
“Well there’s no time to be scared anymore,” I say, listening to the stomps of my feet echo off the doors I pass. Jenny runs differently than me and it’s hard to get used to. She’s also in bad shape, the kind of thin-but-fat you get when you don’t really eat and aren’t active. By the time I reach the stairwell, I’m completely winded. She’s not athletic and she loves cats; no wonder we never hit it off.
Wait, why are we even running? she questions. Why don’t we just stop and explain to the police what happened?
I stumble up the stairs, learning the inadequacies of her body with each passing step. Feet out of control. Arms flailing. Back and legs tight. I’m heading to my own apartment—Victoria’s apartment—to retrieve supplies. If I’m to get anywhere after this, I’ll need to fake it as myself until I build this weak body into something I can genuinely use.
A man is walking toward me off at the other end of the hall. My neighbor. Rather, Victoria’s neighbor. He’s tall, fair-skinned, slight but strong build. There’s a backpack slung over his shoulder. He must be headed off to work. I always forget that people with normal jobs get up this early. It’s usually around 1 or 2 PM before I’m out of bed.
I keep my eyes forward and force my breath into a slow, steady cadence. This man lives so close, yet we’ve never spoken, and I don’t know his name. He’s never even looked at me, much less given the impression that he wanted to speak.
“Did you hear some, like, stampede or something downstairs?” he asks casually as we near each other.
His voice is deep. It catches me off-guard, as does Jenny’s sudden panting in my ear. I glance up at him and see him smiling. He’s towering over me, not in a threatening way but just in a way that all people of his height tower over the people around them. I don’t remember him being so tall, but then again Jenny is a mouse and Victoria was a lion. I’ve never referred to myself like that. It hits me that not only is her voice in my head, but her love of cats may be as well.
He’s talking to me! He’s finally talking to me!
Trying to ignore her, I choke out a response. “Stampede?” I stop to take a breath and wipe the sweat from my brow before I can continue. “No, I didn’t hear anything.”
He shifts on his heels and turns toward me as if I’ve invited him to a conversation by simply answering his question. “Crazy, I could have sworn I heard something from downstairs,” says, laughing.
“Didn’t hear it.” I turn to continue on my path.
“I’ve never seen you up here before,” he says, now walking next to me, now going in the opposite direction he was going when I first saw him. “Don’t you live on the third floor?”
I give him what I believe is Jenny’s meanest glare, but he still seems to want an answer. “Yes, I live downstairs, but I’m in a hurry and I need to talk to Vic.”
I point ahead. “Victoria. Apartment 410.”
He nods reluctantly and mumbles something to himself. In the quiet moment that follows, I can hear Jenny panting in my ear and sirens that are now only a few blocks away.
“I didn’t realize you were friends with… her,” he finally says slowing to a stop.
His hesitation piques my interest. “What’s wrong with Victoria?” I ask, turning but still walking toward my apartment.
He shrugs. “She just seems like she’s kind of a bitch.” His words are easy and casual.
“Hey, fuck you.”
Gah! No! Don’t say that!
It catches him off-guard. “I didn—”
I wave my hand at him. “Shut up and go away. I’ve got things I need to do.”
The look on his face is satisfying, but I have no more time to waste. I turn and walk, glancing over my shoulder a few seconds later to see that he is slowly going in the other direction, his head down, his feet dragging.
How could you do that to me?!?
Her cry goes unanswered. I’m finally at my door. The paperclips are in my hands and I’ve already bent them into the approximate shapes I’ll need to pick the lock. It’s just like when I first started, using makeshift tools to get what I want. Only this time I’m stealing from myself, and my life is on the line rather than just wanting to drive the nice car that’s parked in front of my parent’s house.
The door offers little resistance. I’m skilled, but it strikes me how insecure I’ve been living all these years. There’s not much here worth protecting. You’d rather hide something important than overtly ‘protect’ it, but even with that caveat I could have at least thrown a few more locks on the main entrance to where I slept every night. Steeling myself for what I might find inside, I burst through.
The apartment is… completely normal. Nothing is amiss. Obviously, I didn’t die here, but I still expected some sort of chaos to lie within. Desks upturned, their contents strewn about. Clothes on the floor from someone rifling through my dresser. Holes in the wall from trying to find a secret cache of equipment. Even a body or bloodstains planted to frame my neighbor. None of that. A pristine living space. Even my bed is made.
I’m in my closet before I know it. No matter how poorly Victoria’s clothes fit, they will forever feel more comfortable than Jenny’s. Changing is only secondary, though, because at the back of my closet, underneath dozens of pairs of shoes and pants and dresses I’ve worn only once, is a safe.
I quickly punch in the combination. My spare survival kit is sitting before me and I waste no time taking what’s mine. Rope. Grappling hook. Extra lockpicks. Various tools. Spider gloves. Spider boots. Burner phones. Handgun.
It’s quiet in the closet, and the sudden silence makes it abundantly apparent how deafening the sirens were. I was so focused on the task at hand that I became oblivious to what was propelling me forward. The hairs on the back of my neck stand on end as shouts echo from the stairwell. They’re faint but growing louder by the second.
I bolt for the door, scanning my home one last time before softly shutting it behind me, knowing I’ll never again be back here. It would bring a tear to my eye if I had any time to dwell on it.
The hallway is clear, but I hear shouting coming from down below, followed by the sounds of a door being bashed in and a march of footsteps. They’re in Jenny’s apartment now. I only hope they’re confined to her floor as well.
I risk a glance downstairs as I enter the stairwell. My heart skips a beat when I see that the closest man is only a handful of steps below me. He’s leaning against the wall, looking downstairs, gun drawn, muttering something into the mic on his shoulder. I pause and take a deep breath, trying to collect myself. As I’m distracted, the door slams shut behind me.
His head jerks toward the sound. There is a lingering moment of eye-contact before either of us makes a move. In unison, we act.
I’m already halfway up the next flight, but he’s directly on my heels. The bag of tools is heavier than I remember, and Jenny’s body never ceases to betray its weakness.
The rooftop air is cool and crisp and a rush of morning sunlight smacks me in the face as I burst through the door. I slam it behind me, but hear it fling open only an instant later. He’s still yelling, and I’m still sprinting.
My building is long and narrow. Rooftop access is only given at one end and there is nothing at the other. The surface is completely flat, with only a few pipes and HVAC systems to provide cover. There seems to be no endgame in my strategy, and from his yells it’s obvious he thinks he has me cornered. His naivety can be forgiven. Rather, I can thank him for it.
On the other end of the building is a narrow alleyway. It is just wide enough for a standard box truck. Across this alleyway is another apartment building of the same height and another one lies just beyond. Living in the city can be a pain, both in your wallet and on your commute. When you’re in my profession, though, you look for different aspects when deciding on a living space. A narrow alleyway can be used for a covert entrance, or for an overt escape.
The bag is heavy, but I’ve made this jump hundreds of times. Jenny’s strides are shorter than my own, but I can feel that she has the strength inside her body to make it across. It won’t be graceful, and it definitely won’t be pretty, but it will still get the job done.
The edge is growing closer.
Stop running! Just turn around and explain what’s going on!
Three steps away.
Wait, what are you—?
Two steps away.
No, please, don’t do this!
I’m hurtling through the air. The man is shouting behind me. A grin crosses me face as I careen toward the other roof. Shouting is what you do when you know you’re defeated. Your shouting only lets me know that I’ve won without having to look back for confirmation.
My approach is lower than anticipated. Victoria Simone can make this jump with several feet to spare and land without breaking stride on the other side. Jennifer Wilson is not Victoria Simone. The edge of the rooftop strikes just beneath my outstretched shoulders. A pang of fear grips my body as the impact forces air from my lungs.
My feet are dangling. The weight of my bag is dragging me downward. I’m struggling to grasp whatever I can to hold on. My forearms are throbbing. My palms are covered in sweat. My back and shoulders refuse to contract. It’s as though this woman has never done a pullup in her life, and it dawns on me that that’s probably true.
My fingernails drag along the concrete rooftop as my hands slip to the edge. Still wheezing and struggling for breath, I’m flailing my feet toward the wall, but it’s too far away because of the overhang of the roof.
It’s the right hand that goes first. Or is it the left? Perhaps they both go at the same time.
The screams are long and drawn out. We do it in unison. The feeling of freefall fills me with terror I did not know I possessed. The ground closes in with incredible speed. I do not feel anything. I do not hear anything. Jennifer Wilson is dead.
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