They say you and nobody but you can change your life for better or worse. I suppose in some demonic manner I found that to be true. I awoke one dreary Monday a little over a year ago perhaps on the wrong side of the bed, but certainly not planning on ruining my own life.
I started off with my usual routine: hit the snooze button seven times, realize I hardly have time to shave, get up, shower, toss on my ill-fitting suit. Just as I was about to close my blazer to prepare for the brutal winds the television was forecasting, I noticed a tag hanging from a thin string on the bottom button. I yanked it off and gave it half a glance: the tag was from Broad Street Cleaners and was etched with the number ‘2’ in harsh handwriting. I gave that tag about the amount of thought it deserved (next to none) and tossed it on the dresser beside me. I grabbed the new brown buffalo leather work bag my mother had bought me for Christmas last month and headed out the door. An irritable fire already raged within me, probably due to a mixture of stress from waking up so late, the biting winter air, and now the broken elevator.
A sign hung at an angle, carelessly taped to the closed elevator doors that read, SORRY! OUT OF SERVICE! Something about the way the exclamation marks were written or perhaps the strikingly inauthentic nature of the apology made my blood boil. Of course, it had to be on one of the few days I was running late. My shoes echoed as they tapped down the ten flights of stairs and my blazer bounced on my shoulders. As I neared the lobby I felt my lower back dampening from sweat, which I had no doubts would be eviscerated once I stepped outside.
I pushed open the lobby door with more force than intended and it smashed into the wall. I looked for someone to apologize to, but there was nobody there besides my landlord who was too busy on the phone to notice the sound. He paced back and forth, screaming into his cellphone in his thick Armenian accent. “Don’t transfer me again. It’s stuck on the second floor. Yes, the second floor. How many times do I gotta –.” He pulled the cellphone from his ear, inspected it, then threw his arms in the air. “They hung up on me.” He finally noticed me just before I walked out the front door. “Hey, Ethan. Back so soon? What’d you forget something?”
I half turned towards him in the middle of pushing out the front door. I wasn’t sure what he meant, but I didn’t have the time to ask. “Sorry sir. I’ll pay the rent on Friday when my paycheck comes in.”
His nose crinkled and eyes squinted briefly. He then shrugged and started dialing a number on his cellphone again. Once the door shut behind me and I made my way past a snow-covered Washington Square, I remembered I wasn’t late on rent that month. I’d paid it two weeks ago.
The weatherman was right that day: the freezing wind immediately slashed against my lips and pressed into my cheeks. I could hardly breathe while it whirled around me. Between gusts I was able to lift my head enough to spot the newspaper stand where I always bought my morning coffee. I whipped my wrist upwards briefly to check the time on my golden Timex, but noticed the nick in the cheap leather strap more than the actual time. But the time didn’t truly matter: I always had time for a morning coffee. I dropped my head again to avoid the wind and darted towards the stand. To a rare bit of luck that morning there was no line, but it was most likely because I was already miles behind the rush. Janice had her back turned when I approached, showing me her dark brown ponytail stuffed into a black mesh hairnet. “Good morning, Janice,” I said in a breathy, exasperated voice. This might have been the first time I got a chance to breathe since I left my building’s lobby.
She spun around with a smile already welded tightly around her teeth. She scanned me quickly, then said, “Long time no see, Ethan.”
I thought this was a strange comment at the time, but not outlandish since I hadn’t seen her since the Friday before. “I suppose it has been,” I replied, mimicking her grin. “Can I get a large coffee, cream and sugar?”
Janice nodded, retaining that tight, dimpled smile. “Of course. Thirsty this morning, are we?” She turned back around and sprinkled some sugar and poured a dab of cream into a cup for me.
I placed the three dollars I knew it costed from years of coming to the stand. She presented the cup to me with one hand supporting the side, and one gripping the bottom as if it were a golden chalice. “Round two,” she said.
“Thanks, Janice. See you tomorrow,” I replied. I wondered why she acted so peculiar and even briefly considered whether she was fishing for my phone number. I didn’t have the time to dwell on it.
With my head tucked between my shoulders again and the wind howling around my numbing ears, I made my way towards Lombard South Station. I dashed down the sidewalk and juked through the jam-packed crowds all while attempting to hold my coffee perfectly even. Despite my best efforts, I felt it swishing up the insides of the cup, preparing to pounce on my unsuspecting knuckles. A few drops splashed out, but I didn’t quite mind the contrast against my otherwise freezing hand.
I found a long line of shivering customers and easily recognized it to be that of City Diner. I glanced up to see the station was only about half a block away now. Somehow, I found the energy to walk even faster and stride towards the staircase, most likely fueled by the large coffee. I crossed the street, then headed down the stairs.
The wind finally subsided about halfway down the staircase. In that moment I swore to myself I’d never take a beautiful day’s weather for granted again, but of course I would. I untucked my head from my shoulders, straightened my neck, and breathed in that rubbery garbage-smelling subway station.
Suddenly, two sooty hands wrapped around the lapel of my blazer. I instinctively jerked back, spilling some of the coffee on one of the hands, but they didn’t budge. A hunched over homeless man with a tattered once-tan jacket and a long mud-caked beard stared at me as if I was the ghost of a long lost relative. His eyes spun in bewilderment, his mouth hung ajar.
“Get off me,” I yelled while jerking sideways, attempting to loosen his grip. He let go, but the horror didn’t subside from his face. An onlooking woman glanced at me in fleeting pity, but did nothing to help. She instead continued towards the train idling on the platform without skipping a beat. The man cupped his decaying mouth with one hand. His eyes wandered towards the train, then back at me. He pointed to the second train car, then reached out to grab me again. “It can’t be,” he said. “it can’t be.”
I stepped back away from him and yelled, “Don’t touch me.” I flashed a purposefully disgusted scowl at him before continuing towards the train. For how much my coffee had swished and splashed already, it was a wonder how there was any left.
I scanned my SEPTA card and pushed through the turnstile. The train let off two digital rings and said in a monotone female’s voice, “Now departing. Next stop, Walnut-Locust Station.” My hurried walk turned into a brief undignified sprint as I dashed towards the train. Just before the doors closed I managed to get two feet into the second car. I sighed with relief. The next train wouldn’t be there for another ten minutes. “Please move away from the closing doors,” the automated female voice requested. I turned around and saw the doors trying to close, jamming around my bag. They sputtered open once more, and I yanked the bag inside the car before they closed again. Now satisfied, the train hissed into gear towards the next station.
I caught a reflection of myself in the train’s window as it entered the dark tunnels. My blazer was crooked and hair disheveled. I bounced my shoulders to straighten the blazer, then again to sure up its placement.
Out of my peripheral I caught a woman who’d managed to secure one of the scarce seats on the train staring up at me. When my eyes met hers, she smiled and bit her lower lip. Her eyes were abnormally large, but in the way that made her look like a model. I saw a small tattoo of an italicized roman numeral ‘II’ on her wrist. Her mascara ran slightly from the wintry wind’s drag, but she didn’t seem to mind. “I’ll see you tonight,” she whispered.
I tilted my head and shortened my brow. I’d never seen this woman in my life. It was only at that point in my break from hustling through crowds that I realized a sort of pattern. I’d had four interactions, each with a different person, and each stranger than the last. My landlord asked if I forgot something, Janice at the newspaper stand sarcastically said “long time, no see”, the homeless man nearly fainted when he saw my face, and now this woman was under the impression we had a date planned. It was as if each person I encountered was experiencing a collective déjà vu that I had no part in. But if they all felt the same way, all saw me before, then perhaps I was the crazy one.
“What?” the woman asked, this time forgoing the whisper. Her smile had faded and she began fiddling with her hands, clearly thrown by my confusion.
“I – I’ve never met you before,” I responded softly.
She scoffed. “Of course, you have. You gave me your number just two minutes ago.”
“I’m sorry, that wasn’t me. You must have me mistaken for someone else.”
She grew frustrated and shoved her hand into the pocket of her white puffy jacket. “Ethan Hill?” she annunciated, startling me again…she knew my name. “What, you already forgot me? Onto your next conquest? Typical.” She pulled her hand out and turned a piece of crumpled lined-yellow paper towards me. I recognized the texture from the legal pad I’d take meeting notes on.
“Now arriving at Walnut-Locust Station. The next stop is City Hall. Please stand clear of the doors,” I heard in an automated voice in the background. I hardly paid attention to it.
I slowly reached out and steadied the paper in her shaking hand. I read the phone number written on that yellow paper once, twice, three times over. It was mine. With each read my mind whipped into a greater frenzy, my breathing shortened. It wasn’t only my phone number, but my handwriting too. I’d been here before. I’d left the apartment, gotten a coffee, passed by that homeless man, gotten on the train, acquired this beautiful woman’s phone number. But how? I remembered none of it. “Ma’am I apologize, I really do. I don’t mean to offend you at all. It’s been a strange morning.”
“What, that’s the only reason you’d ask for my number?” she struck back.
“Yes…well no. I don’t really know.”
She threw the paper at me, but it just glided and seesawed towards the train car floor. She crossed her arms and looked away.
“Sidney,” she corrected.
“Sorry, Sidney…after I gave you my number, where did I go?” She stuck a single index finger out of her folded arms, pointing towards the front of the second car.
“Thank you,” I said. “I really do apologize.”
She pulled her index finger back beneath her elbow and refused to acknowledge me any further than a steadily shaking head.
The train began moving again, throwing me off balance for just a moment. I threw one foot back to catch myself and regained my balance. Everyone else seemed to take the train’s jolts in stride, able to conquer its movement in their sleep if needed. I gave the sitting blonde woman one last half wave, but she wasn’t paying attention.
I couldn’t take it anymore. Everyone seemed as if they knew intricate details about my morning and whereabouts that I myself couldn’t recall, even the wild-eyed homeless man. I needed to get to the bottom of it as soon as possible. I threw my workbag over my shoulder to free a hand, then grabbed the support rails as I made my way down the train car in the direction the woman had pointed. She was frustrated enough that she could have purposefully misled me, but it was the only lead I had. I didn’t know exactly what I was looking for, but I knew I had to find whatever it was. I stepped harshly like a man just learning how to walk to ensure each step was secure enough to hold my balance. The train whizzed around a bend and I tightened my shaky grip on the silver rails. The rails felt uncomfortably damp, which I would usually care about, but that morning I didn’t.
After taking my next step, I saw a man through the tall sardine-crammed crowd. He was at the front of the car with his back facing me. In one hand he held a tall cup and with the other, he held onto the silver rail. His bag was strapped over his back just like mine was, but he was too far away for me to get a good look at it. It couldn’t be. I had to be losing my mind.
“Excuse me,” I said.
The man blocking my way removed an earphone, acknowledged me, then shuffled aside.
Now I could see a clear view of that bag. It was about a foot and a half wide, sported two unused hanging handles near the middle, and brass adjusters fastened around each end of the shoulder strap over the man’s back. But the feature of the bag that made my heart sink wasn’t the straps, the handles, or even the size – it was the material: brand new brown buffalo leather.
The train stopped briefly and a few passengers got off, allowing me to edge closer to the man. He was still almost ten feet away. The train hissed and started again. I retained my balance better that time. I took two more steps towards him, my curiosity piqued. I was both eager and fearful to see his face.
For the first time, the man with the buffalo leather bag moved, confirming he wasn’t a statue. He lifted his wrist to check his watch. A golden Timex with a nick on the strap – the same as mine. His head then twisted both ways a couple times. I stopped dead in my tracks as if staying absolutely still would do me any good. He caught me out of the corner of his eye, green eyes just like mine. He spun around and faced me directly. The light from the dark tunnels outside the train flashed across his face. The train jerked and slowed as it approached the next station. The light finally consistently caught his full face when we approached the platform. As my face fell to utter horror, his curled to a wide, toothy smile. He had a crooked left incisor and a chipped bicuspid in exactly the same places I did. His green eyes shone into mine and mine whimpered back into his. His nose was freckled, as was mine. His ill-fitting suit slouched over his shoulders the same way, his hand was wet from spilt coffee which he also held in his right hand. I glanced behind him to see if the end of the train car was a mirror, but it was just the green and white wall at the end of each car as I feared. He wasn’t a man I’d never met. He wasn’t even an imposter. He was me.
“Now arriving at Fairmount Station. The next stop is Girard,” the automated voice announced. His or…my smile remained plastered on that face opposite me. He nodded, green eyes still locked to mine. The train doors cracked open and he darted out the door beside him.
“Wait!” I called out. A couple other passengers half turned their heads towards me as if I was the homeless man at Lombard South. I ignored their concern and pushed through the crowds towards the door. “This is my stop,” I told one woman who stared with a scrunched, disgusted contortion.
Once again, I managed to make it through the train doors just before they slammed shut. I stood on my toes and looked both ways, trying to spot the man with the dark blonde hair and brown buffalo leather bag – trying to spot myself. I caught him walking quickly towards the exit. He tossed his coffee in the nearest trash can, then pranced up the staircase.
“Wait,” I called out again. He didn’t acknowledge me. I had no idea what I’d do once I caught up to him, but pursued him nonetheless. At this point I’d forgotten all about how late I was for work, and even the fact that I had work at all that Monday. The very idea of the man was horrifying – someone in my exact likeness using my name, my phone number, everything was the same. Sure, he was setting up dates with women I wouldn’t mind, but what if he were to do something damaging?
I followed him out the station, briefly losing him again. My head swiveled around, searching for him until I landed upon a parking garage. He turned back and smiled directly at me. “Hey, you – wait!”
The man held up two fingers and grazed them against his eyebrow as if to salute me. His heels kicked up and his knees sprang into action, the buffalo leather bag bouncing on the back of his blazer. He darted down the alleyway beside the parking garage. I lost him once more.
I began running as fast as I could for a short distance until I reached the alleyway. I looked down it. He was nowhere to be found. I couldn’t quite wrap my head around how he managed to run down the whole alleyway before I even made it across the street.
A dirtied silver garbage can caught my eye at the mouth of the alleyway. A coppery, sweet aroma rose from the garbage can, a smell I’d never sensed before. I moved the lid slightly, which was already haphazardly placed over the can. Sticking out from underneath a once-white garbage bag covered in dark red streaks and splotches was a set of fingers with blood-soaked tips. I quickly slid the lid back over the garbage can and secured it tightly, as if to stop the arm from escaping. My stomach sucked into itself in whirling panic almost matching the gusting wind.
Then I noticed from the side of the garbage can trickling down to the concrete ground was a blood trail, blotting into shoe prints down the alleyway, the way the man had ran off. I checked my bag to make sure it was fastened securely over my shoulder and behind my back, then cautiously began following the trail. With each bloody footstep, my mind churned out a new horrifying possibility. What if I’d been here before? What if I killed myself earlier today and was coming back as my own ghost to witness the scene?
Then I came across the final footprint. It was situated perfectly next to a fallen dismembered leg cut off just above the knee, and still tucked neatly into the shoe sporting the print I’d been tracking. I could see the off-white bone sticking out from the top of the severed leg, surrounded by a scarf of mangled flesh. My trail had come to an end. I squatted down beside the leg, examining it closely. Based on how hairy the leg was I figured it was that of a man, and a tall man at that. The segment of a leg half a leg had to be 25 inches in length – at least 4 inches more than mine.
While I continued examining it, enthralled by what might have happened, a hand landed upon my shoulder. This one was connected to a body, but not the body I expected. I rose to my feet and the hand retracted back to its owner’s side. A police officer stood opposite me with his left hand extended, palm facing the ground, and his right firmly grasping the grip of his holstered Glock 19. I found it ironic in an ephemeral way how he intended to calm me with one hand, yet shoot me with the other.
I stepped back away from him with my empty hands rising into the air.
“Sir, stay still,” he said. The police officer looked at me, then to the dismembered leg, then back at me. His gaze darted this way multiple times. “I’m going to need you to dump out your bag for me.”
“Wait, this is all a misunderstanding. I didn’t do this,” I pleaded.
“Sir, please. I just need you to dump out the contents of that bag.”
I nodded. Then I slowly placed a hand on the bag’s strap and brought it in front of me. I unzipped the top of the bag, then began turning it upside down, maintaining my snail’s pace as to not startle the officer. It didn’t appear to ease his nerves. First, a few black ballpoint pens fell to the ground, bounced and softly rattled upon impact. Following the pen was a couple of my yellow legal pads: one almost used up from all my meeting notes and the other totally blank. But then it dropped out – a black-bladed 3 inch knife fell beside the blank legal pad. I immediately jumped to explain, not knowing what I’d say when I opened my mouth. It came out as a stammer. “I – I – I didn’t know that was in there.” I knew how it sounded – suspiciously ridiculous. “I swear, you have to believe me.”
The officer took a deep breath and raised his calming hand to push a button on his walkie-talkie, which was strapped to his blue shirt. “I’ve got the suspect at the alleyway between Melon and Fairmount, just before 15th.”
Within moments officers converged on me and escorted me down the alley back the way I came. A forensics team converged on the other side, quickly securing the area around the severed leg.
I opened my mouth to protest, but nothing came out. One officer put his hand on the back of my head, then lowered me into the backseat. I looked out the window, still bewildered by the events of that morning, too shocked to react.
An officer started up the car and didn’t say a word to me. The engine purred into action and the low static of a silent walkie-talkie sounded through the speakers. Just before the car began rolling forward I heard a knock on my window just above my hanging, dejected head. I raised my head and looked outside. There he was. Those green eyes, that dark blonde hair, his sinister uneven toothy smile looking back at me. Just beside his face…or mine… he held up those two fingers once more and nodded. As the car began rolling, he stood absolutely still beside my window and lowered his middle finger and left his index finger straight. His lips curled into an “o” then his tongue snapped into the roof of his mouth. “One,” he mouthed. The police officer drove us away, but that hand never lowered.
And he was right. A world with two Ethan Hills living the same life, carrying out the same commute, likely working the same job, shouldering the same bag, and wearing the same skin is impossible. The more cunning, the more charismatic, and perhaps the more dangerous Ethan Hill still walks the streets of Philadelphia where I once did. There can only be one…I was number two.