Dead Ringer v.1

At first it was little things—how he always wore the watch I’d given him, even though it left a raw spot on his wrist and he’d never worn one before.

dead ringer

I told myself that marriage really does change a person. But I think when people say that, they mean gradual change, like becoming more patient, and not that the person arbitrarily starts liking green beans. They mean little things, not whole personalities.

We’d been married for two years when I first started to feel like maybe I was living with a stranger. I shook it off until one evening when I was getting ready for bed and found myself remembering how Bradley had been pathologically unable to put his socks in the hamper and it used to drive me crazy. But he hadn’t left a single piece of laundry lying on the floor since the wedding.

The night I knew, really knew, we were staying up at a rental cabin with three other couples. (We’d become the kind of people who did things with other couples.) I knew something was wrong because he did the dishes after dinner and when we played dominoes and he won, he didn’t rub it in anyone’s face.

Later, I lay beside him in the dark, trying to decide what to do. He asked me if something was wrong, but I said no. Having a husband who picks up after himself and treats other people with consideration isn’t wrong, and I couldn’t tell whether I was awake or asleep.

We drove home the next morning without saying much. I was deep in a funk and he let me stay there. He bought me a cup of coffee and a danish without me having to ask. He didn’t try to make me talk to him.

Later, I locked myself the bedroom. I dug through his college footlocker and his dresser drawers, even though that’s not what trusting wives do.

It was in the back of the closet—this little wooden box tied with red string. There was a picture of me stuck to the top of box with Scotch tape, and the string was positioned directly over my eyes. When I undid the knot and the string fell away, I felt a curtain lift, like shaking off a cold fog. What had seemed like a long, confusing dream turned true and certain. It was clear, suddenly, like that knotted string had held my photo down, kept the doubts from surfacing, and now they were all floating there right in front of me.

The box was full of scraps and trinkets. The kind of things that wouldn’t mean anything if you weren’t already scared your husband was a very convincing fraud. There were burned matches and a baseball card and a lock of hair wrapped in satin ribbon and at the bottom, a little cloth doll made out of what looked like one of Bradley’s old T-shirt’s and tied up with twine.

When I went back out into the living room, Bradley was sitting in the couch, reading a copy of The Divine Comedy. For fun. The Bradley I’d gotten engaged to never did things like that.

“Who are you?” I said, standing over him. My voice sounded calm and polite. Vaguely interested.

He looked up at me, smiling cautiously, like I was trying to play a game with him and he didn’t quite know the rules. “I’m Bradley Walsh.”

And I started laughing.

For a second, he just sat there, holding the book. “Why is that funny?”

“Because you’re not.”

He didn’t answer right away. He just looked at me. Since the wedding, his eyes had become softer, more unguarded. Before, I’d always thought the new openness meant he’d discovered how much he loved me. That I had changed him. Now I was thinking that maybe he had just changed.

He set down the book and leaned forward, clasping his hands between his knees. “I’m Bradley. I’m your husband.”

“No, you’re not.”

He just looked up at me with a pained expression, like I was hurting his feelings.

“Who are you?” I said again. “Who are you really?”

For a second, I thought that he wasn’t going to tell me. He was going to say again that he was Bradley Walsh and then I wouldn’t argue. We would keep playing this game until we both forgot that’s what it was and we got old and died. But when you’re married to someone, you’re supposed to know their hopes and wishes, their secrets. When you’re married, you’re supposed to know exactly who the other person is.

He swallowed, unclasping and re-clasping his hands, but he didn’t look away. “I’m Alexander Boggs.” He said it like it was the most painful thing that had ever happened to him.

I stood looking down at him, holding the little T-shirt doll. Alexander had been Bradley’s next-door neighbor for the whole three years we’d dated, but I hadn’t seen him in forever. He’d moved right after the wedding and they’d fallen out of touch.

Alexander had been thin and weird and quiet. He’d been shy, too smart to fit in easily. The kind of person who would read The Divine Comedy for fun.

My legs felt heavy and useless and I sat down. “Why?” I said, crouched on the carpet with the doll in my hand. My voice sounded hoarse. “Why would you do something like that? How could you just do something like that?”

He sat on the edge of the couch, looking down at me—the sorriest, saddest look. “Because I loved you,” he said simply. “And you loved him.”

“Where’s Bradley?” I whispered. “Oh, God. Is he dead? Did you kill him?”

He half-rose, holding up his hands, shaking his head. “No, no, no—he’s not dead. He’s in Seattle.”

Alexander moved to Seattle.”

“No—it’s like I told you. We . . . I switched us.”

I sat on the floor with my knees pulled up and my mouth open, remembering the last time I’d seen Alexander. It was two days before the wedding and I’d run into him at a bar downtown when I was out with my girlfriends. I’d been surprised to see him there. It didn’t seem like his kind of place. He’d cornered me out on the patio, telling me that Bradley wasn’t the person I thought he was, telling me not to go through with it, not to walk down the aisle. His voice was shaking and his eyes had been desperate in a way made me think that I’d never understood desperation before. I’d just assumed that he was drunk.

I nodded, twisting the doll in my hands and looking away. “He came to me, you know. On the patio at Lucy’s. He—I think he tried to tell me. He was a mess, practically begged me not to marry Bradley. He was almost incoherent. Why wouldn’t he at least try to tell me what had happened?”

On the couch, the man I married didn’t answer right away. For the first time in the two years since the wedding, he refused to look at me. “That was . . . before. Before the switch. That was me.”

I sat on the floor, clutching the doll, picking at its length of knotted twine. “What will happen if I untie this?”

When he did look at me, his eyes were pleading and Bradley had never, never looked at me like that—that deep, open look, like I was seeing him exposed and he was letting me, like I was seeing all of him, his darkest corners and his heart. He didn’t have to tell me what would happen. If I wanted Bradley back, I could have him.

Since the wedding, wristwatches and picked-up socks weren&r
squo;t the only things that had changed. Kissing had gotten better. Movie nights and walks through the neighborhood and arguments and conversations had gotten better. Even sitting side by side on the couch together reading was better.

The doll was soft and small in my hand, uncommonly heavy. I held the length of twine between my thumb and forefinger, waiting to see if I would pull it.

Photo by vaferina

73 thoughts on “Dead Ringer v.1

  1. I love the uncertainty here. She has to decide whether she’d rather undo everything to what it would have been, knowing she’d be unhappy, or keep it where everything is good…but she was lied to for two years. It would be great to see what comes next!

  2. I like how you left the ending open for us to interpret even though she’s more likely going to keep things as they are.

    It’s sad how we overlook people everywhere that are shy, “nerdy”, and awkward. We don’t even give them a chance or try to reach out for them. I can’t help but think that some of us are pretty shallow for doing this.

    Awesome work!

  3. That’s…actually kind of chilling, that she even considers it.

    Sure, he’s kind and considerate and picks up his socks, but then there’s the part where he lied to her and manipulated her using basic black magic because he didn’t think she had the right to make an important life decision herself. I’m not sure how those can possibly balance.

    I would never, in a relationship like that, be able to be certain that what I wanted to do was really my idea. Would I want to bear children to someone if I thought there was the possibility I’d look down at them, five or ten years into their lives, and suddenly remember how I’d never wanted children, how I’d always disliked other people’s children? If I myself changed my attitudes on something, I’d second-guess it, thinking, “Did I really grow through my fear of flying, or is there a little box somewhere with my shirt and a tiny airplane in it?”

    This is a really creepy story, and I like it for what it makes you think about.

  4. Wow! I’m glad you left this open for interpretation…this story definitely gets you thinking, and although I know what I would decide (hell no would I stay with this guy!), I can see both sides of the situation…

    …in its own way, this is most definitely morbid!

  5. Huh. I know what I’d do; I’d put the damned doll back. ‘Cause you see, damnear the opposite thing happened to me when I got married. Only it wasn’t a story and I’m the one who moved away.

  6. wow, this was really, really good.
    It would be really creepy for someone switch like that, and if someone just told be the scenario I would totally want her to untie it … but reading that makes me think otherwise, because for some reason Alexander has something about him that makes him very likable ….

    This is a really amazing story,
    I love how it lets you think!

  7. Oh, man. This is chilling. The discovery had me reading with my hand to my mouth, but that’s nothing compared to the vague sickness I felt at the ending. No matter what she decides, it’s horrible. This is like another room in No Exit.

  8. I kind of wonder, though. I get the points that everyone is making, that he’s a nice guy but that he lied and manipulated her, but… if it was still him when he talked to her in the bar, that means that the real Bradley never said anything to her at all after the fact. I’m not sure I’d want to go back to the real Bradley, whatever I would choose about the fake one. Then again, I probably wouldn’t have gone out with the real Bradley in the first place.

  9. I am normally not a fan of open endings like this one, but on this story, it was fantastic! Loved this – it was so positively creepy!! My only question is why she wanted to marry Bradley in the first place, but I guess by the end she may have been questioning that as well… Nice work!

  10. ahh, this is chilling.
    Of course, I know exactly what I think I’d do (get everyone back where they’re meant to be, and then work it out)
    … but that hesitencey, I can see why she’s sitting there toying with the string…
    Alexander manipulated her and basically stole her from her husband. Picking up hiis socks doesn’t make up for that (Although, tbh, Bradley seems like an arse)

  11. Re: open endings, I thought about it and thought about it and there was just no other way!

    As far as Bradley goes, I’m still not clear on exactly what they had (yes, I do suspect he wasn’t all that awesome), but I’m thinking she’s actually changed a lot since then. She might not be able to stay here, but I’m pretty sure she can’t go back to him either. She may actually ::gasp:: wind up on her own 😀

  12. I DON’T KNOW!!!

    (I mean, I like to think she did, but it’s very hard to say . . .)

  13. Oh, I am convinced that the real Bradley is pretty much an ass. I don’t think they could be together now, but I’m very interested as to whether she’ll choose security and (fake?) true love, or the unknown.

  14. I really blame this all on my sister. She just gave me a new book of Shirley Jackson short stories and now I see everything from the angle of Very Uncomfortable 😀

  15. I’ll admit, I kept having to stop while I was writing and think about what—WHAT exactly I was trying to do 🙂

  16. I have to agree—I think they’re both of . . . questionable worth as partners, but the interesting thing is that I’m still not sure she’ll choose the undoing when it’s so much *easier* in the short term to let things stay the same. I mean, I just don’t know!

    (Although, over a long enough timeline, I just don’t see how she CAN’T untie the string—I think you could never forget this kind of betrayal)

  17. I think that’s the hard thing—there are so many factors, and now they have history together, even if it was predicated on a (big, huge, catastrophic) lie. I think it’s easy to say what should happen, and very hard to say what will.

  18. I woke up yesterday and thought to myself, “What is the most legitimately disturbing thing I can think of?”

    Then I discarded all kinds of locked-room mysteries and horror movie plots in favor of this, because . . . yeah.

  19. Thanks! I actually spent quite awhile trying to figure out when happens next before I realized that that just wasn’t the point!

  20. Oh, don’t get me wrong, I loved it and linked it to about six other people. 🙂

  21. I think that’s kind of the heart of it—knowing what we would do, but seeing all the things that make the obvious choice really difficult. I mean, if it seemed like he wasn’t a generally good guy, it wouldn’t even be a choice. Bottom line? I think it’s much harder when generally good people do unforgivable things? I don’t know.

  22. Yay—I love linkage! (And absolutely do NOT worry about me taking offense over being arcane and upsetting. It’s basically my bread and butter.)

  23. That’s actually what got me thinking about this in the first place—how much people can change, and how it’s often for the worse.

    Then, because it’s me, I had to take a change for the better and fill it full up to the top with dysfunction. Dysfunction everywhere!

  24. I kept tiptoeing up to a more definite ending and then realized I just couldn’t do it. I want to know what she does next, but her story is all in that teetering! (It’s still kind of driving me crazy.)

  25. Very nice. A great piece to read as a break while studying for finals. I love open-ended finishes or ones that take you just up to the decision but not the aftermath so this was right up my alley. 🙂

  26. What a wonderful scenario! Its rather like the decision about whether to trust a person after an infidelity–this lie will haunt them.

    I agree with your reponse above about how its easier in the short term to let it be, but to ever truly reconcile, she has to pull the string and have full openness. Living a lie is grating on a person.

  27. I keep wondering what the real Bradley is up to and whether he knows about the switch and how he feels about it. Great story.

  28. *lol* Well, you put the “fun” in dysfunction, so I love it.

    Tess she knows my ex so I think she could attest to the “who is this guy” element.

  29. And the lady chooses the prize behind door #3: growth and independence! I like that. : )

  30. That’s how I ended it in my head. You can’t be with someone who doesn’t respect you, and Alexander doesn’t. But, you can’t go back to someone you don’t love anymore out of spite. I vote she leaves them both, and SOMEHOW Alex wins her back eventually.

  31. My thoughts exactly. I could relate to every character’s POV and I think that’s why it was so compelling. 🙂 Great work!

  32. Call me crazy, but I would totally just stick with Alexander. Bradley does not sound like someone anyone would (or should) wanna be around, let alone married to.

  33. Just like everyone else has said, I love the open ending, where she suddenly lets herself like the too-perfect Bradley that until then had been creeping her out. It’s like you said in a response to someone else’s comment–the point isn’t to know what happens next. The uncertainty is the point.

    Two things I was wondering, though:
    First: when Alexander first told her who he really was, why did she accept so easily that that was possible (i.e. that Alexander could make himself look exactly like Bradley? Why didn’t she question the idea that something supernatural had happened?

    Second: Why didn’t the real Bradley try to stop her from marrying the fake? It seems like he accepted his new identity without question.

    Other than those two questions, though, this was a very good, creepy story!

  34. It’s very good, this piece, and very real. Thankyou Brenna, really. I’ve read a lot of your stuff, and this one is incredible. I love the way that I really don’t believe that that she will make the ‘right’ decision, and it doesn’t matter, because maybe this other guy is actually better. It’s very clever, but not in a showing off way, if you know what I mean? And Alexander is very wel done, especially for a character who isn’t in it much, under his own name anyway. But so simple, and so well written – I didn’t see what was coming until you told me, but maybe that’s just because I’m tired today. Anyway, very insightful, one of your best in my opinion. And I love the way tha we don’t really know the protagonist (the woman) until she is about to make her decision. And I also love the way that we don’t know what decision she will make. Though, as I said, I reckon she will not untie the string. And Alexander is a very interesting and cool character. Sorry for the long comment, but it is really a very good piece. A very realistic portrayal of marriage and those adult decisions that hinge more on personal happiness than on the ‘moral’ implications.

  35. I’m always impressed with the stories that wind up here but this one, wow. It just takes it up to a whole other level. I personally find the entire idea incredibly intriguing. That funny torn feeling is rumbling inside my head between really wishing that we knew what happens next, and at the same time, not knowing if I would approve of the ending either way. I can’t say that I would have loved it more if she went with Alexander or if she went with Bradley. I think at the end of the day with either choice I would have been disappointed with her either way, so not having the ending, not knowing, just totally works, it completes the story, makes the reader love the work, love how its set up but doesn’t make us come back and say “Hey you, author what are you doing? why’d ya do that??”. So end of ramble and Congratulations on another excellent piece of fiction!

  36. I’m glad you liked it! When left to my own devices, I’m very much an idea-person, and I really, really love characters with a lot of inner conflict/total dysfunction. Also, I’m scared of some really crazy things. Apparently, body-swapping is one of them. I like to think that she unties the string, rights the world, and then chooses neither, but I’m not convinced she’s there yet. I’m not convinced it’s that easy.

  37. I think these are actually the most important questions—especially the one about Bradley, who in my head is not marriagable at all, not really, and doesn’t have the imagination to arrive at any conclusion except that he’s going crazy. I suspect he’s not faring so well as Alexander and I kind of want to know what his Seattle existence is like. Who knows—he might even be improving.

  38. I love that getting-right-up-to-the-ledge feeling! Not necessarily unfinished, but just that tiny moment of inertia before the real thing happens.

  39. rather like the decision about whether to trust a person after an infidelity–this lie will haunt them.

    That is *exactly* what I was comparing it to in my head while I was writing! This breach of trust that colors the entire relationship, even if they decide to pretend it never happened. Even if she doesn’t pull the string, she can’t unlearn what she knows.

  40. Oh, I just assume that he’s terrible. Although, maybe life as Alexander has improved him a little? Not as a boyfriend, but just as a person. Even though I really don’t think Alexander is a bad guy, I just don’t think I’d be able to get over the fact that he’s made a HUGE executive decision!

  41. I wonder that too. I’m imagining him in Alexander’s body, learning how to coexist with the people around him. I don’t really know what Alexander looks like, but I imagine he *looks* antisocial.

  42. I’m really glad you liked it! I definitely agree about not knowing the narrator until the point of decision. In fact, now that you bring it up, I think we still don’t really know her, but that whatever she does next will tell us everything.

  43. Interesting! It sounds like maybe the narrator just got so used to the real Bradley’s unhealthy personality that she didn’t even expect to have a wonderful marriage–just a marriage. So, when the fake Bradley gave her a really good marriage, it freaked her out. Or maybe she thought she could change him.

  44. Oh, oh, oh. The uncertainty, it’s nearly heartbreaking. Though, I am more for Bradley than Alexander, this reminds me a LOT of one of those stories which always stayed in my head of a spirit that used to visit a girl because someone stole his body. No dolls were involved, though.
    I think I like this version better.

  45. But if she had thought she could change him, wouldn’t she be perfectly happy about how much he’s changed, since she would have deluded herself into thinking she could cause something like that? If she was thinking she could change him, I don’t think she would ever have been freaked out that he had changed.

  46. I keep thinking that I would stick with Alexander, but then I think, “Yeah, but I wouldn’t have been marrying Bradley in the first place!”

    Soooo…….the chances of finding myself in a Merry Fates-type story, magic or no magic, are pretty slim. I really ought to be glad.

  47. I frequently find myself coming back to uncertainty because, wow, it bothers me—but it’s also SO weirdly compelling. That might just be a side effect of always wanting to know everything . . .

    The stories of people who’ve lost their bodies (ghosts, magic, what-have-you) have always struck me as very sad. They were my favorite love stories when I was little, because you always knew there was no way it could work out, but you still hoped.

  48. the chances of finding myself in a Merry Fates-type story, magic or no magic, are pretty slim. I really ought to be glad.

    Absolutely! The depth of dysfunction around here, well, I would not advise anyone to engage in really *any* of the relationships I write.

    (I’m really not that cynical—I swear I’m not)

  49. Wow. I’ve been reading a lot here and haven’t commented yet, but I just wanted to say I really loved this piece.

  50. Creepy and awesome! It has a flavor of an early Stephen King story to it, I Know What You Need, I believe it was called. Only that one, the kid was an Alexander type using some black magic to anticipate the girl’s every want, whim, and of course as the title says, need. And she something of a similar choice. No body swapping occurred, however. Everything’s better with a swapped body!

    Now anyone you meet can be someone else. Let’s never sleep again! 😛

  51. Oh man, now that you mention it, I think I actually remember that story! (In high school, I read every Stephen King collection I could get my hands on.) Which means that I may actually be guilty of inadvertent stealing . . . but, since it wasn’t advertent stealing *and* mine has body-swapping, perhaps I will give myself a pass 😀

    Unrelated, is that a Watership Down icon? Because if it is, that is fabulous!

  52. Why yes, it IS a watership icon! That is one legit novel/cartoon!

    You inadvertently stole nothing at all! The theme was what struck me as similar, in a wonderful sort of way. The elements of the story itself were pretty dissimilar, save they both used a bit of magic.

    Besides, that theme is kind of awesome and shows the type of character someone has: choose the easy way, blind yourself to the truth and let someone make your life easy as they cater to you and only you or the the right way, really and love someone (be they a douche or not) with complete thoughts and desires separate from you. I think it’s just because I’m a nerdy lover of Mr. King’s short stories that I even saw it.

    I say she couldn’t take the pressure of the choice, ran off and joined the circus. :p

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