My whole body was covered in sweat. Something woke me from sleep and after a moment of staring into the darkness, straining my ears to listen to any unusual sounds, I assumed that it must have been the heat.
The small bedroom that once belonged to my mother was full of oppressive summer air, hot as an oven. The old house was designed to keep the heat in and despite the open window, there was no night breeze to freshen the room.
I sat up and stretched my legs, pausing when I saw the bed. It was completely soaked in some kind of lukewarm liquid. There was so much, it couldn’t all be sweat... For a panicked moment I thought it might be urine.
I quickly brought my shirt to my face to check, but it smelt more like seaweed and fish. Did someone come in whilst I was asleep and soak me with water from the lake? My grandmother was sleeping downstairs; she wouldn’t have had the energy to climb all the way to my bedroom. I didn’t know anyone in the village yet, it being only my third day there, but even from the brief encounters on the street, the locals made me uneasy. Was this some kind of a sick joke?
I walked over to the mirror and only half-recognised my reflection. Hair, thick with water, was stuck to my skin and my eyes were shining in the darkness of the room. I looked down; on the wooden floor, there was a small, wet trail leading toward the door. As if in a trance, I followed it out to the hallway, down the stairs, past the ceremonial hearth and to the kitchen.
The clock on the wall showed it was one in the morning. The whole house was as still as a coffin and stank of that evening’s greasy dinner. I followed the trail to the front door and hesitated when I stuck my wet feet into trainers. I wasn’t really sure what I would find at the end of the trail; was I just retracing my own footsteps? Could it have been that I was sleepwalking?
I quietly opened the door and stepped out. The night air felt good on my wet skin. The asphalt road was still hot from the summer day, the water trail barely visible. The faint marks of bare feet were like tiny bread-crumbs in a fairy-tale forest; I followed them, convinced I was dreaming.
The waxing moon shone brightly with no cloud in sight. Unlike my home-town, the stars were visible here. They pressed down with their unnatural shine; like a ceiling built too low. I thought that if I stretched to my full height they would connect with my head.
The nearby houses were all dark, their residents asleep, not a single light in sight. The buzz of insects was occasionally pierced by a distant bark. The small village felt like a ghost-town even during the day, but that night its sense of isolation was overwhelming - like it wasn’t only cut off from the rest of the world but also from reality. It was a different plane of existence.
I looked down on the trail. The footprints veered off the main road, toward a smaller path that I knew would lead me to the lake. Had I been swimming before bed and somehow forgotten? Why would I have been there so late?
When I looked ahead, something about the water trail unnerved me. So far I had been following clear prints of bare feet – presumably mine – but now there were handprints, accompanied by trailing wet smears. Had I been moving on all fours? Crawling?
I followed the path down the hill, the overripe cherry trees blocking the brightness of the moon. It was difficult to see in the dark but the handprints slowly turned into one continuous wet trail, as if created by an enormous slug.
For the first time that night I started to wonder whether the marks really belonged to me, but whoever (or whatever) made them had crawled out of the lake and made it to my house, all the way to my bed.
I kept walking. The gentle splash of water and croak of frogs led me to the darkness of the lake. Now it was impossible to see the marks through the muddy grass. The lake was deathly still, with only the occasional insect flying on its surface to disturb the reflection of the moon. I stopped at the edge.
On the other side, by a willow tree leaning over the water, a large black object floated on the surface. I stepped closer to the lake as much as I dared, until the cool water seeped through my shoes and grasped my toes.
The object drifted closer, suddenly illuminated by the starry sky. It was shaped like a person. There was a person in the lake.
With four hurried steps, I crossed the shallow part of the lake and dragged the body toward the shore, but once I reached ground it turned into a heavy mass that was impossible to drag any further. Were they dead? I kept tugging, my muscles burning, face sweating as I tried to move them onto their back, away from the water.
The body jerked, twisting in the darkness; coughing and heaving with frightful violence, as if they were trying to vomit out their own soul. I crouched down and grasped at their shoulder. When they looked up, I
My own face stared back at me. Dark hair plastered to wet skin, eyes wide with fear. My face. The trembling shoulder under my hand was my shoulder. When faced with such a sight, my head began to pulsate with horrid intensity. All I could do was stare into that thing’s – the fake’s – eyes. And it stared back at me with horror.
This was a dream, this was a dream; I repeated it to myself like a prayer as the fake started to struggle against my grip, crawling away. It seemed scared of me? Its reaction was so bizarre that I didn’t know what to do. I could only watch as it struggled to get further away, half falling back into the lake.
‘G-get away. Get away from me…’ it begged.
The fake’s fear only heightened mine. My head was loud with the racing rhythm of my pulse and it felt like my skull would burst at any moment.
The fake began to scream for help and panic surged through me. If someone came over they wouldn’t be able to tell who was real and who was fake. That thing – it looked exactly like me.
The fake’s cry transformed into gurgles as I forced its head underwater. It struggled against my grip, hands grabbing at my arms, shoulders, and stomach, but eventually the rough grasps turned into weak flailing, and then into light taps. When its movements stopped I kicked the body back into the water, where it floated away, traveling back into the darkness of the lake; back beyond the grasp of reality.
I remained standing on the shore until the pain in my head lessened to a distant ache, but the image of the fake’s face wouldn’t leave my mind. Its terrified gaze bloomed deep within me and I was slowly overcome with dawning fear.
Fear that what I killed wasn’t a fake. Fear that the fake was me.
Shaking, I wrapped my hands around myself and turned from the lake. The stars illuminated the path as I walked back home to bed.