The first breath used to be the most difficult. At first you imagine you might be able to recognise the switch quickly enough to adapt. With practise, you insist, it will be easier to make the change and switch off the panic in time. But that leads you down a miserable path. Suddenly, without really noticing, you’ve convinced yourself you need to feel the pain, so that you don’t miss when it ends. Every time, you focus on it, until it consumes you. You’ve invited nothing but misery and death into your life, and while neither of those place much weight on your consent to invade, you’ve now made room for them. The grim reaper no longer stands at your door, waiting for his time; he has a place at your table, and can take you piece by tiny piece as you unwittingly offer them.
Take my advice, it’s easier if you don’t have to make any adjustment at all. If you approach the reaper with the same expression as you’ll don when waking up. Once pain and death becomes so trivial you no longer notice - that’s when you’re strong. That’s when they can’t find you, because you won’t make mistakes. You’ll wake mid blink, and no one is the wiser.
This time, I awake as a man. I’m sitting on the bus, with a cellphone in hand. Music hums softly through headphones while I stare intently at… I don’t even know. Some media sensation, no doubt. At least this generation is forthright with their plastic desires. I can’t claim to be confused by its appeal - and this body surely doesn’t object to it. It sure ain’t the music he enjoys - the volume is so low I barely hear it.
I manage to find the off switch and pocket the cumbersome device. It’s much too big for his pockets and I have to slouch in my seat in order not to crack it against my hip. I shouldn’t make assumptions, but I very much doubt I’ll be in a position to return the phone to him even if I keep it. The way things have been going, it’s only a matter of time. I’ll throw it away once I get out of sight. It was probably expensive, but it won’t be the most expensive thing I steal from him today. At least he won’t have to experience it, for him the world is just paused until I leave.
The bus is almost empty, but not quite. There’s a few girls a couple of rows ahead of me and I can hear the muffled sound of music through headphones somewhere behind. There’s no warning, but I haven’t been able to rely on that for a while now. They’re quiet when dormant, especially this time of day, and I’d rather not take the chance of giving myself away just yet.
I look at my reflection in the window. There’s more beard than face to witness, and my hair is long and tangled into thick strands. I hear they’re called dreadlocks. God they smell. I’m wearing a leather jacket and a pair of tight fitting jeans. Could be worse, but this outfit will impede my mobility. I rifle through my pockets for a wallet and eventually find a ragged piece of leather. There’s a bunch of credit cards, but no loose money. There’s a signature on his ID, though. His name is Jonathan Baxter. I practice the motion against my thighs, and wait for a good place to get off the bus.
I get off at the first commercial district. I’m not quite sure what this place is called, but I recognise it all the same. I haven’t been here in years; close to a decade now. It’s changed quite a bit, but all the important landmarks and such remain the same. With quick steps, I move towards the nearest clothing store and pick out a new outfit. I decide to go for something casual that won’t get in the way, rather than the most convenient outfit. Being picky will at best waste time, and at worst start things prematurely. A pair of loose fitting jeans and a sweater. The shoes will have to do.
“This is an old card… and I don’t remember the pin”, I tell the clerk through a fake chuckle. “Is it okay if I sign for it.”
“That’s fine,” she replies.
She’s a bubbly sorts, brimming with energy, though her behaviour is inconsistent. She switches from overjoyed to ambivalent or worse, but it’s not directed at me. She doesn’t stand on one foot for longer than a few seconds and her hands go through a practiced motion of scanning, folding, bagging that’s rapid enough to suggest she doesn’t want to do it. It’s not sloppy, just rushed. She’s tired and probably in pain, but definitely not one of them.
The signature comes naturally to me, and I show the lady some ID when she asks for it. I take the clothes in a bag and head outside and just follow the flow of the crowd. The bag is going to get in the way if I get spotted, but I can’t risk creating a confrontation. Maybe I should get some food? That’ll give me an excuse to stay in one place for a while, and there should be a bathroom where I can change.
The food was adequate. I picked a random restaurant and a random order. The signature feels oddly comfortable now that I keep using it, and the longer I sit idle the more this body introduces itself to me. Muscle memory still works, even while he sleeps, and he obviously plays with his hair a lot. It feels comfortable and soothing, and I adopt this habit without objection. He has a piercing in his lower lip that I can’t keep myself from chewing on, and I find myself performing basic actions slightly differently than I would prefer. It’s good; ticks like these help you blend in, and offer some much needed stress relief. I can erase these urges at any time I want, but have no reason to yet. I just watch.
The murmur of the restaurant fades insecurely as someone shouts over it. It takes a moment before it starts up again. I don’t react to the name straight away. It’s not the first time I get recognised as someone else but with different names every time, the reflex never develops. I fall back on the same basic response. Faked confusion, transitioned into realisation and tempered joy. It’s important not to overdo it, that might invite them to sit down.
“I haven’t seen you in ages,” the friend says and ignores, or just misses my sombre cues.
He sits down at my table and takes off his scarf and hat. This is bad.
“How are you? How’s the missus?”
I break eye contact and sigh. My hand naturally trails to my hair to relieve the anxiety. His friend stops in his track and loses the smile. The silence lingers for a moment before he says anything.
“Is... everything okay?” he asks carefully.
I resume eye contact and flash a polite smile.
“I think so, “ I say hesitantly. “Just… a bad day.”
“What happened?” he asks and settles in for a conversation. This guy is a good friend, but that’s bad for me. I need to think of something.
“I don’t know,” I say meekly. “Nothing I guess. We just haven’t gotten along lately. I’m afraid she’ll leave me.”
“Are you serious?” he questions.
His response is both very surprised and very serious. He believes me, but obviously Jonathan has a very stable relationship and this news caught him off guard. That can potentially escalate things - I should excuse myself quickly.
“I don’t know what to do,” I say in a sigh.
“I’m so sorry,” he says sincerely. “Is there anything I can do?”
Sirens blare through my head, cutting off my train of thought before I can reply. My vision grows sharp on instinct, and suddenly everything is moving slightly slower than it should. My thoughts focus like a scalpel and without intending I’ve already concluded that none of the people in my immediate field of vision is the source. But It’s here, it’s nearby and it’s strength is staggering. It might be one of the patrons, or it might be outside. More importantly it might be looking for a reaction. I can’t excuse myself now, that’ll give me away. I linger a bit longer, as if considering my reply.
“I never deserved her, you know?” I say, pretending not to let myself get emotional. “I guess I always knew. Knew this was coming.”
“Don’t say that,” he replied. “Maybe it’s not too late. No relationship is without fault.”
“Maybe,” I say. “I just don’t know what I did. She just…”
“Have you asked her?”
“We fight most of the time. About… stupid stuff.”
The warning is fading. It’s on the move but still close. It hasn’t spotted me, or it would’ve gone silent to follow me. It’s looking for us, doesn’t want to hide. I haven’t felt that much magic in a long time. There’s no way one so dumb has survived this long, or amassed that power. It’s a trap. It has to be. Nobody approach it. Be smart about this.
It’s gone. As abruptly as it came. It disappeared down the street, so it must’ve spotted someone, or it noticed someone spotting it. It won’t be looking for a direct confrontation. If I’m right, it’s smarter than that. It’s been hunted before, and knows we’ll follow it and bide our time. It’s laid the bait, so I have to find the hunter. I have to stop this.
“You know what?” I say, wiping my nose on my sleeve. “I-I can’t.”
I stand up out of my chair and head for the door.
“Jonathan, wait!” he calls behind me. “You forgot your stuff!”
The door closes behind me. It’s started raining since I went inside and it’s picking up. I stuff my hands in my pocket and keep my head low as I walk down the street. It might not be followed by another right now; it might be hoping someone comes running to catch the trail. I can’t be that obvious. I can’t be careless now.
More importantly, this friend of Jonathan’s a problem. I can’t expect him to remain seated and just let me go. Especially since I left stuff behind. He might to follow me and I can’t catch the trail until I’m sure he won’t. If it is a trap, I can’t risk leading him into it.
Another warning rattles my thought. This time, it’s very faint and far off, but it’s the same one. It’s a breadcrumb trail, but it can’t be intended for me. I’ve already gone past where I felt it last and I can barely feel it this time. It’s moving quickly; I’d have no way of keeping up without drawing attention and would normally give up on a trail this far off, even if I could make a guess on where it’s headed.
Someone else has to be following it, and it’s making sure the trail is warm. Whoever you are, let it be. Don’t be this stupid. We can get it later.
“You… forgot this,” he says. He’s obviously quite concerned. What have I gotten myself into?
I take the bag and look at it like I couldn’t care less. Not necessarily acting on my part anymore. I make sure to look appropriately despondent. Hopefully he’ll leave me be.
“Thanks,” I reply in a whisper and keep my eyes on the bag.
“Do you...” he says.
He hesitates, and can’t quite bring himself to finish his sentence. It’s quiet for a second, but he seems to collect himself as I look up from the bag.
“Do you have a ride home?” he asks. “I could take you, if not.”
Every rational thought in my head screams in agony as my lips move on their own.
“That’d be nice. But do you think we could make another stop first?”
God, I am so dumb.
It came as no surprise that he was more than willing to take me. In fact, had I been so inclined he probably would’ve been fine driving me all across town. His car is very familiar, and Jonathan’s body moves comfortably around the interior. From the way the door handle is slightly broken, which I opened without thinking, to the slightly offset height of the passenger seat; it was like I had personally been there many times. I’m getting too close again.
I tell him I don’t know the address, but know the way. I can still feel the warning buzz at the back of my mind as it pops in and out every now and then. More of an itch now than the usual gong, but at least I was headed in the right direction. Jonathan’s friend keeps talking about relationships while he drives. I don’t really respond, but make sure to appear like I was listening. It seems to be enough. It takes maybe 20 minutes before the next pulse causes me to flinch in my seat.
“This is the place.”
The car comes to a careful stop by the curb and Jonathan’s friend looks out the window in disbelief. It is a school, closed for the day and entirely abandoned until tomorrow. Not even the janitorial staff would be left by this time of day. He turns around towards me with a worried expression.
“Are you…” he hesitates. “Here to buy...”
“No,” I say, anticipating his question.
“Because it’s not worth it, you know?” he says.
“I’m not buying drugs,” I insist. “I watched a game and forgot some stuff.”
“A game?” he asks.
“A friend’s son plays football and -- you know what, it doesn’t matter; I’ll be right back okay?”
“Right,” he says, quite relieved. How trusting.
The warning isn’t a pulse anymore. It’s an enormous pressure pushing down on me. I can only assume that the confrontation has started, and I have never felt anything like it. It can’t just be one of them, can it? Regardless, I have to be smart about this. If I get spotted, my cover is blown no matter what. There’s no other reason why I would be here if I wasn’t following the trail. Even if I wasn’t, it was bound to get violent at the sight of me.
I have to pretend until the car is out of sight though. If I start acting strange, Jonathan’s friend might follow me. I walk around the edges of the school, keeping an eye out for any movement or shadows. My eyesight is uncomfortably peaked, and details jump out at me from hundreds of yards away. There has never been a need for my senses to be this active by default. The dread of what I will find is absolutely crippling, and I struggle to suppress the urge to ready myself for battle. If I use magic, even a little, it will know where I am. I can’t announce myself - not having come this far.
The car is out of sight, and I still haven’t spotted a soul. No watcher, and no shadow. The warning doesn’t help, it’s so powerful it seems to come from absolutely everywhere. There is nothing I can do but move forward and keep a look out.
Suddenly there are voices. A conversation is carried on the wind - calm and collected. It doesn’t make any sense, and when I peek around the corner and only see two figures it only made it all the more confusing. They were both men in their 20’s. Short, brown hair, yellow safety jacket and… They are the same. Funny enough, you don’t often see a watcher face his own doppelgänger. We tend to help each other without realising. But why are they talking?
I focus my hearing. It’s impossible to tell the two voices apart. It sounds like the same person talking to himself. I can just about separate the two from what they’re saying.
“I’ve waited so long. This feeling...”
“You won’t get a chance to cherish it.”
Not only is it the same voice, they both sound tortured, struggling to say anything at all. Every sound is an agonised wheezing, like they’re speaking through ruptured lungs. How do I tell them apart?
“Why do you always protect this one?”
“You know how it works - it’s not up to us.”
That has to be him, a watcher wouldn’t care who is targeted.
“I don’t know why.”
“That’s not GOOD ENOUGH!”
Thunder cracks, and the wind explodes into a hurricane. I cling to the wall as best I can to avoid being seen, but it feels though I’m being ripped apart. Not Jonathan, but me. The magic shakes my very soul, threatening to shatter me like glass. I can feel my own magic rattle like a windchime in response. The reaper caress my shoulder, it’s almost time again. But will there be a next time if I die, instead of Jonathan?
“You always take him from me!”
“What do you want? An apology? Just kill me already!”
One of the figures seizes up, as if squeezed by an invisible hand. In fact, as the magic intensifies you can even see the tension in the veil. If I try hard enough, I can see the hand. I’ve come a long way from shadows who play tricks on your mind, this is something new. I kill my instinct to rush in and save my kin, as I would be rushing into death and not much else. There has to be another way to help.
“You’re going to SUFFER! As I have suffered!”
“I hold no sympathies for demons!”
“I was made for him! HIM!”
It dawns on me that they’re not actually identical. The watcher looks like the person normally would, but the doppelgänger is disfigured and damaged. He’s facing away, so I couldn’t see, but with the wind blowing his clothing around there’s no question. He’s missing both arms; one at the elbow and one at the shoulder, and his hairline recedes so far back it’s plain to see he’s missing an ear. How did he get so injured? Doppelgängers heal all wounds.
“You don’t know what it’s like to take someone else. But you will.”
Suddenly all strength fades. The warning is going absolutely crazy in my ears, and numbing my skull. The pressure suddenly squeezes itself around my arms, paralysing me and picking me up from the ground. My feet drag behind me as I’m pulled out from my hiding place. My consciousness fades…
I awake face to face with my kin. I can barely muster the strength to draw breath and my magic is going berserk. I see mostly colours and flashes as my vision abruptly toggles from different ranges of light at random. My ears ring, and I can feel every single strand of hair on my body vibrate as the magic clutches me tighter.
“It won’t be the same, but it’s a start.”
The ringing in my ears gets drowned out for a moment so I can hear my kin scream and his bones crack and snap. Against his will, he’s forced to raise his arm towards me.
“It won’t be the first time I force one of you to kill someone. It’ll just be the first time you kill one of your own.”
Heat starts to emanate from his hand, and I can just barely make out a defiant and pained expression. I should be frightened, but I’m ready for death. I’m ready to draw my first breath without panic. All I regret is how useless I was after all.
“You watchers aren’t so complicated. Add a little pressure in the right places and you do my bidding. You’re my gun. Now kill.”
He screams as his magic builds up. His palm is in flames. This is it. But a voice shakes me out of my stupor, and my composure comes crashing down into panic. Get away, you weren't supposed to be here!
The pressure releases suddenly. As if struck by a bell, my senses snap back to normal just in time to witness my kin just barely managing to wrestle his arm out of the way. The earth explodes as a stream of white fire dives into it, shaking the ground so strongly the windows of the school crack and collapse into shards. I toss my head back and see Jonathan’s friend take cover. There’s no telling what he’s thinking, but at least he remains unharmed. Me and my kin fall to the ground as the doppelgänger reels back.
“No… NO! Not another one!” Its voice quivers with fear.
I finally see his face; contorted by pain, appearing melted and twisted like a smudged painting. The result of all that power. Is this the punishment for gluttony? I’ve seen plenty of them die from starvation, but I can’t imagine it’s better to live like this.
My soul is ablaze in an instant. I’ve never summoned so much power in my life, and I thrust both arms into the creature before another second passes. The flames penetrates him, eviscerating half the football field behind him in a flash. He stumbles back, and stares at the gaping wound in his torso, as blood cascades down his chin. He looks at my kin with a longing and tries to reach for him, as if he still had his arms.
“No… Not now...!” He cries.
Tears streams down his face, and I still recognise that expression. There’s nothing there except sadness and desperation; what a pitiful state. His form flashes white and in an instant, all that power is released. A pillar of fire consumes him and the explosion tears him to shreds and sends me flying. There’s a sudden impact before the darkness takes me.
Something shakes me. From within the dark, I can feel my body sway back and forth. As I start to come to, the ringing in my ears slowly returns, masking the words of the frightened man shaking my limp body. The warning is finally silent. I open my eyes as much as I am still able, and see Jonathan’s friend in a panic above me.
“Jonathan!” he shouts.
I can just about hear him. His enthusiasm is hindered by something. As the pain starts to come back, I can imagine why he hesitates. Joy turns to desperation. He tries to figure out how to pick me up without moving me, and just ends up upsetting himself more and more.
He leans leans in to hear me.
“What… is… your name?” I ask.
He’s about to start crying. He puts a hand on my shoulder.
“It’s Patrick! Remember?” he says.
“Patrick… Nice… to meet... you.”
As grim starts to pull me away, everything fades to black, but I can still hear the crying. I wish I could’ve been your friend Patrick, and I’m sorry I took yours. I really am. The pain eventually subsides, as my wounds claim Jonathan’s life.
I draw the first breath. The ceiling above me is freshly painted white. The rough grass and gravel field is replaced with silken sheets and pillows. I lie next to someone in bed. This time, I’m a woman.