“From having been an assurance of immortality, [the Doppelgänger] became the ghostly harbinger of death.”
–Sigmund Freud (trans. Alix Strachey), The Uncanny
25 February 2010: Ithaca, New York
The fading sun cast shadows of birch and maple across the pristine snow. To the north, Seneca Lake, long since frozen over, luminesced in faint rhythmic pulses. The air was calm. There were no birds.
Several colored pencils sat before me on the table: green. scarlet, royal blue. A blank sheet of off-white paper stared up at me. I had been sitting in the music library for two hours, filling only a modest number of pages with clock faces, mathematical operations, and other notations, none of which were of any use. My concerto was at a standstill. I pushed back from the table. My leg throbbed. Outside, the shadows of the trees had lengthened; more snow had begun to fall.
As I packed up, a familiar scent, floral and subtle, wafted from behind. A humming pool of electricity coalesced over my shoulder, and trickled down my arm. It was her, The Shade.
Do you work tonight? Her whisper, a hushed remnant of humanity, left me transfixed.
“I haven’t heard yet,” I faltered, “the storm…”
Her perfume receded. The energy dissipated. I turned around. A strand of blonde hair disappeared into the stacks of musical scores. My mobile started to vibrate. The restaurant. I answered after the first ring.
“We need you tonight,” said the floor manager.
“But this nor’easter, Snowicane, whatever. They’re saying eighteen inches by morning. It’s an hour –”
“Be here by five.” He hung up.
Shadows stitched the landscape. The storm intensified.
Ninety minutes later, I was polishing Sterling silverware. Lesson plans, my violin concerto, thoughts of The Shade – they formed an abstract tableau splashed across a canvas of pain. Distant footfalls of other servers were felt more than heard as they checked for spots, chips, and cracks in the glassware. Paula was lighting the paraffin lamps. I remember watching a lone couple stop, hand-in-hand, beneath an iron lamppost. They are enveloped by long, white winter cloaks, faces concealed by shadow. I feel as though I have seen them before: the way they hold hands, her sheer black scarf and champagne hair. The man wraps his arm around the woman, and disappears into the storm. The woman stares at me for several seconds. Her mouth moves as though she is speaking. I gasp, and back away from the window. The tarnished fork I had been polishing dropped to the floor.
Paula glanced at my leg. “You going to get that fork, hon? Or do you need me to help?”
“Could you…?” I replied.
“Sure.” Paula grabbed the heavy fork and handed it back to me. I stuck it into my apron pocket and promptly replaced it with one I had brought from the kitchen. “What’d you see out there, hon?” she asked.
I inhaled sharply and offered her a blank stare. She looked at me curiously. My attention once again shifted outdoors. The woman had vanished. My hand brushed against the bottle of Vicodin in my pants pocket.“I’m not exactly…” I said, unable to conceal the incertitude that lie within. “The blonde woman again. From the night of my accident.”
“Mm. Last time you saw her out there…” Paula gestured toward my leg, the blue stabilizer. I unscrewed the bottle in my pocket. She left me to peer through the window. A car pulled into the parking lot. The night began.
“The roads are just awful,” my last customer would tell me, glancing at her phone. 10:30. “They’ve already started to close roads from here to Ithaca and Syracuse. Good luck…”
After she had left, I shrugged on my peacoat and began to defrost my MINI Cooper. The temptation of seeing The Shade loitered in the back of my mind, spurring me onward.
“You good to drive?” Paula yelled from atop the fire escape. Orange-tinged sodium lamps formed a brilliant corona around her silhouette.
“Should be!” I continued to release the MINI from the snow drift.
“I don’t know… you sure? Looked like you hit your meds pretty hard tonight. What was it… one when you got here, one later?” She was not incorrect: I had, indeed, floated through the evening. I reached into my pocket, gripped the bottle, shook it. Pills bounced, resounded. I tipped the plastic, burnt umber container plastered with warnings – May cause fainting, confusion, or fear. May impair ability to drive or operate machinery. Use caution while performing tasks requiring mental awareness. – into my hand.
“I’m fine!” I said, placing the pill under my tongue: I had neither the time nor the patience for pain. The bottle slipped back into my pocket. A curtain of blowing snow descended around Paula. Her head appeared to float, and tilt to the left, lingering momentarily before going inside. I checked my mobile: Her messages – where had they gone? I looked up – there, in the funeral home’s backyard, her profile: white cloak, blonde hair, sheer black scarf. The same woman I had seen earlier that evening. I blinked. Now she was just a few feet before me, eyes frigid, charged with luminous splinters of ultramarine. She stared at me, imploringly. My grip on the steering wheel tightened; leather creaked in protest. It was her. It was The Shade. Her mouth formed a single word: ‘Don’t.’ Unable to meet her eyes any longer, I turned away, though her charmed gaze continued to haunt my imagination. She can’t be here. I shook my head before I opened my eyes. She had vanished once again. My phone dinged:
– Are you coming? I want to see youuu… – Ava.
– 90 minutes – Me. My eyes toggled between the handheld’s screen and the icy road.
A half hour later, I pulled onto the shoulder of the two-lane highway, and got out of the car. Sleet and windshield-washer fluid had frozen the wipers to the glass. I chipped away at them with the blue ice scraper, and used clean snow from the side of the road to remove grime from my windows. Yellow warning lights of an approaching tow-truck glimmered into view, frozen hardpack groaned under its tires; it did not slow down. In the dirty, hoary cloud the truck left in its wake, a silhouette, backlit by innumerable drops of irradiated freezing rain, stood atop a viaduct.
“Hello,” I shouted. “Do you need help?”
There was no response. The figure’s arms hung limply at its side. Forty feet.
Cautiously, I began to move unsteadily toward the still frame, my palms held open for it to see – “Are you alright?” – only to be met by the sound of falling ice. Twenty-five feet.
“Do you need help?” I called out a third time. At last, a very deliberate shake of the head. Long, disheveled black hair – a stark contrast to her pure, white garments – flowed in a broken cascade down rounded shoulders toward a waist that seemed to fade from view. Something about her was unnatural. When I saw her, it felt as though my lungs had been removed. A sudden squall obscured her. I stopped, rooted at the base of the viaduct, the steel truss moaning as the wind lashed it. My body shivered. Tiny beads of ice in my hair had begun to melt, and a cold, bitter trickle of water ran down my neck.
– How much longer? – Ava.
– Maybe an hour. Weather’s bad. – Me.
I pressed onward, turning up the stereo to drown out the sound of ice pelting the car’s thin sheet metal skin. Lil’ Jon, Ke$ha, Britney. A small, brown weasel ran out in front of me; I stomped on the brakes. The MINI was sent into an erratic 50 foot skid that swerved across both lanes of the road. I switched off the radio. No more distractions. Lights of a distant truck approached rapidly. My wheels spun, unable to grip the obliterated asphalt. Closer. I flashed the lights. And closer. My horn blared. Closer still. No choice. I threw the driver’s side door open; the oncoming headlights disappeared, the imminent impact never arrived. I listened for the sound of the truck’s engine, its tires on the snow, any noise at all. Silence. And then:
– Come on! Where are youuu – Ava.
I grabbed the blue ice-scraper, and dug the car out. There were no signs of the weasel. No footprints, no blood. Nothing. My eyes were sore, and had begun to see grainy spots when they were shut. Maybe you should have stayed in Binghamton. Maybe then you could have had a decent night’s rest.
I shook my head to clear it – I felt fractured.
Third county of three: Broome, Tioga, and now Tompkins. I had begun to ascend a long, steep hill. Fog had grown dense; the precipitation, a peculiar mixture of fine globules and sleet. Farmland to the right of me burned with an ethereal dark flame; the forest to the left appeared impenetrable. The MINI stopped its ascent about two-thirds of the way up the hill. I panicked, and pounded the steering wheel with my fists. The itchy wool of my wet peacoat rubbed against my neck. I sucked in my breath. Why is she here? The figure I had seen atop the viaduct had materialized ten feet before me, face devoid of emotion, skin a sickly pallid green. Dark water streamed from the ends of her knotted hair , and her breath froze in the air. Snow fell. The engine idled. Without warning she launched forward, mouth open wide, a bony finger pointed at me that seemed to declare: ‘I know who you are – I know what you are going to do.’ Horrified, I lifted my foot off of the brake,. The car slid backward. The woman dissolved. Like she was just another part of the storm. After composing myself, I finished my pilgrimage to Ithaca.
– Here. – Me.
– OMFG. Finallyyy! – Ava.
My eyes flitted down to my phone: The Shade… She still hadn’t texted? Is she already here? I stepped out into the storm, and slammed the door shut. The sheet of ice which had accumulated on the hood of the car shattered. Wind cut through the barren trees, boughs straining under the weight of the blizzard. I planted my feet in the snow and contemplated the three-way stop before me: sleep in my office, find a hotel room, or curl up in my car. Eyes closed; exhalation. Time to leave.
“Hi!” cried Ava. Her white teeth sparkled. “I was so worried about you.”
“Hey…” I replied, clearing my throat. “You wouldn’t believe what I saw. Crazy.”
Ava studied my face closely for a moment. She winced:
“Probably the, well, you know…” She nabbed the bag from my hand. I massaged my thigh as my mind played through the night’s images: The Shade’s warning, the truck, that… woman. Maybe it was the storm. Or maybe Ava was right. I bit my lip. “Bad night again, huh?” she asked.
“You look nice,” I said, wanting to change the topic. “New shirt? Teal is good on you.”
“Thanks, it’s Charlotte’s,” said Ava, “I took it from her drawer since she’s out with her boyfriend. It was, like, calling to me.” The loose-fit sateen shimmered in the stiff breeze. “Let’s get you inside – your coat’s still open.” I glanced at my car. Last chance. “You coming?” Ava looked at the car key in my hand before walking toward the brilliantly lit glass-and-steel conservatory. I followed her inside.
Voices reverberated throughout the interior – “Dude, I heard we’re getting two feet by morning.” “No class tomorrow!” “Wanna go skiing? Greek Peak’ll be sweet…” – it was a true heterophonic echo chamber – “Check out this pic he sent. So lame.” “Let’s go back to my room and blaze it, bro.” “So, me and my friend were wondering…” A lone female custodian, middle-aged with bad posture, pushed a dust mop along the tile floor. She glanced at her watch and gave us a suspicious look as we passed.
“Tutoring session,” I said. The greying custodian shrugged, and moved her push cart away. I opened my office door. Ava tossed my bag aside; it hit the office floor with a dull thump. I shrugged out of my peacoat, and sat down behind the harpsichord keyboard. I had left its lid, with its elaborate depiction of unblinking, contorted angels and demons and specters engaged in a phantasmagoric bacchanal, propped open that morning. Careless. She peeked at me as I began to play through a passage from my violin concerto.
“It’s so cold out there,” Ava said.
I shrugged, cringing as one of my fingers landed on a wrong note. “It was.”
“You know, I could…” Ava began. She moved abruptly, spun me around, and pinned me to the door. It slammed shut behind us. “…this…” she said. Her eyes, large and round, were inches from my own. Our lips met, her warm fingertips touched either side of my jaw, small noises emanated from deep within her chest. I felt her quick pulse as she surged against my body. She – sweet cherries, spearmint gum, and the beach – overswept me.
Did I want it?
Ava’s controlled frenetic energy was a force that I could not understand, yet could not help but desire. As the blood rushed to my lips, the breath was sucked from my lungs. Everything toward which I had worked escaped me, traded for a soupçon of cherry lip-gloss. She pulled away, eyes closed, satisfaction worn as an opaque veil.
“That was, like, amazing…” she whispered. I stared off to the left. My leg hurt. I needed sleep. This is as far as you will ever get. I pulled the bottle from my pocket. Ava looked at it and then back up at my face, her eyes, dejected. She kissed my cheek, brushed the back of my hand with her fingertips, and popped the door open. “I’ll see you in class tomorrow. Get some sleep.”
The door shut.
Motionless, quiet minutes passed before I shook the pill bottle. Another. I shut off the office light, and wrapped my body in the harpsichord’s quilted shell. I desperately needed to feel warm. My phone flickered to life:
– A state of emergency… It shut off.
– Can’t stop thinking about you… – Ava. I didn’t answer.
– A Blizzard Warning has been declared…
– All classes will be cancelled…
Cold, slate-tinted light from my mobile’s screen compelled the gilt images on the harpsichord lid to play games with one another, and dance to soundless music. They stopped. They turned to watch me. Text messages loitered overhead, where their letters fused and broke apart. Air, thick with recent memory, congealed into a brackish miasma, densely knit clouds from which shards of light, gelid as they were sharp, exploded, etching themselves into the sound-proof walls before fading from existence. Angels and demons stared at me from their keyboard perch, and judged what I had done. The specters retreated above their clouds. My mind flashed back to that single word, a word mouthed hours before:
The thought of The Shade’s solicitous blue eyes did nothing to comfort me. A heaviness sank into my chest as the clouds solidified, and descended closer to my face. Cold, hollow ooze bedaubed my body. Silence. Blackness. The atmosphere of death. Amidst that oppressive mist filled with broken letters and kisses of decay loomed the pained visage of the snow woman. She screamed without a voice. The life within her eyes faded, putrified to black. The person I was – had always aspired to be – died on the floor of my office, terrified. Deluded. Alone.
Brian Vlasak holds a Ph.D. in music composition from the University of Iowa. Presently, Dr. Vlasak is an MFA candidate at Emerson College, where they study creative nonfiction, work as a stagehand, and keep a daily quote journal. Oh. And tweet – @brianvlasak.