Stranger

It wasn’t cold in the house but Martin was shaking uncontrollably, locked in the bathroom. His pill vial was in his hand, the ridges on the cap digging into his fingers. He welcomed the discomfort. It grounded him and kept his head in reality. Taking the pills would dull him, and though he knew it would feel better at first he couldn’t afford to be dull.
He avoided the mirror, plagued by the fear that if he looked into it he would be sucked in and devoured the same way the house had already devoured his wife. The creature it left behind might look like her but it wasn’t her. It wasn’t Janice.

Martin knew Janice. He had spent hours staring at her before he ever worked up the courage to talk to her, and knew every crease in her face that had been folded there by their marriage. It just wasn’t Janice.

The children didn’t see any difference. They were five and seven, too young to see that their mother had changed, especially since she’d disappeared when they were babies. When she had come back they were overjoyed to see her, crawling into her lap and not asking where she had been or why she had gone. They didn’t see that her smile was just a little off, that her hair was a little too blonde, that her laugh was different. The hair he could let go because she could have dyed it but the other things were just wrong enough to stick in his mind.

At first he had wanted to believe she was back too. He’d hugged her that night, kissed her and even made love to her while the children were at his mother’s house. But when he’d seen her with the children, that was when he knew something was off. Now he felt sick thinking about the affection he’d shown her, or the ghost of her that had taken her place in the house.

Then, several months later when he was starting to believe that it was his mind playing tricks on him, she had changed again.

This time it was far more subtle. A hint of freckles on her nose that he could have sworn weren’t there two weeks earlier, hair that appeared to be one or two inches longer overnight, nails that were a little longer than he remembered. Just enough to make his mind hurt and trigger a panic attack like the one that had caused him to retreat to the bathroom with his medication in hand. That time she had comforted him, put an alien arm around him and said that things would be okay. It had made him want to scream but he couldn’t recoil from her. He had taken the pills then. He wouldn’t do it this time.

She had changed again.

The woman who was making him dinner was different than she had been the day before. He knew it as surely as he knew his name. Somehow she looked the same in the photographs that lined the hall, holding the children and smiling, and that was what made his mind hurt the worst. If she wasn’t the same, why did the pictures change with her? What was going on? He flushed the toilet, hoping she would hear it and not suspect.

“I’m not crazy,” he said just loud enough for himself to hear over the rushing of the water in the sink. “It’s her that’s wrong, not me.” Martin set the bottle of pills on the counter and washed his hands but kept an eye on them in case they disappeared. Things had been disappearing and reappearing lately too. A call of “Dinner!” startled him, and the face he saw in the mirror looked like a trapped animal.

Warning bells were going off in his head. She wanted him to eat dinner. That meant she might have put something in his food. His food and the children’s. He threw open the door and ran down the hall.

She was standing by the stove dishing out spaghetti, and he leapt forward. The imposter cringed as if he was jumping at her, but he knew better. Instead he grabbed the food and flung it on the floor. She was talking but he couldn’t hear over the ringing in his ears.

Safe. He was safe. The children were safe. For now.

 

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