{Christmas Feature/Exclusive Fiction} Merry Christmas, Other You: Tabatha Wood

Merry Christmas, Other You

By Tabatha Wood

Theres a ruckus in the kitchen. I can hear it from outside the house. Crashing and banging, wailing and shrieking. It takes me a second to realise that its music. Loud, punk rock music.

I stumble through the front door. Toss my car keys onto the table in the hallway. I can’t hear them land above the din. The kitchen door is open. Ive got a clear view of what’s going on. My housemates, Sandra and Tiny, are dancing like theyve been possessed, and yelling the lyrics to the song.

Vanian’s got a visit from a guy named Drac

Says he’s from the blood bank wants his 10 pints back

Singer’s rather sickly when it rains it pours —

Oh no, there ain’t no Sanity Clause…

Sandra uses the long glass pepper grinder as a pretend microphone. Tiny drums on upturned saucepans with two wooden spoons. They dont notice me standing in the doorway. I watch them for a moment; in their heads theyre probably onstage somewhere, performing in front of an adoring, moshing crowd. Tiny lifts the spoons aloft, prepares to administer another deafening crash, then finally notices me. He kills the music.

Alright, mate…he begins with a grin. His face is flushed. I see the empty beer bottles on the counter top.

Youll have the neighbours complaining again.I tell him curtly.

Aww. Fuck ‘em!He replies. It’s Christmas.”

Its also nearly midnight.

Sandra comes over to wrap me in a hug. I sidestep.

Not now, Sands. Im tired.I look around the room. Theres dirty pots piled up in the sink. Pizza boxes balanced by the back door. The rubbish bin is stuffed so full its spewing its contents across the Lino floor. I thought you guys were going to clear up today? Katy is coming round on Christmas Day, remember?

Tiny groans. Oh yeah. Sorry mate. We were busy.

Busy doing what?

They share a guilty glance. Sandra curls her arm in mine.

My fertility tracker showed that today was a good time to… you know. We could have a Christmas baby. Like Jesus!She flashes a lopsided, slightly drunken, smile.

You know thats not… oh, never mind. So basically, the house is still a tip because you two have been shagging all day?Sandra nods. Tiny grins again.

And drinking?

We only had a few,Tiny says. A fewbeing around six each, if the bottles are any indication.

Have you two given any thought to where youll live, if and when a baby comes?I ask them, picking up the empties and placing them in the recycling box. Its already crammed full. I squeeze them in as best I can.

Well, babies are small,Sandra says. We kind of thought wed be alright staying here, at least at first.

I sigh. Theyre drunk and Im exhausted. Theres little point getting into this now.

Yeah. I think its something well have to talk about at some point. Right now, Im going to bed. Works nearly killed me.

Busy day at the pub, mate?Tiny asks. I look up at him. He can be such an idiot.

Tiny, two days before Christmas. What do you think? I was only supposed to be on the bloody lunch shift.I push past them and head down the hallway to my room. As I close the door I hear the music start up again.

Oh no, there ain’t no Sanity Clause

Oh no, there ain’t no Sanity Clause!

I groan, thinking ahead to tomorrow and beyond. Another, no doubt ridiculously busy, shift at the pub. A whole house to clean. Christmas dinner to make for my girlfriend. Shit, I need to buy her a present too.

I flop on the bed and stick my head under the pillow to drown out the din.

I wish Santa would bring me a clone for Christmas,I whisper to myself, before my eyelids slide shut and I fall unconscious.

I’m awoken at 8 by the doorbell. I haul myself out bed, still wearing yesterdays clothes. I stink of deep-fried food and stale sweat. I trip over a pair of jeans in the hall. Tinys probably, discarded in a moment of passion. Theyre about as big as a small tent. Homeless people could live in them. His nickname is an unoriginal misnomer.

The doorbell rings again.

Alright, alright. Im coming.

The door is unlocked, clearly my housemates forgot to check it, but at least the security chain is on. I open it as wide as the chain will allow. Yeah?

A man in a red and white delivery company uniform stands on the other side, a massive cardboard box on a hand truck next to him.

Riley Emerson?

Yeah?I answer, cautiously. Whos asking?

I’ve got a delivery here for you from KringleTech. Will you sign?

KringleTech? Ive not bought anything from there.

Its got your name on it. Its for you.

But…”

Its for you,the delivery guy says deliberately. He thrusts a clipboard at me through the gap. Im barely awake, and my eyes are half stuck together with crusted rheum. Most of the words on the form make no sense, but I see my name at the bottom and a place for me to sign. The delivery guy passes me a pen. Red metal edged with white glitter. An unusual choice. As I hold it my hands feel strange, as if its vibrating somehow. I sign on the line. The ink is a deep red too.

I pass the pen and form back and notice a tiny drop of blood on the end of my finger. Weird. I must have caught it on something. I put it to my lips and suck it away.

Right then,the delivery guy says. I’m going to need you to open the door so I can wheel this in. Where do you want it?

I think for a moment. The house is a trash heap. The only clean room is mine.

Follow me,I tell him, and slip the chain from the catch. He manoeuvres the trolley over the doorstep, kicks the forgotten jeans out of his way, and brings the box into my room. He struggles a little, getting it onto the carpet. I go to help, but he waves me away.

No, no. I’ve got it.He straightens it, making sure the arrows painted on the box are facing the right way up. There you are then. Merry Christmas.I thank him and reply in kind, realising with a jolt that today is Christmas Eve. Shit. I still need to get a present for Katy, and do some grocery shopping. My next shift at the pub starts at 11. Im going to need a miracle to get it all done in time.

I walk him to the door and lock it behind him, then go back to my room and inspect the box.

Its massive. As big as I am. Maybe its a gift from Katy come early, or possibly from my mother. She loves shopping online. If its a Christmas gift maybe I should wait and open it tomorrow, but I dont really want this giant box taking up all my floor space. I don’t have much as it is.

Theres a delivery note folded up and attached to the box in a clear plastic envelope. I slip it out and read it. It’s unenlightening.

KringleTech are proud to fulfil your recent Christmas wish. Full instructions are inside the box. No refunds, replacements or returns.

No clues as to what’s inside, or who has sent it to me. I guess theres nothing for it but to open the box.

I use the sharp-toothed edge of my house key to slice the sellotape. Theres a lot of it, and it takes a few passes to cut through it all. I tug at the cardboard flaps and pull them open. Polystyrene peanuts spill from inside and gather in piles on the floor. I give the box one final wrench and it reveals its contents.

My heart skips a beat.

What. The. Fuck?

Inside, wrapped in a layer of thin, transparent plastic, is me. Or at least, a terrifyingly accurate copy of me. Dressed in a simple white T-shirt and shorts, its eyes are closed and its hands hang loosely by its sides. It looks calm and serene, like it is sleeping.

A sheaf of papers flutter to my feet. I pick them up; dry-mouthed, hands shaking. Its an instruction manual.

The Other You, the words on the cover proclaim. Designed for all your needs. I flip it open to the first page.

Getting started.

Remove all packaging from your Other You and stand one meter apart from the unit, with your body facing it. Your eyes should be level with each other. Reach out with your right hand and touch the upper chest area of the unit, approximately where the heart should be. State your full name loudly and clearly and the unit will begin to operate.

I chew my lip, unsure how to proceed. This has to be some stupid joke. And an expensive one at that. Was this a bit of fun from Katy? Maybe something kinky she wanted to try out? Id heard they could make super realistic sex dolls these days. I didnt know you could have them customised.

I start tearing the cellophane from the Other Me. Im not sure why, maybe because it seems even creepier seeing something with my face all wrapped up in plastic like that. When it’s free from the packaging, I stand in front of it, inspecting all the details.

It has the scar on my eyebrow where I cut my head open in a cycling accident as a kid. A mole on my chin matching the one I have. A hole in its left ear where I used to have an earring. It is unnervingly exact.

I reach out to touch it on its arm. Its soft and slightly warm. It doesnt feel like any kind of plastic Ive encountered. It feels like skin.

Okay. Maybe I should call Sandra and Tiny in here? See what they think of this? Maybe they knew about it all along. Maybe theyre in on the joke. Fuck it. I read the instructions one more time and place my palm on the Other Mes chest.

Riley Emerson,I say clearly. And the Other Me’s eyes snap open.

I come to lying on my bed, still in yesterdays clothes. The cardboard box is empty, the Other Me is nowhere to be seen.

I hear voices outside my room and scramble to the door. I pause a moment before I open it, listening. I can hear Sandra talking to someone. A voice replies. It sounds like me. Im just about to rush out and see for myself when my bedroom door swings open and the Other Me steps inside. It closes the door and smiles.

Good morning, Riley,it says with my voice. I’ve done all the chores around the house, and Ive got the groceries in ready for tomorrow. Im going to go to work now. Perhaps you can go shopping for a gift for Kate?

My mouth flaps open and closed like a fish. I dont know what to say.

It’s okay, Riley,” the Other Me continues. I’ve got everything under control.

Did… did Sandra see you?I ask shakily.

Yes. We had the most lovely conversation. She even helped me take the rubbish bags out.

How did she…? Did she not realise you werent me?

But I am you, Riley. Im your Other You. Im the clone you asked for, for Christmas. And KringleTech has obliged.

Jesus Christ! I didnt..! I didnt ask for this.

But you did. KringleTech are always listening to peoples wishes, and are always very happy to grant them. You were very lucky. Your wish came in quite late. Another few minutes and you might have missed the cut-off time. Your wish came through at twelve seconds to Christmas Eve. So lucky.

I dont feel very lucky right now. I feel majorly weirded out.

Anyway, Im going to do your shift at the pub. Youll have lots of time to shop for Katy. A little bird told me that she would quite like that gold and garnet ring you both saw. In the jewellery shop at the back of the mall. You know, when you went for tacos together last Wednesday?

The Other Me grabs my sneakers from the end of the bed, puts them on and starts lacing them up. Its wearing my clothes, I notice. The black and white checked trousers I wear in the pub kitchen, twinned with a fitted, black T-shirt. I watch it silently, dumbstruck with fear. How does it know about the ring? What I did weeks ago? Before I can pull myself together enough to ask, it stands up and claps me on the shoulder.

I’ll see you later, Riley. Im sure youd rather that we are not seen together, at least for now. Leave your bedroom window unlatched. Ill come in that way later on. Easier than coming down the chimney!It laughs and leaves the bedroom. I hear it say goodbye to Sandra and the front door shuts with a bang.

Now what? I can hardly go out there and get breakfast now. Ill have to forgo a shower too. I dont want to tell my housemates just yet. I dont even know what Im going to say when I do.

I listen at the door. It doesnt sound like Tiny is up yet, the noises only sound like one person. Footsteps pad on the carpet down the hallway. Sandra going back to her bedroom. I wait. I hear the catch click shut. I open my bedroom door a crack, listening in case she comes back out, and I hear bedsprings creaking in the distance. She’ll be a while.

The house is spotless. Other Me has done an outstanding job. It even smells lovely for once. I wonder how long I was out cold for. The clock in the lounge reads 10:45. Other Me has taken my car. It’s probably starting my shift by now.

I grab a banana from the fruit bowl and a packet of cookies from the cupboard. The fridge is well stocked. Other Me has bought a leg of ham, and plenty of veggies to go with it. There is a black forest gateaux in the freezer, and chocolate-dipped profiteroles. Both puddings are Katy’s favourites. I don’t want to know how it knows this.

There are sex noises coming from Sandra and Tiny’s room, but I don’t want to risk them hearing me. I dash back to my bedroom, get changed and leave the house. I’ve got a special Christmas present to buy.

The day is amazing. I’ve not felt so relaxed in months. Despite the ridiculous number of last-minute shoppers, me being one of them, I feel calm and happy to spend time in the crowds. The ring Katy liked is still in the store. It’s expensive, as much as a month’s rent. I buy it and put the balance on my credit card. I think I deserve to splurge a bit. Katy deserves it for sure. The shop assistant asks me if I’m going to, “pop the question?” I hadn’t really thought about it. We’ve been together for nearly two years. I wonder if I should?

Sandra and Tiny think I’m at work, so I stay out as long as I can. I go to a pub on the other side of the city, so I won’t bump into anyone I know. I down a few beers and think for a while. The Other Me came as quite a shock, but maybe it’s not a bad thing after all.

I think of all the things I can get done now. The holidays I’ve been meaning to take. I can write the book I’ve been planning for years. Read the ones cluttering up my shelves. I can go to the beach whenever I want. I could even go back to university. Other Me can handle all the crappy stuff. I won’t ever have to work or clean up someone else’s mess again.

Yes, this might just be the best surprise Christmas present ever.

I’m deep in thought when my mobile rings. I don’t recognise the number on the screen.

Hello?” I answer.

No,” comes the reply. It’s my voice.

What?”

I know what you’ve been thinking, and the answer is no.” The Other Me sounds annoyed.

What are you talking about?”

I’m not here so you can slack off, Riley. This needs to be an equal relationship.” I look quickly around the pub. Checking the groups sitting at the tables, the punters propping up the bar. Is it here? Has it been watching me?

What a minute, how do you know what I’ve been thinking?”

My Emotional Conduit. But that’s irrelevant. I’m not your slave. I’m not going to do all the shit jobs you hate while you go and have all the fun. You know how that feels.”

Okay, okay. That’s fair. What…”

And I want equal time with Katy.”

Hell, no!” I grip the handset tightly.

Hell, yes. I love her too, you know.”

No, no. You’re a clone. You’re not me. You don’t get anything with my girlfriend.”

Our girlfriend.”

Mine!” I yell, aware that people around me are staring. “Look, we will discuss this later. Finish your shift and meet me at the back of the pub.”

Your shift.”

Whatever. Meet me at the back at 11, okay?” There is a brief silence on the other end.

Fine. I’ll see you later.”

I hang up, trying not to think too hard about anything, disconcerted by the idea that Other Me can read my thoughts.

I wait in the alleyway behind the pub at 11. There’s music coming from inside. Punk rock. I wonder if Tiny and Sandra are in there. It sounds like their kind of thing.

Merry Christmas, I don’t wanna fight tonight

Merry Christmas, I don’t wanna fight tonight

Merry Christmas, I don’t wanna fight tonight with you…

It meets me just like it said it would, but it arrives much later. By the look on its face, it’s pretty stressed. I can see by the myriad food stains on its trousers that it’s had a busy shift. I know how it must feel.

Hi,” I begin, awkwardly. “We should probably come out of the light a bit. Make sure no one sees us.”

It nods and follows me to the massive steel garbage bins, where the glare of the street lamp can’t reach.

So, this is awkward, eh? I’m sorry about, you know, what I was thinking earlier.”

It glowers at me. Its irises shimmer with a flash of silver. I wonder what’s hidden behind those eyes. A reflection from the distant streetlight, or some circuitry shining from within?

It was rude of you,” it says, slowly. “Disrespectful.”

Yeah, I realise that now. I guess I wasn’t, you know…”

Thinking of me as a real person?”

I scoff. “Well, you’re not. Are you?”

I’m you, Riley.”

Yeah, but… You’re not really me. You’re just a clone of me. A clone I didn’t even ask for. You’re… well, you’re a bit of an inconvenience really.”

So, I’ve gone from ‘best Christmas present ever’ to ‘inconvenience’? Despite everything I’ve done for you so far?”

Oh, Jesus. Look, I just want to solve this. Maybe I can call up KringleTech and tell them there’s been a mistake?”

No refunds, replacements or returns.” It says. “You remember reading that, right?”

I do. Bollocks.

So what then? Can we just, think things over for a while? I don’t know. Maybe I can get you in a hotel somewhere and we can sort this out after Christmas?”

Let me be clear about this. While you spend time with our girlfriend Katy, and our friends, Sandra and Tiny, I spend Christmas alone? Is that what you’re saying?”

I’m irritated. I’m a bit sick of this Other Me now. “She’s not our girlfriend. She’s my girlfriend. Get that into your head.”

I feel the same way about her as you do,” it snaps. “I know what she likes and dislikes. I know how she feels and she smells. I know how she likes to take her tea. The little mewling sound she makes when you touch her in just the right place…”

No! Enough! You’re a fucking clone. You’re not me. Katy and I have been together years. You’ve been around less than a day.” The Other Me chuckles.

I saw her today, you know? Our Katy. She’s so beautiful. She came into the pub while I was on my break. She can’t tell the difference. She thought she was meeting you. She hugged me and we kissed a little. She told me that she loves me. I told her that I love her too.”

Shut the fuck up!” I spit back, furious. “You better stay well away from my girlfriend in future! Or I’ll make goddamn sure you do!”

The Other Me leans in close and hisses into my face.

Our. Girlfriend.”

I go to push it away and it grabs my wrists before I can make contact. Of course it does. It knows exactly what I plan to do at the same time as I do. Its grip is tight, far tighter than I was expecting. I guess I was right and underneath that soft pasty skin is some kind of robot endoskeleton.

I knee it squarely in the groin and it feels like I’ve smacked into a truck. My kneecap crunches. I cry out and it headbutts me in the nose. I see a million, glorious sparkly stars before the pain kicks in.

Katy is our girlfriend, Riley. You can’t change that and you can’t keep her from me. I have all your thoughts and memories. Everything you’ve done together. I might not have been here physically, but in my head and heart, I’ve been here years. I love her, Riley, just like you do. I would do anything for her.” It pauses for a moment, thinking. “In fact, you’re right. We don’t need to share her if we don’t want to. Katy can be my girlfriend after all.”

It hits me in the chest with a heavy fist, so solid it could be concrete. I feel my ribs shatter. It’s hard to breath. Like I’m a lung short. It smashes into me again, this time in the side of my head. My eyeballs and teeth rattle like marbles, rolling around in my skull.

My girlfriend, Riley. Mine!” It puts a hand to my throat and starts to squeeze. My vision starts to fade. I feel it rummaging in my jacket pocket for the ring I bought Katy earlier. I hear a metallic clang as it flips back the garbage bin lid. It lifts me high into the air. My heart, once racing, stutters and slows. I feel my bladder relax and open. Warm liquid runs down my leg.

All this over a stupid Christmas wish. Fucking KringleTech.

Merry Christmas, Riley,” my Other Me says cheerfully. “Sorry it’s your last.”

I hear the church bells tolling in the distance, Midnight Mass ringing in the new day. It hurls me, broken, wheezing and weak, into my metal coffin.

Don’t worry, I’ll take good care of Katy.” It winks and slams the lid.

Tabatha Wood

Tabatha Wood lives in New Zealand and writes weird, dark fiction and uplifting poetry. Despite her obsession with the strange and unusual, she considers herself mostly harmless, although she does take great delight in shocking people with her stories every chance she can get.

A former English teacher and library manager, Tabatha’s first published books were non-fiction guides aimed at people working in education. She now teaches from home while writing in her spare time.

She released her debut collection, “Dark Winds Over Wellington: Chilling Tales of the Weird & the Strange” in March 2019. Since then she has had stories published in the charity anthology “Tricksters Treats 3, Seven Deadly Sins” and in “Guilty Pleasures and Other Dark Delights”. She also has two stories in the upcoming December issues of horror/dark fiction magazines, Midnight Echo #14 and Breach #12.

Tabatha is the lead editor in a team of twelve for the “Black Dogs, Black Tales” anthology. The collection aims to raise money and awareness for the Mental Health Foundation of New Zealand and will be published by ’Things In The Well Press’ in 2020.

Twitter @meringutang

Website www.tabathawood.com

Facebook https://www.facebook.com/tlwood.wordweaver/

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