Dystopia Chapter 26

From the Story Arc: Dystopia

Previous Story in the Arc: Dystopia Chapter 22 by Krasniy Zakat (Friday, August 25, 2006)

Next Story in the Arc: Dystopia Chapter 23 by Krasniy Zakat (Tuesday, August 29, 2006)

(posted Sunday, August 27, 2006)

For a long while, there was no sound.

Sofia stood frozen in front of the great reinforced door, trying to listen inside. All doors on the stairwell were similarly sturdy; heavy duty locks, thick frames of metal, barely concealed by patterned upholstery, or thin wood paneling. She cast a furtive look about her again, hoping that no neighbour will manifest himself – or, more likely, herself – on the platform just then to see her, presumably, shyly knocking on her own door.

There was still no response from the apartment’s interior. It was not unreasonable; Sofia-the-local could be at work, wherever that was, shopping, out to see a movie or on vacation by the Black Sea. Well… not likely the latter. If she were similarly alone, she would not want to go anywhere much. Most likely the otherworldly copy of herself was, at least, similar in disposition. She imagined for one horrible moment the eternity of moments, all dragging endlessly without an end in sight, of life without Alex and felt herself grow cold. For twenty years the one went part and parcel with the other. Even before that, as they grew consistently closer it was almost impossible to imagine facing the world alone. They argued endlessly, providing hours of entertainment by viciously dissecting every topic in the universe. They fed off each other’s knowledge; supplied advice in quantity to everyone around them by a mere quick question consulting the other half. They bounced sarcasm and deadpan humour off of each other on an almost per-minute basis.

It had become as natural as breathing.

Not romantic infatuation, nor the childish flare of emotions that most people perceived as love, they were simply a part of each other’s life. All else, Sofia knew with an instinct born of long experience, was superficial.

She knocked again, more insistently, louder.

From inside came a scuffle, feet shuffling along the linoleum floor within towards the door and several thumps. “Go away!” came the very polite, concise statement of affairs from the other side of the closed door. Drat. The voice itself was hoarser than Sofia’s own, almost as if it were underused. The feet receded, began shuffling off in the other direction. Sofia, panicked, wondered what strategy of entreaty would make her open the door at any time. Well, this one was farfetched, but she knew it would have her running at all times. It was a blow under the belt, dirty… she was willing to fight dirty in this.

“Citizen Rabinovich, please open the door!” She said quickly, before the woman could walk too far and out of hearing range – she did not want to shout for the neighbours to hear – “It’s about your husband.”

There came an unexpected sound of something big and dull thudding to the floor – a book, most likely – and the sound of steps that, Sofia thought, sounded scared, hesitant and eager, all at once. Sofia quickly turned her head away from the door, looking out onto the stairwell; she did not wish the hostess to see her before the door was safely open. Locks were clicking on the other side of the door now, top, then bottom, then a chain was moved off a hook and the door inched open. Slightly.

“What do you want?”

Sofia inserted a shoe into the gap between the door and the wall, risking serious injury. “Ah…” she cleared her throat and tried to pitch her voice lower than it normally was, feeling momentarily sorry she didn’t bring a piece of cloth to cover her mouth, or something. “I just want to talk. Look, can’t I come in and tell you inside – away from the neighbours?”

Ah, another lever that worked, apparently. Sofia-the-local hissed vexedly through her teeth and the door inched open further. Slowly, the door opened and Sofia, with a churning stomach, found herself facing her counterpart.

She looked… older. Much older. There was more grey in her hair, though it was still mostly identical to Sofia’s, and what there was, was concealed relatively efficiently in the identical ponytail both of them favoured. The Sofia standing on the other side of the threshold, her mouth dropping in surprise and shock was several kilograms heavier, and the weight gain was not appealing. She wore a shabby housecoat and there were hairs twisted free from her tail to frame a pale, exhausted face. The eyes; these Sofia noticed last and they were the most shocking of all. Behind the immediate shock and horror of seeing a mirror image unexpectedly appear on the other side of the doorway there was despair.

Sofia shuddered, again. She did not think anything could ever break her like this woman – who was definitely not herself – had broken. Certainly. Well… perhaps, she admitted, staring at her identical twin – almost her clone – in what was the beginning of horrible self-doubt. She was a fighter, a survivor. Beyond and above anything she prided herself on the ability to remain, well, sane. Balanced. Not breaking under strain was the quality that had allowed her to carry on through dreadful month after dreadful month, then year after year. She looked at her counterpart with scorn.

“Who… who the… Who are you?” croaked the other one in dismay, and not without mounting fear. Sofia realized that she had no idea what was going on, nor could she imagine the truth quite yet. She advanced on Sofia-the-local, wishing to enter, close the door behind her and, after shaking the other woman properly, explain. The other stepped away, trembling.

“No! Stay away! Stay away from me! Leave me alone!” she shrieked fervently and retreated hastily, trying to slam the door in Sofia’s astonished face. Where was the curiosity that would have kept her at least talking to this… apparition was a good word, she supposed. What happened to at least a show of pride, of bravery. Were it her standing there with an unexpected clone across the threshold, even if her thoughts ran in the direction of killing the unwelcome nuisance, she would have wished to lure the newcomer into comfortable lull. Then, of course, would follow a covert phone call to someone suitably nasty, and swift retribution – if the circumstances warranted it, of course.

“Listen!” Sofia said sharply –perhaps more sharply than she herself intended. “Let me in. you can’t possibly want the neighbours to come out here and see… us.”

The other one gulped and sullenly quieted down. “Maybe… But who are you?”

“Well,” said Sofia, raising an eyebrow ironically. “You, of course.”

Sofia-the-local groaned quietly and toppled over, fainted.

**************************************

Sofia closed the door behind her back and almost dropped to the floor from exhaustion. Hauling her duplicate – inert and quite a bit heavier than her slight, un-athletic self – all the way to a couch had not been an endeavour she wanted to repeat any time soon. She sighed, twisted both formidable locks into ‘closed’ position, and returned the chain to its previous location. Then, instead of dropping down as she wanted to do, or shrieking incoherently – yet another unfulfillable wish – she stepped over masses of clothing, random scattered domicile objects and books into the kitchen.

She had never been a slob – well, perhaps only in early childhood, and she had been cured – but this place was a mess. The apartment was a classic two-roomer, with a big living room and one bedroom, and a tiny kitchen off to one side. Her own apartments, even when shared with another human being, generally tended to be Spartan about anything aside from written literature. This one was cluttered with old clothes, piles of disorganized journals and scattered about books. Some of the books had folded up dog-ears – a habit Sofia despised utterly – and many, many of them seem to have been dropped in the middle, discarded, never finished. She wondered how long the floor had gone unswept and unwashed, wondered also how long ago was the last time Sofia-of-this-world had cleaned her windows. The light in the apartment was dusty and dull, grey, like its unfortunate inhabitant.

At least the kitchen bore signs of the other Sofia; there was no clutter on the counter, and no appalling dirt. Thank God. Sofia found the kettle and put it on the stove, fishing for teacups and teabags. The disorganization was everywhere, nonetheless, and although no overt neglect was visible in this part of the house, there were no touches of domestic well-being, either. No garlands of drying mushrooms, no jars of pickles, no flowers, not even a potted plant. Well… Sofia noticed the latter, dejectedly standing on a windowsill. She picked up the dead branch and identified a geranium that must have been dead for the past few months, at least. Geraniums were sturdy plants; she wondered how long previous to its death the poor thing had not been watered.

“My God. I am old, and have grown moss all over,” she whispered to herself while fussing in the kitchen. Anything to get away from that distorted mirror image of herself, that sum of all her fears. She felt... she was not sure what she felt. Enough the Empath, she picked up the incredible burden of sheer pain that the entire place radiated at her. That was what she was best at, picking up pain; feeling others’ joy and relief was not, apparently, given her. Nonetheless, she could not – would not – feel pity for this woman. She fought self-pity for too long, and this was too close to… something. Something buried deep within her own mind that she was not willing to touch. Something that scared her tremendously; the recognition of the breaking point.

Everyone has a breaking point. This she knew. Her own, apparently, was much further from the surface that that of other people. But anyone could be broken, eventually, with the right kind of pain and pressure, with just the right lever to pull, just the right crack to push. So, was this her breaking point, too? Was she, too, predestined for the safe fate of growing old and mouldy before her time, of getting that desperate, glazed-over look in her eyes? She wondered why her counterpart was still alive, living in indignity and solitude; she thought that she, herself, would saw through her wrists, or seek oblivion in a less painful, but no less final manner.

Then the tea was done, and there was no choice left but to face herself again.

She carried the two cups carefully and set them on what seemed to be the most appropriate surface – the piano – then strode over to the couch to which she finally lugged her still unconscious alternate-self. First there was a tremendous amount of machinations involving pushing the poor woman inside and finally abandoning the inconvenient position on the stair landing, then followed long minutes of dragging, repeated attempts to bring her back to consciousness so that she could – for heaven’s sake! – walk on her own. The attempts, when even remotely successful, brought a moan and a repeated drop into oblivion. Bloody convenient for the woman, Sofia thought and wished that she could join her, at least for a time.

It was time to take some action about that inconvenience.

Sofia – EMT and Empath – had a job to do, and she’d be damned – damned! – if she’d let even her own self foil her plans. She slapped her counterpart’s cheek rudely. “Enough. You’ve been under enough, it’s time to snap out.” She supported her words with another emphatic slap, as well as a slight prod. The other Sofia was breathing fast and shallowly, but was still keeping awake.

“You are hyperventilating,” observed the visitor coolly and gripped her shoulders, “sit up, lean forward, breathe slowly. I made you tea with sugar to get your glucose level up. As soon as you are done with your histrionics and decide to be rational, you will drink it. And then,” she said, her tone growing darker and more dangerous, “I will explain who I am, and we’ll have a talk.”