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I once knew a guy who looked almost exactly like me. He had the same curly brown hair, only slightly darker. He had the same crooked nose, only a bit smaller. Even our eyes were similar; both almond-shaped, but his irises were a slightly lighter shade of brown.
He didn’t just look like me either. We acted similarly; talked similarly; walked similarly; the list goes on. We only had slight variations in almost every aspect of our being. It was scary, at first. But soon, that fear developed into anger.
I absolutely hated that lousy, good-for-nothing faker.
Thomas Blake was his name. I met him in my junior year of high school; he transferred toward the beginning of the school year, since apparently his father was with the army and thus had to move around often. And yes – my mother was in the army as well, and this was the third high school I had attended thus far. It was his fourth. That was a recurring theme with the variations between Thomas and I: he always seemed one step further. Not ahead, just further.
When he was first introduced to the class, everybody made a huge deal about how similar we looked. Even the teacher was confused for a moment, thinking I was pulling some kind of prank. However, when they noticed me sitting in my seat at the back of the class as usual, eyes shifted between the two of us in astonishment as whispers were exchanged. In a similar state of surprise, my gaze was firmly fixed on Thomas, meeting his. Unlike me, however, he didn’t appear surprised at all. He just looked at me with a slight smile as he went to take the seat the teacher pointed out for him. Said teacher always had a bit of a sense of humor – so of course, since Thomas needed a ‘Study Buddy’ to get him caught up on the class’s lesson content, I was the man for the job.
During lunch break, people swarmed us.
“Are you two related?” one person asked.
“Are you like, long lost twins or something?” another hypothesized.
My school had a fair amount of silly people among its student body, so all sorts of theories were thrown around. Maybe we were clones who’d escaped from a secret laboratory and gotten separated. Maybe we were the twin product of a steamy military love affair between his father and my mother, who then decided to split the two of us before leaving each other. Maybe we were even the same person from two different timelines that had somehow intersected – the theories just kept getting more convoluted as the class had a field day with it.
Now, I didn’t hate Thomas from the very start. In fact, we were something akin to friends at first. Our various similarities made that easy for us, plus the fact that everyone else was already calling us ‘The twins’ a few hours after we’d met. Since I was his study buddy, the two of us spent a fair amount of time together, and I soon introduced him to my little clique of friends. That was when he began to creep me out a little.
My four friends and I were sitting at a lunch table eating as usual when he walked up.
“Hey, mind if I join you?” He pointed to one of us before shifting his finger to another. “And you?” Yet again, he shifted his finger, and repeated the question until he pointed to me. He paused for a moment, then went, “And me?”
Everybody except for me laughed at the odd little greeting. I just looked up at him with a half-assed grin like I was attempting to find it funny, but blatantly failing. What caught me off-guard was that, apart from that last bit, this was exactly how I’d first approached a group of kids in one of my last schools – word for word.
Of course, we invited him to sit with us, and I tried to shake off the feeling of unease that the event had left me with. I was able to forget about it for a while, but it wasn’t long before it returned.
Sure enough, as the days went on, he continued acting like me. He said things I would’ve said and did things I would’ve done. Not that he did this all the time; the variations between us made it so that it was relatively infrequent. However, it happened often enough for me to take notice and begin to get freaked out by it. Surely it wasn’t normal for someone this similar to me to suddenly appear in my life – the odds were astronomical. But no matter how I tried to rationalize the impossibility of the fact, it never made it any less true.
Although Thomas hung out with my group a lot those first few weeks, he soon began to hang out with other people as well. Our school was relatively small, so it was something all of us naturally did. Most people were at least acquainted with each other, whether in a good or bad way. However, people usually stuck to their particular groups of friends, having only one or two closer associates from other groups. There were a minority of people who had no particular clique, and instead had friends in many different cliques, or just fit in well with everyone – chameleons, we called them. I myself was somewhat of a chameleon, and had many friends from other groups, but I had a specific group that I liked to hang with the most, composed of my four closest friends. Thomas, however, was different.
When he began to hang out with other people and get along quite nicely with them, my friends and I determined he would probably end up becoming a chameleon too, if only partly. But we were surprised to find that he became something more. Something our school had rarely ever seen, and something that I personally hadn’t seen very often either: universally popular.
Now, being universally popular wasn’t some kind of superpower or anything, but it was quite an achievement nonetheless. I don’t know exactly how he did it, but Thomas was essentially a friend to everyone in the school. He had even befriended the loner and unpopular kids, who had initially hated him out of spite.
‘He just has this charisma,’ some said.
‘He’s a really nice guy, I don’t see why anyone wouldn’t like him,’ said others.
To them it seemed perfectly natural to like a guy like Thomas. But it didn’t make sense to me, because I had long since picked up on our similarities. If we were so similar, why was he so popular while I wasn’t?
Jealousy began to boil within me. What did he have that I didn’t? I just couldn’t understand it. But as I observed him and spent time with him, I realized I had been so focused on the similarities between us I had failed to notice the variations. They ended up making all the difference.
Thomas was more confident. He was slightly more handsome, had higher grades, and had a bit of an accent since he had lived in England for a time. Whatever we had in common, his variation was almost always better. That was when jealousy gave way to hatred. Not of Thomas, however; of myself. For a while, I hated myself for not being as good as Thomas. The feeling of insecurity ate away at me for over two months, causing my grades to drop and my health to go down as I spent most of my time isolated.
Friends tried to comfort me to no avail. My family tried to get me to see a psychiatrist or a therapist, but I refused. I looked to the internet for help with what I had come to believe was probably some form of depression, but despite all the good and bad advice, none of it seemed to change anything. Imagine my surprise, then, when all that it took to solve my problem was a trip to the dollar store.
I had gone there with my father to buy something or other. As my dad looked for it, I got bored and wandered off to the toy section, where I gazed absent-mindedly at the cheap crap that passed for toys here. If you’ve ever been to a dollar store, you know that the merchandise they sell isn’t exactly top-notch, and the kids’ items are no exception. Countless rip-offs of famous toys littered the section: Roboformers, Action Rangers, Barbara Girls, that kind of near-copyright infringement thing. As I looked at them, I began to realize the case wasn’t so different for my own situation. The Roboformers were almost exactly like Transformers, but there were a few minor differences to keep some small-time Chinese company from getting sued. And that’s exactly what Thomas was. He was just a cheap rip-off version of me.
It wasn’t evident at first. I mean, Thomas was better than me, wasn’t he? When I re-evaluated him with this in mind, however, I found him to be quite different. His confidence was obnoxious, bordering on outright overconfidence. His grades were only higher than mine because I and many others had helped him study. His English accent was only faint, and most likely somewhat forced. No matter how I looked at it, he was just nothing but a faker. And so, my hatred shifted from me onto him.
With the problem of my insecurity gone, I returned to school and gradually returned to normal. I felt much better knowing that I was the original, and he was just a bad imitation masquerading as something better. I could easily fake who I was and become like him as well, but I wasn’t that pathetic – I would stay true to who I was.
Still, the problem wasn’t entirely gone.
Thomas and I still talked fairly often, and the more I saw him around, the more annoyed I got. It got to the point where simply hearing him speak would immediately flip my mood, regardless of what it was before. I knew that I couldn’t keep being friendly for long, so I gradually tried to drift away from him, even if it meant staying away from a few of my other friends as well. It didn’t work. Even when I didn’t approach him, he approached me. Whenever I would try to leave him, he would flash that small smile that looked sickeningly similar to mine and try to convince me to stay.
I hated him. I hated him so much that words could not even describe it. Everything he did only served to fuel the fire within me. Whenever I got the chance, I began to daydream about calling him out on his fakery and beating him up as a suitable punishment. These daydreams soon evolved into hypothetical plans of increasing complexity, as I mulled over ways to get him expelled from school and out of my life forever.
Then, my mom made an unprecedented announcement: we were leaving. Her work required her to be stationed in New York, so I couldn’t stay in my school. At first, I rejoiced – finally, Thomas Blake would be out of my life forever! A couple of months passed and the week of the move came, so I said my goodbyes to all of my friends and acquaintances – and unfortunately, Thomas – before leaving my school. But I didn’t feel as good as I thought I would.
Initially I believed that getting away from Thomas was what I needed, but he just stayed on my mind. I was confused; why couldn’t I stop hating him, even after I’d never have to see him again? He was irrelevant now, after all. I could just leave him behind and start a new life somewhere else, where I was the only me.
But no. I soon realized that no matter where I was on this planet, I simply could not condone a cheap rip-off of myself still existing out there, acting like he was better than me. Even if I never had to see him again, I’d know he still existed, and that would eat away at me forever. There was only one way I could solve the problem. I had to stop him from existing.
But could I really go through with killing him? Coming up with a plan wasn’t too hard, since I knew where he lived as well as the layout of his house. As much as my hatred compelled me, however, fear of the potential consequences halted me.
In the end, I didn’t even need to take the initiative. About a week before the scheduled time for the move, I got a call from none other than my would-be doppelganger.
“Hey Travis, wanna hang out?” Thomas asked nonchalantly. “I know you’re leaving soon, so I was thinking we should go somewhere one last time. I asked James and Sarah, but neither of them are available, so I guess it’s just us.”
I couldn’t help but smile at the opportunity. Maybe if I could get him all alone and make sure nobody found his body for a while, it could work. I was moving away soon anyway. “Alright, where’d you wanna go?”
“How ‘bout we head to the mall?” Thomas suggested. “There’s some stuff I need to pick up there anyway.”
“Alright,” I replied, “how’s tomorrow?”
And with that, the deal was sealed.
That night, I went out to set things up for my grand plan.
The following day I met Thomas at the mall just like we arranged, my mom’s switchblade stuffed into my pocket for later use. All I needed to do was lead him to some secluded part of town on our way back home; I knew the town’s layout better than he did, so I could just tell him I knew a shortcut. I kept telling myself it’d be easy, but my heart raced the entire time we were at the mall. We acted all buddy-buddy as we usually did, despite the fact that I was just itching to jab my knife into his stomach every second of the day. There he was, right in front of me – that stinking copycat, talking and acting just like me even though he wasn’t. Yet I couldn’t do anything. Not until that evening.
The time eventually came, and the two of us decided to walk back to my house. I told him of the supposed shortcut, and I led him to a relatively small park by the river that ran through the town. I had been thorough in my preparations: the previous night, I’d buried a weight and a rope in a thicket of trees nearby, so that I could eventually tie him up and throw him into the river after killing him. There were some rowboats tied to the docks a little ways away from the park, so I could simply steal one of those, row a little further up the river, and dump the body. Lastly, actually killing him wouldn’t be a problem either – I’d received a little hand-to-hand combat training from my mom, so I knew the quickest and most effective ways to end a life.
As the cool autumn breeze stung our faces, we walked up into the park. I expected Thomas to be surprised and presume we had gotten lost or something, but he did nothing. He just stopped at the riverbank and stared into the river.
“Heh, I always did like rivers,” Thomas spoke out, as I stood behind him. Slowly, cautiously, I withdrew my switchblade.
“You never know what’s underneath that ever-flowing surface of theirs,” he continued. “What someone could have… hidden.”
I wasn’t going to wait any longer – I held the knife backhand and went for a stab, aiming for his jugular. I was surprised, however, when he ducked right on time, and it was only then that I noticed a shiny object in his hand: another knife.
Thomas immediately tried to slash me, but I jumped back in time to avoid him. He stood up straight, his face somewhat obscured by shadow as the sun set behind him. Yet, I was sure I could make out a slight smile on his expression.
“I’m really hoping you were smart enough to come prepared for this,” he said, taking a step forward as he got into an attacking position. “I mean, I know you’re not as intelligent as I am, but surely even a knock-off like you has watched enough movies to know how to plan a murder.”
In retrospect, I think I should have felt surprise, or at least fear that my plan had gone awry. However, the only emotion I could register was anger – my hatred flared as I listened to his words.
“You think I’m the knock-off here?!” I exclaimed, gripping my switchblade tighter and preparing for his attack. “Sorry to break it to you, but you’re the only faker. And I can’t let you prance around thinking you’re better than me any longer.”
Thomas scoffed. “Of course. That’s the only way you can justify your existence, isn’t it? Accusing me of being the rip-off, thinking you’re the improved, original version. But you’re wrong,” he boasted. “I am the original. I am me, and you are just a lowly, imperfect copy trying to be me. Maybe, if you were a complete clone, I could condone it – but the fact that a piece of trash like you, who is inferior in every way, is out there; that’s something I can’t allow.”
He stepped forward, taking a jab at me with his knife – I swiped it to the left with mine before taking the opening and sidestepping to the right, slashing once again at his throat. He tried to jump back, but my knife still managed to cut deep into his shoulder. Blood spat out onto my clothes, and Thomas roared as it continued to leak down his arm.
“Fuck!” he exclaimed as he gripped his shoulder with his free hand. His smile had deteriorated into a look of disgust and anger as he eyed me. Meanwhile, I had gained some confidence. With his right shoulder damaged, it would be more painful to swing his knife – I had gained the advantage.
“You fucking trash, how dare you?!” Thomas growled. I gave a slight smile.
“Isn’t it obvious? Because you’re nothing but a second-rate imitation. I’m the real one here,” I informed him. “It stands to reason that a piece of shit like you wouldn’t even be able to touch me.”
Yes. I could see it now. Why was I even angry in the first place? This pathetic copy with delusions of grandeur couldn’t touch me: his better counterpart.
“Yeah, keep talking, I’ve heard it all before,” Thomas spat. “But surely even you see it. You’re just worse than me in every way. Unlike you, I proved myself! I’ve gotten rid of trash like you before, and I’m not afraid to do it again.”
I scoffed; he was just talking nonsense now, probably trying in vain to convince himself that he was real. Deciding to go on the attack this time, I reached down and grabbed a handful of the rocks lying on the riverbank. I threw all of them at Thomas, and he instinctively used his arm to shield his eyes – that was when I lunged, aiming for his right arm in order to incapacitate him.
I wasn’t fast enough, and he was able to parry my slash before quickly grabbing my wrist with his free hand. Holding it in place, he lifted his knife up, but as it came down to strike my trapped arm, I grabbed his wrist just in time. With the two of us now locked this way, we began to push each other back and forth, struggling to hold our footing on the rocks beneath us.
“You’ll see,” Thomas grunted as he pushed. “I am… the original. I waited this long… so I could prove it again.”
He pushed against me, knocking me onto the ground. He was now on top of me, and pushing his knife ever closer to my chest. But still, for some reason, I felt no fear. I had nothing to worry about from him, I knew it. Thomas, however, looked far more agitated than when we had begun this little duel.
“Only the original… survives,” he said through bared teeth as he struggled against me. “I knew you’d delude yourself… into thinking you could win. I wanted… to see you fail. To see the look in your eyes… when I kill you… and you see that I’m—“
His final words were cut short as my blade pierced his chest, and his eyes widened in utter shock. I guessed this must be that look he was talking about. Indeed, it was quite an amusing sight – the look of a worthless imitator finally being put in his place. I liked it very much.
Luckily, the hand he had been holding my knife back with was still covered in blood from his shoulder injury, which had caused it to slip and my knife to be the first one in. I could feel the strength leaving his body as I pushed him off of me and sat up. I looked over to his convulsing form on the ground; that expression never leaving his face as he slowly struggled to look at the knife that had pierced his heart. Taking it out would only make more of a bloody mess, so I left it where it was.
I smirked triumphantly as I waited for the life to fade from his eyes. Blood sputtered from his mouth as he tried to speak, but failed. The last words he would ever hear were but the simple truth: “You never even stood a chance, you cheap knock-off.”
The rest of the procedure went smoothly. Under the cover of darkness, I brought the body over to the boat before retrieving my weight and rope from the thicket of trees. My jacket had been bloodied during the fight, so I removed it and buried it in the hole. My face and hair were a little bloody as well, but that was easily taken care of with a quick rinse in the river water. With the knife also thrown into the water with the body, all that was left was the bloodstain he’d left on the rocks, which was cleaned up quickly by the tide.
Seeing the blood get washed away, it occurred to me that Thomas had probably gone there intentionally to make sure that when he killed me, he wouldn’t have to bother cleaning up the blood himself. It seemed he had planned my murder by counting on me to plan his, which made me wonder how he knew. He said he’d proven himself before, but I had no idea what that meant at the time. I didn’t wonder about it for very long either, as I was too caught up in my victory to care much.
The last few days passed like the breeze. The police came to question me about the disappearance of Thomas a couple of days after he’d been reported missing, since I was the last person he’d been seen with. I just told them that the last time I saw him was when he and I went separate ways to get to our houses, and this answer seemed to satisfy them. They probably assumed he had run away or something, like most missing kids. It didn’t really matter, because two days later, I was out of there and off to New York. Only then did I feel truly successful; uncaught and untouched, I was now indisputably the one and only Travis Burke.
That summer was probably one of the best of my life. With my identity now to myself, I felt far better than I ever had before, and it showed. I began attending a youth group at my new local church and made friends with the people there. It was surprisingly easy; far less awkward than it had been before. Of particular interest was one girl, Leslie, who would later even become my girlfriend after I worked up the nerve to ask her out. The people from the youth group quickly introduced me to their other friends, and it wasn’t long before I was well acquainted with everyone in most of their social circles. Things were going better than they ever had before.
The entire time, though, a lot of the people kept saying something odd. “I swear I’ve seen your face somewhere before,” they would always tell me upon meeting me. It troubled me, because I thought news of Thomas Blake’s disappearance might have gotten widespread enough to reach the next state over. Of course, this wasn’t the case. In hindsight, I probably should’ve known what the real cause was.
And so, I stand here today. As I enter my new classroom today at the beginning of my senior year, my eyes scan the roomful of students. I take in the faces of those I don’t recognize, making a mental note to talk to them later. Then I look over the ones I do know from last summer, and my eyes rest on one particular young man, who’s looking back at me with a surprised expression.
I glossed over him earlier, having recognized him all too well despite never having met him. He has slightly lighter brown, curly hair; a slightly larger crooked nose; and even almond-shaped eyes, with a darker tint to the iris’s chocolate brown. It isn’t long before the rest of the class notices, and eyes begin to shift between the two of us as whispers are exchanged.
I’m less surprised about this than I think I should be, really. Realizing what Thomas must have been talking about the day I killed him, I can’t help but smile slightly. It doesn’t matter what he said, though. Unlike him, I am the original, and I know it. I couldn’t be killed by Thomas, and I certainly can’t be beaten by this guy either.
He’s just another knock-off that I’ll have to put in his place.
Credit: Mark Lannin