MY DOUBLE IS BORED; I tell him it’s not my fault—he still looks at me judgmentally.
So we have a staring contest, because they’re fun, and the loser has to give the winner a piggyback ride. “All the way to Mom’s house,” I drawl, raising the stakes.
“Smoking cigarettes,” my double shoots back, knowing how much Mom hates to see her kid smoking.
We stare and stare at each other, judging and judging. It’s better than a mirror, because with a double you’re only sort of sure you know what crimes the face you’re looking at are hiding.
I give him Look #5 aka I caught you masturbating and you’re doing it wrong; he counters with Look #72: Dad is reaching for his belt because he won’t put up with your bullshit one second longer.
He wins, because he cheats, and he hops on my back, gloating. I know he’s my double, and not my twin or some super-deluxe model, because he’s not as heavy as he looks (easier shipping I suppose). “I’m more real than you’ll ever be,” I tell him as we walk to Mom’s house.
“Yeah,” he says. “But you’re the loser who’s stuck in boring world. Can’t even beat his own double in a staring contest.”
“You’re such a doublefucker,” I say.
“Takes one to know one,” he shoots back.
My double flicks his cigarette butt over my head and lights another. I stomp it out and keep on walking. We’re leaving a trail of slacker breadcrumbs behind us in case we need to find our way back from the witch’s house.
The weeds are tall in the front yard, and the neighbors stare at us resentfully. Even when there are two or more of us, we never find the time to mow the lawn, and Mom insists only I can cut it (she keeps wanting to improve my character). Grasshoppers buzz past as we make our way to the front door.
My double lights two cigarettes and sticks one in my mouth, presses the doorbell button with his foot. We wait; he does it again, and again, and again, while we hear Mom yelling she’s coming. He won’t stop ringing the bell because, unlike me, my double’s an asshole.
Mom opens the door, but it’s not Mom, it’s her double, or one of them. I know because she’s not mad at us. “She’s in the kitchen working on a project; you really should just come back later,” she says.
“Oh no,” says my double. “We’re here to see Mom; we’re here for the real Mom experience.”
“There’s no smoking in the house,” Mom’s double says. “You know that.”
“We’re not actually really smoking,” I say. “If we were actually really smoking you wouldn’t be able to see us at all. From all the smoke.”
“We’d be on fire,” my double says.
We walk on in past Mom’s double, to the kitchen. I’m starting to get tired carrying my double on my back, and he doesn’t help by constantly swiveling around checking out all the other dateable doubles in the house. I drop him, and reach in for a soda from the fridge while my double grabs a beer.
“Let me guess,” my real, genuine, 100% evil mom says. “There was a contest of some sort.”
“A staring contest!” my double blurts out.
“And one of you lost,” Mom adds. “So both of you thought it would be neat to interrupt me when I’m working on a real and very serious project. Did you know your grandmother just had a stroke? Did you know your younger brother himself and not one of his copies is busy right now helping your grandmother recover from that stroke? And how are you spending your time?”
“If Grandma is really in so much trouble, why aren’t we all over at her house, taking care of her?” I ask.
Mom gives us such a look (Look #32! It’ll hurt me more than you will ever know when I have to castrate you) my double immediately runs upstairs.
“Sit,” Mom says, pointing to the kitchen table. Exactly in the center of said table is the latest issue of The Journal of Disappointing Children. “Page fifteen,” she says.
I knew my Mom was evil, but getting me on page fifteen, the very first article after the editorial and the military academy ads? No wonder no one looks me in the eye anymore.
I put my feet on the table and drop a big cigarette ash right next to that horrible, relentlessly proofread magazine. Look #32 turns into Look #4 (I’m going to pretend you’re a window instead of the source of all my woes).
I’m thirty-two-years old and I’m a lot tougher than I appear, but when you can’t win, change the subject. “What’s on the stove?” I ask.
“A potion. Could be magic, could be poison, haven’t decided yet.” She tells me about all the people who’ve wronged her in the last seventy-two hours and what she plans to do to them as she pours weird things into the pot and blasts it periodically with the immersion blender.
Upstairs, my double is playing Fallout. The house is busy with Mom and Dad doubles doing chores; no doubt all the bad ones are caged in the basement scheming how to escape their lives of toil. At least they don’t have to mow the lawn.
“I bet the real reason you’re here is because you need money.” Mom says.
“I’m fine,” I say.
“Ask your mom for money!” my double, who always hears everything, yells down.
“I don’t need any money!” I yell back up.
Mom gives me Look #1, the one I’ve hated since I was old enough to know what it meant. The one that comes right between getting the thing you want and being told the terrible price you’re going to have to pay to keep it.
“Tell you what,” she says. “I will give you three thousand dollars if you drink one glass of this potion.”
“I don’t need your money,” I say.
“Five thousand dollars.”
“Take the goddamn money,” my double yells down.
“Fuck off!” I yell back.
“Ten thousand dollars. Final offer,” Mom says, and she sets a glassfull in front of me, right on top of the Winter double issue of The Journal of Disappointing Children, Volume #432, in which all my alleged failures have been published on pages fifteen through twenty-three for all the entire goddamn world to see, just in time for Xmas.
My double is standing in the doorway, waiting to see me break.
“I hate you all,” I say, and I swallow it in one gulp.
It tastes awful, which means it must be good for me. My mother is no longer giving me a look, she is just looking at me, and I am ashamed at what she sees. She cares about me so much, and in return I’ve given her nothing but grief and disappointment and shame. For a moment all I can do is stand there and weep while she pulls out a stack of hard earned hundreds from her purse and starts counting them out on the table in front of where I’m sitting, one inch to the left of the empty glass. She’s just trying to help, that’s all she’s ever done, and it’s all I can do to fight the overwhelming urge to give the money back, or donate it to charity, or rush off to Grandma’s house, or offer to mow our sadly abandoned lawn, or do honest-to-god meaningful things with my life, like right now!
My double grabs the money and shoves it in his pocket. “It’s always nice to visit, Mom,” he says, and tugs/pushes/tows me out of that lonesome house and my sweet, dear, neglected, long-suffering mother who doesn’t deserve all the terrible things we do to her.
“You know what we should do,” I tell my double. “After we catch up on all our chores and mow the lawn? We should join the Peace Corps! Or the Salvation Army! Or the orphans—there are so many orphans, we don’t need all this stuff, we should give everything we have to the orphans.” I feel like I’m going to start crying again. “How terrible it must be to not have a mother who loves you.”
“Come on,” he says, and he leads me around the side of the house to the basement window, while my mind and mouth leap from one amazing volunteer service activity to another. He gets down on his knees to look down; I crouch down next to him. In the basement about a dozen moms and dads (and a few baby brothers, and a couple me’s) sit around several tables with telephones and computer monitors. They’re all super busy, pecking away at keyboards, making and answering calls.
“Maybe they’re a help center,” I say.
“You’re on drugs,” my double says. “That’s a boiler room scam Mom is running, and all those people are her prisoners. They are her slaves. Where do you think that money she gave you comes from?”
It occurs to me at that moment, in a blinding, overwhelming flash of insight, that slavery is WRONG. It’s so obvious, how could I have not understood that before?
“We should free them,” I say, my whole body surging with waves of altruism. It’s the best thing in the world to do, and we’re going to do it right now.
“Mom will be really mad,” my double says.
“She has a good heart—I’m sure she’ll understand,” I say. “Go next door to Mrs. Lopez’s house and borrow her crowbar, and a rope if she’s got one. Promise her we’ll mow the lawn right away. Mean it this time.”
I jimmy the window open, and one by one the doubles climb up the rope to escape. I make my double hand over all of Mother’s money, which he resentfully gives and they tearfully accept. I am so happy to be able to do so much good.
“You know what?” my double says.
“What?” I say, as I start walking towards the garage to grab the lawnmower.
“There are better things we can do with our time than mow Mom’s lawn.”
I can’t tell if I’m high, or if I’ve been permanently altered and this is how I’m going to be from now on, but I feel so good about myself. I can’t stop visualizing all sorts of avenues towards living a wonderful life where everyone will love me because I’m such a good person, a hero, a good witch’s son who does so many good things, who’s going to be on the cover of People We’re All So Proud of Magazine, and I have no doubt whatsoever that for starters I am going to save all the downtrodden and double-less in this world. I will never feel bored ever again.
But my apartment is tiny, and there are so many who need a home and a mom to take care of them!
“We should visit Mother more often,” I tell my double. “She’ll be so happy when we bring over all the orphans.”
Hugh Behm-Steinberg’s prose can be found in X-Ray, Grimoire, Joyland, Jellyfish Review, Atticus Review, and PANK. His short story “Taylor Swift” won the 2015 Barthelme Prize from Gulf Coast, and his story “Goodwill” was picked as one of the Wigleaf Top Fifty Very Short Fictions of 2018. A collection of prose poems and microfiction, Animal Children, was published by Nomadic Press in January 2020. He teaches writing and literature at California College of the Arts.