Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Fiction #68: Julie Roorda

Predestination

Leonard fought his way to the back of the crowded streetcar, but there were no seats available.  As he clung to a pole, the glint of light on a shiny screen in the lap of the woman seated below him caught his eye.  She was holding a tablet computer that seemed to be all silver and sparkling glass; it must be the new 3D iBall everyone was talking about, Leonard thought.  The woman swished through a series of photographs of swans and ducks, and Leonard recognized the pond in High Park which he visited every weekend.  Next was a close-up of a young woman with light brown hair and wide grey eyes sitting in a restaurant, laughing happily at the photographer.   The wall behind her was burnt-orange and there was a bottle of olive oil with a floating sprig of rosemary on the table.  Leonard couldn’t see the face of the woman holding the tablet, but from the colour of her hair and the way the ends rested in a little half-curve on her shoulders, he knew the photo was of her.  Her nose was a tiny bit beaky and the chin a little too small, but she was quite pretty, he thought, in a goofy kind of way, like a Hollywood actress who only gets the comic roles.  She was, in fact, exactly the kind of woman he found most attractive, but could never get up the nerve to ask on a date.  

Leonard leaned in closer, but when the woman swished to the next photograph, he snapped his head back so quickly it smacked against his own hand on the pole.  The photo on the tablet was of him.  Leonard.  He too was in the restaurant, smiling widely, having a good time.  Then, even more shocking, him and the woman side-by-side, leaning in together for the shot, his arm around her shoulders.  This woman he had never seen before.

Leonard’s heart hammered and he broke out in a tepid sweat while his mind raced.  It must be someone else, he thought, someone who just looked a lot like him.  But on the clear, high-definition screen, even without the special goggles that would render the image three-dimensional, the resemblance was uncanny.  His hair was the same, so were the glasses, and he was wearing a polo T-shirt exactly like the one his mother had given him two weeks ago.

Suddenly, the woman slid the tablet into her bag and jumped from her seat.  Panicked that she might see him, Leonard pushed further back into the streetcar, tripping and stepping on an old man’s foot.  “Sorry,” he muttered.  Meanwhile the woman made her way to the door and got off.  Leonard realized too late that it was his own stop as well.  Though shaky and disturbed, he managed to get off at the next stop and walk the three blocks back to his apartment, glancing around him all the while as if someone – the woman – could be watching him. 

He lived in a bachelor apartment on the top floor of a low-rise building.  When he stepped off the elevator, he could see that the door to the fire escape at the end of the hall was open, and his neighbour Veronica was at her usual perch. 

“Hey, Lenny!” she called. 

Veronica was a petite, middle-aged woman with an electric blue streak in her otherwise grey hair.  He had no idea how she made a living.  She never seemed to go anywhere except out onto that fire escape to dispense neighbourly advice and play fetch with her black cat Sabbath.  She would toss a stick over the railing, into the yard behind the building, and the cat would tear down the stairs at break-neck speed, often leaping onto the lawn from as high as the second floor to retrieve the stick and climb back up five flights for Veronica to throw it again.  Feeling he could use some guidance, Leonard joined her outside.

“You know how they say everyone has a double,” he said.

“Ah yes.  The evil twin.  Unless, of course, you are the evil one,” Veronica said.  “In which case, meeting your doppelganger could have its advantages.”

“I haven’t actually met him yet,” Leonard said.  He told her what he had seen.

“Are you adopted?” she asked matter-of-factly.

“I don’t think so.”

“Maybe you had a twin that your mother gave up for adoption,” she suggested.

Leonard frowned.  “That seems unlikely.”

“Seems, schmeems.  How often do you hear about some genetics study that is based on observations of identical twins separated at birth?  It’s the premise of the entire nature versus nurture debate.  You’d expect the separation of identical twins to be a rare scenario, but obviously it happens more often than we think, since there appears to be this bottomless pool of potential study subjects.  It might even be a conspiracy.”

Sabbath slipped between Leonard’s ankles and dropped the stick at Veronica’s feet.  She picked it up and sent it twirling through the air like a baton.  The cat raced after it.

“There is another possible explanation,” she said.  “The old switcheroo.”

“What do you mean?”

“Another woman, in the hospital at the same time as your mother, gave birth to twins.  Your mother took home one of the twins instead of her own baby,” she explained.  “I mean, they all look the same at that age.”

“But they would have noticed eventually, the parents with the twins who grew up looking nothing alike,” Leonard said.

“Yeah, that would have been awkward.”  Sabbath nudged her again and this time Veronica tossed the stick up in a high arc before it made its downward turn and the cat reached the ground at the same time.  “Was she pretty?” she asked.

“Who?”

“The woman in the photos.  Don’t tell me you didn’t notice.”

Leonard blushed and turned away from Veronica’s smirk.  “I think I’ll go give my mom a call,” he said.

“Give her my regards,” said Veronica, who’d never met her.

*

His mother answered in the middle of the first ring.  “Hello-o?”

“Mom, am I adopted?”

“Of course not.  You’ve got my cheekbones and the famous Woodward pigeon toes, just like your father’s entire family.”

That eliminated Veronica’s switcheroo scenario as well.  The only one left was the abandoned brother.  “Would you have liked to have twins?” he asked.

“It’s funny that you should ask, because when I was pregnant with you, I really thought there might be two of you,” she said.

“Why?  Were there two heartbeats?”

“No.  And there was no ultrasound back then to confirm these things.  It wasn’t the doctors who put the idea in my mind, it was your Aunt Martha.  You know, the psychic?”

As far as Leonard knew, the only accurate prediction Aunt Martha had ever made was of the famous Mississauga train derailment in 1979, but her reputation persisted.  No family celebration was complete without Aunt Martha and her crystal ball. 

“Martha told me she’d had a vision of me with twins,” his mother continued.  “She insisted there were twins in my future.  The truth is, as delighted as I was with you, I was a little disappointed that you weren’t two.  It runs in families, you know.”

“Twins?”

“Psychic power.  There’s a long history of it on my mother’s side.  My grandfather was famous for it.  Did you know he predicted Hurricane Hazel?”

*

Leonard had trouble sleeping that night.  Every time he closed his eyes, he saw his own face grinning back at him. Would he and his double share personality traits, he wondered -- even if they weren’t genetically related -- or would they be opposites?  Good twin, evil twin.  Leonard was sure he himself was not an evil person, but he didn’t think he was exceptionally good either.  He helped out at a food bank a couple of times a year, but he also stole Scotch tape from work. 

As he tossed and turned in his narrow twin bed, he mulled about his mother’s catalogue of family quirks.  Why couldn’t he have inherited something useful and exciting, like his Uncle Irving’s good looks and suave ease.  Women were always falling in love with him.  Or his grandmother’s musical talent.  They said she could have been a champion accordion-player if she hadn’t given it all up to get married.  Instead, all he’d come by was a genetic predisposition to trip over his own feet.  If anything determined his future, it wasn’t a quality of good or evil, but that maddening awkwardness. 

At the first sign of light outside, he gave up sleeping and made himself some toast; as usual, he cut off all the crusts.  This was not because he didn’t like crusts, but so that he would have something to feed the ducks in the park.  Most of them were mallards and wood ducks, but there was one domestic white duck among them, probably an abandoned pet.  The white duck had mated with a male mallard in the spring and now had one hybrid duckling.  It remained to be seen whether the duckling would be capable of flying like its wild father, or earthbound like its domesticated mom.  All week, Leonard collected his crusts in a Ziploc bag.

After breakfast, he tucked the bag inside his jacket and headed for High Park, a ten-minute walk from his apartment.  Aside from joggers and dog-walkers, the park was empty and quiet.  As he crested the hill overlooking the pond, a wave of quacking rose from below on the brisk spring air.  At the bottom, he took a trail he knew led to a low bank where the ducks liked to gather.  The trail twisted and turned before coming out on to the bank; Leonard realized too late that there was someone already there ahead of him, a woman with a bag of crusts.  Ducks, including the hybrid family, crowded around her feet.  Leonard’s first instinct was to flee back the way he came, but the ducks had already begun to swarm in his direction, sensing another hand-out.  The woman turned to look at him and a cold shiver climbed up his back and covered his scalp. It was her, the woman with the photos. 

Leonard stared, wondering how she would react to seeing what must be to her, a familiar face.  But her expression revealed neither surprise nor recognition.  “Good morning,” she said pleasantly.

Leonard tried to say good-morning back, but it came out as more of a cough. 

“You brought some bread as well,” she observed.  “Good thing.  They’re greedy this morning.”

If she wasn’t surprised to meet the spitting image of a man she obviously knew well, Leonard wondered, was it possible she was expecting this encounter?  Had he been lured into some scheme, a diabolical plot orchestrated by this woman and his evil twin?  Maybe she’d been following him, he thought.  But she was in the park first.  Leonard didn’t know what to say or do, so he reached into his Ziploc and began tossing bits of toast to the birds.

“I don’t know why I love ducks so much,” the woman continued.  “I always have.  I remember in kindergarten we had to pick an animal sticker to put above our coat hooks to remember which one was ours.  The others all fought over the cool animals:  the cheetahs and crocodiles.  But I chose the duck.”  She looked up at Leonard with such a radiantly goofy smile, that he couldn’t help but smile back.  “My name’s Charlotte, by the way.”

“I’m Leonard.”

She held out her hand and Leonard reached for it, realizing too late that the traces of butter from his toast had made his hand greasy.  He felt himself turn red, but Charlotte didn’t seem to notice.  The hybrid duckling stepped a webbed foot right on top of her shoe and snatched a piece of bread from Charlotte’s hand.  Her laughter trilled out across the pond and Leonard’s heart fluttered.  He was confused.  How could he be so attracted to the woman who was quite possibly in cahoots with his doppleganger, planning his demise?

An awkward silence developed, punctuated by quacks.  Leonard searched desperately for words that might bring some clarity to the situation, or at least make him look a little less of a bumbling fool.  He needed some small talk, some popular topic of conversation.  “What do you think of the new iBall?” he blurted.

“Ah!  Don’t get me started!”  Charlotte said.  “It’s sooooo unfair that we have to wait a whole month longer to get them in Canada than in the States.  I’m just dying to get my hands on one.” 

Leonard stared.  His hand inside the bag of crusts trembled.  “You haven’t got it yet?” he half whispered.

“Of course not!”  Charlotte laughed.  “Nobody does.  Not this side of the border.  But I’ve reserved one from the first batch when it arrives.  I can’t wait.  I’m so excited about using the 3D camera!””   She emptied the last of her crumbs on the ground.  “That’s me done,” she said. 

The hybrid duckling waddled furiously after its mother back to the pond.

“Do you think --” Leonard sputtered, gulped, then tried again.  “I mean, I’d love to know if the iBall is as good as they predict.  Maybe we could get a coffee sometime?”

*

The restaurant Charlotte chose for their one-month anniversary celebration was exactly as Leonard had foreseen:  burnt-orange walls and a bottle of olive oil with rosemary on each table.  Leonard knew exactly which shirt to wear and had no trouble deciding on red wine over white.  They passed the brand new iBall back and forth, then handed it to the waiter who gushed over the sleek and sparkling tablet before snapping a photo of the happy couple. 

They shared tiramisu for dessert, but after three bites, Charlotte pushed the dish at Leonard and leaned back in her chair, exclaiming that she was stuffed.  He continued to eat, gazing at her all the while – he could have stared at her all day.  She glanced up as a group of people passed their table.

Suddenly a startled look crossed her face.

“Is something wrong?” Leonard

Charlotte waited a few moments until the passers-by were out of earshot then leaned in across the table.  “Didn’t you see that guy?” she said.  “He looks exactly like you!”

*

Julie Roorda is the author of three volumes of poetry, a collection of short stories and a novel for young adults.  She lives in Toronto where she works as a researcher, writer and editor. 

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