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Counterparts

Andrew Hansen is a Minnesota writer with a current focus on short fiction, largely of the speculative and unsettling variety. His work has appeared in Tales from the Moonlit Path. Find him @andrewhansen22 on Instagram.

They didn't arrive in spaceships, so it was hard to believe they weren't here to stay. They had no ride home, wherever home was. Some theorized Earth was home, that they'd always been here, among us. Somehow those same people kept calling them visitors. Merely visitors. As if saying it might make it true.
You didn't believe they were aliens--that fatigued, unreal word--but you never verbalized this. Didn't need to. When I first told you about them, you held me tight and knew exactly what to say, which was nothing. Maybe you understood what they were and were waiting for the rest of us to figure it out. You tended to know things. Strange things. My things. I once asked what color my thoughts were, and you said cosmic, that a cloud of sparkling nebulae haloed my head. This was a joke, of course, but sometimes I wondered.
"And if they're not aliens?" I asked when I could no longer swallow the idea.
"Aliens or not, it doesn't change what they are," you said.
I could have said no more, but I played along and gave shape to what everyone refused to say.
"They're us."
Encounters increased day by day, so much so the news stopped reporting them. Experts still gave televised talks and scripted interviews, but by then most people had made up their own minds. Anecdotes traveled faster than airwaves. I kept my ear to the ground when I made trips to town for coffee and sugar and other things the woods couldn't provide.
My sister had seen one. It had followed her out of the shower: a lithe, transparent copy of herself likened in water and steam. The floating droplets had composed themselves long enough for her to reach out and touch the fingertips, then forfeited shape and splatted onto the floor. Mike didn't believe her, but I did.
Another had manifested in a billow of bonfire smoke far side of the lumberyard. Duke Harley and Yoshiro's boys were witnesses. Same as my sister's, their visitor had mirrored them, ash and fumes coagulating into the exact contours of their cheeks and jawbones. A bas relief etched in smoke.
You wouldn't have recognized the town. Never quiet anymore. Always whispers. Rumors. Everyone had one. But once folks started uploading videos and the visitors went viral again and again, they were no longer rumors.
Like the Facebook clip of the two dust devils that took on boyish forms and joined a kids' soccer game. That was local. I knew the teacher who filmed it. When I tried showing you the clip, you just shook your head and smiled as though all couldn't be righter in the world. You said the kids didn't seem to mind. Now they had two more players.
You were right. The kiddos didn't mind. No one visited ever minded.
We didn't make love on the roof of the camper anymore. Collapsed in your arms, the glitter of stars and the plum-dark of night used to cloak us, a shield of privacy where the world slipped away and I was lost in you and you in me, but now the Milky Way wasn't so empty and I could never be intimate and vulnerable knowing we weren't alone, that they might be watching.
You didn't get mad. You never got mad. When you came in from the garden and I was busy sewing tomorrow's orders at the table, you unfurled on the couch and laid your head in my lap. I winnowed my fingers through your auburn curls and apologized for everything. You took the blame. It didn't matter if it were the visitors or our finances or appointments with the fertility doctor. You always took the blame. Chewed and swallowed it so I wouldn't have to.
The women and men the government hired to study the visitors talked a big talk about anti-particles and quantum projection. The visitors came from galactic distances so great no technology nor time could span the gulf. They could merely project themselves, like shadows on a wall, hijacking matter and energy from our corner of the cosmos to appear to us in comprehensible forms.
I didn't care for the scientific jargon. You tried explaining anti-particles to me, the theory that all things had a counterpart; for every atom there was another, though invisible, tied by unseen strings and balanced on unseen scales.
"Sounds like God," I said.
You shrugged. You knew.
Add up every atom in my body and there was another me. Another you. Counterparts.
I wanted to meet mine.
When tensions loosened and we felt safe going out, you took me roller skating like you used to when we first dated. Then like now, you braced to catch me before I fell, even before I tottered. Somehow you knew my imbalance before I did. I once thought this an excuse to put your hands on my hips. Maybe it was.
We were the only adults skating. The rest were teenagers. Kids with their friends and dates, but some came with their counterparts. These donned bodies of water or of mud and peat or leaf bits. Earthier bodies. These became more common. More tangible. They could emote. One day they might even speak.
If they could sing, I hoped they sang like angels.
I showered alone most evenings now. You didn't ask why. You probably already knew. I would run the water and steam the bathroom until I floated in a warm cloud. Breaths came thick and cozy, a coaxing pressure on my chest. I kept waiting for my likeness to materialize in the swirling moisture, for my counterpart to take shape, to crawl out of hiding. I was ready for her. The ancient Greek priestesses had done this--scaled mountaintops to conjure the Oracle out of the fog. I had tried meditating outside when you were away, inviting her to mimic a body from the dust of the earth, but she wouldn't have me.
Again, I wiped steam off the mirror and cried.
You couldn't take the blame this time.
The visitors lived up to their name. Just four months into visitation and they had permeated society, but already they were fading like snow out of season. Some hung around, vague apparitions of mist and shadow and wishful thinking. Others melted into heaps and scraps. Snowmen in late spring. The realest ones--those of bone and blood--stuck around longer, but they too retreated little by little into the unseen.
Folks sought therapists and hallucinogenics in their counterparts' absence, vying to fill a hole in themselves they had never named until recently. The news did a segment on this new mental health crisis. We didn't watch it.
I stopped asking if yours had appeared to you. I wouldn't get mad or jealous. I would be happy for you.
"What color are my thoughts now?" I asked on the last night of visitation. I knelt behind you, there in your garden, wiggled my fingers between yours, and pressed my forehead into your shoulder, as if to assure you were still solid, still here. "Are you going to fade away too?"
You didn't act surprised that I had figured it out. You knew. You had always known.
"Not if you'll keep me."
I smiled into your shoulder and saved my breath. We sat in your garden, holding each other, drinking unspoken words. If you were going to fade away, you'd have to take me with you.
The End
This story was first published on Friday, January 21st, 2022


Author Comments

This story began as a rather silly and long-winded tale about the discovery of a parallel earth and our communing with our parallel selves over interstellar video-chat. Understandably, I scrapped it. The premise, though, I revisited and reworked. The idea of a woman frustrated by her evasive "counterpart" who would later turn out to be her own husband was one that charmed me; it's a story about longing for companionship with someone who perfectly relates to us and how that longing shapes our selfhood. It plays with a seldom-asked existential question: what would we do if we could meet ourselves, and would we even want to?

- Andrew Hansen
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