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“Did you hear that?”
I looked up from my magazine at Jo sitting next to me on the couch. She brushed her curly blonde hair behind her ear and looked at me with intense blue eyes.
“Hmm? Hear what?” I said.
I raised a finger to my mouth and concentrated, listening for anything out of place. I heard the muffled noise of traffic coming from the interstate, the hum of the air conditioning, and her younger brother playing on the Xbox in the next room.
“Maybe it was something from Tim’s game,” I suggested.
Jo shook her head. “No, it can’t be,” she said. “I’ve been hearing it everywhere. At home, in the car, at work, even walking around outside. I thought it was just my imagination at first, but it’s been getting louder. And more often.”
I listened some more while Jo watched me. I widened my eyes and looked at her. I opened my mouth.
“What?” she asked. “Did you hear something?”
I nodded. “Yeah.”
Jo leaned toward me. “What do you think it is?” she said in a hushed voice.
“It’s the sound of my heart, beating only for you, my love,” I said.
She leaned in and shoved me so hard I almost fell off the couch.
“It’s not a joke, Ted,” she said. “I really did hear—“
The annoyed expression on her face was replaced by one of concern. “There!” she cried. “There it is again! Don’t you hear that?”
I listened again while she looked around the living room, her head darting this way and that, trying to locate the source of her phantom noise. Traffic sounds; the tick-tock of the clock hanging on the wall above the mantle; her brother cursing at something, and then yelling triumphantly in his room. Nothing out of the ordinary.
“I don’t hear anything,” I said at last.
Jo sighed and slumped back down into the sofa. “Maybe I’m going mad,” she said.
“Not as mad as I am about you,” I said with a cheeky grin.
I saw the briefest flash of a smile at the corner of her lips before she rolled her eyes and looked away. But it wasn’t long before she was once again peering around the room, haunted by the mysterious noise that only she could hear.
Jo and I had known each other since high school; we dated briefly while we both still lived with our parents, but decided we made much better friends than partners in romance. Lately I’d been finding myself more and more drawn to her, and secretly hoping she would read the sincerity I harbored beneath the surface of my playful flirting.
We both read on her couch for a little longer until we got hungry, then decided to head out to the diner for lunch. It was a cozy little restaurant, only a couple blocks from our building. Jo shouted to Tim that we were heading out for a bit, and we walked out into the hallway. We paused briefly when we passed my apartment so I could grab my jacket.
When we got to the diner, we saw Mike and Anne sitting at our usual table. They had moved into our building one floor down a few years ago, and the four of us had quickly become fast friends.
“Hey you two,” I said as Jo and I took seats along one side of the table. “How’s it hangin’?”
“It’s hanging just fine,” said Anne in a deadpan voice. “I really do appreciate you asking. Thanks for your concern.”
“Sheesh, who peed in your cornflakes this morning?” I asked.
“She’s just upset because she got in trouble at work yesterday, had to go to the principal’s office,” said Mike.
“Ooooh,” I said. “Were you a bad girl?”
Anne didn’t respond. She was staring at Jo, her brow furrowed. “Is everything okay, Jo?” she asked.
Jo had straightened up in her chair and was looking over her shoulder.
“Jo?” Anne repeated. “What’s wrong kitten?”
“She’s been hearing a weird sound,” I said when Jo still didn’t answer. “We’re not sure what it is.”
Suddenly Jo spun around and slapped her palms down on the table. “Why do we always sit here?” she asked.
“Um, it’s our table,” said Mike.
“Yeah, but how is it always available whenever we come here? Does nobody else ever sit here?”
“Well, Cindy knows we like this table, maybe she saves it for us,” I said, nodding toward our regular waitress.
“But how does she know we’re coming? It’s not like we ever call ahead. And why do we always sit like this?” said Jo.
“Sit like what?” said Mike. Him and Anne gave each other a sideways glance, then looked back at Jo, whose voice was getting louder as she spoke.
“Like this!” she said. “Only using three sides of the table. There’s always two of us sitting together on this side, and one on either end. Tables have four sides. We’re four people. Why doesn’t anyone ever sit on that side?”
We all looked at the empty side of the table where she was pointing. I shrugged.
“No reason, the chairs are just always on this side,” I said.
“Move,” said Jo, staring at me.
“I said move. Pick up your chair, walk around to that side, and sit over there.”
Jo, Mike, and Anne were all looking at me. Mike and Anne had frowns on their faces, but Jo’s expression was bordering on fury. Reluctantly, I stood up and stepped behind my chair. I lifted it up, and walked around to the side of the table opposite Jo before sitting down again. The three of them never took their eyes off of me.
As I sat, I noticed that the diner had gone oddly quiet. Glancing around, it seemed that every person in the place was now looking at our table.
No, not at our table—they were all looking at me.
An odd tingling sensation started at the base of my neck, then spread to cover the back of my head—like the feeling of pins and needles when one of your arms or legs falls asleep. I spun around and looked behind me, but there was nothing there except an old jukebox and the door to the bathroom.
“This is weird,” said Anne, breaking the eerie silence. “You’re being weird Jo.”
I started to feel queasy. “Guys,” I said, “I’m not really hungry. I think I’m just going to go home and lay down.”
“I’ve lost my appetite too,” said Jo. “Come on Ted, let’s go.”
As we made our way toward the door, people started looking back to their plates, and resuming their conversations; the normal background murmur of the diner slowly returned.
“You felt it too, right?” said Jo after we had walked about half a block. “You sitting on that side of the table, it felt… unnatural. Wrong somehow.”
“You’re starting to freak me out,” I told her.
“Something’s not right, Ted. I heard the noises so clearly in the diner just now. I think I know what they are, but… But it’s not possible…”
I looked at her as we walked. Her eyes were wide, darting wildly in every direction.
She snapped her head toward me. “How long have we been friends?”
“I don’t know,” I said, “since high school, so six or seven years now?”
“Why are we still just friends, Ted? I know you want more. I want more. Why can’t we ever make it happen?”
“You… You want…” I stammered. “I don’t…”
“Every time it feels like our relationship has a chance to progress, something happens to end it and everything goes back to the way it was. And it’s not just us, Ted, it’s everything. For the last six years, we’ve been getting older, but nothing else has changed. Same jobs, same coworkers, same friends, same neighbors, same diner… It’s like we’re trapped in a perpetual status quo.”
“I don’t know what you’re trying to say,” I told her, still reeling from her blunt proclamation of romantic interest. “Maybe you should see someone, a psychiatrist or something.”
She stopped and grabbed my shoulder. I looked at her, then followed her gaze to the dark alley behind me.
“Look,” she said, and pointed. I squinted and peered into the darkness. I saw a shape near the end of the alley, which at first I took to be a pile of rubble leaning against one of the buildings; but then the shape moved—it was a person.
Jo moved past me toward the alley.
“Jo, I don’t think that’s such a good idea,” I told her. She ignored me and stepped into the shadows. I felt a bead of sweat trickle down my forehead as I hesitantly followed her.
The woman in the alley was sitting against one of the buildings, dressed in a patchwork of rags. Her face was blackened in places with what looked like soot. She leaped to her feet when she heard us, startled by our approaching footsteps.
“You,” said Jo, “I know you…”
The woman shook her head. “No, no, no,” she muttered. “You shouldn’t be here. You shouldn’t see me. Go away!”
“Ted,” said Jo, looking at me. “Does she look familiar to you?”
I studied the woman’s face. There was something about her. I couldn’t quite place my finger on it, but I felt as if I should know who she was.
“She looks kind of like your Aunt Peggy,” I said at last.
The woman gave a quiet gasp when I said the name.
“Don’t you remember?” said Jo. “A couple years ago, how Peggy changed? We all joked about it at the time—how her hair looked different, or it looked like she shrunk a few inches… but it’s not a joke Ted. Look at her!”
I looked at the woman in rags, who had started muttering “Aunt Peggy” over and over again.
“What are you trying to say, Jo?” I asked.
“This is my aunt Peggy, Ted. The woman we’ve been calling Aunt Peggy for the last two years is an impostor!”
“You’re crazy,” I said, but I felt a nagging tinge of doubt at the edge of my mind. Peggy had changed in appearance quite drastically as Jo had said, almost like she was a whole new person. “People can’t just be replaced like that,” I said, not entirely sure if I was trying to convince Jo, or myself.
Jo ignored me and turned back to the woman. “What happened to you, Aunt Peggy?” she said. “Who did this to you?”
The woman stopped muttering and looked at Jo. It started softly at first—a strange guttural gurgling coming from her throat. It got louder, and soon the woman was heaving with maniacal phlegmy laughter.
“Can’t you hear them?” the woman said. “Can’t you hear them laughing?”
Jo’s eyes went wide and she took a step back. “What… What did you say?”
“You can hear them too, can’t you?” she said. “They’re laughing at you, Jo. They’re laughing at us all!”
I grabbed Jo’s arm and turned us back toward the street. “Come on,” I said, “let’s get the hell out of here.”
The woman’s cackling followed us into the daylight as we ran from that dark place. “They replaced me and they can replace you too!” she called after us as we fled. “This world revolves around him!”
The shrill contempt and bitterness with which she spat that final “him” echoed in my mind all the way back to our building.
I didn’t sleep well that night, and I’m pretty sure Jo didn’t sleep at all. When I went to her place the next day, she was still wearing the same clothes, pouring over old family photo albums.
“Ted! Look at this,” she said excitedly, shaking the photo album she had open in front of her and motioning me over to the couch. “There are no photos of aunt Peggy anywhere from before two years ago,” she said.
“So?” I asked.
“So, don’t you think that’s weird? Look, there are photos of me, Tim, my parents, you, all going back to when we were in high school; but aunt Peggy only shows up here,” she pointed to a page about two thirds of the way through the album. “Around the same time she changed.”
“There have to be photos somewhere,” I said. “What about in another album?”
“I checked them all, Ted. She’s nowhere. I’m telling you, that woman yesterday used to be my aunt Peggy.”
I took the album from her, then closed it and put it down on the coffee table. I shook my head. “What you’re saying makes no sense, Jo,” I said. “You look tired, did you sleep at all last night? Maybe some rest will make you feel better.”
She slumped over and put her face in her hands. “Yeah,” she said. “Yeah, maybe you’re right. I could use a shower and some sleep.”
I grinned, spotting my chance to lighten the mood. “If you want any help with either of those, just say the word,” I said.
Her body went tense. She slowly slid her hands down her face, pulling the skin as she did so to reveal raw, pink flesh under her eyes. She looked at me, then slowly opened her mouth, and started shrieking.
“HAA!” she yelled. “HAA HAA HAA HAA!”
I backed away toward the door of her apartment. “Jo? Stop that, you’re scaring me.”
She continued barking out her emotionless, robotic laughter as she opened the door, shoved me out, and then slammed it in my face.
It was a long time before I saw Jo again after that. Apparently she decided to hop on a bus to “find herself” in the city. I dated a few different girls while she was away, but every one of them seemed to have some quirk that drove me nuts. My brother, who works for NASA, was put on a shuttle to Mars, so my little nephew Willie came to live with me for a while. He’s a real trouble maker.
When I got the call from Jo that she was coming back, it felt like it had been a couple years, even though it had only been a few months. I met her at the bus stop and, watching her get off, I barely even recognized her. She’d dyed her hair and straightened it, but there was something more than that… Everything about her seemed a little bit different.
We’re together now—we decided to take another stab at the romance thing. Whenever I try to bring up any of the events that happened right before she left, Jo gets really uncomfortable and says she doesn’t remember it too well. It’s been on my mind a lot though.
I saw someone the other day who reminded me of her the way she was before she left—a homeless woman in the parking lot at my office. It was tangled and greasy, but I could tell her hair was blonde and curly the way I remembered Jo’s being. She spotted me and took off, but there was a brief moment where my eyes met hers—her intense blue eyes…
Some nights I feel like I’m going crazy. And not just because I have to take care of Willie now, although that doesn’t help matters. The thing about Willie is, I don’t remember even knowing I had a nephew until he showed up—or even a brother, let alone one who works at NASA. How is it possible for something like that to have slipped my mind for so long?
I’ve also started hearing noises. They surface sometimes during breaks in conversations I’m having. It’s murky and muffled, like it’s coming from a hundred miles away, but it’s there. It’s been getting clearer and louder as time goes on, and now, if I concentrate really hard while it’s happening, I could swear it sounds like laughter.