WALLS I

The first thing I did was go out to the gardener’s cottage. I figured if someone was hiding documents or taking them from the house, that seemed a good place to start looking.

The entrance to that little house is completely obscured by tangled white branches and overgrown with vines and thorn bushes. I’m not getting in without an axe. That was fine, I thought, I can get my hatchet from the car, and I was about to do just that when I circled around the back of the cottage and there he was.

In broad daylight, feet away from me, as solid and real as my own kneecaps. I got a good look at him this time. A real good look.

First thing I realized was that he isn’t me. Yes, he had my face. And he was wearing my clothes complete with Briony’s hand-knitted sweater, same as before. He was holding my hatchet.

But he wasn’t me. He was standing over a pile of scattered bricks and bricklayers’ tools, stacked up behind the gardener’s cottage, and he was just looking down at them. I came around the side of the cottage and froze, but he didn’t seem to notice I was there. While I watched, he knelt down, set the hatchet on the ground, and reached out to touch one of the bricks. Lovingly, almost.

I wasn’t sure whether to run or scream. Nobody ever gets to see their own face, not really. We see our own reflections in mirrors, but mirrors are reversed, and photographs don’t really catch the essence of a human face in motion. A video might get close, but videos are often contrived, on a loop, and you’re always separated from the image of your past self by a wall of time and unreality.

When this other Benjamin Farrow turned to look at me, it near took my breath away. Like someone had reached into me and torn my guts right out. That instant I knew exactly what Hazel meant in her last letter - here was me, but not me, and he was the only real thing in the entire world. Everything else? An illusion.

There were deep purple circles under his eyes and his stubble-ragged face was gaunt and grayish, even though he was flushed with fever.

I said hello. What else was I supposed to do? I think I gave him a halfhearted little wave, too.

He opened his mouth like he was about to reply, but instead he doubled over coughing. Worst sound I’ve ever heard, period. Percussive, tearing, painful-sounding. I felt a tickle in my throat and swallowed to get rid of it.

Blood spattered the ground at his feet, peppered with tiny, sharp white pieces like fingernails or little bits of bone. I could imagine how they tore the lining of his throat on the way out of him, how even his gums and tongue were riddled and bleeding.

What even causes something like that?

After a minute he straightened up and wiped his mouth on his sleeve, but he kept eye contact with me the whole time. I couldn’t look away, and it seemed like he couldn’t either. Then he shook his head, picked up the hatchet, and walked away through the trees. His head jerked as he turned, like it was a physical effort for him to wrench himself away.

I didn’t try to follow. I was rooted to the spot. But I watched his shoulders shaking as he retreated, and I may not be the most self-aware person in the world but I know what I look like when I’m trying not to cry.

Maybe I should have gone after him? That seems like the sensible thing, like, the thing I’m not supposed to do in this game the estate seems to be playing with me. I’m not supposed to interrogate the monster.

I haven’t missed my chance, though.

I know in my bones he’ll be back.

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