The Doppelganger

by Charlotte Dovey

John Smith was working in his garage, standing on a ladder trying to put up some shelves.  He should have had another pair of hands, but as a natural loner there was no one to ask.  After working for half an hour without making much headway, he got frustrated and angry.  He awkwardly reached over his head with his drill, no longer caring that he could not properly see what he was doing.  He jabbed at the wall with the drill, but lost his balance and toppled the ladder.  He fell and passed out cold when he hit his head – he had left a number of tools scattered on the floor. 

When he came to he had a terrible throbbing headache and nausea.  He did not feel as though he could move.  He felt as though his insides were all mixed up, as though he’d been rolling down a hill as he did as a boy, or on some sort of terrible amusement park ride.  He lay on the floor for some time, but then gingerly pushed himself up.  He crawled across the floor, through the door that connected his garage to his kitchen, and over to a chair, where he pulled himself up and sat. 

After some minutes, he heard a voice coming from his garage, then a small, stooped man with a long nose poked his head through the door.  The small man said, “I heard a noise.  I wanted to see if you are alright.”

John Smith did not recognize the man, but he vaguely understood that his mind was not working properly.  He asked, “Who are you?  Are you a neighbor?”

The man looked perplexed.  “You don’t know me?”  His expression changed to concern when John Smith shook his head.  He asked, “Did you hurt yourself?”  Smith nodded and groaned slightly, head in his hand. 

The man continued, “I am a neighbor of a sort.  I was walking my dog when I heard a commotion.  I went ’round to your front door but there was no answer.”

The man helped himself to a chair.  He said, with an intent look in his eyes, “I’ve been meaning to talk to you for a long time about something…  That man named John Smith.  I know you hate him.”

John Smith was very fuzzy-headed and couldn’t think straight.  “Who?”  He did not know the name.  Come to think of it, he could not even remember his own name.  He felt another wave of nausea.  He wished the man would go, but he never thought to ask him to leave.  He shook his head. 

“John Smith.  He’s the man whose fault it is.  The reason that your wife left, and why you lost your job.”

John Smith thought that he remembered a hatred; he felt it in his bones.  He wished he could remember, but he knew that what the man said was right.

The little man told John Smith that he shouldn’t be left alone, as he probably had a concussion.  He offered to stay while John Smith slept, and Smith agreed.  He felt so ill that he went to lie down. 

As he dozed he had a vivid dream in which a man named John Smith made mistakes at work because he had been drinking, but then blamed the mistakes on him.  He lost his job.  This same man also drove his wife away with his angry abuse. 

Smith awoke with an intense feeling of blind rage against this other man.  He was convinced that the little man was right, that John Smith caused all of his problems.  He even thought that John Smith deserved to die.  He decided that he would kill him. 

The little man was waiting for him, still sitting in the kitchen.  Smith told him that he would be right back.  He got some antifreeze from the garage and poured it into a bottle that still had a small amount of alcohol, that he had inadvertently also left in the garage, and he replaced the top on the bottle and carried it through to the little man.  He handed the refilled liquor bottle to him, saying, “Give this to John Smith when you see him.  I borrowed some booze from him and told him I’d replace it.”

The little man smiled, his watery eyes glinting, and he agreed.  He left shortly afterwards.

John Smith went back to bed that night and slept for a very long time, unusually for him, at least ten hours.  He still felt very bad in the morning.  He discerned somewhat that he could not remember simple things, even his own name, or where he worked, or if he worked at all.  He stayed in the house.  At midday, he helped himself to a bottle in the cupboard.  He thought that a couple of drinks would drive away his fearful headache.  He had some nebulous idea about John Smith.  He wondered if the man was dead, mildly surprised at his own attitude towards murdering another man.  Yet, he felt that he was living in a dream, that nothing was quite real to him.

The coroner found antifreeze in the body during the autopsy, as well as a nasty blow to the head.  Foul play was suspected at first because the proximate cause of death was not immediately determinate.  The death could have been a suicide, but there was no note.  The man’s ex-wife told police that the man had suffered a lot of problems and drank too much, often becoming angry and unbalanced.  In the end, they decided that the death was probably suicide rather than murder.

* * *

A man named John Smith sat alone in his house after returning from his doctor’s appointment.  He did not cry, as he felt too stunned.  The doctor had tried to be kind, but conveying the news that a patient has a debilitating degenerative disease is never something that can be done with ease.  John felt, viscerally, that part of the reason he got sick was because of his wife and son dying in that accident four years past.  He never really wanted to go on after that – he never could make his life work.  He just withdrew from it and hoped that he would not have to face his loneliness for much longer.  The future just spread out before him as an infinite, frighteningly empty void.

Bartolomeo Passarotti [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Portrait of dokter Carlo Fontana

As a pharmacist and in his side-line as an herbalist, he knew how to poison himself effectively.  He was not sure exactly why the thought of doing so frightened him.  Unlike other people with his condition, he could not simply tell himself that he was not sure exactly what to take or how much; he could very efficiently dispatch himself where other people would likely botch the job.  He also did not believe that he would be punished – even if there was an afterlife surely there are sometimes good reasons to kill oneself that do not warrant these tales of damnation.  He did not have anyone left behind anymore to worry about harming with his suicide.  He had a few co-workers, friends, and distant relatives.  He knew that his death would trouble them, and yet he also knew that they would understand considering the circumstances.  Yet there was something that nevertheless prevented him from doing what seemed the only sensible thing left to do; some vague, amorphous fear of the unknown, perhaps.

John troubled over his predicament.  In the meantime, he persisted with his work and did not tell any of his acquaintances about what now preyed on his mind.  It was not difficult to hide the news from them; he was quiet and reserved, even detached, but they were used to that by now.   

On the following weekend, he went out to his back garden to sit, as it was unseasonably mild and sunny.  He carried his coffee out and sat on his garden bench.  He watched the insects crawling up the stalks and over the leaves of his plants.  He had spent many long hours over the years cultivating this garden.  Now it seemed rather pointless.  He wondered what would happen to it, to his house, to him, when he was no longer able to move about normally.

John drifted to sleep in the late afternoon sun.  A rustling sound in the bushes awoke him.  A very small, withered-looking man with a bent back and long nose and watery eyes peered out at him from under a nearby hedge.  John squinted, not sure if he was dreaming or imagining shapes lurking in the lengthening shadows.  The little man came forward and John started and sat up.

John said, “Hello?”

The little man replied in kind, with a tip of his hat and a sly smile.  He said, “I know about your difficulties.  I may be able to help you.”

John asked, “How could you know about my problems?  Who are you?”

“You know how small towns are.  Things get around sooner or later.”  When John did not reply, he told him, “I know someone who, for a small fee, can fix things for you.”

“Fix things?”

“You know, end them.”

John started, but then felt the tears fill his eyes.  He blinked them back.  He said, “Why would I want someone to do that?”

The little man continued, “You see, he thinks that people should not be left in a position such as yours.  He can make a quick and painless end, and you wouldn’t even know when it was to happen, so you wouldn’t be scared.”

John thought.  “What does he want?  And how would I know that he is competent to do such a thing?”

The little man said, “You see, he has a similar background to yours, and he doesn’t think it’s right that people should suffer.  He can give you a painless poison and you won’t know when it’s coming so you don’t have to be nervous about taking it.  He’ll just slip it into something else.  All you have to do is give me some of your medicines and a small bit of gold.”

“Gold?” 

“Well, yes.  To keep things square – that way it isn’t regarded as a favor or charity, but a proper exchange.”

John grew anxious and short.  “No.  I’ll have none of that.”

The little man said, “Well, I’ll come back in a few days just to check that you haven’t changed your mind.”  He smiled and said goodbye, then left in a similar manner to how he arrived.

Afterwards, John thought constantly about the little man’s offer.  While a quick and painless death without immediate foreknowledge seemed too good to be true, even a death that was not instant or even not entirely painless seemed to him preferable to the life he was about to experience.  He began to think that this may a good idea after all.

One thing troubled him; he knew that getting another person to do something to him was morally different from simply performing the same act on himself.  When the little man came back as promised, John told him of his misgivings.  He explained that in agreeing to this, he would be involving someone else in a killing.  What if the man was caught?  Or what if he did this to someone who did not want it done?

The little man replied, “He would not do it to someone who did not ask or was not in his right mind.  As for the rest, just consider – if it was you who did it instead of someone else, without knowing in advance, would you have a problem with that?”

John Smith acknowledged that he did not see anything wrong with doing it to himself, but that was different from knowingly getting someone else to do something that was illegal.

The little man said, “The law must be changed because clearly some killings are morally justified.  Clearly this is such a case, under the circumstances.” 

John Smith agreed, but something about this still did not sit right with him.  Nevertheless, he was a desperate man with no other option.  They discussed terms:  John was to give him some medicines.  John quickly worked out that the medicines that the man asked for were sufficient to kill a person, and should do so quite painlessly.  John was also to buy a set amount of gold and leave it for the man to collect the next day.  After that, the matter should be completed by the close of the month.  John agreed, thinking that even if the man stole the gold and the medicines it really did not make much difference.

John kept his side of the arrangements and left everything where they had pre-established.  He also set about putting his own affairs in order; leaving letters, organizing financial arrangements, and making sure that his will was in order.  He did not like the idea that someone else could be blamed for his death so he left a suicide note as evidence that this was a suicide rather than a murder.  He also cleaned out the house, giving away most of his things, not wanting some relative or other to be burdened with the task.

John continued to work as usual, but his co-workers did notice that he was a bit more relaxed than he had been.  They began to hope that he’d turned a corner on his grief, at long last.  At night John ate well, enjoying the taste of everything as he had not for some time.  He also slept better at night. 

One night, about three weeks after seeing the man in the garden, John fell asleep at the kitchen table after partaking of half a bottle of wine that had been left over from the night before.  The little man appeared once more, but this time he came into John’s kitchen.  Seeing that John had drunk the bottle, into which the little man had himself added a special sleeping draught, he smiled.  He took a watch and a light from his pocket and checked the time.  Then he shook John slightly.  Although John was still asleep he opened his eyes and followed him.  The man watched as John created a tea from the medicines that he had himself procured.  John, still sleep-walking, put the prepared mixture into the pot for his breakfast tea the next day. 

In the very small hours of the morning John awoke to find that he had fallen asleep at the table.  He vaguely remembered a dream in which he was struggling with someone who looked exactly like him, his own doppelganger, but now that he was awake the details vanished.  The sun was beginning to rise, so he set about putting up the kettle for his tea.  He discovered the fresh tea leaves in the pot and had assumed that, still being bleary-eyed and sleepy, he had forgotten that he had already prepared the pot.  He sat and drank his tea.  After a short time, he felt overwhelmingly tired again and went to his bed and fell into a deep sleep that he never wakened from.

After some consultation with John’s doctor, the coroner ruled that the death was a suicide, though he did so with regret.  He felt that it was not fair that many people would likely misjudge the verdict.  He said to the doctor, “It is too bad that there isn’t a category of suicide that is justifiable, as there is with homicide.”  The doctor grunted.  “Yes, similar to self-defence, I suppose…  Or perhaps a type of justified mercy self-killing?  It does seem that there ought to be categories or different types of suicide…”  The men went about their business of completing forms and filing reports.

Édouard Manet [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
“The Suicide [The Suicided Man]”

© Copyright 2019, Metamorphorica

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