by Carrie Dickson

Come closer. Can you see me?  There, in the bathroom mirror. No! Don’t wipe away the steam, look past it, relax your eyes and let them lose focus.  Lean forward, just a bit more, BOO!  Just kidding, I can’t hurt you, can’t touch you. 

In fact, I can’t even talk to you.  I can only put ideas into your head, and even then, only if you want what I want.  And you do, don’t you? You want to save her. Why wouldn’t you? She’s your world, as she is mine. Without her we are nothing, and for me at least, in the most literal sense.

Sometimes I give her thoughts. It’s not easy though.  She knows I’m there, and that I want what’s best for her/us, but she resists. That’s why I need you on my side. Together we can save her. 

You call her Seren, and that fits. Seren is Welsh for star. I don’t call her anything. None of us have names for our Other Selves. We don’t need them.  We are as permanently attached as a disembodied being could be. Sometimes we are in their bodies with them – maybe you have had that feeling when your limbs don’t work just how you want them to, or you look at yourself in the mirror in the morning, and for an instant, you’re not quite sure who is looking back at you. We are trying on your skin.

Mostly we like to keep a bit of distance, just an arm’s length or two. That’s when you are most likely to catch a hint of us. A flick in the shadows, a quick glimpse as you walk past a shop window, it’s not your imagination, just your Other Self.

Not everyone feels their Other Self: just the broken ones.  They are fairly easy to recognize, they seem somehow incomplete.  And I guess that’s because they are somehow incomplete. When we were growing, being nurtured and swishing around in our mother’s wombs, we were two.  But nature decided otherwise, and only one was destined for the physical realm.  It is so much more common than you would think. Some doctors even have a name for us; they call us ‘the shooting stars of the womb’, for we are only there for the briefest of times. Scientists call us Chimeras. Sometimes the remaining twin can actually absorb their sibling, so one person can be walking around with two sets of DNA and they never even know.

So we stay, the Other Selves, in essence at least, and we watch and we wait. We stay until they understand, and we try to help them move forward on their own. We watch for the one who can save them from the hurt that they carry from being incomplete – that’s you, and I am the echo that she seems to have, the emptiness that drives her to succeed at all costs or can keep her frozen in her bed for weeks.

She sucks her knees tightly into her chest. One hand snakes under the sheet towards her thigh, and she begins to stroke the welts of scar tissue there. Sometimes that’s enough.  When she was little, it would have been her thumb in her mouth that slowed her breathing and kept her calm, and when school started, the piece of satin her mother had lovingly sewn into the pockets of her clothes. But as she grew up, the world expected so much and she felt so out of place, that now she needed to feel the sting of a blade sliding across her skin. She had to cut; it was the only way to release the unbearable pressure.

It was the crows that had woken her again. Not her shimmering daytime friends that danced on the neighbour’s cars in the morning, while they cleverly extracted the windscreen wiper blades and then deposited them like love tokens at her front door. Seren had heard that crows could recognise faces and were highly intelligent, so she was kind to them, and in return, they left her car alone. To be honest, they fascinated her. When she watched them closely, she felt like she could see further, like a glimpse into another realm.

No, it was not her crows that made her body go rigid with fear, and jerked her out of sleep. It was the crows of darkness again. The murder of crows, with their black-green oil slick feathers, the harbingers of death from which legends had grown. 

It was the nightmare crows again, and they were looking for something to take.

In her dream, her motorbike is sucked backwards out of a cane field.  The bent stalks on either side of the path that her bike has cut, snap upwards from the ground, press their green leafy tops together, and the tunnel her bike has made disappears. Overhead, dark dots converge and form a maelstrom of oil slick in the sky. The darkness merges into a funnel that follows the closing channel of cane stalks. Other kinds of sinister slither impossibly by the sides, their feasting disturbed. The black-green tunnels earthwards, and solidifies into the shape of an SUV.  The crows build it from the tires upwards.  As the wheels form, gravel is sucked from the air and caught under the backward spinning tires. They bite into the gravel, as the car is being completed.  Her motorbike is sucked backwards with it. The slick back tire flicks sidewards as it bounces onto the huge bull bar of the SUV.

She can’t remember how she got here. Even though she knows she is dreaming, everything is fragmented, like when you spin the eyepiece on a kaleidoscope. Now she’s back at the service station, the huge black car yet to be seen. The pressure of the day had gotten to her. She needed to ride.  She remembers being in the restroom, leaning forward over the sink, trying to breathe. Her blade was in one hand, tapping anxiously against her leg.  Her other hand wrapped around a wad of long thick hair, and she hacked. She immediately felt lighter, so she hacked some more. She hacked and watched as her past filled the trash can until she felt light enough to go on.  

Back in the car park, her helmet seemed to fit better now, less pressure. She swung her leg over the seat of the bike and threw her insubstantial weight down to kick the engine into life. She only needed one go. She was small but fiercely determined. And her resolve to be gone was like titanium.  

Now she is on the highway, clicking up through the gears, and that’s when she notices the black SUV bearing down on her.  She leans on the accelerator and pulls away momentarily, but the car behind seems to move preternaturally, almost at warp speed.  She can remember shifting her weight to lean the bike into a sharp left turn, off the road and straight into the cane fields, and the car prodding her back wheel with its bull bar. The motorbike ploughs forward, and the black vehicle disintegrates into a stream of crows.

Seren wakes up with a start. One hand goes straight to the scars on her thigh, and the other to her hair. Another nightmare. 

For one moment, before she’s fully awake, I can get through. ‘Tell him’, I whisper, ‘Let him in, he can save you.’ She jumps and startles you. 

‘What is it?’ you ask as you turn on the lamp. ‘What’s wrong?’

She can’t pull out the words to tell you about the melancholy that she lives with, how her life is a huge oxymoron; so full of emptiness, and the nightmares with answers that she doesn’t know how to find. 

The light illuminates the oversized print on the wall.  You trawled the Internet to find one that big for her. It’s ‘The Starry Night’ by Vincent van Gogh, her favourite painting, by her favourite artist. Seren knows it like an old friend. She’s told you the story of Vincent, and his life plagued with sadness. She’s intrigued by the theory that his madness may have been facilitated by the fact that he was named after his dead brother, and maybe that’s why he often painted males in pairs. He could never fill the void, she told you, and how apparently when he painted ‘The Starry Night’ he had said ‘We take death to reach a star’. What she also found fascinating but didn’t say, was that Vincent was a cutter, he had hacked at his own left ear to release his pressure.

She sits on the bed almost catatonic, staring at the painting. It frightens you, and you want to run. But instead this time, you make the decision to stay.  You say what she can’t. You tell her that you know about the blades. You tell her that she doesn’t have to carry the emptiness on her own anymore.  You stroke the scars on her thighs and she clings to you. You tell her, you will still be there in the morning, and every morning from now on. Your limbs interlace with hers, and eventually, exhausted, you both collapse back into sleep. To dream.

In her dream, she is running, and the crows are tunnelling behind her, so close, they are going to cut her down.  She runs hard, and her heart is thrashing inside her chest from fear. Then Seren thinks to her dream self; I’m running to survive, why? Would it be so bad to just give in to the darkness?  She’d been fighting it for so long. She stops suddenly and leans forward, panting heavily and resting her hands on her knees. She is all kinds of exhausted, and she just knows she can’t fight anymore. 

She straightens up and turns to face them, the murder of crows, her fears. The black swarm makes contact with the concrete directly in front of her.  Her instincts scream at her to run, but she no longer has the will.  She feels resigned and is almost welcoming the end of the emptiness.  They are so close that Seren can’t make out the shape of the crows anymore; they are just an inky cloud that is converging at her feet. It looks like sand is funnelling from the sky into an invisible mould, and as the particles connect with each other; they change from black to the colour of flesh.  As the stack grows taller, a form begins to emerge, a human form. Serens’ eyes grow wide, and she shakes her head, this can’t be what she had been terrified of for so long.  

Finally, things make sense. A tear runs down her face. As she reaches out her hand towards me, and I reach out to touch her, she knows. The dark particles separate, and tunnel back into the sky. I am no longer needed, so I hitch a ride to the other realm with my brothers, the crows. 

What is it’ he asks, ‘another nightmare?’ and he reaches over to switch on the lamp. Seren is sitting up in the bed, her knees drawn close.  Her hand is searching under the sheet for his. He can see the tears. They shine like tiny stars on her cheeks.

‘Different this time,’ she fumbles for the words, ‘I feel kind of relieved. It’s almost like something has been lifted off me, but instead of leaving a hole behind, I actually feel complete.’

One hand clutches his tightly, and her other hand absently rubs her stomach, already loving the little ones that are growing within.

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