Body Doubles, Dana Diehl
In this town, humans shed their skin like reptiles. The streets and parks and cul-de-sacs and ice cream shops and bank lobbies teem with our translucent, hollow doubles. They somersault in the winds, get caught in windshield wipers when it rains, drift into the river and get tangled in the motors of speed boats or pulled up in crawdad traps. Those of us who bike to work complain about them getting entangled in our bike spokes.
To put it bluntly, it’s a damn nuisance. But it hasn’t always been this way.
We remember a time, though it’s been years now, when folks in our town dropped skin the normal way. Microscopic dead skin cells that we never missed. Skin that would turn into dust and carpet the top shelves of bookcases and the edges of our Venetian blinds.
Some say the shedding started with an experimental skin care product, one meant to rid your skin of acne scars and calluses and scar tissue, giving you skin like a baby’s. There is a factory upriver that produces lotions and scrubs and cleansers. Maybe a pipeline cracked. Maybe a crooked manager dumped waste over the bank in the dead of night. Either way, one theory is that the chemicals seeped into the watershed, and to this day we poison ourselves with every sip of water from the tap.
Others say we brought it on ourselves. We toiled too long, not talking about our lived and inherited traumas. Now, our bodies have had enough and are releasing the unspoken secrets through our skin. Like toxins sweat out in a sauna. Like when you get a splinter deep in your finger, and your body has two options: dissolve or push it back to the surface. Expel it.
It’s true that many of our histories contain darkness. Family secrets come out after someone dies and the daughters begin digging through basements, or when a grandkid gets inspired to do a family tree project and starts sifting through the archived newspapers at the local library. The secrets we don’t speak: Theresa’s twin who wasn’t actually her twin, but a half-sister from another mother. Gladys’s drunk great-aunt Lisa, swallowed by a sinkhole in her very own garden. The ex-husband buried under Meridith’s compost pile. Eshal’s uncle who spent five years in prison out of state and came back quiet, eyes inexplicably a new shade of brown, almost black.
There were stories we held onto for decades. Secrets brooding in the corners of our homes, guiding the trajectory of our lives. But who has the time or energy to dwell on all that? We’re a town of farmers, of diner owners, of factory workers, of wall builders. We’re the children of miners, before the mines were sealed shut. We have lives that keep us on our feet, or in the sun, or with our hands wrist-deep in dirt.
At first, we thought our doubles were kind of special. They have a sort of holographic, rainbow glimmer when held up to light in the right way. The skins keep their shape if we’re careful, but crumple as easy as paper lanterns.
Adults shed every few months to a year. We know it’s coming when we feel ticklish for no reason. Or when we stay awake all night staring at the ceiling, but don’t feel tired in the morning. We step out of our old skin, and our new skin is younger than the one we’ve left behind. No more bug bites. No more cesarian scar. No more bruise.
Kids shed the most often. After school, dozens of translucent child-doubles roam the playground like a herd of deer at dusk, before the Clean Team has time to vacuum them up and dispose of them in the dumpster.
Some of the kids get attached to their doubles, which is kind of cute at first. They tie them to their wrists with a piece of string and fly them in the backyard like kites. They give them names and call them friends. They set up a plate for them at dinner time and tip empty cups to their paper-thin lips. If their parents try to throw the doubles away, they cry like their parents have abandoned them, their real, flesh children. But then, a few weeks later, they shed a new skin. A new self to befriend. And they forget their pain.
We feel like we’ve lived with the doubles long enough to know everything about them. That is, until Kaylee goes missing.
Kaylee is seven years old, young for a third grader, when her mother finds a hollow, daughter-shaped shell under the sheets instead of her daughter. At first, the mother thinks Kaylee must have shed in her sleep and, frightened by the unexpected ghostly copy of herself in bed, ran away and hid. Kaylee was a sensitive child, apt to cry under her desk during tests at school. But the mother can’t find her anywhere. Not in her closet, not in the laundry hamper, not under the raspberry bush in the backyard.
Then, the next day, Miles disappears, as well. His father finds his double curled up on his beanbag chair. And then there’s Leah, then Shubham. Every day, another child vanishes in their sleep, leaving only their shed skin behind.
We’re in hysterics. We stop sleeping. We link arms and move through the woods, flushing out deer, chasing groundhogs from their holes, not leaving a single inch unsearched. We dredge the river. We buy drones with night vision cameras, so when it becomes too dark to search, we can fly them around town, peering into our neighbors’ windows. There are so many drones in the sky, we sometimes crash into each other. We’re not very good at piloting them yet, though we’re getting better.
The parents of the lost children keep their doubles. They sit their hollow children at the kitchen table during dinner, arrange them in bed at night, sit them in front of the television and put on their favorite cartoons and let the TV play all day long. The parents discover if they turn on the ceiling fan at full speed, the doubles move a little bit, like they’re breathing.
After a while, we start to wonder if there was something to the children’s attachment to these doubles. What if these doubles aren’t just hollow skins? What if they still contain something essentially us?
A month passes. Every day or so another kid disappears, until only the teenagers are left. Not a single child has been recovered, and our hopes of ever finding them wane. We begin spending more time with the doubles. After a few are accidentally crushed by well-meaning huggers—their hollow bodies so fragile, so easily broken—the parents set up permanent homes for them. The parents build thrones out of plywood, spray paint them black or neon green or lavender, the children’s favorite colors. They surround them with toys, with Tamagotchi with Pokémon cards with fidget spinners with snap bracelets with fairies that spin and fly when you pull a string. All the toys their sons and daughters weren’t allowed to have when they were flesh. The parents start missing work. They miss Sunday mass. They miss book club. When we stop by their homes with casseroles or pies or bouquets of flowers, we find them sitting at their children’s altars. Their eyes are baggy and their hair is dull. We wonder when they’ve last shed their skin.
Join us, they say. So, we do.
Together, we bow our heads in front of the translucent children. We get to our knees.
The children look down on us with smooth, blank eyes.
At first, we don’t know what to say. We tell them we miss them. We tell them about the ice hockey game they missed last week, or about the red-tailed hawk we saw snatch a finch clean out of the sky.
And then, presently, we start to whisper our secrets. We tell them everything, and when we run out of things to tell, we share every dark thought, every ill wish. Every suspicion about ourselves we worry is true.
The children’s doubles nod in an invisible breeze, and we think we can see a blush of pink in their cheeks, just maybe. We ask them to please, please forgive us.
Dana Diehl is the author of Our Dreams Might Align (Splice UK, 2018) and the collaborative collection, The Classroom (Gold Wake Press, 2019). Her chapbook, TV Girls, won the 2017-2018 New Delta Review Chapbook Contest judged by Chen Chen. Diehl earned her MFA in Fiction at Arizona State University. Her work has appeared in or is forthcoming in North American Review, Passages North, Necessary Fiction, Waxwing, Mid-American Review, and elsewhere.