DEAD RINGER

One morning she woke up, and he was there.

For a long time she simply stared at him, the covers curled up to her chin, her old, tired eyes wide. She must have been dreaming, she thought. She must have been caught in some nightmare. But the boy at her bedside was very much real. The sheen of his little brown locks. His big eyes, lovely and dark. His gap-toothed grin.

"Mommy!" he said happily, grabbing the sheets with his little fists. "I'm hungry!"

In a daze, she went to the kitchen, clutching her nightgown tightly around herself. The boy was ahead of her, his socks sliding on the wood of the floor, his shirt and suspenders loose on his small form, just as she had remembered they had always been.

She served him an omelet, watched him eat it. The light coming in from the windows of the kitchen was cold and gray. There was fog outside, thick, oppressive. But she couldn't look away from the boy, couldn't tear her eyes away from the mole on his neck, the small scar on his forehead. She remembered that scar, remembered watching her husband hoist the boy up in his arms and bring him inside. He had climbed the tree in the yard and went out too far on one of the branches. She had put him in the tub afterwards, wiped his tears away with a rag, sang to him, made him laugh.

When he finished the omelet, he looked up. She made him more.

He played in the yard, throwing up leaves. The same tree was still there, but it was much larger, much older. She stood on the porch, watching him closely through the fog, her gray hair in a bun, a mug of coffee in her shaking hand. This was no dream. She realized that now.

When he came back in, he asked for Daddy. She told him Daddy had been gone for a long time. A very long time.

But he didn't understand.

Days passed. The routine became normal. The fog outside grew thicker.

Then the boy started crying.

What is it? The mother was startled. She embraced him. Why are you crying?

But he didn't know. He couldn't remember. There were things he didn't recognize. Things that were wrong. With him. With her. With everything.

After a while, she lulled him to sleep. Sang to him like she had in the past.

But his questions lingered in the air. Why is your hair like that, Mommy? Why do you look so different? Why do you feel so rough?

Why, why, why.

She tried to ignore it. Tried to understand why this was happening. Was it a cruel joke? A nasty prank one of the neighbors thought up? But there no neighbors. In fact, there was no one outside anymore. Just that fog. It was almost like the whole town was gone, and her little house with its tree in the yard was all alone.

This was what she thought as she fell to sleep, the boy beside her, wrapped in her arms. But the thought vanished. In its place came a red room, the walls covered in rust and blood and decay. In the center of the room was the boy, crying, yelling, wailing. Blood ran down his face. Blood poured from his scar. And he changed. His little hands and feet became different. His lovely dark eyes became something else.

The son she had loved forty years before was still gone.

The son who had climbed the tree and fell a second time was far away in the earth.

What came back wasn't him.

It was something else.

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