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Selling a part of yourself is not so bad.
At least that’s what I’d tell myself as I sat down on the vinyl-covered reclining chair at the plasma center. Selling plasma is like donating blood, except you get to keep your red blood cells and, since you get paid, you aren’t donating anything. Two hours, twice a week pays as well as a half-shift at a fast food joint, and it can be done while reading a book. Just be sure to keep pumping that stress ball–you have to bring your own–or you’ll be there all day.
It’s not for everyone. But if you don’t faint at the sight of the red stuff, you can make some extra green. Becky–that’s my daughter–needed a flute. She insisted on a brand new one, and not one that I could scrounge up through my antique store contacts. I decided to return to my old college habit to raise the funds.
“Gary, how you doing?” Tom the Phlebotomist asked as I sat down and pulled out my ragged paperback and stress ball. The foam ball looked like a bloodshot blue eyeball and smelled like the old wrestling mats back in high school.
“Doing fine, Tom,” I told him. “Kill anybody today?”
“Not yet,” he said, smiling, but I could tell he did not appreciate the joke. “The morning’s still young. Am I right in remembering this will be your last session with us?”
“That’s right. Flute is taken care of, and my poor veins could use a break.”
“We’ll miss seeing you around here,” he said, sounding like he meant it.
A phlebotomy technician is a professional vampire. Tom was excellent at his job, especially when compared to Mousy Marilyn, who looked like an angry librarian glaring at someone for talking too loudly. After Mousey Marilyn dug around in my arm, I learned to say, “God, no!” to bad stickers.
I’d already been brushed with iodine, so Tom put on the pressure cuff and had me pump my foam eyeball. My veins are like a freeway, and he stabbed one with a steady hand.
After Tom left, I looked around for a familiar face. Having a regular donation time is like riding the same bus every day; familiar strangers are the norm. But that Saturday morning the room was filled with the other kind of strangers.
Weird, I thought, but only huh-weird, not oh-my-God-what-is-this-weird. What made it more unusual, thought, was how attractive everyone looked.
I’m not speaking ill of the plasma-selling crowd, please understand. But they’re normal people, and look like normal people. The center that morning was filled with women and men who could get hired for a job based on their appearance and nothing else.
Across the aisle, a woman that could have been a Dallas Cowboy cheerleader caught me looking and gave me a tiny smile before going back to her magazine. She should have been on the cover.
Tom checked in to see how I was doing as the chilled saline pumped into my vein.
“Where are all the regulars today?” I asked, shuddering from the cold.
He took a look around and shrugged. “I dunno. New crowd, I guess.”
“Weird Jake isn’t even here?”
I should clarify that Weird Jake is how the man introduced himself, so I’m not completely horrible referring to him as such. He was a lanky, scraggly-haired man notorious for two things: talking non-stop to anyone within his scope of vision and taking an eternity to fill up his plasma reservoir.
“He’s probably around somewhere,” Tom said.
“Without talking everyone’s ear off?”
“Good point,” he said, but an emergency in another part of the center drew him away. Someone else unplugged me, and I didn’t see Tom again.
I stopped at the bank on the way home and deposited the cash so I wouldn’t waste it on soda and candy. It was a typical weekend, spent with my wife, Harriet, and our daughters, Becky, age thirteen, and Jennifer, sixteen. Harriet tried making hamburgers Sunday night–always a scary experience–but we survived and ended up ordering pizza. By Monday, I’d forgotten the weird feeling from the plasma center.
The beautiful people were waiting for me at work. I noticed that most of the customers coming into the antique store were gorgeous to the point of distraction.
As I wrapped a lamp in butcher paper for a woman, I asked, “So what do you do?” She looked for all the world like a 1930s movie star in her heyday.
“Telemarketing,” she said, smiling and flashing her veneers.
By Tuesday, I started to ask my wife if she’d noticed it at the bank. In the light of the television, I saw the face I had loved for over two decades. She still had that beautiful red hair, with only a stray strand or two of gray, and her laugh lines reminded me how often she smiled.
She looked even lovelier than when we first met, but I knew the question—“Have you noticed all the sexy ladies lately?”–might lead to hurt feelings. She’d also had a distant look the whole evening, and I thought it best to sleep on it.
Things might have gone differently if I’d only asked.
The next afternoon, I came home to a stranger in my kitchen.
“Hello, Gary,” the woman said. She wore Harriet’s apron, the one with the adorable anthropomorphic hamburgers. A sense of unreality washed over me. The woman had red hair and was about Harriet’s height; she looked vaguely similar to my wife, but was maybe five years younger.
“Mom made Monte Cristos for dinner,” Jennifer said as she texted on her phone.
“She did, did she?” I said in what could have been a playful or accusatory manner. The week’s feeling of unease erupted into full-born panic.
“I know they’re your favorite,” the woman who was not my wife said. “I even grabbed those raspberry preserves you like.” She dipped her finger into the red jelly on one of the plates and then stuck the tip of her finger into my surprised mouth.
“Gross,” Becky said, rolling her eyes.
The four of us ate dinner as we normally would, with the one obvious exception. The impostor mentioned the same names from the bank I generally heard gossiped about over the table. Oddly enough, even in my near hysteria, I noticed the sandwiches were delicious.
Everyone did their own thing after dinner. Jennifer talked to boys on her phone, and Becky practiced on her new flute. She wasn’t very good yet; the flute produced painful squeaks and squawks. Not-My-Harriet brought me a beer as I sat fidgeting in front of the television. We sat and watched a movie in silence, although I have no idea what movie it was. Eventually the girls went to bed.
“Coming to bed, Gary?” Not-My-Harriet asked. There was something suggestive in her voice. My chest tightened.
“No, sorry. Not yet,” I said. I always went to bed the same time as my wife; but, to be fair, this wasn’t my wife.
“Just don’t stay up too late,” she said. She gave me a wet kiss on the cheek and left me alone in the living room.
After I made sure everyone was asleep, I studied the photographs that littered the walls of the house. The photos were unchanged; my wife of nineteen years looked back at me. The driver’s license in Harriet’s purse still had the unflattering picture that so embarrassed her.
The possibilities ricocheted back and forth in my mind. If Harriet was really missing, I needed to call the police. But what could I tell them? “Help, police, my wife is missing, but my daughters think this other woman is her.” Maybe it was an elaborate prank, and the girls were in on it. Maybe hidden cameras filled the house, and I was on Candid Camera. Maybe I didn’t respond to the gag like they hoped, and they were keeping it going until I did.
Allen Funt never jumped out from behind the couch, so I had to entertain another possibility: I’d gone crazy.
Perhaps Not-My-Harriet was Harriet, and something in my brain could not see it. If this was the case, it was possible I was simply exhausted, and a good night’s sleep would set me right.
Crawling in bed beside a stranger was surreal, but I managed to fall asleep.
Early the next morning, I awoke to the caressing hands of my wife. The night before forgotten, we quietly made love. It was only as the sun came up that I realized Not-My-Harriet was still in my bed.
Horrified, I pulled on my robe and fled the bedroom. My stomach failed me, and I dropped to my knees in the hall bathroom and vomited into the toilet.
I propped myself against the wall, my chest heaving. What have I done? I thought. What have I done?
“Daddy, are you okay?”
I turned to the doorway to see an unknown girl in Becky’s pajamas.
“It’s nothing, sweetie,” I said, my head spinning. “I think I just stayed up too late.”
Not-My-Harriet entered the bathroom and handed me a fizzing glass of water. “I’ll try not to take it too personally,” she said with a concerned wink.
Overnight, something had changed or replaced both of my daughters. I tried not to hyperventilate as Not-My-Harriet left to drive Not-My-Becky and Not-My-Jennifer to school. “I hope you get to feeling better, honey,” my wife’s replacement said on her way out the door.
I got to work and sat in a daze, hardly helping the customers that came into the shop. They all looked like models with fake smiles, anyway.
Closing the shop for lunch an hour earlier than usual, I sat at the counter and made a list of my possible actions on an old receipt. In my heart, I knew the people I could call for help–my friends, my father, my casual acquaintances–were already replaced. If I wasn’t crazy, I could force the pod people to give my family back. But if I was a lunatic, I’d be hurting the ones I cared about the most.
I pulled a dog-eared business card from my wallet. I’d seen a therapist in the past for stress, and she had given me her number to call in case of emergencies. I reasoned that even if Dr. Goldberg was a different person, she could still tell if I was crazy.
I called the number. A receptionist put me on hold. When Dr. Goldberg picked up the phone, I could not tell from her voice if she were the same person or not. I explained my predicament.
“Am I going crazy?” I asked. “Is there anything I can do?”
Ignoring my question, the voice asked, “Are you unhappy with the changes?”
“Don’t you prefer the new status quo? You seemed fine with it this morning, at least until you lost your nerve.”
I hung up the phone.
That afternoon, I parked the car in the garage and walked out to the mailbox—anything to avoid going into that house of strangers.
A solitary envelope sat inside the black metal mailbox. It bore my name in handwritten letters, but there was no return address. Sitting down on the curb, I tore open the envelope and read the letter inside.
“Please do not be alarmed. You are to be replaced.
“Leave your wallet, keys, wrist watch, and wedding ring on your dresser, beside the framed wedding photograph. Do not bother taking money or anything else. You will not require it.
“Your replacement will be along shortly; it would be best for everyone if you are not here when he arrives. Enclosed is one bus ticket. A taxi will be along shortly to take you to the station.”
The letter was not signed.
“Will my family be waiting for me?” I asked the empty street. “My real family?”
I flipped the letter over. It read, “No one is waiting for you.”
I entered the house. Not-My-Harriet greeted me from the kitchen. “Are you feeling any better, honey?” she asked. “You still look kind of pale.”
“I am fine,” I said, my voice sounding far away.
Not-My-Jennifer sat at the kitchen table, doing the homework I never saw Jennifer bring home. Behind a closed door, Not-My-Becky played the flute I bought for my daughter. The music sounded both beautiful and unsettling, every note so perfect it made me want to scream.
I put my wallet and keys on the dresser. I took off my battered wedding ring and my father’s wrist watch. My wife, the real one, smiled back at me from the framed photograph she had given me on our first anniversary.
None of the impostors said anything as I left the house and my life.
A Checker taxi idled at the end of the block. I opened the back door and climbed inside. Without a word, the faceless driver put the cab into drive. As we drove away, I turned and watched another man walk into my house.