The muddy and dried snow crunched under my brown boots as I cradled myself tighter to ward off the extreme cold. My hands were numb already and the road ahead glistened, shimmering snake like in the morning sun, both sides of the road was covered in white snow and looked foreboding. I had to walk two miles to reach the grocery store. Its run by a sixty year old, slightly obese woman, Emily and her stocky Asian husband Chang and it is the only store that stays open twenty four hours, even amidst heavy snowfall. The thought of some warm instant coffee was tugging me along. My car was broken; its axles all twisted and needed urgent repair. Hence this unwanted walk. Phew! I was already tired.
How did I end up here? It always surprised me, what little memory I actually had of my childhood. Although, I distinctly remember that I was born and brought up in a much warmer place. My mother’s gentle eyes float by, daddy’s loud laughter and house walls the colour of strawberry. I remembered being picked up and smothered with kisses, warm and gentle and with so much love. It hurts me to remember the love, unfathomable and deep. And yet the years after that are blank. I just woke up here one fine day with photographs strewn across the wall, of me, just me. Me skydiving, me eating an icecream, me laughing in the camera! I looked so happy, my eyes twinkling with sunshine and rain. But I do not remember when that or the others were taken. Not a bit.
I reached Emily’s shop and the windchime pealed to announce my arrival as I pushed open the door. Emily shouted a familiar ‘hello’ the kind that reaches to your heart. She beamed at me and rushed to get me some coffee. As I soaked in the warmth of the well heated room and sipped on the coffee, I amusedly watched as both of them rushed with purpose to different ends of the shop. They had a routine, a balance. They looked like poised ballerinas waltzing along to similar tunes. I always marvelled at how efficiently they handled this store and how nicely they behaved with everyone who would walk in, even perfect strangers.
“Did you get a nice sleep, Zola? Hope you ate a nice dinner! Girls your ages do not have time to eat!” She chattered on and I found a strange comfort in her words. She was peeling and cutting vegetables, no doubt for the stew. Did I tell you what an amazing cook she was? The little grocery store doubled up as a local eatery and believe it or not the lunchtimes were always crowded. As Emily grumbled on about the fallacies of the present generation, Chang winked at me behind her back and we both shared a smile. We almost were like a happy family. Only that we were not. They had two daughters, both married and settled in Chicago and Cincinnati. The store had a large photograph, probably 10×10 of a happy family that smiled back at me. Emily and Chang, Gina and Edward, Tania and Joseph, all posing happily for the camera. And every time I looked at the picture, I would want to climb in there, stand there wearing those flowy gowns and probably belong with them. Belong to someone, someplace. Twice a year, Emily and Chang would visit their beautiful daughters and then I would be left stranded for a few days.
I sometimes asked them if they knew I how I reached here. They would always nod their heads. Emily had once told me that six summers ago, I had just walked in their store, head bleeding, hair dishevelled, clothes askew asking for a cup of coffee. “You had looked so lost and forlorn that we had taken you home”. The local cops were called to help me go back to the place I had come from. However, nothing was found with me or about me that could ID me, just two suitcases full of photographs. I did not remember how I had reached there. My car’s axles were broken and the number plates were missing. Emily gave me the name Zola.
Em and Chang put me in their other house, the one they had built for tourists, not that there were many tourists in that lonely ten thousand population town. They had unpacked my suitcases too. They had my photographs, just those. The police went through my baggage too, much before I could. It was as scantily packed as my present life was. One day at a time. I breathed in and told myself that, take life one day at a time. Zola, that’s what I was now. I loved the feel of the name. Probably it was my real name, I loved it so.
I said adieu to Em and Chang as the afternoon lunch crowd trickled in, mostly local. They threw a happy ‘hello’at me as the aroma of Em’s chicken stew wafted out. It was delicious, Em had made me eat two bowls of it, muttering ‘malnourished’ under her breath. I walked out in the icy cold, the chilly wind blowing away my hair. The two mile walk again! Huh! My enthusiasm waned at the thought of it. I trudged on and my tummy thanked me for a hot and appetising meal.
When you walk on a lonely road, especially when it has snowed everywhere, you tend to see hallucinations, Em had told me once. I looked up and saw her then, a woman. She was walking ahead of me. Her body was covered in a long trench coat, beige and white. Her long black hair was strewn across her back, glistening. She walked noiselessly; her black boots beneath her long coat were just about visible. I was glad that I had company. But I wanted to be sure if I wasn’t hallucinating. ‘Excuse me!’ I shouted. My voice echoed back to me and then she turned. ‘Oh my god!’ I mouthed, it was me! She had my face, my eyes, she looked exactly like me! I stood standstill and then she smiled back at me. I was aghast! This was too unreal for words! My whole body had gone rigid. I felt a tingling sensation at my nape. Then something moved past me, almost rushed through me. A little child shrieking, ‘Mumma! Mumma!’ ran into the woman’s arms and a car sped towards them! I howled to get them out of the way! And then both disappeared, just like that! What was that? What did I just see? Who was the woman who looked exactly like me? My head started to hurt. I considered walking back to Em’s store but I was already half way through to my place. The whole incident had happened in just ten seconds and my mind had gone numb, taking time to absorb the whole incident. Her smile lingered in my mind as the whole incident dribbled away like sand from my fingers.
That night I hardly slept. The strawberry walls of my childhood were closing in on me. I tossed and turned and then decided to sit with the laptop. It was kept on the mahogany study table, no doubt one of the many additions made by the owners keeping in mind the requirements of the tourists who could rent that place. I switched it on and started to browse. My fingers were moving effortlessly from one page to the other, as if a hand was guiding me. Suddenly the screen went black and I saw myself reflected in the computer screen again, only I wasn’t smiling but my reflection was. I sat still and then slowly turned back. There was no one. The screen was aglow again. ‘Do you want to go back? Do you want to know who you are?’ The dark words appeared on the screen. I was shivering in spite of the central heating. There was a Yes button on the screen circled in red. I clicked on it. The screen broke in a thousand colours and then all went black in front of my eyes. My last memory was of the dull thud I heard of my own head banging softly against the wood.
“Yes mum”, I mumbled sleepily. “Jennifer! You are late for school again! Get up immediately!” School?! I looked up quizzically. The room was not the room that I had slept in yesterday night. This room had strawberry walls. This room had, I gasped as I looked up, “Mum!” I almost shouted! “Mum” I jumped into her arms, she was surprised but she hugged me back nonetheless. “Jen darling, get up and get ready for school, Penny is already eating her breakfast”. That was my name! I was not Zola, I was Jenny! Jennifer Rogers. And the name Penny, sent an almost primitive pang of jealousy down my spine. I was curious to know who Penny was? I shuffled my feet, which were much smaller than before and rushed into the breakfast room. “Penny!” I shouted and she turned and smiled. It was my own face smiling back at myself. It was her. Penny was my sister, she looked exactly like me and I was only a year older than her. I was always jealous of her because she was too perfect and my parents adored her. Perfect black straight hair, perfect blue eyes and perfect porcelain skin unlike mine which had teenage blotches already. Penny was never spiteful. Penny was always ready to share her things with me. Penny who will eventually fall in love with the perfect guy. The guy I fell in love with too.
At this moment I was aware that I was in my teenage body with memories of all the years I had already lived. I had always been the angry one, the proverbial black sheep, hurting mum and dad with my words and thoughtless actions. I saw myself spewing venom at the perfectly sweet family of mine. They did not deserve it and yet I saw how I hurt them, breaking them bit by bit. ‘Mum! Dad! Please forgive me’ I mumbled and tried in vain to control the actions of my thirteen year old self. Yet I couldn’t do much. I could only watch, much like a movie playing before my eyes. All the memories flooded back to me. The blank whiteboard was suddenly animated.
Penny was getting married. She looked resplendent in a beautiful off shoulder white gown. George looked lovingly at her as she walked down the aisle holding papa’s hand. I was the bridesmaid but no one was looking at me. I was the sister but I could never be as beautiful as her. She looked ethereal, like sunshine on morning dew and her aura enveloped us. I had loved George the moment he had walked in for dinner at our home. He entered shyly holding Penny’s hand and Mum and dad were ecstatic to meet him. Over mashed potatoes and fried fish, both of them discussed their future with us. I could barely talk. I wanted him to be mine. But here he was holding Penny’s hand, professing love for her. After dinner, Penny walked him out and I peeked through the windows, both of them were kissing silhouetted by the Oak tree standing tall at the end of our garden.
‘Penny is having a baby!’ Mum called me and told me while I was typing my tenth resignation letter in five years. I stopped typing while she chattered on. I had already drifted. My professional and personal life was in shambles. I was not dating anyone at the moment, Daniel was two years ago. After that I hardly tried. Occasional sleepover with office colleagues did not count. And here was Penny, stable job, wonderful husband and now pregnant! Rest of my resignation letter was a blur. I don’t remember what I wrote.
Penny’s daughter was gorgeous and I couldn’t unlike her in spite of wanting so hard to. Mother had dragged me to Penny’s house to meet her. The house was like a little shrine, a love nest devoted to everything I never had and perhaps never will. I saw it all with my now tired eyes, memorising all the details, lest I forgot everything again. As we walked into her nursery, I could hear Penny singing a lullaby to her. Her soft voice, mellifluous yet was stinging to my ears, oh! How I had hated her in that moment! I cracked open the door an inch and peeped, George stood in rapt attention beside both of them. The room was warm, cosy and a soft mellowed light glowed from the bedside lamp. The child was snuggled deeply in her mum’s bosom and just then Penny looked up and saw me. She broke into a tired smile and gestured me in, putting a finger on her lips to hush me down. Part of me wanted to turn back and walk the damn away. The other part which must have been dominant at that time, forced me in. George moved away gently to let me have a peek. George whispered in my ears, ‘We have named her Elsa’. How perfect she was! Have you ever seen angels? I can say yes to that question now, because I was before one. From the beginning Elsa loved me too. All my memories of her are warm and intact and they all tumble down one after the other, waiting to be found. Everything was perfect. Only I wasn’t.
All my life all I ever wanted to be was to be like Penny. To have a pat on my back from dad for doing my home work perfectly or have a peck on the cheek for helping with household chores. And that resentment was building up, taller by the moment. Why couldn’t I have her life? Why should she have everything while I struggled to get affection from even our parents? Why? I saw myself in my twenty five year old body, struggling to come to terms with my own life. I hated myself then. I wanted to slap my younger self. I wanted to ask her to appreciate what she had, loving and caring family, roof above her head and above everything, roots to go back to. But evidently she didn’t. Evidently I didn’t.
Penny was walking on the road. She had worn the same long white and beige trench coat that I saw her in. I dreaded the next scene. But the car sped up from nowhere. It was an empty road, there was plenty of room. But the car sped on. Elsa ran towards her mum from behind and George walked a few paces away. The car hit both of them before they could react, before George could react. The speeding car dragged them a few meters, their bodies tangled. I watched horror stricken. But before I could react, out stepped a pair of brown boots. I watched as the woman fell on her knees, apologising to them, crying, shouting, calling for help. I looked from afar and then saw her face.
I woke from a slight noise. It was a faint rustle, like dry leaves against concrete. I got up and looked around. I was still sitting at my mahogany desk. The computer screen was blank. In that pitch darkness, I saw my reflection again. This time it did not move or smile. I knew who I was. I knew how I reached here. I had run away. Ran as fast and as far as I could. Elsa and George were dead. Penny was dead. I had removed my number plate but the axles were broken after I hit that tree. That’s how I had walked in Em’s door. My head bloody and clothes all messed up. The police found my car like that. I was two hundred miles away from the broken and shattered family. The impact had washed away my past life. But it all came back to me now. Those weren’t my photographs as I turned to look back. They were all Penny’s. I had planned to wipe her and all her memories. But here she was giving me her radiant, happy smile. I picked up the photograph from the bedside table opened the frame, spreading the full photograph on my lap. There they were, George and Elsa beaming into the camera. They weren’t supposed to die. After Penny’s death, I would have filled in the void in their lives. That was how it was supposed to be. I shut my flooded eyes and looked up at the ceiling. It was shaking. Everything in the room was shaking. It was an earthquake. The glass of water kept on the side of the desk, fell and shattered. And then I remembered the face that got down from the car after the accident, as the sky caved in on me. It was me. I had killed them all. She had taken me back all those years. She had made me remember. I wanted to apologise. I wanted to say sorry but it was all beyond me now. And then everything went dark.