Charlene didn't know why her world changed, only that it did.
It was Saturday, and her tennis lesson wasn't going well. Franco was an excellent coach, she knew he was, but for some reason her wrist would not listen to him, twisting a bit on each stroke. This was having a deleterious effect on her accuracy, and it was damned frustrating!
Franco scolded her again, mocking in tone. "Charlene, you are a beautiful woman, but your swing is not so beautiful." You fucking arrogant prick!
He took several effortless steps to intercept her ball, and smacked it back over the net, to the corner opposite her own.
Without thinking, something in her decided she was going to get this one, no matter what. Legs pumping furiously, she launched herself across the court to intercept the yellow-green sphere she'd learned to hate this year. Her strides took her amazingly close, and then she knew with certainty she was going to make it, this time. Arms outstretched, her hand swinging back, sweat flying off in hot little bursts, she put everything she had into a single, concentrated burst of power meant to launch the ball back over at Franco and wipe that smug little European grin off the bastard's face. Her lips curled back in a snarl and she strained every muscle--
And now her head was on fire, the back of her skull percolated with needles seemingly slammed into her head with great force by some invisible club. Her knees crumpled, knocking her on her ass, the racket and ball lost to her now, flung far and wide. She felt more pain; knees, shins, elbows: the fall scraping her flesh off in wide red patches. But nothing compared to the hot, ripping sensation at the top of her neck. A nerve in her tongue, of all places, was pulsing wildly, and when Franco vaulted the net to come to her aid, she couldn't speak through its thickness.
The last thing she saw as the black, sparkly patchiness in her eyes took her under was the girl, standing naked as the world made her, looking down at her with concern.
The naked girl with her own face.
"It was probably a miniature stroke," Hansen was explaining. "Which is rare, but not unheard of for women in their mid-twenties. Your grandmother died of a stroke, didn't she?"
"She was eighty-seven," Charlene replied, defiantly.
Dr. Hansen took no offense; patients resenting their medical conditions were as old as the medical conditions themselves. "Yes, she was, but you're under a lot of stress, and that can accelerate deterioration of blood vessel walls. Not to mention raise your blood pressure."
This from a guy with a beer belly and smokers' teeth. Charlene couldn't-- no, wouldn't-- accept this criticism from such a man. Especially since she could see his naked twin standing beside him.
Like everyone, including herself.
At first, waking to see the nurse leaning over her charts, she'd assumed it was delirium that thrust upon her the image of the large black woman with pendulous breasts jiggling insanely next to her more appropriately-dressed counterpart, and her incoherent inquiry to the nurse about the extra visitor was giggled away as side-effects from the tranquilizers in the IV drip.
But as the hours had passed, her own simulacrum ... partner ... extra her... whatever ... steadfastly refused to return to whatever chemical oblivion she arose from. The Charlene with no clothes on had merely looked at her with concern, and stroked her brow with insubstantial fingertips, always standing at her side.
As hours turned to days, Charlene had seen more of these entities-- countless more. Every person who entered her room, from medical residents to coworkers who'd visited her... everyone, without exception, had an unclothed replica which walked beside them, never speaking, just tending their material mate.
And the mysterious replicas seemed as invisible to each other as they were to their (owners? mates? prototypes?); at one point, the flower deliveryman's doppelganger had bumped into the day-shift nurse's, and then both shades continued on their way undaunted. Though the (real, solid) nurse had looked pointedly at the deliveryman a half-second after it happened ... Something had passed unseen there, evidently, but Charlene was damned if she knew what. The IV drugs had made her content, preventing her from insanely demanding of every person in the room what the fuck was going on.
By the time Dr. Hansen had made his way into her room to discuss her case, she'd accepted the duplicates as almost normal.
"I want you," he continued, "to take several weeks off work. At least."
She objected, strenuously.
He raised his hands, fending this off. "No, I talked to your boss; she was here while you slept, and inquired about your condition. I told her my recommendation, and she concluded that it would be best for the company if you returned at the top of your game, rather than limping. I can't make you stay home," he said with a smile, "but I suspect she can." His naked partner smiled blandly, patting him on the shoulder.
"You had no right." Her fury was tempered by the glowy juice from the drip, but not by much. Now that bitch Gwynneth would finish the ACAPA project and take all the credit for it, no less for taking it up and excelling in an "emergency" situation.
Dr. Hansen didn't like the look in her eyes, but duty compelled him to continue. "I'm also prescribing Zolutac, which is the stuff in the drip there; it's a mild muscle relaxant and sedative. Your nurse will fill you in on the details. Not only will it help keep you stress-free, I think you'll find you don't want to do anything physical-- which is good, as you need to rest." His image was looking agitated now, and tapping Hansen's jacket pocket. The doctor glanced down at the pocket, his look slowly matching that of his other self, and he got to his feet. "I'm recommending your release tomorrow." He patted her on the hand, and as he bent, she saw what was in his pocket: a packet of cigarettes.
And then she knew, with real poignancy, that he was going to have a smoke-- that his unseen shadow had been influencing him, somehow, like the incarnation of his urges.
Before he was even out the door, she was laughing at the absurdity of it all. Her mirror image smiled at her benevolently and stroked her hair without moving a strand.
The Zolutac went straight into the trash as soon as she got home. Damned if she was going to be doped up for the next two weeks. She'd called Deborah immediately, but her superior had confirmed Hansen's story: she was taking a paid leave of absence, whether she liked it or not. "Relax," said her boss gently over the phone, "and have a good time away from this place."
A line had appeared between her twin's knitted brows, forehead wrinkling, and Charlene had a sudden urge to kick the phone. After she hung up, she succumbed to the urge, and the insubstantial Charlene smiled grimly as the phone's receiver keys emitted a cacophony of tones. Charlene matched the facial expression. Yeah, sister. I'm with you there.
Fuck this, she said voicelessly to the Other. I'm not sitting around the house this week. I'm going up north to the condo. Her newly-discovered companion nodded at her, words unspoken but implication clear: Let's do it.
The drive north was several hours long, but the scenery more than made up for it. Both she and her silent friend gazed happily at the trees which lined the side of the road.
Her condominium was on the shore of the east bay, and as she unpacked her bags and dragged them to the front door, she breathed deep of the cooler near-lake air. Delicious. Too bad her buddy wasn't carrying her share of the luggage, she thought, but then both clothed and unclothed versions of Charlene giggled and realized that she already was. Compulsive nudists pack light.
There wasn't much food in the pantry; she hadn't had enough time up here this year to accumulate a decent stash. There would have to be grocery shopping later. She crashed onto the living room lounge chair. Fortunately, she'd grabbed a sandwich an hour ago, so the need was not urgent.
Other needs, though, were starting to become manifest. Other-Charlene was looking at her mischievously, and reached down to touch her through her panties. There was no real contact made, and nothing had actually happened down there yet ... but gradually, Charlene found herself wanting something to. You're right, she silently told her Other. It has been a long time...
.... There is more of this story ...