Ersatz

Please note: this story was provided by the author and published as is.

I’m writing down everything. Every last thing that has happened up to this point. If I don’t write this down, I can’t be sure it’s all real. It is real. I’m real… What I’m about to tell you will sound crazy, I know, but it’s the truth. At least it’s what I think is the truth. And I know you’ll be hesitant to believe anything I say but if you believe anything at all, believe this one thing- I. Am. Real.

For you to really understand, I need to go back. I lived- and still live in a small flat with my roommate, Jamie. I go to a community college not far away from home, currently just with an undeclared major. I also work part time as a barista at a coffee shop… 

Or… at least I used to do all that stuff. It’s been three months since it first happened. Recently I’ve dropped out of school and quit my job. As it got worse, I left my apartment less and less. I don’t leave my apartment at all anymore.

Three months back, back when things at least seemed normal, I first noticed it. I was leaving my apartment to go work my morning shift as I normally do. It was around 8:00 am, rush hour, when I left and the streets were busy with people. I barely live even 5 blocks from the shop so it was just a habit for me to walk there each morning. I’m about 2 blocks away from the shop and waiting on the traffic corner to cross. As cars slow down, the cross light turns green and I move among the group of people crossing the street. And just as I was halfway across the road, it happened…

As I was crossing I happened to look up from my phone and saw someone coming from the opposite direction. We were separated by a crowd of people but I recognized them instantly. They smiled and waved, and instinctively I waved back. It was casual, you know, like how you would greet anyone you knew while walking down a hallway to class or, like in my case, on your way to work. It was over in less than a second. In that time, all I did was smile and wave to this familiar face… Except… It wasn’t a familiar face at all… In fact, I can tell you now with absolute certainty, that that person was a complete stranger to me. 

Now, I know what you’re thinking. “This happens all the time. You confused some stranger with someone you knew.” And that’s just what I told myself back then too. But this wasn’t that. No, it was more like… like a kind of “reverse deja vu”. You know with dejavu how you get stuck in this feeling of… “half-remembering”? Like some memory lingering in the back of your mind but you just can’t make it out? Well this was the exact opposite. 

When I saw that person I knew exactly who they were. I knew their face, what they typically wore, how we first met, everything. Hell, I could even imagine how they talked and they never even said a single word… all they did was wave…

But in an instant… Nothing… I couldn’t remember them. And this is what I mean, it wasn’t like “dejavu”, “I-barely-can’t-remember”. No, I couldn’t remember anything… And I’m not just talking about their name. I couldn’t couldn’t even remember what they looked like. And this was only like, what? 6 seconds ago? Less than that.

I looked back but they had disappeared into the crowd.

I continued on my way to work.

Nothing weird happened for a couple weeks after that. I went on with my normal life feeling… normal. I went to work, I left for classes, and I came home. That was it… I never saw that person again. Not at the traffic corner or anywhere else. That encounter stuck with me though. I would think about it now and again, each time putting the thoughts to rest with some lazily-stitched rationality and for a moment I think I had almost forgotten about the entire thing when… It happened again…

This time I wasn’t crossing the street. No, this time I was at the coffee shop, working. It was midday, right before my shift ended. It wasn’t that busy but we mostly just had a few customers come in and order one drink before sitting in the lounge area for a half hour or so. I’m going around, table to table to check on those who haven’t ordered anything yet to see if there was anything I could get them. A group of teens near me were being kind of obnoxious and I made an effort to avoid them, going all the way to the front of the store near the street corner window. At a table there I saw my friend Addison working on a laptop.

I said something to the effect of “Hey Addison didn’t see you come in!”

Addison nodded to the table behind me and made a joke about the loud kids. Without looking I laughed and said it was near the end of my shift meaning they were someone else’s problem now. 

After writing it down, I went back to make Addison’s order. I had just finished when I suddenly felt cold. The hair on my neck and arms stood on end as a terrifying realization crept into my mind. I turned my head backwards. I looked across the store, past the counter, past the lounges, and past the high school teens still at their table… To see an empty spot near the street corner window… 

It was the empty spot where Addison sat. Or at least an empty spot where someone or something sat. Because I- I never even knew an Addison. Who was Addison? I’m not joking when I say I couldn’t remember even the slightest discernible feature. How old were they? What was their hair color? Did they even have hair? I can’t even remember if “Addison” was a guy or girl! 

I just spoke to this person like they were my friend and now I remembered NOTHING… The only reason I can even remember a name was because still in my shaking hands I held a freshly brewed cup of coffee. And stained on that cup was a name I had written in black ink only moments before… “Addison”.

I was panicking. I can’t remember exactly what I did but I’m pretty sure I forgot to clock out. All I remember is that I got out of there as quickly as I could and I went straight home. The next thing I clearly remember is standing in my apartment, paralyzed with my back leaning against the door… I was starting to calm down now but my heart was still beating fast. I forced some long and slow breaths. Breath in. And out.  Breath in. *Knock* Then a knocking on the door flew my heart into flurry all over again and I jumped but the way I was leaning against the door I sort of hit my head in a loud BANG and from the otherside I heard,

“AH! Uh. Holy shit that scared me. Hey, it’s Jamie… Are you ok in there? You’re not hurt are you?”

“Uhg… Jamie?” I was rubbing the spot where I hit my head. “Why the hell would you do that?” I opened the door to see Jamie’s stupid face peering at me with a cocked brow and mocking smile.

“Knock?… So I can get in?”

“You have a key!”

“Right. I did have a key.” Jamie walked past me as I closed the door and reached over for a key sitting in a tray on the front table. “A key I may or may not have forgotten at home.”

“Hell… You really have the worst memory.” And that got me thinking again. I must have looked worried then because Jamie spoke in a hushed and serious voice.

“Are you okay? You look, I don’t know. Messed up.” 

Jamie wasn’t one for words to say the least. We both sat down and I explained everything. What happened at the coffee shop and the time before in the street. I tried to convey how it felt. Knowing something one moment and the next having those memories stripped from your mind.

“Sounds like me on a math exam.” Jamie teased. I didn’t find it amusing. 

“I’m not joking here Jamie! This is serious and I’m freaking out right now!”

“Hey, alright! Alright! I believe you… I just don’t know what exactly I’m supposed to believe in? Like, we talking government mind control? Aliens?” I could tell Jamie wasn’t taking this seriously so I started to leave for my room. “Hey! It’s just a joke okay? Look. I’m listening now. I just think you need to keep a more leveled head about this you know?”

“What do I do?” 

There was a pause. Neither of us were what you would call equipped to deal with a situation like this. Like a kid at their first day of school, I was lost. And I looked to Jamie for an answer.

“You know… My grandpa, as he got older… He got confused a lot and would mix up who people were. He also had alzheimers and would forget stuff. You know daily stuff, like all the time. Maybe you…”

“You think I have alzheimers?!”

“I’m not saying that! But I mean I’m pretty sure I read that mental diseases or whatever have been proven to affect all types of people. Even young adults… I’m not saying it’s alzheimers but maybe there’s something in your head that’s wrong,” I frowned as my eyes went big, “-Not wrong not wrong! I mean, just… Not right? Ya know?”

I don’t know what was more terrifying, the idea that I might have an actual brain disease or… something I couldn’t begin to understand…

I scheduled an appointment. Nothing serious or anything but just a regular check up. My school did them for free so it made sense. I won’t lie, the closer it came to my appointment the more stupid I felt for scheduling it. It had been about a week since the whole coffee shop thing and I hadn’t had a similar incident since… I was starting to doubt myself… But I forced myself to go. Jamie had said that some diseases lie undetected in a person’s mind for most of their life. If that was true then I was better safe than sorry.

I came in the middle of the day and was greeted by the nurse at the front. The nurse was another student like me. I didn’t know them but I was pretty sure I had seen them around campus before. I was immediately taken to a room where I was told to wait for Doctor Russel. Doctor Russel usually handled a lot of the student patients. He used to be an advisor and teacher in the medical school and of my friends who had him, they only had good things to say. I’m not sure if he teaches anymore but I did meet him once before at an animal shelter volunteer event. He seemed like a nice person and I was sort of relieved to find out that its was Doctor Russel who would be seeing me. I waited, and about 5 minutes later Doctor Russel came in. 

He was quick to recognize me and immediately struck up a friendly conversation. Right off the bat, I explained my situation. How Jamie thought I might have something similar to his grandad and my two previous “incidents”. I was careful not to be too detailed as I was afraid I would come off sounding like some nutcase. He asked a few more questions about any history of mental illness in my family, prescription medication I was taking (which at the time was none), and workload. Then we went on and did a few wellness tests. The examination was fairly straightforward, your standard procedure. 

When we were done, Doctor Russel excused himself and said he would be back with a few reports and papers for me to fill out. But before that he assured me that “there appears to be no serious health concerns” and that I could rest easy. He said that both of the weird incidents that happened could have been the result of high stress. The more I thought about it, the more it made sense. Mid terms were just around the corner and working a full time job on top of school has really affected my sleep schedule.

I was feeling better, about everything. Having someone tell me I WASN’T crazy was the break I needed in this hell of a week. The door opened again and looking down on a clipboard, a female doctor entered.

“OH!” Said the woman. She looked surprised to see me. She likely had walked into the wrong room or- “You must be the 4:00 appointment. I was looking for you but I didn’t see you come in.”

“Oh um no I’ll be out of your way. I was just waiting for Doctor Russel.”

“Doctor who?”

I was about to respond when my heart stopped. I couldn’t believe it. I didn’t want to believe it. I tried. I tried to remember and I tried to shut up the part of my brain that was SCREAMING the truth. I tried anything not to believe it, but I knew… Doctor Russel wasn’t real.

“Did you already check in with the front desk? Who let you in?”

“It- it was” I can tell you then, that my heart then went from stopped to sinking… I couldn’t even remember the nurse at the front desk… I could feel this doctor eyeing me so I came up with something quick,

“I thought you just came in and went into an office I uh- didn’t know you had to check in.”

“Honey of course you do! That’s fine though, I’ll let one of the nurses know when I go out there. Go on and take a seat and make yourself comfortable.”

This new doctor, doctor Lindsey Turner, I think is real. I can remember her now and more than just her name. And though my thoughts were scattered at the time I remember most of that  check up and I even saw her latter around campus. It was weird, going through almost the same motions twice. I told her everything but I made up my mind that I would leave out the part with Doctor Russel. I don’t know why I didn’t tell her but I didn’t. It scared me too much to even think about it. Doctor Turner came to the same conclusion as I had heard before; that stress and little sleep were playing tricks on my mind… Though now… I was less convinced that was really the case. She prescribed some sleeping medication but I didn’t even bother to look at the note. Instead I shoved it in my pocket and got out of there the minute we were done.

When I got home, Jamie was already there waiting to hear the news. Neither of us had expected the story I was about to tell.

“We’ll what about the medicine that other doctor gave you? You could get some more rest the next few days, you know? Even call off work.”

“The medicine’s not going to work! Today I was feeling fine. Yesterday I was feeling fine. Both days I had plenty of sleep and what I saw wasn’t me hallucinating or- I don’t know. It was real dammit!”

Jamie was quiet for a while but I could tell it was just sinking in. “Holy fuck… And you know this Doctor Russel guy wasn’t just some other Doctor there? Or- or what if he was some, I don’t know, creep pretending?”

I shook my head, “It’s not a matter of if he was a doctor or not. He wasn’t real. Like I told you, when I was with him, talking to him, I had these memories. But a little while after he left. Gone. *snap* Just like that.”

“That’s the part that doesn’t make sense to me. You said that when this happened before you couldn’t remember anything about them. How come you remember this guy’s name. You said you even remember volunteering with him at a shelter?”

Jamie was right. I didn’t think of it then but something had changed. This time I still retained some memory of the person but- I also had different memories.

“There not… the real memories.” My head hurt as I was working through the flurry of thoughts. I clenched my eyes and rubbed my temples as my mind ceased its throbbing.

“I can remember being at the shelter with him… But I also remember him not being there.”

“How can you tell? What’s real I mean?”

“I-” I knew which memories were real. I could feel it. But- “Why could I remember him and not the others” I kept thinking. I still don’t know for sure. I have theories now but it’s still all speculation.

“Jamie. What if I am going crazy?” At the time, I was ready to believe it and I think Jamie was too.

It was the best Jamie could do in that moment to lie and say, “Whatever this is. It’s going to pass. And things will get better.” 

In another week it happened again. This time I was in class sharing notes with another classmate. I think his name was Kevin. After class, when we all were dismissed I realized Kevin wasn’t any classmate of mine. A few days later I stopped to chat with a friend, Destiny, in between lectures. A Destiny I never knew. More and more, I had run ins with these fake people. To the point where it was becoming almost a daily routine. I wondered if others saw what I saw. But most of the time it seems to happen when no one else is noticing. Sometimes, I’ve asked and a few people told me they saw me with someone, but either because of where they saw us or some other reason, they never could describe the person I was with. 

I tried several methods to stop it. I spoke less to people, but it’s hard to shut out someone who you genuinely believe is your friend. To shut Jamie up I finally tried the drugs. I was hesitant to believe they would work and sure enough, the very next day I bought a magazine from a friendly street vendor who never existed. For a while, I thought maybe embracing it would make it go away. But things started more serious. One of my managers at work told me to toss out some bad milk. When my real boss caught wind that I had thrown out a week’s worth of good milk, they were far from happy. I decided shortly after that to quit my job. If I didn’t, it would have only been a matter of time before I was fired for a similar incident. 

As it got more frequent, it also got stronger. Sometimes, the fake memories would be so elaborate, I could remember months even years of reunions, get-togethers, parties, you name it. Most longer memories I would forget entirely but some lingered even after the fact. I can still tell the fake ones apart. But when I’m in the moment, they’re the only thing I can recall.

As if it couldn’t get any worse, one day I got a call from my sister asking when I would be home for her birthday tomorrow. With everything going on I had forgotten that I promised her I would be coming down early that day and spending the night. I haphazardly packed my bags and emailed my professors saying I would be absent for classes tomorrow. I live about  5 hours from home so I was in a rush to get out on the road. I texted Jamie that I had to leave suddenly for my sister’s birthday tomorrow and would be taking the car. 

Looking back, I’m glad I sent that text because two hours later Jamie saw my message and immediately called me back to inform me that I was an only child. I thought it was some crude joke at first; just Jamie making light of my past couple of shitty weeks. But Jamie insisted. 

We were arguing for 20 minutes. I got mad and started yelling. Jamie had the brains to tell me to pull over and “see if it passes”. I didn’t want to listen at the time but thankfully I did. In that time, I tried calling my sister but it went straight to voicemail. She wouldn’t respond to any texts either. I was getting impatient. More than that, I was getting scared…

30 minutes later and my real memories started coming back. I texted Jamie I was on my way home.

It never got better. My grades failed as I became too focused on studying for classes I was never in and doing homework assigned by professors I never had. I started keeping a printout of my class schedule on me at all times and I would religiously check it every hour. But even then, I was distracted away from my schoolwork by clubs I never joined and volunteer events I never signed up for. 

More and more I cut away any sort of social life I knew. My class schedule grew to a daily planar. Since I was liable to suffer more fake memories throughout the day and make nonexistent plans, I always made my schedule 24 hours in advance. And no matter what, I was never to deviate. This became an issue when teachers canceled a class or moved rooms last minute. My absences and late work piled up to the point where school was impossible. I dropped out shortly afterwards.

I stayed at the apartment most of the time. Though I didn’t have a job, I could still pay my share of the rent out of my savings. At least until I could regain control of life. Jamie was understanding but became worried when I would stay in the apartment for days on end. It was the most logical choice. Outside, my mind could play tricks on me. But inside, I was safe. I’ve learned never to answer the door. Delivery guys will knock on the door saying my orders here but I have to force myself not to listen. To sit still and let it pass. I keep my phone off too. Too many fake callers. I mostly just keep to my schedule now. According to my planner I’m going to write down everything that has happened up till this point and post it online. I don’t plan to deviate from the planner so that’s what-

Right now I’m hearing a knock on the front door. I can’t open it. I know it’s not real. I can tell when they’re not real.

They’re talking. It sounds like…. Jamie. Jamie forgot to take the spare key to our apartment again. But our apartment… Only has one bedroom….