Parallel Identity by Edison Valenciano Ching

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He was eating a steaming cup of instant noodles, paired with three slices of loaf bread that was one day old past its expiration date, when a crashing sound reverberated from his bedroom. Startled by the sudden disturbance, he knocked off his evening meal, which spilled all over the tarnished surface of the small wooden table and dribbled down to the tainted tiled floor. “Damn rats,” he said in dismay for the fate of his dinner. With frustration rising inside him, he walked straight inside his room and upon seeing what the ruckus was about, his eyes widened in utter disbelief and his escalating ire was replaced by a growing fear that resulted with a sharp intake of air.
“Hey there,” the figure said with a tiny curl from the corner of his lips. “You must be Miguel Romero.”
Frozen in place, Romero had difficulty finding the words to say until he stuttered, “Who are you?”
“Isn’t it obvious?” the unexpected intruder looked around the dim-lighted room. “I’m you, and you’re me.” He beamed a reassuring smile.
“I don’t understand,” said Romero, his eyebrows furrowed.
“Of course you don’t,” answered Romero’s carbon copy. “But in time you will.” The look-alike strode in front of Romero and offered his hand. “Nice to finally seeyou.” Romero took the hand of his replica, staring with unblinking eyes at the strange yet familiar face, and seeing his spitting image close in front of him, he noticed the similarities of their visages were down to the smallest detail; even the blemishes were on the exact same spots. Romero would know, he had been looking at his reflection in the mirror for over thirty years.
“Mind if I show myself around?” asked the facsimile.
“Sure,” Romero answered, still in awe.
Romero trailed behind his doppelganger—as he had come to call him in his mind—who ambled around his tiny and unkempt apartment. While roaming from the lavatory and back to the living room, Romero could hear sighs of ‘oh’ and murmurs of ‘interesting’ from his doppelganger. When they reached the kitchenette, the doppelganger saw the puddle of noodle soup. “Quite a mess you got there.”
Romero ignored the statement, mustering his strength to say, “Alright, now that you’ve shown yourself around, I need answers. Now.”
“I don’t hear any questions,” said the doppelganger, peeking out of the curtains of the kitchen window. Outside, the starless sky enveloped the rough neighborhood below.
Romero was taken aback. His doppelganger had no given impression that he was surprise at all with this bizarre turn of event. “Alright then,” Romero cleared his throat. There were several queries clouding his head but he didn’t seem to be able to select a particular one, he wanted to ask them all at once. After a short while, though, he blurted, “Where did you come from?”
“Ah, yes.” The doppelganger turned to face the apartment owner. “Aren’t you going to offer me anything first? A drink, perhaps? This will be a long night.” Romero stayed unmoved. “You’re the least welcoming—so far.” The doppelganger commented, whose remark only made Romero’s thoughts more muddled. However, he didn’t say anything to avoid additional confusion. He needed to perceive things in linear manner—if he could—to make sense out of this inexplicable occurrence. The doppelganger made his way back to the living room where he sat on the sagging couch. Romero remained standing, arms crossed on his chest with one side leaning on the wall, trying to impose authority. “Well, to put it simply,” the doppelganger began. “I came from a reality much like your own.”
Romero didn’t know what to say. He wanted to laugh because of the absurdity of what he heard and yet a larger part of him believed it to be true.
“Sounds funny, isn’t it?” the doppelganger said. “But that’s the truth. Suffice to say, I found a way to travel from one reality to another.”
“You found a way?” asked Romero.
“Yes.” the doppelganger replied. “Though I, or technically speaking ‘we’, don’t look that much, I’m a celebrated engineer, believe it or not, from where I came from. I developed an intricate algorithm and in the long run, I invented a corresponding device. It’s successful, as you can see.”
“But . . . how?” Romero couldn’t form a more precise question. What he were seeing and hearing baffled him.
“What do you mean how?” asked the doppelganger. “If you’re pertaining as to how I made the device, no offense to you but I don’t think you’d be able to comprehend even less than one eighth of it.”
“No, no. It’s not that. What I mean is that how did you know where I am? And do other realities exist?” asked Romero, feeling comfortable now.
“I designed the device to locate my other bodily compositions with the use of genetic scanning that pierces through the fabrics of, let’s say, certain dimensions,” said the doppelganger. “Then I go to where it points, a close approximation to where my other self is. And yes, there are other realities more than mine and yours. How many? I don’t know. Might be hundreds, thousands, or even millions. I’ve only been to three and this is just my fourth trip.”
“You’ve been to three realities? Meaning you met others like us?” Romero asked.
“I’ve met other versions of us, yes. You are by far the closest one in terms of appearance.” The doppelganger answered.
“What are they like?” Romero pulled the wooden chair from the nearby kitchenette and sat facing his doppelganger with a few feet in between them.
“Well, the first one was an artist, a painter. He kept several abstract paintings hanging on his bedroom walls. He was an elderly guy, maybe in his early seventies, and he was living at least over two decades from now. He was a national artist, you know, which gave me personal pride. I didn’t know I had a knack to be that great with canvas and oil.”
“Hold on,” Romero cut. “What do you mean he was living at least over two decades from now?”
“Oh, right. I forgot to tell you. How can I explain this one?” The doppelganger stared at the floor, as if deep in thoughts. “Perhaps a little refreshment of some sort would revitalize my mind.” He grinned. Romero held a straight face, unamused by his doppelganger’s dull quip. “Come on,” the doppelganger continued. “Show some hospitality to yourself.” Knowing that the conversation wouldn’t nudge any further, Romero stood up with a sigh, walked to the kitchenette, opened the refrigerator door, and peered inside. It was almost empty, except for a few cans of beer, a couple of eggs, and a plastic jug half-filled with water. He scooped two beer cans and closed the refrigerator door with a thud. Back in the living room, he gave one beer can to his doppelganger while he returned to his seat with the other one in hand.
“You’re a drinker?” asked the doppelganger. The beer can hissed when he pulled the ring. He took a sip.
“Occasionally,” answered Romero. “So what were you saying?”
“Ah, yes.” said the doppelganger. “Here’s the main thing about the realities. They aren’t, strictly speaking, otherworldly. You won’t see yourself as an animal or a plant or any non-human beings, you won’t even see yourself as your opposite gender. You’re just you, except you’re treading a different path of existence. For argument’s sake, picture a tree with several boughs. Each of them has different length and connected to them are numerous twigs which are either longer or shorter than the other. Can you see it?” Romero nodded. “Now focus on the miniature limbs. From the cluster choose two and imagine that one belongs to the painter, the one I told you earlier, and another belongs to me with the former reaching farther than the latter. So, technically speaking, the painter is a man from the future, at least from my perspective, while I’m from the past in the painter’s viewpoint. Hence, the more than twenty-year gap between the painter’s reality and mine.”
“Where does your device come in?” asked Romero. “How do you travel?”
“I didn’t think you’d ask. I guess you have a similar chunk of brain like mine somewhere in that head of yours.” The doppelganger said. Romero pretended as if he didn’t hear the insult. “Well, think of the device as the tree trunk and the boughs as the bridges to the twigs, the realities. The tricky part is that I can’t jump from one reality to another. I always have to return to the point of origin to be able to go to another reality.”
“In your world,” Romero started to ask. “Does everybody have access to your device?”
“God, no. That would be disastrous.” The doppelganger answered. “Although I’ve always held onto the principle of scientific innovation, the tendency of this kind of technology to slip out of control is exponential.”
“So you’re keeping it as your personal use?”
“Call it selfishness or whatnot but that’s my preferred safety measure.”
Dead air hung between them. The doppelganger continued drinking from his can of beer with satisfying slurps. “This isn’t bad,” he commented. Romero stared down at his unopened beer can clasped in his hands. “Haven’t wrapped your head around this peculiarity yet?”
“Not quite,” answered Romero.
“You will. Eventually,” replied the doppelganger.
“What happened then with the other selves you’ve met?” Romero asked after a few seconds of contemplative silence.
“After the painter,” the doppelganger began. “I saw myself dead. Or at least I saw my gravestone, indicating that I was a goner in that reality. Carved in the marker was ‘Miguel Cruz Romero’. The odd thing was that there was no birth or death date. I didn’t stay there for long because there was nothing else to see. The landscape was your typical cemetery. Sky was blue; grass was green, etcetera, etcetera.”
The doppelganger sipped from his can of beer, drying it up. “Can I have another one?” He raised the empty can. Romero tossed his sealed beer can that had been warmed by his palms. “Thanks,” said the doppelganger after catching it.
“How about the third one, surely it was better than the last.” Romero asked.
“Define better,” the doppelganger scoffed. “The third one, I must say, was a charmer. Imagine my surprise when I ended inside a padded cell. There I was, looking down at myself clad in straitjacket, huddled in the corner, murmuring. When he saw me he didn’t look startled. He only asked where I’ve come from, or somewhere along that line, like you and the painter. I tried talking to him but there was no conversation at all, just a continuous exchange of fragmented words with no apparent direction. He was interesting, though, and I was tempted to find the cause of his mental dysfunction. But there was a lot of work to do. I’ve no patience for that. Besides, I’m trying to keep my uninvited presence hidden.”
“Would that be bad? What would happen if people from an alternate reality saw you?” Romero inquired. “What if you appeared in a middle of a crowd? Would that, I don’t know, make damage or something?”
“There are no issues whatsoever if people from another reality saw me,” said the doppelganger. “It was my personal preference to remain anonymous aside from my own iterations. If they were in the same room as my other self and I, then I guess they’d be mystified, especially when they saw me appeared out of thin air before their very eyes. But that’d be it. There are no paradoxes here, unlike the notion of time travel, which I think is just plain stupid. In fact, I could do some major hullabaloo—not that I’d do something dire—and it wouldn’t affect anything.”
“But, say you’ve stumbled in a bleak reality and they managed to apprehend you, what would you then?” persisted Romero.
“Oh, it’s simple. See this?” the doppelganger raised his right wrist where a black band was fastened around it. “I just have to flick my wrist and clench my hand into a fist and, voila, I’ll be at my doorstep in no time.” The doppelganger demonstrated how the actions were done with his left hand. Seeing Romero’s face of sheer perplexity, the doppelganger continued explaining. “The idea here is that the pressure exerted from my pulse will send a message of, how do I say this, some sort of ‘arrival preparation’ to the device placed in the point of origin. After that, the device will immediately react with a dimensional breach that is completely concentrated on me which will pull me back home from the alternate reality I’m currently in. Pretty slick, right?” bragged the doppelganger.
Romero nodded.
“Now that I’ve told you about some of our other selves,” said the doppelganger. “What’s your story?”
“Nothing fancy,” replied Romero. “This is my life.” He gestured around the apartment. “I had a series of temp jobs and now here I am, back again at the very rear of the unemployment line for over three months now. But I’ll manage.”
“Your apartment could use a little polishing. It stinks.”
“I don’t bother. I won’t be here by the end of the month. I couldn’t pay the rent.”
“You pay for this corral?”
Romero snickered.
“What did you finish?” asked the doppelganger.
“I have a vocational program on computer programming. That’s as far as my educational background goes.”
“Well, that sucks.” 
Romero ignored his doppelganger’s statement and commented, “I bet your life’s an extravagance with all your engineering stuff.”  
“You bet,” the doppelganger said, his words were coated with sarcasm. “Sure, I have it way better than you. But it doesn’t mean it’s easier. Criticisms and expectations drive me crazy to the point that I’m now living in recluse. It turns out that solitary is so much healthier for me.”
“But I thought you’re a celebrated engineer?”   Buy a Copy, Support this Author
“I am—well I was, eight years ago. I haven’t shown my face in the public since.”
“Funny, isn’t it?” said Romero. “You’ve met your duplicates and yet each one of them is a far cry from one another, hell, one of them is dead.”
Romero and his doppelganger shared a hearty laughter. “You want more of those?” Romero motioned at the empty beer cans. “Sure,” the doppelganger replied, putting his feet up on the couch while he laid his head on the other arm rest. Romero headed in the kitchenette and grabbed the remaining cans of beer from the refrigerator. He slid them on the low coffee table adjacent with the couch. “Knock yourself out.” Romero said.
“I will,” the doppelganger reached for a can and drowned himself in spirits. “I could live like this, you know, without anything to do, not a care in the world, just lying here, drinking, and staring at the ceiling.”
“Wait for a day or two and that kind of thinking will surely change in a snap,” said Romero. “You’re doing it out of boredom, then?”
“A part of it,” answered the doppelganger. “But mostly because of the thrill and the discoveries that I might stumble upon down the road.”
“Like what?”
“Like going to the future,”
“But you’ve done that with the painter,”
“Yeah, right,” the doppelganger said. “That guy’s future was critically underdeveloped. Sure, they now had their phones embedded in a pair of glasses, which by the way, made them look stupid, and a brand of detergent that makes clothes resistant to stain and crease. Those weren’t innovations; those were simple exploitations of their indolence, and ridiculously bad ones, too. The city was still the same except for a couple of insignificant changes.”
“The city?” asked Romero. “You mean this city?”
“What? You think I’ve come from the North Pole?” the doppelganger replied. “One of the few differences between me and my known other selves—including you—is that I have a bunch of money to waste and I live uptown. The painter was part of the middle class because, of course, being a successful artsy-fartsy would only provide you adequate figures to go by, the dead was buried at the East Cemetery, the insane was admitted at the city’s General Psychiatric Hospital, and you’re here living in one of the several rat holes this worst part of the city can offer. We’re in each other’s vicinity, just in different passages of existence.”
Romero caught the sharpness of his doppelganger’s overflowing egotistical observations. He disregarded them and proceeded to ask another question. “Do you think that one of our numerous selves could be living halfway around the world?”
“Possibly,” responded the doppelganger. “But I wouldn’t count on it. The only reason that I can see for our other selves to have their lives somewhere but here is that if they moved to another place at a very young age or that they’d been kidnapped and their organs were stolen to sell for the highest bidder and they were thrown wherever.” The doppelganger saw Romero’s eyes widened. “You look pale. I’m only kidding, but it’s a possible scenario. Besides, they aren’t you to worry about; they’re just facsimilia of you.”
Romero breathed a nervous laugh. “Don’t you have family waiting for you?” He asked when he noticed his doppelganger was sprawled on the couch at ease.
“Trying to kick me out already?” the doppelganger replied. “Nada, I have no family. Parents are dead, I’m an only child, and I have no intention of becoming a family man. I don’t even have friends—trust issues, don’t ask—although I’m acquainted with some of my colleagues whom I have words with from time to time. Professional talks, of course. And also I’ve grown fond of keeping my distance from everybody else. So, yeah. You?”
“Parents are living far from here. Big brother’s a CTO of a growing company. Older sister’s a renowned shrink.” Romero answered.
“Sounds like you’re the only failure. Why don’t you ask them for a little help to fix yourself up?” the doppelganger said. Romero noticed again the insensitive—yet true—remark. But this time, he noticed that it might only be the effect of his intoxication. Now on his fifth can of beer, he had quaffed down the last two in just a few big swigs.
“I can’t bear the chains of commentaries that they would shower me before they give me a cent.” Romero replied, having a careful look at his doppelganger’s drunken state.
“Your ego will lead to your demise.” The doppelganger said.
“So be it. At least I’ll die without any familial debt.” Romero said.
When the doppelganger stopped his quirky retorts, Romero looked closer. His doppelganger’s eyelids were getting heavier by the moment. “Hey, are you alright?”
“Why wouldn’t I be?” said the doppelganger. “I’m having the rest of my life.”
“I can’t imagine how hard your life could be.” Romero stated
“It’s not hard, just exhausting.”
“Certainly not as exhausting as mine,” pointed out Romero.
“At least you have something to strive for.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” Romero asked but the doppelganger had dozed off with a can of beer clutched on his torso. “Hey,” he called but there was no response.
When Romero leaned down to take the beer can caught between his doppelganger’s arm and chest, he noticed the black band clasped around the wrist. He glanced up to his doppelganger’s restful face then he returned his gaze at the black band. He could feel the enticement crawling inside him. He moved back to his seat without taking his eyes off it. He took a lungful of air and blew a heavy sigh. One of his knees bounced without control.
Romero kept a scrutinizing look at his doppelganger. Every second that past felt like an hour. He inclined forward, straightened his posture, dropped his shoulders, inclined forward, straightened his posture, and then dropped his shoulders. When he got tired of sitting, he stood up and paced back and forth, all the while he watched his doppelganger sleep, as if waiting for him to either come around or stay in slumber. Then with one deep out-breath, he stepped closer to his doppelganger, knelt down, and decided to remove the black band, hands moving as lightest as he could.
It didn’t budge, as if it was rooted in the skin.
In a sudden, the doppelganger grumbled, startling Romero and making him jumped a bit backward, enough to hit the coffee table and create a considerable amount of noise. He went motionless in an instant and held his breath when his doppelganger stirred, shrugged, and turned to the side facing the backrest. Romero could feel his heart pounding his chest and the quick flow of blood hammering his ears. As quiet as he could be, he crawled away and rested his back on the wall across the sleeping guest. He gawked at the ceiling and saw the stains made from innumerable rainstorms. He shifted his eyes and met the interweaving cracks running in the flaked wall. His head fell and he thought about the clogged toilet that his landlord promised to get fixed a year ago, the showerhead that either spewed ice cold or hot boiled water, the bedroom that nestled a mischief of rats, the putrid ambiance of the living room, the cockroach-infested kitchenette, the unfilled refrigerator, his empty stomach, and his wretched life. His doppelganger was right; this was a corral.
Romero got on his feet, ambled inside his bedroom, grabbed the tattered belt hanging behind the door, sauntered beside his doppelganger, and dropped on one knee. Using one hand, he lifted his doppelganger’s head with utmost caution, while his other hand slid the strap of the belt underneath. After which, he positioned the head back on the armrest, grabbed the buckle and the tip of the belt, and then, without blinking, he pulled as hard as he could.
The doppelganger choked and his eyes popped open. He struggled to fight for breath and his attempt to push the strap away from his neck did little to no effect. Soon, his body stopped writhing and he limped into stillness.
Romero snatched the right wrist and tugged the black band and like before, it remained skin deep. He touched it around in search of a lock of some sort. There, he felt a minuscule crevice at the side. From that, he pulled it with force and this time it split open, peeling the skin in the process. Romero beheld it for a moment. The surface was smooth dark glass. The inside curve, however, was a pattern of multitudinous dotted needles. Right away, he clasped it around his right wrist. A prickling sensation ran through his arm. He didn’t know if it was working because there was no indication whether it was activated or not. But it didn’t matter; it was attached to him now, anyway. He recalled the actions his doppelganger made earlier. Flick and clench, flick and clench. Then he did it.
Nothing happened.
Romero tried a few more times in successive manner. Flick and clench, flick and clench, flick and clench. He was still there before the lifeless body of his doppelganger in his now sweat-drenched shirt.
Romero knew that it would work—that it had to work. Again he tried several times but each try was a failure. He couldn’t stay here anymore. How could he explain what he had done? He persisted. He needed to leave now, he had murdered a familiar stranger, he wouldn’t know what to do, it would further destroy his abysmal existence if he—
A riffle.

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