Bethany House Publishers
Collin Boyd stepped off the Metro bus on his way to work, and across the street he saw himself strolling down the sidewalk.
A stubborn but warm February rain was pouring hard across the concrete canyons of downtown. His foot had landed ankle-deep in a drainage puddle, and his half-broken umbrella wasn't extending as it should. But the umbrella, which had rarely seen use, quickly fell out of his hands and he no longer noticed the rain. His eyes were fixed, his head turning slowly to follow the other man down the opposite side of the street.
It wasn't until someone shouted from behind that he finally got his legs moving again.
The man he watched with rapt attention weaved his way casually through the crowd, headed in the direction of Collin's workplace. He wasn't a man who merely resembled Collin. He was him. The same face, the same body, the same walk. He wore the clothes and raincoat Collin had put on that morning. He carried Collin's briefcase.
It was only then that Collin noticed he no longer had his briefcase. When had he seen it last? On the bus? Before that? He'd been so groggy all morning, he couldn't place it.
And what was that on the man's wrist? Collin clenched a hand around his own wrist, feeling for what was missing.
He's wearing Granddad's bracelet ...
That line of thought was gone once the other man began fussing with the piece of unruly hair up front that Collin could never seem to keep in place.
This impostor wasn't a twin or duplicate. He was him, in every way. Every look, every gesture, every expression. And he was walking to work in the rain, under L.A.'s towering skyscrapers, brushing shoulders with countless citizens and tourists.
As if everything were exactly as it should be.
Without ever deciding to, Collin moved his legs. He crossed the bustling downtown street, just aware enough of the cars, buses, and bicycles zipping by to dodge them. But his eyes remained on the man who looked like him, who checked his watch—No, that's my watch, he reminded himself—and then picked up his pace, apparently realizing he was about to be late for work.
Late for my work, Collin stupidly thought again, his mind spinning.
This was a lie. It had to be a lie.
A twisted joke.
But then, who would play such a prank? He hadn't had any close friends since childhood, and even then he knew that his "friends" had been forced to play with him by the orphanage staff. He couldn't think of a single acquaintance he had now who had anything resembling a sense of humor.
Grant increased his own speed, tailing his doppelganger from about fifteen paces behind. The impossibility of the situation seemed like an absurd thing to think about right now as he spied on himself walking to work in the rain, yet nothing else entered his mind.
It couldn't be impossible if he was looking right at it.
What am I supposed to say if I catch up to him?
Maybe he's my clone. Are they cloning humans yet? Eh, I don't know.
He's living my life. He's walking in my shoes on his way to my job, living my life.
Did he steal my life?
Maybe I'm sitting somewhere in a padded room right now. "Careful there, honey," the kind nurse is saying to my slack-jawed, vacant expression. "You're drooling all over your straitjacket ..."
Collin's adrenaline surged, and the confusion of the moment was overpowered by a rising agitation.
The other man approached a street corner, and even though the light on the other side was blinking DON'T WALK, he crossed anyway, nearly jogging.
Collin broke into a run and hit the crosswalk full bore. He was halfway across, his eyes still following his quarry, when a blaring horn filled his ears, followed by the metallic screech of brakes. He barely managed to jump backward a few feet before a Metro bus filled the space where he'd just been standing. The angry driver shouted a few choice phrases in Collin's direction, followed by an emphatic hand gesture.
Collin gave a dazed wave. As the bus chugged slowly along, passing within inches of his face, his stunned reflection gazed back at him in the glass windows as they passed by.
He didn't recognize the man in the glass.
Time seemed to shudder. The sounds of vehicles, store owners, tourists, businesspeople, and even planes flying overhead all fell away, until he heard nothing but the rush of blood surging past his ears and pounding in his temples. There was nothing wrong with his eyes, but he couldn't seem to get them to focus. And he felt a sharp pain in his stomach, as if he might vomit.
Somehow he stumbled his way across the street and managed to hold on to his breakfast—Did I have breakfast?—and stopped to rest on the sidewalk, the chase erased from his thoughts.
The rain had stopped. He stood under the small canvas awning of a tiny high-end boutique with a floor-to-ceiling storefront window. He looked up, expecting to see mannequins on the other side of the glass, but instead, reflected back at him, was a man he'd never seen before.
Everything about his appearance was unfamiliar. He was taller, appeared to have a rather meaty, athletic build, and he wore high-end clothes much too rugged and in style for Collin's taste. Gone was the tiny, balding spot on top of his head, replaced now by thick brown locks trimmed neatly above his ears. He wasn't wearing his glasses—in fact, he didn't seem to need them. He had a few days' growth of facial hair. Even his flabby midsection was missing.
I've gone mad.
He stared at his reflection for minutes on end, unable to do anything else.
Who am I?
That other man—he's me. And I'm ... not.
Did we switch?
A stranger looked through his eyes, taking him in.
And not just any stranger, it occurred to him. He was as close to a perfect specimen of manhood as Collin allowed might exist. An absence of creases around the eyes and a naturally pleasant expression indicated a calm, confident, well-adjusted individual. One who was clearly bogged out of his mind at the moment, but still.
Collin admired this man a minute more, unable to remove his eyes from the reflection, barely even remembering to breathe. He never noticed the slender, short brunette standing behind his shoulder, also taking in his reflection, until she whistled in appreciation.
"Well, somebody got the deluxe package."
He turned at last to face the intruder. She was in her mid-to-late twenties. Wearing a no-muss T-shirt and jeans. She went without makeup, a rarity for L.A., and there was no jewelry either.
And she wore no shoes.
For a second he wondered if she might be homeless. Yet her clothes were too clean. She was pretty and casual, her long brown locks falling off her shoulders in untamed curls, but her expression was a flashing neon billboard that declared her to be sharp and confident. She nodded at the glass window, and he turned once more to peer at his image.
Despite—or perhaps because of—the jumble of thoughts pouring through his mind, a guttural "Huh?" was all he could get out.
My voice is different.
Why is this girl barefoot?
"Oh, I know," she went on. "You have no idea what's going on. Blah-blah-raving-hysteria-blah. I'm just saying ... You took a shortcut to the top of the food chain, handsome."
She placed her hands on his neck, straightening the collar of his brown leather jacket and then examining his reflection once more. "This is the part where I'm probably supposed to say something about ... ‘stepping through the looking glass.’ Isn't it? I don't know, maybe that's wrong—I never dug sci-fi. But I do love that jacket," she said, nodding at his coat.
"This ... isn't science fiction," he choked, surprised to find he'd been holding his breath since she started talking.
"You're not wrong," she replied with a cocked eyebrow and a smirk. "Things are about to get real complicated and I have an elsewhere to be, so let me cut to the heavy exposition. Put your listening cap on, sport, 'cause I'm about to give you a cheat sheet.
"You've just been dropkicked into the middle of something so big you'd never buy it if I tried to explain it now. So here's the big reveal. Are you listening? 'Cause this is the one thing you absolutely gotta know: you're being watched, right now, this very minute. Several groups of people are keeping tabs on your every snap, crackle, and pop. Everything you do from this moment on will blip their radars. So be careful. Though you don't have to fear them all."
"Watching me? How? Why?" he stammered, trying and failing to keep up with the barefoot girl's barrage of information. His heart thudded madly in his chest, his breaths coming in sudden heaves.
She ignored him and continued. "One group is out to help you. They're not the worry. The other group'll kill you the first chance they get. Don't give 'em one."
"Kill me?" he asked, his eyes darting about aimlessly, searching for people watching him ...
All he saw were bored pedestrians going about their business.
His stomach lurched, and he swallowed bile.
The girl nodded. She'd been toying with him at first, but suddenly she turned somber. "Don't bother looking. This particular less-than-philanthropic group has hired one of the best to do their dirty work, and he knows how to stay hidden. His name is Konrad. I'm sure he's watching you with his own two peepers as we speak."
"But ... but ... shouldn't I just go to—"
"The cops?" she finished for him, eyebrows raised. "That conversation would go well. ‘Say, Officer, did you ever see Invasion of the Body Snatchers?’"
He opened his mouth, but no words came out.
"But what is all this? What's going on?" he nearly yelled after collecting himself. "Why is this happening to me? I'm no one! Why me?"
She was silent for a moment, studying him. Finally she spoke, looking deep into his eyes. "It has to be you."
"Because you're a player now."
"A player?" he faltered. "We're playing? Playing what?"
She was shorter than Collin, yet somehow she managed to look down on him like a lost toddler in a department store. "Don't follow Collin—the old you."
Wait, his name wasn't Collin anymore? He was Collin Boyd. He knew that as certain as he knew he was standing here.
Which, given how nuts he seemed to have gone, wasn't all that reassuring.
But no, of course Collin wouldn't be his name anymore.
New body, new name.
His thoughts were coming too fast now, his eyes still looking into surrounding windows, buildings, cars, pedestrians walking by ...
"Listen to me," she said, grabbing him by the shoulders and forcing him to focus. "Don't go near who you used to be. Get out of town and just keep going. Don't slow down. Don't stop. Your life is in danger if you do. Every minute you stay in one place brings Konrad that much closer to you. So you should go. Right now."
Still he'd didn't move. Just stood there, eyes wide with fear and brow knitted in deep confusion. A small part of him bristled at being given orders by a stranger. None of this made sense and leaving was out of the question until it did.
The barefoot girl let out a deep breath with just a hint of annoyance. When she opened her mouth, she spoke slower, as if enunciating to someone hard of hearing. "I know this is confusing; it will get easier for you. It will. But you don't have time to be stubborn right now. And you're so not ready to know yet, anyway. Just go. Now!"
She stood there watching him, unblinking, unmoving, waiting for him to move. He thought he detected a trace of concern, or perhaps urgency, on her face. Mostly she appeared put out by his refusal to start running.
He glanced over her shoulder in the direction of the office where he worked, and in the distance the old him, the other man—Collin Boyd—was nowhere, probably already inside. The new him had no idea whether or not to trust this strange woman, but there was an urgency in her voice that was hard to ignore. Still, his frustration was palpable as he glanced back at her.
"I'm not ready to know?" he asked. "Know what?"
"What's to come," she said without hesitation.
He bored his eyes into hers, but she never blinked. He found it extremely annoying.
She frowned. "Well, I gotta jet. Keep standing here if you want, but don't come crying to me when you're dead."
With that, she turned and flitted off into the busy throng. The rain had stopped just in time for her exit, which he also found annoying.
He started to call after her, but she was long gone. He didn't know what to say anyway.
He didn't even know her name.
With something she said still tugging at his mind, he reached inside his coat pocket in a mechanical, mindless way and pulled out a fine leather wallet he'd never seen before. Opened it.
Inside was a wad of crisp, clean hundred-dollar bills.
There was also a driver's license bearing the name GRANT M. BORROWS. It was the first time he'd seen or heard the name. Whoever this Grant Borrows was, apparently that's who he was now.
The gravity of the situation struck him all at once, and the world began spinning wildly beneath his feet. It was spiraling out of control, and his stomach churned once more.
He caught the eye of a woman who passed him by, entering the clothing store behind him, and as their eyes met, she ... smiled at him.
That was new.
Another brushed his shoulder exiting the store and actually apologized with a sheepish, overly friendly "I'm so sorry!"
Grant began to hyperventilate. No one ever looked him in the eye. He'd spent most of his life cultivating the ability not to be noticed. Now it felt like everyone was looking him up and down.
Admiring what they saw.
An old Volkswagen van passed by the sidewalk where he stood, and it backfired loudly like a gunshot, snapping him back to the moment. Somewhere out there—where he would never see—a man named Konrad was watching him. Possibly moving closer. Meaning to kill him. Perhaps he had a gun with Grant in its sights right now.
Grant Borrows ran.
Relentless by Robin Parrish
Copyright © 2006; ISBN 0764202219
Published by Bethany House Publishers
Used by permission. Unauthorized duplication prohibited.