The Stranger

Opening the door was like stepping into another world. It was the largest house he’d ever seen in person. Now, he was inside of it, involved in a lovely ruse that made this house his for the moment. It almost looked like a courthouse lobby the way the ceiling stretched high and the floor shined. This was easy for him; pretending, lying. He could play along with this joke for as long as it was required.

Before he could see the rest of the home, venture into this lifestyle he’d only dreamed about, a Canadian Eskimo dog came flying around the corner, darting at him. Fuckin’ wolf! It caught him by surprise but he kept his cool. Stayed in character. Stood his ground.

The dog raced at him and barked a high-screech type of joyful sound. So, he smiled back, best he could and knelt down for a hug. It was a shitty smile, yeah. His cheeks squeezing and straining, almost like they fought against this unnatural position. It didn’t fool the dog.

Before the dog and man made contact with each other, the beautiful white animal stopped running, slid across the wooden floor and halted. It gawked at this individual it didn’t know. And the bark, the daddy’s home woof, turned into a who the hell are you growl.

The man stood and raised his arms in defense. “Whoa there!”

“Cedar!” a voice yelled out from the back somewhere. The dog stopped growling, but didn’t take his eyes off this stranger.

A woman walked around the corner. She was tall, dark and the most beautiful woman he’d ever seen. “Don’t you know daddy when you see him,” she said to the dog. Then, she made eye-contact with him.

That made him vulnerable. And it was the first time in his life that he felt weak. He hated the feeling, but loved the reason why. She was fucking gorgeous. An angel—no, a goddess. He immediately wanted to rip her clothes off and take this trick to the next level. And he’d love her even if he didn’t know her.

“Babe?” She approached him.

That voice grabbed hold of everything that made him who he was. And he was stuck there, unable to defend himself if he had to. No way to escape if he wanted to.

“Hurry and close the door before Cedar runs out.”

He did as she commanded.

She shooed the dog away and it ran up the steps to the right. She grabbed the man’s shirt, looked at it, then studied his face. “Are you okay? How’d your meeting go and why’d you change your shirt?”

He didn’t know how to answer that. Just stood there, feeling stupid. He didn’t know what he was doing with his eyes and mouth, didn’t know how he was standing. But he felt exposed. Naked. Like his soul was about to come crawling out of his skin. This beautiful woman, two inches away from his face, had her hands on his waist and she looked deep into his eyes.

“Well?” she waited for him to respond.

Then, the door pushed open and in came Rob, laughing his ass off.

She screamed and jumped back… “What the fuck?”

Cedar came rushing back down the steps and hopped on Rob, licking and hugging him. The husband went to his wife and tried to calm her while failing to contain his amusement. “Babe, babe, chill. It’s me. The real me.” Rob smiled and grabbed her while she looked at the other man standing in the doorway.

She looked at her husband, then looked at the stranger. Back and forth, like twenty times and still could not wipe the confusion from her face.

Rob gave her some space and explained. “This is who I had the meeting with this morning. This is Kevin, my brother.” Her look of confusion was replaced by a hesitant smile and she stepped forward. “Kevin, this is my wife, Jennifer.”

And they shook hands.

The wife looked back at Rob and punched him in the arm. That only made him laugh harder, and he grabbed her by the waist and pulled her close.

“Forgive me,” he begged.

She shook her head, playfully. Then, they kissed. After the kiss, he touched his lips with two of his fingers, and winked at her.

Kevin didn’t know this woman, barely knew Rob. But when they kissed, it made him sick to his stomach.

At the dinner table that could serve ten people, the three of them sat at the end. Rob laughing at himself most of the time while his wife tried to get to know Kevin a little better.

Meeting Rob for the first time that morning was a long-awaited event. Kevin had found him on social media while searching for his birth mother and couldn’t believe what he was seeing. Thought it was a joke at first until they spoke over the phone, then ultimately met at a coffee shop in town. Kevin was a hard man, had been in and out of prison all his adult life. Didn’t really have a family and couldn’t trust anyone long enough to hang on to any friends. The man couldn’t keep a legitimate job, either, so he did what he had to do to survive. Rob didn’t know of his dark past. Kevin had only told his brother he worked in retail on the other side of the country. A half-truth. Didn’t matter. Rob was a talker. A goofball. An idiot. After spilling his whole life story, Rob didn’t bother to question Kevin’s.

“That was a horrible joke to play,” Jennifer said. “What if I would’ve kissed him?”

Rob laughed, and she slapped him in the shoulder.

“We even stopped at the shop to get his hair cut to look like mine,” Rob told her.

“He’s right. I—”

“He had facial hair everywhere. With grays, too. It was like looking into a future mirror.” Rob laughed.

Jennifer shook her head, leaned over and rubbed Kevin’s forearm. “I’m sorry about him. He can be such an obnoxious asshole when he gets some drink in him.”

“Speaking of…” Rob stood and grabbed his empty beer bottle.

“Love you,” she said, rolling her eyes.

“Loved you first,” he replied and jogged to the kitchen.

Jennifer didn’t seem in the mood to eat. Looked like she was more interested in Kevin. She watched him every time he took a bite.

“How’s the food?”

“It’s lovely, ma’am,” he said.

“Oh, don’t you dare call me ma’am.” She smiled and flicked his arm.

“Apologies.” He looked at her hand, wanting to grab it, hold it, kiss it. But fought the urge to.

“So, what’s the story then? You two?”

Kevin shrugged. He truly didn’t know but was bound to find out. “We’ll get some answers tomorrow.”

Rob returned to the table.

“Tomorrow?” She looked at her husband.

“Goin’ up to moms in the morning. It’ll be a nice surprise,” Rob said.

“You didn’t tell her?”

Rob shook his head.

“Ya’ll are gonna give her a goddamn heart attack, showing up like this. Damn near gave me one.”

“She’ll be fine. We—we have a plan.” Rob smiled, slurring over his words. “Enough of that. Get over here and give me my dessert.” He leaned over and kissed his wife’s neck. Even licked it.

Jennifer giggled, then pushed him away. “Stop it, boy.”

He reached over, stuck his arm into the top of her shirt, and groped her while still nibbling on her neck, like Kevin wasn’t even there. Then, he grabbed her face, pushed it towards his and kissed her soft lips. Not once, not twice, but three times. And it felt like punches to the gut to Kevin.

After the kiss, Rob touched his lips with two of his fingers and she blushed, her glance flickering at Kevin. Only then did Kevin return to his meal. The husband and wife took their groping and grabbing and kissing to the bedroom and left him at the table by himself.

He didn’t have much of an appetite to begin with, so there was no reason to pretend anymore. He stood from the chair and snooped around. Pictures were everywhere; on the walls, on end tables. Valuables all out in the open, items he’d make good money off of, too, but he only wanted one thing.

In the living room, above the fireplace was a massive portrait that caught his attention. Rob and Jennifer on their wedding day with their mother beside them. He saw happiness and love in all three of them and it sent a pulsing shock through his chest.

“Kevin?”

The sweet voice snapped him out of that raging gaze. He didn’t know how long he’d been staring at the picture but he turned to Jennifer and saw her in nothing but a bathrobe. “Yeah?”

She stepped closer. “I’m sorry about that. We don’t get much company, as you can tell.”

“It’s okay.”

“Rob told me you had a hotel room downtown.” She came closer.

“That’s right.”

“Well, you’re going to stay here with us tonight.”

“No, no. I don’t want to—”

“Nonsense. You’re family.” She was as close to him as when they met hours ago. She caressed his arm. “You stay here, okay? We have a guest room down the hall. Plenty to eat in the kitchen. You just make yourself at home.”

He nodded.

She touched his face and rubbed his cheek down to his chin, then placed both hands on each of his shoulders. “God, it’s crazy how much you look like him.”

*

The hour-long drive gave Kevin time to reflect on his life, but more importantly reminisce on last night. His dream. And the guest star of that dream, Jennifer. He couldn’t get his mind off of her. Couldn’t believe that a woman like her would dedicate her life to a goofball like Rob.

Rob? How could this man be my blood? My twin? He doesn’t deserve my face.

They were virtually opposite in every way, other than appearance. As Kevin day-dreamed about his sister-in-law, Robert talked more about himself and his accomplishments. The man loved hearing his own voice. Rob was the biggest fan of Rob. In twenty-four hours, Kevin knew everything there was to know about his brother. And still, Rob knew nothing about him.

They pulled up to a two-story log cabin, not a neighbor for miles; some property Rob had bragged about purchasing one weekend. It was where their mother stayed. She had enough in the home to keep her satisfied and Rob had always checked on her throughout the week. Forget the mesmerizing expansion of trees and space and nature surrounding the home, he had his mind on one thing.

They entered the home and per the plan, Kevin went upstairs and pretended to be Robert. Each step grabbed his focus, and with each step, a moment of his life flashed before his eyes. Everything he’d been through in the past thirty years; answers he’d been seeking all his life.

He stood there before the door at the top of the stairway, took a deep breath, conjured a ridiculous smirk to mimic the idiot downstairs and he pushed the door open.

An old woman sat up in bed. She had gray hair all over her head, and a smile that made him warm inside. She was beautiful. “Robbie, baby.” She reached her arms up for a hug.

He was hesitant at first but remembered, he wasn’t him. So, he dragged himself over to the side of her bed and gave this woman a hug.

“Good morning,” she said, squeezing around his shoulders.

A chill exploded in his arms and trickled down the sides of his body towards his feet. He nearly collapsed on top of her, but he pressed down on the mattress and pushed off the bed.

“Well…” Her hands were still raised. “Don’t look at me like that. Help me up.”

Kevin aborted the plan, got rid of the goofy grin and lifted his shirt to show her the birthmark below his left breast.

She dropped her hands and gasped. “Ya—you’re not Robert.”

Kevin shook his head.

Looked like the old woman sunk into the mattress, the way her neck collapsed into her shoulders. “Ha—how did you find me? Where’s Robert?”

“Tell me why?”

His mother adjusted in the bed and looked at the doorway for something or someone, perhaps to save her from answering. But it was just him and her. A ghost from her past back to haunt her.

“I was young. I…I wasn’t prepared. My parents disowned me months before. Your daddy had left me a week earlier, and all I wanted to do was be the best mother I could be. But two of you came out of me. I could handle one of you, but not two. So—so…”

“So, what?”

“I chose.”

“And how did you choose?”

She took a big gulp and dropped her head. “It was random.”

He laughed. First time in a long time that he truly laughed. His mother cringed at the hoarse, scratchy sound.

“Random, huh?” He knelt down beside her and grabbed her hand. Held it. He actually felt her distress through the contact. “Y’know, all I’ve ever wanted was a family. A real family. To know where I come from. To have some sort of legacy. Because bouncing from foster home to foster home, you don’t get a legacy, you don’t get that family bond. You’re just another lost kid. A bastard. A random.”

Tears fell from her eyes. He released her hand and wiped them for her.

“What’s your name?” she asked.

Kevin stood, grabbed the pillow from behind her head and pressed it against her face. “My name is Robert,” he said, pushing down until her kicking and slapping stopped. Then, he put the pillow back behind her head, pulled her body back to a sleeping position and covered her up with the blanket.

He kissed her on the forehead and returned to the first floor. He found Robert in the kitchen helping himself to some cereal.

Kevin grabbed a wine bottle from the counter and snuck up behind his brother. The idiot was so engrossed in his phone while stuffing his face, he didn’t even hear Kevin approaching. Then, Kevin knocked him over the head with the bottle, strangled him, then switched clothes. When he finished, he dragged the body into the woods behind the home.

On the way back into town, Kevin talked to himself, laughed to himself, went over all he’d learned in the last twenty-fours to transform into Robert. Another twenty minutes of practice in the driveway and he was a new man.

He opened the door and Cedar came darting at him. Shit. The dog knew and once the growling started, Kevin pulled the door open and Cedar flew out and ran down the street. “Little shit.” He slammed the door and chuckled. Damn, he was really turning into the idiot. Then, he yelled, “Honey, I’m back.”

The beauty queen strutted around the corner with a smile on her face. “That was fast. Where’s Kevin?”

“Oh, he had to head back home. Said it was some urgent work business.”

She stopped and frowned. The look seemed genuine, she liked him. She likes me. “Aww, that’s too bad.”

“But he’ll keep in touch, he said.”

“Good.” She continued toward him, wrapped her arms around his neck and kissed him. He didn’t hold back, either. He slid his tongue in her mouth and grabbed her butt. She went along with it until he finally released.

“Damn, what’s that about?”

“I just missed you…that’s all.”

She took her hands off his shoulders, stood back and looked at him. Studied him. Waited for something, it looked like.

“What?” he asked.

“Nothing. How’s momma?”

Kevin smiled. “She’s resting.”

“Oh. I love you,” she said.

“I love you, too.”

Jennifer gave him another look. Why is she staring at me like that? Does she know? She flashed him a smile and walked toward the kitchen. “I’m gonna get started on dinner.”

“All right, babe. I’ll be in there in a minute.” He went into the bathroom under the stairs and locked the door. Gazing into the mirror with this absurd idea. His cheeks were on fire from all the ridiculous smirking and laughing. “She doesn’t know. You got this,” he told himself. “You are Robert. Act like it.”

“What if she figures it out?” the mirror asked.

He shrugged. “Then, we’ll see if she takes me.”

“And if she doesn’t?” the mirror asked again.

“We make her.”

He bent over, splashed his face and opened the door.

She surprised him right outside the door, giving him that look again. “I love you?” It sounded like a question.

He looked back at her, thought on it and replied, “I love you, too.”

Behind her back, she showed him a butcher knife. “Where’s Robert?” she yelled.

He took a step back and raised his hands. “I am Robert, woman. Have you gone mad?”

She looked over her shoulder, “Cedar,” she yelled. “Come here, boy.”

He jumped at the knife and grabbed it, but she was stronger than he thought. The blade pierced him just below the ribs. A chill coursed through his entire body as he watched her face transform into a giant O. She was speechless, and beautiful. The pain hit him once the coldness wrapped around his stomach. He touched her face, her lips and said, “Worth it,” before he dropped dead.

COPYRIGHT © M. SYDNOR JR.

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