's 2017 Horror Write-off:

Imposter Syndrome

Submitted by Nora Shank (email)

It had been two hours since Sean Winters' heart had stopped beating, and he was starting to panic.

Before today, he'd never stopped to consider just how loud the human body was. It was like an air conditioner that had been running for ages, and he'd learned to tune it out, and someone had shut it off. In the silence, he was uncomfortably aware of everything else around him - how his joints cracked when he stood, the sound of his stomach gargling, the low whir of his computer fan. Anything to fill the empty static that should have been running through his ears.

It was almost easy to forget how normally the day had started. There had been a light chill in the air from the storm the previous night. The train ride was fuzzy and indistinct - he'd dozed off during it, and had a paranoid dream about sleeping through his alarm, and by the time he'd made it to the office, he'd been fired and replaced by a man with his face. He'd woken up in a panic before the train arrived, his heart pumping in his chest. He'd walked from the station to the office, greeting his coworkers as he traversed the maze of cubicles to his own unadorned, white plaster box, where a memo lay on his desk reminding him that his spreadsheets needed to be in by five, because they needed them to finalize some big business deal coming up. He'd sipped his coffee and eavesdropped on a conversation at the water cooler on the other side of the cubicle wall, something about how the storm the previous night had brought down a few trees in the area and there had been some power outages because of it. Someone complimented his novelty tie, a shitty piece of Dilbert merchandise he'd gotten in an office "white elephant" exchange about a month back. The clicking of Sean's mechanical keyboard filled the air as the minutes passed.

And then, something reached behind his sternum and squeezed. There was a sudden tightness in his chest, and then there was nothing. His body tensed around his chest, his blood, heavy under his skin. The blood wasn't pooling against it, weighed down by gravity. It just hung suspended in his veins.

He'd tried to pass off the slow, building heaviness, but after a full minute had passed, it had become too much to ignore. He'd pulled back the cuffs of his long-sleeved shirt and laid his finger on the vein in his wrist, waiting for a familiar pulse to pass by, and felt nothing. The tightness in his chest tugged harder, and he'd brought his hand up to the thick artery running through his neck. That had been part of his first aid training, when he'd gotten certified. If you needed to find a pulse, always try the larger veins. He held his hand there for a half minute, but nothing ever squeezed its way past his touch.

"Sean? What are you doing?"

He shoved his hand behind his back and turned his head up toward the top of his cubicle. One of the girls from Human Resources stood over him, apparently having stopped on her way back from the water cooler. He was sure he knew her name, but he had more important things on his mind at the moment.

"Sorry. Neck ache."

"Ooh, better take an aspirin for that. Leaning over a keyboard all day will do that to you," she said. "Did you see the email they sent out this morning?"

He swiveled his chair around to face her totally, trying to look as casual as he could. "No, what's up?"

"Apparently someone got into the system this morning. Company wants everyone to change their passwords, just in case. Hey, are you sure you're okay? You're looking a little pale."

"I'm - fine." He swallowed down a glob of spit.

"Okay, okay, but if you're sick, don't give it to me, okay? I'll catch you later, Sean." She waved him off and continued down the rows, and Sean swiveled back around to his desk, and tried to work some warmth into his fingertips.

The hours since then had been dominated by a feeling of gnawing dread in his gut. He was only dully aware of the contents of the spreadsheets he'd filled out for the past few hours, his fingers moving mechanically across the keyboard as his mind kept wandering back to his stopped heart. His fingers felt chilled, his joints stiff. He felt the effort of every button press. There was a heavy weight hanging unmoving behind his sternum, and he could feel his whole body tensing around it.

At lunch break, Sean stopped by the storage room to pick something up, and then politely excused himself to the men's room.

He entered the restroom and found himself alone. One wall of the bathroom was dominated by a long mirror, standing above a line of white porcelain sinks. It reflected a row of stalls, a pair of urinals, and Sean's hollowed out face. He stepped up to the mirror and pulled back the collar of his shirt once more, slipping two fingers under it.

Every logical bone in his body told him this was impossible, but he wasn't even sure if he could listen to that. His own body was lying to him, telling him he should be dead, when he was walking around like he was alive. It was like he was puppeting his own corpse. Even his own face in the mirror was starting to look foreign to him.

He brought his fingers down from his neck and uncurled his fist, holding it palm-side up. His body trembled. With his other hand, Sean reached into his pocket, pulled out the box cutter he'd stolen from the storage room, and drew it across his palm. Blood pooled at the site of the cut, forced up by the injury, and then lay there, still and unmoving. He stared down at his palm as the blood began to dry, but not coagulate.

I have to get out of here, he thought.

He tied a paper towel around his hand and hurried back to his cubicle, where he gathered his things into a briefcase and hurried out, stopping only briefly to let his manager know he wasn't feeling well and he was going home.

As he'd hurried past her desk, the phone rang, and in that brief moment before he left, he swore that the phone number he saw flash across the hold screen on the device was his own.

The road to the train station was choked by midday crowds, hemmed in by the skyscrapers that lined the path. Sean zig-zagged around pedestrians as he worked his way down the street, holding his injured hand close to him. He was hyper-aware of every glance in his direction, the sidewalk stretching for an eternity. He burst into the train station at a half-run and grabbed the railing for a brief moment, only to suddenly pull his hand away again, leaving a smear of blood from where the paper towel had slipped. There had been no slight chill of untouched steel when he'd touched it - there had been no difference in temperature between his hand and the rail at all.

He stood at the platform with his hand stuffed into his pocket, his briefcase handle in a vicegrip. There were only a few people who climbed onto the train when it arrived at the platform, and Sean rode it silently to his station. The sound of the train rumbling along the rail drowned out the silence of his own veins.

This is just some kind of bad dream, he thought, cradling his injured hand in his lap. If I just go to bed, I'll wake up and everything will be fine again.

But the rumbling of the train didn't lull him to sleep the way it had that morning, and instead he sat completely awake, his mind roiling with paranoid thoughts.

The train rolled to a stop, and he burst from its insides, dashing down the stair and out of the building. He was completely blind to his surroundings, only trying to make it up the hill as fast as he could, until he slammed right into someone coming down the hill from the other direction.

They both fell backwards, Sean landing on his side. He sat up with a groan and rubbed his head. "Sorry, wasn't watching where I was--"

He stopped.

The man staring back at Sean had his face, and it was horrified. He was of the exact same build as him, was wearing the same shirt as him, and even had the same, shitty novelty Dilbert tie on. Sean's gaze drifted to the man's hand. His palm was uninjured.

At that moment, a flood of information surged into Sean's head.

His name is Sean Winters. He overslept this morning, because there was a power outage last night and his alarm never went off. He decided to wear the same tie he wore yesterday because it was what was draped over his hamper this afternoon, and he was in a hurry. He has a big spreadsheet project that needs to be in before five today or he's in deep shit, Sean thought. But I'm Sean Winters. I woke up this morning in my bed and I took the train to work. I know I did.

And then, after I got to work, my heart stopped.

A second voice crawled into Sean's head, squirming out of his unconscious and boring through his frontal lobe, and it spoke in his own voice.

Things that don't exist don't need to bleed.

Sean and the man wearing his face locked eyes. Neither spoke a word, until the man wearing Sean's face scrambled to his feet and sprinted back up the hill. Sean was tugged to his feet by an invisible force, and he shot after the man. Their stride length was the same, and with the head start, it felt almost impossible to catch up. Almost, except the man was too panicked to think about anything but escape. The man ducked down an alleyway, and Sean kept going, his body's puppeteer telling him he'd corner the man if he went down the next alley. Sean turned, and he ran to the end of the building, and the moment the man turned the corner to come around, Sean slammed his briefcase into the man's head.

The man dropped to the ground and brought an arm up over his head to guard from any further strikes.

"Who are you?! Why are you doing this?!" he cried.

If you kill him, you'll become real, said the voice in his head.

Sean's arm tugged upward, the briefcase in hand, and he swung it down at the man, over and over again. When the man was too battered to fight back, Sean fell to his knees and wrapped his hands around the man's neck, and he pressed his thumbs into his windpipe and squeezed. The man writhed under him, his eyes rolling back into his head, his pulse quickening under Sean's palms, faster and faster, until it stopped.

Inside Sean's ribcage, his heart gave a gasp, and began to beat once more.


The next morning, Sean Winters woke up in his own bed, and he brushed his teeth, and he rubbed some disinfectant into the cut on his palm before bandaging it up for the day. The sun coming through his window was warm and welcome after the past few days of cold and wet, and vaguely, it occurred to him that today was Saturday, and he was off today. The previous day's paranoia, clearly, had been nothing but the result of overwork. But the project was done now, and he could take it easy today, and he could forget all about the doppelganger he'd met on the road or the violent fantasy he'd had about him.

And when the police found the corpse of a man matching Sean Winters' dental records, and Sean Winters testified that he had no siblings and that this man was of no relation to him, the body of the man who had originally occupied Sean Winters' place in the world was quietly carted off to the morgue, and summarily forgotten about.