The story so far:
There was no way to know who knew, or how they knew, and there never would be. I knew that I would never forget this simple truth. The ghosts and shadows of paranoia would forever lurk just beyond my periphery. Innocent, thoughtless doodles always transformed into eyes or keyholes, big brother’s iconic face took shape in the clouds on a sunny day. And yet, with every year that passed I became slightly more comfortable, I found myself exhaling a bit more steadily with each passing season. At every sad little town I had a few more minutes of real, restful sleep. I found out what the feds wanted to know, I was marginally trusted and liked by many and, though I would eventually betray and ruin the lives of many more, they would never know it was me. I was safe, anonymous, and, to anyone who had known me before, I was dead already. Nothing real had happened since the second placement, twelve years ago in March, when I was given the last reminder of my vulnerability that I would ever need.
I worked in the post office that time, sorting mail in a back room with two middle aged women whose marginal lives I attempted to mimic at every available opportunity. Roberta and Betty’s dull complaints and mild excitements became my own and I took comfort in the overwhelming monotony of their lives. People saw us as the same, I entered their world and the permed and slightly dowdy pair became a trio. Although Rob and Betty didn’t read the mail, of course. They weren’t aware of the salacious truth behind a return address or the weekly shipment of illegal money orders larger than our combined salaries. The post office was the ideal location for me to gain leads and investigate the most personal aspects of people’s inner lives without ever having to really know them. Perhaps most importantly I didn’t have to gain their trust, I wasn’t ready for that yet.
Those days passed slowly and seemingly securely, Roberta would fill me in on the escapades of her five-year-old daughter, Betty debated the benefits of minivan vs. sedan, and I slipped anything suspicious into a secret slot in my desk for later investigation.
“So have you seen that handsome boy from shipping lately, sweetie?” Betty had asked me one day as I monotonously sifted through the pile of letters that lay before me.
“No Bets I haven’t, don’t know if he’s really my type though, too tall maybe,” and then there it was, staring out at me from beneath an energy bill: my name. My real name, my old name, the one that I had been trying so hard to forget. It was the name of a woman who had lived thousands of miles away, who had different hair and makeup. This woman had never worn glasses and wouldn’t be caught dead in the sweater set I had worn that day. It was the name of a dead woman, and beneath that name was my address, my new address, the address of the living and wholly new me.
My immediate thought was, “get out, go, leave, run,” but I couldn’t move. Fear grasped me by the throat and ankles and squeezed tight. I was paralyzed, the deafening beating of my heart began to drown out my racing thoughts, and all I could do was to try and continue to smile politely at Roberta and Betty as my head and heart exploded within me.
And then, nothing. Emptiness. Silence. My body loosened as my brain slowly told me what my heart, frozen now, not calm but merely stopped, already knew.
The handwriting on the envelope, the looped and childish-seeming scrawl, I knew that handwriting. I’d seen it every day, filling out forms and leaving inspirational messages on the greyed white-board above the coffee. Even the tiny hearts were there to dot the I’s. It was Roberta’s handwriting, Roberta knew. Roberta, the frumpy middle-aged, postal worker and soccer mom, who had watched me day in and out, she was one of them.
I had gotten away that time, left for good that afternoon and never questioned the strict limitations of my trust ever again. I saw everyone as suspect; I knew that I would never know who was watching me.
Nestled under the large crocheted blanket I’d bought at a thrift store, I tried to shake the feeling of terror that Jake’s declaration had laid upon me. I looked at the blanket, its waves of red and yellow curling around my trembling thighs. The blanket was supposed to be cozy, to make me feel softer, more real, if anyone ever asked I’d say that my grandmother had made it for me. Though I wasn’t allowed to bring anything from one placement to the next, the blanket had somehow visited three different houses with me already. I couldn’t remember how I’d managed to hide it now, all I could think about was the folder. I needed it; I needed to see it right now.
For a brief moment I let the blanket tighten its hold on me and then just as quickly I jumped from the chair and ran to my closet. The folder rested where I’d last hidden it, underneath a pile of sweaters that had come, like everything else, with the house. I sat on the floor and laid it before me. Flipping over its worn cover I began to sift through its wealth of phone numbers scribbled on scrap paper, old credit card receipts that all attached themselves to different names, and the occasional contraband photo. Relics of my former lives. I thumbed these flimsy mementos and tried hard to breath, I thought back to myself over and over again, “This is me.”
A sense of calm began to creep over me as I sifted through the pages until, just as suddenly, I came upon a photo that I’d forgotten was there. Roberta and her family, dressed all in red and green and posing in front of their Christmas tree. I wasn’t able to keep the letter that day at the post office, the feds had quickly confiscated and sent it, I had always assumed, for some kind of forensic testing. So instead I’d kept her Christmas card, a gentle reminder that no matter how much I’d settled into any of my new lives that I was never truly safe. I looked over the smiling faces of her children, the dopey look on the face of her golden retriever when, for the second time today, my heart stopped, my throat constricted and a wave of nausea fell over my entire body. Nestled on her fathers lap was my chipper and sweet favorite five-year-old student. There staring back at me from the time worn glossy paper, was Amy.