[Note from Frolic: We’re so excited to bring you this exclusive excerpt from The Other Me by Sarah Zachrich Jeng!]
About The Other Me:
Two lives. The one you wanted. The one that wanted you.
Her birthday should be like any other night.
One minute Kelly’s a free-spirited artist in Chicago going to her best friend’s art show. The next, she opens a door and mysteriously emerges in her Michigan hometown. Suddenly her life is unrecognizable: She’s got twelve years of the wrong memories in her head and she’s married to Eric, a man she barely knew in high school.
Racing to get back to her old life, Kelly’s search leads only to more questions. In this life, she loves Eric and wants to trust him, but everything she discovers about him—including a connection to a mysterious tech startup—tells her she shouldn’t. And strange things keep happening. The tattoos she had when she was an artist briefly reappear on her skin, she remembers fights with Eric that he says never happened, and her relationships with loved ones both new and familiar seem to change without warning.
But the closer Kelly gets to putting the pieces together, the more her reality seems to shift. And if she can’t figure out what happened on her birthday, the next change could cost her everything…
“SO . . . NO CHICKEN MARSALA TONIGHT.”
I jump, inside myself. “Sorry?”
“You usually get chicken Marsala when we go to Luigi’s.”
I ordered the eggplant parmigiana, which I barely remember consuming. I hug myself, feeling a sudden urge to tug my sleeve up and check for the watercolor tattoos I’ve been getting as I can afford them over the years. The same tattoos that were on my arms when I left my apartment in Chicago. My unease had receded—a little—but now it returns in a cold wave.
“What, I can’t try something different?” I mean it to sound light, ironic. It comes out defensive.
“Sure. I was just . . . You always get the chicken Marsala. It’s your favorite.” Do I hear strain in his voice? Is Eric upset that I changed my freaking dinner order?
I put the window down and chilly wind sweeps in, whipping my hair into a flag. The hair I’m used to having is too short for that. I sawed it off one night in a half-drunk fit of audacity dur- ing my second year in art school, Linnea cackling as I wielded the scissors. The next day I got a friend of a friend who was in cosmetology school to fix it, but I liked the look and have never grown it out.
I hold my hair out of my face and take deep breaths of cool air, staring out at blank fields and black sky, the occasional farm- house circled in cold floodlight. Stop freaking out, I order myself, but it’s useless when I know, without having to look, that my arms are bare of ink under my sweater.
“How about my dad’s toast, huh?”
Since Eric’s making the effort to break the tension, I’ll meet him halfway. “It was touching. You’ll have to thank him for me.” Tony talked about the night of junior prom, quipping that it had been hard for him and Amalia to believe Eric and I were actually dating at first. Eric, Tony said, hadn’t been such a la- dies’ man back then.
The line got its expected laugh, and then Tony went on to say he’d had a feeling I was special, that I was going to make his son happy, and he’d been right. He meant it as a compliment, but in my state of mind it worried me. What if I hadn’t been there? What then?
“You could have thanked him yourself, earlier,” Eric says. “He really loves you, you know.”
There’s no judgment in his tone, but the comment galls me anyway, my irritation sharper for knowing he’s right. “I’ll say something next time I see him. It’s been a long night.”
“Everything okay?” He puts a hand on my leg, and I fight the urge to brush it away.
“Yeah . . . I’m just tired.”
I remember junior prom with Eric. It was our third date, and though I’d met his parents before, it had been as his classmate. I remember babbling, knocking over a picture frame on their mantel when we stood in front of the fireplace for a picture. They probably weren’t as impressed with me as Tony made out in his toast.
Up until then I hadn’t been nervous about anything in connection with Eric. We were friendly but moved in different circles, intersecting only briefly, until one day in junior year— my seventeenth birthday, as it happened—he’d asked me out. Before then, it hadn’t even occurred to me to think of him in a romantic way, and once we were dating he made me feel like he would worship me no matter what I did. No one had ever looked at me the way he did, like I was something marvelous.
His regard made me feel powerful, but it also inspired a sense of responsibility. He made me want to live up to his vision of me. I also remember another prom night, when I went to the dance with my three best friends and we ended up at a party the next town over, Katie Spence casually puking over the porch railing. Nicole Petersson and I had to rescue Alicia Kang from being hit on by a guy in his late twenties who worked at the local burger chain. We wound up the night at Denny’s, slumped in a booth in our sequined gowns, shoveling in waffles and bacon and drinking hot, strong coffee. Eric and I are almost home.
The streets in our subdivision are named after Revolutionary War battles. When we first bought our house, Eric and I laughed at the serendipity of it: the universe was determined to make us appreciate American history.
Eric eases the car down Oriskany Way and pulls up next to a blue Malibu in our garage. The last time I left home it was from my apartment in Chicago. I’d filled food and water dishes for my cat, Sergeant Meeky, and called, Don’t wait up, Meeks! as I wrestled the sticky dead bolt into the locked position. My roommates were both out working their restaurant jobs. I’d decided not to drive to the gallery, since parking would be iffy and I’d be drinking, and a semblance of spring had finally arrived and it was so nice out that I didn’t mind the wait for the bus.
This house, a modest split-level, is ours. Mine and Eric’s. That Chevy is mine. I remember buying it, new, to celebrate getting my first “real” job after graduating from MSU.
After he shuts off the car, he says, “Oh, I almost forgot,” and it’s not the forced casualness in his voice that gives him away, because Eric never oh, almost forgets anything. He reaches be- hind my seat and retrieves a small bag. “I never gave you your present.”
My present. It’s still my birthday. My throat closes up as I remember the paints that appeared a couple of days ago, as if by magic, in my area of the studio Linnea and I share. She didn’t even leave a note: she knew I’d know they were from her. Most of my other friends are the type who’ll just stand me a few rounds at the bar, and I’d been looking forward to a raucous weekend.
Inside the bag sits a jewelry case. In the case lies a delicate white-gold chain that holds a small round pendant encrusted with tiny diamonds. “Wow,” I say.
“You like it?” Eric wears a small, hopeful smile.
“It’s beautiful.” It looks like an itty-bitty luggage tag.
“Let’s see it on you.” He reaches for the box, and I let him take it. We shift around, awkward in the small space, so he can clasp the chain around my neck. He surveys me, then nods as if satisfied.
“I don’t know if this is the right outfit for it.” I take the pen- dant between my fingers. It’s rough on the front and smooth on the back, already warm from my skin.
“It looks fine. I tried to pick something that would go with everything, be good for every day . . . I know you don’t dress up that often.” For some reason he looks sheepish, as though it’s his fault for not taking me anywhere.
“It’s beautiful,” I say again, nothing else occurring to me.
Then something does. “Thank you.”
“You’re welcome,” he returns, oddly formal.
He looks at me. I look at him. I realize he’s waiting for me to do something, probably the normal thing a wife would do when her husband presents her with an expensive gift. But I can’t bring myself to touch him.
A line appears between his eyebrows. “Is there—” His voice catches, and he clears his throat. “Is there something wrong?”
I could lay it all out for him. How I stepped from the gallery into the restaurant, the double memories, Chicago. He prob- ably wouldn’t understand—scratch that, he definitely wouldn’t understand—but he’s a problem solver. For him everything is concrete, has a cause and effect. He looks at the factors in front of him and sees patterns other people don’t. He could help me see through the madness to what’s real.
Except I’m not sure I can accept the reality. I love Eric—at least I remember I love Eric—but if I tell him about my life in Chicago, that life will become irrevocably not real. The possi- bility of my entire history ceasing to exist, of it never having existed, induces a dreamlike horror that stops up my throat. I can’t speak; all I can do is shake my head.
Eric must sense some part of what I’m feeling. He leans in and kisses me on the cheek, caressing my other cheek with his hand, lips and fingers lingering on my skin. I almost flinch, but once the touch is happening it feels familiar, normal. Comforting.
“I love you,” he says. His hand moves around to the back of my neck. He kisses my closed lips once, twice. The intimacy of his touch still unsettles me, but I’m drawn in to him, his con- tours matching mine. I feel another, powerful urge to tell him what’s going on. It would be so easy to let the words float out and away, not my problem anymore.
Instead I kiss him back, a small one. Easy enough. “Happy anniversary,” he says. His lips brush my cheek one more time; then he pulls away, his hand warm on the back of my neck. I could draw his face from memory. “Though I guess it’s not, really, since we didn’t actually go on our first date until after your birthday.”
“Ah-ah-ah.” He shakes his head, smiling. “That’s the kind of thinking that gets astronauts killed.” He says that a lot. It’s kind of a running joke with us, how he’s the planner and I’m the one willing to let things slide. One of those inside jokes that flourish in a marriage.
A shiver passes through me. “You sure you’re okay?” he asks.
“Yeah, I just need a minute. I had a little too much to drink.”
His smile grows indulgent. “You’re not in your early twenties anymore. You should take some Tylenol before you go to bed.”
Aleve, I almost correct him. Naproxen sodium is a far better hangover preventative, as I’ve learned from many a long night.
He kisses my forehead, then goes into the house while I re- main in the car, hugging my elbows and feeling a chill my sweater can’t touch. I think of my apartment, my cat, and wonder if Meeks exists. If she’s curled up on the foot of my bed, waiting for me.
That’s my life, I think. That’s the truth.
I just need to find a way back home.
About the Author:
Sarah Zachrich Jeng grew up in Michigan and always had a flair for the morbid and mysterious (for her dad’s thirty-fifth birthday, she wrote a story entitled “The Man Who Died at 35”). She had a brief career as an aspiring rock star before she came to her senses and went back to school to become a web developer. Sarah lives in Florida with her family and an extremely hyper rescue dog. THE OTHER ME is her first novel.