By Andy Betz and Samantha Fowler
Part One: My life as it was
My employer, Mrs. Oliver, assigned the duty of a visual inspection of an older movie theater to me. I was to look around and walk about and give her my written report by the morning. While her decision would not be based entirely upon what I found, I would have some input as to whether Mrs. Oliver would make a bid on the restoration or consign the theater to demolition. I was up for the challenge.
I did not have time to go home and change, so I donned a trench coat and carried an umbrella (it looked like rain). When I arrived at the Carlton Theater, a great live performance, song, and dance spot before the war. The front was locked, but I managed to squeeze between boards, turn on my flashlight, and enter.
The Carlton had seen better days. A quarter inch of dust over the plush red velvet and deep pile carpet sheltered the footfalls of performers and spectators of an era long since passed. Within the last ten years, the owners declared bankruptcy and abandoned this once splendored palace of grandeur to its current fate. The only evidence of any recent activity was the projectionist’s room. The door knob was unusually clean and the overhead light still worked. I decided to give it a go and entered.
I awoke seconds later. My dizziness did not betray my balance and I remained exactly one foot in the room. Only it wasn’t the same room and yet it was. It was still the projectionist’s room. It was still the Carlton Theater. The only difference was that everything was clean and new and pristine just as if tonight was a gala opening for some Hollywood elite.
I decided to exit the room in the same manner hoping for reverse results.
No such luck.
For a return, that is.
But all the luck in the world for serendipitous exploration.
The Charlton Theater was now glamorous beyond explanation. All the lights glowed. The mirrors reflected my every movement. The carpet was made for a queen. And the ambiance was beyond comparison. Was I dreaming? Was this real? I pinched myself, as if that actually worked, to verify my existence. I didn’t have to wonder for long.
“You are not dreaming, Samantha. It is all real. This is how the Carlton was and you and I are really here.” I turned to find the voice, an all-too-familiar voice. What I saw, saw I, seeing me.
Standing in front of me was me, an exact copy of me. I was looking at Samantha looking at Samantha.
She sounded like me. She wore the same trench coat as me. She even had the same heels and the same flashlight as me. I, we, took a step toward each other. Underneath my signature, I mean our, Audrey Hepburn glasses, were my green eyes staring right back at me, I mean us.
“Who are you? What am I doing here?” I required answers.
“I am Miss Samantha Lombard. You have a wedding band and my guess is that you married your childhood sweetheart, Stephen. Thus, you are Mrs. Samantha Fowler. Otherwise, we are identical and are both here for the same reasons. Did your Mrs. Oliver send you?”
“Then worry not, for everything is as it should be, Samantha. May I call you Samantha? Mrs. Fowler seems a bit too formal, considering the circumstances.”
I nodded again. It was about all I could do, considering the circumstances.
“Good. Then you may also call me Samantha.” With that greeting, she walked over to me, took my hand, and escorted me to a nearby sofa to take a seat. I was nearly catatonic and such tenderness did not abate my confusion, but it did put me at ease.
For the next thirty minutes, Samantha told me about the Carlton Theater and what some believed were its magical powers. This would explain her presence. Samantha (this is difficult addressing my duplicate as myself) told me everything I knew about myself, she knew about me, and vice-versa.
I didn’t believe her, so I put her to the test.
“What color dress am I wearing today?”
“Really Samantha?” She stood up and removed her trench coat to reveal the identical blue dress I had on.
“Samantha, I will do you one better.” With that, she hiked her dress to expose identical welts of her stockings held in place with the tabs of an identical blue garter belt. I had to assume the remaining ensemble also matched.
I have to admit, while standing there, she looked delicious; actually too delicious.
“I also know of your, our, curious nature.” With that one phrase, she moved her hands to remove my trench coat and part my hair from my face. She was correct about my nature, her nature, our nature. I offered no resistance. The next few minutes found me, kissing myself and hugging myself. I smelled her vanilla perfume and turned the opportunity of a lifetime to the most intimate exploration in which a woman could participate.
I seduced myself. I was seduced by myself. This experience at the hands of my own hands was more, much more, than I bargained for.
Unfortunately, all good things must end.
“We have to get back soon. The magic that made all of this possible won’t last forever. Please, Samantha. Convince Mrs. Oliver to save the Carlton.”
That is when she hit me with some type of heavy object to knock me unconscious.
The clock displayed a loss of 10 minutes as I slowly reentered the projectionist’s room to return home. I was back to the current version of the Carlton Theater, complete with dust and dirt, but now with a splash of hope.
I returned to the office and quickly wrote my report to have the Carlton Theater demolished as soon as possible, if not sooner. The place was dilapidated and unworthy of the former glory it once had. With my work finished, I walked home to find my husband, Stephen, already home and preparing dinner.
I gave him the kiss he deserved and a gentle squeeze on his neck.
He knew what I wanted, but had to ask, “What about dinner?”
I simply replied, “It can wait until tomorrow.”
Part Two: My Life as it currently is
I watched my mother suffer, from the gunshots, and finally die. She was Mrs. Samantha Fowler, the woman who suffered at the hands of the rape gangs, the woman who nobody even believed was ever married (for she could never even produce a wedding band), and the woman who shielded me from the worst the world had to offer.
Since the war, and the virus, few people remained to form any type of government. Thus, chaos ruled. The law became a form of street justice enforced at the barrel of a shotgun. Children, such as I, never attended school and everyday became a fight for survival. My world was a series of Us vs Thems each attempting to see another sunrise. My world was a dying world. And yet, it didn’t have to be my world.
My mother told stories about her world and her husband, Stephen. She said her world looked exactly like mine absent of the wars, famines, and plagues. She told me of how she entered my world (at the time, I did not believe a single word she spoke) from the Carlton Theater, via the projectionist’s room. On the anniversary of her arrival, my mother trekked through a maze of increasing dangers to arrive at that very theater and attempt to recreate the transfer across worlds.
Like most things I have seen in my life, people speak of great epic stories and struggles, but never provide a shred of evidence to prove such claims. Today, witnessing my mother’s final act of kindness, I now know differently. Mrs. Samantha Fowler, age 37, brown hair, green eyes, pining for a man she would never see again, gave me proof.
In her hand was a scrap of paper, more of a map, detailing her belongings from “over there” and the plan to use them to return. Since she could not make another attempt, I was to do so. My mother always gave me the wherewithal to survive every crisis. She told me of her childhood inoculations that protected both her and me from the disfiguring phage of two years ago. She showed me how to reload and shoot a rifle. Even the gardening techniques she displayed I remembered during the lean years.
Samantha never wavered in her determination to safeguard me from the horrors of today. With this map, I had my one chance to escape.
I had nothing left to lose.
That is, if I could make it to the Carlton Theater, if the theater still stood, and if (big if) her stash of supplies still remained intact. My odds approached zero, not zero, but close to zero. Having no other choice, I took those odds.
First things first, since I look identical to my mother, I took her ID card to help pass through friendly controlled areas near the theater. I also grabbed her gun, ammo belt, and boots. I had my own so I could trade hers for safe passage. Finally, I dragged my mother’s body to a makeshift grave in the basement of the warehouse I would never again call “home”. She deserved a proper burial, but I had to move. I left a grenade without the pin underneath her just in case the street roaming cannibals find her before the bugs and rats do. It was the most fitting tribute I could offer to the woman who gave everything to me.
Wiping away the tears, I moved.
In three hours, I made it to the Carlton Theater before dark. What happens after dark, to the unprepared is not for the squeamish or faint of heart. I hunkered down, took a drink from my canteen, and began to look around. To remain silent, I used two Bowie knives (still do not know why my mother called them Bowie knives) and holstered the firearm. If I find a cannibal, he finds a quick death. If he finds me first, he will not take me alive.
Another two hours to find the projectionist’s room in this dump. I tap the walls and find a movable panel. Instead of pulling objects out, I crawl in. Samantha must have expected this move. She pre-planned for every contingency thus far.
I took out a small light and scanned the room for unfriendlies. None. I sealed the panel and began a more than cursory examination. What I found was beyond imagination. In here was old army MREs, medicine, water, ammo, a nice semiautomatic rifle, and a blue box. I open the box to find a letter, written by my mother, and a blue dress, blue lingerie, heels, makeup, and an overcoat. The letter describes the day she entered the portal and what she wore. It also details every bit of knowledge about her life on the “other side”.
Should I find the passage back, that she never did, I had to find Stephen and explain everything to him.
The letter also stated that an exact copy of my mother made it through from my side to her side when mom came from her side to my side.
I needed more than a minute to understand what this confusing letter entailed.
If I was to understand my mother correctly, I may find her husband and the woman who took her place.
While my mother did not explicitly state so, I do believe the amount of firepower had only one purpose; to kill that doppelganger.
I had killed cannibals and rapists, but never an innocent. How could my mother wish this on another?
I found another letter in the bottom of the box explaining the encounter of my mother and her twin. She details (hopefully for my eyes only) the liaison of the two identicals prior to passing through the portal. The letter states I should wear her clothing, pass through (even if it means doing what she did), and leave my world forever. If successful, I should have the Carlton Theater torn down immediately before another could mimic my success. Finding Stephen was a primary goal in her life. Finding Stephen would prove helpful, but not essential in mine. Her entire theory was predicated on my passage through the portal would coincide with her double’s.
Thus, time was never a factor, in terms of portal passage, only access.
I wanted to think about this forever, but darkness meant cannibals and they could smell fresh meat a mile away.
Quickly, I stripped, washed, perfumed with something pleasant called, “vanilla”, dressed in clothing too unusual for description, took a deep breath, and walked out of the projectionist’s room in a small daze that soon passed.
When I recovered, the Carlton Theater was as perfect as my mother described. I have never experienced such luxury. It is clean and well lit. I see myself in the mirrors and am amazed. I spin on my heels over the red velvet, deep pile carpet throughout. I would have remained in a perpetual haze if not for her.
She looks like me and is a bewildered as I. I remember the letter and take the lead in explaining, to her, as if I already understood the events as they unfolded. I acted well enough to convince her of my story.
Unfortunately, I had a flaw from the start. She, my twin, had her wedding band on. I did not. In a mere second, while maintaining the world’s best poker face, I learned the most important thing in my life.
I was standing in front of my mother. She was Mrs. Samantha Fowler. The real Mrs. Samantha Fowler. Thus, I was the daughter of my twin, playing the role of the unmarried Miss Samantha Lombard. I had no choice but to inform this 18 year old most of what I knew.
In doing so, my mother’s letter detailed two important facts that would occur. First, Mrs. Fowler would listen to everything Miss Lombard told her.
Second, Mrs. Fowler was far more curious than my mother ever let on in her letter. Mrs. Fowler had those eyes of passion for who she believed to be herself, Miss Lombard, but instead was her daughter, yet to be born, in a parallel world 18 or 19 years hence.
I had a choice to make, but either choice meant someone dies.
If I seduce my younger mother, I can cross over and find her Stephen and live happily-ever-after. But, my mother becomes condemned to my world and I may cycle through this day forever.
If I do not seduce Mrs. Fowler, then each of us goes back to our respected worlds and I most likely die from the associated horrors of today and those yet to come.
I have the choice.
Mrs. Fowler is leaning in to kiss me.
Part of me cannot fathom the guilt of the first choice.
Part of me doesn’t care.
In the end, I am the daughter of Samantha, the only person who ever cared for me.
I made my choice.
Later in the day, Mrs. Oliver asks Samantha her recommendation concerning the destruction or renovation of the Carlton Theater. Mrs. Samantha Fowler insists that it is beyond repair and must be torn down.
Later in the night, I hold on for as long as I can with my ammo and last grenade. If those cannibals want a bite, they are going to have to do it without teeth, or a jaw, or a head, or a body.
Either way, in the ensuing explosion, the Carlton Theater comes down with its last thunderous clap.
Bio: The works of Andy Betz are found everywhere a search engine operates. Andy has written many great things that have been posted to The Yard: Crime Blog, including, “Water” with Jaysa Brown, “The Less You Have, the More It Hurts To Lose It”, “I Knew Her as Tigist“, “How My New Life Began“, “Et Tu“, “Senny” with Dounia Saunders, “Oleander“, “The Best Advice I Ever Got“, “If I Ask Your Opinion“, “As the Sun Sets“, “Walter,” “The Saddest Lies“, “By Morning”, “Nicole and Julia: Death at Poolside”, “Julia and Katherine” and “The Caretaker”. He has also been interviewed.
Samantha Fowler passed away in 2022 in a car wreck in Kiel, Germany. She leaves behind her loving husband, her young son, and scores of unpublished poems and stories. “The Carlton Theater” is her first (posthumous) publication. She will be missed.