The wound caused by my parent’s death never really healed. I often had days when the pain was too much, and the longing to see them again was too strong.
I recently suffered through one of those days. It had been more than two years since my parents had died, but the pain felt fresh and burned hot in my chest.
I went back to one of our old family photo albums. It always helped to have a look through them and reminisce about times long gone.
Here I was as an infant in my mother’s arms, there was my first day of school and what followed were the pictures of various family trips.
I went from page to page until I reached one of our many trips to small towns. My parents never took me to different countries. They were boring like that. Instead, we mostly went sightseeing in Germany.
In the picture, my parents and I were hugging each other in front of a small restaurant. I felt tears coming to my eyes once more when I saw us like that. It had been such a nice trip.
A few minutes later I decided it would be a great idea to take a trip there and revisit the place.
The picture was from a trip to a small town about an hour away from here. When I checked out the town online though the pictures of our trip didn’t seem to fit the scenery at all. The small restaurant had been in front of a backdrop of distant factories and industrial areas. There were none in the town I was looking at.
I was a bit baffled, but maybe the pictures were from a different trip. Mom must’ve put them in the wrong place or confused the names. God knows, she was always a bit scatter-brained.
I scanned the picture for anything tangible and finally read the name of the restaurant. When I googled it, I got more than a dozen replies. It was a common name after all. I looked at each of the results, but they were entirely different places.
Great, I thought, the picture was from fifteen years ago. The place has probably closed down by now. Still, even if the restaurant itself didn’t exist anymore, it would be nice to visit the town itself.
I continued my search, but in the end, I had to give up. I couldn’t remember the name of the town at all. There was no use in trying further.
Instead, I posted the picture on a German subreddit to see if anyone would recognize the place. I didn’t have much hope, considering it was just a random small town, but who knows, maybe I’d get lucky.
When I rechecked the thread later, I’d gotten a few replies. Some were wild guesses, others were dumb jokes. Well, not like I expected anything different. I left the post open for the time being and decided to prepare some dinner.
When I came back, I had a handful of new replies, but none were helpful. I’d also gotten a message. Maybe someone had figured it out after all?
The message though proofed to be a bit strange.
It was written by a poster somewhere in Germany who stated that he had a picture that looked almost exactly like mine.
I wrote back to him and asked what he meant. I got a reply a couple minutes later, this time he included an imgur link of the picture he was talking about.
As I looked at it, I was a bit weirded out. It was almost exactly the same picture, only with a different kid and family in it.
Everything else was the same. The angle, to position his family stood at, hell even the items in the window behind them, they were all identical.
This had to be some sort of stupid joke.
I sent the guy a message back stating that he almost got me and that his Photoshop skills were pretty good. Of course, he started to deny it, but I didn’t bother to reply anymore.
Soon another reply arrived, and the guy asked me if I had other pictures of the supposed trip. What the hell was the guy’s problem?
I knew when yet another message arrived.
When I opened it I read the following:
Hey, I’m sure you’re a bit crept out, sorry about that. Do you have any pictures similar to the ones below?
Attached to the message were half a dozen imgur links.
When I clicked the first one, a feeling of recognition flooded over me. I took out the album of my old family trip again.
I looked at the picture on the screen. It was of a young boy sitting on a bench with his mother in the middle of a park. Leaves littered the grass, and there was a small fountain in the background.
When I looked at the pictures of my family trip, I started shivering. There it was again, an exact duplicate. There were the leaves, there was the fountain, and there was the bench in the park. The only differences were my mom and me.
What the fuck was going on here?
I went and clicked through the rest of the imgur links and with each one my head started to spin more. They were all exactly the same. The only difference was the people in the pictures.
Was this some kind of sick joke someone was playing? But how would he have gotten a hold of the pictures?
I wrote him back asking how the hell he did it. He replied that that’s what he was supposed to ask. Ok, this was getting weird, really weird.
For a moment I wondered if it might all be a coincidence. Maybe the two of us were there the same day? Those things can happen, right? I opened his pictures again and started to search for the tiniest differences, but there was nothing.
Then I got an idea. It was outlandish, silly even, but there was this nagging feeling in the back of my head. I sent him a picture of yet another trip me and my parents had taken. This one had led us to a different town in Southern Germany.
I was antsy as I waited for a reply. I refreshed the page again and again. After a couple of minutes, the red message sign popped up. I clicked it instantly.
There’s something incredibly weird going on here. Why do you have that picture as well? I’ve got the same one in front of me right now!
Attached to it was yet another imgur link. When I clicked it my eyes grew wide. It was the same picture. The only difference was that my dad and I were replaced by him and his dad. Everything else was the same.
I replied to him and included my version of the picture. For a long while, I got no answer. It was half an hour later that I finally got one.
We should meet. I don’t know what’s going on, but this must be somehow connected.
Should I really meet this guy? Once more I thought about the possibility of this all being a sick joke, but it made no sense. All the pictures here were from an old fashioned, analog camera. They’d never been digitized in any way. So how the hell would this guy have them? Once more I looked over all of them again. This situation was so utterly bizarre.
I had to figure out what the hell was going on here, so I finally agreed to meet the guy.
He wrote me back his address and we soon arranged on a time to meet. He urged me to bring any pictures similar to the ones I’d sent him. After looking through my old photo albums for a while, I decided to take a few that included various family trips.
It was about a week or so later that I set out to meet this guy. It was a three-hour car ride. I felt strange and apprehensive the whole time. Who the hell was he? For a moment the idea of a long lost brother popped into my mind, but it made no sense at all. After that, I came up with more abstruse ideas. What if he was some sort of doppelganger or an alternate version of myself? No, this is not a freaking science-fiction movie. Calm down, you idiot.
When I finally arrived, I was relieved to find that the guy’s house looked completely different from my own. Still, it took me a while to get out of my car.
After I rang the doorbell, a chubby guy, almost twice my age opened the door. He was as surprised as me when he saw how different the two of us were.
“Are you Michael?” I asked.
“You must be Steven, right?”
“Well come in, did you bring the pictures?”
“Yeah, I brought a whole stack of them.”
This guy’s place was messy, seriously messy. It looked as if it had been weeks, if not months since he’d last cleaned. He didn’t even seem to care as he led me to his living room. I looked up when I saw that the whole side of the room was taken up by a giant desk. Multiple computers, monitors and an assortment of tools covered it.
When he noticed my stares, he showed me an awkward smile.
“Oh, sorry about that, I guess I’m a bit obsessed with the whole computer and internet thing. It’s where I do most of my work anyways.”
“Oh, so you’re a programmer?”
“Something like that, yeah,” the guy mumbled.
“Alright. Well, I got the pictures, so what do you think is going on here?”
The guy laughed for a bit. “To be honest, I’ve got no clue. I thought it might be some weird coincidence, but there are too many things that don’t add up. When did you say you and your parents visit that restaurant again?”
“I think it was back in 2005.”
“Right, and you’re how old?”
“Twenty four. What does this have to do with anything?”
“Well, it’s because I’m thirty-six and I took that same trip back in 1992.”
I had heard what he’d said, but I didn’t understand. How the hell could the pictures be identical if they were thirteen years apart?
“You got it, right? So how the hell is any of this possible? That other picture you sent me. When were you there?”
“Hold on,” I opened my backpack and took out the photo albums. “It should be here somewhere,” I said as I started to look through them. “Ah, here it is. Let me see… that one was back in 2002.”
Michael grimaced. “Same trip, only in 1990.”
“Freaking hell, what is going on here?”
He didn’t answer. Instead, he rummaged through a cupboard and brought out stacks upon stacks of pictures.
“Well then, let’s see if there’s more.”
In the next hour, the two of us went through all our pictures and compared our various trips. The result was that all of them were the same. At first, we were utterly horrified and crept out, but in time the sheer surreality of the situation pushed us into a state of apathy. We went from picture to picture and compared them. Every once in a while one of us would laugh a little or shake his head, nothing more.
“So, what about your parents, how are they doing?” I asked as I put another picture back into one of my albums.
“Both dead, they died about two years ago.”
“In a car accident?!”
Michael looked up at me, puzzled. “No, they both died in a fire.”
“Oh god, for a second I thought,” but then I shook my head.
“No, what is it?”
I sighed. “Well, mine died two years ago in a car accident. For a moment I thought it might have been the same for yours. I don’t know anymore. This is all way too strange.”
Michael said nothing.
In the end, there wasn’t much the two of us could do at the moment. We were both way too confused, and we didn’t have much to go on about. Our names were different, our birth dates and birth places were different, and our parents weren’t related in any way. For a while, we made wild guesses what could be going on, but it was all nonsense.
When afternoon turned into evening, I decided it was time to make my way back home. Before I did though, we exchanged phone numbers and emails, in case one of us would find out anything.
Michael also took copies of some of my pictures and told me he’d have a look online. He knew certain people that could find out if any of the images were doctored with.
Only when I was in my car and drove home did I fully realize how bizarre everything was that had happened. The more I thought about it I felt anxious, sweaty, almost sick.
Once at home, I went to bed right away, but sleep didn’t come easy. My dreams were haunted by doppelgangers and plunged me into weird alternate realities. When morning finally came I was more tired and exhausted than the day before.
I went to work, but I was barely functioning. It was in the early evening that I got a text from Michael, telling me to check my email. He’d got some news for me.
For the first time that day I was wide awake. I signed into my email and opened the one Michael had sent me.
In the email, he told me that someone had gotten back to him about the pictures. It was an older man from Russia, who wrote he used to work in a print media company in the Soviet Union. He remembered the picture right away.
I looked up, what the hell? The Soviet Union?
The man wrote he recognized the scene in the two pictures right away. He used to work with the original version. It was a somewhat popular stock photo, often used in propaganda pieces of the late 70s. They all showed happy Russian families. Added to the email was the same picture once more. The family was a different one, but the scene was almost identical. There was one difference though. All the German in the picture was replaced by words in the Cyrillic alphabet.
How the hell was this possible? How the hell were my parents and me in a picture from a Russian propaganda piece? Then I realized it. There was only one way. The picture of my parents and me, it had to be… fake.
With shaking hands I went through the photo albums again, looking at all the pictures of my parents and me. How many of them were actually real? How many were fake?
Yet there was something else that slowly crept into my mind. Who had faked them and most importantly, why?
I was taken from my thoughts when my phone started to ring. It was Michael.
“It’s not only that picture,” he said in a shaken voice.
“Wait, hold on, what do you mean?”
“Remember the trip to the lake? Another stock photo. Same about the one to the museum. Also stock photos.”
“But how? Why?”
“God if I know. I’m talking to this guy right now and sent him a few more. He says that most of the pictures are taken from some photo series about Soviet towns. There are some though he has no clue about. He noted that almost all of them looked like stock photos or have been doctored with though.
“You’re trying to tell me that all the pictures here,” I broke up. I couldn’t say it.
“Yeah, they’re all fake,” Michael finished the sentence for me.
“But what the hell does it mean? That’s my life, I mean, our lives! How can someone fake all this?”
I got no answer from the other end of the line. I only heard heavy, shaky breathing.
“I don’t know. I really don’t. I’m going to keep talking to this guy though, and I’ll see if I can find out anything else.”
“Hey, Michael, what are you,” but I didn’t get to finish as he hung up.
“Fucking hell!” I cursed.
For the next days, I was unable to do anything. I went through all the pictures and photo albums again. If all those were fake, then why did I have memories of the trips? How the hell could I remember visiting a freaking museum in the middle of Russia?
Finally, I took out a picture of my parents. It was two years ago, wasn’t it? Memories of the police arriving at the door, the funeral, it was all still on my mind.
Then I started to think about the funeral. For the first time, I really began to think about it. When exactly had it been? I knew it was two years ago, but what day? What month? Where had it been? It must’ve been in this town right? I mean that’s where I grew up.
I shook my head. I was out of it. I’d barely slept, and my mind was fuzzy. Of course, it had been here, right? If I went to the graveyard, I’d find their grave right there. Suddenly a cold shower went down my spine. Where exactly was their grave?
I was about to set out when my phone rang again. It was Michael once more. I answered right away.
“You found anything new?” Nothing. All I heard was shaky breathing and sobbing.
“Hello? Michael? You alright?”
“I did, but no, sorry Steve, I’m sorry. Please, leave this thing alone. It’s not worth it. Just forget you ever found out about it. Nothing good will come from it.”
With that, he hung up. When I tried to call him again, it went straight to voice mail. I didn’t get what was going on.
I wrote him a message on Reddit, then later an email, but I never got an answer.
I don’t know how often I tried to call him. Eventually, I went to bed.
It was a few days later, almost by sheer accident, that I saw Michael’s picture in a German tabloid. A few days ago, late in the evening, a man in his mid-thirties had jumped to his death.
My jaw dropped, and I stared at the article with wide eyes. What the hell was going on? What the hell had Michael found out that drove him to do this?
I felt goosebumps all over my arms, and for a moment a surge of anxiety flushed over me. What had Michael found out that was so terrible?
I remembered his last words. I was hearing them over and over in my head during my three-hour car ride to his home.
The place was dark and quiet but looked exactly the same.
I didn’t know what I was even doing, but I wanted, no, I needed to know what the hell was going on.
The front door was locked as I’d expected, but I found a cracked window that I could open up.
I sneaked inside and made my way through the messy place until I was back in his living room. Half of his computers were trashed. Freaking hell. Did he know I’d come here?
Then I found a stack of papers on the floor. Some were printouts of stock photos, the others were covered in text.
When I picked them up, they looked like scientific documents.
STAGE 7 – MEMORY ALTERATION
Test subjects are infused with artificial memories to create the illusion of a normal life.
What the hell was this? I went through the stack and checked another one.
STAGE 3 – GROWTH ACCELERATION
Gen manipulation ensures maturity of test subjects in only a fraction of normal human growth period.
What was I reading? This made no sense. I checked the rest of them, but they were all the same. STAGE 4 – MIND EXHILARATION, STAGE 8 – SOCIAL BEHAVIOUR THERAPY, and on it went. I looked through the whole stack until I found the last one.
STAGE 13 – PROJECT TERMINATION AND FUTURE DEVELOPMENTS
Test subjects show insufficient results. Project deemed unsuccessful and to be terminated immediately. Euthanasia of remaining test subjects considered unnecessary. To be kept under surveillance to gather information about adaptability to society and social norms.
What the hell was this shit? I didn’t understand any of it. When I checked the date though I saw that this last document was from early 2017. That was the same year my parents had died.
My head was spinning. This couldn’t be real, could it?
I went through the stack once again to read more, but then I heard something. The front door was opened, and there was the shuffling of heavy feet.
“… think he told the other subject?” I heard a voice say.
“No. The logs show that he attempted contact, but didn’t share anything.”
I froze. Shit, who the hell was this? When the heavy steps got closer, I told myself I had to get out of there. As fast and as quiet as I could I made my way back to the window and got out.
It wasn’t even a minute later that I drove off. I had no freaking idea what I’d just witnessed. Could any of this be real? This had to be a sick joke, hadn’t it? But then what about those damned documents that Michael had found?
I don’t remember much about my drive home. I was entirely out of it. I still am.
Once I was home, I went through my whole place to find any sort of information about my parents. There’s nothing though. They seem to only exist in my memories and these old photos. The more I think about it, the more I realize how much I don’t know about them. When were they born? How old had they been? Did they get married and if so, when?
As I’m sitting here typing this out, I don’t know what to think? Is any of this real? Are my memories real?
Am I even a real person?