Everyone has Googled themselves at one time or another in their lives. Even you, dear reader, I'll bet. Why did you do it? Curiosity? Validation? Finding your own LinkedIn profile?
When Alfred did it, his reason was self-pity.
He was nobody, he had nobody, and he had nothing. His immediate family had died years prior. His extended family did not remember he existed, nor did he remember them—they might never have existed. His high school acquaintances had all fled the miserable small town in which he was now left behind, alone in a mobile home that was falling apart, living paycheck to paycheck from the Walmart where he stocked shelves part time, no hopes of advancement, no romantic prospects, no friends except for one Jack Daniel.
Often, and not only while he was drinking his friend, he ruminated thoughts of conditional suicide: I'll kill myself if I get fired, I'll kill myself if my car can't start, I'll kill myself if the store is out of beer. One day, after checking his email on the library computer and finding no new messages since the last week, not even spam, he thought: I'll kill myself if everyone forgets I exist. To obtain a second opinion as to that fact, he Googled himself: “Alfred Lieberheim”.
He expected, at best, an empty page. Or perhaps he would find out about the achievements of another Alfred Lieberheim, which would just make him feel even worse, which was very much the point. And indeed: at the very top of the page, he saw that one Alfred Lieberheim had published a book titled “Lost in the Map.” This put him in an extreme state of bitterness: like a lot of people, he had once fancied himself a writer. His freshman English teacher, Mrs. Biels, once told him he had too much talent to waste. Spurred by this compliment, he spent much of high school writing and rewriting and reworking the first chapter of his magnum opus, a coming-of-age story about travelling around the world, until life got in the way and it fell by the wayside.
Remembering that he was in a library, he decided to check if the book was there. Let's see how talented this homonym of his was. He would hit his quota of contempt regardless, either for himself or for the other. He walked through the stacks muttering the letters aloud until he got to the authors whose last name began with “L”. Ah. Lieberheim. There was the book, almost spanking new. Alfred immediately flipped it over to look at the back cover. Let's see what that other Alfred looked like.
Well! This was unexpected: Alfred stared at himself. A smilier, healthier, closer-shaved version of himself, but himself all the same. It was not another Alfred Lieberheim. It was him. He had written a book. He just couldn't remember it.
Alfred sat down on the first chair he found and started reading.
The book started strong: the main character, Daniel, received a call saying that his parents were dead in a car accident. He knocked at his girlfriend's door at three in the morning and collapsed in her arms, sobbing. She could not deal with it, so she dumped him—“real men don't cry,” she said. Alone with no one to turn to, he walked under a snowstorm along the town's empty streets, thinking dark thoughts. When he arrived at the end of the road, he saw that there was a store there which he did not know about. A map store? Was there such a thing as a map store? Apparently so. He turned the knob and entered, finding the cozy lighting and smell of old bookstores, but every book was an atlas, every object a globe, and the walls were covered with various projections of the world.
Strangely, the store seemed larger than the building it was in, and Alfred ambled through the store for many minutes without ever finding himself in a spot he had been previously. He finally came upon a particularly large and detailed map and he could not pull his gaze from it. He did not see or hear the shopkeeper coming.
“Are you lost?” the shopkeeper said, ageless save for a very pronounced stoop and a white mustache.
“You could say that.”
“Literally or metaphorically?”
“I don't know.”
Daniel tried to suppress a sob, but the shopkeeper would have none of it. “Get it all out,” he said, and the protagonist obliged, he unrolled his whole life in front of that gentle stranger like a shit carpet, and the stranger listened. Daniel told him that his girlfriend and he had this project of travelling around the world, and he had saved the whole year for it, but now he didn't know what to do.
“Go alone,” the shopkeeper said. “You need space to breathe and to gain perspective. It'll all seem small to you, once you see how big the world is. And don't worry about getting lost! I have maps of every place.”
“I wouldn't know where to start.”
The shopkeeper raised a finger. He reached to fetch something on the top shelf, a black velvet box. “What's that?” The stranger opened the box in front of him: it was a dart.
“This is no ordinary dart,” the shopkeeper said. “Wherever you are meant to go in life, it will home in on it and… thwack! Bullseye! Try it!”
Daniel took the dart gingerly and stared at the big map on the wall. Could he? Wouldn't it damage the map? The shopkeeper answered: “you can not: you must.” He closed his eyes and swung. When he opened them again, the dart was through Paris. On that reveal, the first chapter ended, although Alfred couldn't be sure, because his eyes were wet and he was unable to turn the page.
Alfred was on the verge of a panic attack.
Was it the theme he had wanted to write about? An adventure around the globe, yes. Did it remind him of that first chapter he had written and rewritten a decade ago? No, it was quite different, in fact. At the same time, it was far, far more personal. It was a memory. Everything that had happened to Daniel in this chapter had happened to Alfred nine years ago in real life. Precisely. The death of his parents, Laura's betrayal, the walk across town, the map store, the shopkeeper… everything, except for one crucial detail: the throw.
Whereas Daniel had found his dart embedded in Paris, Alfred had found his dart embedded in drywall, inches below Antarctica. The shopkeeper had been silent for a good ten seconds before he stated: “Well, that's unfortunate” and left without saying a word more.
The book started where his life had ended. A hopeful twist on a bitter memory.
Long minutes passed during which Alfred was crying, then catatonic, then disbelieving, then anxious—what kind of madness was this? Split personality? A cruel prank? Parallel universes? A prelude to reality collapsing upon itself? Finally, he was taken with a sudden inspiration. He browsed to the author's bio: In 2002, Alfred moved from his small town in Canada to Paris where he still resides with his wife, their dog and two cats…
That was nine years ago.
When Alfred came back home, the roof was leaking and one of the light switches had stopped working—a metaphor for his life—but he didn't care anymore. He was leaving. He dug out his old passport, very nearly expired, made in these hopeful days before Laura had dropped him like a hot potato. He pawned his late mother's jewelry for enough money to make the trip to where he was destined to be… had he aimed higher.
Four days later, he was in Paris.
He knocked on Jean's door. Jean was the stranger whose couch he would surf, free of charge—it was lucky that Alfred knew of that website that matched destitute travellers with good Samaritans who offered their couch or a spare bed in exchange for a foreigner's tales. In this occurrence Alfred had few tales to tell, except for the one of the mysterious doppelganger, but he preferred to keep that one close to his heart until he could prove he was not clinically insane.
The first problem Alfred had to solve was: where was Alfred? Where did he live? Where did he hang out? There was no contact information on the Internet, so he sent an email to him through the book's publisher, nothing that identified himself, nothing about their predicament, just some flattering request for advice from a published writer to a fledgling one. Waiting for an answer that might never come, he had little better to do than err at random in the city, just in case he would stumble upon his mirror image. Where would he find himself? Cafes? Libraries? The city's immensity dismayed him. A book signing? There did not appear to be any—this was not the book's market anyway, for there was no French translation.
Two days later, he received an answer, a heartfelt thank you and a paragraph about overcoming adversity through the help and support of the people who loved you. It was a well-meaning response, which only embittered Alfred—no one loved him, the other might as well have told him there was no hope for him. Now he had to figure out how to keep the conversation going and make him reveal more information—where he lived, for example.
Alfred glanced at the email address:
email@example.com and recognized one he had tried to get for himself many years ago, but it was already taken. And that made him realize something. He had changed email addresses a few times over the years, but he hadn't changed passwords. For over ten years—for as long as he had been on the Internet, truly—he had used the same password for everything everywhere. That one thing you are not supposed to do.
He tried to log into
firstname.lastname@example.org with his usual password.
Bless Alfred Lieberheim's piss poor security practices. He was in.
Alfred tried to bottle his emotions as he scrolled through the material on Jean's laptop. It seemed Paris Alfred had initially led a rather quiet life, spartan even, judging from the dearth of activity up to two years ago. But then, he had met an angel. From seemingly nowhere, Marthe had appeared, descended from heaven to infuse purpose into Alfred-P. Even from the vague shapes he could divine through scattered emails, he saw that she was gentle and cheerful, forgiving of his mistakes, supportive of his dreams. Her friends became his friends.
Through that single password and intimate knowledge of all security questions, Alfred gained access to all of his doppelganger's accounts: Facebook, Whatsapp, MSN Messenger, even his bank account. He got to vicariously know the people he knew, see pictures of Jones the dog as a puppy (pronounced Hones, short for Cojones), view intimate pictures. He followed his alter-ego's gradual blossoming into a happy and caring man, and his mind was filled with longing for that life he could have had.
Finding Alfred-P's address from all of these accounts, of course, was only a formality.
He took the bus to the location, which was conveniently across the street from a cafe. He waited in there draped in an old hoodie, sunglasses and a fake beard he bought in a shop which he thought made him look ridiculous, but a compunction prevented him from making himself known. At last, towards the end of the morning, he saw him come out. The best version of himself. He was real, and he was glorious. He came out with Marthe—even more beautiful in real life than in the pictures—who held their equally adorable dog in leash. It looked the picture of happiness to him and he shed tears into his espresso. Why could he not have that?
Alfred found a way to observe the couple almost every morning for the next week. Sometimes from the cafe, other times from a phone cabin, or in the park by which they came with the dog. He could not help it, it was a compulsion, and every time he indulged he became more envious. I'm sure you can see where this is going.
One day, the couple did not come out at the usual hour. Alfred became anxious, wondering whether something terrible had happened. He spent the whole day chain-ordering espressos until the barista pondered kicking him out, but at last Marthe came out of the apartment. She looked furious. Alfred's heart skipped a beat when he realized she was beelining for the cafe. Had he been noticed? Well, it was too late to escape.
Alfred-P also came out a few seconds later, running after her. Once they were in hearing range, it became clear they were fighting. An ugly bead of satisfaction coalesced in Alfred's chest.
“Are you still angry about Jones?” Alfred-P said. “Come on. He bit me! He's dangerous!” Then: “What else was I supposed to do?”
Marthe did not answer. She did not even look at him as she ordered a latte. Then she poked Alfred-P's rib with her finger.
“You've changed,” she said in thickly accented English.
She pushed him away and left. She was not going back to the apartment. Alfred-P stayed behind, shellshocked. Go after her, Alfred screamed in his mind, but at the same time he hoped he wouldn't, he was cheering for his failure. The other turned to him, as if he had heard his thoughts, and gave the small shrug you give to sympathetic strangers. Then he left, having ordered nothing.
What had happened to Jones? Was he killed? Given away? Alfred boiled with rage. The other Alfred did not deserve his boons. All at once, his envy morphed into something darker. Alfred-P was too stupid to take care of what he had. Alfred would mend things. It was simple. Find Jones. Apologize with flowers. Learn French, which the other had evidently neglected to do.
Yes. This was the way. Alfred, too, deserved a second chance. And for that he would need to get rid of Alfred-P.
It was three in the morning. Alfred-P's apartment had a back garden which was not difficult to break into. The back door was locked, but the spare key was hidden in a small Ziploc bag buried in the flower bed, just like Alfred thought it would be. Marthe was not there and neither was the dog: perfect opportunity. He entered quietly. His plan was to sneak into the bedroom and use blunt force, stash the body in a rented car, dump it somewhere. Cut himself to explain whatever blood happens to splatter.
Just as he entered the living room searching for his bearings, however, the light was abruptly turned on. Alfred-P stared at him, comfortably seated on a chair, one hand petting a cat purring on his lap, the other holding a kitchen knife.
“Well, that's one way to do it,” he said, looking at Alfred's club.
“You knew I was coming.”
“I noticed you in the cafe. Needed just one glance at your eyes and I knew,” he said, shaking his head in unbelief.
“You fucked it all up,” Alfred heard himself say. “You don't deserve the life you have.”
“Like you'd do any better.”
“Yes I would, I—”
“Where did your dart land?” Alfred-P interrupted.
“Nowhere. I threw it in the drywall, so I remained stuck in podunk city.”
The other Alfred whistled.
“Well. That's unfortunate. Makes you the OG, though. That's neat. Mine landed in Kyoto. Nice city. Couldn't take advantage of it. Total disaster. I don't think I had it any better than you, all things considered.”
“Kyoto? I thought…”
The realization hit Alfred like a ton of bricks.
“The dog figured it out immediately,” Kyoto Alfred said bitterly.
“How did you…”
“I let him see me. Pretended to be his long lost twin, slipped sleeping pills in his coffee, drove to the woods, bonked him, dug a grave… oh my God.” Alfred-K said, looking haunted. “It took me all night. I shouldn't have done it. The dog, Marthe… well… it's too late, now.”
“I'm sure there's a way to salvage it.”
“Feel free to try. I tell you, though, there's so much shit we don't know. Makes every interaction a minefield. Do you know how he kissed her? I didn't. Most stressful week of my life, I'm actually kind of glad it's over.”
Both Alfreds remained in stunned silence for many long minutes.
“How many of us are there?” Alfred asked.
“I have no idea,” the other replied. He got up and rummaged in a cabinet from which he took out a bottle of Jack Daniel's. Old habits die hard. “It's funny how we're all such abject failures there could be dozens of us all over the world and we'd never know. Imagine anyone else in that situation. Parents and friends receiving postcards from multiple cities at once, dozens of friend requests on Facebook from the same person on multiple accounts…”
He poured two glasses.
“I suspect that Paris boy was the only one who had made anything of his life so far,” Alfred-K continued. “His success is the light that's attracting the rest of us moths. So, how many? I reckon we'll find out soon enough.”
“And then what?”
Alfred-K laughed mirthlessly and did an exaggerated shrug.
“I don't fucking know. Golden boy's dead. The rest of us are just a bunch of bozos. Do we look like we plan ahead?"