There is a legal doctrine called adverse possession whereby one man – in absence of legal or moral claim – may come to own the property of another. In its simplest terms, it requires only that the trespasser take hold of the land and cling to it as long as possible. By sheer force of will and the passage of time, he can take the ground right from under your feet.
Perhaps this principle is a vestige of our flag-bearing forefathers, who declared themselves founders of a land that had already been found. As a child learning American history, this irony had troubled Madeline. She could not understand how something could be discovered that was already known, anymore than something that was seen could be unseen, heard be unheard, or any sensory phenomena be erased from memory.
It was only as she grew older that she began to appreciate the duplicitous nature of existence and even observe the dichotomy within herself. She was twenty-four, therefore above the age of majority but uncomfortable identifying herself as an adult. She was neither tall nor short, neither thick nor thin, and hair that was neither straight nor curly but rather overtaken by a slight wave and frizz. Even her eyes were unable to reach a definitive conclusion as they alternated between gray and blue depending on the light and time of day.
As physically unobtrusive as she was, Madeline was even more nondescript as a personality. At work she was an office automaton, her desk serving as a way station for memos and reports that passed under her purview without remark or notice. In the few social events that she attended, she invariably found herself standing at the edges of conversations, listening and nodding but utterly ambivalent about whether to participate herself.
In short, Madeline Greene was sure of nothing except that she existed and about even that she was beginning to have her doubts.
On Tuesday morning, Madeline woke up to the sound of rain. She kept her eyes closed tightly for several minutes, savoring the weight of the blankets over her body, the heavy warmth pressing her into the mattress until she felt as though she had disappeared into the fluff and feathers that cradled her. Unwilling to let the violence of her alarm violate the peacefulness of the moment, she opened her eyes and reached for the clock only to see it was well past the time she had set for the buzzer to sound.
And it wasn’t raining.
The sound that woke her was not the crash of rain against the windowpane but the clatter of water against the shower tiles. Her heart thudded in her chest and her breathing became quick and rapid. She clutched the comforter to her chin and tried to lie perfectly still. Terrified but unsure of what to do, she found herself defaulting to the childhood belief that nothing sinister could reach you if you hid under the covers. The bathroom door opened and the trespasser appeared amidst a gasp of steam, wrapped in one of her powder pink bath towels.
It was Madeline. And yet, it was not.
It was a version of Madeline.
The eyes were a piercing bluish-grey, like the ocean sky before a storm. The body was firmer, the muscles more defined and toned, perhaps after hours at the gym she had always resolved to spend but never actually accomplished. Even her skin seemed different with a glow as if a lamp had been lit and was radiating from within her; casting its subtle incandescence through the blush on her cheek and the curve of her bare shoulder. But these were only minor differences; slight alterations that Madeline recognized from the years spent seeing the figure, now standing in the doorway of her bathroom, staring back at her from a mirror.
“Are you still here?” The trespasser sighed and dropped her towel onto the bedroom floor. Madeline blushed and felt strangely embarrassed at the sight of her own naked body from this voyeuristic perspective. She crossed to the closet and began to sort through the hangers of her work clothes as Madeline continued to watch in shocked silence. The trespasser selected a low-cut green blouse that Madeline had bought on a whim but always been too timid to wear outside of the dressing room. She then turned back to address her duplicate cowering in bed. “I said, are you still here?”
“Of course I am,” she managed to whisper. “Where else would I be?”
“Oh, I don’t know,” The trespasser sighed again as she began to dress. “Floating as a wisp of consciousness lost on the abstract plane of existence? Dissipating among cosmos in the vacuum of space? Whatever happens to people who get replaced.” Madeline sat up with a start.
“Replaced? What, like, is this invasion of the body snatchers?”
The trespasser laughed slightly as she turned to the jewelry box and began sorting through a selection of earrings.
“Oh, nothing so fantastic as a Jack Finney novel. I’m not an alien; I’m you. Just…well, I’m a you that exists.” She slipped tiny silver hoops through the holes in her ear lobes, which surprised Madeline since she had never had her ears pierced. She had planned to when she was twelve but lost her nerve at the last moment and never gathered the courage for a second attempt.
“I exist!” Madeline protested, beginning to find her voice within this absurdist nightmare.
“Yes, in a purely physical sense. Which is strange but I suppose these things take time.”
“Did you hear me? I said I exist!” She stepped out of bed now and took a couple steps forward, her fear being steadily displaced by an anxious anger. The trespasser turned and regarded her sternly.
“No, you do not. And you have not for a long time. Maybe you never did.”
“Of course, I do! I’m here! See?” Madeline grabbed the lamp off the bedside table. She held it forcefully about an inch from the trespasser’s nose. She thought of smashing it for dramatic effect, but after a moment of impotently waving the lamp before the amused, pitying eyes of the trespasser – her eyes only not her eyes – she set it down weakly.
“Couldn’t even do that could you? In your last desperate moments, you couldn’t even break a lamp.”
“It doesn’t matter if a break a lamp! I can touch it; I can move it! That proves I exist!”
“No, it does matter. It matters very much because it’s the difference between being and existing.”
“What the hell does that mean?”
“It means you’re nothing but space! At least if you’d smashed the lamp you would have done something! For once in your life you would have done something!” She scoffed, “Although I suppose it’s my life now.”
“I’ve done things!”
“No, you really haven’t. You’ve spent twenty-four years on this planet being nothing but a blip on the physical plane. That is not existing. Think about it. Socrates said, ‘To be is to do.’ Sartre said, ‘To do is to be.’ Whichever way you look at it, the result is the same – existence and action are correlatives. You can’t have one without the other. If you don’t exist, you can’t take action. And you can’t refuse to take action and expect existence to continue right along. That’s what it comes down to.”
“I take action!”
“Breathing is not an action. Neither is sleeping or eating. Those are bodily functions necessary for survival and no more make you a conscious creature capable of deliberate self-determination than steamed broccoli. Your life has been a series of false starts and unrealized notions. You’ve had your chance and done nothing with it. So, now it’s my turn to be Madeline Greene. It’s my turn to be and to do.” The trespasser looked to the clock, “Damn, I’m late for work.”
“No, I’m late for work!” Madeline insisted with hot tears burning in her eyes and her face becoming flush with indignant fury. The trespasser shook her head and heaved a frustrated sigh.
“You still aren’t getting this are you?” She slipped her feet into a pair of black pumps and grabbed the purse off the dresser. “I am you, only I’m the you that exists. So enjoy whatever fleeting seconds of physical presence you have left. Sit around, watch television, or smash a lamp if you can muster up the gumption. But your time is over.”
She turned and walked down the hallway toward the front door. Madeline followed quickly after, the slap of her bare feet on the wood floor echoing the clack of the trespasser’s heels in perfect time, shouting protests at the interloper. But the trespasser did not turn around or glance behind her, just opened the door and stepped out onto the breezeway. Taking a deep breath of the morning air, she closed her eyes and stated plainly, “It’s my turn.”
“What was that, Madeline?” She turned with surprise to see her neighbor picking up her newspaper.
“Oh, nothing Mrs. Chambers. Sorry to bother you.”
“No bother at all! Although, um, is everything all right? Walls are thin in this building, you know, and, I thought I heard arguing this morning.”
The trespasser looked behind her but saw no one and nothing – just an empty apartment. “No problem at all! Just talking to myself.” She closed the door and locked it before turning to her newly familiar middle-aged neighbor, holding a newspaper in one hand and clutching her tattered old bathrobe closed at the chest with the other. “I’ve decided its time to make some changes in my life for the better. It’s time to stop sitting around and waiting for my life to start.”
“That’s wonderful, Madeline! Good luck!”
“Thank you, Mrs. Chambers. I appreciate it.” With a smile and a wave, Madeline Greene went off to begin the first day of the rest of her life.
Tessa Bennett is the pseudonym of a legal services attorney recently moved to the East Coast, thus completing her third cross country move in the last ten years. In her free time, she scribbles furiously in her note book and is working her way through the entire works of Kurt Vonnegut.