It’s that time of year when everyone is dying for a good scary story, a tale with thrills and chills, one to make you check over your shoulder around the campfire. But what makes a story truly scary? Is it blood and gore, or psychological suspense? Supernatural creatures, or serial killers? Maybe it’s none of the above. Our story this week is not your typical scary story, but it’ll keep you up at night, guaranteed.
Parents often joke when their kids are growing up that they change every week. In “Substitutes” by Ben Hoffman over at Granta, that’s exactly what happens. Literally. And then some. On the night before Claudia and her daughter Jane close up house and move across the state, Jane goes missing. Claudia searches for her six-year-old for hours, becomes frantic and desperate, countenances suicide, and then she sees her. Except she’s not quite her.
Jane was wearing different clothes: jeans and a jacket, like she’d come from the cold. Claudia ran to her, heart soaring, but up close she could see it wasn’t her Jane, though this girl looked remarkably like Jane. She was a different version: she had shorter arms, a squarer face and lacked Jane’s twinkle. All the rest was the same: the perfect, runny nose, the location of her freckles, the tiny birthmark on the left ear where an earring would one day go. The girl squinted up in confusion, as if Claudia also looked like someone she knew.
Claudia knows that the child isn’t her daughter, but she takes her home, tucks her into bed, and tries to convince herself that the girl is her daughter, that there’s no way such an identical stranger could exist.
The next day, Claudia piles her almost-Jane into the car and they drive to the other end of the state to join her husband in their new home, in their new city. They start unpacking, settling in. Jane is enrolled in a summer day camp and adjusting to her new life. Claudia knows at this point that this is not her Jane, but has decided that she’s close enough. Jane’s father doesn’t notice anything strange about the new Jane, which does not surprise Claudia, since he never notices anything. Things are the same, mostly.
And then Jane changes again. And again.
So they changed, quicker and quicker. Underwater in the pool. When Claudia went out to the mailbox. During pre-dinner handwashing. Whenever Claudia wasn’t looking, whenever Jane was out of sight, there was a chance that Jane would vanish and a new Jane would appear, a little more removed from the original. But each Jane was so almost like the one before, an echo distorted by the shape of walls.
On an allegorical level, “Substitutes” is about the rapid changes of childhood, about the confusion and ache all parents feel as their child grows up, about the mutability of identity. And it’s also a truly unsettling story that captures that eerie, skin-prickling feeling of when something is not quite right, but you can’t put your finger on it. This one will get under your skin and keep you up at night, because what’s more scary than knowing your loved ones are always changing, in inevitable ways, every day? And not just them, so are you. When you go to bed tonight, you’ll wake up just a little bit different tomorrow, and the next day, and the next. One day, you won’t be able to recognize yourself at all. The person you are now will be gone.
Maybe that’s the scariest idea of all.