In seventh grade, Emma Bridges tells me I have to change my name. There can’t be two Emmas in our class, she says. I nod, and from then on I am Em, to my classmates, to my family, and to my coworkers, the two letters neatly handwritten next to a smiley face on my nametag as I welcome customers to the bookstore.
Today I am Em to the blonde-haired, red-faced woman who angrily takes down my name because store policy doesn’t allow returns past fourteen days. I am Em to my manager, who can’t quite hide a smirk when I hesitantly bring up this year’s promotion cycle. I am Em to my daughter Mia in the backseat, who knows she can get her way with a well-placed tantrum and veiled threat.
Even the pedestrian in front of me refuses to budge, thinking I will give in and swerve out of his way. No longer. Emma Donovan keeps her foot pressed firmly to the gas pedal and her name is —
Janet Fuller, and soon everyone is going to know it. As long as I can remember, I’ve always wanted to be a reporter. I spent four grueling years studying journalism in school and staffing the university paper, inking my blood, sweat, and tears into the broadsheet. Then another seven hopping from paper to paper, each job only impressing further into me that my stories were worth a dime a dozen, if that.
Any journalist knows how to write a good story. We’ve worked our beats, interviewing countless sources and tracking down the routine paper fillers. But what they don’t tell you in journalism school is that the best stories, the ones that headline above the fold, those come and go in as short as three seconds.
One. I see a man start to cross the street.
Two. I see a red SUV racing down the road, showing no signs of stopping.
Three. Janet keeps her mouth shut and brings up her phone camera. Click —
Clack, go my new dress shoes as I step off the sidewalk. They’re perfectly polished, black oxfords with a cap toe. He kept them that way, my father. You can always tell a man’s character by his shoes, he used to say.
That was how I found him in the kitchen that night, shining the blood off his shoes next to my mother’s body. You keep your shoes clean, boy, he told me, before they dragged him away and sentenced him to life imprisonment.
I tried to fight the urge of course. Visions of the knife sticking out of my mother’s pale throat haunted me every time I picked up a shoe rag. But his voice always echoed in my head. A man keeps his shoes clean.
The car is speeding towards me, and I know I have enough time to dive back to safety. But that would scuff my shoes.
A man keeps his shoes clean.
I see a little girl in the backseat, about six or seven years old. Maybe this time, it’ll be my face and voice that keeps her awake at night. Peter locks eyes with the girl and gives her —
A smile breaks across my face from where it rests against the cool metal door. I am in the backseat of my mother’s car, watching as she readies herself to run over a pedestrian. I wonder what he’ll look like, after. I suppose I’ll see it on the nine-o-clock news, courtesy of that wannabe journalist on the other side of the street.
They always say to try imagining things from others’ perspectives. Me, I don’t have to.
It first happened when I was three and my mother brought home a dog from the pound. She called it Rover, or Roger, or something else generic and unmemorable. He yapped and yapped all day until my nerves reached a peak, and the next thing I knew I had four paws and could see my own human body slumped over on the couch.
Rover’s memories flashed through my mind like a whirlwind. I found myself fixating on his tragic past, overjoyed when it finally simmered his barking down into whimpering instead. To my pleasant surprise, he took off out of the house and ran as far as he could until even I didn’t know the way home anymore. Soon I was back in my own body and trying to look concerned as my parents ran around frantically looking for the dog.
You see, it doesn’t give me control of others’ actions. I have to make them want to do it with the thoughts and memories that already exist in their heads. You might think this fairly limiting, but with the right motivation, I can make people do just about anything.
Take this scene I’ve engineered, for example. The woman who decides she will murder someone just to feel an ounce of control over her everyday life. The journalist who in this moment can only think of her own languishing career, at the expense of others’ lives. The man whose recollection of past trauma forces him to stand still in front of an oncoming car.
All in the few seconds I’ve flitted between their minds. Brilliant, don’t you think? I smile back at Peter and brace for the impact.
On the corner of Cedar and Washington, a red SUV barrels through a pedestrian and peels away. I am sprawled across the asphalt, feeling the life drain crimson from my veins — onto the same road that blurs by in the rearview mirror, my knuckles white on the steering wheel and my foot pressed tightly against the gas. I slowly pan across the scene of the accident that is going to make me famous, making sure to keep my phone steady — the same phone I hold up to my face from the safety of my bedroom, squinting in the dim glow as I scroll through the virtual pages of The Chamber Magazine.
Mia smiles and —
Dianne Lee is a quantitative researcher in New York, where she writes code by day and stories by earlier in the day. Follow her adventures at bydiannelee.com.