Authors: Minka Kent
He feels sorry for me.
Niall turns to leave, and it occurs to me that perhaps we aren’t friends at all. Perhaps he simply feels sorry for me because he’s realized over the last several months that he’s all I have.
He wouldn’t be wrong.
I venture out to the front porch again Wednesday morning, opting to enjoy my coffee from the wooden swing, watching the world wake once more. Earlier this morning, I placed a call to that HPG place that mailed me that key before brewing a fresh pot of blond roast, checking the weather, and grabbing a knit cardigan from my closet.
Robins chirp from the branches of the oaks that surround the property, and a group of schoolchildren blazes down the sidewalk on their bikes—one of them straggling behind and yelling for the rest of the gang to wait up.
School lets out in a few more weeks, and the neighborhood will be more active during the day—safer. It’s good to have people around.
Because you never know. Even if they’re children, they have eyes, and eyes are deterrents to those who don’t want to be seen.
I think about the person who attacked me—obviously they made off with my wallet so they know where I live. If it wasn’t random, if they ever wanted to come back and finish the job, they’d know exactly where to go. But the police insist it was random, that it was a crime of convenience. It was a November Tuesday night, and I was working late in my insurance office on the square, fluorescent lights aglow over my desk. Someone saw that I was alone, watched me lock up the front door as I left, then pulled me into a dark alley. And the rest is history.
I hope to God that it was random, that it was just some lowly opportunist who happened past. I can’t think of a single enemy I had before. Then again, the year leading up to the attack is fuzzy at best, thanks in part to my traumatic brain injury.
The faint mew of the neighborhood stray pulls my attention toward the front steps, and up climbs the tortoiseshell feline I’ve secretly named Beatrice after a stuffed cat I had when I was a little girl.
Beatrice sashays toward me with her crooked tail, mewing and gazing up at me with her sunny yellow eyes, and then she hops up on the swing beside me, rubbing her cheek against my arm.
We’ve met all of a handful of times, and she acts like we’re best friends, which I’m positive has everything to do with the tuna and milk I gave her that
“I can’t. I’m sorry,” I say, as if she could possibly understand me.
She’s not skin and bones, and her coat isn’t mangy. I call her a stray, but I’m pretty sure she’s just someone’s free-roaming cat.
Even if she needed a home, I couldn’t take her in. Niall mentioned once that he’s deathly allergic to pretty much anything with four legs and a tail—which was secretly disappointing because I’d been thinking of getting a guard dog, a Tibetan mastiff or a Thai ridgeback. Something soft, nice to look at, and fiercely loyal.
Beatrice’s mews become incessant.
It breaks my heart. It does. But I pet her, hoping a few scratches behind the ear will make up for my coldheartedness.
She moves on a few minutes later, chasing something in the distance and disappearing between two of Enid Davies’s peony bushes.
I take a sip of my coffee and peer over the front porch, past the picket fence, where a couple of ladies are walking two dogs—a Yorkie and a miniature schnauzer.
I recognize them. I think they’re from the next block over. They always amble down the Avenue of the Queens, always stop to gawk in front of my house.
But today their eyes are averted.
Apparently they only gawk if they think they aren’t being seen, which leads me to believe they feel guilty for looking, for staring. Makes me wonder if all those times they weren’t discussing the outside of the house as much as they were what’s inside of it.
They feel sorry for me.
I’d tell them to join the club if they’d dare to so much as acknowledge me.
The shrill of my cell phone’s ringer pulls me from my haze of thoughts, and I rise from the swing and head inside, locking the door behind me and grabbing my phone off the sideboard in the foyer.
I don’t recognize the number on the screen.
“Hello?” I answer.
“Hi. Brienne?” a woman asks.
“This is Harriett at Harcourt Property Group, returning your call.”
“Yes,” I say. “I received a key in the mail yesterday. I was just wondering . . . why?”
Harriett chuckles, deep and raspy, the way a smoker might. “You’re pulling my leg.”
My silence should be all the answer she needs.
“You were just here,” she continues. “About two weeks ago?”
Frozen, I say nothing.
“Paid six months on a one-bedroom unit,” she adds, still chuckling. “Don’t tell me you forgot.”
I couldn’t formulate a response if I tried.
“The key is just something nice we like to do for our residents,” she says. “Anyway, your unit will be ready tomorrow, just like you asked.”
How many Brienne Dougrays could there be? And two in one town?
“Hello?” she asks, singsong. “You still there, Ms. Dougray?”
There’s a very real chance someone sold my identity on the black market or dark web after my attack—and if the woman pretending to be me purchased it, there’s a chance she holds the key to answering that million-dollar question that plagues my existence and haunts my nightmares.
“Yes. Sorry for the confusion. Thank you for your time.” I hang up, a cold sweat having collected across my brow and a heaviness residing in my middle.
This is big.
In six months, we haven’t had an actual lead.
If I’m going to catch this thief, I can’t have her spooked. She can’t know that I’m onto her, or she’ll run.
My heartbeat pulses in my ears, and the space around me grows ten degrees hotter. The intensity of this revelation stirs the deepest parts of me, and I find myself pacing the hallway. Quick, light steps back and forth, my breath shallow in my chest.
The overwhelming weight of powerlessness blankets me from head to toe, and I rake my fingers through my hair before massaging away the throb at my temples. Without thinking, I make my rounds through the main level of the house, checking doors and locks and windows as though my mind needs to ensure there’s an extra layer of protection between myself and the outside world.
My breathing steadies after a bit, and I finally stop pacing.
I could easily stay here the rest of the day, angrily wallowing in the fact that I’m being victimized all over again, that someone out there has no qualms about stealing my identity after everything I’ve been through. I could easily work myself into another headache spell that knocks me off my feet for the next two days.
If I’m going to find this “other me,” if I’m going to take back what’s rightfully mine, I need to have a clear head. I need to be calm. I need to not overreact.
I was hunted once.
Perhaps now it’s my turn.
I spend the greater part of Wednesday strategizing, but not before calling the old detective on my case, who says he’ll
do some checking
—which is the same line he used when he was first investigating my attack. I don’t know that the man does anything besides check game scores on his phone—at least based on my experience with him—so I try not to get my hopes up. Before we hung up, he told me if this was truly a case of identity theft, I’d need to file a report with the FBI.
It’s just like him to pass the buck.
In the meantime, I’m going to have to take matters into my own hands.
But I can’t go in, proverbial guns blazing, and demand that this other Brienne Dougray give me back my identity. Odds are I’ll look deranged and will more than likely be delivered home in the back of a squad car, the entire neighborhood gawking from behind their curtains at the poor shell of a young woman who finally lost her marbles.
If at all possible, I need to handle this with dignity, grace, and a whole lot of gumption, which means I have no choice but to be strategic. I need to have my facts straight before I make my first move.
According to a website called How Many of Me, there are fewer than seventeen hundred people named “Brienne” in the United States. Roughly 122 residents with the last name “Dougray.” But only one “Brienne Dougray.”
I log in to my credit monitoring account—one I haven’t checked since I can’t remember when. But the green happy face at the top of the screen boasts that there have been no new inquiries in the past twelve months, no new accounts, no recent activity, and my score is still a healthy 814.
If this woman has stolen my identity, at least she hasn’t stolen my credit—yet.
I pull up Whitepages next, followed by PeopleFinder and TruthFinder, then Pipl, FastPeopleSearch, and finally Spokeo.
Tab after tab after tab.
Each result is the same variation of Brienne Laurelin Dougray and some sort of half-obscured remnant of my address or phone number, the rest of the information hidden behind a paywall.
Burying my face in my hands, I pull in a full breath and tap my fingers across my temples before massaging the tension from my scalp.
Aside from hiring a private investigator, I’m not sure there’s much else I can do. This isn’t a case of financial fraud. And it isn’t illegal to use an alias in certain situations—celebrities and dignitaries do it all the time. Who knows if this apartment vets their residents? There are plenty of shady landlords who require nothing more than a name, a signature, and a recent bank statement. And if you wave enough cash in their face or prepay your lease, you could claim you’re Abraham Lincoln, and it wouldn’t matter to them.
Sitting up, I rub my screen-strained eyes and pull myself out of my desk chair. My knees pop and my right shoulder aches as I shuffle to the kitchen. I have no idea how long I’ve been sitting there, fruitlessly scouring the internet in search of answers. Based on the fact that it’s now close to dusk outside, I’m willing to guess it’s been hours.
In the kitchen, I grab a bottle of chilled cabernet, followed by a stemless wineglass. I used to do this after work every night, fix myself a glass of red wine—a small treat I’d grown to look forward to. Lately it’s been reserved for special occasions—which have been reduced to dinners with Niall when I’ve gone the extra mile and nothing but wine will do.
Leaning against the counter, I sip my drink, my gaze unfocused as I mentally run through all this for the millionth time, no idea where to even start.
And then it hits me.
No one uses Google to dig up information on people anymore—they use Pinterest and Snapchat and Twitter and Instagram. I’ve never been particularly fond of the idea of broadcasting every mundane detail of my life to internet friends and strangers, but I’ve always been in the minority.
I start with Facebook. If there are over two billion users, odds are she’s among them. It takes a few minutes, but I manage to set up a dummy account with a throwaway email, and by the time I click through and ignore all the setup prompts, the site finally gives me search privileges.
After taking a sip of my now-room-temperature wine, I place the glass aside and type my name into the search bar. Pressing “Enter,” I hold my breath and scan the results.
Clamping my hand over my mouth, I lean in to examine the tiny square that holds a picture of a woman who looks very much like me—but isn’t.
I don’t have a Facebook account. Never have.
After navigating to her page, I wait as it loads. Then a flood of images of a smiling woman with a sleek brunette bob and a carefully crafted social media profile full of joie de vivre pollutes the screen.
The “About” section is limited, simply stating that she works for the Opal Green PR Agency in Quinnesec Bluff.
There’s a photo of her standing next to the Bean in Chicago. Another one of her by the Eiffel Tower. One of her with a handsome, Burberry-scarf-wearing man with messy blond hair and a runner’s build. Another one shows her holding a muslin-swaddled baby, with a caption about how much she adores her new nephew. None of these things are anything but ordinary, but I persevere, clicking through each and every one, occasionally pinching and unpinching the trackpad, zooming in to search for microscopic clues.
I’m two seconds from trying another social media outlet when it occurs to me that I’ve yet to scan her friends list.
I don’t expect to find anything. If she purchased my identity off the dark web, she’d have no reason to befriend any of my acquaintances. But given the strangeness of this entire situation, how bizarrely close to home it all is, I’d be remiss if I didn’t check.
I run a sweaty palm against my thigh before directing the cursor to her friends list. There’s a search option, which might be the easiest place to start.
First, I type in “Dougray,” just to see if she’s befriended any of my family members.
Three results: Dennis Dougray (my grandfather’s brother in Connecticut), Claudia Dougray (my grandfather’s sister in California), and Carrie Dougray-Stein (Dennis’s granddaughter).
I roll my chair away from my desk and run my hands through my hair.
Okay, deep breath.
I can explain this away if I try hard enough.
Dennis and Claudia are in their late and early eighties, respectively. They’re not what I would call social media savvy. They probably searched for me one day on a whim, found her, and added her, thinking she was me. I doubt they’re on Facebook more than once or twice a year to even notice that
Brienne is a stranger.
I toss back what’s left of my tepid wine before going for a much-needed refill.
When I come back, I’ve made a decision.
I’m going to hire a private investigator. There’s only so much I can do on my own, and seeing how I’m the victim here and there’s a chance this entire thing is a shade deeper than I originally anticipated, certain fact-finding endeavors could be risky.