When I'm Her


The rain falls in cold needles. It smears the girls’ makeup, plasters their cheap polyester dresses to their backs. It makes a dull roar on the rooftop of the house from which they run.

Despite their shivering, they don’t turn back for shelter.

The shorter of the pair, in black, hugs herself as she races up the sidewalk. Her head is bowed, hair pasted to her cheeks with rain. Neither rain nor hair can hide her tears.

The taller girl, in a white slip dress that is quickly becoming see-through, trots to catch up. She left her shoes behind in the flight from the party, and the pavement is cold under her feet. The remains of a flower crown hang askew in her long red hair. Her cheeks shimmer with fugitive bits of glitter in the glare from a streetlamp.

“E, wait up,” she calls.

The girl in black stumbles to a halt. In appearance, she is her friend’s opposite. A head shorter, blunt-cut hair a dirty blond instead of rich auburn. Petite where the other is statuesque, sharp faced instead of serene. Yet there is a thread between them, a resemblance that runs beneath any conscious comparison.

The redhead sets a hand between her friend’s shoulder blades.

“He’s dead,” the blonde spits, as if being touched knocks the words loose.

“Was he?”

“Pretty sure.”

Both girls flinch as a gaggle of partiers run past, laughing madly, their costumes drenched.

“I feel like I’m going to throw up.”

“No one saw,” the redhead says. “We got out before anyone saw us.”

She curls her arm around the other young woman’s shoulders. They could be any pair of girlfriends, comforting and being comforted after one of the usual disasters that happen at parties. They are not.

The redhead’s name is Elizabeth, but it is not Elizabeth who looks through her wide blue eyes.

Girls become one another all the time, when they’re close enough. They copy clothes and hairstyles, pick up one another’s mannerisms and turns of phrase, riff back and forth in long message threads until it’s as though their thoughts originate from a combined brain. These two, Elizabeth and Mary, have simply taken it a step further.

Tonight, Elizabeth is in Mary’s body, and Mary is in Elizabeth’s.

It’s not the first time they’ve done this, or the fiftieth. But for Mary, every time is new and thrilling.

After a moment she says, “We should go home. We need to get. . . back.”

The blonde barks out a laugh through her tears. “Are you sure you want to come back, Mary?” She glances up, mascara-smudged eyes catching her friend’s.

Mary freezes. Is the truth that obvious? It’s always been just for fun, this thing they do, but she feels more at home in Elizabeth’s body than in her own. She’s only ever wanted to be Elizabeth. The tall, gorgeous rose gold one. The one everybody wants.

Things got out of hand tonight. What if Elizabeth decides being Mary isn’t fun anymore?

Mary shakes the thought away. She can’t start spiraling now. She has to make sure they both get out of this.

“It’ll be okay,” she says, to herself as much as to her friend.

“I know.” Elizabeth has stopped crying, only a slight tremble in her voice betraying any upset. Her expression is calm. It’s uncanny how Mary can discern Elizabeth’s innate confidence, a quality she has always envied, behind her own foxlike features.

Unless the calm is really shock, and Elizabeth will fall apart once they’re safe in the dorm. She certainly doesn’t look sad. But then, it’s not as if either of them will miss Garrett.

Mary wonders if anyone will.

The blip of a siren a block away makes them jump. Blue and red lights dance between the houses. The police are arriving, and the ambulance, just in case it isn’t too late. Elizabeth is the first to move, putting distance between herself and the mess they’ve left behind. Mary follows. Relief flows through her, cool and sweet, at the thought that Elizabeth is back in control. That Mary doesn’t have to be the one to fix this.

More than that, tonight can’t be the last time. She can’t stand the thought of going through life without ever being Elizabeth again.



I’ve just left my apartment, the cold hitting me like a snowball to the face, when Detective Johns appears.

I was never charged in connection with what happened that Halloween, but attempted murder doesn’t have a statute of limitations. It kills me that I didn’t see this coming.

As a child I hated when my parents said to “go play in the snow,” because unsupervised time with other children never went well for me. It was only a matter of time until someone— often my brother, two years older and big enough that I could have fit stacked inside him like a matryoshka doll— would hold me down and force a handful of snow down my neck. Johns’ attack is just as sudden, if more subtle. When he falls into step with me, I’m so startled, my worn boots slide out from under me on the icy sidewalk.

He grabs my elbow. “Watch yourself, now. Those slips and falls can really mess you up.”

Did he just wink?

I jerk my arm from his grasp, too rattled to pretend I don’t recognize him.

“Good to see you, Mary,” he says. “It’s been a while.”

Seven years. Anthony Johns was the lead detective, a bald Black man with hunched shoulders who spoke in a deep, soothing voice. His voice is still soothing. His presence outside my building, not so much.

He smiles slightly. In contrast to my mismatched layers, his only outerwear is a black topcoat, unbuttoned to reveal the badge clipped to his belt. No hat shelters the shiny dome of his head from the cutting wind, yet he seems perfectly comfortable. Maybe the prospect of a new break in an old case is what warms him.

“What do you want?” I say.

“Every bit as direct as I remember.” His tone is fond, as if he never told me I had nothing to gain by being a bitch. “Are you aware Garrett Deegan died a few months back?”

“Of an overdose.”

The news made the rounds through Elizabeth’s social media circles, people acting their asses off about what a great guy Garrett had been. How much they would miss him. How they’d had no idea of the demons he was battling.

Please. The only battles Garrett ever fought were against people with a fraction of his power. In my opinion, he lived a lot longer than he should have.

I don’t say that to Johns, because I’m not stupid. Garrett’s parents placed the blame for his near death—and subsequent decline into addiction—squarely on me. They are rich and powerful, so this makes life difficult. I’m not looking to make it unbearable.

Johns taps his chin. “Did you know illicit drug deaths are treated as homicides?” He plainly does not expect an answer. “Part of my investigation consists of just talking to people who knew the victim.”

The victim. Just talking, my ass. “I haven’t spoken to Garrett in years.” I wasn’t allowed to speak to him, even if I’d wanted to.

Johns’ voice sharpens. “But you know how he died.”

My mouth opens, to say what, I don’t know. That I saw it on the internet, but Garrett wasn’t the one I was spying on? Yeah, that wouldn’t sound suspicious at all.

I snap my mouth shut. I of all people should know it’s never a good idea to talk to the police.

Johns is blocking the way back to my building. I’m afraid that if I get on the bus that’s pulling up next to us, he’ll board it along with me.

“Do you have a minute to talk? In your apartment, maybe? Sure be a lot more comfortable than out here.” Now he shivers, but we both know it’s a performance. I’m already shaking my head. “Come on, now, Mary. I’ve just got a couple things I need you to clear up. You don’t want to have to come up to the precinct and piss away half your day, do you?”

My chest tightens, lips going numb as the blood drains from my face. I’ve never been great at thinking on my feet. The bus pulls away, and there’s that escape gone, along with any hope of being on time for my newest crappy job.


I whirl around, narrowly avoiding a face-plant situation, though this time Johns doesn’t bother to help me. Behind us is Miguel, who lives in my building. Great. He’s holding his phone vertically. I am so, so glad that my humiliation will be fodder for his @OBEPhDLife channel or whatever the fuck he has. Everyone’s got a presence, no matter how obscure, and they’re all just waiting for their viral moment.

But his eyes are narrowed in Johns’ direction. He asks me, “Everything okay here?”

Johns puts on a warm but insincere smile. “Well, that’s up to Ms. Burke—”

“Is she free to go?”

Johns glances at me, then at the phone, and for the first time seems less than in control. “You don’t have permission to record—”

“I don’t need it. We’re on a public street. Is she under arrest?” Miguel’s tone remains pleasant; it’s the words that are incendiary.

Johns makes eye contact with me. “You should get your side of the story on the record before it comes to that.”

“My side of the story? I don’t have a story. I didn’t have anything to do with it.” I’m intentionally vague, because Miguel already knows more than he needs to about my sordid history.

“Then you’ve got nothing to worry about,” Johns says. “You want to put this to bed, Mary, and now’s the time.”

He holds my eye. I try not to look away, but after a moment that feels much longer than it probably is, I have to.

Miguel’s phone, and Miguel behind it, continues to bear witness.

Johns sighs. He brings out a card and extends it to me between two leather-gloved fingers.

“Give me a call when you get a minute. Among other things, I’ve got Garrett’s people wondering where you were the night he passed, and I’m sure you want to allay that interest as soon as possible.”

If he’s trying to intimidate me, it absolutely works. Wordlessly, I accept the card, because that’s how I push the detective out of my life for a little longer. Glancing at it, I see he works here in the city now. It’s a common enough pipeline from the town where I went to college.

Where Elizabeth and I went to college.

“You planning any travel? Going home for the holidays?”

I don’t imagine the mocking note in his voice. That particular trip hasn’t happened for a long time. I shake my head, avoiding his eyes.

“Good. Let me know if you decide to leave town. Then I won’t have to come after you.”

Johns throws Miguel one last, irritated glance before striding off in his wing tips. Miguel and I watch him go, hoping he’ll slip and fall on his ass. Or I’m hoping it, anyway.

Miguel puts his phone away and turns to me, which is my cue to scuttle back through the building doors and hopefully up the stairs before he gets a chance to ask any questions. I’ve decided I’m not going in to work. Under-the-table cleaning and call-center jobs aren’t the easiest to get, but they aren’t the hardest, and I don’t need any more proof that leaving my apartment today was a bad idea.

Maybe staying here was the bad idea. I should have moved across the country years ago; then I wouldn’t be in this mess.

But if I’d moved, I wouldn’t live in the same city as Elizabeth.

“Mary, hold up!”

I can’t flagrantly be a bitch, not when Miguel saved me out there. I stop in front of the mailboxes, most of which have broken locks, and sweep at least a week’s worth of bills, payday-loan circulars, and whatever else into my bag.

“Thanks for stepping in,” I say. “I think he had me confused with someone else, but cops never believe you when you tell them that.”

Miguel’s shaking his head while he grabs his own mail. “I hate how they throw their weight around.” Usually he speaks in a mild drawl, but now his tone is sharp with indignation, which reminds me why he’s the only person in this building I talk to voluntarily. We’re not friends. I’ve never gotten the hang of making those, with that one unfortunate exception. Still, we’ve bonded somewhat over the fact that we’re both from small, shitty towns, his in Florida and mine farther north.

“By the way,” he says, “I’ve been meaning to say sorry about what happened with the job at the lab. Were you able to get your other job back?”

“No, but it’s fine.”

“Ah shit. I mean, I feel bad. We got your hopes up, and then—”

I make a cutting motion with my hand. “Forget it. Not your fault.”

He rocks back on his heels, eyes on the floor; he’s still troubled. Not much either of us can do about it, though, is there? “For the record,” he says, “Dr. Ofori and I thought you were perfect for it. Just because the Deegans are donors doesn’t mean they should have a say in staffing.”

But they do. And the last thing Garrett’s parents want is for me, the person who ruined their son’s life, to have any security.

The job wasn’t fancy—glorified receptionist in a university research lab—but it offered that much, plus a possible alternate path to the goal I’ve been working toward. Failing at, rather.

That chance is gone now, and I’m still right where Brian and Rosemary Deegan want me. Scraping a living, looking over my shoulder.

I pretend to be absorbed in my phone so I won’t have to make any more awkward conversation with Miguel, who murmurs a farewell and moves on to the stairs.

I’m worried. Johns might not have had enough to arrest me just now, but I’ve had the look in his eyes directed at me before. The look of a cop who’s found his perp. I barely slipped his net last time, and that’s got to have pissed him off.

It’s always been a vendetta for the Deegans. And now their son isn’t just broken; he’s dead.

I have no idea what I was doing on the night of Garrett Deegan’s alleged overdose. I’m not even sure which night it was—if the rumors are true, he wasn’t actually found until a couple of days after the fact, when the housekeeper let herself in and encountered a little more than the usual post-party cleanup. Even if I could come up with an alibi, I’m not sure that would be enough against people who own a private jet and a couple of members of Congress.

I got the blame for Garrett’s “accident” in college, and now I’m under suspicion in his “accidental” death. I know what a frame job looks like. This won’t end well for me.

At root, this isn’t the Deegans’ fault. As shitty and destructive as they are, I can almost understand where they’re coming from. First rule of the woods: don’t fuck with mama bear’s cub. Also, trying to fight them would be about as effective as using my bare fists against a grizzly’s claws.

Elizabeth is the one who did this to me.

If I try, I can bring up a sense memory of rain pelting my head and shoulders, wet polyester sticking to my skin. The bone-deep chill from that night. We kept shivering long after we’d gotten back to the dorm. Elizabeth told me everything would be fine, but she lied.

And unlike the Deegans, she’s not so high up that I can’t take her down.

Excerpted from When I'm Her by Sarah Zachrich Jeng. Copyright © 2024 by Sarah Zachrich Jeng. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.