Where Once Your Soul Dwelled by Liz Mierzejewski

My name is Mike.  I need to say it and believe it.  I need to know my home was once Connecticut, where only my mother lives now.  I need to remember why I can never go back.  Remembering this keeps me where I am and who I am.  It is the only thing that reminds me that it was not a nightmare.

I only wish it could have been a dark and stormy night.  Maybe then I would have thought twice before stopping at that ridiculous gas station.  The gas station so dingy and so backwards that if it weren’t for the dim, yellow light coming from inside and the urgency pressing upon my bowels I would have passed it by as a relic.  The day was dry and bright.  I had been making my way across Connecticut, and so far I had been met by the summer green trees pressing over the Route 8 capillaries, twisting convoluted over the lower Berkshires.  But it had been a dry summer so far, and the green leaves sounded harsh and ready to burn. The dust on the roads was constant, and I felt it coating my throat every time I breathed in, car top down, music blasting.  And now I needed to use a bathroom, and soon.

I hadn’t seen a house for almost twenty minutes.  This wasn’t so odd, since the northwest corner of the state always seemed empty, roads existing just to get to Massachusetts.  What was odd was the abrupt parting of the trees and the barren look of the terrain, oddly flat and open to the sky, like it had been dropped down after being yanked out of Kansas.  And there was that gas station, pumps sporting flaked red paint, resembling set pieces from Mayberry.  I pulled in, and the swirling eddies of dust collected and settled on the hood of my Mustang.

The building was small, no bigger than a half-dozen phone booths joined together at the hip.  But it had what might be a restroom in the back.  The windows of the station were covered in a white film, like soap had been swirled on the inside of the glass.  The front door, an old wooden job with brass hinges, was slightly ajar.  A dim yellow light was faintly illuminating the interior, bathing everything like a sepia photograph.  I slammed my car door, just to make some noise.

“Hello?”  I knocked on the door and pulled it open.  “Is there anyone here?”  If there was, it wouldn’t be that hard to hide.  The room was stacked with boxes, bins, assorted sacks and cartons, all filled with what I could only describe as basement chique. “Excuse, me, is someone here?” I asked again.  I turned toward the register and looked at the wall behind the counter.  A little scanning revealed what I hoped would be there – a small, brass key looped on a lanyard of leather, hanging from a tack.  I grabbed it and went outside.

The bathroom was everything I imagined, with a palpable film of grease and age.  There was no lock so I put the key in my pocket. The door barely held itself closed on the crooked jam.  I was careful to not make contact with any surfaces, which was quite a feat in my condition.  And then there was the mirror.  It was painted out black.  Blackboard black, all flat, no shine.  The brush strokes were thick, as if the painter had used a worn house brush and the paint was tar-thick.  Someone had scrawled the words “Not for you” across the paint.  The paint looked like it had been chipped here and there and dabbed over again.  I started to pick at some of the thinner strokes.

“Can I help you?”

“Ah!”  I screamed in surprise as the door flung open.  The question didn’t sound helpful at all.  He held the door open, this skinny guy, maybe 20, could be 30 years old.  It was hard to tell.  His hair hung over his eyes and I jerked my head in a subconscious attempt to make his hair move.  He smiled, revealing a chip on a front tooth.  His teeth were small and widely parted, the grin lasting unnaturally long.

“You all set, or you need something besides a key that don’t work?”  Again, not so helpful sounding.  His untucked work shirt had the name “Mitch” printed in magic marker across the pocket.

“I’m all set, thanks, um, Mitch, is it?”  I pointed to his shirt.  I stepped out into the sun and handed him the key, which he put into his markered pocket.  “On second thought, there a store around here, maybe to get something to eat?”  Mitch was staring at me, that smile still hanging out there.

He didn’t say anything for too long.  “Alrighty, then.  Thanks for the john,” I said, heading for the car.

“About a half mile up,” he said.

“What’s that?”  I had just started to turn over the engine when he spoke.

“Mingo’s Place.  Just up there,” he said.  “It’s real nice.”

“Okay, thanks,” I said.  I’ve seen creepy, but this guy must be in some dictionary somewhere, I thought to myself.  Either way, even just a soda at this point would be helpful.

Well, Mitch had been right about one thing.   Just a short drive up in the dust was an old Winnebago sporting a hand-painted sign “Mingo’s Place.”  A rusted awning provided shade for any customers who might be ordering food from the sliding windows.  I can’t say that Mitch was right about how nice it was.  Unless he meant for the flies, which seemed perfectly happy flitting about the picnic tables and garbage.

I got out of the car and now I could hear faint music coming from the Winnebago.  The glass on the windows was dark.  I looked closely, and yes, these windows were painted black like Mitch’s bathroom mirror.  Must’ve been a sale, I thought.

“Hello?  Anyone there?”  I tapped lightly on the painted window and called in through the opened one.  I heard someone shuffling to the window and I stepped back apace.  It was Mitch; same long, stringy hair covering his eyes, same tiny too-wide teeth, front one chipped.  But now, he was wearing a white button down and an apron.  “Hey, man, that’s a little freaky.  How’d you get past me?” I asked, pointing down the road towards the gas station.

“Excuse me?” He asked.  He was squinting and pulling his hair back behind his ears.

I looked at the name scribbled on his apron.  Tony.  “Tony, huh?”

Tony closed his eyes slowly and opened them again, like I’d asked a tall guy how the weather was up there. “You want anything?”  He had one hand on the sliding window.  I guess I had been staring for a bit, because he jolted me out of my freeze-frame thoughts.  “Listen pal, order something or go.  I don’t got all day, y’know.”

“So what are you guys, twins or something?”  I was going to get him to answer one of my questions one way or another.  I put my hand on the sliding window just below his hand and smiled.  He didn’t seem to be in the answering mood, but I guess twins get sick of those kinds of questions, like anyone else.  I let go of the window and relaxed my shoulders.  I was pretty sure Tony would close the window any moment if I didn’t order something quick, so I ordered something quick.  A cursory scan of the rusted menu inspired me.  “I’ll have a burger and fries, Tony.  Medium rare, if you don’t mind.”

It looked like he did mind, and Tony ducked back behind the painted glass.  I heard him scrounge around the freezer and pull out what I could only hope was good old-fashioned Connecticut beef and a pound of fries, but that was anyone’s guess.  I sat over on the picnic table, long abused by the local birds.  I had to clear off some dried leaves and such, but now there was room for my much-anticipated lunch.  I could still hear it frying away in the Winnebago, so I pulled out my phone.  Still no service up here, which wasn’t too much of a surprise in these hills.

I was passing the time with a few phone games when the pick-up truck pulled up, two passengers climbing out and heading for the blackened windows.  Both of them guys.  Both of them skinny with straight hair flopping down over their eyes.  Both of them clearly Mitch, down to the too-wide smile and broken front tooth.  I felt my front tooth with my tongue just to check, and it was still whole.  They glanced over my way and I caught a glimpse of names emblazoned across their front pockets.  I couldn’t make them out from my seat, but I decided to make it my business anyway.  I made my way up to the order window and leaned in, arms folded up onto the counter, effectively cutting them off.

“So, what’s the deal around here anyway?” I asked.  “The postman have all dominant genes?”  They didn’t look amused.  I got a look at the names on their pockets, scribbled in the ubiquitous Sharpie:  Thom and Kat.

The one named Thom pushed past my shoulder, sticking his head into the trailer.  “Hey, Tony.”  He gave me a look, clearly checking me out for my strangeness in not being like everyone else.  Tony came to the window and slid my burger and fries to me, all tucked into the red plastic basket.  If my hand wasn’t there it would have gone over the edge of the counter and right into the billowing dust.

“Four-fifty,” said Tony, knuckles to the counter.  I handed over my five and waited for change for a moment, but it never came.  I sat down.

Tony leaned over the counter.  Thom and Kat pulled in closer, but it wasn’t hard for me to hear what they were saying.  I kept looking at Kat.  This was one ugly chick, what with her looking exactly like every guy in this town.  I was afraid to look to see if she had breasts. I was really hoping that she didn’t; it wouldn’t sweeten the deal, that’s for sure.   More than that, I hoped this was a guy who woke up drunk and just grabbed the wrong shirt.  Either way this was a lose-lose mind game for me, so I just listened instead.

“You call Mitch?” asked Thom, his voice was tinny and thin.  Tony looked over and me, all shifty.  I’ve seen people do this before, and it always meant that the unspoken topic of conversation was close.  Call me paranoid, but that look made me feel like the elephant in the room.

“Course I did.  You think I don’t know the rules around here?”  His voice also had that tinny quality, like an empty metal can buzzed with a taut string.  The other two looked over and Thom turned his back to me, whispering something to the other two.  Kat looked over Thom’s shoulder at me.

“You got enough there, Pal, or should we talk a little louder?”  Kat’s voice was as tinny as the last two, and a shiver went up my back.  I reflexively waggled my head as I tried to release the idea outside of me.

“Excuse me?” I asked.  I guess I had been staring, but considering the situation, I didn’t think it a ridiculous thing to be caught doing.  Nevertheless, I felt exposed, and my face was getting warm as I flushed in embarrassment.

“We loud enough for ya?”  Kat spit on the ground.

“Me?  I—I wasn’t listening, seriously.  I was just um…” I had nothing.  Clearly I had been listening.  They turned back to their huddle, this time keeping their voices more to themselves.  I lost my appetite so I threw away the remaining half a burger and fries into the fly condo overflowing with ripe garbage.  I looked around for a few napkins, but the only ones available were sitting right by Tony’s elbow on the counter.  I decided to wipe my hands on my jeans instead.

I headed for my car, looking forward to driving beneath the leafy coverage of the back streets of Connecticut.  Being out here I felt exposed with no trees to make me feel close to the ground.  The car looked so far away, the three clones going silent when I got up.  Was there a target on my back?  Did I look like prey to them?  I certainly felt like I did at that moment.  Each step to the car felt deliberate and dangerous, as if more clones would blindside me from around Thom’s pick-up, pull me to the ground and suffocate me with a toothy death-grip on my esophagus.  I started walking faster.

My fingers on the door handle, I took a quick glance over to the Winnebago, just to make sure no one had moved.  But they had.  Tony was missing from the window.  Thom was on his way over to the pick-up.  Kat was making her way over to me.  Where was Tony?  Inside?  Coming around back?  Whether it was because of grease or sweat, my fingers slipped on the door handle and it snapped back to position.  I tried once more, quickly, with two hands this time, and the door opened.  I was in the seat before I knew it, the key already connecting with the starter when Kat put both her hands onto the door.  Her man face was right up close to mine now, with a smile as big and as fake as any hungry predator.

“Hey,” she said, “No reason to be going anywhere just yet.”  She had crossed her arms over my rolled down window, her face now just inches from my face.  “We didn’t mean to be so rude back there, really.”  Thom started his truck and backed it up, turning it perpendicular to the back of my Mustang.  “Why don’t you come on back and I’ll buy you a soda.”  Thom was at the passenger side by the time Kat had invited me back to the Winnebago.  He had a baseball bat.

I’m pretty sure I screamed at the exact moment he took out my side mirror.  I was still screaming as I climbed over the door by Kat and Thom was wielding the bat against the rear-view mirror.  I caught a glimpse of Kat in the driver’s side mirror, and I swear it showed a twenty-something brunette, but it might have been my fear flashing back to a time I wasn’t scared shitless.  He took out the mirror easily enough, giving my windshield a hell of a beating with it.  But I was on the ground, crab-crawling my way away from them.

Kat was saying something in her tinny man voice, but I was still screaming.  “What the hell?  What’s wrong with you people? Get away from me!”  I had reached the summer saw grass, and I could feel the blades cutting through the skin on my hands as I skittered backwards.  I pulled my hands off the ground in pain, and landed flat on my back.  All three of them were at me now, and I swung out wildly as they tried to help me to my feet.  “Get away, you freaks!  Get off of me!” I was frantic, and now I was hurling droplets of blood at them from my bleeding hands.

“Oh, get up, you idiot.  We’re not gonna hurt you,” said one of them, but I couldn’t tell who.  I was shielding my head and eyes, waiting for Thom’s bat to take me out like one of those mirrors.

I repeated my last question.  “What the hell is wrong with you people?”  I opened my eyes, and only Kat was close.  Thom was thumping the bat in his hand.  Tony was leaning against the hood of the Mustang prepping a cigarette.  “Seriously, I just stop by here for a piss and a burger and you take out my car?  Jeeze, you all got issues.”  They all just looked at each other.

Tony lit his cigarette and took a deep drag.  “The funny thing is, hey what’s your name?”

“Mike,” I said.

“Okay, Mike.  The funny thing is, Mike, that we don’t have issues.  We’re all set.  Rolling in clover, you might say.”  He took another drag.  Kat sat down on the saw grass a few feet away.

“I might not say,” I said.  “Seems like cornering a stranger and smashing his car might look like issues to some people.  Guess I grew up funny.”

Thom and his bat moved a little closer.  “For someone without issues, Mike, you sure got a mouth on you,” he said.

None of them said anything for a minute.  I just wanted to get out of there, so I asked them point blank. “So, can I leave now, or do you mutant triplets have any other parts of my car you need to smash first?”

Tony flicked off the butt and came over to lend me his hand.  I wasn’t too thrilled to take it, but it seemed a modest gesture of good will at the moment.  I grabbed his hand with my bleeding right palm and he got me to my feet.  Kat got up too.  “Not yet.  You still have to talk to the boss.  He makes the final call,” said Tony.

I was starting to shake now, part in fear and part in anger.  The whole of me was working out how to deal with the rising fight or flight response building in my bones and in my blood.  The adrenaline was making it hard to think straight.  “Boss?  What freakin’ boss?  Are you kidding me?  Let me get to my car and drive away from you.  Now.”  I pushed Tony out of the way.  I was about to go to the driver’s side door, but Thom was still leaning against it.  I decided that I could get into the car through the passenger side.  Glass shards were all over the leather seats, but I didn’t care.  I slid over to the driver’s side and reached for the ignition.  The keys weren’t there.

Thom shook them at me at just about his eye level.  He seemed to be enjoying this little game.  He then tossed my keys into the air, took a swing and sent them sailing forty feet into the saw grass.

“Aw, come on!”  I shouted.  I was in no way entertained, but the three of them seemed to find this exchange endlessly amusing, indicated by their tinny laughter.  I heard a car pull up and I looked for the rearview mirror.  I groaned when I was quickly reminded of its recent demise.

I turned around to see who had arrived.  It was Mitch, the gas station twin.  “Hey bossman, can you tell these – these buddies of yours to let me go?  I just came here for—”

He held his hand up to shut me down.  He didn’t even look at me, but went straight over to Tony.  “You got this under control now, or is this going to be like last time?  If you want to screw up your clients, go ahead, but this one’s mine.”

“Whoa, what are you talking—” Mitch waved me off again, never taking his eyes off Tony.  Kat and Thom were leaning into each other and it made me a little sick.

“It’s all good.  He’ll go with you,” said Tony.  He opened the passenger door and beckoned me with his hand. “C’mon, sport.  Time to meet the boss.”

“Like hell I will.”

Thom tapped the car door with the bat.  “Sure about that?”  He was grinning with those tiny teeth, that smile each of them wielded like a Cheshire cat, but with no hope they might fade away.

I sat for a minute.  What was I going to do?  My phone didn’t work, my keys were forty feet off in the saw grass, and these four savage mutant clones had me cornered.  I decided to move forward with them until I could take a sharp turn somewhere.  “So where we going?”

Tony drove Mitch’s car, and I sat between the two of them on the huge bench style front seat of the 1960-something Impala.  We didn’t travel long, and they had lost all gift for gab.  I wasn’t doing any talking either, since I felt more like a product, or a prize, at the moment.  Again, the car had no mirrors.  These seemed to have been removed with care, not with the Louisville Slugger method.  We pulled into a gravel drive.  Mitch ushered me ahead of him into what passed for a motel here, the sign faded and splintering from dry rot.  The edges of the sign were ragged, and it reminded me of the too-familiar teeth of my escorts. Was everything around here designed to look like the mouth of a leopard?

I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised when we were met at the door by another duplicate.  It seemed they couldn’t quite figure each other out, since they always took the care to emblazon their names on their shirt. This one was Marcus.  They might as well have been Huey, Louie and Dewey for all I cared for the game now.

“Boss is upstairs,” he said to Mitch.  He completely ignored Tony.    Like they all had, he grinned at me like I was steak.  “Nice catch,” he said with a nod.

“Hey there, Marcus.  You think you might want to call the police or something?  Seems like your kooky little town has got itself all caught up in a kidnapping here,” I said.

“He’s a funny one, isn’t he?” said Marcus.  “That might be worth something, Chuckles.”

Mitch took my elbow.  “Come on, up here,” and we climbed up.  To what, I could only imagine, but I was sure it had stringy hair and too-small teeth, a chip on the front one.

At the end of the hall the late afternoon sun was lighting up the yellowed wallpaper, which was peeling away to reveal walls colored with a cancer of water damage.  The floors creaked like they might just cave in any minute.  And I was heading for that gaping doorway to see The Boss.

And there he was.  Just like the others. But more so.  He was like the template for their copies.  I got that same grin as he stood to shake my hand.  Was he Borg queen of this strange little nest? The Demon lord of these minions?  He said something, but I was too busy trying to keep my heart out of my throat.  ‘Flight’ was what my stomach begged of me. The adrenaline was making my skin itch and heat up.  “Sorry, what?”  I asked.

“I have a bargain for you.  Mike, is it?  I think you just might want to take me up on it.”

“And if I don’t?”  I didn’t feel like bargaining with anyone right now, especially this guy.  Still, I knew I wasn’t in the best position to be fighting anyone on this.

He laughed a little and gestured for me to sit on a couch.  Mitch leaned against the window and kept looking outside.  Tony remained by the door.  “I’m Robert,” he said, and sat in a wooden chair directly in front of me. “As you may have guessed, I run this little… establishment.”

“Yea, about that—”

“And you’ve made your way here, and now we might just have some use for you.”  He paused, placidly grinning at me.

“Forget it.”  I crossed my arms.

“Mike,” he said, moving in closer, “Let me tell you how it works here, and then you can make an… informed decision.”  I glanced around for an escape route, but no.  The only new detail I noticed was something large and flat draped with a heavy black cloth leaning against the wall behind Robert.  He smiled knowingly and continued.  “You have something we need.  More specifically, something Mitch needs.  If you give it to him, you can stay here for a while and earn it back.”

I looked over at Mitch, but he wouldn’t engage my eyes.  “And if I don’t?”

“Well, I think we both know what will happen then.”

“Look, you’ve got my car, just keep it.  I just need to make a phone call and I’ll leave, no problem.  Just gimme a phone that works.”

“You’re not really seeing this just yet.”

“It’s a classic.  Worth almost twenty-seven grand.  I won’t say a word.”

“I’m sorry Mike, but that’s not the deal we have in mind.  We don’t want your car.”  He said ‘car’ long and drawn out, like I was a child who had made some foolish error.  “We want your essence.”

“Excuse me?”

“Your essence.  You see, we run a little trade-up program here.  I get 25%, and Mitch here, since he found you, keeps 50 %.  You hang onto 25% just to function.”

What he was saying made my head spin.   Was he some breed of soul sucker, hidden in the foothills of the Berkshire Mountains?  Waves of nausea swept over me.  “You’re nuts!  You don’t get one freakin’ drop of me.”  I started to get up, and Tony reached for something behind his belt.  I sat down again.

“There, that’s better.  We need you alive, Mike.  Your dead essence is a less flexible commodity.” He knitted his fingers together across his chest, leaning back into the chair.  “Plus, you do get something in return.” The three of them exchanged hungry glances.

“I’ll bite.  What do I get in exchange for my essence?”  I held my breath.

“I give you a generous helping of mine,” said Robert.  “You get most of the perks of being me.”

“Pardon me for asking, but why the hell would I want to be you?”  Robert’s smile didn’t even dim.

“Consider the alternative.”  His tone changed, and it sent a shiver down my back.  “We could butcher you right here, take what little essence we can salvage, and Mitch here will be that much closer to paying me back and leaving.  The wise money, Mike, is to hand it over freely.”

I sat as still as I could and imagined that I could camouflage myself into the couch.  I could hear all three of them breathing in unison.  This wasn’t going to go away.  I had to keep moving forward with them.  “Okay,” I said, just loud enough for Robert to hear me.  Robert visibly relaxed and slapped his knees.

“Good!  Now we’re getting somewhere.”  He motioned to Mitch to grab the draped item.  Together they leaned it against Robert’s chair and then he sat down next to me.  Tony shifted, like he was trying not to see.  “Mitch here gets first dibs, since he found you first.  Isn’t that so, Mitch?”  Mitch nodded and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand.

Mitch removed the black drape to reveal a large mirror, not broken, not painted black.  It was the first real reflection I’d seen since this whole nightmare had begun.  In the mirror I saw my own skin.  Next to my reflection, where Mitch’s reflection should have been, was the flickering image of a much older man, undulating and mixing with the distorted image of Robert.  What truly frightened me, what consummated the feelings of nausea into full blown vomiting was what I saw in Robert’s place.

He was there, of course.  Twisted and convoluted, with myriad souls dancing in and out of view.  The torment in their captured faces was clear.  One would surface and be subsumed.  Another would rise and Robert’s countenance would again dominate.  As for me, I was retching and shaking.  I needed to get out here.

“Put your hands on the mirror,” Mitch said as he grabbed the sides of my head with his hands.  His face was so close to mine I thought he planned on an unholy kiss.  I tried to lean back, but I could feel the energy leaving.  It was streaming out through my ears like a river.  In the mirror I could see my reflection jerk and twist.  It was fragmented, hollowed and translucent.  I must have screamed, but the sound was so loud in my ears I would not have heard myself.

And then he stopped.  The sound stopped, the pain, it all stopped.  Mitch stood in front of me now, panting, hands on his thighs.

Robert pushed him aside and positioned himself just as Mitch had.  “Now, this won’t hurt the same,” he said. “It will just feel empty for a moment.”  And that grin.  How I hated that grin.  He checked that my hands were flat against the mirror, and I watched the reflection as the download started.  I could feel bits of me sloughing off.  It was much slower than with Mitch, but no less horrifying.

And then I heard the unmistakable sound of my Mustang pulling into the gravel drive.  Tony went over to the window to see who had arrived.  Robert looked up distracted.

I swung my arms and elbows out hard and broke free of Robert.  Mitch was still doubled over, and a quick kick sent him to the floor.  Tony had left the door open and unguarded.  I bolted and flew down the hall, the stairs, slammed into Marcus and out into the early evening light.  It may have been Kat or Thom or even some other mutant I hadn’t met yet, but whoever it was, was just coming onto the porch and I knocked him down when he tried to stop me.  I jumped into the Mustang, the recovered keys still dangling from the ignition.  Several of them were running for me as I left them in a cloud of dry summer dust.

I drove fast, cutting dangerous corners in the convoluted hills toward the northern border. I had no mirror to check for them following me.  I did manage a few quick glances back on the handful of straight aways.  I was alone.  They didn’t come for the rest of me.

That was months ago.  I haven’t been back to Connecticut since then and my mother has grown tired of my excuses.  She’s going to have to get used to seeing less of me, is all.  And that’s just it, I’m afraid.  I’ve taken down the mirrors at home.  I considered growing a beard for a while, but now I have it done at the barber shop.  As long as I don’t have to see, that’s all I ask.  I keep my blinds closed.  And still, I can’t shut down every reflection.  A sunny day walking by the big windows in the city.  The accidental glimpse in a drug store.  They’re everywhere.  And each time, every last one of them shows the same thing.  I’m not alone in there.  I can see a hint of the too wide grin and stringy hair.  I can see the slight build contrasting what I know as my true huskier size.  I absently probe my front tooth for a possible chip.  And every day I check to see if I’ve scribbled my name onto my pocket.  Mike.  Am I still Mike?

Oh God, I only hope so.

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