Written for the first Terribleminds flash fiction challenge of the year! This time the requirement was to choose from a set of random images from Flickr and turn it into a story. Here’s the image I chose, called “the essense of another”; and here’s the story that resulted.
“Close and Bright”
Not all monsters lurk in closets or under beds.
You grew up on a big sprawling lot three hours from the state capital. Not a farm: farms produce living things and sell them off. It was always the opposite with your family’s property, where tractors and furniture and other dead things came to rest. Your father always intended to fix these things up and sell them off, but never seemed to get around to it. That never stopped him from saying yes to anybody who stopped by with a set of old windows or an antique radiator in the bed of their pickup. From your bedroom window, you could see them in the field where they lay: the bones of houses, cars, machines. Sleeping giants.
Those old wrecks weren’t the monsters you grew up with. But they sheltered the ones that were. The things that scurry too fast past frosty windows on a moonless night, the things that shake the cornfields lining a dark dirt road. There are so many monsters out in the country, where there’s too much open space and too many quiet nights that can only be filled by stories.
The city isn’t like that, and that’s why you went there as soon as you were old enough to go. The city is close and bright and full of windows that show you your own reflection, with nothing lurking just behind your shoulder. The city has shadows, but the shadows are empty, whether you look at them straight on or glance out of the corner of one eye. The kinds of things that haunt the country are driven off by the angry shrieks of brakes, the groan of semi tires. The fluorescent lights of bakeries that open before dawn paint the sidewalk with light, and so do the neon colors of bars open past midnight. There’s just not enough space here for monsters. You know that, or you believe it, which is as good as the same thing when it comes to monsters.
But you slowly come to realize the city has its own kind of strangeness. Sometimes, the point where a pair of headlights cross shines a little too brightly, as if something has echoed back those beams of light. Sometimes, there are places on the sidewalk where the sound falls flat and dull on the pavement, just for a few paces. Sometimes, your reflection seems to copy you a moment too slowly, or just before you move yourself. Yes, there is a strangeness to the city, too. Or did you bring that with you from the country?
Once you notice it, the cracks only open wider. After a phone call from your mother (did you forget your father’s birthday on purpose, or did it just fall down, forgotten, into the ever-growing distance between your old life and your new one?) you start to see things in those gaping spaces. You start to recognize them. They’re not the same things you saw out your window as a child. New things. Not as old as the monsters of your father’s junkyard. Old things are patient. New things don’t know how to wait, have never had to. Not in these small close spaces, not in the half-second breath between bar lights and bakeries opening.
You start having trouble hearing other people. Or not hearing, but understanding, as if their words are coming to you jumbled up, or backwards. The boy at the corner store and the woman who owns the sandwich shop look at you as if you’re the strange one. There is something hiding in between the boards on the door of the foreclosed bookshop on State Street, and your reflection walks two steps behind you in the silvery windows of the bank.
One night, you drink too much. It’s just as easy to drink too much in the city as it was in the country, where you could top off your father’s liquor bottles with water to hide what you’d stolen. There are bars on every corner, liquor stores on every block. You haven’t been drunk in years, and you spiral down into the bottle too fast and too easily. When you dream, it isn’t about family or work or that girl from the restaurant you meant to call back but never did. You dream about your bathroom mirror, about staring into a hollow space where your pallid face ought to be. You dream about pounding it with your fist, shattering it with the toothbrush holder. You dream the soft tinkle of broken glass on tiles. You dream a scarlet constellation of blood. You dream. And then you wake.
A silvery spiderweb hangs in front of your vision. When you try to tear it aside with your fingers, it remains. A part of the scenery now. Forever.
You look out at your reflection, who has already begun your regular morning rituals without waiting for you: flossing, gargling, the toilet. “Let me out,” you insist, but the cracked translucent wall does not give way, not when you strike it with your bloodied fists. There is no toothbrush holder to throw at it. There is nothing but you, and your reflection, and the dull gray-painted graveyard of this new half-life that has been forced upon you. Or was it you who gave the other half away? Too hard to remember now.
On the bathroom counter, your cell phone is ringing. Your mother calling. Your reflection doesn’t answer it, only spits into the sink, hangs up the used towel, and leaves the bathroom. You follow, just a moment behind, in the polished silver handles on your bedroom bureau, in the soft gleam of the living room window.