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18 March 2013 @ 11:59 am
LJ Idol Exhibit A: "The Vestiges Of A World That Was"  
The Vestiges Of A World That Was
LJ Idol Exhibit A | week 8 | 1700 words
Other side of the glass


When I see myself in the mirror, I never look as bad as I feel. But I put up a good front—you have to, if you want to survive. The first sign of weakness will get you shredded like a rabbit in a cage of coyotes.

Sometimes I am the coyote. I think that's even worse.

I've heard people say it used to be better than this, but how would they know? It's all talk. Everything's so broken-down and destroyed, you'd have to go back centuries to find a decent "before." Nobody's seen it or lived it, so you can't tell me it's real. It'd be like splitting the atom or traveling to the moon—ridiculous. Can't be done.

The house I'm in isn't so bad. Most of the walls are intact, and the plumbing works. The outside is pretty shabby, but that's okay—keeps people from trying to break in. All across this scattered, ruined landscape people are fighting over the same loose crumbs. Month by month, those crumbs are getting scarcer all the time.

I look for work when I'm not out scavenging, and jobs are always hard to find. Most are a day, sometimes a week, and fairly hard work. They're rarely guaranteed to be safe. I'm on demolition right now, over in the southwest corner of the old city. I don’t know why anyone bothers with tearing things down anymore, unless it's to kill off a bunch of rats. Or liberate them. But a job's a job, and this one pays in work boots and canned goods, so I don't question it too much.

The sun is all the way up now, so it's time for me to leave. I go into the bedroom and lift up the corner of the battered old twin bed, then pull the loose board out from under the leg. I stash some extra cans of food down there next to my winter jacket, and close everything up again. If anyone ever got into this house, they'd find the bed and sleeping bag and few candles and matches. Nothing worth stealing, and no reason to stick around. I've managed to hang onto this place for almost five years, and I'd hate to give it up now.

I lock up the house and start walking downtown, an hour's journey still ahead. The streets are littered with scrap metal and broken glass, and thieves and junkies are scattered along the sidewalks. I keep my hand on the knife in my pocket, my ears tuned to the slightest change in sound and my eyes constantly watching for movement. The air smells like a mixture of rotting garbage and spent volcano.

It's still early when I get to the demo site, though a few people are there already. Nothing runs on a strict clock anymore. I pick up a sledgehammer and go up to the second floor. Not much more than a couple of days' work left here, and then I'll have to find something else. I begin battering away at the last remaining part of an outside wall, knowing I have a long, full day ahead of me.

When the sun starts getting low, the site closes down. Everyone wants to make it home before dark, while they can still see what might be waiting in the shadows on the way there. We all move off in different directions, carefully stepping past the holes in the ruined pavement. I saw a man stumble on the edge of one of those holes once. He went down, but he never made it back up. A mob of street people saw to that.

I move reasonably fast, so there's still a little light left by the time I spot the old church at the edge of my neighborhood. But seconds letter, I get clubbed in the back of the head and go sprawling on the ground.

Fucking thugs.

I roll over, knife in hand. There's only one attacker, thank god. I stab him in the leg, and when he bends over howling, I scramble to my feet. Should I kill him? Some people say it's the only way to be sure he can't come after me later, but I'm not a killer, at least not yet. That's one thing to be grateful for in this dead old dried-up world.

I run instead, run as fast as I can. My legs are unsteady, but I force them to keep churning until I dodge around the back of my house, unlock the door, and slip inside. I barricade the door behind me and stand there for a second, gasping and out of breath.

I listen to see if anyone's out there but I don't hear anything, so I stagger into the bathroom, my head pounding. Funny, I thought I'd look worse after getting jumped like that, but it's not too bad. Hurts like a sonofabitch, though. I reach for the medicine cabinet behind the mirror, and lean too far forward. My head spins so hard I see a blinding flash of light, and I grab the sink and hold on until the dizziness passes. It takes a moment for me to notice the soap dish next to the faucet.

I don't have a soap dish. I'm lucky if I even have soap.

I open the medicine cabinet, and holy shit—there's a ton of things in there, even an entire bottle of aspirin! I shove the aspirin in my pocket, I don't know why. Then I close the cabinet and turn around and look more carefully.

The shower's full of stuff, things I've never even heard of. I go out into the hallway, and peek around the corner into the kitchen. Jesus. Machines and furniture, and more dishes than I've seen my entire life. I open one of the cupboards and just stare. Food. Cans and boxes and bottles and packets. Where did it all come from? Only rich people have supplies like this, and I sure as hell don't know any. I open more doors, finding dishes and pots and pans. Unbelievable. The big, metal unit has more food inside, and all of it's cold. This must be an icebox. I've heard of them, but I've never seen one before. My stomach growls, and I grab the first thing that looks good and eat it. Oh, god, it's cheese—I haven't had cheese in years! It tastes incredible, too. Wow. I finish it off and root around some more, past containers and packages of things I don't recognize. I see a couple of apples, and I shove them in my pockets too. You can trade fresh fruit for all kinds of food and other goods.

Then I stand back and just think for a minute. How is all of this happening? Or is it? Maybe I hit my head harder than I thought.

I go into the next room. Lots more furniture, and it's in really good shape. You don't see a lot of furniture these days. I feel like I've wandered into a secret back-alley store of some kind. There are curtains on the window, and a car is parked outside.

My car.

Only it doesn't even look like my car, the one hiding in the garage that I've been cannibalizing or selling off in bits and pieces over the last ten years. This car still has all of its outer chassis, and maybe even all the tires. None of this makes any sense.

The street itself is different. The pavement is smooth and solid, and the houses across the way, well… this can't be my neighborhood, because half the houses there have burned down and you wouldn't turn your back on the rest, and nobody would let their kids play right out in the open like that. I don't have kids, and even I know that.

This is stranger than ever, and suddenly I want to get to the bottom of it. I look into the kitchen again—still impossibly full—and then check out the bedroom. Furniture, pictures, a clock next to the bed. I open the closet, which has more clothes than I'd ever need in my whole life and at least six pairs of shoes. It's crazy.

Well, real or imagined, at least my stomach is full. I can't remember the last time that happened. I wander back into the hallway and past the bathroom, and catch a glimpse of movement out of the corner of my eye. I look over, but it's only the mirror. Isn't it?

I step closer, and god—I look like total shit! I mean, I feel pretty good, but you'd never know it from how I look. I'm all wild-eyed and frantic like someone's trying to kill me, which was true, sure, but everything's okay now. It's bizarre. Somehow there's a bleeding gash on my forehead too, though I could have sworn that wasn't there before. I raise my hand to touch it, but I notice that my reflection… doesn't. He just stares at me like a man in shock.

That's when it all clicks. Him and me, here and there…

The man in the mirror looks behind him suddenly, as if there's someone back there. He turns back, his face panicked, and he reaches out toward me. I jump back instinctively, my mind racing. I know that world, and I sure as hell don't want to go back there. I don't know how I got here or even where here is, but it's paradise compared to that. I can't let him pull me back there—I won't!

I spot the soap dish right there in front of me, the soap dish that doesn't belong. I don't even think twice about it—I pick it up and throw it at the mirror as hard as I can. The glass cracks and shatters into a hundred useless pieces.

I can still see the man's face for a moment, his eyes terrified and helpless. Then it turns into a tragic, half-finished mosaic that disappears bit by bit as each of the shards slips away and crashes to the floor.

----- fin -----

If you liked this story, you can vote for it along with many other fine entries here.

beldarzfixonbeldarzfixon on March 18th, 2013 11:32 pm (UTC)
You did a great job with this -- I was especially curious what you'd write as this was one of the topics I had suggested.
The Coalition For Disturbing Metaphorshalfshellvenus on March 18th, 2013 11:58 pm (UTC)
Thank you! That was a really neat prompt, and one of the most evocative on the list! There were a couple of others I was eying, but I just couldn't pass up this one. :)

At this point, I can't even remember what prompts I gave. They were probably one or two words only. Definitely not "grok". ;)
(no subject) - beldarzfixon on March 19th, 2013 01:09 am (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - halfshellvenus on March 19th, 2013 01:27 am (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - lrig_rorrim on March 21st, 2013 03:19 pm (UTC) (Expand)
cindytsuki_no_bara on March 19th, 2013 03:42 am (UTC)
the end is really sad, altho not for the protagonist. but i feel bad for his mirror self, suddenly zapped into a harsh unfamiliar world where he might not survive. as an ending it makes perfect sense, tho. and i like the post-apocalyptic side of the mirror, and how the protagonist reacts to being zapped out of it.
The Coalition For Disturbing Metaphorshalfshellvenus on March 19th, 2013 05:21 am (UTC)
I feel bad for the mirror-self too! His world is ordinary and nice, and he cannot possibly be prepared for how awful the other world is.

But if you were the guy in that dark, hopeless world... I don't think you could resist the chance to escape, no matter the cost to someone else. :O

Thanks, as always, for reading and commenting!
theun4givablestheun4givables on March 19th, 2013 01:58 pm (UTC)
I love this combination of ideas. Definitely must be jarring for the guy in our world to be in the narrator's world now. I wouldn't want to go back, either!
The Coalition For Disturbing Metaphorshalfshellvenus on March 19th, 2013 04:44 pm (UTC)
Can you imagine leaving a nice, normal (unremarkable) world and suddenly finding yourself in that? Yikes! But now that the narrator has seen another possibility, I can't imagine him doing anything but hanging onto it with both hands. :O
audreybuttercupaudreybuttercup on March 19th, 2013 02:26 pm (UTC)
This was wonderful and sad. I can't say I would want to go back either but I feel horrible for the person he left doomed to that world. In the back of my mind I'm thinking you know he won't survive long not having any experience in that place. :(
The Coalition For Disturbing Metaphorshalfshellvenus on March 19th, 2013 04:46 pm (UTC)
In the back of my mind I'm thinking you know he won't survive long not having any experience in that place. :(
Me too-- it would be like suddenly finding yourself in the middle of a war zone, because the effort it takes to survive every single day in that other world requires vigilance and savvy that the other guy doesn't have. He has no idea how that world works, only that it's awful.

It's odd to feel bad for your own fictional character, but I really do!
Myrnamyrna_bird on March 19th, 2013 09:18 pm (UTC)
I really enjoyed reading this story . I like the suspense and the twist with the mirror but feel really bad for the guy that ended up on the wrong side.
The Coalition For Disturbing Metaphorshalfshellvenus on March 19th, 2013 11:08 pm (UTC)
I guess I did my job then, because I wanted to make it clear how awful the narrator's world was, and then that the other guy understands what that world means and is terrified of it. :O

I feel bad for him too, though I can't see the narrator behaving in any other way!
Laura, aka "Ro Arwen": Big Bada Boomroina_arwen on March 20th, 2013 03:48 am (UTC)
This was a very cool story; love the ending, even though like everyone else I feel sorry for the guy going from the "good" world into the destroyed one!
The Coalition For Disturbing Metaphorshalfshellvenus on March 20th, 2013 05:39 am (UTC)
Thank you! This is one of those cases where, given the setup, the story really can't have a happy ending. If the narrator becomes aware of what's happened, he will always make that same choice-- especially if he doesn't even have time to weigh it. But that poor other guy...
alien_writings: Kalen!alien_writings on March 20th, 2013 09:40 am (UTC)
I understand the narrator's choice, coming from such an awful world, but, damn, do I feel sorry for the other guy! I enjoyed your story. :)
The Coalition For Disturbing Metaphorshalfshellvenus on March 20th, 2013 04:39 pm (UTC)
This is one of those times where you feel bad about where the characters must go, but know that you have to be true to them.

This story was a combination of your suggestion and lrig_rorrim's, so I hope I did those ideas justice! They were very helpful, obviously. :D
Jemima Paulerjem0000000 on March 20th, 2013 05:23 pm (UTC)
Oh no. It was nice that he escaped, but sad that someone else didn't.
The Coalition For Disturbing Metaphorshalfshellvenus on March 20th, 2013 07:07 pm (UTC)
I know-- there's really no happy ending in a situation like that. Someone is going to get the short end of the deal. :(
Seantalon on March 20th, 2013 06:38 pm (UTC)
Ahhh alternate worlds. This was a lovely characterization of the post-apocalyptic world and you handled the moment of transition well. What a poor life it will be for his doppleganger, though. :P
The Coalition For Disturbing Metaphorshalfshellvenus on March 20th, 2013 07:14 pm (UTC)
Thank you! The transition is always the hardest part in working with unreality, so I'm glad that came off well. The poor "reflection" has a terrible and probably very short life ahead of him, it's true. Poor guy. :(

Did you ever get a chance to read my entry for "This is your brain on..." It was actually written with you in mind! I was just hoping your own entry wouldn't be too similar, and fortunately, it was not. :)
zephyrlyzephyrly on March 21st, 2013 01:58 am (UTC)
There's a Philip K. Dick (I know, I know. Always with the PKD) book called Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said. Basically, some famous actor guy wakes up in a strange hotel, and nobody has any idea who he is. Since it's the future and everything always sucks in the future, you have to have identification papers and chips and all that crap and if you don't, you get arrested. (Or maybe it was killed; I can't remember.)

So, this whole book is basically this guy trying to convince the people he knew that he exists. They have no idea who he is. Then the police are like "Who is this guy? There's nothing in the central records of this dude." and it gets into a whole thing with the police chief, who has this bizarre twin sister.

Anyway, after the weird twin sister overdoses on methadone, you find out that the whole thing was her fault. She took some experimental narcotic that messes with reality, and she had a crush on the actor guy, so somehow she made him just some regular dude that she could be friends with. When she died, he was suddenly famous again because the drug stopped working.

Philip K. Dick did a lot of drugs. He was also probably an epileptic.

There was this one time that I had a seizure, and instead of not existing like I normally do, I became someone else in an alternate history. I had this person's memories and none of my own. And the weird thing -- the really weird thing -- was that a third atomic bomb had been dropped on Japan during WWII. Tokyo had been annihilated along with Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the Americans more or less moved in, rebuilt it how they saw fit, and Japan pretty much stopped being a country and became another US state instead. Like, I knew all of that, and it was somehow normal.

It was the present day, and I was living in Tokyo. I had a whole life there. There were things about the other me that were similar, but I was still so, so different. Anyway, I had this terrible feeling that either something really bad was about to happen, or that I was going to have a seizure -- which is kind of the same thing, really. I was at the airport with my alternate timeline girlfriend, and I knew that we had to get away from that place.

We did and got about a mile away before this huge hole tore through the sky. And there were these people half-in and half-out of the sidewalk. And time was just acting, I don't know, funny. All because of that gaping hole in the sky.

Then I came out of it and I was on the floor. Hours had gone by.

It was around the time that I had first started reading PKD and also immediately after I had first started on anticonvulsant medication. I actually started to wonder if there was an explanation to what had happened to me -- like, it wasn't just my brain being weird -- and if anybody had an understanding, it would probably be PKD. Just timelines being ripped apart and realities colliding and all that.

I still don't have an explanation for what happened, if anything actually did. But it was one of the weirdest, most powerful experiences of my life. (And I don't think that I'd like to repeat it.)

Anyway, your story reminded me of all that. Like, it hit a little too close to home. God, how terrifying to have the creeping realization that you're not where you belong, and you have no idea why reality has melted and blurred.

But, hey. That's why I write fiction. It's much easier to believe.

The Coalition For Disturbing Metaphorshalfshellvenus on March 21st, 2013 07:17 pm (UTC)
That one story sounds fascinating (vanished identity is such a neat trope-- it was the basis of the short-lived show "Nowhere Man", which I really liked).

And there were these people half-in and half-out of the sidewalk.
That has ALWAYS been one of the scarier dangers of converging Alternate/Parallel universes, I think. Your "open" space in your own universe may already be occupied by something else in the other. :O

The jarringness of not being where you belong, and knowing that things are not right, always adds a little tinge of horror to the sci-fi, I think. It's something everyone understands well enough to know how horrifying that would be.
tatdatcmtatdatcm on March 21st, 2013 02:52 am (UTC)
This was great! The post-apocalyptic world was described so well that I could see him moving through it, and the shock of going through the mirror really read as a shock. I felt like I was discovering the new world with the character. The end, when he realizes that he's switched with another person and doesn't want to go back was...just wow! I know I'm not supposed to think the man in the mirror survives, but my optimism wants to believe that he'll learn to survive, after all, others on that side learned to.
The Coalition For Disturbing Metaphorshalfshellvenus on March 21st, 2013 07:21 pm (UTC)
I'm glad the post-apocalyptic setup worked-- it has to be clear enough that readers understand how frightening the other man's being trapped there really is.

And looking at so many of the things we take for granted from new eyes is always kind of refreshing as a writer. Imagine being without aspirin, which was such a miracle cure when it was first invented, and which we depend upon so much now! Or any kind of fresh food, especially fruit.

But most of all... discovering a life where you're not on the verge of starving or being killed all the time. To even know that such a place exists would be such a surprise.
heeroluvaheeroluva on March 21st, 2013 06:09 am (UTC)
Definitely an interesting take on the prompt. Also sad.
The Coalition For Disturbing Metaphorshalfshellvenus on March 21st, 2013 07:23 pm (UTC)
Oh yes-- once I had the basic idea in mind, I knew it would end tragically for the guy on the other side. But I couldn't not tell that story.

Thanks for reading and commenting!
lriG rorriMlrig_rorrim on March 21st, 2013 03:17 pm (UTC)
Ohhhhh man, post apocalyptic mirror world alternate reality shifting. I love you. And I love this, so SO much. The characterization of the protagonist is spot on - you've got that hyper alert thing going on with him perfectly, and the fact that he figures out his situation so quickly is only natural because of his natural context and how he's adapted to it. I feel for his doppleganger so much, because you built the world up in tiny and terrifying details all around the protagonist. That guy won't last on the other side for long, but can you blame the guy for breaking the mirror? Not at all, not at all. Splendiferous!
The Coalition For Disturbing Metaphorshalfshellvenus on March 21st, 2013 07:27 pm (UTC)
Really, the suggestions you and alien_writings gave folded together so well into this idea! The awfulness of the mirror world, the tragic innocence of the guy on the other side who has no idea what's about to befall him... the prompt seems made for that.

I'm glad the narrator's choice makes sense to you! I know that the ending is terribly sad for the other guy, but I'm hoping people aren't distracted by the fact that it has to be that way. The survival instinct of someone who has finally discovered the potential of safety is just too huge.

I must love dystopian worlds too much, because Idol has sure led me to create a lot of them!
Your Facekandigurl on March 21st, 2013 06:23 pm (UTC)
What an interesting place to take us to! I'll be eying my mirrors with suspicion for a while...
The Coalition For Disturbing Metaphorshalfshellvenus on March 21st, 2013 07:30 pm (UTC)
:D I wondered if it was clear to the reader, too, that it was possible at the beginning that the narrator wasn't necessarily seeing himself when he looked at the mirror. The limited view he has of that room looks identical (so it wouldn't be obvious to hm from that), though he expects to see more strain reflected in himself. And doesn't.

Maybe his "strong front" isn't as strong as he thinks.
Kizzyxo_kizzy_xo on March 21st, 2013 09:26 pm (UTC)
Wow! :rendered speechless for a second:

I love the way you framed this, from the post-apocalyptic world at the beginning to the house at the end to the mirror images not being quite what they're supposed to be. What I love better, though, is how the action just moves along at just the right pace -- it's happening, but the reader isn't getting lost in the details and such: S/he is right there along with the protagonist.

As a kid I always wondered if my reflection would turn out to be another person who just happened to look like me. Of course it wasn't, but that didn't stop me from trying to convince myself otherwise.
The Coalition For Disturbing Metaphorshalfshellvenus on March 28th, 2013 05:48 am (UTC)
Thank you so much for this lovely comment! This turned out to be a really interesting idea to work with, and a challenge too, for all of the things you noticed. Laying the foundation of the other world, how dreadful it is, and why the protagonist would jump at the chance to escape it while dooming the other guy was kind of a balancing act all the way through!

I also used to imagine my reflection being an entirely different person in an entirely different world. I spent actual time trying to see if I could get into that other world!