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.
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.
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.
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