PseudoPod 712: Flash on the Borderlands LII: You Know What You Are
The Boy in the Mirror
by Drew Czernik
Jack was four the first time he told me about the boy in the mirror.
Shannon and I were watching TV when we heard the scream from upstairs. I sprinted up to Jack’s room, sure there’d be blood, but he was fine. Physically, at least. He dragged me to his closet door, sobbing about the boy who was watching him through the mirror.
I looked at the mirror, saw the two of us looking back. I told him it looked normal to me. He shook his head, pointed at his reflection. “That’s not me” he whispered, “that’s him.”
That’s how it started.
The next time it happened, he was five. We were going outside when he caught sight of himself in the mirror by the front door. He whirled away, yelling “NO! This isn’t your place.” Then he looked up at me, face white, eyes scared. “He says he’s coming through, daddy. I don’t want him to come through.”
It got bad after that. You don’t realize how many reflections there are in this world until you walk down a street and your first grader whimpers every time you pass a store window.
Then we got the call from the school telling us that Jack was being suspended.
Afterwards, the Principal principal showed me the boys’ room. It was a typical elementary school bathroom: a row of urinals, four kid sized sinks and, above those sinks, four mirrors. Each mirror was cracked, spiderwebbed at the bottom like someone had hit it with a rock. Or a fist.
When I asked Jack why he tried to break the mirrors he just shook his head. “I didn’t” he said, “he did. He’s coming through, dad. He’s coming through and I can’t stop him.”
I didn’t know what to do. How do you tell your kid you think he’s going crazy?
We took most of the mirrors out of the house. The only one we left was in our closet, and Jack never went in there. At least, we thought he didn’t.
It was Shannon who found him. He was unconscious on the floor, surrounded by shards of broken mirror, cuts everywhere. The Paramedic paramedic said he must have thrown his entire body at the mirror.
But I wonder about that. When Shannon found him, he was splayed out on his stomach, head towards the closet door, feet towards the mirror. Like he’d thrown himself through the mirror, not at it.
I’ve been sitting here for three days now, watching him sleep. There’s a window by his bed. You can see the hospital grounds during the day. At night, it’s harder to see outside through the room’s reflection.
And that reflection worries me.
The thing is, I can see Jack’s bed clearly in that reflection. I can see my chair and I can see myself, hunched beside the bed. But the one thing I can’t see, no matter the angle, no matter the light, is Jack.
There’s no boy in that reflection.
And I don’t know what’s sleeping in the bed beside me.
by Jennifer Gardner
It started like a dream.
A haunting dream, a scary dream, a dream I wish to never have again.
There was a body, and the body was not mine. And there was dread, that I had killed the body. And fear, that the body would rise, its hands would reach around my throat and choke me, as I had choked it.
And there was great anticipation, not for anything good. All this I felt, while standing over the body.
Well, that’s a hard one to figure out.
It’s a male body. And it’s young and skinny. It’s not a he, because it’s dead. It’s an it, because it’s dead. Dead things aren’t male or female. Dead things are its, because they’re dead.
Stone dead. Rock dead, hard and unmoving.
I kick it, but it doesn’t move. I kick it harder, and hurt my toe.
What is it like to be dead, I wonder.
It cannot tell me. Its lips are rock dead.
I cannot see its face. As I said, it’s all like a dream. Blurry and fading. I can’t leave, and I can’t do much other than stand over the body and think. What must it be like to be dead?
Still and motionless? Well, for that matter, I was still and motionless. Unable to leave.
Do the dead think? And if so, what about? It’s not telling.
I kick at its head, trying to jar loose its thoughts. Its head wobbles, its hair shivers. But no thoughts come out. And if there are thoughts, locked away in its dead head, it isn’t sharing them. It looks up to me. Is it wondering what I’m thinking? Do the living think? And if so, what about?
About dead things, mostly.
Someone must be coming shortly. Someone to take the body and do whatever it is that’s done to dead bodies. Ice, needles, those black zipped bags, whatever. I look around for them to come. The Death People. But I’m alone.
Alone with it.
Dead bodies aren’t good talkers, so I grow bored. I begin to examine its clothing. There are chains around its neck. Chains of crosses with Jesus on them.
Oh God, I’ve killed a Catholic.
My fingers touch the cross and unclasp. Jesus would prefer to hang on my chest. Jesus prefers living chests. I give it my necklace in trade. God won’t mind.
My gold chain graces its neck. It seems pleased with our trade. I can almost see it smiling.
What a nice shirt it’s wearing. I think of trying it on.
Right again. It looks wonderful on me, and my shirt looks wonderful on it. But no outfit is complete without pants. Soon, I dance in its pants because they fit perfect.
How lucky am I that we are the same size?
This becomes a sort of game, this swapping of clothes and jewelry. It has wonderful taste. And our game passes the time until the death people show up.
I am now in its clothing and it in mine. We look like each other, only it is still dead and I’m alive. But wouldn’t it be funny if I was the dead one and it was alive? What a splendid game, I’ve thought of. So I prop it against a tree, and I lay on the ground. Still and unmoving. Stone dead. And I think,
Do the living think?
I think I like his shoes. But they look much better on him.
He’s a he now because he’s alive. I’m the it because I’m dead.
He kicks my head, hurts his toe.
If I wasn’t dead, I’d laugh.
What a splendid game!
Oh, here they come. It’s the people, the people with the black zipper bags. Just wait till they get here, wait till they get ahold of the dead man propped against the tree and the living man lying on the ground.
What a laugh they’ll have with me.
Wait! What are they doing? They’re talking to him. Ha, he won’t talk back. He’s dead. I’m the alive one, down here!
They’ve noticed me. Yes, hello, why won’t they listen to me?
I’m alive, I say. He’s the dead one, over there. The it against the tree.
It’s moving. The dead body, he’s walking over.
Ha ha, I think, he’s still playing our game. Game’s over, I told him. The death people are here. Game’s over.
He points down at me, and is talking to the death people. I can’t hear what he’s saying. His words are muffled by my own thoughts.
Do the dead think?
Yes, they do.
The death people are putting me in the black bag. They are bagging me like I’m a tennis racket. They’re zipping me up. My head wobbles. My hair shivers. The man zipping me up is thinking.
Do the dead think? And if so, what about?
About living things, mostly.
What’s it like to be dead, the death man wonders.
I cannot tell him. My lips are rock dead.
by Desmond Warzel
The woman has, on a whim, embarked on a hike in unfamiliar woods, prodded by sudden nostalgia for an adventurous childhood. She soon discovers that the stream she has followed to avoid becoming lost is not natural, but rather the output of a large concrete tunnel set into a hillside; doubtless it is a conduit for the rainwater shrugged off by the nearby town.
Above the entrance, some wit has spray-painted the phrase “FREE HUGS;” a familiar online meme come to life. An arrow curves down and inward, pointing into the darkness, its trajectory wavy and uneven, as though applied by an unsteady hand.
Sensing an opportunity to truly get into the spirit of the outing, she approaches the tunnel. In addition to several inches of water, its curved floor is littered with twigs, mud, dead leaves, and bits of trash. Where the concrete has cracked, moss and fungus have taken up residence.
As she enters, her shoes are immediately ruined. Undaunted, she proceeds, feeling her way carefully forward as the sunlit entrance shrinks to a tiny dot of illumination.
The tunnel turns, and turns again, and she is in perfect darkness. She is compelled to pause and take in the fullness of the experience.
When the embrace comes, she knows she ought to resist, ought to scream, pull away, run, anything other than stand still and welcome it, but she feels no urge to flee.
It is the apotheosis of hugs, enfolding her entire body at once, applying the perfect amount of pressure in each place: a steady, warm encircling of her waist, fingertip caresses of her cheeks, lips, and eyelids, a deep massage of her aching feet, gentle nuzzling of more intimate places, sensual but not vulgar.
The embrace ends, not suddenly, but a piece at a time, as though allowing her to grow accustomed once more to its absence. She retraces her steps, to discover dusk approaching and the tunnel entrance nearly invisible. When she finally reaches her car, night has fallen.
When she returns the next day, she removes her shoes rather than sacrifice another pair. Treading barefoot through mud and gravel does not slow her, nor does the occasional sensation of something living brushing her instep. She seeks only the embrace, and when it comes, the sensations are undiminished by familiarity.
On the third day, it rains. She strips naked at the tunnel entrance, ostensibly to relieve the discomfort of soaked clothing. But the weather on the fourth and fifth days is clear, and yet she repeats the practice.
On the sixth day, the embrace is not forthcoming. There is only the empty blackness.
She waits, and waits, and does not move, and when at last she tries to depart, she finds that she cannot. She feels neither the stab of panic nor the bitterness of resignation; she understands.
Soon she can no longer tell where her body ends and the darkness begins.
She waits, with open arms.
About the Authors
Desmond Warzel lives in northwestern Pennsylvania, where he’d write a lot more if he didn’t have to work for a living. This is his first appearance on Pseudopod, though his stories have graced Escape Pod and Cast of Wonders, as well as the Drabblecast and the Dunesteef Audio Fiction Magazine. Upcoming or recent publications include a new tale at Abyss & Apex and a story in the anthology Forgotten Sidekicks from Kristell Ink.
Jennifer Gardner is a freelance writer living in Southwest Michigan. When not writing, she enjoys playing pool and making art.
Drew lives in Ottawa, Canada with his family, golden retriever and, depending on the season, about three feet of snow. He has previously been published in Pseudopod and can be found online at All of Algonquin where he writes non-fiction stories about paddling in Ontario’s Algonquin Provincial Park.
About the Narrators
Autumn Ivy is a voice actor, model, cosplayer, twitch streamer, and jack of all trades. PseudoPod fans may be interested in listening to the stories she’s narrated for The Bone Collector. Go follow the links in the show notes for more of her work.
Karlo Yeager Rodriguez
Karlo Yeager Rodríguez is originally from the enchanting island of Puerto Rico, but moved to the Baltimore area some years ago where he now lives with his wife and one odd dog. His fiction has appeared in Nature, Uncanny, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Speculative Fiction for Dreamers, Seize the Press, and is forthcoming in Pseudopod.
In addition to writing, Karlo has narrated stories in Strange Horizons, Podcastle, Pseudopod, and Escape Pod and is the host of the Podside Picnic podcast.
Follow him at alineofink.com or on Twitter @kjy1066
Summer Fletcher (they/them) has written for major and indie games, and narrated over 30 short stories for various fiction podcasts. More at summerfletcher.com