The Replacement

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By Jeff Kazmierski, Copy Editor/Columnist

My face hits something hard as I fall out from the mirror.  There’s a sickening crack and blood and bits of teeth fill my mouth, and I almost pass out from shock.  I welcome the pain.  It reminds me I’m real again.
Dim orange light reveals a row of toilet stalls.  Guttural whisperings echo from the mirror.
“You’ve lost him.”
“It doesn’t matter.”
“He was our best.”
“We’ll replace him.”
I shrink back against the wall, become one with the shadows under the sink.  Whatever their words, I know they’ll come for me.  They always do.
Hiding is what I do best.  It saves me this time. I make myself small, flat, dark. Gray mist fills the room, blots out the light.
I wait.
A minute later the fog lifts, light returns.  They don’t hunt well in the real.  I’m safe, for now.  I spit blood and bone into a toilet before collapsing in a corner.
 
In the morning a cleaning lady finds me.  She’s a sturdy woman, graying black hair pulled back in a bun.  She has a haunted look in her eyes and the white lines of scars inside her wrists.  She yells at me in a mix of Spanish and broken English before hauling me out of the room. I’ve seen her before.  I say nothing.
I see my reflection as she drags me out.  I look like I’ve crawled ten miles over broken glass.  My face is scratched in a hundred places, my mouth is covered with blood and my lips are swollen.  My clothes are ripped to shreds.  I had a jacket but must have lost it on the other side.
I look like hell but at least I’m alive.
 
She takes me to a priest, a white-haired man with a Mexican accent.
Apparently, the mirror let me out in the ladies’ room of a church.
Father helps me clean up, gives me some water and gauze for my mouth.  Then the questions begin.
I’ve forgotten my name so I make one up, something between what They called me and what I want to be.
He asks where I’m from.  He won’t believe me if I tell him I fell through a mirror.  I remember a place, a big place with a big name.  Chicago.  It sounds good.  Lots of people are from Chicago.
I tell him I’m looking for work.  I know he doesn’t believe me.
He offers me a place to sleep in the rectory.  It’s not much, just a spare room with a sofa and a closet.  I take it.  There’s a mirror on the door.  I try not to look at it but I can’t stop myself.
I bare my teeth.  I can feel the bone knitting already; shadow repairs itself.  In the mirror I see a shape that disappears when I look again.  I hide the mirror in the closet, silver side down.  The sofa beckons and I stretch out on it for a few minutes of rest.
 
I stay for a week, doing odd jobs by night, sleeping by day.  The priest leaves a tray by the door with a sandwich and some juice every day.  One day he tells me the cleaning lady didn’t come in.  Would I mind?
I take the job.
He shows me to the supply closet.  As we leave I sense a presence in the room, feel a cold draft move through the Spartan room, and I know someone’s there, hiding in the shadows.  Waiting.
I’ve always been afraid of mirrors.  When I was a kid I thought they looked like windows to another world, that if you pushed hard enough, or in the right place, you’d fall through and never get out.  And if you caught a reflection just right, sometimes you’d see things that weren’t there on your side.  A face, a shadow, a thing moving just out of reach, in the places you didn’t want to look.
Only they were, you just didn’t know it.  One day I found out I’d been right all along.  I pushed and, like Alice, fell through.  Only unlike Alice, I had no way out.  No talking flowers or chess game for me, no mad Red Queen, no White Knight reciting nonsense poems, no Tweedle Dum and Tweedle Dee.  Just a maze of silver and glass.
I wandered, for I don’t know how long.  From shadow to shadow, always hiding, looking for a mirror and a way out.  I became the face in the mirror.  Sometimes I’d see the looks on the faces of the people on the other side, and I’d remember my own fear.
When the Others found me, they offered me a deal.  Work for Them, they said, and I could earn my freedom.  I didn’t ask, just took it, because what else could I do?
They needed my talents, they said.  So I became a nightmare.
Everyone has one.  Usually they go away; we grow older, wiser and stronger.  There’s really only one rule – before a nightmare can leave the mirror, someone real has to cross over.
I was one of the best so I knew what had happened.  For years I’d tormented her, hiding in shadows, lurking around corners.  I was the monster under the bed, the fleeting face in the mirror.  The thing in her nightmares.
I didn’t want to do it.  They made me.  Now my victim has my old job.
In a little while I’ll start work, but for now I’ll just enjoy the poetic irony.

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