08 Jan Living Picture
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"Living Picture"Written by Michael Paige
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Estimated reading time — 10 minutes
Fucking perfect, I thought as the storm released sheets of rain over the canopy that spilled onto the walkway. Lightning lit up the sky in a brilliant stitch of fire followed by a powerful bellow. I was leaning against one of the tapered columns with my shoulder bag anchored over my shoulder. My ride (who swore to me he’d be back after the show) still hadn’t returned from his drink run. No phone call. No message. He was probably passed out at home drunk as a sailor, a very stupid sailor. As undependable as he was (and as much as I wanted to wring his neck right now), I couldn’t help but thank for him setting this gig up for me in the first place. If not for the last-minute recommendation, Godfrey would have found another Disc Jockey for his house party. It wasn’t a huge gig, but any extra penny helps.
But where did that leave me now: stranded in a rainstorm with a house filled with grad students too high or drunk to find their own feet, let alone hold a coherent conversation. No soul here was fit to give me a lift, and like hell, I’d stay the night in this place. I cautiously peeked at the time on my phone: 1:25 AM. Together now: fucking perfect.
“Sorry about that, little lady,” Godfrey said, floundering out of the doorway. He was wearing a dark plum Willy Wonka-esque coat. “I got your pay right here. Thanks for the show. You really got a knack for this… uh… Sam, wasn’t it?”
“You got it. Thanks for booking me,” I said, collecting the money and also catching a sweetly bitter whiff of the burnt herbal scent drifting off of him.
“Pleasure.” He grinned at me and then whistled at the flooded walkway. “Man, it’s really coming down tonight. Are you still waiting for your ride?”
“Yeah. Hopefully, they’ll be here soon.”
“Well, let me know if you could use a ride. Hell, you could even stay here if you wanted.”
Tempting as the offer was, the suggestive look that carried it made the offer almost laughable. The sort of way a butcher ogles a salted slab of meat. “No, thanks, I’m good.” I buckled my lips into a dismissive smile.
“Suit yourself then,” he said, and sauntered back inside where there was warmth.
I returned to rain watching. Anybody I could call would be asleep by now, well almost everyone. No—I shook the thought immediately. Even if my father did decide to help, his teeth would sink into me so deep he’d taste the marrow. What were you thinking, Sam? No backup plans? No plan B? Why do I always have to save you from yourself?
Sure, that’s just what I needed to do: hand him the perfect I-told-you-so scenario so he could massage that irritating father bravado. After Mom fell into a coma, he sort of did too, in his own way, only waking up to be a father when it was convenient for him.
Bitter thoughts encrusted with raw irritation brushed against my skull at the mere idea. “No, thanks, not going to happen,” I whispered to the precipitation ghosts. Come to think of it, this house wasn’t too far from the station on 23rd Street half a block or so. The subway would save me the expenses of calling for an Uber. No doubt it was more of a pain in the ass. But a pain in the ass meant less money out of my pocket. I’d also have to get a ride back here to pick up my music equipment. What was a little wetness anyway?
I slipped a bud into my ear, pulled my folding umbrella from my shoulder bag, unfurled it and walked through the swelling puddles. The rain pelted my face with a cold mist. I was tired. And fat lady Misery was beginning to hum a few bars. But I still had the music in my ear, and that was all I needed to get by. It wasn’t the money that solely drove me here; it was mostly the passion.
Once that first track starts, my heart disappears. Regrets, money troubles, memories, nothing else matters but the music. There isn’t any other feeling in the world like the rush of energy followed by a crowd’s euphoric screams as they flail their arms like mental patients. My mind feels like a blowpipe shaping molten glass bubbles into something different, something new. Sometimes I forget to breathe; it’s too easy to lose yourself in the harmonic flow vibrating your organs.
It didn’t take long for me to reach the gleaming wet intersection of Fifth Avenue and Broadway. I crossed the relatively quiet street to reach the northbound entrance to the terminal. Two lampposts were casting a brilliant glare with green tops and milky white bottoms. A homeless man was curled over a thin sheet of cardboard at the foot of the stairs, taking shelter from the storm. I maneuvered my heavy bag to the shoulder farthest from him. If the man tried anything, he’d get a lovely taste full of the mace stowed in my pocket. Lucky for him, he only shifted sleeping positions as I passed by and continued down the mezzanine. I bought a ticket from one of the machines, slipped it into the turnstile gate, and found more stairs.
They lead me to the boarding area next to the track. The air was permeated with that familiar damp, guttery, metallic funk. When I was nine, I called them train farts. There was a woman here too. She was aimlessly walking between the columns, cradling the baby in her arms as she did so. It was sort of an odd look given the time and place. She was wearing an ivory white puffer jacket with a fur-trimmed hood.
Soon enough a quiet gliding hum sounded from the tunnel. Out came the piercing spotlights followed by the high-pitched electronic wine that reverberated off the walls as the train rolled to a stop. The platform screen doors slid open and were joined by a pre-recorded (strangely melodic) voice. “Stand clear of the closing doors, please!” There was a note of challenge in the warning, as though the voice were daring you to do the opposite.
I wandered inside and sat down in one of the powdery blue bucket seats. The woman followed after and took a seat a few rows in front of me. Arc sodium lights gave her skin a yellow cast suggestive of severe jaundice. I leaned back and blew a warm burst of air over my fingers. It was a home stretch now; the worst part of tonight was behind me.
“Stand clear of the closing doors, please!” the robotic voice chimed again as the doors simultaneously slipped shut. The gliding hum returned, and the underground train pulled forward with a jerk.
Within minutes the music in my ear was replaced by a painful crackling hiss. I pulled out the earbud and popped in the second one. It worked fine for a minute before succumbing to the same static screech. “Come on, come on!” I moaned. So much for the anesthetic. Some rain probably slipped through my hair and ruined them. From my peripheral, I noticed the woman suddenly stand up from her chair and wander down the aisle. She was walking with a suspicious slowness. When she was parallel to me, she reseated herself.
My eyes instinctively dropped to my phone to avoid an uncomfortable staring contest with a stranger. I then looked up and realized the woman wasn’t taking her eyes off me. From this close, I could see the unhealthy pastiness of her skin and the gauntness of her features.
Her black hair was short, only reaching her gaunt cheeks. Her eyes were green and looked to be struggling to stay open. There was no whiteness to them, only red nets of popped blood vessels surrounding abnormally elongated pupils. It looked like Coloboma, or, Cat Eye Syndrome, an eye condition I read about on the internet once. When she noticed I was now returning the look, her tight lips puckered into a humorless smile.
“I’m sorry, can I help you with something?” I asked.
The woman’s hourglass-shaped pupils perked at my question. “I’m glad you’re here. Really, the poor thing wasn’t going to last much longer.” Her voice dull with fatigue. “Not going to last long at all.”
Just as I stood up to find a different seat, the woman leaned forward and whispered to the infant in her lap. A few incoherent muffles slipped out. The strange woman then sat up straight and brushed away the covering from her child’s face. But it wasn’t a child I saw. Far from it. Its uneven skull resembled a skinless grape with clusters of forked veins branching throughout its thin skin. Its mouth — if it was a mouth — was a lipless, vestigial slit. The circumference of its translucent head was taken up by two eyeless sockets draped on the inside with lines of stringy tissue.
I was left standing there stunned and attempting to fathom exactly what I was looking at. At that moment, bands of its straggly eye material tightened like a balled-up fist in both of its sockets. A terrible pulsating pain suddenly condensed in the center of my head. My ears started to ring. The throbbing tightness in my skull increased to the point where I collapsed back into the seat. It felt as though someone was hammering an invisible stake into my brain like a vampire’s heart. I couldn’t move. My arms and legs felt like mud. I couldn’t scream. Stand up, just stand up, I begged my uncooperative muscles.
The warped mass of a head remained motionless, save for its eyeholes full of clenching meat threads. More of the strands twitched and convulsed into tight knots working in tandem with the pain, the vivid paralyzing pain. The arc-sodium lights were unsteadily flickering.
I was forced to watch as transparent flaps unfurled from both sides of the things head. They folded into equiangular spiral shapes. Another clump of skin in the center of its face protruded outwards. The clump molded into some sort of limpid nose. That was when I realized those folds on its head were ears. Not only that, was the thing bigger now?
Yes, it was. The woman confirmed this as she lifted the entity from her lap and gently placed it on the seat next to her. It was the size of a small toddler now. Its boneless looking limbs hung like shriveled chicken legs. Thin worm-like threads wriggled out of its broad scalp that soon became wet clots of black hair. Its limbs started to thrash about as though they were being shocked by short electric bursts. I could hear the muffled sounds of joints grinding together and popping out of place repeatedly. They were stretching, growing longer. Even its skin was changing into a healthy fleshier color like a chameleon manipulating its own skin cells.
The invisible stake pushed further into the cluster of nerves behind my eyes. I thought I was bleeding, but it was only hot tears rolling down my cheeks. I’d have given anything in the world for the pain to stop. Little by little, change by change, the being was beginning to take on the physical semblance of a young girl. A few forked black veins still lingered beneath its fake pigmented skin. There was a vertical scar below its belly button, the same scar that I had. But that made no sense. My scar was from an ovarian cyst surgery when I was twelve, why would it have the same scar? Then I saw the birthmark on its right shoulder, my birthmark. I realized that it wasn’t an invisible stake being plunged into my skull, it was a straw. This thing—whatever in God’s name it is—was sucking up my memories, sampling the different flavors, and enjoying them. What is going to happen? I wondered, what is going to happen when there are two of me?
“I know it hurts,” the woman said with a perceptive nod. That disembodied stare on her face made my stomach churn. ”I’m sorry for this. Really, I am. But such things are necessary for us. They are necessary for our survival, you see?”
The humanoid thing was now a naked living picture of me, except for the straggly jungles in its sockets. It stood upon its bare trembling legs and took an indecisive step toward me. I wanted to scream, but all that came out was a raspy whimpering.
An abrupt female recording then sounded over the intercom. “Next station, 14th Street.”
That was it: the next station! If just one soul were waiting on that platform, they’d see me. They’d see the woman with the fucked up eyes. And they’d see the naked humanoid standing in front of me.
The naked unpolished version of myself continued toward me. Two fingers on its left hand split open. Slender filament-like stalks bloomed out of them and squirmed as though tasting the air.
The dark windows soon became lit canvases of the platform. One person, just one, I begged the cosmos. But a glance through the window told me nobody was there. Every second that passed was another chunk chipping off my freedom. The doppelganger bent over and extended its hand with the dancing filaments towards my face. Eyes, I screamed internally, it wants my eyes! It counterfeited everything else, but why not the eyes? Maybe the woman’s pupils were the result of them trying.
The high-pitched whistling came, the train suddenly stopped abruptly. The stop in motion jerked the doppelganger off balance yet again. For a moment, only a moment, the pressurized stabbing pain dissipated. It had lost its unseen grip on my mind just as the subway doors slipped open. Without hesitation, I rooted my fingers into my back pocket. The eyeless version of my turned its gaze back toward me. Just as the kaleidoscope of pain started to bud, the mace canister was already in my hand. A fine aerosol spray of burning chemicals drenched the things face. That caused it to let out a horrific, unearthly shriek.
The woman from her seat started to scream as well, spitting out random gibberish as though her tongue were stuck to the roof of her mouth. She suddenly jetted from her seat and rushed me. I emptied another burst into her exposed face which made her writhe away in shrieking fits.
Fat membranes of yellow froth emptied out of the doppelganger’s stringy sockets and oozed down its cheeks. A horrible smell of ethanol, insect repellent, and raw sewage struck my nostrils. That horrible piercing shrill was like a broken siren. I gripped the body of my shoulder bag and lifted it over my head. Without even thinking I bashed it over the thing’s skull. But the ululating still persisted, louder than ever. I rushed past the subway doors and ran like hell up the stairs. The screams of the woman and the thing wearing my face reverberated off the walls. Even as I reached the street again, I could still hear them.
The rain still hadn’t let up; I hid under a closed restaurant’s canopy. This was no doubt 14th street, but my mind was racing too fast to recognize anything. Unconsciously my fingers were already curled around my phone and dialing. My Dad picked up the phone; I told him everything in a panicked mess. He told me to stay where I was; he was coming to get me.
Who was going to believe me after this? Probably nobody. Not the police, not my family, not my friends…No one. Maybe Godfrey had slipped something into my drink before I left, maybe I had caught the second hand of something during the show. What I witnessed on that subway felt so unreal, it had to of been in my imagination. Surely, they’d have cameras down there, right? I sucked in a deep breath and tried to control my throbbing chest.
While I was huddled beneath the canopy, waiting for someone to come and find me, there was something crossing the street toward me. It looked like a woman with a baby in her arms.
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