January 20, 2018 by Laird
Here’s a piece I did for Unwinnable #84, the Monster Issue.
Featuring work by Stephen Graham Jones, John Langan, Orrin Grey, Ross E. Lockhart, Gemma Files, Philip Gelatt, Scott Nicolay, Michael Calia, and Livia Llewellyn.
by Laird Barron
noun dop·pel·gäng·er \ˈdä-pəl-ˌgaŋ-ər, -ˌgeŋ-, ˌdä-pəl-ˈ\
- 1: a ghostly counterpart of a living person
- 2a: double
–Merriam Webster Dictionary
Meet the other me, is what the killer allegedly wrote in a text to his friend. Psycho and pal were arguing over gods know what. Maybe you’ve heard of this dude–a down on his luck strangler drifting through Ohio. Nice fellow. But like those cool reversible European jackets, he had another half.
It didn’t have to go that way. He might as well have said, meet another me. But it’s no surprise some of us get a raw deal, in this life and all the rest.
–I saw you on the train tracks. Course I’m sure. The hell were you doing on the tracks anyway?
I was thirty-one when my left eardrum popped and sent a wet strand of vitreous pearls along my jaw. I took a knee as the world canted off its axis. Then I took myself to the hospital for a brain scan. A technician shot me full of radioactive dye and helped me into an open-lid coffin. The machine’s coil knocked like a rubber-jacketed sledgehammer for the next forty-five minutes. According to the doctor, the scan didn’t reveal anything of note—no obstruction, no tumor, no answers regarding permanent deafness on my left side. He brusquely revealed the scan on a light board and ushered me from his office at the earliest opportunity.
During a follow-up consultation, my girlfriend requested a copy of the image. A former art major, she intended to use the brain scan in some macabre installation. The doctor declined, citing obscure regulatory protocols. She pressed. The doctor remained icily polite, but I recall the glitter of sweat on his forehead and how his hand trembled as he shuffled files.
There was a moment in the parking lot, as yellow leaves rushed around my ankles, and a kid with a blower roaring across the street, that every sound hit me in stereo. The binaural sensation lasted for a moment before the omnipresent tinnitus drone returned forever.
Well, forever except for moments of weakness. Yeah, there are moments I hear everything crystal clear.
–Hey man, what were you doing in Gas Works Park at 5 A.M.? Don’t you live in the U?
I celebrated my twenty-first during the annual Iditarod sled dog race with a shot of blackberry brandy from the flask of a great Alaskan adventurer who has since died and more’s the pity. Several days and a few hundred miles down the trail, a blizzard howled down from the north and pinned me and my team of huskies on the shore of Norton Sound among the Topkok hills. Those are big, treeless hills blasted down to tough scrub brush, rock, and a jagged rind of ice.
We were trapped for thirty-six hours. Occasionally, as I hunkered inside the sledbag, I dreamed that the storm lifted and we’d made it across the finish line on Front Street in Nome. Wind slapped me awake. It sucked the heat from my lungs and wicked those dreams out of my head. The cold wrapped around me, crawled inside me, froze the socket of my right eye, froze my asshole tight as an uncovered spigot on the side of a house, froze my face so the skin later sloughed like a rubber mask, froze my foot until it click-clacked on the hospital tile like Fred Astaire in tap shoes.
Years and years later, I dream I’m back there, that none of us made it through the blizzard. When I snap awake to the warmth of my bed, I stare at the black window and listen for the roar, because for a few moments it’s easier to believe I’m dead.
–Dude, I honked at you on the street the other night. You grinned and slipped into an alley…What’s that all about?
My father joined the United States Marine Corps in the latter 1960s. He almost died twice in Vietnam.
First occasion, his platoon was ambushed in a shelled-out village. The enemy opened up with a machine gun. Bullets knocked holes in an old stone wall on either side of him. Several of his fellow soldiers were killed.
Second occasion, the enemy walked mortar rounds onto a camp where my father’s company had entrenched. Everybody scrambled for a hand-dug bunker under the mess tent as the explosions thudded closer and closer. A round detonated somewhere behind Dad. He sprawled onto his belly as some death god swiped its claws through the tent and a fan of shrapnel left the canvas in tatters. Telling the tale, he always claimed his two tours were the most fun he’d ever had.
Mom got into a nasty argument with Dad and she said he should have stayed in Vietnam if he loved it so much. He laughed and said, Well, honey, I did.
Baby, I know you were in the guest room. I’m telling you—I rolled over and saw you smiling at me from the closet. Hell yes, I screamed. Woke my mother. Actually, it wasn’t you. Just your head.
Dad was a slave to his moods. He reveled in coarse humor and homespun philosophizing. His anger was a terrible sight, but he remained human, he remained Dad. He lost much of his hearing from the gunfire and explosions during the war. Around age thirteen I came upon him in the woods one day as he cut a trail with his double bit axe. He hadn’t expected me, hadn’t expected anyone since we lived in the woods and our nearest neighbors were twenty miles or so down the river. This was late October and the ground had frozen. I scuffed my boot on some ice.
He must have wheeled, although I don’t recall him doing so—one second he gazed into a copse of black spruce, and then he faced me, his spine bunched, the axe handle held loosely in both hands, ready to swing. His blue eyes drained to match the gray landscape. He didn’t resemble anybody I knew. He wore a cheap human mask—pale and stiff and dead. I used to tell myself that was Dad’s war face.
Better believe I watched him after that. Sometimes I spied as he snoozed in the big recliner he referred to as his throne, or when he thought himself alone and unobserved in the backyard. Now and again, I’d see the other guy, the actor who replaced him on certain occasions such as when he and Mom discussed slaughtering an animal or why they’d been stupid enough to go for three kids.
Or maybe it was the other way around.
–Check the dude in the corner. Swear that sonofabitch is the one who ripped me off last winter. Stuck a gun under my chin and took my dope and all my cash. Gotta be, gotta be. Naw, I ain’t talkin’ to him. Motherfucker is scary. For real, bro. That’s him or it’s his fucking twin.
People swear they’ve seen me. I get it often enough, I smile and shrug and say, Ah, my doppelganger. He intercepts my royalty checks. The bastard!
Not everybody smiles back. You don’t understand, I saw you. At night on desolate corners; in the branches of a tree, waving to traffic; pale and grinning from the window of a passing bus; smirking behind a rack of clothes in a closet; in a foxhole in Korea; and countless half-remembered nightmares. I guest star in plenty of those.
My own favorite recurring nightmare goes like this: I trudge along a sidewalk in Seattle’s University District. It’s dark. Someone is following me. They duck behind a hedge or a mailbox whenever I glance over my shoulder. The sidewalk and the sodium lamps unspool into infinity. Just as I reach to unlock my apartment door, somebody whispers my name and I fly awake. It’s my voice.
I feel as if I never really knew you.
Sometimes, out of the blue, the old, old dog raises her head and stares at a spot over my shoulder. Her ears will prick up and she’ll bare her fangs and emit a low, rumbling growl reserved for danger and situations her doggy mind can’t comprehend. Maybe to her, it’s the same thing.
Her rheumy eyes reflect my shadow. And sometimes, sometimes, I don’t love her with a loyalty born of shared adventure and hardship. Yeah, in those rare instances, I don’t feel anything for her at all. I feel as cold and hollow as the vacuum in the wake of an arctic gale.
Then somebody whispers my name, or I imagine they do, and it passes. I’m myself again.