by Chris Castle
He sat in front of the mirror and stared. Brad. His name was Brad Foster. As if on cue, the woman called the name out and he listened to it, trying to adjust his response to the sound and inflection of each letter. A final time, he looked back to the glass and saw what it showed him. An impostor, responding to the name of a stranger. It was a riddle to make the world go crazy. He drew one final deep breath in the darkness and then summoned up his voice.
How did it work?
It worked because of the thousands of men headed to war, only to return senseless and damaged. Families broken apart not only by those who did not come back but also by those who returned fractured and torn. The newspapers did not report the aftermath of the war but only the surface pictures of embraces and inter-locked fingers. None of the journalists told of the nightmares or the drinking and the violence. No, this was a country that would only celebrate success, no matter how fleeting. It was a war fought in snapshots and images, not details and facts.
It was in such a newspaper that he hit upon the idea. Too young to serve and too poor to enjoy life, he bummed from town to town, feeling adrift as the waitresses who would mention sons lost overseas with glassy, distant eyes. It was a local paper that offered up a spread of local boys, whose initials read a.w.o.l. and not R.I.P. He wondered how much of that was the truth and how much was good old flag-waving denial. He stared hard at each of the boys and settled on the one who looked most like himself. In fact, after a good, strong stare, it was almost uncanny how much they appeared alike. In that moment, it was decided.
And what if it were a lie?
That was what he told himself as he stood in the post office and claimed he had a delivery package for the poor son-of-a-bitch's mother. He, who had never been lucky enough to have a family worth a damn, who was kicked from one foster home to the next. The soldier’s surname was not lost on him - mis-treated and tortured just as much as any enlisted guy at the hands of the Hun, he bet. He was offering to be a lost son to a grieving mother: what was the hurt, the real sin, in that?
He made his way up to the farm and saw the place itself was as remote and as shaded as any spook house sketch. It sent a chill up his spine and somehow, even as he walked forward, a word slipped into his mind-war zone. It was almost enough to make him turn and forget the whole crazy notion but his scuffed shoe caught in the dirt and that stopped him. That image of his poor man’s shoe, the sole flapping like a thirsty dog, too broke to even have coins for a cobbler. To hell with it, he thought, and turned back to the lonely, doomed looking plot of land.
After a swift rap on the door, he stood back, trying to appear suitably dazed without looking clownish and waited. There was the swift snap of locks yielding and in a rush the door opened and a tall, slender woman faced him. She was not as old as he’d imagined, nor as big. She looked something like a background feature in a crowded painting, willowy yet somehow noticeable. He looked at her and waited to see how she would respond.
“Mom?” he said after too many seconds had passed. He had swallowed nettles on his walk up and his tongue was suitably swollen and indistinct. The air around him seemed to grow wet, even though the day itself was dry. A part of him screamed to turn round and leave, even as the gaunt woman reached forward and drew him into a hug. At first he flinched but then allowed himself to be taken by the woman. As she ushered him forward, into the house, he noticed with some surprise how strong she felt and a sense of something, of being engulfed and of being swallowed, came over him, even as he accepted her power and let himself be dragged inside.
The house itself was a long, spiraling thing, all angles and turns, at odds with the farm-like cottage he had seen at a distance. As she led him to the kitchen table and sat him down, he sharply wondered about the man of the house. As she set the tin kettle on the stove, he looked around for any signs of a man, a photo or even a discarded overcoat but there seemed to be nothing but clean surfaces and shiny walls and doors. It felt like a glass house, preserved rather than lived in and too glacial to have people living in it. He looked up and saw the woman looking at him, not smiling nor scared. In fact, out of the two of them, she seemed more at ease with the latest twist of fate to have befallen them both.
The kettle whistled and she poured tea, leaving his a little distance from his fingers, as if she wanted to observe him. A dry heat and prickle ran through him as he wondered if she was wise to his ruse. Suddenly, everything felt like a trap; from the way he sipped his tea to the way he lifted the cup. An acute paranoia ran through him that didn’t even subside when she eventually smiled. If anything, the smile made the sense of dread washing over him even stronger.
“I told you not to go,” she said. Her voice was soft but not weak, as if she were reading a bible passage as a bedtime lullaby. It carried a timbre, a force that made him listen, even though he had to stoop a little to hear her words. It felt as if he had to cradle his ear to take in each letter, but having done so, could not rid himself of them.
“I told you to stay,” she went on, shaking her head as if chastising herself for having ever doubted her own belief. The pressure for him to break the spell, to add something, anything, rose up in him like a fever.
“Trenches,” he mumbled. She looked him over, appraised him and then set her tea cup down. Even these small actions filled him with a low sense of panic, as if they were orchestrated and she had somehow mapped everything out in advance of him coming. None of it made sense to him and he wondered if the numbness of his nettle stung tongue was actually the weeds at all but something greater and deeper inside of him.
“They never should have let you go over there,” she said. “I am going to run you a bath and let you get some rest. You must be exhausted.” Her hand glided over to him and brushed over his knuckles, patting his skin like a breeze. A sweat broke over his forehead and he nodded thanks, keenly aware that a bath would be a good and necessary escape at this point.
As he undressed, the steam climbed over the room. The bath itself was a luxury-no more tin outhouses and second hand bath water, at least-though his sense of unease would not leave him. He had expected to control things when in fact, the total opposite had happened. Somehow, it had felt from the start, as if she had been waiting for him. But what was it, really? She had done nothing, acted in no odd fashion and yet everything about her unnerved him. She was too calculating, he thought. Mothers, even the godless trolls he had endured in his own childhood, had displayed some sort of warmth, or at least response, to their own flesh and blood, even if it were hatred or tears. The woman was too passive, too…brittle where emotions should have flared; he saw only gestures and reactions. There was too little of something in her, something vital. It was as he lowered himself into the tub that he realized what that essence was: it was life.
As he soaked in the tub, so far the only true delight he had experienced in the house so far, he made the decision to steal what he could and go on his way in the morning. The plan had been absurd anyway and he reasoned one of two things: it had either been a hopeless, hapless failure from which he would learn from, or a perfect dry run for the next time, in another town with a more warm and gullible set of folks. Either way, his pathway was now set and knowing this, a certain amount of peace flooded into him, seeping into his heart and relaxing him as much as the water. It was only as he allowed himself a few precious moments of peace that he became aware of a strafing light cutting across from the far door. He raised himself up and saw the source of the light; a keyhole that had only just revealed itself. He pulled himself up, aware that the woman had been watching until whatever in her was satisfied. His stomach roiled as he reached for the nearest towel, cursing the fact he had set aside clothes in the other man’s bedroom. If not for that, he would have dressed and clamored out of the window there and then. Not caring for the pools of overlapping water spilling onto the floor, he marched towards the door and the new beam of light, ready to leave.
It was as he sat on the bed and stared at the mirror that the woman called out the name. He responded but felt the jumble of his mouth betray him. Something in him tilted and he found himself looking back at the mirror at an odd angle. The reflection was no longer him but the Brad Foster of the newspaper clipping. As he tried to straighten up, more fog enveloped him and the mirror image split in two, revealing the real Brad Foster at his shoulder. The tea, he thought helplessly, it was in the tea. He put a hand up to stop himself from tumbling onto the floor but it did him little good. In the mirror the phantom Foster still stood over him and it looked for a moment as if the two of them were shaking hands, perhaps being formally introduced for the first time. Then, in the next moment, the darkness fell.
He came round in a cellar, the chill telling him that it was both night and outside. Above him, the woman stood, looking down at him. Her eyes were almost glowing, the brown unnatural in their power. Even as she was wrapped in fury, he couldn’t help but think how it was the first time she had seemed real to him.
“I told him not to go,” she said, her voice trembling now. All the façade of the kitchen table act was stripped away now, leaving only rage. “All the things he said, all those accusations he spouted. That was all he left behind for me, his own mother.”
“I-” he tried to speak but his mouth was still too gummy, his eyes too rheumy. He felt closeted in foul smelling honey, mummified in some sort of clogging paper.
“All those terrible things he said and then he came back. Shell shocked, struck dumb, left with all the sense of a barn yard animal…and still I wasn’t good enough for him!” Her voice was a long, high-pitched shriek now, the sound of animals dying.
“I tried and I tried and then after it ended, the very next week, you turn up with this…charade, this set of pathetic parlor tricks. God has a wicked sense of humor, that indeed he does.” She shook her head, sated after her outburst and then drew her head down to the bars, so her nose almost poked through to his side of the cell.
“I won’t have to worry about people coming looking for you now, will I?” Her voice was a whisper now but still somehow managed to maintain its venomous spite.
“I am…” he managed to croak, his foggy mind whirring into overdrive and fighting the dust to try and salvage something from all of this. Before he could finish, she rolled over, onto her back and tugged down her dress. A small perfect grid on her right shoulder blade appeared. It was a grey cube with black dots, almost something like a tiny board.
“A birthmark,” came her voice from seemingly far away. “You’ll see,” she went on, hauling herself up and adjusting the dress to once more cover herself. In a moment he understood why she had been spying on him for and what she noted he did not have.
“I am…” he managed to blurt out, but she was already drawing herself up to her feet.
“We’ll see if you are, given time, if you can be a special son to me,” she said, her hard, cracked eyes briefly changing into something darker and hungrier. “In time,” she said once more and then disappeared, leaving only the bars to the cellar, the jail, whatever it was, for him to see.
He collapsed onto the floor and moaned to himself, as he took the time to look at his surroundings. The floor was bare, the walls empty. All that was left to him was a shadowed lump in the far corner of the room. A gasp came from him, one that grew into something like a whimper. He crawled over to the darkened mess and kept blubbering, knowing in an instant what it was but having to see it for sure, if only to confirm his own, terrible place in the world. He drew himself up and sure enough a lifeless face reflected back at him. Upon touch, it lolled slightly, swinging around enough to reveal a small grid like birthmark on its dead skin back, introducing the real Foster son to him. Upon that discovery, the keening in his throat became a full pitched howl.
Chris Castle is an English teacher in Greece. He has been published over 300 times and has been featured in various end of year and best of anthologies. He is currently writing a novel. His influences include Stephen King and Ray Carver. He can be reached for feedback at firstname.lastname@example.org. Chris’s story, Grid, appears in the January 2013 issue of HelloHorror.
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