The Way It Was, Pt. 2

That’s impossible. Well, not quite.

I mean, there are people who have a striking resemblance to each other in real life. Katy Perry and Zooey Deschanel, for example. Or Robert Downey Jr. and Jeffrey Dean Morgan. But a man with the exact same face as mine, standing in the same bar that I’m in? That’s just way too big a coincidence.

I realize that I’m staring at the guy, so I try to look away but it’s too late. He sees me. He smiles and raises his glass in my direction. What the hell? He doesn’t seem the least bit surprised. To my growing discomfort, he excuses himself from his companions and heads over to my booth. This could get awkward.

“Well hello!”

The man looks like me and he sure sounds like me but he can’t be me because I’m me. Aren’t I?

“Umm, hi…”

My doppelgänger slides into the seat opposite mine, grinning like a maniac.

“I knew I’d find you here!”

He did?

“You did?”

The man takes a sip of his drink. Whisky on the rocks. One of the top shelf brands, no doubt.

“Course I did, bud. Haven’t you figured it out yet?”

I chug my beer until it’s almost gone. There was this crazy suspicion I had right after I noticed the resemblance between us. As I look closer, that suspicion starts to grow stronger. The man isn’t an exact duplicate. His face is a bit thinner, his hair has a lot more gray threading through it. I can hear now that his voice is a bit lower than mine, a bit rougher.

“You’re…from the future.”

He sits back with a satisfied smile.

“Yes. I mean, sort of.” He pauses, trying to find the right words. “Think of me as your unfulfilled potential. I’m the man you could be in ten years.”

“The man I could be.”

“That’s right. Look at your life right now. Really look at it. What are you doing? Where are you going? You’ve had a few setbacks. Lost your job. Had no luck in love. So now you’re stuck in the same routine, day in and day out. You’ve given up. Hell, your life has given up.”

“And if I try real hard, I can become a dick like you?”

He gives me a look, the kind of look you might give a small dog that’s trying to jump onto the couch but not quite getting there. I don’t like that look.

“Well hey, this dick’s got a pretty solid bank account and a living room the size of your apartment. So you tell me.”

He makes a good point. Not that it gives him any right to be a dick about it.

“And you’re here to get me to turn my life around, to become the man I was meant to be. To become you. That it?”

He smiles. It’s really beginning to annoy me, even though it’s the same smile I’ve seen in the mirror and in countless pictures of myself. I used to love that smile.

“No, that’s not why I’m here. I just came to look back at my life. To see the way it was before I changed. Before you changed, I should say. I lived such a sad, meaningless life back then, didn’t I? I’d forgotten just how much time I spent in this damn place, stinking of stale beer and piss. No goals in sight. No hope in mind. Just drinking the time away until a new day arrives.”

Unbelievable.

“So you came back to…mock me?”

He shrugs. “It’s good to look back on your past now and again. See the dead end paths you’ve walked to avoid walking them again.”

I’m tempted to smack him upside his pretentious head.

The Way It Was, Pt. 1

Three empty glasses sit on the table in front of me. They were filled with beer earlier. The dark wooden table hides the stains of spilled booze well, but the stickiness gives it away. Sticky tables, sticky floors. I really hope it’s just dried booze. Then again, I don’t care much right now. It’s Saturday night at Donaghan’s and I have at least three more beers to get through before closing time.

The place is pretty full. Lots of people standing around near the bar, waiting for someone to leave or just pass out. It’s a good thing I got here early. Not like I have many other place to go. I haven’t been working for the past two months and it’s been about a year since my last semi-serious relationship. My apartment is a cage, tiny and rectangular. There’s just enough space for me to breathe, but my thoughts get stifled there. Donaghan’s is a much better place to think. And nobody judges you for drinking by yourself in a bar. That’s kinda why it exists in the first place.

I suppose I could approach some of the people here, attempt to make new friends. Who knows, we might even hit it off and have a fun night. But then they would leave, going back to their lives and their jobs. And it would just be me again. As it always is. There are a few regulars around here, but I’m the goddamn customer of the month. And I probably will be for a while.

Another beer lands up on my table. It won’t last long.

As I take a swig, savoring the smooth bitterness of it running down my throat, I see two women head to the bar. Tall brunette and her redhead friend, both dressed to kill. And I’m a dead man. Under better circumstances, ones that didn’t involve being unshaven and walking around in a greasy hoodie, I would put on my most charming face, strut over to those two beauties and chat them up. Oh who am I kidding? I’d probably still be nursing an empty beer glass.

Still, they’re a welcome sight in this dingy rathole. And of course, they’re not by themselves. A man joins them soon enough. Dark tailored suit, looking so sharp it almost slices through the smoky air. Hair cut short and gelled. Clean-shaven, the scent of his aftershave filling the room. I’ll bet his teeth sparkle too. Typical Mr. Perfect, probably an investment banker or financial advisor or something that keeps your pockets full.

I can’t stop looking at him, though. There’s something familiar about him. In fact, as I push back the bleariness clouding my vision and really pay attention to his face for the first time, I realize he looks a bit too familiar. Is he an old high school friend? Or a former co-worker? No, that’s not it.

I sit up, eyes wide.

I know why his face looks so familiar. If he had a scraggly beard and bloodshot eyes, I would have recognized it right away.

It’s my face.

Grounded

The stars winked in the night sky, taunting William. They knew he was bound to the earth. He was no pilot or astronaut. He couldn’t soar to great heights or touch the sky. All he could do was stand on the balcony of his apartment and gaze at the celestial panorama above him.

They said the city was most alive at night, yet to William it felt so lifeless. The neon glow that lit up the streets paled in William’s eyes compared to the natural splendor of the stars. William wondered what it would be like to unshackle himself from gravity, to float off into the clouds and see the stars face to shining face. It was a childish fantasy, but it gave him solace on long, lonely nights.

He had no friends in the city, and what little family he kept contact with were also miles away. It was funny, William thought, that he couldn’t see the people that lived in the same country but the furthest stars were always in his sight. He chatted with people on the bus, laughed at his co-workers’ jokes and even had lunch with a few of them, but at night, the stars were his only companion.

As lovers walked the streets hand in hand and friends laughed at each other’s raucous jokes on the way to some late night hangout, William floated through violet clouds tinged with the silvery glow of the moon. That was where he belonged, where he would truly feel at peace. He just knew it. Ever since he was a boy.

William’s father was an amateur inventor and would often spend his evenings in the garage, working on his fanciful machines. On those evenings, William’s mother took him out for a walk under the stars. He remembered the cool night air, the warm comfort of his mother’s hand, and the majestic sky that twinkled with delight at the sight of him. It was a ritual William continued into adulthood, though after moving to the city, he preferred to watch the sky from his balcony. He felt closer to the stars that way.

As the years passed, William grew more and more isolated from the world around him. He was seen but rarely heard at work, and his neighbors often wondered if his apartment was empty. His hair had grown thinner and grayer. His shoulders stooped and his knees ached. But William still shuffled his way on to the balcony as the sun set, his neck craned upwards. For as long as the light still shone in his eyes, he would not miss an opportunity to gaze upon the stars. They were his friends and his family now. Soon enough, he thought, his body would fail him and would fall to the ground in a useless heap. But that didn’t bother William. He knew then that he would finally be free of the earthly realm. He would at last be able to join the stars, as he had dreamed for so long.

As pin pricks of light formed against the night sky, William took in one long shuddering breath. It was almost time.

WEP February Challenge: Heart’s Desire

A new year of challenges hosted by the wonderful Yolanda and Renee of Write, Edit, Publish! The first theme of the year: Back of the Drawer.

As the name suggests, the prompt is all about what a character finds at the back of a drawer. Love? Riches? Horror? Who can say?

Presented for your reading pleasure, here’s the tale of a thief called Len, who once stole the biggest prize of all: the love of his life.


 

“Whatever you do, don’t open the top drawer.”

Mal had been very insistent about that. The top drawer was to remain untouched. She wouldn’t say why, and Len knew better than to badger her for answers. She kissed him before he left, holding her lips to his a second longer than usual. If she said to leave that drawer alone, he’d damn well leave it alone.

It was a simple job: break into Mal’s old apartment and retrieve a few items from her bureau. Dob, her drunken pig of an ex-husband and former partner, would probably be out with his floozy of the week, so there was little chance of running into him. Of course, he’d probably have a few people posted around the roofs and balconies, just in case. Still, it was no big deal for Len; getting past security was his specialty. Some reconnaissance, a little sneaking around rooftops and a couple of chokeholds took care of Dob’s crew. No sweat. All he had to do was hop onto an adjacent balcony to get to Mal’s building, then find the right window. But before he could jump, there were footsteps. He’d missed one. The guard emerged from the stairwell to find his partner knocked out and Len standing at the edge of the roof.

The guard pulled out a gun. Len broke off part of an antenna. A bullet shot through the air, missing Len’s neck by inches as he twisted and dove to the ground, flinging the antenna piece. It hit the guard square between the eyes, knocking him off balance. A running jump, a flying kick, some punches, some blocks and one karate chop (not necessary, but fun). It was over. All clear. Len hopped over to the next building and found his window.

Breaking into the actual apartment would be a lot easier. Dob was paranoid but sloppy: his locks and latches didn’t put up much resistance against Len’s deft fingers. He opened the window as quietly as he could and slipped inside. Len was standing in Mal’s study, which Dob had converted into some sort of gaudy trophy room. Many of Mal’s things were untouched, though, including her bureau, pressed up against one corner of the room. Len went over to it and unlocked the drawers. All except the top one, just as instructed. He took out some papers, all stapled together. There were also some folders, Old photographs. One very particular photograph that Mal definitely wouldn’t want Dob to keep. A journal. And her favorite knife, thin curved blade and an intricately carved bone hilt. Her name had been engraved on it, in a language that many had forgotten. That was all. Job done.

As he was getting up, a voice in the back of his mind asked why Mal had told him to leave the top drawer. What was the big secret, and why did she want it to stay with Dob? It didn’t matter. None of Len’s business. He would take Mal’s things back to her and then they could start their new life together. Simple as that.

The voice wouldn’t let up, though. What was the deal with that drawer? Len grunted impatiently and looked at it, really looked for the first time. It was different from the other drawers. Same faded green wood, but an elaborate golden border. Even the knob was different, molded to look like the head of some weird animal. Len could feel the hairs standing on the back of his neck, like they were trying to pull him away. Whatever was in that drawer was bad news, that much he could tell.

But what if he just got a peek? He wouldn’t take what was in there. Just look and lock it up again. Dob wouldn’t know. Neither would Mal. The job was still done and Len would still get paid. What was the big deal? He was standing over the desk, thumb tapping a frantic rhythm on its weathered surface. Just one peek. For curiosity’s sake. Len smiled. Curiosity. It killed cats. But Len was no cat.

He put his tools to work, picking at the lock of the top drawer, but nothing happened. He couldn’t get the damn thing to open. He couldn’t find a latch or a bolt or a way to make that lock go click under his fingers. A voice in his head again, but a different one. A woman’s voice. Soft. Sultry. Soothing. And click. The drawer was unlocked. Len was surprised, but relieved. One little peek. That’s all he wanted. He grabbed the drawer handle. It felt so warm in that cold, cold room. Like it was alive. Len hesitated. And then he pulled. The drawer slid open with a groan. Len peered into it, holding his breath, then letting it all out in one little whoosh. Empty. The drawer was empty.

Len laughed. Mal had made an ass out of him. All that spooky junk about locked drawers and it was empty. He was about to close it when he saw a shadow near the back. There was something there. The drawer wouldn’t open any further. Len craned his neck to get a better look but he couldn’t see anything except shadows. He reached inside and felt around. Felt something small, squishy. It was a heart. Mal’s heart. It glowed bright red, pulsating slowly under his palm. Somewhere across town, Len knew Mal felt her chest tighten. Why was she leaving her heart with Dob? She hated the bastard. Unless she didn’t.

Len closed the drawer and locked it again. He could still feel its pulsing rhythm along his hand. So that was it. Mal belonged to him now, mind, body and soul. But he knew where her heart truly lay. Len climbed back out the window and made his way to his car. He wished he’d never opened that damn drawer.

Word Count: 986

13 Tales of Terror: Plots For Sale

Marty wasn’t having a good day.

He had just found out his job was nearing its expiry date, and his love life had already crossed that threshold earlier that morning. Katie didn’t see their relationship going anywhere so she’d gone away instead.

After an excruciating few hours at his desk making small talk with people he’d rather not talk with at all, it was finally lunchtime and Marty could have a few moments to breathe. He didn’t really have much of an appetite that day, so he went for a long walk instead. He could still hear Katie’s voice echoing in his head, telling him that he really needed to buy himself a new life.

Marty kicked a can across the street in frustration, which was about the time he realized that he had no idea what street he was on. He stopped and looked around. None of the street signs were familiar. Neither were the buildings. His office was nowhere in sight, nor any of the office blocks that surrounded it. How far had he walked?

“Plots for sale! Plots for sale!”

There was a man standing on a street corner, perched on top of a small box. He was old, though Marty couldn’t guess at his age. His hair, or what little of it he had, was iron gray, as was the scraggly beard that covered his face. He was dressed in what seemed to be maroon wizard’s robes, tattered and possibly covered in dust. Marty tried not to pay too much attention to him.

“Plots for sale! Plots for sale! What would you like, sir? A thriller to set your heart racing? A little romance to make you dance? Ah, perhaps what you need is a good mystery to solve!”

Marty looked around, puzzled. It was clear the old man was talking to him. After all, he was the only one there. It didn’t make any sense. How did he end up on this strange street by himself? Where was everyone else?

“Come now, sir, don’t be shy! I have so many plots to sell! A new life awaits you with just the turn of a page!”

A new life?

“Right this way, friend!”

The old man waved a hand in the direction of a derelict bookshop. Before Marty could blink, the man was standing next to him and steering him toward the storefront. He wanted to protest. He had to get back to work. He had to find his office. He had to get back to his life. Or did he?

As Marty mulled over the direction his life had taken from the moment he woke up that day, he allowed himself to be led into the dingy bookshop that smelled like musty old paper. Maybe he could pick up some sort of self-help book.

“Well, sir? What will it be?”

The old man’s eyes shone as he displayed his wares, books spread out across rows and rows of dark wooden shelves. The shop was a lot larger than it looked from the outside.

“Perhaps you’d like to purchase a spy plot, full of suspense and intrigue?”

Marty opened the book that the man thrust into his hands. The pages were blank. Marty looked up to ask the shopkeeper about it but he wasn’t there. In fact, the shop wasn’t there. Marty was in an elegant casino, dressed in a sharp dark gray tuxedo. There was a high stakes poker game going on, and Marty was playing one of the most notorious arms smugglers in the world. The fate of several nations would depend on the outcome of the game. Keeping his cool but nervous on the inside, Marty turned over his cards…

“Well? What do you think?”

Marty was back in the bookshop and the old man was eyeing him hungrily. He looked down at the book; there were words in it now. It was describing the plot that Marty had just lived.

“I see spy stories aren’t quite your thing. Perhaps something more in the science fictional realm?”

Marty opened the next book he was given. He was in a satellite that was orbiting a dying world. As the leader of the last remnants of an alien race, Marty had some difficult decisions to make about where they would go next. They wouldn’t last off-world very long. He had to find them a new home. A new planet. He looked at his astronomical charts to determine their next course of action. And that’s when the missiles hit. They were under attack! Marty knew he had to do something, but another round of missiles knocked him off his feet…

“No? Is this not to your liking either, sir? My oh my…you are a tough customer.”

The old man stroked his chin, thinking for a moment. “Well, my friend, I think I have just the book for you.”

Marty’s head was still reeling from the last story, but he was curious about what else the old man had in store. Maybe the next plot would be the one for him.

“Ahh, here we go,” the man said, handing Marty a heavy leather-bound tome. It was devoid of any dust, and seemed almost out of place in the old shop. Marty ran a hand over the cover, relishing the feel of it. He opened it up, hearing a soft sigh escape from the book’s spine. Like the others, it was blank.

But this time, Marty wasn’t sucked into a spy story or a science fiction adventure. He wasn’t sucked into any kind of story at all. There was nothing around him except blank space. He heard a loud thump from somewhere in the distance.

“There, that’s better. Poor fool. You’ve wasted your life, wasted the potential story you could have told. But perhaps someone else will be able to use this plot, and to tell a better tale than you were capable of.”

Marty could do nothing but stay frozen in place as the old man placed the book back onto its shelf. He was nothing more than a blank page now, doomed to stay that way until someone wrote their story.

13 Tales of Terror: The Snake Charmer’s Bargain

The crowd applauded and dispersed. A few people dropped a handful of coins into Bansi’s plate, barely enough to buy one meal. Snake charming wasn’t the attraction it used to be when he was a young man. Bansi packed up his flute and slung his basket over his shoulder. He could feel Katraj slithering around inside, restless now that the show was done.

Bansi had been a nomad his entire life, moving from town to town and entertaining passers-by in the streets. He had no family to ground him, nor any companions on his journey. Except Katraj.

Fifteen years ago, when Bansi was taking his first steps into manhood, he had been taught the art of snake charming by his father. He displayed his skill in his family’s streetside shows, back when there was a bigger audience for such a thing. It was then that he had first come across Katraj, a mere hatchling then about to be devoured by a wild mongoose. Bansi saved the young cobra and took him in, caring for him as a pet and soon making him a partner in his act.

He had no illusions of friendship, though. Bansi knew that the creature owed him no loyalty; the several bite marks dotting the snake charmer’s hands bore testament to that. He merely played his part by dancing to the tune of the flute. Still, he was the closest thing to family that Bansi had after the passing of his parents.

Together, they traveled through towns, cities and villages, putting on a show for anyone willing to watch. They earned just enough to keep Bansi from starving, though he was still more bone than flesh, while Katraj helped himself to the local vermin. Business had been slow of late, and the crowds much thinner. Bansi had lost weight, but had gained a slight limp and an increasingly frequent cough. He was hoping his luck would turn around soon, but that wasn’t to be.

The monsoons hit the city hard that summer. The streets turned into streams, people splashing to and fro to find shelter from the endless downpour. Bansi found a roof when he could, but spent most of his time drenched and with an agitated snake on his back. Performing was impossible and his money had already run out. Trudging through water and grime over long hours was starting to catch up with him, the cold air whispering into his bones.

On yet another wet afternoon, he set off in search for food and lodging. He was trembling from head to toe, clad in a thin blue shirt and white pants with only a pair of worn brown sandals on his his feet. The weather had finally caught up to him. Burdened by hunger and fatigue, he slumped under the meager protection of a tea stall awning. His cough sucked the air out of his lungs with more force than ever before. He lay back against the empty stall, trying to catch his breath, but it hovered out of his reach. There was no one to see him or help him. Katraj was the only companion he had.

Bansi’s eyes grew heavy. He was tired, and it was time for him to rest. As his vision blurred, he saw a hazy silhouette advancing toward him. It was a man, sitting atop some great beast. As the figure drew closer, Bansi’s eyes cleared and widened with fear. The rider was the color of a starless sky with eyes that could see through worlds, and his steed was a buffalo that would tower over the largest elephants Bansi had seen. Bansi bowed his head before Yama, the Lord of Death, who carried with him a great lasso to ensnare souls and take them to the realm beyond life.

“Oh great Lord,” he said, voice quivering. “Why have you come to me? The path of my life still stretches far ahead of me. I have many wonders to see, many challenges to face. Why, Lord Yama, would you snatch that away from me?”

Yama’s gaze was stern, but not cruel.

“Your journey in life ends here, my child. As is written in the law of the universe, you must come with me now to Naraka, where your soul will begin a new journey.”

“Please, great Lord, do not take me just yet. I know there is much more for me to do. Spare me, and I shall become your devotee, and sing praises in your name until my strength fails me. Then, my Lord, I shall accompany you without hesitation.”

Yama unfurled his rope.

“It is my duty to take the dead where they belong, my son. I cannot change that anymore than Brahma can change the stars.”

“Please!’ Bansi cried out, his voice feeble. “I am not ready! I am not ready! If it is a life you want, take Katraj! He is old and has lived many years as a captive. Let this be the end of his struggle!”

“Do not presume to bargain with a god!” Yama’s voice was sharp as a thunderclap. “You think I will be satisfied with your pet snake? I have come for you, Bansidhar, and it is you I shall take!”

Yama flung his rope at Bansi who, with the last ounce of his strength, threw the basket at the enraged deity. The lasso wrapped around Katraj and pulled him onto the buffalo’s back.

“So,” Yama roared, glaring down at the prone snake charmer, “when bargaining fails you attempt to trick me? Very well, mortal. I will accept your bargain then. I was sent here to take a life and so I shall. As for you, Bansidhar, you shall live. And you will not forget me or our bargain until the end of your days!”

With that, Yama rode off into the storm, leaving Bansi cold but still living.

When the rain let up, Bansi felt lighter than he ever had. He was alive! He had given up the creature he once considered a friend, but it was a necessary sacrifice. And, as he reminded himself, the snake saw no friendship. Happy at a second chance, Bansi attempted to stand up, but could not. In fact, he couldn’t feel his legs at all. What happened? Had Yama crippled him? Was that his punishment?

As Bansi tried to make sense of his current situation, a man came along. He started at the sight of the young man and immediately rushed at him with a stick. Bansi fled without a moment’s hesitation.

“Leave! Go on!” the man shouted. “Starting the evening with a snake at my stall. It’s bad luck, I tell you!”

Frightened and confused, Bansi slithered away. He had a full life ahead of him now, and plenty of time to ponder the price of that life.