Edition 26: Against the Grain by S.L. Dixon
This horror piece, delving into the existence of an individual’s psychologically-perceived worlds existing side-by-side, perfectly captured the (sometimes) precarious balance of this edition’s theme. SY
Misery doesn’t love company. Complaints, bitchiness and boredom love company. Misery is a solitary place. A place where one exists alone with only thought and pain as company.
Marvin Jackson considered this whim in front of a mirror as he gazed into the red of his eyes, the tiny veins like hot red fingers reaching for his irises. It had been another long and uncomfortable night.
Physically, the pillow-top mattress with gentle heat and subtle cooling options was akin to resting on a genius cloud, one ready to accommodate with the push of a button. The remote sat where they always had next to the bed, untouched. Marvin’s eyes stared at the ceiling, casting aside the dark around him in search of more dark, a dark that could take him to a worthwhile life.
“This bed, this room, this is not who I am,” he mumbled.
Next to him, his wife rolled and smacked her lips while she slept. She always slept so easily.
At seven, the alarm buzzed one half-buzz before Marvin’s arm reached out and swatted it. He looked to the body next to him. Her eyes opened.
“Morning already?” she joked and let her lids fall, shutting out the morning for a few more minutes.
Marvin envied the ruse of his wife’s simplicity, but spied her thinking, knowing. That simplicity was a mask. Unconvincing. She wasn’t stupid, no; she was a smart woman and she had been faking everything, just like the others. She might bide time better than he and she might understand more than he suspected.
Things could very well be underway.
Any minute things might pass the point of no resistance.
He rolled from bed and stepped into the washroom to empty his bladder, shower, shave and douse his eyes with Visine before work. Dripping the cool drops into his eyes, blinking away those screaming, sandpaper fingers (hopefully), sounds travelled through the slim door. Feet on the carpet. Right on schedule. Like Swiss clockwork.
Marvin counted three seconds, awaiting the knock. It came as it always had.
“Hey Marv, got to pee,” said the voice just before the door started to open.
A warning perhaps. A chance to hide anything embarrassing. But what’s left embarrassing after a decade of marriage? He thought it was an act, perhaps done to remind herself to keep her guard up.
She rushed inside, dropped her pajama bottoms and let the rush fly. She floated a happy moan into the air, just as she always did. It was just for show, certainly, without doubt. Marvin thought that he might touch the body of the lie it seemed so full, pulsing with life around him in that little room. A physical thing.
This face in mirror, this is not who I am. This woman on the can, this is not who she is, Marvin thought and stepped out of the washroom, pulling the door closed behind him. The impending doom felt like an executioner’s needle, ready to pierce his flesh and find a bloody highway to his heart and brain.
It will have to be soon.
He started the coffee maker. It dripped and dropped. Routine dictated he fill the basket after supper clean-up. Every. Single. Night.
Stainless steel and stained pine surrounded him; modern rustic his wife had called it. This term pulled from an interiors magazine. Just another of her many ruses. Suddenly, it seemed so damned obvious. He slammed the cupboard as he retrieved the bowls, four of them; his, wife, elder daughter, younger daughter.
From another cupboard he retrieved the first enormous glass jar, the one with sugary cereal for the daughters. He looked at the skewed reflection from the steel lid, a concave dip in the centre that pulled his face into the shape he’d hidden.
“Hey there Marvin, it’s me, Marvin. Tonight, tonight right?” the image asked.
Marvin spun the lid and then filled two bowls.
He put the sugary stuff away and found the bran, nut and fruit combination from a slightly smaller glass jar. The lid shone with another skewed image of Marvin, different, smaller.
“Hey there Marvin, it’s me, the real me, the real you. Tonight’s not a good night, tonight you have the…”
Marvin’s hand covered the reflection and spun the lid, drowning the voice with the tings and clinks as his breakfast found bowl.
From the stainless fridge, Marvin retrieved one carton of milk and one of cream. The door slid closed by design. His reflection was close to the true image opposite.
“This family man, this is not who I am,” he said and then placed the dairy products on the table and stepped from the kitchen.
Both of the daughters had their own rooms. Marvin and his wife had good jobs, plenty of money to manage a mortgage. The amortization period was the exact length of a life sentence in prison, shortened with extra payments, good behaviour. No coincidence there.
He stepped to the elder daughter’s door and knocked. She was old enough to recognize embarrassment. Budding girls have things to hide.
“I’m up,” said the voice of a twelve-year-old.
No urgency or anger, she was probably up as she said. Marvin opened the door to make sure. The girl sat in front of the mirror. She had bathed the night before and went to bed with damp hair. Before the mirror, she attempted to fix the mess atop her head.
“I told you,” she said, new anger in her eyes.
Marvin saw that his eldest daughter knew of the truth in becoming. Soon she’d be like the rest. Hell, she was already enough one of them to demand he hold his guard up around her. Living in hiding, doing the banal best to fit and stick in rather than out. Be the perfect picture society craved.
She was not who she seemed at all.
Marvin offered a mock-smile and backpedalled from the room. Onto the next. Without knocking, Marvin turned the handle of the younger daughter’s door.
“Honey?” he said.
She slept face down, butt in the air. Pink pajamas on pink bed sheets in between pink walls. Pink on pink on pink on everything in her universe. She was young, her golden hair draped over her chubby face and Marvin approached put his hand on her back. Her eyes opened and for a split-second, he saw it. There was that familiar flicker.
Another lost. The once innocent face, she was no longer who she appeared. It had already started and so damned young.
“Get up, breakfast time,” he said hardly able to contain his anxiety.
It would have to be tonight, no option. It would all begin with or without his will and surviving was a freedom he had never known. Seeing is knowing and acting on knowledge, means survival, means freedom.
“Ok Daddy,” she said and rolled her leg to the side of the bed.
She sprinted, her bladder detesting the gravity thrusting downward. Marvin watched her little legs and felt a pang of longing and sadness.
It will have to be tonight.
Breakfast was the measured offering it had always been. The girls yammered and Marvin had trouble staying on point. They played the game as if nothing changed. Marvin knew they’d catch on soon enough and by then it would be too late.
“…right, Marvin?” wife’s voice asked, stirring Marvin. “She’s going to be fine and we’re both so proud.”
Marvin smiled wide and nodded. He finished his coffee and his bowl of nutty, fruity, flakey cereal and then returned the washroom. Buzzing and vibrating within his skull. The rubber of the back of his toothbrush acted as a gum massage and for a moment forgot himself. Let that toothbrush make him the man the world thought he should be. He glanced at his still pinkish eyes and reality crashed.
“Massaged gums, pearly white teeth, filled on nuts and berries. This is not who I am,” he gargled and then spit the white froth.
After the brief goodbyes, Marvin stepped out into the two-car garage. It was his wife’s day to deal with the rides to and from school. He hit the keyless entry on his gaudy chrome-toothed proof of success. The leather was cold beneath him, through his light wool trousers, until the engine purred and the seat warmer worked its magic. He hit the button on the visor overhead and the gears of the garage door rolled and thumped, always loudest in the winter. He watched in his frosted rear-view mirror.
His eyes caught the gaze of a man in hiding, “Come out, come out wherever you are,” said the reflection.
“I’m here, beneath it all. These warming seats within this obscene expenditure, this is not who I am. I am someone else, hiding for protection.”
“I can see you, so can others,” said the reflection.
Marvin’s heart raced and his head ached. Perfection is a hard betrayal when most of the world is involved. Recently, the demanding, seeking eyes scanned him from every corner of life. He was of a dying breed.
“I’m only hiding until tonight,” he said to his reflection.
“You’re not the only one hiding, not the only one coming out,” said the reflection and the mirror flipped down and Marvin lost the frosted face.
He backed out, crunching over the snow of the world outside. The garage door travelled its tracks back down.
The world was long into life when Marvin found his way a block from his office. Traffic demanded that he spend extra time in his car, extra time with the voices on the radio. They all said one thing but meant another, deep down they all hid in plain sight just as he had. His wife, the daughters, they all hid.
Some for and some against.
The voices told of an upset in one match or another, a distraction to displace the truth, the inner misery that anyone who dared consider standing alone knew all too well. The concrete walls, the lights, the sport matches, the houses, the cars, the voices on the radio.
This is not the world. This is the mask the world wears to permit ease and monotony.
Marvin pulled up to the underground parking garage entrance, waved at the same man he’d waved at every day for nearly a decade. They’d never exchanged a word. The parking attendant was either too stupid to recognize the world or too smart for Marvin to consider.
A man so adept at hiding as to feign an interest in stool sitting, waving wordlessly at cars he’d never afford. Going home, arguing over matches just like the voices on the radio and yet knowing and hiding all the same. Marvin hoped he was not of the latter; he’d be another threat. That strength proved a formidable enemy of his true self’s survival.
P-23, Marvin pulled to his spot and parked. The horn chirped and the locks engaged. Cool, but not cold underground, Marvin stepped with open coat, briefcase in hand, through the dim cement cavern below the offices. He nodded and smiled at a man looking very much like he did, the man returned the smile and nodded, both recognized each other’s true self. Both recognized that this was to a battle waged later. Marvin was certain of that fact.
The elevator dinged and they both rode. Marvin off on the fourth, the man continued beyond.
Morning meetings, a deposition, a conference call, a lot of paperwork for an underling to reference and check for spelling errors. Marvin listened and spoke. His mask acting in full bloom, working in the best interests of his clients despite knowledge of right or wrong. It was all imitation anyway. Law was a fabrication of the hidden world, pushing forth the unnatural humdrum of the day to day.
At lunch, Marvin opened his briefcase, found his container of lasagna and stepped to the office lunchroom. Many went out, Marvin and a few others didn’t. Men and woman with their masks pointed to the future, retirement and the likes focussed on saving rather than treating their taste buds to fanciful lunches beyond microwaved leftovers.
These men and woman argued the same matches as the garage attendant might. In attendance they always had better seats and yet made the same arguments. They argued clothing and cars, similar arguments to the radio voices and the car attendants. Fathers, mothers, wives, husbands of the world, different tones and voices, some too dull to see, others putting in effort.
Some like him surely. Bearing their misery until the threat becomes too great and action becomes undeniable. Almost all ride on the easy angle, living and loving their masks, eventually hiding nothing at all. Devolving into the thing on the outside.
Marvin looks about the lunchroom, softening waists of contentment, the plastic containers of department store thrift, the soft hands of fifty-nine options of hand cream for men, fifty-nine thousand options for women. It was false, and how could it be anything else? Evolution’s natural progression isn’t scented creams or trade deadlines; this is not the natural world, this is the world set on permanent Halloween.
Marvin finished and rushed back to his office. Meetings until three and then freedom to ready his future. He spoke to his assistant. She dialled a number, as if by stepping up the office ladder he’d forgotten how to use his fingertips somewhere along the rungs. The phone rang in his ear and he picked up a framed photograph from his desk, the younger daughter. He had hopes that they might find the world together, get to her before the others had a chance.
That chance had come and gone. There was a time, only days into the past, of innocence, that was his daughter then, but no more.
The ring ceased and a voice answered, Marvin began the everyday happening in the expected manner, following the rules, “Hello, Mr. Greene?”
And on the day droned. People came and went. Marvin discussed the photographs on his desk with new clients. His wife is also a lawyer, but she works for the good guys, ha-ha-ha. The Crown. Elder daughter is twelve going on too darn old and younger daughter has an obsession with pink and ponies. Could it be anything but that at her age?
It was a natural script of unnatural happenstance. The creation of new sheep wearing guided faces and expressions.
The thought of it lodges in the back of his throat and he coughs.
His final client leaves and it’s later than what he’d hoped for, just after four. He is short of time to ready his affront to the vapid demands of the world’s latest lie.
He races to the garage and starts his car. His tires squeal as he rushes toward the exit. The same attendant is there, moving slowly, and Marvin sees for certain that the man is not who he appears. No dimwit he, a true enemy to the freedom of natural being.
Traffic viscous as cool honey, Marvin slams his fists on his steering wheel. He has to ready things and get back in time for things to seem normal. If anyone registers his plan, it means the end for him.
“Marvin, you there?” asked a voice and Marvin looked around.
It comes from the reflected face shining overtop the glass face of the clock in the middle of his dash. The one that told him he was low on time.
“You better hurry. If you don’t, that’ll be it. If you don’t hurry, they’ll know.”
“I know that! Don’t you think I know that?”
“Same side Marvin,” said the clock’s reflection.
“All of us Marvin,” said a collection of faces swinging of a dim kaleidoscope reflection. They glinted from every polished surface and Marvin felt the severity. The impending doom too real to ignore.
“Right,” he grumbled and pressed the accelerator.
Out of town and over a frosted gravel road. An old barn, one purchased through a third-party name and title. It was the home of the unmasking. He’d catch them all in their disgusting betrayal.
Knives and clamps and shears and spreaders. Chains dangled from the ceiling, awaiting the arms of his family. It took more effort than he’d known since high school, before he registered it as part of his bodily moulding. Fatten the people, slow them in body and mind, fill them with trash, physically and mentally.
The dangling chains and handy tools spoke of readiness.
Marvin caught his reflection from the stainless steel magnetic tray, “Unmasking the unnatural, this is who I am,” he said and caught an actual smile creeping up at the corners of his lips.
If they caught him, he knew they’d arrange a faux-unmasking. Present him as a lunatic, make him a ward of the government, poke and probe until the medicine kicked in and the mask seeped into his brain, conquering. Fixing him, making him normal.
There was one chance.
Ready, he rushed back toward home, imaging his wife, his daughters, dangling, the skin of their faces, the scalps of their skulls shaved away to reveal what he’d always known about them. After his family, came his clients, his coworkers, the parking lot attendant, the voices on the radio and so on. He would save the world from the unreality it deigns necessary to deal with faulty humanity and their monstrous dreams of tedium.
“It’s time,” the collection of Marvins said from every surface as he pulled the key from his ignition and the interior light glowed. He would step into the home, gather his family and take a trip to the old barn, promise them something wonderful. “This mask I wear, it does not fit, this is not…” Marvin started, but the interruption of intrusion denied his moment.
“You’re late!” shouted his wife as she opened a door and buckled the younger daughter in the backseat.
The girl wore a peculiar pink outfit, frilly around the hips and shoulders, tight everywhere else.
“Hi Daddy,” said elder daughter.
She wore a smile, amused that Mother was angry with Father.
Marvin shifted his gaze to his own reflection, the face within shook and tears dripped from his eyes before it disappeared. The front door opened and Marvin’s wife dropped into the seat.
“Move it, move it!” she demanded, judged his gaze and recognized a face, misery, but she thought it was forgetfulness, “The play, Suzy’s play! Marvin, damn it! At the school, we have twenty-five minutes and she was supposed to get there half an hour early. Where were you?”
Shifter under palm, Marvin looked over his shoulder, backing out onto the road, “Tied up,” he said and drove to the school, just in time to get his shivering cold daughter into place for her big moment.
Marvin and his wife lie side by side in bed.
She slept, sometimes grunting or kicking, an occasional escape of gas puffing beneath the sheets. He stared wide-eyed at the dark ceiling, looking for light in the dark. It was the third day in a row that something came up, the world fighting him every night.
“This family, this life, this mask, this is not who I am,” he whispered to the night.
“We know that Marvin and the more you struggle, the more it will hurt. If you want to survive, you will be what we want you to be and never more,” said his wife without opening her eyes. “Now go to sleep, Marvin.”
Canadian, currently residing in a small town on the Pacific Coast, S.L. Dixon’s short fiction has appeared in dozens of publications from around the globe, including Starburst Magazine (UK) and Dark Moon Digest (US). His third novel, Truro Trap, was released on May 19th 2016.