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FICTION on the WEB short stories by Charlie Fish

by Foster Trecost

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There was no sun. The morning would soon arrive, but its first signs were yet to reach the mostly dark street. A few lamps, the ones not shattered at the hands of well-aimed rocks, feebly shone forth a pale yellow glow that kept it from being a completely dark street, but it was not nearly strong enough to offset the café's bright interior, the very café Josh Ransom had chosen to spend the remnants of the night, thereby making it entirely impossible for him to see anything through the front window past his own reflection.

Ordinarily this would pose no problem, but there was nothing ordinary about this morning, and his reflection just happened to be the last thing in which he felt like looking. It stared at him defiantly and with a relentless gaze, as if from a giant television impossible to turn off, or at the very least, to change the channel.

Not to watch was the simple solution. It would have easily solved his problem, but was easier said than done. Josh felt compelled to meet his own stare, powerless to look away from it much like one witnessing unthinkable tortures, unable to turn from them no matter how gruesome. On the few occasions when he managed to direct his attention elsewhere, he was still left with the surreal feeling that his reflection continued to look at him. "Where's the damn sun?" he thought as he waited impatiently for the earth's rotation to bring its light into view. Nothing ever moved quickly enough for Josh, not even the planet on which he lived. So he squinted and squirmed, even adjusted his angle, but nothing worked. No matter how hard he tried or from which direction he approached, he could not change the channel. He was forced to look only at the man looking back at him.

The café was empty, but at that hour, they were all empty, if they were even open. Few were. Two sounds were available. One a barely audible jazz set gently crawling from the speaker overhead, entirely wasted on Josh's ears; he was aware of the music just as he was aware of the moon, but would have failed to notice if either were suddenly gone. The other sound was a steady drone emanating from a nearby light fixture. This, Josh could hear clearly up to the point that he could not hear it at all, the sound so thoroughly entwining itself with the absence of sound that the two became the same. Possibly to Josh and no one else, the café was silent, a fact that little helped his concentration. It had been eroded to resemble a smooth plane, with no known points of friction in which to slow down anything at all, allowing itself to be affixed to nothing, not even the letter he was writing.

For a café otherwise empty, the aged couple who unexpectedly entered positioned themselves to be almost as close to Josh as they were to each other, huddling over their coffees as though they were campfires. Their faces were old and void of expression. They looked as if all necessary faculties of feeling had been lost, as well as the ability to convey such sentiments, allowing them to live, if at all, confined only in what was left of their minds. They sat silently, staring at nothing, thinking the same thought, and very aware that they were, yet completely unaware that they were also sharing it with the young stranger seated next to them. In an unknown mental unison, all three deliberated the same notion: "I've lived long enough."

Without the consult of his watch, Josh was fully aware that only a few minutes had passed since he last looked, but he again gave the window a glance. "Damn sun," he thought, looking away to sip his coffee as he did. There was a slight tremor to his hand, not so much as to be detected by anyone other than himself, but enough for him to wonder whether it was because of the coffee or perhaps the letter. He was unsure.

He took another sip and then carefully replaced his cup to the table. He pushed back into the oversized chair, giving himself a much-needed stretch as he did. He had slept little during the night and a rigid quality reserved usually for the dead had poured itself over much of his body. He slowly resumed a posture conducive to writing and was just about to continue, but looked once more at the glass sheet in front of him... "What?"

Something was different, subtle, yet unmistakable. Josh, not normally one to see things not there, suddenly thought that he did. There was something unusual in his reflection. It was him. It looked like him, but something... He raked himself slowly, closely, examining every inch. He was so absorbed with the terrible joke his eyes were playing on him that he forgot completely to swallow the mouthful of coffee he had just sipped. He suddenly wished that his mouth were empty because every drop in it spewed forth with the force of a fire hose. Josh looked at the window in horror. He had, only seconds before, placed his coffee cup back on the table; his reflection, however, had not.

Josh no longer questioned the reason that lurked behind his shaking. Still unsure with what it was before, he knew exactly the source now. He was looking square at it. He squeezed his eyes shut and shook his head violently, hoping to rid himself of the illusion in the window. He then slowly looked again, frightened yet compelled, just as before. This time he was much more pleased with what he saw. There he was, just as he should be. Coffee cup on the table, just as it was. Josh breathed deeply and even smiled. His reflection did the same. His shaking slowly retreated to the slight tremble that it had been.

"You okay, son?" The voice was weak and scratchy and matched perfectly with the way Josh imagined it would sound. He gave no answer. He had no desire to speak to anyone, and was unsure of what to say if he did. The truth was not an option, "Oh, my reflection has a life of its own..." The absurdity came into full focus as he allowed the thought to live, the same absurdity that then caused it to die. He nodded his head and continued writing.

As he wrote, it was soon obvious that the letter, just as before, was not enough to hold his attention. Two, maybe three words at time would be written before he looked to where his thoughts were really focused; the window. He had to look at it. Before, he had been compelled by the despair he saw. Now he was forced by a curious fear. He wished desperately for the sun to rise, but his longings only seemed to have the effect of slowing it down. He endured a full five minutes of an unblinking trance, and then he was convinced. "I'm just seeing things," he thought. "That's all."

Josh turned away from the window, satisfied. He would concentrate on his letter and forget all about what he had not seen, convinced that it existed only in his mind and no place else, convinced that the lack of sleep and abundance of caffeine were somehow together working to alter his perception of reality. But just as he turned, Josh saw something impossible. It was in the window. It was his reflection. It did something, something that he most definitely did not. He only caught the movement through the corner of his eye, but what he saw was unmistakable: it waved!

Josh looked up abruptly. He knew his own eyes to be wide and full of panic, but the ones he saw in the window were relaxed, glazed with a calm quality he had not known for a long time. Then they did something Josh knew did not come from his own: they winked. Josh shot a quick look to his hand. It was not waving, had not waved, nor was it in any position to do so, and as far as he could tell, he had not winked, either. Then the reflection spoke. "It's just me, Josh," it said. "The same reflection you've been looking at your whole life."

Josh jerked around and cast an evil stare at the old couple sitting behind him. Surely, it must have been them. "Excuse me?" he said. They only stared at him blankly with their old and sad eyes, saying nothing at all.

He then looked back at the window and saw nothing but his reflection, doing nothing but returning the stare. "I'm going crazy," he thought. He fisted both eyes and then looked again. He saw himself, just as he knew himself to be. With one hand, he grabbed his pen and with the other, the note pad. He moved each up and down oppositely, and then side to side, commanding his reflection to do the same. It listened. "I'm going crazy," Josh again thought, but he had heard something, he was sure of it, and even more alarming was the fact that he had seen something, too.

But for now, he had seen enough. Talking reflections or not, Josh forced his attention toward the small table in front of him. There lay a book, a notepad, and a plate containing the remnants of a blueberry muffin, all arranged carefully atop the front page as if it were a place mat. His coffee sat nearby.

The book was the sole item that served no purpose at all. Josh had tried to read it several times before and knew that his number of failed attempts would immediately increase by one if opened, and therefore it would remain shut. The last thing he needed was another failure, but he also knew that this time, there was another reason, blindingly more obvious than any he ever had in the past: why start a book that cannot possibly be finished? He was unsure as to why he brought it along in the first place.

He instead focused on the notepad. He admired the thin, blue lines, neatly stacked and evenly spaced, and the red one that ran down the side, tracing it with his finger. He looked at the few scribbled words and thought that they were severely misplaced, hardly deserving to appear on such an orderly piece of paper; he could barely read them. They were scrawled out in such an archaic manner that they more closely resembled hieroglyphics than English. Josh had started writing when he first arrived, his body not yet warmed from his own liquid campfire. His shaking more than anything else contributed to the illegible nature of the letter, but he knew it was more than the cold alone that contributed to his shaking.

He leaned myopically forward, bending closer than was necessary over the page as if he were shielding its contents from someone. It had been a long time since Josh wrote a letter this way, not since he was sent to spend a summer at Camp Whispering Pines. He hated it there and had written to his parents to say that they were the only thing he hated more. That letter hurt them. This time, they would once again be the recipients, but this letter would hurt much more.

He wrote and continued doing so until he again heard a voice that was apparently directed at him. Afraid to look up, afraid of whom he might discover speaking to him, he kept writing with his head down, convincing himself that he heard nothing at all.

Then, he heard it again. "Writing a letter?" This time, Josh was certain of the culprit. It was the same frail voice as before. He had previously not minded the elderly couple sitting so close to him. Suddenly, he did so very much. He looked in both directions and saw that he was indeed the only person around writing a letter. He was the only person around, period.

Though Josh's expression pleaded for him not to, the old man continued. "People just don't take the time to write letters anymore," he said. "Take my grandson. I used to get a letter from him every single week. Now, he sends that electronic mail, you know, with computers. I got no use for a computer, so I get no mail." A profound sadness came over the old man that, through years of experience, was detected immediately by his wife. She placed a hand on top of his and rubbed the thin skin gently, saying everything that needed to be said, none of it audible.

"So it's just me and Mildred," the old man said, nodding his head in her direction, taking the time to acknowledge her gesture. "All alone here in this great big city. Kids, they moved away, friends died one by one," and then he paused, his old eyes struggling to keep up with the words he was saying, "now, we're just waiting our turn."

"I can't wait," Josh thought. "I can't wait another day..." He had no way of knowing that his reflection frowned as these thoughts entered his mind.

The old man then leaned even closer to Josh and lowered his voice to a coarse whisper, sounding as though the words were being pulled across sandpaper as they were spoken. "Millie here, she thinks she'll be the first to go but I disagree," he said. "She's a tough old bird, she'll outlive us all."

Josh lacked the skills required to handle a conversation such as this, or any other for that matter, and he suddenly found himself at the same loss for an appropriate response as if he had just been innocuously questioned about the weather. So he instead opted to respond with a grin that, if it came across as an accurate depiction of what he was feeling, conveyed an expression somewhere between aggravation and nausea. Josh had a secret, although he would not share it with the old man. Josh knew that he would beat them both.

And without saying a word, he returned to the notepad. He thought briefly about ripping the sheet from its binding, folding it neatly in half, and beginning again. Starting over. He frowned and began writing. Starting over was not that easy and Josh knew this all too well. He had tried. He had failed. So he kept writing, just the same.

"You keep writing those letters, young man," the old one said. He helped his wife to her feet. "There's something about mail. Ever since the war, makes me feel young again, like somebody cares... " His voice trailed off as he turned toward the door.

His wife, who was yet to speak, paused briefly to look at Josh and then turned solemnly to her husband. "They look about the same age, don't you think?" He nodded and then they were gone. Josh felt a rush of cold air as the door closed.

The café was busier, but Josh was now alone in the front corner, or at least he hoped that he was alone. He looked at the glass just to make sure. He saw himself, but this time kept looking, studying the seated figure in front of him. Josh looked closer. At the eyes. They were sad, but why? Something was again competing with the letter for his mind's attention, but at the moment, the letter was winning. He continued writing.

"Pretty impressive, eh?" And the letter was suddenly no longer in first place. And Josh was suddenly no longer alone.

He froze. Every muscle skipped the millions of years normally required, and petrified themselves instantly. His neck was the first to give, slowly turning his head toward the window, unsure of what was more insane: to merely hear voices or to actually see who was speaking them.

And then it spoke again. "That old couple, what'd you think of them?"

The question was ignored. Josh was still wrestling with the fact that he had gone completely mad. "Of course I'm crazy," he said.

"You're not crazy," the reflection answered. "Just a bit confused, that's all. Now come on, tell me what you thought of them?"

Already mostly convinced that he had moved to a point just beyond sanity, he answered, and in doing so, removed all doubt. "Well, they were kinda sad," Josh said. "They feel like nobody loves them. They're all alone." He then paused to think about what he was doing. "I'm talking to a piece of glass," he thought.

"I'm not just a piece of glass, Josh," the reflection said. "I'm you."

This startled Josh even further. "You can read my thoughts?" he said, but not aloud.

"Of course I can," the reflection said. "They're my thoughts, too, you know? Don't be so selfish. If you don't want me to know them, then don't think them."

Josh stared carefully into the window, contemplating what had been said to him, or, what he had just said to himself, unsure of which.

"Look," the window said, "don't spend too much time on it, okay? I'm you, you're me, and that's that."

"What do you want?" Josh asked.

"You just don't get it, do you? I want the same things you want... because I'm you!"

Josh felt a wave of embarrassment. "Okay, okay," he said, both faces flushing.

"But right now, I really want to know what you thought of that old couple."

Josh thought for a moment, and then answered, "It's like nobody would miss them if they disappeared from the face of the earth."

"Yea," said the reflection solemnly. "Kinda like how you feel?" He paused but Josh offered no answer. "What about our parents? How's our mother gonna feel when she gets this letter?

Just as Josh was about to answer, the reflection suddenly became nothing more than a reflection.

"I'm nine and my brother's five."

Without moving his head, only cutting his eyes, Josh looked over to see who had interrupted him. "Excuse me?" he asked.

"I'm nine," the young girl repeated, emphasizing the age, "and my brother is five. But he is sick. To whom are you writing?" she asked, almost condescendingly, pointing to the letter.

Her question was ignored and Josh responded with one of his own. "What's he got?"

"They're not sure, but he's going to die soon," she added, with the weight of her words seemingly having no effect on the tone of her voice. "In fact, he may have died already, but I can't be certain. It's quite sad, really. We were supposed to grow up together."

Josh looked around the café to see if the young girl was accompanied by anyone. Others were there but, as far a Josh could tell, she was alone. Something struck him about the way she talked, too, but his mind was unable to devote the necessary concentration required to figure it out. He shot a glance at himself, who shot it back, and nothing more.

"Where are your parents?" Josh asked. "It's a bit early for a young girl like you to be hanging out alone in a coffee shop."

"I don't drink coffee," she said, as if she were insulted by such an insinuation. "My mother is at the hospital. Ms. Landering is picking me up here to take me. Ms. Landering is my mother's friend, and mine, too."

Josh looked closely at the girl. Something about her was different from any other he had ever seen. Her clothes were worn to the point of having holes in the usual places. Her hair was long and unkempt. Her face and hands dirty. But her speech! That's what it was. She spoke the English of one brought up in the finest preparatory schools money could buy. There was an aristocratic quality to her voice that clashed violently with the way she looked.

Josh's mind was now devoting all available concentration to the young girl. He theorized that her family, once perfectly affluent in every way, had been besieged by a terrible hardship, a life-changing catastrophe, and all that remained of her former self was the way she talked.

"Where's your dad?" Josh asked hesitantly, hoping for a clue and surprising himself that he cared enough to even ask at all. "Why can't he pick you up?"

"He's not here," she said with the same matter-of-factness as before, but without even the slightest hint of elaboration. "I asked you a question," the girl said and then repeated it, thrusting her finger again in the direction of the note pad, "To whom are you writing?"

Consumed with the young girl, Josh had completely forgotten about the letter. He had even forgotten about the conversation he was having with a window, as well as the old couple who had been the subject of it. He looked at the note pad thoughtfully; the letter had grown to fill two pages. His lips curved into a wry half-smile. "Just some friends," he lied.

"I sometimes write letters to my father," said the girl, surprising Josh with an unexpected return to a subject that he thought was closed. "But he doesn't read them."

"How do you know?" Josh asked.

"Because," she said, "he's dead. Dead people can't read letters."

And Josh was struck immediately and simultaneously with both the urge and the inability to speak. His mouth opened, he said nothing. The girl's eyes did not tear, her lips did not quiver, nor did her voice shake. It was Josh who appeared much more disturbed as she disclosed with obvious calculation what he assumed to be a most horrible truth.

"I'm sorry," he said instinctively once he was able to speak at all, but decided against the obvious follow-up questions. He then thought of the irony. The living girl writes letters to the dead. The dead boy writes letters to the living. "Well,"he thought, "I'm not dead yet..." and without Josh's knowledge, his reflection this time smiled.

"It's okay, really," the girl said. "It happened last year."

"What happened?" Josh thought, but dared not ask.

But he was answered anyway, although not by the girl. "He killed himself, Josh! That's what happened." The reflection could indeed read his thoughts because that was exactly what Josh was thinking.

"My ride is here, I must go," the girl said, extending her hand toward Josh, who stared at it for a few seconds before reaching his own forward. "It was very nice conversing with you." And she was gone, just that quickly. Josh again felt the rush of cold air as the door closed.

And as soon as he did, he jerked his head toward the window. "You don't know that!" he shot back in disgust. "You don't know for sure."

"Don't be so naïve, Josh," the reflection said. "Of course he did. He checked himself out. He didn't ask anyone's permission. He gave no two weeks' notice. And he certainly didn't think about what it would do to the people who loved him. To the people who depended on him."

Josh shook his head violently. "Leave me alone!" he screamed, drawing stares as he did.

"Not until you understand."

"How do you know I don't?" Josh asked.

"Because I'm you!" the reflection screamed back. "I'm the part of your mind that you've shut out. Refused to listen to. Chose to ignore. Now, I'm giving you no choice. Think about it, Josh. Think about..." and he paused, appearing to struggle with the words. "Think about... what you... are doing." He could barely speak, and only with much effort.

"Shut up! Josh screamed, not aware of the change, too upset to be aware. "Leave me alone!"

"Josh..." It was the last word the reflection would say. He could speak no more. Something was wrong. Something was different. Then something caught Josh's eye. He looked over and watched as the young girl climbed into the back of Ms. Landering's car. She then waved as it passed in front of him. And then he suddenly understood everything. The sun had almost arrived. He had taken his time, but was rising at last as the fist signs of morning began to appear. Josh turned to his reflection, which he could now barely see.

"Your time's up, buddy," Josh said. "It was nice talking with you, but it's time for you to go! Now leave, and leave me alone!"

The reflection tried to speak once more. Josh could see that he opened his mouth, but he stopped short of saying anything. He only flashed a grin of surrender. Then he faded away completely.

"Good riddance," Josh said.

Josh looked out in to the city, happy to finally see it, happy to see anything not able to talk back. "I'm definitely losing my mind," he thought. He then paused, frozen in his seat, and waited. There was no response. Nothing. "Thank God," he said.

Cars streaked by at an alarming pace for such a narrow passage. One after the other, it seemed. It was the morning rush hour and for those who had jobs, they were going to them. Josh imagined the cars to be still, and he the one moving. Suddenly he was racing out of control, going nowhere, and everywhere.

He could also see that other cars were parked at the meters and they commanded much of his view, but not all of it. There was a gap between the two directly in front of him. It was slender, but through it, he could see clearly across to the far side of the street. The opening seemed to command his eyes to look through it, to look beyond it, and what he saw when he obeyed, occupying the same section of glass that his reflection had just a short time ago, voided his face of all color other than that of pale white. It was a homeless man.

He was sitting on a piece of cardboard. He was motionless, asking neither for money nor for food. He was old and dirty and he wore a once white tee shirt with black lettering across the front that Josh was unable to read, but was already thinking: "YOU COULD BE ME." He was difficult to look at for any length of time, and Josh was suddenly wishing that he were again looking at his own reflection, but before he could finish the thought, it occurred to him that in many ways, he still was.

Undeterred, he finished the letter. He signed it carefully and then placed it in an envelope addressed to Mr. and Mrs. Ransom. The decision to mail it had not been easy, and was made only after careful consideration. It was his insurance policy. Josh could have left it behind, but he needed a guarantee. He needed to be certain that he would follow through with the contents. Once the letter was mailed, he felt would have no other choice.

Across the street, not far from the homeless man, sat a mailbox. It was the reason Josh had picked this café in particular, or so he thought. Had it not been there, Josh would have been somewhere else. But it was, and so was he, and he started for it. He walked slowly, waiting carefully as cars passed. Halfway across the street he stopped. He looked up, wondering in which apartments his morning acquaintances lived. Then he wondered if they even lived at all. It had been such an insane morning that he felt nothing lived beyond the reach of his imagination. Then a horn sounded.

Then he was there, standing in front of the blue metal box, which looked to him almost as if it were smiling. Josh smiled back, waiting for it to speak to him. He pulled open the mouth with one hand, the letter clutched more tightly than was necessary in the other, and the mailbox's smile turned to all out laughter.

The world around him seemed to pause. There was no movement, no sound. The city, whose heart had just begun to beat for the day, was suddenly not beating at all. He lost all sense of reality, seeing things impossible to be seen. The elderly couple walked by and waved. "Keep writing those letters, young man." Then a car passed slowly in front of him. A young girl sat alone in the back seat and smiled sadly as she went by.

Then Josh remembered what his reflection had said to him, "He certainly didn't think about what it would do to the people who loved him." He thought of his mother's face when the letter came in the mail, how happy she would be to hear from her son. She would open it excitedly; her eyes glazed with all the anticipation that only a mother can have when her boy takes the time to write her a letter. She would read the opening lines. Her eyes would remain glazed, but the source would change from anticipation to anguish. She would scream, and maybe even faint, but regardless, fall to the floor. His father would run to her. He would see her lying there and take the letter from her hands. He would run to the phone. He would call. It would ring... and ring... and ring. There would be no answer. Not now. Not ever.

And then, as if someone pressed PLAY, the real world came back to life. There were suddenly sounds all around him. Car horns. People talking. "Drop it in!" Josh shouted. "Do it! Do it now!"

He loosened his grip, the letter now barely dangling between two fingers. He looked at his watch. Seven forty-five. Breakfast time. He was hungry. He loosened his fingers and let the letter fall, watching it closely as it dropped out of sight. But not into the mailbox. Rather, into the garbage can that sat beside it. He looked across the street into the café. Through the window, he could see the empty chair that had been his. He smiled the same wry half-smile as before. He then turned to the homeless man who met his stare. "Hey buddy, you hungry?" Josh asked. "Let's go get something to eat."

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