MAN IN THE MIRROR

By Russel D. McLean


I don’t even like Madonna.

No seriously, never did. Not now, not back when all these pricks tell me she was actually a singer. She was never a singer. These days, she might as well be generated by computer. Except if she was, you might think she’d do something about the way she looked.

So it’s bad enough to come home at night and hear this beat crashing down from upstairs. But for it to be her, singing in that robotic whine she’s developed in the past few years, it’s near enough to drive a man to tears.

Some nights it’s more than enough.

I want to go up there, tell him where to go. Yeah, tell that loud motherfucker where he can stick those CDs. But I can’t. It wouldn’t be right. No, you see I learned a long time ago that whatever life throws at you, you just have to take it. Grin and bear it like the old saying goes.

Just keep grinning. I’m good at that. Comes with the job. They’re telling us all the time we have to smile at the customers, like we’re happy to be paid minimum wage, stuck in some goofy uniform and forced to take all the shit of the day from people who know nothing about common decency and respect for other people.

Respect. That’s what’s missing these days. That’s what’s vanished from the fabric of society, that’s what’s turned everyone into these loudmouthed, self-opinionated fucks.

Time was I could escape the world by coming back to my place. Sit in a corner, open a book and read. Just me and the words. Alone. In silence.

A long time ago they bound books in human skin.

That’s what I’d like to do to the bastard upstairs. Bind a book with his skin. A history of music, perhaps. Decent music. Maybe he’d finally learn about something about taste.

Except I’d never do that. I can’t even ask him to turn it down, just a bit.

Whatever life throws at you, you just have to take it.

***


Another day finished, and I feel like the muscles in my back are going to snap. I’d been stressed before I even left the apartment and work had made things even worse. Smiling at these pricks all day like I actually gave a damn about who they were, what they wanted in the store. Like I was happy to give them their money back when they just weren’t satisfied because life hadn’t given exactly what they wanted. It made my muscles tighten. Sometimes I hide my hands under the till as my fingers clench into fists. I have big hands, always have done. Boxer’s hands, my dad used to joke. He used to tell me that boxing was a man’s sport and that’s what I should have done. Good for the tension, too, he’d say like he had the answer to all life’s problems. He was as much a prick as anyone else. Prided himself on being a man’s man. Told me that I could have everything I ever wanted if I just toughened up.

Going up the stairs, I take the walk slow and steady. Grip the banister for support. A pretty girl from one of the apartments on my floor skips down past me. She has blonde hair that she ties back in a pony tail, and wears blue jeans that hug her ass. I turn my head to watch her as she runs past me. I turn back again before she realises I’m watching. In my mind I see her ass and I smile. I think to myself that one day I’ll get myself a girl who looks like that. One day she’s just going to come up to me and tell me that she thinks I’m the guy she really wants. She’ll say she wants someone who knows how to treat her right, and she’ll say that someone is me.

I reach my floor, look up to the landing above and see some guys hanging around in the hall. There’s a scent in the air; sweet and familiar. I’ve never done drugs in my life – except cough drops and headache pills – but I know what they’re smoking. It’s the same smell that I always smell from his apartment. But out in the hall, it’s heavier, more tantalising, given a substance it’s never had before.

The door to his apartment’s shut and I can still hear the music. Wonder how anyone else in the building can stand it. It’s not Madonna today, but something else entirely. The song is unfamiliar and yet it’s the same as all the other shit. Not music, but noise: pure noise designed to do nothing less than distract the listener from the real world.

In my apartment, the noise takes form. Becomes a hammer wielded in a giant hand, with hair on the knuckles that is black and coarse, and it chases me into the corners as I look for escape. Finally, I simply sit cross-legged on the floor and cover my ears with my hands, making the pain just a little more bearable. I think about being a child, how I used to escape from the world when it became too much to bear. But I don’t want to return to my childhood, either. It is not the safe haven I wish it could be. It is not the safe haven we have been fooled into believing that all childhoods must have been. Even then I knew pain and fear. Even then, I…

***


At some point I black out. When I wake up, I no longer hear any music. This makes me smile for a moment before I realise that there are other noises.

Footsteps above. Backwards and forwards, forwards and backwards, speeding up and slowing down. I want to scream, I want to ask them what the fuck they’re doing up there. Voices muffled, but still omnipresent. Its worse when I don’t know what they’re saying. I don’t want to know and yet I have to know. I need to know, as much as I want them to shut up, I need to know.

Tears gather in my eyes. I tell myself that this isn’t how an adult behaves. I get to my feet and walk to the kitchen area. From the fridge I take the remains of a Chinese takeout. Inside the container, it looks like so much shit. And I ask myself, what am I eating? Just what the hell am I doing to myself?

Upstairs, no more footsteps, but rather a slow, rhythmic thumping. It takes me a moment to realise before the muffled sighs of passion begin to drift from up above.

My stomach churns. All the same I reheat the takeout and eat it slowly, finding that the longer they go on upstairs, the more I think about the blonde girl on the stairs and just how good she looked in those tight, figure-hugging jeans and, even more, just how good she’d look without them.

My head is pounding and my throat is dry. I decide I need a drink and head to the kitchen: four empty bottles of beer have been lined up along the worktop. A plate lies smashed on the floor. My heart thumps in double quick time as I realise the enormity of the intrusion. Carefully, I explore every inch of my apartment. Try not to think about what I’ll do if I find the bastard. More importantly, I try not to think about what he might do to me.

How did he get in? There are no signs of forced entry and when I try the door, it’s still locked and my keys are still on the inside. This means he’s still in here. And yet I cannot find him.

A memory from my childhood: waking up sometime in the dead of night and seeing Him looming out of the darkness; the Bogeyman. A shadow that moves like man and talks like nails on a chalkboard. I should remember what He told me and I feel as though, somehow, I am forgetting something else about Him; something important.

I think to myself that He is here. The Bogeyman is with me in my apartment.

And, like I did when I was young, I go to my bed, and crawl under the covers. I draw my legs up to my chest and place my hands over my ears.

From above, a bassline starts to thump mercilessly. It pushes me down into the mattress and soon enough I am embedded in the springs and the noise lessens until all I can hear is the sound of my blood rushing around inside my head.

***


Another day, another dollar, as the man says.

So what does a dollar buy these days?

I ignore the bills that sit in my mail box. Walk up the stairs, hoping I’ll see the blonde girl again. I want to ask her out for a drink, but I know that I couldn’t sit for long in a bar surrounded by all those people and their endless, incessant, pointless noise. Chatter has a way of getting inside your head and fucking you up. That’s why people are so stupid. All the noise and distraction of what they call everyday life has knocked loose their wiring. They can no longer live without the noise. They have become the noise and lost themselves in it.

I have to ask myself if I am the same as them. Am I in denial about what has happened to me? Really, am I so untouched and so much better than they are?

The word “untouched” makes me think of the Bogey-man. I don’t know why. But I think of His fingers – long, sharp shadows – reaching out for me, but faltering at the last moment as though He is the one afraid of me.

I hear footsteps behind me. I turn my head. Mr Upstairs is jogging past me. He smiles and says, “Hello,” like he knows who I am. Like we’re friends.

“Excuse me,” I say, my voice rasping with uncertainty.

He stops two steps above me and turns back so that his grey eyes meet my gaze. I drop my eyes to the floor. My words start rolling, momentum gathering slowly and hesitantly. “I would like to, well, I mean, its more that you…” I think to myself that I’m never going to say what I want. And then: “Your music. It’s loud.”

“Oh,” he says. He rolls the word around in a thoughtful fashion. “I’m sorry,” sounding sincere, surprisingly so. “I’ll keep it down. Y’know, just let me, y’know, know if I’m being too loud.”

I can’t think what to say, so I nod like a mute. I watch him as he turns away and walks up the stairs, waiting where I am until I hear his door shut.

***


I feel the Bogeyman’s fingers on my arm, His touch beneath the fabric of my shirt, touching my skin in a fashion that makes me think of longing and the anticipation of desire.

***


Midnight and my eyes open.

Above me, the sounds of energetic love making. The sighs of man and woman mingling together, the gentle thump on the floorboards becoming more pronounced and urgent. And then, their noise reaches a crescendo and it ends. Silence erupts into the night with a kind of violence that makes me clench my fists as though preparing for a fight. I sit in the dark and listen, expectant of a sudden resurgence from above. But there is nothing.

The book I was reading has fallen to the floor. I turn my head to look at it, see the pages crushed in on themselves; an unfortunate by-product of the way the book fell. Seeing it so damaged and deformed makes me feel sad inside, the way I suppose some others might feel upon seeing a child fall and skin its knee.

I stand up from where I have been lying on the sofa. My neck aches with having been there for a few hours. I bend down to pick up the book and smooth out its pages, hopeful that the damage wasn’t permanent, but I know that I will never look at the book without seeing the lines in the pages that were not there before.

I think about sleeping again.

The music starts. Softer than it has been, but still there: an omnipresence that threatens to swallow me whole, to consume me and make me a part of it.

The volume stays at the low level, but all the same I can feel it. My heart starts beating in time and I can hear a whooshing sound like the ocean in my ears. Upstairs, the beat is joined once more by the muffled sounds of human voices.

I put my hands to my ears and pray that I can fall asleep once more.

***


I open my eyes. I have to blink a few times before I can process properly where I am. I am no longer in my apartment. The room is of the same dimensions, but everything is different. The colours, the decoration, the stereo system that sits in the far corner, blasting out bass and some anonymous song that I might know if I paid attention to the TV and the radio.

The man lying on the floor in front of me.

He is face down, and I can see the blood gently seeping from under his body. It flows easily across the polished wooden floor. He doesn’t move, and his head is turned to the side as though he is trying to look at me. But his eyes aren’t working any more. There is no doubt in my mind that this man is dead.

I look at my hands and see the blood that is already beginning to dry and form a crust across my skin. The knife, its sharp blade darkened, lies on the floor maybe a foot away as though it has been thrown there in either surprise or disgust.

Calmly, I walk over to the stereo and turn down the volume. The woman whose voice soars over the beat whispers gently and the bass hums softly.

My headache begins to ease. I turn off the power completely.

I reach up to my forehead, massaging it gently to get rid of the lingering vestiges of my pain. Skin touches skin, but my fingers feel slick and greasy as I rub them against my temple. I remember too late that they are thick with blood and by the time I pull them away, I can feel where I have left marks on my face. I ask myself how I got here, and cannot find any rational explanation.

I go into the bedroom. On the bed there is a woman, turned on her stomach and half-covered by sheets. Her back is exposed. A mess of blood and torn flesh. I think about the knife, and looking at her wounds ask myself what kind of man could so callously do such a thing to another human being.

The answer lurks uncomfortably at the back of my mind.

The woman’s face is hidden from me. I move tentatively to the body and reach down. I grip at her long, blonde hair and pull up her head so I can see her features.

I let go almost immediately. My stomach churns. I throw up, chunks splashing onto her corpse; my vomit and her blood mingling. I think of earlier when I heard her making love above me, her moans muffled through the floor.

The other day I had thought to myself that she would be beautiful without her clothes, but here she is before me; naked, defaced, vandalised.

I stumble to the bathroom and splash water over my face. Think to myself that this is nothing more than a particularly lucid dream; when I wake up, everything will be clear and the nightmare will fade.

But that isn’t true. It’s just something to tell myself to keep me from going crazy.

I step backwards, lean against the wall. Slide down until I’m in a sitting position and draw my knees up to my chest, wrapping my arms around my legs as though to keep them in place. It’s a childlike pose and I’m perfectly aware of that. But it makes me feel better; brings me some kind of comfort.

I close my eyes and let my head loll back till I feel my head crack against the wall. A dull ache starts at my crown and slips down my spine.

And there is silence.

The silence is like a blanket. It is warm and comforting. I find myself smiling and my body shivers. Not with fear or pain, but with laughter. I feel relieved, as though I have come to the end of some tremendous, superhuman trial.

I try to compose myself and think of the man lying dead in the living room and the girl’s corpse that lies discarded, tangled up in the bloody covers of the double bed.

“I did not do this.”

My words sound hollow and they echo around the bathroom with no ears to absorb them and to understand what I am saying.

I did not do this.

I know who did. The Bogeyman.

I try to remember when He disappeared. How old was I when He stopped visiting me in the night? Old enough that the memory of His terrors would stay with me and young enough that I could bury the worst of it deep in my mind and try to grow up and make some semblance of a normal life.

Where did He go?

I unwrap my arms from my legs and stand up. I got to the sink, lean on it as though it is all I have to keep myself upright.

I look in the mirror.

And the Bogeyman, who never really went away, looks back at me.


ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Russel D McLean is the author of several short stories, which have appeared in various publications including Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, Thrilling Detective and the upcoming anthology, Fuck Noir. He is also the editor of the noir ezine Crime Scene Scotland and hopes that one day the zine will be updated on schedule.

Russel may be contacted through the zine or on his blog, www.theseayemeanstreets.blogspot.com


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