When he bothered to look, he saw three people in the mirror. They were layered over each other, and each layer was a little older and a little more gaunt than the layer in front of it, but they were all him. Where age and fullness of face and facial hair tried to trick him, he could always line up the eyes.
One of the other people in the mirror had made a decision, and he, the latest sheet in the stack, was the result. He'd volunteered to be here, or at least one of him had. It was hard not to wonder how much he deviated from the palest, oldest-looking man in the back, and the man in the middle hadn't expected to be reborn so poorly when he signed up, but the teenager in front shouldn't have known that any of the others existed, let alone how they felt. Instead, he existed in a strange vacuum: no family, no connections, a big empty house, and a brain that was anything but.
He existed, he supposed. He could touch things, feel them, move them around. He could hurt himself (as he'd discovered when he woke up here years ago and, panicked and a few feet shorter, gashed his head open when he ran into a door handle), and he needed to eat. He aged, and he learned, and he felt, and he seemed in all ways the same as everyone else, except that no one else had trouble being seen.
In his first memory, he woke up as a ten year old who had not existed before that moment, and he searched the house for someone that he felt should be there. The longer he'd looked, the harder it had been to know who was he looking for, and, in a daze, he'd wandered outside. The neighbors had been mowing their lawn, and he'd yelled and shouted for them to help him find whoever he was looking for, but no one had heard him. He'd knocked on their doors and no one had answered. He'd sat in shock on the sidewalk and no one made any special effort to go around him. Passersby commented on their clumsiness or the upkeep of the sidewalks when they tripped over him, emergency services were angry when he called. He received mail for 'Current Resident' and 'Our Friends At.'
Whoever he was looking for was not there, and it seemed that neither was he.
He was used to it now, but after those few initial weeks of amusing himself doing nothing, his other memories, the ones from his two extra faces, invaded and left their impact on everything. Nothing he did could rid him of what they brought. It left his skull feeling like a damp basement – just unpleasant enough to seep into everything it held, but not a complete disaster. However, it wasn't long before he became overrun with images of clouds and bright light, dark and sticky wooden floors, and the sounds of snapping bones. There was also a remarkably grounded underlying concern about electric bills from the reflection in the middle. He's decided then to find things to distract himself, and after he grew tried of cleaning his house over and over again, he resolved to sneak into a school.
It was easy. Everything about it, from just strolling through the doors with the others, to blending into nothing, to absorbing what little knowledge was new to him. Sometimes, he would pass papers forward with the rest of the class, and often, they'd be returned. He could even take tests but got no meaningful feedback beyond a big red letter. He was able to eat the food in the cafeteria and no one cried in alarm about a floating lunch tray, but no one asked to sit with him either. He could attend field trips with or without forged permission slips, though no one spoke to him or made sure not to leave without him. He could play games as long as he was not terrible or great. He could have the illusion of fitting and being if he just made sure he didn't deviate from 'normal.'
He was exactly as visible, even when alone, as he would be were he part of a crowd of hundreds in a photograph.
And this continued for five years. Never able to make a friend, or ask a question, or help with anything, he did little but feel distantly connected to other humans through school lessons he didn't need. He found the empty music room filled his time better than re-cleaning his empty home and he taught himself, slowly, to play a piano he assumed no one ever heard. When 'his class' went to the highschool, he went with them, and he wandered the rooms and halls there during the gym and art classes that were too dependent on him really being there for him to matter.
In the back of his mind, even years later, he was still looking for someone.
That tiny desire worming itself in the creases of his brain followed him to the school every day after he turned away from the faces in the mirror.
It was gym day according to the morning announcements, so he settled in for some extra time alone in the music rooms. It was early yet, and most students were still listening to the announcements and being counted as present for the day. As he set his bags on the floor near his favorite keyboard in the corner of the music room, he heard singing from across the hallway. The choir room was in the same corner of the school as the band room, so singing in general wasn't terribly unusual, though the choir department had officially been cut from the curriculum several years ago. Today, the singing felt unusually strong. He might have been imagining it – he was very probably imagining it – but he had a feeling the song was meant him for to hear. For just a moment, he thought, he could go over and see...
His finger tips brushed the doorframe leading into the hallway when the singing was drowned out by a scream of frustration from the office in the music room. He turned and saw a tall kid about his age with a shock of black hair sticking up from the center of his head in a poorly cut mohawk. Skinny and pale with a liberal scattering of acne on his face, the other guy stormed out of the office where the band director sat quietly scribbling on a calendar as though he couldn't hear any of Acne-Face's outburst.
“I'll fucking get my own then! You'll be sorry you fucked with me!”
Acne-Face snorted at the door and turned on his heel to make a dramatic exit when he stopped and made eye contact.
He thought all the air in lungs had left him and he froze against the door frame. This had happened accidentally enough times that he didn't often put much stock in it being anything but an accidental trick of the light, but Acne-Face had stopped mid-stride and stared. They blinked at each other a few times. Acne-Face looked him up and down, was really seeing him!, but said nothing. Seconds unfurled between them as every sound in the room magnified – the band director's pen on his calendar, the ticking clock, the muffled echo of the morning announcements in a far off classroom, and the singing across the hall.
Acne-Face seemed to hear the singing at the same second. His eyes went wide suddenly and he brushed through the doorway as though someone had called his name.
With Acne-Face gone he clung to the door frame so tightly his hands hurt, afraid to leave this tiny space in which he'd been seen.
He'd been seen.
He'd been sized up, regarded with casual scorn and probably judged to be just a nerd in the way, but he'd clearly been seen and Acne-Face had been just as surprised about it as he was.
The band director's chair squeaked in the office. Acne-Face had just sworn twice, loudly, and in the director's general direction and yet from the sound and the smell, the director was doing nothing now but rolling his chair across his office to make a pot of coffee.
He tossed his bag over his shoulder and dashed into the hallway. Acne-Face was no where to be seen.
“Hey!” His voice echoed in the hall, but no one responded. The singing in the room across the hall grew louder, and the feeling that he was meant to hear it increased.
He approached the door and thought about how much he'd done in order to be minimally present in the world, how much he'd tailored his own behavior just so that he might be a fragment in a crowd. What would he be like if he didn't have to? Eyes closed, he pressed his ear to the wooden door. The sound was alien and haunting. The speakers playing the music were broken and gargled the bass like mouthwash. The voice of the person singing was unlike anyone he'd ever heard selected for a school musical. The voice was too odd for showtunes. It whined a little on its way through unintelligible words and seemed distorted and like it was struggling. It shouldn't have been appealing, and he wasn't even sure it was, but he wanted to unravel his brain in order to listen to it.
The voice stopped and the music bubbled to an end and he felt himself drift back from the door, sliding backwards into the hallway... where something immediately slammed into him and took him to the floor with a squeak and the ugly smack of flesh.
When he opened his eyes, his cheek was pressed against the cold floor there was a small plush skeleton near his knee.
“Jesus fuck, will you walk in a straight fucking line and stop playing with that thing?”
A dark skinned girl wearing neon green leg warmers peeled her face from the floor and sat up on her knees beside him, shaking some dust from her small cloud of hair. She adjusted her headband and grinned up behind her. "You like it."
He looked up to see another girl, white as a sheet, in straight purple pig tails looming over them. She carried a scrub green lunch tray from the cafeteria down the hall and glared right through him over the top of her glasses.
When he looked back to Leg-Warmers, she bounced on her knees a bit and retrieved the plush skeleton. She squeezed it in his face, and it emitted a sharp squeak. “Spooky has blessed you, stranger,” she said, moving it in the shape of a cross.
“He can't see you, come on. This is why I don't let you carry the food.”
He blinked as Pigtails started to walk over him and he tried to stop them as he stumbled over his own lack of breath. “Actually, I can. See you. I can see you.”
They both stopped and stared down at him as he gathered himself from the floor and they remained frozen in place when he rose to his feet. Squeaky Leg-Warmers' goofy persona had vanished and she looked almost afraid. Pigtails looked as though she might be sick.
“Oh, god, you can really see me too,” he gasped. “Listen, please, I - I think you might be like me!”
“Or you might be like us,” Pigtails snapped.
“Okay, sure, yeah. That's fine.” He nodded enthusiastically, didn't care what she said, he'd agree to anything. His heart was racing, this was a real conversation with a real person, in real life.
Leg-Warmers tried to take a step toward him but Pigtails pushed her back with her lunch tray. “Come on, we have to go.”
“Wait, please, you're the first person I've ever talked to and I-”
“We have to go!” Pigtails shoved Leg-Warmers down the hall and they ran through the huge double doors of the choir room. By the time he got after them and heaved the huge doors open the two girls were locked inside the choir room's office, just to the right of the double doors. He rattled the locked knob to the office door hopelessly and slapped his hand against the large glass window that made up the wall between the office the classroom area.
The girls didn't so much as look back, and vanished through another door at the back of the old office. He strained to see inside the deeper room, but it was such a jumble of shapes and colors and the girls scrambled through so quickly that he couldn't make anything out. What he knew for certain was that they'd entered the little room that was behind the door he'd listened through in the hallway.
He tore back around the corner, shoes squeaking, though the double doors and out into the hall again. He pulled hard on the door in the hall, but it was locked tight.
“Please, listen to me! You're the only ones I-”
They responded by turning up the stereo.
“Take me how I am
'cause you know I'll never change
I was born to stare
at who stares back at me.”
Just like before, he felt pulled toward it, like it was meant for him but was snaking through his brain at an alarming speed. He maintained his grip on the doorknob even as his head fell forward and his knees shook. The words to the song garbled, and his head began to throb as he tried to scream over the music. And then something rang, or something snapped.
When he woke up, he heard static, and it was nearly four o'clock in the afternoon.
He sat up with a start, and hoisted himself to his feet with the help of the doorknob. There was no music, and no people, and he'd just been rendered unconscious for several hours by a song playing through broken speakers. He was almost too confused to be panicked. Down the hall and around the corner, though the double doors of the choir room he shuffled groggily, but the office door was still locked, and all the lights were out.
What the hell had happened? Was he so overwhelmed at the prospect of human contact and having it taken away that he had just checked out of life for several hours? Was this the sort of person he was when not keeping just in line with 'normal'?
He dragged himself home in a fog.
He ate something, probably. And he cleaned something and he watched some television and he played some fragments of the song he'd heard on his keyboard and he may have started walking around his house just looking before deciding to turn in. He brushed his teeth and stared through the other men in the mirror and then, for lack of anything better to do, climbed into bed.
Predictably, he did not sleep well. His dreams were littered with the faces in the mirror, each meeting an end that would lead to the creation of him. Sticky floor, snapping bone, half-formed requests and just barely formed solutions.
The next morning was auto-pilot, going through the motions of greeting the others in the mirror and tugging his way into a pair of jeans. His heart had taken up residence in his throat and made him sick at even the thought of food. He looked over his shoulder more than once, thinking someone might finally be there.
Walking to school took no time at all. It was only a few blocks away and his mind was racing, spinning out at even the thought of catching these people again, of finding out who had been singing, of seeing if the singer could see him too. If he could do any of that, maybe he'd even stop looking for no one in his house.
There was a schedule he followed on normal days, but today he abandoned it. With the time saved by being too sick to eat breakfast, he arrived at the school 15 minutes earlier than usual and immediately headed toward the choir room. He could meet with them again, try not to scare them again, and maybe get to meet whoever had melted his brain.
He cupped his hands around his eyes and leaned against the glass window of the choir room office. Now that he wasn't desperate or brain dead, it was easier to concentrate on what was inside. There hadn't been an actual choir teacher at this school in a long time, so the room was just piled with the remnants of an actual office. There were dusty cardboard boxes bursting with faded manila folders, and wires ready to accommodate a computer that had long ago been removed and gone out of date. Thumb tacks on a bulletin board still pinned tiny flakes of paper to the corners of the un-faded shadows of the notes they once held.
An old desk light sported recent fingerprints in the thick dust on the edge of its shade and a calendar blotter on the desk was covered in a rainbow of marker graffiti, the majority of it creative swearing and angry stick figures. “JC says: I'm going to kill you!,” followed by a heart and a smiley face dominated the scribblings in bright red. An old VCR sat on the back shelf, flashing a blue green '12:00' from under a cloudy and yellowed plastic cover. The chair behind the desk was filled with holes that revealed its foamy stuffing and some blue smears indicated that some of the holes had been made purposefully with a ball point pen.
There was another door directly across the one that kept him from entering the dusty office, and that was the one that connected to the room he'd heard the singing from, and the room the girls had fled to. Since this was all still locked up tight, he reasoned, he would see them again if he just waited here.
He jiggled the handle of the door again. Who are these people, what are like, could they like him? What was he like?
“Oh, you are alive. Good job.”
A long black shape reflected in the glass and he turned around to see Acne-Face standing at the covered piano in the center of the front of the room. “They told me they left you in a pile on the floor in the hall. Thought I should see if the janitors took you out with the trash like the last kid. Congrats and stuff. I’d advise staying away from now on, though. He might send me after you.”
At first it didn't even matter what Acne-Face was saying . He was being spoken to! Directly! About events that had happened the day before! Here in front of him was the first person he'd ever met who had an actual memory of him and it nearly buckled his knees.
“Do you- do you know...?” He motioned limply to the door behind him and Acne-Face laughed.
“Of course. He is the world's greatest artist and I am his 'Darkness.'” Acne-Face leaned forward and bowed awkwardly. The fanfare in his mind must have been as spectacular as his eyeshadow. Acne-Face rose and walked forward, mock theatricality gone. “I mean it. You should stop now.”
And then Acne-Face kicked the double doors open and strolled into the hallway, chain belt on his hip clinking as he went, breezing away as though he was like everyone else who couldn't see the nerdy kid with three reflections.
He stood against the wall, staring across the choir room, trying to just take in everything. The chairs in here were arranged in slightly chaotic levels and he imagined how it would be to sit in here with these people he'd actually spoken to. Arranging the furniture and talking, making jokes, playing music. Maybe whoever liked to sing would sing while he played...
There was no reason to go after Acne-Face just yet. Not until he was sure he wasn't going to meet Pigtails and Leg-Warmers again.
The wait wasn't long. They kicked through the doors and the sudden sound nearly burst his heart. Leg-Warmers was chatting away and Pigtails was about to retort when they both saw him. They stopped abruptly, and each tried to hold a protective arm in front of the other.
“You again,” Pigtails said warily. “I see you scraped your ass off the floor.”
“Yeah, I- I don't know what happened. I heard that singing...”
“Good for you.” She clicked her teeth and glared.
“Please, you're the first people who can even tell I'm here. I want to talk to you, I want to meet whoever was singing earlier. I feel like it's... important. I think I might know him.”
He did feel that way, but that didn't stop it from feeling fucking ridiculous to say out loud.
“He doesn't want to meet you. Just forget you heard anything.”
She looked at the floor and held her hand up to her friend, who hadn't said anything. Leg-Warmers, who wasn't wearing any today, let out a long slow squeak that may have actually been her plush skeleton.
He had to push. If the singing was for him, if he was going to find himself along with these people, he would beg. “How do you know? Let him be the judge when he meets me directly. I just want to know if I'm the same as he is – the same as you.”
Formerly Leg-Warmers poked Pigtails' shoulder with the squeaky skeleton. She looked sympathetic and spoke softly. “Devi.” Squeak. “Come on.” Squeak. “You know what what he says.”
Devi ( that sounded familiar?) frowned and clenched her fists, but released it all with a sigh. “I'll tell him to get his own food today. I won't be responsible for anything beyond that. You're on your own.”
She jerked her head and narrowed her eyes at he door behind him, and he stepped out of her way. She unlocked the door to the office and let herself and Formerly Leg-Warmers in. Once inside, she made a deliberate show of locking the door behind her and glared out at him from the other side of the glass.
He saw his three reflections over her face.
The urge to look was overwhelming. Look for who should have been there, look for what was missing, look for more songs. It was mad that he wanted to hear more, see more, when the last encounter had melted him to the floor and had only been through a closed door. How would he stand up to being in the same place with whoever this was? And yet he felt like he had to.
He remembered dying, so being reduced to a puddle on the floor didn't bother him as much as he suspected it should have. He remembered dying twice , even. The first time, with the face furthest away, had been the worst. If he spent too much time behind that man's eyes, the world looked black and scratchy and he'd throw up. How he'd gotten the chance to be the second man, the one who had made the request that made the version of him here and now, he didn't know.
But the request had definitely been to come back. There was someone he wanted to help, someone he'd felt like he had almost helped. He didn't know when he started looking for that person. When he first awoke at ten years old, he was probably looking for parents, and that had changed until it was just someone he'd know when he saw them, felt them, experienced them.
And that person singing along to a broken stereo, who could undo him into unconsciousness through a closed door? That person hiding in a locked room who knew all these people who could see? If this wasn't the person he'd been looking for over his shoulder for years, then...
Then maybe it wouldn't matter anymore.
He'd have to wait until lunch to have a chance to see this person, so to keep his head, he sat with the piano. He flung the heavy cover back and poked at some of the keys. A little out of tune, but not unplayable. He played nothing at first, just the audio equivalent of doodling, and then hit a few notes that struck him so deeply they reverberated off of his ribs and he stopped to grasp at his chest and make sure his heart was still inside.
He didn't know where they'd come from, but now that he'd heard them, they'd left a crater. He sat for a few seconds breathing hard and fast and listening for songs from the other room, but there was nothing.
This probably wasn't normal, but he had a hard time imagining his life being restrained to normal any longer. It was not normal to be physically wounded by music, and he imagined he was probably not out of the range of normal to react to all this with fear.
But fuck fear.
He continued playing after gingerly poking the keys to test whether they were all going to attack him, and when they didn't, his breathing slowed. Too jittery to play much that was complicated, he stayed with slow, simple, and a little sad. It wasn't meant to garner sympathy from the people hiding away in the locked office, it was just what came out. It was also the least likely, he thought, to strike back.
There was laughter from inside. A real conversation was happening in there and he thought for not the first time that no one had ever laughed at anything he'd said. It was hard to imagine what it'd be like, or what he'd even say. After the laughter, a song. They weren't interested in attending classes today either, apparently. Did they do it for the same reasons he did? Why were they even here?
The song was lighter and airier than the first, but still slightly creepy. It didn't suit the person who had been singing before, but that did not stop him, nor the others, from singing along.
“ When I close my eyes
I am at the Center of the Sun
And I cannot be hurt
By anything this wicked world has done…
Cause I hear violins...
I hear violins…”
Loud enough this time to be understood through two locked doors, though his mind still wanted either to twist itself in knots or unravel in response to the sound. A bell signaling a shift in class periods rang as he tried to understand more of the song's words through his new headache. There was nothing, just notes falling apart and the ones that had struck him earlier trying to claw their way back out of him.
An hour later, there was movement behind the glass and he nearly shot from the seat in front of the piano. Acne-Face stared out at him with a cassette in his hand and a flower lei around his neck. He was bent over the desk, with the drawer open, frozen in place and staring out like an animal calculating the best move when caught in the headlights.
And then he walked to the door between them, and opened it.
“I see you're still here,” he said, leaning his head and shoulders out.
“Yes.” How exciting to know he could be heard, even saying something so simple.
Acne-Face looked around the room and spotted what he wanted – a dry erase marker apparently - under some nearby chairs. He'd have to walk away from the door to get it, and his darting glance and shifting stance would have been funny in another context.
“What do you need?” He'd said it before he thought to say it.
Acne-Face nodded toward the chairs. “That marker.”
He walked to it, picked the thing up and offered it to Acne-Face, who looked a bit like he expected to be beaten with it and drew himself back into the office with the door pulled up behind his ears. His hand shot from behind the door like a frog tongue and snatched the marker before quickly snapping back inside. It wasn't even a whole second before Acne-Face was locking the door behind him with a clatter and a flurry of frantic scratching. He stared out again, before jumping in alarm and skittering back into the song room.
There was no other movement until lunch time.
At noon, Devi and Formerly Leg-Warmers emerged from the room.
“Hello,” he said from the piano bench.
“Good luck,” Devi said quickly. She barely looked at him. “Just don't think it'll be easy. He's already gone out the other door.”
Devi ducked her head down like she wanted to avoid paparazzi and shouldered her way through the double doors. Formerly Leg-Warmers hovered behind the doors for just a moment, staring at him the way Acne-Face had, before she ducked through the swinging doors too.
He could have vocalized “!!” at that second and ran from the room after them, into a hall full of students swarming for lunch.
How would he even find this guy who'd been singing? Why was he hiding? Was it easier to wait back in the choir room for him? How could he even know , he'd only ever heard his voice obscured by a solid wooden door and a broken bass speaker.
Just as he was contemplating attempting to body check everyone in the crowd as a crude process of elimination, he saw the other three, talking animatedly and apparently anxiously among themselves just inside the doors of the cafeteria. He tried to catch their attention as he squeezed between the rest of the student body, but they either could not or would not see him.
And the singer could be anyone.
As he looked around, he became dizzy ( Lack of food? Proximity to these people? A song again?) and the bodies and faces in the room began to blur. Those notes from before rang in long tones in his ear and he strained to keep his eyes open. Braced against the wall near a trash can, he pried one eye open and tried to scan the crowd for some identifying feature, some kind of hint that the person he needed to find was there. More people were pouring into the room and lining up along the walls for food, filling his head with buzzing, those stupid tones, words he couldn't understand from Devi and her crew, and god what was this?
Out of the corner of his eye, he saw someone leaving the cafeteria through the doors at the other end of the room. Devi caught his eye. It was probably an accident. It didn't matter.
He staggered backward through the cafeteria doors and into the hallway. It was mostly empty, though his head continued to pound like it was churning and bustling out here too. At the other end of the hall, a few students tore around the corner to fling themselves into the cafeteria, but one stood perfectly still, blinking into the light coming in from the school's front windows. Dark hair stuck out in choppy bits around the oversized headphones on his head, and his clothing was patched together like a quilt. He carried a lunch tray with three cartons of chocolate milk and a small hill of macaroni and cheese piled on top. When he turned from the windows, the music started.
It might have been the notes from earlier, but his heart was racing so much it was audible inside his skull and he felt as though his head would burst. He was gripping the wall and his head in equal measure as this person – it had to be the one who'd been singing – approached. Humming, someone was humming, but he didn't know if it was the singer or in his own brain.
Closer and he could see more. Details picked themselves out among the blur. A beige-ish skin tone with an overlay of something a bit sick. A sketchbook, a CD player in a stitched-on pocket. Thin wrists decorated with little bits of broken jewelry and string. He was where the humming was coming from, and as he got closer, the humming became singing.
“I was born to stare
at who stares back at me...”
He couldn't speak, and he could hardly move his head throbbed so badly. The song he heard being sung was sitting on top of another song made of burning notes that stung him when he focused on it, but he couldn't find where it was coming from. He picked up his head, and looked at the singer's eyes.
And the singer smiled, pleased at first, and then abruptly realized he was being seen, and the lyrics stopped as his eyes grew wide. His pace never faltered, but the world slowed and dragged for a second or two as he stared before it all snapped back into place . He was so familiar, the way he walked, the way he smiled, the way he moved, even the food on his tray. And was there recognition in those dark-rimmed eyes?
The singer broke eye contact and continued, still steadily and without breaking stride, back to the choir room. There was humming again for a moment or two and then the singing returned, but this time louder, clearer, and with his head tipped back.
He could swear it was an invitation.
“ Take me how I am
‘cause you know I’ll never change
I was born to stare
At who stares back at me…”