UNDERGROUND VOICES: FICTION - 09/2012
It was Wednesday when it happened, near the end of the day.
As best he could, Mitch tried to persuade himself that it was just fatigue; that it had been a high number of kids he’d put through---four hundred and eleven in fact, all between the hours of nine and three. This worked out to half the student body, so yes, perhaps he had bitten off a little more than he could chew---proving it might very well be time for the assistant Mildred had been onto him about. And I’m not talking about those funny-bunnies either, but someone who will really help you carry the load!
The funny-bunnies were temps Mitch used every once and awhile, mostly when he knew he’d be setting up his camera to include the younger years, junior kindergarten and such, learning long ago that it was far easier for the female persuasion to elicit a smile from a four-year old than the mug he’d been born to carry. It’s an assistant I’m talking about, Mitchy. Honest-ta-Gawd! This was one of Mildred’s favorites. Along with, Are you shur? and the ever popular Well, who’da thunk? There were never any shortages of what Mildred called her “catchphrases” when Mildred was around, which was something Mitch knew all too well. An honest to God conversation? Well, that was something else entirely. And why am I thinking of Mildred just now? Oh yes, because I am trying to fool myself, to prove that I did not see that boy’s face change.
The boy was Cale, Tommy G., a third grader from Upper West Memorial where Mitch had been hired to spend most of the week. In all the years he had been a school photographer, Mitch Marsden had never experienced what had happened to him that afternoon---never before had his resolve been hit so hard that he actually questioned his sanity. That was something you only saw in movies, right? When the protagonist looked at the screen or himself in a mirror? Surely that was it, he told himself; surely stuff like this didn’t happen in real life.
The boy was short for his age, with an olive complexion and darker hair. He was missing his upper front teeth and had lips which seemed a bit too large for the face they stood upon. Other than that, nothing seemed particularly special or out of the ordinary about Cale, Tommy G. Wasn’t ugly---attractively challenged---by any means, not in Mitch’s book, and Mitch’s book had seen its fair share. “Now, it’s almost over,” Mitch said, talking more to himself than to the boy. “It’s the end of the day and you are the last of what I call my pupils. What do you say, son: can you give me one last smile? A big one to make my day?” It had happened so fast he hardly registered it. Later he would think this was the reason he was trying to fool himself; that the time it took for the boy’s face to change was seconds at best, and probably not even close to that.
Bending over the camera, aiming up the sight, the boy’s face receded and seemed to swirl. A second after that there was only an open mouth with tiny pointed teeth where Tommy’s face had been, the top lip coming up so far as to touch the bangs of his dark and parted hair. Mitch sucked in air, aghast; looked up. Cole, Tommy G. was as he ever was, a boy not cute nor ugly, but plain. He regarded Mitch from his stool, as if to say what’s going on, Bub, you going to take my picture or not? Mitch realized he was staring at the boy and saying nothing, even though his mouth hung open. He coughed, cleared his throat. “Okay,” he said. Let’s a…let’s try that again.”
They did. Mitch took the picture. The boy’s face remaining a face and not a gaping black hole rowed with teeth which dripped with hunger.
---He couldn’t sleep. Nor could he remove the sight he’d seen: little bitty teeth, hundreds of them, each as sharp as filed nails, all awaiting their turn to tear. No eyes though, just mouth and teeth and bangs which hung to touch a wet and swollen lip.
He turned over, hugged his second pillow tight. Mildred stirred to this, rolled over, but soon continued to snore.
It hadn’t been fatigue; he knew that now.
This is not happenin’, man! This is not happenin’! Among other things, this is what Mitch found himself thinking about during the long drive home. A line from one of his favorite movies: Aliens. The character he was thinking about had been played by Bill Paxton.
Game over, man! Game over!
Better than he realized, this summed up what Mitch was feeling exactly: angst combined with the unbelievable.
As this was what it was: unbelievable; as in who would believe? Not him, that’s for sure---if the shoe were on the other foot and it was he who was being told. And really, now that he thought about it, who was he going to tell? Mildred? Dan? The guys down at the lodge? Nobody, that’s who, because it didn’t happen, fatigue or no fatigue. The shit just did not happen! Period! But still, he dreaded tomorrow, that he had to return; the session incomplete.
Screw it, he thought, what can I do about it, anyway? I can lose sleep, that’s what I can do.
At this he turned over again, looked up to the ceiling, his mind continuing to choose and disregard whether it happened or not. Minutes later, he slept, but his sleep was far from dreamless.
---Thursday: day four of a scheduled five day shoot.
Through the gymnasium doors they came in one at a time: one sent back, another sent forth. He knew some photographers did it differently, that some brought entire classes at a time. Mitch had never worked like this, couldn’t see the point in having the children align only to wait. He felt it became a distraction, not only for the student getting their picture taken but for himself as well.
Girls came and boys the same. He took their pictures and said their names; his regular routine. By lunch he was feeling much better about the incident which never occurred. Hell, it even seemed as if he could have dreamt the entire thing. There were such things as waking dreams, weren’t there? And really, when you got to the bottom of it, he had been tired, no doubt about that. His age, too---that would have to play a factor as well, wouldn’t it? Being over fifty? No spring chicken, as Mildred would say. This put him in the winding down stage of life, when things could not be seen as clearly as they would have, say, fifteen, twenty years prior? Yes. That made sense. Why hadn’t this occurred to him last night when all he did was toss and turn? Mitch didn’t know. Only knew it felt like a weight had been lifted up and off of him, gone, and that a child’s face had never melted and swirled before him, there on a stool as he bent to click.
It was only later, in the parking lot at the end of the next day that his denial unraveled like the weak string he had tied himself to.
---Shadows ran from Mitch’s vehicle as the sun came out to join the afternoon. As he put the last of his equipment away Tommy appeared beside him, to his right, just as Mitch closed the back doors to his van. It startled him, a sweat breaking out the length of his back almost instantly. He felt his breathing increase as well, which meant his heart rate was following suit. This was not good; no, not at all. It put things in his head, things which contradicted the defenses he’d already placed there.
“Can I help you, son?”
The boy regarded him, and as he did, Mitch noticed there was something different about Tommy, something which hadn’t been there before; a smugness was now present, there in the curl of his smirk; this small and knowing smile. Subtle, yes, but there. Crazy, he thought, children can’t be smug; it’s impossible. Yeah, but so is face changing. So tell me your thoughts about that one, smart guy!
He couldn’t, could only look back at the boy.
“Do you want to see my face again?” He asked.
“Tommy,” Mitch said. “What are you talking about?”
“There are more of us, you know; we’re growing every day.”
Mitch wanted to scream, his eyes feeling as though they would jump from their sockets. It was madness, all of it. This conversation was not happening.
“This is happening, Mr. Marsden. Be aware, we are not going away; we will not lie down.”
Mitch laughed at that. It was that or go crazy, he assumed.
“I just wanted to say I would see you next year, Mr. Marsden, when you come back to visit all my new friends.”
Mitch finally screamed, but it was a short sound, curt, dying almost as fast as it rose. He also pushed the boy, not hard, but enough to move him from the van. Running back to the driver’s side, Mitch understood that people were watching him now. He didn’t care, couldn’t. Turning the key, he floored the gas. He would not be coming back, never in his fucking life.
---But he would go back. He knew that now. His rational mind finally at home within his heart. There would be no more denials, only belief into that which he had stumbled. Responsibility came too, and this only after he tore from the parking lot. He would do what he had to do. Do what he was meant to. Everything was so very clear to him now.
So yes, he would be going back, but it would not be the following year.
“Principal Finley. Mitch Marsden here.”
“Mr. Marsden, yes. How is it that I can help you?”
“Ms. Finley. It seems I have a bit of bad news. I have somehow lost the negatives to one of your classes. I admit this is quite unprofessional on my part, and for it I apologize. That being said, I was wondering if we could somehow find the time to book a re-shoot date.”
“Mr. Marsden, the school has been using you for over twenty years. To my knowledge this is the first overlook you’ve ever committed. What I mean to say is no apologies are necessary. You pick the date; we will work around you.
“Very kind, Principal Finley. Thank you. I’ll be in touch.”
---When the detectives interviewed Chet Wheeler of Wheeler’s Guns and Ammo, he told them this: “Bald dude, right? Wore glasses? Yeah, I seen ‘em--- seemed a tad off, too, if you get my meaning. Especially when he asked to buy the silencer. Only one thing you need a silencer for, know what I mean? But as my Dad always said: “Hey, a buck’s a buck.””
---The morning of the re-shoots he ate bacon and eggs while Mildred pressed his clothes. She was always on about this, that presentation was more than everything. He kissed her good-bye and from the door she yelled: “You show’em, Mitchy; you tell the world!” He already knew this, but again he thought: That’s Mildred, there in a nutshell; movies and catchphrases her life. What would have happened if we chose to have kids?
He drove. Onwards through the rain, towards what he now knew to be his destiny.
He asked for a change of plan---if each student could come at five minute intervals. Mrs. Petrie looked put-off by this but eventually agreed. He took Tommy first, both of them walking in silence towards the gym. Once inside, Tommy asked: “Have you come to see me change again?” There was joy in his question, no doubt, but there was malice too, underlined and dark.
“No.” Mitch said and shot him point blank in the back of the head.
He ended up destroying five more until Mrs. Petrie came to investigate. Twenty minutes later the police arrived, followed by SWAT. Mitch would not come out, nor would he negotiate. He didn’t have hostages. He only had his gun. It was a bullet to his right eye which found his brain and brought him down; just another madman who snapped from the pressure associated with what the world proclaimed the constant grind---what the papers printed, anyway.
From the lawns across the street the students watched, most of them intent, more of them scared. It was the ones which weren’t that they should have been watching. It would take years for them to realize what Mitch was trying to perform that day. By then, however, it would prove too late.
Inspired by Stephen KingBeau Johnson lives in Canada with his wife and three boys. He has been published before, in the darker, seedier parts of town. However, it is on Tuesdays that he and his family travel back through time in an attempt to correct that which once went wrong.
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