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Atropos' Mistake: Pt. 3

Updated on December 22, 2016


     Atropos' Mistake

              Part 3

“Blue.”
“Moon.”
“Harlan.”
“Ellison.”  He looked at me grimly.  “Are you sure you’re up to this?”
“Yeah.  I’m ready.”  To tell the truth, I was as nervous as a lawyer in church, but for Tim’s sake, I tried to be brave.  “I just hope your aim is as good as it used to be.”
“Just call me ‘crackshot’,” he quipped, but I could tell he was just as scared as I was.
“I know you can do it, Tim.  Tomorrow everything will be back to normal, and all this will be behind us.”
He suddenly grabbed me by the shoulders and pulled me in for a hug.  The waist high fence between our yards poked me in the belly, but I barely noticed.  “I love you, brother,” he whispered in my ear.
“I love you too.” My eyes were getting misty.  I didn’t want Helen to look out the kitchen window and see two old fools standing over the fence and blubbering all over each other, so I released my grip and stepped back.  “Good luck, Tim,” I said as I wiped my eyes and blew my nose in my hanky.
“Yeah,” he said, “I guess if I ever needed luck, this is the day.”  And then he turned his back and went in his house.
I went in my own.  Helen was watching the morning news in the living room and sipping a cup of coffee.  I sat down in my easy chair and pretended to read the newspaper.  About ten minutes later, I watched Tim back out of his driveway.  I wished I could have been with him, but we had given up carpooling years earlier.  As a forklift driver, Tim had to report to work at seven in the morning, an hour earlier than myself.  “God go with you, friend,” I said as I watched his car disappear around the corner at the end of the block.
“What, dear?”  Helen asked. 
I hadn’t realized I had spoken out loud.  I gazed at my lovely wife.  “Have I told you lately how much I love you?”
“You don’t have to, sweetheart.  I know you do.”
“Yes I do have to.  I love you more than anything in this world, and if anything ever happened to you, I think I’d just curl up in a corner and die.”
“What brought this on?  Not to say that I don’t like it.”
“It’s just that you are so very special, Babe,” I told her.  “You’re one in ten billion, and I want you to promise me one thing.”
“When you’re being like this, how can I refuse you anything?”
“Just promise me you’ll never stop being you.”
She looked at me quizzically for a moment and then smiled.  “Of course not, you old sweetheart.”
Three quarters of an hour later, I left for work.  It was the longest ten-minute drive of my life.

* * *

When I got to the plant, I parked in the lot reserved for the eight to three-thirty shift.  Out of curiosity, I strolled through the seven shift’s lot to see if Tim’s car happened to be there.  He drove a late-model Ford Thunderbird.  Unremarkable, except for the two month old dent in the driver’s side door he hadn’t gotten around to repairing.  It took me five minutes to find the car, dent and all.  When I spotted it, I thought Wow.  What a fool I’ve been. How could this so-called doppelganger be driving Tim’s car.  Do cars have doppelgangers too?  On closer inspection, I had my answer.
I can’t think of any other way to put it, except that the car didn’t seem to be entirely there.  It looked too new and too old at the same time, as if it had just recently popped into existence, already coated with road dust.  The hair on the back of my neck rose to attention.  I felt that if I tried to touch it, my hand would pass right through it. Just looking at it was enough though.  I was not about to test my hypothesis further.  I was almost scared to turn my back on it, afraid that when I did, it would suddenly roar to life on its own and mow me down right there in the CSW parking lot. With shivers running up my spine, I turned and jogged into the plant.
I won’t bore you with details of my morning, except to say that I kept my eyes open whenever a forklift would zoom by me.  Finally, around ten o’clock, I saw the one I was searching for.
“Blue,” I said to the thing that looked like Tim sitting at the controls.
“Huh?” it said.
“Harlan.”
“What’s with you, Kevin?” it asked.
My stomach made a slow roll.  “Nothing,” I said, “just thinking out loud.”
“Well, be careful where you do that, or people might think you’re a burger short of a Happy Meal.”  It laughed Tim’s laugh and gave me Tim’s peculiar wink.  It was even wearing the same faded Levis and blue plaid shirt that I had seen on Tim that morning.
“Sorry, Tim, how about you and me going over to Kelley’s for our lunch break?  We haven’t done that in a long time.  Hey, whattaya say?  I’m buying.”  I was finding it hard to keep from babbling.
“You’re buying?  You’ve got it.”  It laughed Tim’s laugh again, and then it waved and went back doing Tim’s job.
“See you at eleven o’clock,” I yelled after it.
It nodded and turned the corner into the warehouse and out of my sight.

* * *

I pulled into the rear lot of Kelley’s Bar and Grill, parked the car, and killed the engine.
“Why are you parking so far from the door?” the thing asked me.
“What’s the matter?  A little walk isn’t gonna kill you.”  In truth, that was exactly what I was expecting.
“Sure, Kev.  You don’t have to get sore about it.”  It was uncanny.  Everything about it was so Tim.  If I hadn’t been forewarned, I would never have known the difference.  The only thing I could pick out was a blankness in the thing's eyes.  Whether it was my imagination or not—I choose to think not—I didn’t know for sure, but the thing's eyes just didn’t have the sparkle I had come to know so well.
I got out of the car, and it followed.  I stopped and stretched my back.  It stood there watching me.  I bent over and pretended to tie my shoe.  It waited patiently.  Come on, come on, I thought, kill it, Tim, kill it!  I looked through the trees to the parking garage three blocks away.  What the hell is going on.  The place is deserted; now is the perfect time.
“Come on, Kev.  Let’s go.  I’m starving.”
I delayed.  I bent and looked in the window of the car.
“Now what are you doing?” it asked.
“I, uh, I thought I left my keys in the car.”
Still no sign of Tim.  The thing had stopped waiting and was at Kelley’s back door.  “Come on,” it shouted, “we don’t have all day.”
“All right.  I’m coming.”   Something must have happened, I thought.  This thing should be dead already, and now I’ve gotta buy it lunch.
We ordered burgers.  I picked at my plate.  It ate two.
“What’s bothering you, Kevin?  You usually eat like a bear.”
“I dunno,” I mumbled.  “I guess I lost my appetite.”  I was contemplating how I was going to kill it when we got back to the car.  I had my Smith & Wesson .45 stashed under the driver’s seat, just in case of such an emergency.  It was beginning to look like I might have to use it.
“Look, man, let me pay the tab.  I feel guilty as hell.  Here I ate like a pig, and you barely touched your plate.”
I must have agreed—I don’t remember, now—because a few minutes later we were in the lot, heading toward the car, and I couldn’t remember talking to Kelley.
I was just fishing my keys out of my pocket, thinking about how I was going to get the gun from under the seat without the doppelganger noticing.  I turned to look and see what the thing was up to when, all of the sudden, its head virtually exploded.  Blood and brains were still dropping to the ground when I heard the shot.  The thing dropped to its knees, now just a headless corpse.  Its arms were stretched out in front of it, and for a horrified moment I thought it was going to get back to its feet and come after me.  Then it toppled to the pavement with a sickening splat.
I had rehearsed this moment over and over in my head, but I still nearly panicked.  I wanted to jump in the car and tear out of there like my tail was on fire and my ass was catching.  Instead, I pulled myself together and popped the lid on the trunk.  I scooped up the carcass and threw it in on top of the plastic I had laid out earlier in preparation.  There were bits of blood and hair strewn all over the parking lot, but I didn’t have time to worry about all of it.  I grabbed two fist-sized chunks I saw lying nearby and threw them in.  I slammed the trunk lid down.  Then I got the hell out of there.
I drove to our prearranged meeting place behind the city dump.  We had already dug a pit to bury the body.  Tim was waiting for me when I arrived.
“Blue,” I shouted as I got out of the car.
“Moon,” he said as he came up to me.
“Harlan.”
“Ellison,” he replied.
And then I puked on his shoes.
“Is that all you can say?”  He laughed and his eyes sparkled like stars on a cloudless summer night.  And then I was laughing.  We laughed until tears ran from our eyes.
When we finally finished, I asked him what had taken him so long.
“I saw you pull in the lot, but I couldn’t get a shot.  There were some kids playing around on the top level of the garage.  I couldn’t very well take my rifle and start playing Charles Whitman with people around, now could I?”
“Thank God they left.”
“Yeah, but I knew you would have taken care of him for me if I couldn’t.  I saw you stick the pistol under the seat yesterday.”
Next came the task of burying the grisly remains.  I told him what a mess it was.
“I can tell that by looking at you. You’ve got blood all over you. Good thing you didn’t get pulled over. You look like you’ve developed freckles.  As soon as we’re done, we’ll go to my house so you can get a shower.”
“What about Linda?” I asked.
“I sent her to her sister’s for the day.  I figured we might need to clean up a little.”  He had apparently given this much more thought than I had given him credit for.
“Anyway, here goes,” I said as I popped the trunk.
Except for the bloody plastic and the two meaty chunks I had thrown on top, it was empty.  The corpse had disappeared.
“What the hell,” I said in astonishment.
“I thought it might be like this,” Tim said.  “Remember, the thing was a spirit to begin with.  When I shot it, I must have so discombobulated it that there was no way for it to hold its form.”
“So where did it go?”
“Your guess is as good as mine.”
“But do you think it’s really dead.”
“You know, Kevin, I don’t think it was ever really alive to begin with.  Alive in any sense of the word as we understand it, that is.  But, yes, I think that for all intents and purposes the thing is as dead as dead can be.”
“Yeah,” I said, thinking of how its head had disintegrated from the impact of the .30 caliber, hollow point slug.  “I guess you’re right about that.”
I only wish I had known how wrong we really were.

* * *

We buried the remaining pieces wrapped in the bloody plastic.  I don’t think we need to have bothered though.  By the time we had finished and driven back to town, the blood that had freckled my face and arms had faded, and when we reached Tim’s house, it was completely gone.  I still showered.  Even though it was not visible, I could still feel it, like a psychic stain.  I kept thinking of Lady Macbeth.  ‘Out, out damned spot.’  No matter how much I scrubbed, I could still feel that blood on my hands.  But, over time, that too faded.  Even our memory of the event gradually dimmed, as summer turned into autumn, autumn to winter, and so on.
Timmy and I became even closer, if that was possible.  The secret that we shared—although it was but a faded memory—bonded us tighter than ever.  Work at the plant eventually tapered off as the navy contract came to an end.  CSW even began to lay people off.  Tim and I were among the lucky ones; we only had to settle for a cut in pay.  All my overtime pay that I had stockpiled slowly went for bills and taxes and food and so forth.  But we got by.  I had much more time to spend with my family.  (When I mention family, I always include Timmy in my thoughts.)  All the overtime pay in the world can never make up for that.
Summer, the hottest in years, returned to Cloviston.  I remember lying in bed one Saturday morning.  I had decided to sleep in, but  the roar of Timmy’s lawnmower prevented it.  I rolled over and looked at the bedside clock.  Nine a.m..  I realized the date was July seventeenth, and I instantly flashed back to that same date the previous year.  The factory had closed for a long weekend to prepare for a team of inspectors from the capitol.  We had gone to the lake that weekend, and we had had a wonderful time.  Damn, I thought, why not?  I rolled out of bed.  I bet the bass are biting like crazy.  I thought briefly of the trouble that summer, but that seemed so long ago.
I went downstairs, said “good morning” to Helen, poured myself a cup of coffee, and carried it outside to see if I could talk ol’ Timmy into forsaking the yardwork for a little fishing.
When he shut off the mower, just for the hell of it, I said, “Blue.”
“What’s that, Kev?” he asked.  I thought he hadn’t heard me.
“Blue,” I said, “you know.”
“What’s blue?”
“Harlan,” I said, hoping he had merely forgotten.
“Harlan’s blue?  What the hell does that mean?”  He laughed and I glanced into his dull, sparkleless eyes.
“Never mind, Tim.  Go back to work.”
I went back in the house and up to the master bedroom.  In the closet, in a shoe-box, was the .45.  I got it out, tucked it into the waistband of my trousers, and pulled my shirt down over it.
I had no trouble convincing the doppelganger into some fishing.  He suggested we take the girls, but I was adamant.  “No, I’d rather it was just the two of us.  I need to talk to you in private.”
He looked at me queerly.  “Okay,” he finally agreed.
Out on the lake, when I was sure there were no other boaters in the area, I tried again.
“Blue, Tim.”
He looked up at the clear sky.  “It sure is,” it said.
I shot it twice in the face and dumped its body over the side.  It floated for a moment, then with a rush of bubbles, it sank to the cold depths of the lake’s floor.
There was a lot of blood all over the boat.  I wasn’t taking any chances on them fading as they did before, so I immediately piloted back to our pier in front of the cabin.  There I gave the boat a thorough cleaning.  I then showered and changed clothes, wrapped my old ones in a green lawn and leaf bag and threw them in the back of the Blazer.  I would dispose of them later.  I then phoned the county sheriff’s department, and with all the excitement and grief I could muster, I reported the ‘drowning’.  The excitement was easy; I was scared witless.  The grief was harder; I felt detached.  The thing I had killed was not my friend, but some wicked parody of him.  It had been nothing but a monster that had stolen Tim’s life and replaced it with its own.  It wasn’t until later, while the sheriff’s divers were searching the lake—and I was headed out of state—that the real grief sank in.  It stepped up and slapped me in the face.  Tim was dead.  I would never again get to see his bright smile, or hear his infectious laugh.  His sparkling eyes would never again shine.
I fled the area.  I did not want to be around when the police pulled the corpse from the lake.  They would send me to prison for life, never mind the fact that I had not killed Tim, but just a facsimile of him.  So while they dragged the lake, I packed.  I left without saying good-bye.
I watched the papers for days.  Finally, I found the article about the ‘drowning’.  Tim’s body was not recovered, it had said.  With the depths and peculiar currents of the lake, that was not unheard of.  There was only a brief mention of myself.  It just said that it had been I who had reported the drowning.  I found that somewhat disconcerting.  I had expected to find that I was the subject of an interstate manhunt.  The authorities must have thought it was strange that I had so mysteriously disappeared mere hours after Tim’s death. But there was no indication of suspected foul play.  So, two weeks after fleeing in the dead of the night, I crept back into town.  I needed to see Helen, to try and explain my reasons for leaving.  I could have called, but that seemed inadequate.  I drove past my house and parked a block away and around the corner.  I walked back to the house, up the walk, and let myself in the front door.
Helen was in the kitchen.  When she walked in the living room and saw me standing there, she nearly dropped her coffee.  “Why, Kevin,” she said.  “What are you doing back from work so soon?  Did you forget something?  And where did you change clothes?  What’s going on?”
I stared gape-mouthed at her.  I was at a loss for words.  The implications of her questions stunned me to silence.
“You know, sweetheart,” she continued, “you’ve been acting a little strange ever since Timmy’s accident.  Are you sure you’re okay?”
“No, no.  I’m fine,” I said uneasily.  “Helen, I love you, honey.”  I told her this, and then I turned and left.
It's been over two years since that day, and I haven’t gone back since.  I stay on the move, traveling from town to town, picking up odd jobs here and there.  In a word, surviving.  I’m like a spirit, moving through the real world, never touching down, never coming to rest.  I think I may even be beginning to understand how the doppelganger that has taken my place must have felt before it replaced me. But mostly I feel depressed, I miss my Helen so badly.  And Timmy, my dearest friend, I am truly sorry.  Not so much for you, though, you understand.  I like to imagine that where ever  you have gone, you are happy.  I am sorry for your beautiful wife, Linda.  Because of me, she has to go through life alone, without the man that meant so much to her.   Maybe I should have just left things alone.  I mean, if no one can tell the difference, does it really matter if you’re gone?

                              -End-

Well there it is.  It was fun and I hope you all liked it.  I've got lots more, some not as dark as this, some even darker.  Leave a comment, let me know what you like to read, and I will see what I can come up with.

Until then,

Doug

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