“The Lepers in Your Head” / Chapter Eight: The Dead

This is the eighth chapter of a novella I’ve written. It will be published here one chapter at a time, roughly twice a week. Trigger warning: this story is very dark, and may be triggering for those with suicidal ideation. It’s also not the kind of thing you’d expect your pastor to write. So, fair warning.

I was lying on something cold and hard. I felt like I was hungover. I opened my eyes, and immediately regretted it. It was bright, so bright. I closed them immediately, and rolled over so I was on my side. I slowly opened my eyes again, and it wasn’t as blinding. I was now looking at a concave cement wall. I realized I was lying on cement as well. As I stared at the wall in front of me, I realized that I must be lying on the floor of a bandshell. I tried to roll over on my other side, but got tangled in my backpack. I slid it off my shoulder, turned around, and looked to see what was out beyond the bandshell. Gravel, benches, trees, paths. It was a city park, and  I even recognized it. This was familiar.

A young man dressed in a flannel shirt was walking on a path just beyond the benches. “Hey, buddy!” I shouted to him. “What time is it?”

He looked over to me, and said, “Too early for you to be that drunk.” He kept walking.

I sat up, and felt my stomach churn. I heard a crow nearby, and its cackle echoed like sandpaper in my head. Headache, nausea, sensitivity to light and sound, dizziness. It really did have all the hallmarks of a hangover. Had I been drinking? I didn’t think so. No, I’d just had an encounter with a witch, or a demon, or whatever, in a graveyard. What had she done to me?

I tried to stand up, and slowly succeeded. I was wobbly, but I could walk. I saw an old woman in a long dress enter the park from the left. I walked slowly in her direction. “Excuse me,” I said. “Can you tell me the time?”

She looked me up and down, and then at her wrist. Without looking back at me, she said, “Half past three,” and walked away.

Half past three, I thought. The sun is going to set by five-thirty. I have to be at Cisco Park by five-thirty. If this is even the same day. Or even the same year. And I had to make sure that I was where I thought I was. I walked back to where I’d woken up, grabbed my backpack, and walked out the entrance where the woman had walked in. I was on a city street, a corner. Brown rowhomes faced me. I looked across the street for a sign. I was at the corner of Morgan St. and 3rd Ave., it said. I thought for a second, and shouted, “Yes! This is Morgan Park! I’m close!” I realized I was already in the Pennybrook section of Scarlet, easily within a mile of Cisco Park. I really needed a cup of coffee, though, and as it turns out, I had time. I walked up Third Avenue. I knew exactly where I had to go for coffee. As I walked, the hangover feeling started to fade.

Fifteen minutes later, I was walking into Crème de la Café, one of my favorite places to go back in college. A little hole-in-the-wall coffee joint with tight seating, live music, walls covered with artwork by the patrons, and really good coffee. I walked up to the counter, and ordered a mug of the blend of the day. I was grateful to still have a few old-looking one dollar bills in my wallet.

Then I heard a voice. “There you are! I was wondering when you’d arrive.” It wasn’t just any voice – it was the Dead Voice. I had forgotten that I said I’d meet him here.

The barista had turned away to fetch my coffee, so I said quietly, “How was your bus ride?”

He replied, “Sorry? I couldn’t hear you.” After a pause, he continued, “I’m over here.”

I turned to the left, and saw a man sitting at a table against the wall, waving at me. He looked like – me. I glanced down at my own clothes. He was wearing the same thing I was. He tilted his head to the left and smiled.

The barista returned with my mug, and took my money. She motioned to the man at the wall, and said, “Déjà vu, huh? Are you two twins?”

I said, “Something like that. Thanks for the coffee.” I left her the rest of my singles as a tip, walked over to my doppelganger’s table, and sat down. He was drinking black coffee, just like me.

He took a sip, and said, “Penny for your thoughts. 1996 or earlier penny of course.”

I said, “This is a dream. I’m still in that dreamland cemetery. I must be.”

The newly physicalized voice smiled and said, “Nope. Sorry to disappoint you. I thought you’d be happy to finally really meet me.”

I asked him, “How are you here? I mean, you’ve always been a part of me, sitting inside, speaking such nasty things to me. How are you…outside me? What does this mean?”

He laughed – with my laugh. He looked exactly like me, except that his clothes were cleaner, his hair more kempt. He was me before I went on this journey, I guess. At least that’s what his physical appearance was. I knew his soul was something much darker. He was my dark twin, an internal devil on my shoulder who told me nothing but cruelty and lies. I never knew if he was a demon, or a twisted part of my own psyche, or what. But I always knew him as a part of me, the part that always tells me I’m wrong, that I’m hurting others, that I’m worthless. And now, somehow in this demonic circus, here he was, drinking coffee with me. “What does it mean?” he repeated back at me. “I don’t know what it means. Maybe it’s some kind of side effect of what happened in the cave. Did you go past the old apartment?”

I nodded. “Of course I did. But I didn’t walk here from there.”

He looked over his coffee cup. “No? How did you get here?”

I said, “You tell me. It involved a basketball that passes through matter and a woman straight out of a bad Dungeons and Dragons game. And people who somehow knew exactly who I am and why I’m here.”

The Dead Voice shook his head. “I certainly don’t know. I don’t even understand why I’m here, and you’re there. How we’re, you know, separate. But I’m pretty confident that this whole thing is really bad.”

“Yeah,” I said, nodding grimly. “You always think it’s bad. You think everything’s bad. You’ve been trying to stop me from doing everything today, everything since I left my house in 2021. Hell, you’ve been trying to stop me since I was a kid. Of course you think it’s bad.”

“Well, why don’t you just stop?” he asked slowly.

“Because this is why I came,” I said. “I’m not here for nostalgia, or to dig up the past. I’m here to put an end to this. This simply cannot hold. It needs to end. There’s nothing more to say.”

He sighed. “I wish I could convince you.”

I was surprised by his attitude. He didn’t seem as ruthless, as callous as I expected. Something was wrong here. I asked him, “Why don’t you have a goatee or something?”

He stroked his chin, clean-shaven just like mine. “What?”

“You know, like Mirror Spock. Or Garthe Knight. Evil twins always have a goatee. That’s how you can tell the evil ones from the good ones.”

He looked at me with a dumbfounded expression. After a long moment, his eyes grew big, and he said, “Oh, you think –“

I recoiled back, spilling my coffee. “No. No. No no no no. That’s not true. I am not –”

He reached across the table with a napkin, trying to mop up some of the coffee I’d spilled. “All this time. You thought you were –“

I glared at him, and said, “No, I didn’t think I was. I am. I am Damon. You are the Dead Voice. I am not you. I am not what you think I am.”

He looked at me with a face of sickening compassion. “I am Damon. I have always been. Think about what I’ve been saying to you ever since the woods today, or yesterday, or whatever. You came back here with murderous intent. I kept trying to stop you. Think about it. Which one of us do you think you’ve been?”

I was feeling sick. “No,” I said. I stood up, and pointed at him, as I shouted, “I came here to do something good. I came here in order to help people. To save them from…to save them from…” I couldn’t finish my sentence. I couldn’t admit what I was realizing was true.

The disgusting doppelganger in from of me finished my thought. “To save them from me. You came here to save them from me.”

“No. No. No.” I was getting panicked, looking around for an exit, not from the café, but from this world.

He looked around the café, as the barista and the other customers had turned to stare at us. He said quietly to me, “Sit down. You’re causing a scene.”

I didn’t sit down. Or talk quietly. “No. I am not the Dead Voice. I am not the Dead Voice. I am not the Dead Voice! I am me!” I ran out of the door, and stopped cold as I glanced back in through the window. He was looking at me with a look of such sadness, and then he faded away right in front of me. All the customers turned back to their drinks and their conversations, as though nothing had happened. I ran off into the evening.

Next chapter: The Chase.

(c) 2021 Michael J. Scholtes

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